&&&&&&&

Ja-len woke up sharply.

'Smelling salts.'

He shook his head as Yuri's beautiful face became clearer and clearer to his vision.

"You o.k?"

She smiled as she bent over him to check on his condition. He squinted, then opened his eyes again slowly as he realized that she now had her uniform on.

'Thank the gods. I don't know if I could have withstood the shock once again.'

"Ahh, I... think so."

She opened a water flask from his backpack and gave him a sip.

"Thanks."

"I should be thanking you. If you had gotten here two minutes later, well..."

Ja-len looked at her, waiting for her to finish the sentence. She blushed, standing up to give him a hand up.

"Never mind."

He marveled at her touch when her hand clasped his. She was quite a bit stronger than she looked. Not to mention...

'Easy now. Don't want any more smelling salts. Just take it slow and easy. Finish the mission. Finish the mission. Finish the mission.'

"Ready to go?"

"Yeah."

Kei had by this time cuffed Monsuud, leading the still groggy ex-ruler out into the hall. It was true Yuri weighed only one hundred and seven pounds, but she had a vicious left hook, which the prince found out about first-hand. He eventually came to his senses.

"What is the meaning of this!?"

"We're 3WA, and you're under arrest for a list of crimes too long for me to recite. You have the right to remain silent..."

Kei didn't like him at all, and wanted to give him her boot right then and there.

"Fool! Do you know to whom you are speaking?"

He turned and glared at Yuri.

"Yuri! You little bitch. I should have foreseen this. I will see all of you dead for this insult upon my person. You will feel the... unh..."

Kei gave him a kidney shot with the handgrip of her blaster.

"Shut up, you. You're in no position to make demands right now."

"This is torture! You are not allowed to harm me in any way! I shall see to it..."

Ja-len then turned and stuck the muzzle of his weapon right into the prince's mouth. Monsuud's eyes went wide with fear.

"I'll only say this once. I wouldn't mess with Kei, because you really don't know what torture is until you do, understand?"

The prince nodded meekly.

"Good. Now keep your mouth shut so we can get out of here."

They back-tracked through the debris-laden halls toward the Apache. Kei finally got through to Gustav, his gravelly voice crackling through the comm-unit.

"That's right. We have secured the opti-disc. Sirhaan is confirming its authenticity. Once the prince is secured on board the Apache, return to the palace to search for any non-combatants who may have been wounded or gone into hiding. Over."

"Copy that. Kei out."

"Gustav out."

They turned off the main hall to head down the corridor back to the observation deck of the northeast tower, where the Apache awaited. They were shocked when they turned a corner and ran into Nialunh, who had Kotori in tow. The girl still carried Mughi in her arms. When she saw Yuri, her face brightened and she called out to her.

"Kotori! Thank the gods you're all right."

Yuri was relieved. The girl started to run to her when Nialunh's hand grasped her by her shoulder. The girl turned and looked up at the woman, who had an odd, unreadable look upon her face. Yuri stepped forward.

"Nialunh. What are you doing?"

"My husband. Give him to me."

"I'm sorry, we can't do that. He is under arrest for multiple felonies and will be tried as soon as we get him back to..."

"You will not take him from me. Give me my husband!"

Nialunh produced a small caliber weapon from the sleeves of her gown and held it to Kotori's head.

"Forgive me, child. I never wanted any of this to happen."

The others gasped, and Yuri shrieked, but Monsuud chuckled in triumph.

"Excellent move, my dear. These fools know not who they deal with."

Yuri became desperate.

"Nialunh, you don't want to do this. Please."

Mughi hissed at her, but she remained undaunted, the weapon held up to the child's ear, shaking in her unsteady hand.

"You are correct, Yuri. I don't. But I have no choice in the matter. I only want my husband, and I swear to you I will release her unharmed. But I have resolved that if you do not give me what I want, I will kill her. I will accept whatever punishment for that act in this life or the next. My life has come to this. I need for all of you to place your weapons down and step away from them."

