Author Note: Well I'm back, at incredibly long last. All credit for my return should go to my beloved Quiet0ne, who tirelessly worked to motivate me, inspire me and surround me in Gundam ideas until I could think of little else. The next chapters of this arc are aftermath from what has come before, aftermath and prep for the next major battle/campaign arc in China and the Himalayas. Lots of big stuff to come… big stuff I have kept you all waiting for, far too long…

Xxxx

May 7th, Occupied Urbanis Skyline, Dawnblade Upper Deck, Late Morning

There was a saying in military command circles, that the only thing worse than winning a battle, was losing one. Andrew Waltfeld, Supreme Commander of the USN Military, was definitely feeling the truth of that aphorism. By basically every standard, both political and military, his operation against the Edenite stronghold/city-state of Urbanis was nothing less than a phenomenal success. The battle had been intense but short, the forces he had brought able to crush the Edenite resistance in a matter of hours, while suffering relatively few casualties on his side. The Edenite's had deployed new units, new forces and new stratagems, but in the end, they had simply been quantitatively and qualitatively outmatched and overwhelmed.

But that left Waltfeld now in charge of a logistical and administrative nightmare, trying to set up a long term garrison for a major Edenite population center, one that ideally would not cause problems for him, or wider Space-New Eden relations in the future. That meant finding not only the right troops but the right leaders who would fairly police both the locals and their own soldiers to ensure equitable justice in case of inevitable incidents. And ensuring those leaders had the military strength to stand up to potential insurrection or wage counter-guerrilla warfare, and the political cover and support to ideally not have to use martial law to maintain order.

Thankfully, due to the way the Edenite forces had been deployed, he had been able to keep the vast majority of the fighting away from the civilian parts of the City, thus reducing collateral damage and civilian casualties to near absolute minimum. Some damage had occurred… modern warfare was fought with powerful and long ranged weapons after all, and any stray shot could travel for kilometers before gravity pulled it to the ground, but no deliberate collateral damage had been done, unlike the first battle of Urbanis. About a third of the total populace had managed to flee the city during the attack, scattering into the surrounding environs, but that was fine by Waltfeld. Less people for him to worry about having to manage and care for.

It was not his first experience being an occupying force in territory that was not best pleased to host his forces. Though of course he himself would not be staying long in Urbanis, he was needed elsewhere to continue the efficient prosecution of the war. But all the same, he was in charge now, and he intended to have a solid framework set up for his occupying force to follow, to minimize problems between them and their newly conquered civilian population. Friction was inevitable, incidents a given, but with a proper system of governance and oversight in place, hopefully he could at least slow the appearance of hostile guerrillas and partisan groups.

The warm African morning sunlight was mitigated by a slight breeze courtesy of the altitude he was at. With his reputation for eccentricity to maintain, Andrew had decided to set up his "office" for the day on the upper hull deck of the Dawnblade, just forward of the main upper hull turrets. Because it was designed to be a naval warship as well as a flying/space one, the Dawnblade did in fact possess decks on its upper hull where people could stand and move about while in atmosphere. The battlecruiser was itself hovering over the main conurbation of Urbanis's city, an unsubtle reminder of the USN's victory, but a necessary one. The less subtle he was now, the more cowed he could make the populace with nonviolent shows of force, the less actual violence there should hopefully need to be to keep them in line for the future.

"Ughhhhhmmmmh…" Waltfeld made a sound that was half groan of exhaustion and half moan of appreciation, as he took a long sip from his mug of coffee. Extra strength to help him stay alert and focused, as he had not slept since the day before, and had a long day of meetings and organization ahead of him today before there would be any rest. Tilting his cup back, he drained the rich dark fluid within to the last dregs. "Lexi… refill." He said to the open air, as he set the coffee mug down on the portable desk/computer that was set up on the deck. "And what is next on my docket, again?" he asked with a tired sigh.

"You have a few minutes for coffee and stretching, Commander." The AI replied with commiserating tones, as a hologram avatar flickered into being next to the desk, looking over at him with caring eyes. Her short reddish hair seemed to ruffle in the breeze alongside his own, the hologram appearing solid and real now that she had extra processing power to devote to such social niceties.

"Thank you, Lexi." Waltfeld had the subtle suspicion that the AI was re-arranging his schedule on the fly to give him those extra minutes, but there was no point in calling her out on it. There was a timetable of sorts, but it wasn't a strict one currently. Days would be needed, of transit and logistical prep, before he and his forces would be ready to unleash another flurry of operations. The battle of Urbanis had been weeks and months in the planning and prep after all, and the next campaign promised to be even more hard fought and difficult than what he had just gone through.

Rising from his desk, Waltfeld did indeed stretch, his mechanical arm slightly heavier than his real one, as ever, but only really noticeable when he lifted them both above his head. His security detail of armored Orb marines kept a careful eye on him, even here on top of his flagship, but maintained a relatively discrete distance. There were a few Stormhounds on the ship as well, but they generally only showed up for bodyguard duty when he really wanted to intimidate or impress someone. Adjusting his uniform coat and cap, Waltfeld strolled along the deck, moving to the rail and looking down on the skyscrapers and streets beneath him.

"It's amazing to me, Lexi, just how much like any other city I've known this place is." Waltfeld commented, musing out loud. The AI was at his shoulder, following like any good adjutant would, only the lack of footsteps denoting her artificiality. "It's certainly no primitive village or esoteric jungle tree-fortress, like what some might think appropriate for New Eden. It's just another modern city, filled with people trying to live as best they can…" Waltfeld shook his head sadly, privately bemoaning the war as a whole for a few moments.

"The occupation is proceeding without major incident." Lexi offered in conciliatory tones, an unprompted status report but he appreciated the sentiment for what it was.

"Let's keep it that way, eh?" Waltfeld smirked sardonically at how easy it was to say that. Of course, with him in charge, the military was no longer being driven by political or supremacist ideologies, and the Reclaimer Initiative and all its forces had been stood down and demilitarized as much as possible. Cleaning house was a long and involved process however, and he knew better than to assume that there were none within his forces, even under his direct command, who still harbored great and violent resentments towards the Edenites, sometimes rooted in the USN propaganda, and other times just the usual resentments of wartime for the enemy.

"The real test will be when the majority of our forces move to the next area of operations." Waltfeld stated aloud. "Right now they're all waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the purge squads or the MAIDEN rain. Once they realize that I have no intentions of massacring them on the slightest provocation, and that I want to work with them to ensure as light a boot on their neck as possible… that's when we'll see how things are going to be." He hardened his expression. "Because a light boot on the neck is still a boot on their neck. I'll press down if I have to. I don't have time to be fighting insurrections in our back lines, if I'm going to finish this war before it can grow any worse."

"Your terms are more than fair, Admiral." Lexi pointed out. "You're not dissolving local governance, and while we are disarming them except for the most basic of firearms, we are not making them entirely defenseless. Nor are we demanding reparations or use of local industry and infrastructure except as the demands of garrison require. We're not even combing the population for members of the military who fled into the city after the battle was won." There was a slight hint of admonishment in the last sentence.

