Animal Kingdom

Mai is temperamental the next few days, but it is not uncalled for. Discussions of the war past give way to the war to be, it seemed. It gave way to complaints, notices given to her over the radio and by Gearten about the Reapers, poking more and more at the line that Pavilions made against their Seattle, and Murph's. Garma does not speak anymore on his death to come or what may will be but there is a seed between them that if it had been that simple this issue would've been put into the ground before then. There had been something else manifested, to be understood or at least brought to light between them and he was not willing to impress upon it for now.

A radio message, a blurry sound in the early morning, wakes her in the morning that followed, pressing herself off of Garma's chest in their morning tangle that has gone on for two weeks now for both of their benefit. It calls off to her before Garma can fully awake, and by the time he is, she has gone out into the world.

Any aggravation she has is, as she finds herself where she's called to, erased, and replaced with dumbfounded surprise, looking at something that was not.

Belltower Storm Drain is once again visited, and this time, Mai is brought out, if only because she was nearby. Foreman Foreman is there, waiting for her with several of his men, scratching away at short cut black hair vigorously, and Mai is inclined to agree.

"How the fuck did we miss that?"

It's a small group from the Conclave and Foreman's Pavilion, Mai brought out because it only seemed proper to let her see what it looked like when three mobile workers had come up missing.

Foreman had offered a cigarette to Mai, to which she rejected as she looked at the empty spaces where three mobile workers, the size of Zakus, as they were its predecessor, had been as if she could track them much like animals. That wasn't the case outside of the trampled over fences made by the mobile workers treads that ran them over, out to the coast.

"When was the last time we had positive contact with them?" As in, Mai spoke in her tactical language that arose from time to time, when did anyone they trusted last saw them.

Foreman rubbed his neck. "About five days ago, I had a man come out to see if the drainage silos were still okay from when we last kicked them on. He said that the three mobile workers here had still been right where they'd been left."

Mai sucked in her teeth in a nod. "They must've been taken in the night, since then. None of the Pavilions seemed to notice." She had wagered that they were taken out to the coastal front and ridden along those streets there, with most of the Pavilions more centered in the city and looking down south, it was not impossible that they could miss a convoy of mobile workers in the night when the city seemed to shake already.

Foreman nodded. "The aftershocks from the last quake must've been cover. You thinking Reapers?" He posed, taking a long drag from his cigarette as the rest of those that came there kicked around dirt and rubble on the ground in their idleness. No solution here could be conjured.

"Who else?"

"Maybe Win got a few of his scav friends together and took them on a joy ride." Foreman had tried to joke, but there had been an undercurrent of worry there. In that entire year the mobile workers had been stagnant, unable to hotwired or accessed due to a Zeonic software update that froze almost all civilian and leased Zeonic mobile technologies on Earth prior to the invasion. And yet here three mobile workers from Zeonic had been taken away in the night.

None of the Pavilions, scouts, or scavengers had noticed or said anything, and suddenly the idea that giant machines were stealthier than one would assume is over all of them.

Mai is shocked, to say the least, almost to silence.

"Well." She starts, adjusting her boonie cap. "We know that their armor isn't military grade, right?"

Foreman shook his head. "Not as far as I know, Captain."

Mai had nodded again, considering herself, the tactical situation, the assumption that it had been the Reapers that took them and not some sort of hidden Zeon survivors that had only now figured to seize upon the mobile workers with hidden access codes known only to them. She had breathed in once, taking in the air and the sights and the idea that three mobile workers were now missing in Seattle, despite their size, only to swiftly turn around and start the walk home for the day to ruminate further on the perplexing development. She had held her rifle's sling taut with her thumb, looking to Foreman. "Dig up some more of your charges if you can. Line the roads leading into the south of Seattle."

Foreman and his constructions workers had been among the last to fully ingratiate themselves into Mai's guerilla force in the end, if only because Zeon had kept them employed with building base defenses and military infrastructure around Seattle. With that employment came the trust for them to have their hands on explosive materials, and when enough of it was had the construction workers had all pulled away from Zeon leaving, more often than not, explosive surprises in where they had worked to Zeon displeasure and damage. Some of those explosives remained.

Foreman understood, nodding, and then Mai had gone off for the day.

To Garma's credit, his conversations with her about tactics and the war put her mind back into the place where she did think about the overhead, about a battle to come and the theater at large, even if that had only been Seattle. Reports of more confrontations between Pavilion forces and Reapers along the border of the highway bridge that cut through Seattle had been growing, north and south lines made just above the Kingdome and out the water in both directions with Pavilions all guarding it like military sovereign border lines of old.

She was glad that Gearten had made that call in the end, but all their options had been defensive save for one: her. She was a sniper, and more than that the guerilla soldier that had been the first and last of Seattle's homegrown resistance that went beyond just killing individuals.

She knew the stakes, the scale of a battle that would take Seattle again, and she didn't like where it put her in terms of being against another guerilla force, far less civilized, but with all the same reasons to have fought, as her.

The Conclave could not move, however, not without betraying its mission of keeping people alive.