Ja-len stepped to the front, speaking.

"I'm afraid we can't help you. The 3WA doesn't bargain with hostage-takers. We won't..."

"Ja-len, please. You don't understand."

Yuri pleaded, the look on her face melting his heart.

"Yuri, we can't..."

Kei put her hand on Ja-len's shoulder. He turned to her and she nodded, placing her blaster on the ground. She had never met Kotori before, but the thought of witnessing a child's murder was too much for her to stomach. They would exchange prisoners, as it were, and then figure something out.

"It's o.k. She's a child. Subsection 20-A of Article 367 of the 3WA field manual lets us off the hook in this particular situation. Much as I hate to do this, we've got to let him go."

Ja-len nodded, then placed his Gattling and it's munitions pack on the ground. Kei un-cuffed the prince, and he walked triumphantly over to his wife, rubbing his wrists. The others stood silently, and, as soon as the prince reached her, she pushed Kotori toward them. The girl ran as fast as she could to Yuri, who hugged her and Mughi tightly. Monsuud turned to them and barked.

"And now, for your insolence against my royal person, you will all die, one by one. But you, Yuri, will witness all of your friends die before you, for what you have done..."

He paused because he felt her weapon right between his shoulder blades.

"What?! What is this madness?"

He turned to face her. Tears ran down Nialunh's cheeks as she spoke, looking directly into his eyes.

"My husband, my darling husband. Where have you gone? I searched and searched, but could not find you. This man, who is not you, has taken over your body and committed atrocities in your name. But I will not allow it to continue, my dearest. I will free you. I will free your soul from this madness..."

Monsuud realized too late the meaning of her words, and grabbed for her wrist just as she pulled the trigger. The first shot struck him in the stomach, doubling him over and sending him to his knees. The 3WA group watched in shock, Yuri grabbing Kotori and turning her back to the tragedy as she didn't want her to witness any more horror than she already had. The prince, gasping in pain, reached up with a blood-stained hand to grasp Nialunh's arm.

"But... why..?"

She shot him again.

As his body slumped to the floor, she knelt before him and cradled his head in her arms, still clutching the weapon. Kei made a move towards her, but Nialunh waved her back.

"My husband is free, now. He was not the evil, despicable man you think. Whatever crimes he committed, he did so not of his right mind. I shall follow him momentarily, for I do not wish for him to suffer his punishment alone..."

"No! Please don't."

Ja-len took a step forward.

"Stay back! I have kept my word. Now I ask you to honor my last request. Yuri. You were the catalyst that brought all of this upon us. For that I don't know whether to curse you or thank you. I ask but one promise of you.

"Yes?"

"That my children be granted asylum by the 3WA and allowed to grow up to become good citizens of the universe. They are young and do not understand the nature of the rise and fall of nations, nor the fortunes of war. Will you promise this to me?"

"Nialunh. Please. There must be another way..."

"There is no other way, Yuri. This is the path I have chosen, to stand by his side in life, and now in death. Again, I ask you, will you promise this to me?"

"Y... yes."

"I thank you, then, for the great kindness you have given me. This envelope..."

She tossed a small package toward them, which Ja-len picked up.

"...has the combinations to all of the safes in the palace. In each, you will find passwords to data and omni-bases throughout the realm. I believe that the information contained therein is what you will need to help rebuild this once great society. I am truly, deeply sorry that it has all come to this. May you all live long, prosperous lives."

Nialunh stroked Monsuud's hair with fingers stained with his own blood and kissed his forehead before speaking softly to him.

"Have no fear, my dearest. I am coming to be with you now."

She raised the weapon to her temple and squinted her eyes before pulling the trigger.

&&&&&&&

The 4th Assault fleet had arrived in full force, broadcasting to the defense forces the order to stand down. Upon seeing this development, Commander Hikaro also ordered all defense forces to surrender to the 3WA in order to prevent further needless loss of life. One by one, all military locations went to code zero, granting the 3WA access to all facilities. When the criminals were finally identified and brought to justice, there would be free elections once again, and the Savarian people would be left to determine their own destiny.