"Kicking doors and searching houses right now is just asking for civilian blood in the streets. USN blood too." Waltfeld re-iterated his viewpoint on the matter, which not all of his subordinates shared. "I acknowledge the threat, the certainty that weapon stockpiles will be missed, that insurgent cells may have time to go into hiding amongst the populace. But it is my hope that if our occupation keeps things as close to business as usual for the populace, there will be little popular support for groups striking at the garrison openly. We just have to keep a lid on this place for another six months or so, and it will all be over."

"The human quality of "mercy" is one I am still working on fully processing." Lexi admitted with a frown. "Perhaps it has to do with how I was built, but for me, it is difficult to weigh the lives and comforts and feelings of non-Orbites as highly as I do my own people. Even now that I am helping you run the entire USN military, I have to carefully code my tactical and strategic advice to uprate the survival and welfare considerations of non-Orb forces."

"It's a tough concept, and not just because you're an AI. Even her Majesty is not always merciful, hell even Lacus wasn't, hard as she tried to be… mercy is often counterintuitive to the human psyche. Forgiving people who have wronged you, or who you feel have wronged you, its amongst the hardest things for anyone to do. The hardest but also in wartime and its aftermath, the most necessary." Waltfeld tilted his head back and closed his eyes, basking in the sunlight. "It's a lesson I've had to learn on both sides of the coin, more than once in my life. Hopefully it is one you will only have to learn from the dispensing side, Lexi."

"My latest calculations give the Edenites less than a 3% chance of winning this conflict, and even that much requires several highly unlikely confluences of events and internal issues within the USN leadership." Lexi answered confidently. "As long as we remain on the offensive, Orb has basically nonexistent chances of suffering another assault."

"Unless the Eddies get that weird teleporting technology of theirs more widely distributed." Waltfeld pointed out, even as he fervently prayed that whatever the hell that was, was a one off, unique to Frost, even as terrifying as such a thought was. A brief flash of pained claustrophobia assaulted him at the thought of the reborn monster, before he forcefully shifted his thoughts away from the horrors of what Frost had personally done to him and his loved ones in the past. "Or have some other trump card they haven't played yet. They're down, but they aren't out, Lexi. Not yet."

Waltfeld turned to walk back towards his desk briskly, Lexi following at his heels as he bent over it, calling up a series of status reports of particular interest to him, both in terms of hopes and fears. "And for that matter, while the first deployment of the Generation 2 BALORs was everything I hoped for, and none of what I feared, I can't really say they were properly tested yesterday either. None of the Edenite Gundams were present here, likely because the pilots were all helping with their rescue operation in Orb. We lucked out that they were so sentimental as to rescue that Praetorian girl with such force… we can't rely on being that lucky again."

He studied the after-action reports on the conditions of the BALORs and their Meister-pilots, eyes flicking back and forth for the twentieth time across the psyche evals and other metrics. As far as the reports were concerned, the BALORS had come through in near perfect shape, after crushing the heart of the enemy defenses at the climax of the battle. Even the enemy test units had been swept aside with gratifying ease by the arrival of the BALORs, though it was a frustration that the core of the Edenite local high command had not been confirmed killed or captured in the aftermath. One of the BALORS had gotten a confirmed kill on a Dervish that had the iconography of a senior Custodian, but that could have been a ruse of some sort. Even the pilot of the modified Templar which Bahamut had defeated at the Edenite command post, had somehow escaped the wreckage of his unit after the battle was over.

"Hameya help us, but I fear we're reaching the end of the easy part of this war…" Waltfeld muttered as he stared intently at the BALOR data.

Xxxx

Former Victoria Spaceport, Urbanis Outskirts

The smell of smoke and burnt dirt was strong in the air, as USN clearance teams worked to purge the overgrowth that had overrun and choked much of the old facilities of the Victoria Spaceport that had once been the linchpin of this part of the world's economy. The mass driver and spaceport facilities at Lake Victories had been a major point of conflict in every one of the wars of the Cosmic Era, destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again in various wars. The Edenites had largely abandoned the place during the Edenization of Earth, having no real interest in trade with space, and so the environment of Eden, rapacious as it was, had rapidly moved in.

The tarmac was a cracked and overrun mess of grasses, vines and various dangerous types of Edenite flora, some with razor edged leaves, some which spat acid or poison volleys of thorns. Many of the buildings and hangars were collapsed, or worse, made the dens of local wildlife, some of which had to be scared off or killed with heavy vehicles or even Mecha support. It would be weeks before the entire area was sterilized enough to send in the construction and engineering crews to start the process of rebuilding the mass driver, a process which itself would take many months even with modern nano-engineering.

In the meanwhile, the relatively flat and open ground of the spaceport still made for a good staging ground for the USN forces as they gathered and packed up for transit to the next battlezone or return to various theatres or operation around the globe. Buzzing flights of Hunter class Gunships orbited around the perimeter, keeping watch for any stealthy approaches by Edenites or animals, while much larger Goliath class VTOL's landed and took off in a constant flow of supplies, troops and raw materials. Vindicators and Dawndrakes stood at the ready in lances and trios, like sentries on patrol, and there were infantry sentries and patrols as well.

Part of the reason for this heavy multi-layered security stood in broad daylight near a mostly cleared hangar complex. Three gigantic Mecha, each wildly different in appearance not only from any standard machine, but also from each other, even though there was a certain broad common theme to them. They were like nothing most people had ever seen before, monstrous hybrids of living flesh and quasi-organic metals and synthetics, like nightmarish cybernetic dragons of myth. They were Gundams. They were BALORs.

And they were no longer a secret, or at least not an ultra-top-secret, after having been deployed to secure the victory of the day before and fully shatter the Edenite defenses which had already been pushed to near breaking by the wider USN assault. They were given a secure section of the spaceport for their maintenance needs, near the center of the sprawling complex, but they were not cordoned off or kept under lock and key. Supreme Commander Waltfeld wanted them to be integrated into his forces after all, not kept mysterious and separate.

Of course that was not to say there was much mingling going on, with gawking crowds of off duty soldiers, pilots and support staff milling around the edges of the hangar complex, eyeing the three grotesquely impressive bio-mechanical monsters and the three cybernetically augmented pilots. Though quiescent and powered down, there was such an aura of quiet menace and subtle wrongness about the BALOR units that most people did not want to approach them or linger for long in their shadows.

"Lain…" Stella approached her beloved as she saw him staring up at Tarrasque from beside the hulking BALOR's fanged maw. Tarrasque was hunched down, almost like a sprinter taking a starting pose, rapturous head bowed down almost touching nose to pavement, as he slumbered in a way only the brain-burned could. Tiamat lay like a cybernetic mountain range nearby, stretched out almost her full ninety meter length, like a vast crocodile sunning herself on a riverbank, all six legs splayed out almost comically as various maintenance ports and re-arming hoists worked around her comatose form to rearm her many weapon systems.