In her idle thoughts, her eyes drift against one of the many convenience stores in Seattle's ruined streets, glass windows broken long ago. She had errands to do for her own sake that didn't have to do with dressing down beasts, at least in the way she knows it. She walks into a portion of that ruined world again, shelves toppled over and decrepit, light had not made its way fully in there for a year. She lived and died by these bodegas in a more civilian life. Never enough money for a full grocery run, but enough for toiletries and the like, piece meal. A benefit of the military life she had imagined all the way back then was that functions like shopping for essentials like this would always be handled by the military apparatus; just another thing let out of her hands so she could focus on that grander goal.

Even now in war, she browses and peruses until she gets in the back and dusty old advertisements with the equivalent of modern painted ladies looking back out at her with skin so soft and fine it probably wasn't real.

It's been years since she's looked at hair products. A one-night stand of hers when she was on Earth the first year had introduced her to the concept of 3-in-1 shampoos and ever since that day she had never looked back. Her hair had looked fine for it, many of the dancers at the strip club she was a bodyguard at envious of how glowing it had been and how silky it appeared, but she had not cared for it as her mother would've loved her to. She was too busy to care.

It was no surprise, even a year on, the hair care products of the convenience store remained relatively untouched compared to the rest of the items there. Food had been first to go, bottled water and medicine soon after, despite Zeon trying their best to keep civilian supply chains going for civilian purposes, but when the entire world had been on fire the chains had broken easy, and soon food came from only military or personal sources with no shelves being stocked.

Hair care products remain, not that she needs it.

This is for Garma.

He leaves her a note on the front door as Charlie chases him out, the puppy obviously more attached to him than Mai. He kneels after taping the note made on the back of an MRE wrapper with one of his bandages to the door.

"There, there, Charlie, Mai will be back soon, good pup." He spoke and his voice was pleasing in its tune to the golden dog, tongue out in a loll as it lapped at his fingers as he rubbed their ears and scruff of chin.

He's not surprised Mai had left without him today, and he hadn't protested as they returned to communication without words and assumed a cold affectation about them. He's used to it.

The map of North America is tucked between his canvas jacket and his shirt, brought only for redundancy for he had memorized its opposite side as he had been used to like a commander, for that other side had been of Seattle itself.

Plans had defined his life as much in both directions, both in his application and as applied to him. There had been a path to him for the sake of Zeon and then his plans to follow that plan. Regimented, foreseen; there was someone he was supposed to be and for the most part he had not fought his destiny as was euchred by Spacenoids and his family. But, at the end of those plans had been something he could call freedom. Icelina had been part of it.

Mai had spoken in her delirium while healing, mostly nonsense, mostly so, but words had come out of her that could not be put back.

Words that he had to follow out.

"Case. There's a case. A safe." She spoke to him as he spoon fed. "Near where I found you… I wonder what's in it?" She spoke so innocently and despite herself as her glassy eyes looked up at him.

There was only one thing that could be, and Mai did not bring it up to him since; more likely if she had forgotten entirely. She was gone today, and before the sun rode up its path in the east entirely, he too would go. He doesn't take one of her weapons, no need. It would be dangerous for him to get used to having one on hand. But he takes a spare bag, he clothes himself in how he had usually dressed for days out, bandages and all, and he goes out down those forty steps, the map of Seattle tucked into his jacket.

Instead of north, he goes south, and it is a different country altogether as he finds out.

As he exits downtown, the uneasiness of walking without Mai apparent, his foot and stride slow and considerate, assured of its usage but not of an emergency where he needed to run, he breathes freely. If there was freedom here in his walk away from Elysium Condos, any rebellious thoughts that would be there, it is not. Nothing changes in him as he walks through Seattle alone, but not outside of himself. He traces the path that, surely, Mai must've taken him in some measure. The path that she took to carry his body back from where he had been left dead to up above the city in her place.

A month and a half he had been Mai's alone in company, and now, in those last few weeks, he had been reminded that Seattle's population was not only them, and that those bombs he dropped as she had said so carelessly trying to coax the trojan horse out with its new mobile suit had been so deadly to them. There were those that lived there, and as he moved south, he found them.

It was a man and a woman he saw first that day as he made his way south, the woman had a long implement that Garma had mistaken for a rifle, but it was not, and the man had been hauling along a flat cart with packages wrapped with paper that stank of fish. They were talking in casual tones, amused with themselves as they made their way to the Conclave, as was the path those who carried game usually did.

They passed by on that empty street, the two of them giving a long look to Garma but paying no other mind save for the bandages that covered him. "Ayo." The man said in greeting, and all Garma could do was nod as they passed with their fish and their fishing pole and went away, down the corner. Garma stood there on his own corner he had to go down for a long time, looking at where they had gone before he moved on himself.

More and more he would pass people by, going down south, some with weapons, but all with their own tasks of the day. They are preparing, it seems, for Garma knows the look well in trenches and frontlines all over America, but the urgency, the uneasiness, it permeates more than the preparation of a people extant in a world forgotten. The war there had come and gone and left them behind as it occupied history otherwise. History did not move forward for them, concentrated as it was in other places.