Lain turned at her approach, his body posture taut and tense, constantly rising up onto his toes and back down again, fingers clutching into taloned grips before relaxing, his eyes narrowed and predatory in their gaze before he relaxed upon seeing her. Stella paid his tics no particular heed… they all were experiencing them, the side effects of being so closely and intimately connected with the severed minds of their Partners, especially during the rush of battle. "Stella…" Lain's tongue fumbled to say more, to express what he felt, what he thought, but though not connected to the psychic meld of the BALOR siblings while not piloting them, Stella needed none to know what her Lain was thinking.

"It is alright." She assured him confidently, taking his hands in hers as she pulled him into an embrace. "Let him sleep, for now."

"But… he wants to run. To hunt. To feel the sun and the breeze and the joys of life…" Lain looked up at the head of his BALOR, at the lidded closed eyes and the barely perceptible gusts of inhales and exhales. Not necessary for Tarrasque's function… he could survive just fine in airless environments, as could all of the BALORs. But in atmosphere, yes, they did breathe, as a form of cooling. "It feels… cruel, to let him experience it for only a few hours and then… back to sleep…"

"Discipline is often cruel." Stella said softly, something any Extended knew well. Indeed, cruelty was a part of life, a part of being a Supersoldier, and BALORs definitely were Supersoldiers of a sort… as were Meisters. "He understands. They all understand." She nuzzled against his cheek and shoulder. "You didn't join me last night…" She pointed out, more worried than complaining about his absence from her bed, even though it was little more than a cot in a transport truck.

"Couldn't sleep. Couldn't think." Lain admitted freely, leaning into her embrace. "All I wanted to do was… run. Fight. Kill…" Lain swallowed thickly. "Every time I closed my eyes, even for a blink, I'd relive a portion of the battle. The fighting was over so quickly… I've never… such power… I've seen Gundams fight before, fought beside them and against them… but I never imagined what it was like to be one… never correctly anyway…"

"It was a good fight." Stella acknowledged contentedly. "You followed orders. You did not lose control. All of us came back alive and unhurt. Victory was achieved. I cannot imagine a better outcome to any battle." She reached up one hand and patted Tarrasque fondly on the side of the jaw and kissed the same place on Lain's cheek. "But the fight is done. Now is the time to be Lain again. Let Tarry sleep."

"She's right." Ashino's voice came from behind them both, unexpected but somehow also not surprising, as the third and most senior Meister made his way over to them from where he had been staring up at the towering, spindly form of Bahamut almost meditatively. The third BALOR was stood slightly apart from his kin, standing vertically upright like a man asleep on his feet, great dragonish head bowed onto his chest while his vast wings and long tail were wrapped around and around him like a cloak. Even so, he stood before the other two, almost like he was watching over the others in their shared sleep. "Every supersoldier goes through this after being introduced to their unit. It's a form of withdrawal… you'll get used to it, though it is stronger with the BALORs than ordinary machines. It never feels right, but eventually you learn to stop feeling wrong…"

Ashino joined them, standing slightly aside from the cuddling couple to give them their space, even as he shot them a tolerant and perhaps even slightly envious look. Tamara was with their support staff, which were already being moved to the China base to prepare the BALOR's facilities there, thus he was on his own for the next day or two. None of the BALORS had taken any appreciable damage during the fighting, goomba stomping as it had largely been, and so there was no need for anyone but the Meisters and a few guards to watch over the BALOR's repose before they activated them again for the transport to China.

"And she's also right… for your first real fight as a Supersoldier, you did well, Lain Debora." Ashino complimented sincerely. "Trust me, amongst BCPU and perhaps even Extende,d the rush of power and strength and prowess you feel during your first fight in YOUR machine… there are few sensations more intoxicating. Many supersoldiers lose themselves in the thrill, before they learn the consequences of it. We are made to fight. The battlefield is our home. Just remember that it is not your only home, and you'll be in the right spot."

"Heh… spent so long helping Stella figure out how to put her supersoldier side aside, and now here I am getting lessons in how to accept my supersoldier side. Hameya has a sense of humor." Lain chuckled, as he forced himself to turn away from his BALOR. And not look back, as he took the first step away from his partner. Arm in arm with Stella, and Ashino at a slight remove but still easy conversational distance, they made their way into one of the nearby hangars where their dormitory truck, basically a heavily armored RV, was parked. "What's the word from higher up?" He asked Ashino as he started poking through a few supply crates to find a meal… maybe it was part of his enhancements or his connection to Tarrasque, but Lain was finding himself hungry a lot.

"Nothing for today. Waltfeld is focused on setting up peaceful relations with the Urbanites." Ashino answered with a slight frown, before shrugging it away. He knew Waltfeld's character after all, and if anyone could be trusted to build bridges with the locals, then the Desert Tiger was amongst the best choices available. "But we could move out as soon as tomorrow. We have to keep the momentum up, and while Frost and the others did not show up here, for whatever reason, we have to assume they will defend the Himalayas." Ashino tightened his hands into fists at his sides. He was both looking forward to and dreading confronting his sibling for what he hoped to be the final time. It was disappointing that Frost had not been at Urbanis, but perhaps for the best… Lain needed a good victory under his belt to help settle him into his role as a Meister.

"Markov, relax." Stella pointed out from where she had her head on Lain's shoulder but was still more than aware of her senior cousin's disquiet and tension, as ever when the subject of Frost was even tangentially brought up. Her own heart fluttered and quailed a bit, as well it might considering what had happened to her the last time she'd encountered him, but Stella steeled herself. In the end, as awful as that had been, she had become a Meister because of it. Life was cruel… but there was always a silver lining if you looked hard enough.

"Yes, of course." Ashino unclenched his hands and caught a bag of coffee that Lain tossed him from the crate, though he did not activate the seal heating strip or open it. He passed the bag idly from hand to hand, weighing it, measuring it subconsciously, something he had picked up ever since learning to use Bahamut's telekinesis. A greater appreciation and need to analyze his physical surroundings, a more subtle and comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of the world around him. His hands were always picking things up, measuring them, weighing them. Just like Lain was twitchy and restless, and Stella was more territorial and patient. All of them taking on quirks from their Partners.

The three of them lapsed into a companionable silence, Lain finding an MRE to snack on as he crouched by the side of the supply crate, while Stella sprawled out comfortably at his side, as if soaking in the coolness of the paved interior of the hangar. Ashino stood nearby, between them and the hangar doors, staring blankly at the wall as his mind roved far and wide, and he passed the pouch of coffee back and forth from hand to hand.

Xxxx

May 9th, Eastern Coast of Australia, Jewel Freehold Territories, Holt Ogren, early afternoon

With a massive "slosh" sound, the waters off the offshore sea parted in an impossible way, a perfect circular formation appearing in midwater, like a maelstrom but without any spinning of the surrounding water. This hole in the ocean was only a few meters across, but it stretched from the surface all the way into the depths, which at that point were over a thousand meters down. Rising up this shaft was a platform of solidified water… not ice, but water itself compressed in invisible force, courtesy of the mind of the greatest Chimera in all the oceans. A conveyance to return her best friend to the airy world above after another private conference between them.

Kira's hair blew about his shoulders and face as he reached the surface, the surface side conditions blustery and overcast, also through Leviathan's influence. Mirage Colloid particles from special dispenser units were also being spread throughout the surrounding area to further confound long distance sensor arrays, as well as the clouds. Not that there was any particular reason for the USN orbital fleets to be observing this particular mostly barren set of coastlines anyway, but it never hurt to be careful.

Australia had mostly been forgotten by both sides during the war, as there were no major Edenite population centers on the island-continent. The flora and fauna there were if anything, even more deadly and dangerous than elsewhere on New Eden, thus there was no desire on the USN side to re-occupy the place any time soon. Far too much work for too little gain. But just because no major factions had established any presence or put much thought into Australia, did not mean it was entirely uninhabited.

The Jewel Freeholds were a loose and clannish association of those who sought a more independent lifestyle, away from the main groupings of Edenite society. Feudal in organization, comprised of dozens or sometimes hundreds of people all owing allegiance to a single Lord or Lady who held dominion over and responsibility for a single Holt or Hold, terms of their peculiar type of township or community. They formed odd, nigh symbiotic relationships with a particular type of Edenized organism known as a Fireclam, which grew in vast beds off the coasts and reefs of Australia, which formed a basis for much of their lifestyle, food source, building material and trade good all in one difficult to harvest package.

The treated shells of the Fireclams, known to the Freeholders as "Nacrene" made for an exceptionally resilient and flexible organic building material, denser and stronger than Yggdrasilwood, though harder to work and localized in supply. They used it like stone and metal, as a foundational building material and also to armor their habitations and sometimes even vehicles against the local predators, both in and out of the water. And also in personal weapons, objects of art and many other purposes. They were a fascinating culture, and Kira wished he had more time to devote to simply getting to know them, but the demands of the current situation gave him precious little time for anything but work.

Kira wore only his plain dark tunic and trousers, his only mark of authority being the Burden sheathed across his back, though truly, here amongst his own faction and their allies, he needed no ostentation. Thanks Levi. Kira thought to his grand friend, as the sea spray curved and deflected all around him, only lightly moisturizing his skin rather than drenching him, as the tumultuous offshore waves stilled and quieted around him. Stepping off his platform of solid water, Kira found each step as solid as if he were walking across concrete, Levi hardening the water' surface each time he put a foot down, similar to when she helped him train his swordsmanship.

Making his way shoreward, Kira soon passed the floating platform that served Holt Ogren as a landing platform, mostly for their small fleet of personal ornithopters used for localized scouting, but also big enough to handle small shuttles if need be. A second such platform was under construction nearby, still mostly just a framework anchored to the seabed. Just landward of the landing platforms as the water approached only a dozen or two meters in depth, was the start of the local Fireclam bed, the reason for the Holt's existence and its most valued territory.

Kira didn't fully understand the relationship between the Jewels and the Fireclams, whether it was cultural or religious or simply pragmatic… but he did know that the normally friendly, if suspicious, locals would turn quite violent if anyone dared to intrude upon or even worse attempt to harvest or damage their clam beds. Even Jewels from other Freeholds were kept quite clearly away from the local Holt's clambed in most situations.

He had to mind his footing from here on in as he made his way to shore, as the dark blue, nearly black shells of the Fireclams sported many razor sharp spikes and ridge-protrusions, some of which rose above the surface of the water. These natural defenses, along with the hardness of the shells themselves, meant that the Fireclams had few if any natural predators, but it also meant that harvesting shell for Nacrene and meat for food, was a very risky proposition, and only the weird psychic bond between a Clambed and its Holt citizens made it at all feasible to do so. On a normal day, Kira was given to understand that much of the Holt population would be out in the Clambed, either free swimming or poling small boats and rafts along carefully maintained, maze-like paths in the mass of gigantic clams, to conduct the daily harvest and trimming of the bed.

That day was anything but normal however, and Kira was alone as he made his way to shore, something he was glad for… while the locals, who were predominantly telekinetic in their Newtype focus, had mastered forms of "Waterwalking", it was a pretty energy intensive power, and definitely didn't involve calming the seas for a kilometer in every direction… walking ashore like this was showing off in a way he found uncomfortable. The Freeholders worshipped Leviathan as a Goddess of sorts and regarded her as their highest governing authority as well, like a Queen. That led to some… interesting views of his close and personal relationship with Leviathan, and the way she doted upon him so obviously.

Reaching from the rocky shore into the sea were a wide variety of docks made of wood, local limestone and blackish-blue and greenish-black Nacrene. The Nacrene was hard but ever so slightly yielding, like the surface of your fingernail, which gave it great resilience. The locals formed it into slightly rounded plates which they then layered over frames of wood and stone to form many of their structures. The Nacrene of the docks was polished by wind and waves to a gleaming luster, to the point where it felt like he was putting his feet upon a raw gemstone of incredible size as Kira stepped from the water onto the docks.

Beyond the docks was a sprawling and unkempt scrap-town made of driftwood, rough carved limestone and whatever else happened to be lying around and convenient, including sandbags, hullplates from shipwrecks and more deliberate building construction as well. The buildings often had hump like shapes, like large igloos, with relatively few entrances, usually relatively narrow and with built in chokepoints… each one could be a small fortress if need be.

Here Kira encountered people again, crowds of them, as the scrap-town was decked out in banners, flags and temporary stalls of all sorts, due to the ongoing festival of celebrations. Bright colors were everywhere, pinks and blues and reds and greens clashing with the darker Nacrene plates of the local clambed, along with dozens of smoky driftwood bonfires providing waypoints for the gathering crowds. Most were locals, wearing either tight fitting and practical outfits like wetsuits, designed for wear both in and out of the water, or else loose and flowing robes and togas and kimono's of local silk, which were meant to be discarded at a moment's notice when needed. These latter clothes were the more decorated, often featuring incredible patterns in geometric, floral, oceanic and abstract designs, and eye searing color combinations.

Men, women and children chattered and laughed, brushing shoulder to shoulder with each other and the off-duty members of the Urbanis militia who were taking some much-needed rest and relaxation after their harrowing escape form their homeland. The smell of cooking meat and the local fiery liquor was strong in the air, and the whole place bustled with life. For all that activity however, one the psychic side of things, Kira felt a noticeable calmness in the Wind of Words… and that was because the locals did not use it. Deliberately… they preferred their own local, communal psychic networks, like peer-to-peer comms instead of the world-wide internet that was the Wind of Words.