At 6 Pavilion, the one managed by Teresia "Tammy" Hansen, built into a tall mixed-used art studio looking off and down the line, it is not too far from the Gaw and where, in distant pained recollections that make his scars and his phantom limb ache, he had ended up after being blown out of the sky. It was a shame, even, that none of the debris from the Gaw came upon the trojan horse even. His efforts had been in vain, but it was a doomed operation from the start in Char's apparent true orders to see him dead and not the apprehension or destruction of Project V.

The brick building towered tall, and its keeper for now, Tammy herself, had been corralling people up front of the building as she hunched over a table and a radio set, her voice, accented in the Nordic, rough way with an American affectation, arguing over the air.

"That's the fifth god damn person from you I had to tell off, Murph." She yelled out, and Garma had been two blocks away from the main activity. Around her Pavilion men and women ferried supplies in and out or watched from rooftops downward. Garma watched from his shadow, but if any saw him he was not overly suspicious. He was just another man of Seattle and had taken its damage onto himself.

"What're you gonna do about it, Tammy baby?" Murph had responded in his lackadaisical words. "Kill in cold blood? We're just checking out our new neighborhood."

Tammy had followed with a procession of swearing that only a working class mother could conjure up, but in her storm of words and the crowd that looked on Garma found his opening to follow the shadows of the building, the overcast today covering him, and proceeded down into the south of Seattle where in the shadow of the Kingdome, shattered and the hiding place of the trojan horse once, he retraced Mai's steps by his body's own ghost memories. It had taken him nearly two hours to get here, and there was a certain wind and ache out of his lungs and body that had come, partly due to his injuries, but also just due to the uneven terrain of Seattle unkind. To think that Mai had carried him that entire distance with a combat load had only been a testament to the soldier she had become; how serious she had been about him.

But he had just been serious back.

In the shadow of the Kingdome, he found where he fell, and with a fully comprehending mind he saw where the world at large thought he died. Looking up, he could imagine it: a Gaw, burning, bearing down on the trojan horse, and how fierce and ferocious he might've looked as he yelled out heil. But it was all for naught, in the end. He had died there, he walked along white dusted earth that had been beat over with rain again and again, but the place, the cavity where his body ended up among a debris field of a broken plane, was before him at last.

There he had lain and there he could've, perhaps should've, died. He remembers it: that haze of pain and humiliation that came with defeat, with the shrouded memory of someone pissing in his face, the chaos and confusion of gunshots and, out from his past, a woman clothed in battle gear alone and the face of a killer. Before that, hours before when the defeat had been far fresher in the daylight that followed, she was there again, taking the pose and form and question that has become so familiar in their interactions. She spared him. She saved him.

She was going to kill him.

Mai Gul came for him that night, and here he returned as he stood before that pile of rubble and imagined what he would've looked like.

Maybe his leg was still buried deeper still in that place, the rubble part Gaw, part community bank. He stood there and stared at where he once laid for a long time, a syringe on the ground of the pain medication Mai used for battlefield medicine still there. He crouched down, taking it in his right hand, still not quite used to missing his pinky and ring finger there. The plastic had been battered by the elements, as had been that place entirely, but here had been proof that he had been here. There had been no more blood stains there, washed away by dust and rain, but in his mind's eye he could see where he had stained the Earth and stuck to it until he was ripped out by a woman he knew, and in nearly two months' time he had returned and if she knew that he had been out here she might've killed him.

She might've killed him when he came back after all.

He was not running away. Not from her.

The syringe fell back to the crumbled ground and by his cavity as he looked right into the exposed building that part of the Gaw had fallen on. Not quite safe, but it hadn't collapsed yet. Heading in, the bank had been a simple one, wood and stone, glass dividers between lobby and tellers long broken, a door showing lockboxes torn open, undoubtedly from looting or people seeking their physical riches in preparation for the hard times to come evident. In the middle of the floor had been a hole, and Garma, pressing forward, the dim light afforded by daylight finding its way through crevices, looked down into the hole and found perhaps too easily which Mai spoke.

Every Gaw in his personal force had been outfitted with small quarters for him, acting as command center if needed. He would never allow Icelina onto one, but if he had he knew where she would be mostly put to. The black safe, no bigger than a small drawer, adorned with the decoration of his family denoting them of their status, peered up out from below at the stone floor bottom where the weight of it dragged it through the wooden floor to the basement of the place. It took him several minutes to find basement access, the stairs not inside but along the back alley of the building, a flashlight borrowed from Mai's stash in his hand as he descended carefully into that place where cleaning supplies and other municipal tools meant for the streets and the building itself had once been. Below in the dark rays from the hole made by the safe cast down and offered it to him.

Each Gaw had this safe, and each safe had the same contents.

He had walked up to it, kneeling, trying the door to see if its lock still worked, which it had, it seemingly welded shut, but Garma knowing better as he had found the keypad and knocked in its numbers.


What had been inside had been more specific as the safe clicked once, and the silver handle popped, offering itself out to Garma as he swung the door wide.

Given its journey its contents had been disheveled, but because of the nature of the contents, none seem particularly destroyed.

The first items which could be discarded had been a stack of letters and papers respectively, each of them pre-written with conditions for Earth nations and governments to swear themselves to Zeon and take themselves away from any Federation conditions or alliances. These had been in use often with states, nations, and even cities. He had last used these in respects to the Native American tribes in New England, who had been more than ready to proclaim their own nations again entirely outside of the countries that kept them down for all time. The world over, Zeon had been birthing new free nations and states and although messy from a cartographer's point of view, it had felt right. In Africa, in the Middle East, these papers had been much sought after with their Zeon ties, and in that, Garma once felt, the rest of the world would soon follow in their signatures.

Those papers fell asides as he drew them out and cast them down to the floor.

Zeon as it was now perhaps could not keep its promises if it connived against him, or, at least, a faction within it.

There had been a pocket watch there, kept on Side 3's time zone, and although that information had been otherwise readily available having a time piece that had been locked to it outside of software means even in this space had been important for plans that required such timing. No doubt in the event of the war being won its worth would balloon. That had been Captain M'Quve's comment as each safe's content had been delivered, prepared by Kycilia Zabi's overwatch and recommendation herself. A letter opener, golden and with supreme craftsmanship glinted even in the low light remained with those letters, along with a pen from his father's own office for the signing of them in multiple copies, meant to be gifted to the signers of those pacts.

All had been intriguing for Garma to look upon again, but what had been his goal today lay in the small briefcase in black that had laid beneath all the rest. He pulled it out, and he immediately felt its weight. Of all items of Zeon, this had felt the most affected by gravity.

Mai would appreciate this, he hoped.

He lingered in that basement for longer than he should've, holding the briefcase into his bag and zipping it up tight, immediately feeling the weight on his spine and remaining leg. It was manageable, but that cold dark place had been inviting. It was quiet, and in it the remains of Zeon were alone together. Every day in that apartment he reckoned with his future and the past that led him there; his entire life, and the woman at its end that challenged him for it.

In that deep dark place, standing among a scorched safe that had survived its fall far better than him, he had felt his face wetting, and he did not know he was crying until the tears rolled over his scars, and the dead eye felt for the first time and it was in pain due to those salted tears.

He did not stop. On papers that proclaimed the official language of Zeon and its new world did Garma Zabi's tears fall and they themselves on one part were mixed with blood. He cried in the dark, as, all at once, his life found him again as golden designs on blackened steel seemed to glow and he stood before its wreckage. He did not know why he cried in particular, but he knew that he needed to.

He cried for the world around him, for the war around him, and the suffering still.

He cried for the man who betrayed him, who he had once held to the word love and held it close to his chest and let him do as he wished with him because for the first time in his life he felt like he had been fulfilling a purpose that went beyond his name. He cried for the purpose of his betrayal, and the pain that came both physical and what had been put into his heart.

He cried for the frustration, for the inevitability of his fate, and all that he could do yet and know that a better world was possible because of it.

He cried for what felt like what had been unfair, for in his life he really did try his best in all aspects, for a cause that had been perhaps the greatest at hazard for all Mankind and History.

He cried for himself, and of all those thousand reasons, it came, and it drained him in a way that he never could have as a commander of an army, as a loving fiancé, or as a Zabi.

His arms crossed over each other as if in embrace with himself, coiling himself together, holding himself together, and he let it happen in quiet tears as in that place it had been decided that he should let it all out in the shadows, alone.

Where did it all go wrong?

The misfortune of his birth.

Somewhere, out there, Char Aznable remained. He could feel it.

In those years since the Dawn Rebellion, he missed the man, but as distance and time spread so too did the intensity of those feelings of the man that led him to his own leadership over the cadets. These feelings were true, and he had never denied them so for a man, yet as he began his twentieth year alive he had long since moved on from his first love, and yet Char Aznable always remained with him. He was a man to confide in, and a man that challenged him. Love, he had learned and known and been taught, was the way one could grow, and Char Aznable had helped him grow into who he had been. For what red, angered rage remained in him for his betrayal, for letting him die, there was still a part inside Garma that missed him.

He wished he knew why, in the end, he did as he did.

He liked to think he would understand.

Things that could've been, and on that thought of lost futures, the tears keep coming but Garma is silent as he has this time alone in this place, and his new weight only keeps him there.

But Time did not stop.

Somewhere, out there, someone wanted him dead, and it was not always going to be, and it had never just been the woman who had been robbed of motherhood.

In his quiet tears and the turmoil inside of his own head as his life caught up to him in that dark place, he did not hear the rummaging and the footsteps of those up above. He did not move fast enough to avoid them entirely:

In triplicate, the guerillas opposed to the Conclave appeared. Always triplicate for him, always looking down. Two men, and a woman, all wearing the white bandana of Murph's Reaper Lords upon their arms. One, an older man with a hoodie and a grey beard peered down and with a flashlight attached to the rail of his rifle illuminated Garma below.

"Shit, what happened to you, guy?" He spoke coarsely, his two compatriots peering down around that hole. "And what'd you get from that?"

"None- none of your business." He croaked.