Locals and militia troops alike gave Kira room as he walked through the bustling scrap-town, the locals with mingled awe and respect, and the militia with mostly respect… though Kira could feel more than a few unhappy glares directed at his back. He could not blame them… he was their Executor, their Champion, and when they had needed him most, he had not been able to save their home from occupation by the USN. The Wind spoke of no atrocities being committed by the occupation forces in the days since, but nobody was happy with the situation regardless.

Kira made sure to keep his posture straight and his stride easy, not giving any hint as to the stitch of pain in his side and the weakness he still felt… whatever esoteric technology that Frost had used to teleport them into and out of Orb to rescue Lilia, it clearly wasn't perfected. All of the strike force had been crippled by micro-lacerations and other internal issues after arriving back in Garden City, and even Edenite medical science could not make them battle ready in time to intervene in Urbanis. But his soldiers needed to see him strong and ready to fight for them now, no matter how much he still hurt.

Making his way through the party, wishing he had the time to take it in, Kira entered one of the buildings that butted up against the pale limestone cliffs that dominated the local shoreline. A pair of Holt guardians, wearing fluttering kimonos of ocean blue and Nacrene black, and with nacrene hilted swords sheathed at their sides along with beam pistols, eyed him narrowly for a moment until they were assured of his identity, before stepping aside from the armored portal that led into the cliffs… into the actual Holt Ogren.

Because so much of the local wildlife, including insects and predatory beasts, were capable of burrowing through rock and stone, and even metal in some cases, the Holt was buried deep in man-made caves within the cliffs, the walls, ceilings and sometimes the floors, plated in Nacrene to keep out the local wildlife. The surface town was just a place to meet with traders and hang out during the day… at night or when dangerous wildlife threatened, the Freeholders would retreat within the Holt, which was a formidable fortress. Thick enough Nacrene was basically as strong as Phase Shift armor, and far more energy resilient.

Electric lights cast odd blue reflections off the mirror polished Nacrene interior of the Holt as Kira made his way deeper inside, encountering more local warriors and militia inside, clad in uniforms and with weapons to hand. Lord Ogren had been kind enough to offer his Holt as a rendezvous point for the Milita as they got their bearings after fleeing to the Sea and being transported to safety by Leviathan. The majority of the pilots and soldiers would be moving from here to Garden City to bolster the forces there, but the wounded and many of the support staff were going to remain behind. Not as permanent residents of the Holt, but to establish a fallback base nearby, a place of last resort for the Shark party. And more than that as well… Kira had plans in motion, with Leviathan and Gorefin's help.

Making his way to the central hall of the Holt, where Lord Ogren conducted his day to day business, Kira entered the largest interior space within the Holt, formerly a natural cavern which had been expanded and smoothed out, the rest of the Holt branching out from various places around its edges. It was like being inside a pearl, a geode of polished organic gemstone, the walls and ceiling textured and carved and shaped into oceanic murals and abstract artwork that was breathtaking in its complexity and beauty. Oil lanterns provided illumination here, a warmer light than the electric lamps in the halls, while rugs of exotic fur and pebbly leather gave some comfort to the foot.

Kira removed his boots at the entrance, walking barefoot into the main hall, as was the local custom, as he made his way through the local dignitaries and elders, who were grouped around a slightly raised platform in the middle of the room, upon which Lord Ogren was currently knelt. The First Lord of the Jewels… first amongst equals in their clannish and complicated hierarchies… was not, upon first glance, a particularly impressive figure. Shorter than average height, slimmer than average build, though upon closer look corded with the pragmatic muscle of a long-distance swimmer, with sun tanned skin and dark brown hair shorn close to his scalp. His eyes though, hazel with golden cores, contained a deep intensity, and the more time you spent around him, the more his weight of personality and ambition became palpable, like an invisible pressure on your back.

Currently Lord Ogren was shirtless, kneeling in his trousers as his back was being worked on by one of the elders, armed with a set of unworked Nacrene splinters as needles, applying ink to the First Lord's skin along his back and shoulders. Kira could not see the pattern from where he approached from the front, but had been told of it, as it was the gossip of the entire Holt. Apparently, Lord Ogren had recently made history in the Freeholds by actively forging a pact of mutual interest and support with none other than Charybdis, Lady of the Lightless Depths… one of the two most powerful subordinate Chimera in all the oceans. Charybdis had never seemed that personable to Kira in those times he'd seen her, but then again he'd never really tried to get to know her either… Gorefin and he had hit it off far more easily, and of course Levi herself.

As a mark of this successful pacting, which elevated Ogren amongst his peers and seemed to be the start of some new tradition amongst the Freeholders… the details of which Kira really hadn't had time to fully grasp yet, because of so many other concerns on his mind… Ogren was getting his back tattooed with a somewhat stylized image of his meeting with Charybdis, heavy on the coiling tentacles and dark water, with himself as a small, brightly illuminated humanoid figure at the center of it. From what Kira understood, the ink being used was actually from Charybdis herself.

Standing beside the kneeling First Lord was a young girl of about six or seven, with long dark brown hair and warm hazel eyes, also cored with gold, clearly related to Ogren… his daughter Anne. Kira's heart panged as he caught sight of her, her profile almost reminding him of Aoi, who also wore her hair long, the same brown as his own, before he shook it off. Anne held the pot of Charybdis ink tightly in her small hands, looking upon her father with adoration and awe as his heroic deed was committed to permanent record upon his flesh.

Ogren's eyes were tight with pain from the tattoo work, his forehead lightly beaded with sweat, but he gave no outward whimper or cry as the splinters of ink-dipped nacrene punched into his skin over his shoulderblade over and over again. He saw Kira approach, and with an unspoken command the tattooing was halted… it was a process that could be done in multiple sessions if need be. "Confidant." Ogren said in a slightly hoarse voice, but otherwise acted unaffected by what had to feel like fire sprayed across his back. Ocean's Confidant was what the Jewels called Kira, instead of Executor, a nod to his relationship with Leviathan, not the Edenite Alliance authority.

"First Lord." Kira nodded to the man who was less than friend, but more than an acquaintance… an ally. Though the Freeholds of the Jewels as a whole had stayed out of the war thus far, largely because they possessed little in the way of military force to lend, now, as part of his pact with Charybdis, Lord Ogren was going to offer what aid and resources he could, including his own services as a warrior and that of several of his best fighters, to whatever ends that Kira desired. It was largely symbolic in terms of military force, but the additional manpower and their help in establishing a secret base nearby their territory was certainly worth the effort. "Leviathan and I found a good spot for the base. She's working on excavating the broad features of it now."

"Then I will brief my artisans and the Migrant leaders. The Seaholt will receive our finest work, you can assure the Ocean Mother of that." Ogren said reverently, as he rose from his kneeling position. Flicks of his eyes and subtle motions of his fingers telekinetically called his kimono from where it was folded upon a stool nearby, the garment long and flowing, the base color blue-black, with gold and silver traceries in the form of swirling oceanic currents, crested with white foam lines along the hems. A sash of purest white held the robe loosely closed at the waist, even as Ogren used his mental grip on the cloth to keep it off his back so as not to aggravate his fresh tattooing.