"Well, it is, guy." The older man spoke. "Especially when it's our territory."

The ownership of the Earth had always bred its conflict, and even in small block by block contentions, the fierceness of neighbors to become enemies remained.

"Drop your bag." The woman spat down on him. "A Zeek safe probably got some real good shit in it, don't it?"

It does, but not for her. Anything in these safes was for him alone to give out.

He had heard of these people spoken of, and twice Mai had come back with injuries from them. They could not be spoken to; they could not be dealt with. He had to go.

The old Reaper had gotten his submachine pistol up and Garma had shuffled his feet, jerking himself toward the access stairwell; it had been the fastest he had ever moved in his life on his own power, and as the gunfire began he had already been to the door and through as rays of light from their attached flashlights shone his silhouette on the wall in front of him. He had slammed into that wall before throwing himself up the stairs, the very limits of his prosthetic revealed and given to him as he sprinted up the stairs. The fluid movement that had justified all running, all movement of any haste, had been a drag, and failure, to his right leg that had been stiff in its movements. When he had gotten to the top of the stairs he had palmed over his leg and the cup that his stump had gone in, getting to the straps, and cinching it tight as inside the building he had heard them leave to try and intercept.

He ran, for that's all that he could do, hoping that he had not been as turned around to not miss the direction of north in that urban jungle. He ran for his life for the first time in years, and the weight in his bag and the drag of his leg, the ever-threatening mistake of a trip and fall shattering the appendage blurring together with the danger that had been there as fast as a flash.

He had heard them, behind him, hearing them down that alleyway that he had immediately gone down in its urban blur, the snap of a bullet above his head unkind and shrill in that space that echoed.

Twisting, turning, he could not outrun them, only out turn, twisting through Seattle in its ruins like the maze that all cities became deep in its heart known only to locals which he was not. If he had been panicking, he did not know. He was a soldier still and danger had always been there for him beneath the surface and veneer, but at his rank, at his name, the soldiers of his army would never allow danger to come to him like this, completely.

It remained that the Reapers had been the guerilla forces which Zeon engaged, and he had been of Zeon. Not that those that chased him knew that. He was just another mark.

Through those streets and alleys and broken buildings he had shoved himself through as sporadic gunfire tried to catch him, coming within arm's length, the snaps and concussive impacts of those bullets slamming around him that let his adrenaline run and every scar of his burn. He did not know where he was going, only away, the Kingdome towering over them all the only landmark he could attach to but even that had failed as he fell into buildings and into blocks so destroyed that they been like ribs of ancient creatures left to the Earth and kept there as scenery and perhaps foretelling his own fate there.

He didn't know how long he had been running, only that he had been, and in what direction he did not know or care for as time went on and the paths he took became more bogged down in debris, he throwing his body through glass yet broken and wood and board and ruin that could be disturbed to open a path for himself.

His lungs burned, and the breaths he took had been deep and filled with ash and dust as, at once, a building stood before him: Three stories, red and brick and boarded up. He did not see the name of it, for it had been taken down in the year when Zeon came.

He did not see the name of this place as he stumbled past broken gates rusted over and left untouched as the grounds of that place, the lawn, had been overgrown and now dead. He, who had never been in a public school in his life, did not know the lobby he stumbled into as he heard the Reapers on his tale, glassy broken, the rug below mistaken for stone with how hard it had dried. He looked back, and the Reapers had been there at the gates, and they looked through it and saw him as his lungs had gone dry and he almost keeled over when he took his hands to his knees, one real one fake. The trio of Reapers had held their hands to the bars of the compounded building, holding their fingers to the metal and looking in as if it had been a zoo, and he its occupant, they looking amongst each other in silent reckoning and unsure options. Eventually the option was made, and they had made for the entrance which Garma himself had barreled through.

There were hallways, dark, unlit, to either side of him, and without further accord he had taken out in a run again, but as he had thrown himself into the dark the veil of light that once was was beating back an incredible smell, a horrible smell. Had it not been for the threat at his back he would've stopped for how thick, how wet, and how permanent the air had been in that coppery smell that in some ancient part of his Human brain he had recognized it as the smell of blood; the smell of the dead, and in those dark halls it had been blackened not by dark alone but also by color he could not see. As he passed in rush, entry ways, doors, to rooms that were shaded further, windows boarded up, shapes in the dark along the ground.

On either side of him had been ceramic walls, tiles, rotted away in their white that were broken up by paper bulletin boards that bore the monotonous script of Zeon. Darker, and darker still he had flown down those hallways as his bootsteps joined those of distant chase, and down that long hallway again the flashlight had captured his visage and all that surrounded all.

This was not a place of honor. It was a place of Zeon, and as he looked back to those that chased them, shining their flashlights on him, he saw what world that was and the walls and floors of blackened and red like a nightmare out of a jungle of meat.

Here, in this place, as he stopped and saw three figures through ray light, he saw what Hell was in his flight.

"We'll kill you you sick fuck for making us come in here!" A man had yelled at him, and when he saw the flashlight shimmer upward, he knew the gun had been raised again, and by his side had been a staircase he had flow up as the gunfire started ringing. No time to make sense of the color around him.

He had seen a place like this once, early in the war, on Loum, when Kycilia's own detachment on Loum had gone onto the business of intelligence gathering. He had gone there once: a meatpacking warehouse, and he had seen what Kycilia had done for it in the name of getting an upper edge of the enemy. The smell of meat remained, and that smell was recalled every time he came to a battlefield fresh. That he swore was when he was to be a civilized man in war, but in that place, it had been done in his name as a broken security camera of Zeonic make looked down on him as he climbed those stairs on his hands and knees, scrambling up it until he had arrived at the second floor. A wire grate and gate had been attached to the door to the second floor, busted open, the wiry remains of the wire red and blackened. Beneath his feet had felt of fire, and something else: crust.

This was a world made of blood, and in his scramble, he had collided over the grate and fallen through onto ceramic ground, and when he had picked himself up his hands were of a deep, olden red like ancient clay.

For all that he said that he did not know of what his forces did so here that had made them reviled, he understood now that something terrible, far terrible, had happened. He did not know of what horrors, of the fire that consumed it and how a world made of blood was found within, that he had found again in that hallway, the weight of what he carried on his back screaming at him to stay down.

He did not remain, not as those footsteps behind him intensified still and he saw an open door and went into it.

This was a school he realized, with what remained of a chalkboard in that dark room seen, white lines on it catching his eye as he rounded the corner of the door and stuck to the wall. Beneath his boots, he felt the squelch, but he had been more focused on the people chasing him to care. He looked to the opposite wall, and there a hole from what had been knocked down he could make out in the dimness, the windows that faced outward boarded up long ago. He could not make out the room around him save for passages. The Reapers had made it to the top of the door as he ducked into the hole into the next room over, again a mirror of the one that came before. When he breathed, his breath was thick with a flavor that felt to choke him on top of the exhaustion. He could've been running all day or ten minutes, it didn't matter. An extra creak had been there in his prosthetic, but he did not check what it was. Out in the halls he had heard the two of the Reapers careen down the hall in chase of his ghost as one remained unaccounted for, probably at the stairs he had reckoned. With no active chase he could still in the dark and finally give his eyes time to adjust to where he had found himself. He wishes he did not.

Kycilia had turned meat lockers into cells. Zeon here had turned classrooms into something far worse.

He knew where he was, and he knew that if he were to die it'd be in a place so horrible as befit his own fate. His eyes adjusted still, and his breath was taken away. If all the world was only what he could see his world had been rimmed with flesh, humps of melted bodies stacked upon each other in ugly colors of green and the rot of people. There, he stood, amidst bodies so combined that they were not bodies save for the sum idea of them, toppled over, felled across each other as at five feet above them lay bullet holes. When he realized what he saw, his breath returned but as did the bile in his stomach.

Out onto the floor his own gross body joined, and in his retching and acid he made noise, and those that chased him had heard and he had taken flight again across hallways and rooms in a smear of destination and travel filled with yelling and the horror that in each classroom, the faded designs meant for school children, had instead been drenched in blood and maggot kingdoms.

This was Freecastle.

This was where Seattle rose to war against Zeon when what was revealed within came out.

He had run through, door to door, room to room, silent and wild as he tried to evade the Reapers on his tale who looked out with blinding beams to reveal the desiccated corpse of the prison camp that Zeon had put there in Seattle for any and all and the innocent. He could hear them pile their rage again and know that it had been righteous and true, and they cursed him through those walls to come out. He did not answer as he found another classroom, another place, and as he had sprawled on the ground silently in a collapse, he looked up and saw that dark room with many red eyes looking down on him.

And in that place that Garma could only think of as the world of Christian Reckoning, the voices of judgement came out to him in more horrible sounds than he had ever heard save once in a nightmare that took him Beyond it all, that he could not hold within his active memory save he go insane. In digital voices the red eyes all surrounded him as he found his back against crucified and dried over and forgotten gore on that floor. They spoke like black moons from where they had been mounted on the walls.

"Marisa! Marisa!"

"John! John!"

"Kennedy! Kennedy!"

"Sarah! Sarah!"

"Layla! Layla!"

"David! David!"

"Where are you? Where are you?"

A hundred names spat out by those glowing red eyes: Haros, chained to the walls forever, speaking names lost. Around and around, the names of children never lived yell at him as blinking red eyes in the dark surround him. They spoke the names of the innocent children dead, and in that room rimmed with corpses Garma had seen their eyes look down upon them and he held his head and he screamed. He ran again, not from Reapers, but from that place as the sound of children followed him.

Distant gunfire within those halls.

A black world, unending, twisting, sprawling, in the image of something familiar to all but him; he: Prince of Zeon who led his war and dined in high halls and was fiancé to a woman of class.

What did they do, those monsters? What did they do?

On behalf of Zeon, on behalf of him, Zeon soldiers walked the Earth and held onto entire lives in the face of war, and in those halls, he had seen what he could've never if he hadn't been cast to death himself.