"There is no rush…" Kira started to say, not wanting to detract from his new ally's big moment, even if he didn't fully understand why it was such a big deal to the Jewels.

"Pah, survival trumps ceremony, every time." Ogren waved off his concerns, half formed as they were. A more potent gesture of his hand called forth a katana with a pure white sheathe, the handle and hilt of the weapon made of polished blue-green-black Nacrene, which he slid through his sash. Ogren carried no ranged weapon, though from what little he'd seen of the First Lord's telekinetic skill, Kira knw the other man had relatively little need of one. The First Lord glanced back at his daughter, sharing unspoken words through their community Whalesong, who started carefully resealing and re-pressurizing the pot of ink to preserve it. "And the tides of war wait for no one, not even the Ocean Mother."

Kira fell in at the First Lord's side, a head taller than the other man, as Ogren led the way back out of the Holt towards the surface town, with his retinue of warriors and advisors following behind them at several paces distance. "Gorefin is in the process of extricating himself from Orb's Glasshouse, he'll be here in a week. By then I hope to have the base built enough to start building the Star Shark, as well as giving him the cybernetics he'll need to make it work. I'll also be sending as many of our noncombatants as will concede to be moved out to here and the other Holts… they could be here for months… or longer. That won't be a problem for your people, will it?"

"A week ago, it would have been an issue worth spilling blood over. Today it is our duty to the Sea… there will be grumbling, but there will be no issues you need to worry about, Kira." Ogren assured him. "And once the Lord of the Upper Reaches arrives, how could we do any less than give him our fullest hospitality? My Lady of the Lightless Depths has… impressed upon me the importance of not appearing inept to her peer." Ogren cracked a small smile at the understatement. They passed through the massive armored shutter-gates of the Holt, and out through the chokepoint of the gate-building, emerging into the shantytown.

The party was still ongoing, but there was a definite tension to the air, an aura of psychic excitement that had nothing to do with the celebration, as the people of the Holt gathered around a large central space where Ogren led Kira. There was no stage, they simply stood in the midst of a gathering crowd, Kira doing his best to seem as imperturbable and dignified as Ogren, even though he still didn't like being the center of attention. Definitely not public crowds anyway.

"My people… friends, allies, enemies, rivals and migrants alike… today the tides bring us change." Ogren started speaking as some unknown level of crowd size was made known to him. "As you all know, last night my great pilgrimage was a success… I swam down to the depths of the ocean and communed directly with the Lady whose domain that was. And instead of eating me, she deigned to offer me her patronage. No longer will we fear the depredations of random chimera. No longer will our existence balance upon a razor's edge. We have found our place in the great Courts of the Sea. A humble place… but a place nonetheless." Ogren spoke plainly but proudly, a hint of tiredness in his posture, but also triumph, exultation and relief.

"But our new position comes with responsibilities as well as privileges. The war between Space and Land was never our concern, or so we believed. But that belief was wrong. The Sea is part of this war… and always has been. While we lived our lives, dangerous and fraught thought they may have been, those who are our brothers and sisters, in spirit if not family, have been fighting and dying against predators from Space. Their blood, sweat, pain and tears, have let us live in peace, with us giving nothing in return. No more. No more, my Holt… we will not embarrass ourselves with inactivity anymore!" Ogren drew his sword from its sheath, holding it low and ready at his side.

"I ask not for your permission to make this alliance, for my own permission was not asked in turn. This is your obligation, your obligation to me as your lord, and through me to the Lady of the Lightless Depths, Charybdis, and through her to the Ocean Mother, Leviathan herself! Besides me stands the Ocean's Confidant, Executor of Garden City, Kira Yamato. It is him that my sword shall serve, that your swords shall serve. For him we will sweat, we will bleed… we will die. And in so doing, prove ourselves worthy of the lives we have lived so far, and the lives we will continue to live into the future!" He thrust his blade upwards and seawards, crying out with vigor, and compelling a shout of agreement from his fellows and every other Jewel in attendance. Even some of the militia members in the audience cheered, caught up in the moment and happy to hear of reinforcements, symbolic or otherwise.

"I name you Sealord and for the duration of this war, until my death and beyond, I will accept your authority, and through me, my Hold. Let all bear witness to this oath upon my sword, and may all honor be stripped from me and my Hold should I prove untrue." Ogren said to Kira directly, holding his sword in both, one on the blade and the other on the hilt, proffering it towards Kira as he bowed his head briefly.

"Um… thank you." Kira was a little caught off guard by the sudden announcement, but he did his best to recover. Drawing forth the Executor's Burden, he planted it in the sand in front of him. "Keep your sword, First Lord. This blade alone is my Burden to bear." Kira half smiled at the not entire joke. "I promise you that I will not waste your lives."

"Really? Is that a promise you can make, Executor?" A weary, dry voice called out from the crowd. There was a commotion in the silence that followed, a showing and pushing in the crowd as people suddenly started recoiling away from a presence making its way through the crowd of people. Children cried out, men swore, and women hissed with dismay as all flinched away from one who did not belong. Not the one who had spoken out, but rather the smaller man, barely larger than some of the children, who walked at his heel.

"Daveron." Kira sucked in a breath of dismay, for this was the first time he'd seen the Sheriff-General since the militia survivors had boarded Levi off the coast of Africa. And back then, everything had been rushed, mostly speaking to him through comms and the Wind, not meeting face to face. The Sheriff-general was not badly wounded, though not unscathed either. Not in body anyway, but from the gaunt and dour and drained look on his face, Kira could tell that the Militia leader was wounded in a different way, a more painful way. He'd suffered an injury to his faith… in his trust.

Hollow eyed and unkempt, his uniform tattered and stiff with dried blood and sea salt, Daveron was sallow of skin, leaning one hand upon his companion's shoulder for support as the two of them made their way through the crowd. Despite the press of bodies, everyone made way for them, out of instinct as much as anything… no Newtype wanted to be close to a Null after all. That Daveron could stand to be in contact with one at all, even one he regarded as a close friend, was a testament to how worn out and on the ragged edge he was.

"Kira." Daveron fixed his gimlet eyes upon the man whom he had sworn to follow, trusted and believed in, placed his hopes and dreams in. "You didn't make it in time, Executor. Urbanis needed you… needed all of you… and you didn't come." Daveron spoke without accusation, without heat, stating facts, not recriminations. But also, without forgiveness, without tolerance or understanding. "You made a promise to me and mine, to stand with us in all our times of need… but you didn't. So, can you promise our gracious hosts that, truly?"

"You're right. I did fail you. I failed all of Urbanis. I failed all Edenites." Kira did not hide from it. For all that the rescue operation in Orb had been a success, and an important one, he couldn't say it had truly been worth the occupation of Urbanis and the battering of Borealis that took it out of the war before it really even could enter it. "I'm sorry." Kira bowed his head sorrowfully to a man he still considered a friend… and made his failure more painful for it.