He saw the end of the war, the end of the world, and the end of everything in that place where Zeon officers treated Earthnoids as they felt how they treated Spacenoids and all of the horrible temptations thereof.

In his run, he trips over a a slump in the middle of the hall; a body that has melted into the floor. He feels something break in his right leg, the plastic shearing as he looks down and sees it bent at an unnatural angle.

He swears coarsely in a way he's never before done, only to see what he had tripped over and disturbed: a face, neither male nor female, mouth held open looking right at him. He tried to stand but his right leg would not allow it as he again toppled over into the side of the wall. He dragged himself along it forward, always forward, to try and get away from this place. He found another door instead and he had fallen into it. Another classroom. He couldn't hear gunfire anymore, but he had been so inside of his own head he could not discount them. Maybe they were right on his heels, but he could not do anything as he fell onto his stomach, and he tasted the rot inside of his mouth as his front again fell to the floor. When he looked up, a figure was sitting there, in the center of the room, surrounded by those hacked and butchered long ago.

There she had been in the center of the room with corpses stacked to its corner as if always orbiting her, and the floor had been dried and crossed with blood pools that had receded only leaving their shores. She was very frail, her hair thin, her face dry and leathery, cast down onto the floor. She was sitting, her arms hugging her legs. She did not look up from her tuck, her clothes plain and issued by Zeon, woven with numbers and insignia he knew by heart, instead branded onto her.

He knew, Garma just knew, that she had been there too like him: hiding from the world in a horrible place and if that was correct or if she had just been a manifestation of the panic in his mind as he felt the edges of death at his doorstep, it was real, all the same to him.

There she had been: a woman.

He wanted to help.

Crawling up to her, his hands had been at either side of his body and held down like in Islamic prayer, he could not hold his head up at her long, but with his panted breaths he spoke to her as loud as his sane mind could allow.

He told her everything: How he had come from space and what he had been responsible for. He had been to war and made mistakes and fallen in love and come out here to Seattle because of that love and found a woman in his fall who he would spend the rest of his life making right her situation. He wanted to tell her that there were better places to be, and he would take her there. He told her, at last, that his name was Garma Zabi, and that he had been sorry she was in that horrible hell at all and that at the very least he could- had to, save one. He wanted to save her.

She did not move.

"Hello?" He whispered, eyes widening to take in what little light remained there into himself. "Can you hear me?"

He crawled further until he had been in the distance to reach out and touch upon her arm. She was the temperature of the world, and beneath his fingertips, he knew that everyone here was the same.

She had been dead in that place ever since he had come to the Earth.

Garma walked like a man possessed. He had roughly fixed his leg by way of breaking it further than he supposed, but, after that, he had risen, and walked, shambling, not caring for the chase anymore. He walked through those halls slowly, for there could be no running for what had been done there and for all that he denied and did not know of Freecastle, he now had been exposed to its truth.

In that kernel he saw, deep at its very core, the idea that someone had to answer for it, and that person was him.

He shambled down those stairs until he had rounded the facility again, seeing bodies stacked and left in a place so horrible that even the Conclave, in its respectful mission to the dignity of Human life, could not come to that place at all. Many arms, many faces in the dark down to their skulls held forever frozen. Like the aftermath of the ground wars of Loum, and how he had seen with his eyes again and again the bodies of those under fire and in the crossfire. That had been the inevitability of war, but this had gone beyond any conception of Human concepts. His vomit remained at the corners of his mouth and the pain and exhaustion was lifted and replaced with that feeling he had only felt at the end of his life that had been denied him. A million hands were on his form, and they made every movement of his dragged down by a force stronger than Gravity, or rather, what they held onto was not his body, but rather, his soul.

Here, the innocent lay dead in his name. Truly innocent. For that many bodies treated like that, there could be nothing but innocent for its volume and condition because he had never heard of this.

If he didn't see Char Aznable sentence him to death, then, he realized now, he had been blind to so much else.

"You!" He heard a voice scream at him down the alleyway. Garma turned. The Reaper was panting, his white arm band blinding in the dark as he held a pistol on him. "You never should have come here!"

Garma blinks twice, and he feels nothing as he sees the bore of the gun pointed at him. "I know." Peering behind the gun however, the Reaper had been not as he last saw them. Something had gone terribly wrong in the present, as was why the man had been streaming down with blood so much that Garma had thought him an apparition of vengeance. But he wasn't that. He knew one. He slept with one.

The Reaper weakly held his gun but before he could do as he wanted two more eyes glowed in the dark behind him and breathing that could only be described as infernal in its huffs. Those eyes appeared behind the Reaper. These eyes did not speak. They roared, like a banshee. The Reaper had tried to turn, but instead they had only offered themselves into the dark as a great maw opened its mouth and seized their midsection, with great speed throwing the man to the wall in a crunch of bone and blood as he screamed.

What horrid reverie had taken Garma was shocked off as he looked and saw the man-eating beast that had eluded all but its victims. Before the Reaper could crumple to the ground the great beast that came from the dark was on him again, with claws, with its mouth, shredding flesh like clothing as the man kept screaming, his pistol firing wildly at nothing in particular in the struggle until all at once the beast clamped around his neck and tore out in a tear of meat and bone.