"I do not wish for you to be sorry. Your sorrow is nothing." Daveron's voice was a chill whip in the sea air, the Jewels all watching the confrontation in silence, looking between Daveron and Kira, and then Daveron's companion, the Kindred. "What I want, Kira, is for you to be better. What I want… what we need… not just Urbanites, not Jewels or Borealeans or Gardeners… what all Edenites need from you is for you to be better, Executor. For ALL of you to be better. Not as warriors… but as leaders!"

"I know that you and Kunai and especially Frost, don't agree on much. That you all hate each other… probably for good reasons. I know that. But it doesn't matter… it can't matter. Not when it results in things like this. Not when it leads to fallen cities… occupied populaces, destroyed infrastructure, shattered lives! You have to… HAVE TO… agree that winning this war is what matters, more than anything. That fighting for our people is what matters. And yes, I know that Kunai can't be trusted… and that Frost is a wild animal at the best of times… but you Kira… you… I was counting on YOU to be the one who led the way. But you haven't. You have let yourself get lost in your grudges… justified though they may be! That can't be, Kira! Not now! Not when we need all Edenites pulling together!"

"Kunai has conspired to kill millions, tens of millions… hundreds of millions of innocent people, through weapons too horrible to even describe. And Frost is a monster who would happily kill all of us if he had the chance and make it slow and agonizing too." Kira gritted out, his eyes almost as sharp as his sword, his hands clutched white-knuckled on the grip. "They are EVIL!" he spat out, pulling the Burden from the sand and lifting it aloft. "They deserve to die… and you want me to work with them? To just ignore what they have done, what they want to do, what they will do? To throw aside all morality in the name of the pragmatic ends? I can't do that, Daveron. I gave them both plenty of chances to work with me… and they consistently refused, went behind my back, committed atrocities and genocides for their own ends… how can I work with them!?"

"Maybe you can't." Daveron replied in a very exhausted voice. "Maybe my most pessimistic predictions were right after all. Maybe this all is hopeless. Certainly, there is no way to win as we are. Three factions who would kill each other sooner than work together… that can't stand up to the USN. But I have seen a faint flicker of hope, Executor. I saw, at Urbanis, what we might be able to be. Edenites of all sorts working together… even without our greatest heroes… we fought as one. Maybe especially because we were without our greatest heroes… and greatest liabilities." Daveron's eyes bored into Kira's. "You want to make things right, Executor? To show me that the loss of my home wasn't the beginning of the end?"

"Yes." Kira slowly lowered his sword to the sand again, planting it though not leaning on it… that didn't work so well on QC weapons. He felt heavy, like Daveron's feelings were leeching into him even as he knew, even without his Latent powers, what his friend was going to ask of him.

"Then be better. Be the example. Make peace with Kunai and Frost. Do whatever you have to do, to get us united again. Please. I… I want to believe in you, again. I want to have faith that you, at least, are doing everything you can for our people. That you are not letting your personal feelings guide your actions." Daveron sagged forward, Chris bearing almost his full weight, his black on black eyes boring into Kira's with their own challenging intensity. "Please Kira… be the better one. Because if you won't, no one will."

"And if they refuse to work with me… again? If they escalate the war, or go off on their own selfish crusades, no matter what I try to do?" Kira asked, even though he knew what Daveron would say.

"Then at least my faith in you will be restored. Then I can sleep again, without the faces of my people jeering at me for trusting someone who did not have their interests at heart. I am not asking you to succeed… I am asking you to try again, with everything you have, with all our lives in your heart and mind. Because you have stopped trying, Kira… and I can't stand that… we won't survive that." Daveron straightened himself up again.

"Then… I will try… for you, Daveron. For Ubranis. For Borealis. For the Jewels. For the Gardeners. Even for the goddamn Mori, I guess. On this… my Burden… I swear to try again…" Kira held up the blade, brandishing the dark violet crystal edge in front of his eyes. Hoping against hope he could see some path forward in its crystalline depths… because he knew not where else to look…

Xxxx

May 9th, Andean Mountains of South America, Charon's Citadel, Late Evening

"What are you doing out of bed!?" Lilia looked up as the heated, almost accusatory tone of her boyfriend came from behind her… on a catwalk with no other way up than the one she had used and was within her view. Which meant that he had teleported to her once again. Just as he'd been doing over and over and over again, dozens of times a day, ever since rescuing her from Orb along with Kira, Kunai and many others. Sometimes as often as every fifteen minutes, he would simply appear from thin air, checking in on her as if afraid she would have somehow managed to disappear from Charon's own medical wing.

She'd never taken him for such a worrywart, but then again, he probably wasn't… hadn't been… and it was because of her and her efforts that he had reacquired the ability to worry about others. Select others, but others all the same. It was simultaneously sweet and smothering, warming her heart even as it made her grind her teeth in annoyance. "Zach, it's been six days and I wasn't even badly hurt, unlike someone who came stumbling through your portal thingie looking like a zombie. I'm fine. All the moreso because of a certain someone's contagious nanites inside me! Save you concern for Espadon, he barely survived!"

"Espadon is my Kindred. Anything that does not kill him outright is a matter of little concern to him, and far less to me." Zach replied, moving to stand at her side as they both looked down at the manufactoria floor of one of Charon's industrial caverns, where munitions and even a few new Dervishes and variations on the Widowmaker, Tarantula and Cicada battle walkers were being constantly produced to add to the arsenals of the Memento Mori. Mostly automated, though there were a few Mori supervisors and logistical officers tabulating the process from various observation platforms and catwalks… much as Lilia herself was getting an overview of the entire process form her own position near the rafters. "You are my Mouse. I would sacrifice him a thousand times before I let you suffer any harm, if I could."

"I love you too, Zach, but that's a piss poor attitude." Lilia turned to face her monster, poking him just bellow their bond-collar on his neck. Of course, he was fine, at least physically, his unique body fully regenerating itself in a day or so of light activity. Light for Zach meaning not being shot to pieces, blown up, half eaten by Chimera or otherwise half killed by any normal measure. "Espadon is not just your Kindred, he is my Kindred. They are OUR Kindred… our most loyal followers. We owe them our concern, amongst many other things. Their welfare is our responsibility. He has a wife… and they are trying for a baby, Anelace has told me." Lilia fixed him with a cold stare, which naturally he did not flinch from, but she skewered him all the same, and he did flinch just the slightest bit when she deliberately lowered her hand to touch her own belly. "Have some empathy… or at least some gratitude."

"Shall I get him a get well soon card then?" Zach scoffed. "Peel him an apple? Don't let weakness infect you now, Mouse… he Suffers, and should be glad for the chance to grow stronger from it. In my time of need, I took him along as assistance… there is no greater compliment to give. Doing anything more would simply be wallowing in sentimentality."