Ezekiel the Lion stares back from the dark at the prince of space, face bloodied with man, his head in their mouth.

The beast looks upon Garma, a piece of a man with it, its face poised like that as the apex predator it is, red dripping from its mane. Its fangs melt into the skull of a face held in perpetual torment, and all Garma can do is stand there, still, and realize that perhaps a Human killing him was a far more ideal fate. His eyes can hardly focus on anything else other than the panting of the beast, its nostrils flaring as it chews through the man's head crumpling and considers him.

His brooding, this insanity, could come later. A part of ancient instincts arises and Garma runs again, renewed. He barely makes it down the stairs again before he can hear the legendary roar of the king of African wilds.

Before Man was, there had been beasts of other natures that ruled, and would still rule, and take up the mantle of war. Garma Zabi is reminded of that as his right leg crunches with every false step. He follows the gradual pour of light to a hole in the wall, and he is out, out the other end of Freecastle to overcast skies and dead grass below. He can breathe again, but the great beast behind him is monstrous in its movements. All he can do is run forward: right into the high bars of the perimeter.

"Help! Anyone! Please!" He begs. "Save me!"

He cries out to Seattle, and, in reality, he screams out for one person alone.

Mai was not there.

In his volume he draws out Ezekiel from the building, the light unveiling a lion, not golden, but grey, and bloodied, liken an ashen ghost in the color of Seattle itself, paws, mouth, tooth, and eyes dripping with blood. It huffs like a great demon, and Garma turns, looking up at that impossible height; he had to climb at least a dozen feet.

In slow trod Ezekiel revealed itself to the dead light, and its head, covered by a great mane, dipped down, unused to the brightness. This was a beast that craved Human flesh, and, in that moment, emblazoned for what could possibly his last memory, he sees the lion and sees the desire of his death mirror so closely of the woman he wants to be there for him right now.

He does not want Zeon or its armies. He does not want Char or his Zaku. He does not want Icelina in that moment.

He wants Mai Gul.

The world was not made for him, however. He closed his eyes, steeled his heart again, and felt his chest goes through those same palpitations as when death came upon him the first time.

This world did not abide by his expectations.

Ezekiel roars, and he is answered.

The chatter of a submachine gun breaks over his head and he winces in the sharp pain, clasping his hands over his ears as he looks up: perched along the fence and the broad brick post of it, holding in one hand a Zeonic machine pistol, it is someone he had recognized from days before: The young man on a skateboard, who knew Mai's name, and she had looked of him fondly. He was wild in visage, with long black hair and a billowing army jacket that seemed to react with every burst of his submachine gun at Ezekiel. Around his arm had been a rope, thrown at Garma. "Fucking grab it dude!"

Garma does as he's told before his mind can focus, wrapping his hands tight around the thick rope as the young man sees that he has and drops down on the opposite side of the fence. Ezekiel, warded off, shrieking at gunfire that lands near or even upon it, sees an opening as the young man rips the rope back, and Garma for his part kicks himself up upon the fence climbing up as the boy pulls on the other end. When he has hand hold of the top, he lets go, only to pull with all his remaining strength up and over, flying a foot up, and then twelve feet down onto concrete as behind him metal and teeth gnash as Ezekiel tries to follow through the bars. The young man, back against the concrete as well, the rope going slack and having sent him there, is on his feet immediately screaming and yelling back at Ezekiel's roars. More effective is the way he dumps the stick magazine of his gun and slams in a new one, tucked between his pants and belt, riding the bolt home as he aims and lets loose a flurry into the chest of the beast. All Garma can do is hold his head as shell casings fall on him, burning, but the reminder that he lives for now. He shuts his eyes. He does not see the red splotches appear on Ezekiel, nor the beast in pained and horror filled roar try to swipe at the young man through the bars, only to turn away and dash back into Freecastle.

"Yeah, you better fucking run!" Win Nguyen yells out, his gun barrel smoking. Any joy or adulation in his voice settles in a self-satisfied chuckle as he looks down upon who he had just saved: a man, covered in bandages. A man he had seen before. Win would always run toward danger and save those he could because he was still, as far as he could know, a decent enough person. But he knew this man, who had curled upon himself in dead daylight and had looked to have been painted with dried blood. His danger high had wiped away in realization, blinked off as he looked down to a man shaking, his hands roaming over his own face as if unsure of its own shape.

He was more than scared. Win just knew. This man had been shocked down to his core. This man was Mai's Zeek, and any idea of any horrors he could impress upon him, it would've been far less than what had just happened to him.

Darkness emanated from Garma, and he had summoned it out through his throat in sputtering as he felt the hands of the young man who saved him take his shoulders and seize himself up to standing. Garma stood taller than him, but with the state of his right leg, not by much.

"You're the Captain's, aren't you?" In fear, adrenaline rushing, Garma knows who this man speaks of. But he cannot form words, dry, burning breath destroying his ability to speak as the young man holds him tight against his shoulder, supporting him, but making sure that the gun that had turned against Ezekiel was now in his gut.