"And what exactly do you call teleporting to my side every thirty minutes to ensure I haven't magically disappeared or fallen in a hole?" Lilia challenged back. "You know I'm fine. You can feel it, just as I can feel that you are in good shape again… through our Bond. I am fine. Our baby is fine. I'm in the safest place in the whole world… for now. If anyone is wallowing in sentiment right now, it's you." She turned away from him and looked down over the small but busy section of their domain once more. "You're the one acting weak, Zach."

"… how can I act any different? I nearly lost you. Both… of you." Zach replied, his voice a whisper, even as his hands clenched so hard she could hear his skin creak like overstretched leather. "It… is not so easy a thing for me to admit… having to go to Yamato of all people for help, not just in the planning but the execution…"

"It's ok to be weak… sometimes. Everyone has moments of weakness." Lilia turned back to her lover and embraced him, pulling him against her, stroking a hand through his wild hair as she buried her face against his collarbone. "I wasn't criticizing you. Or, I was, but… look, Zach, my love… I'm happy you are worried for me. I'm very happy you swallowed your pride, admitted you needed help, got that help, and successfully rescued me and our baby from the Oosen. And even didn't forget to extract the people who helped you afterwards. You Suffered and Sacrificed and Succeeded… I could not be prouder of you." Lilia smiled against his neck, as she felt him straighten and preen in her embrace.

"Feels good, doesn't it? Praise for doing something you wanted to do anyway?" Lilia hit him with the sucker punch, emotionally rather than physically of course. "Espadon deserves to feel like this too. I have already thanked him, but you should as well. Just saying "thank you" would mean the world to him… to all the Kindred. Even to the Mori as a whole… a leader who values the efforts of their followers, and communicates it, is not sentimental or weak… they are great."

"I am no leader." Zach's voice was low, barely audible to her even in their embrace, his body going still, to the point where she could barely even detect if he was breathing at all. "I learned that during the rescue, beyond all doubt. I offered no strategies, gave no orders… I rushed in and bashed my head against walls, slaughtered weaklings to no effect. Were it not for Yamato literally taking over my own mind and body, all my efforts, my rage and hate, would have ended with nothing to show for it." He sighed and tightened his grip with his hands around her waist. "I am no leader. I did not want to be one… I do not deserve to be one."

"Too bad, you are one." Lilia raised her head to look him in the eyes. Seeing his hurt, his doubt, his weakness… things that he would never willingly show to anyone else and might not even willingly show her. But neither did he try to hide it from her now. "I will help you. But you are the leader of the Memento Mori. This is a burden you have to Suffer, Zach. But not alone… I… We… are with you." Lilia hugged him in silence for a few moments, lending what strength she could to his battered pride. "And as the Leader of the Memento Mori, there's leadership for you to do… decisions to be made, orders to give."

"My first order is that you need to go back to bed and rest." Zach growled at her. "You are… pregnant. You are in a delicate state… you are…"

"Not listening to you." Lilia cut him off with a quirk of her lips. "Zach, I'm less than three months along. I didn't even know I was pregnant till the USN discovered it. I can assure you, it's not affecting my ability to fight, and won't for months yet."

"It is not your ability to fight that concerns me. How can I be expected to focus in battle when I feel this way?" Zach retorted, glaring at her like her condition was entirely her own fault.

"What, while worried about me? Welcome to how everyone else feels during war, Zach. It sucks, I know, but you just have to deal with it."

"I generally deal with things I dislike by killing them, Mouse…"

"And on a battlefield, that is a potentially effective means of dealing with that feeling, Zach. Especially for a Gundam pilot." Lilia was not about to back down and be coddled, no matter his feelings or even her own feelings. It wasn't like she didn't feel the urge to keep the life within her safe at any cost, like she wanted to put the unborn baby at any risk at all. But sadly, their lives were little but risk at the moment, and she would not hide from her prior responsibilities just because a new one had been added. "We can have this argument again in a few months… you'll lose it then too, but I'll at least be willing to hear you out… but for now, the only way you'll leave me behind is to tie me up and throw me in the Caller's hole!"

"I am strongly considering it." Zach replied darkly, before chuckling roughly. "Not so long ago, Mouse, you would not dare defy me like this…"

"I have always defied you, Zach, I was just less obvious about it before." Lilia pulled away from their embrace. "Now, do you have any orders that are useful? Like, perhaps, directing the Mori to return to Garden City to aid in its defense? Now that you and Kira and Kunai have collective fucked our war efforts up!?" She narrowed her eyes and allowed her anger to show. "Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for the rescue, but the cost was far too high… allowing Urbanis to fall and Borealis to be knocked out… freedom feels dirty, knowing the price with which it was bought…"

"No cost is too high for me to pay for your safety, Mouse… this I have come to realize and accept."

"Yes, very sweet, I love you too… but that's fucking stupid, Zach!" Lilia rolled her eyes. "The worst part is I know you mean that fully literally, rather than simply as a platitude. You can't value me above the safety of the entire Edenite race… you're an Executor for fuck's sake!"

"Too bad, because I do." Zach narrowed his own eyes at her in turn, crossing his arms over his chest. "And I'm the mad Executor… no one expects logical actions from me."

"But they do expect effective ones!" Lilia shot back. "And you hiding away here in in the Citadel, guarding me when I'm not in danger, while Urbanis falls to the Oosen is not very fucking effective, now is it, Zach!? And if you don't care for their expectations, then care for mine! If not for Arthon and his unit, the Mori would have had no presence at all at Urbanis… how dare you humiliate us like that! One of the most important battles of the war and we were barely there because you still have to grow up some more!" Lilia hissed at him furiously. "Repeat after me… we are NOT skipping out on Garden City!"

"Now that you are safe, or as safe as you will let me make you, I have no intention of staying away from the battlefield. Especially because you seem determined to place yourself upon them regardless of sensibility!" Zach retorted with a grimace.

"Oh, so the Mad Executor is now expecting sensibility from someone!? You spent so much time and effort teaching me your madness, the madness of Suffering for Humanity, and now you want to the opposite! You're crazy, Zach… don't be a hypocrite too." Lilia brushed aside his words. "I'm not hearing that repeat, Zach…" she growled at him.

"The Mori will not miss the fighting to come." Zach growled back at her, displeased at her badgering but accepting it. "No one will be able to say the Memento Mori did not pull their weight during this campaign… that I did not pull my weight and more. There. Happy?"

"Marginally." Lilia did not let up the pressure. "I'll need you to say that again across the All-Hands comm. Don't worry, I won't make you give a speech, just a rousing mission statement."

"… fine." Zach gritted out, clearly not liking it, but accepting it as something he had to do.

"Also, you need to coordinate our actions with Kunai and Kira… or at least show that you are willing to."

"Mouse… no… do not think you can command me… I will not be browbeaten, not even by you!"

"How sad… our child will grow up, if they do, knowing that their father did not have the guts to swallow his pride to win the war… the great and mighty Zacharis Frost, Humanity's Monster, unable to do something as simple as a strategy meeting…"

"This… you are evil, Mouse… EVIL!"

"I am what you made me to be, my love… aren't you happy? You got exactly what you wanted…"