&&&&&&&

"That will be all for today. I'll see you tomorrow, same time, Kei. Bye, Keitaro."

"Thanks, Susan."

Susan, Keitaro's physical therapist, made a few notations in her hand-held notepad, then turned back to Kei.

"You're welcome. And he's coming along very nicely. I'll give the doctor my report right now."

Susan packed away her things and rose to head toward Dr. Sevahnn, who was at the far side of the pool, doing the male-bonding thing with Ja-Len and Gustav.

Keitaro, a bit sleepy after his water-therapy, snoozed happily on Kei's chest, his favorite spot in the whole world, as she floated peacefully across the Olympic-sized pool, from one end to the other, turning the floating lounge chair as she reached one end and kicked away toward the other. The 3WA training facility was enormous, serving many thousands of agents, and Basile had seen to it that Keitaro could have his therapy here, making one of the thirty pools in the facility semi-private, so she could be present. She ran her fingers through his hair with one hand and cradled him with the other as she beheld his sleeping face.

"You are my heart, Keitaro. I'll never let anything bad happen to you, not while I'm alive."

Her heart was at peace, for the first time in a long time. It was a strange feeling, one she still had some difficulty getting used to, having lived on the edge for so very long. It was liberating, life-enhancing, being with him, and she was thankful.

As her consciousness floated about on the bliss that was her life at that moment, she heard splashing and muffled voices from a short distance away. The guys were at the far end of the pool, where Gustav was showing off the diving form that had earned him a silver medal in the Amateur Olympics many moons ago. Ja-len was also a pretty good athlete, but Efren, who was never very athletic, came up time and again coughing and sputtering to guffaws of laughter. Kei chuckled to herself. Gustav laughing; could anything be stranger?

Well, yes. Although Sevahnn was pretty much the geek, he would keep trying. Kei had given him a reason to embrace physical culture as he realized he stood a much better chance with her if he had at least a modicum of fitness. Ja-len helped him out of the water just as Susan got there, and the doctor and the therapist discussed the boy's progress.

Kei smiled to herself. She had been totally clueless about him until Yuri filled her in. Strange, how that works, your best friend can see things clearly that you are oblivious to. She was so glad Yuri had warmed up to Ja-len. Kei had kept her promise, and put in the good word, and they had indeed become close. Yuri had later explained to her that while she could always attract guys, she had never attracted one who was willing to die for her, and he had proven his devotion on more than one occasion. That had made a big difference. Kei chuckled again at how the Yuri she once knew was almost gone. It absolutely stunned her that her partner now had a little "sister" she was responsible for. She really was maturing. They both were.

She thought of the doctor, and just then, he glanced over at her, waving. She waved back. Efren had eventually gotten up the courage to ask her to lunch (well, he had actually first asked Toma to find out if she would be open to the idea), and she found that she actually enjoyed herself in his company. Would anything come of it? She didn't know for sure. What she was absolutely certain of, however, was his honest concern for Keitaro's speedy and complete recovery, and that had at least allowed him a foot in the door to her heart.

She closed her eyes and hugged Keitaro even more tightly, inhaling his scent as he turned his head from one side to the other, still asleep. She didn't notice Yuri, who, upon coming out of the women's lockers with Kotori, had "shushed" the girl as the two of them crept up to edge of the pool near the redhead. Kei was startled at the sound of her voice.

"Well now, I can see what kind of man Keitaro's going to grow up to be, and it isn't gonna be a leg man!"

Before Kei could retort, Yuri yelled.

"Cannonball!"

Kotori followed suit.

"Cannonball!"

Kotori's wave was small compared to Yuri's, which doused both Kei and Keitaro, waking him. Keitaro, who loved water, immediately started laughing at the sensation of being splashed. Kei, however, wasn't amused.

"Yuri!"

She sputtered, wiping the water out of her face.

"You purple-headed punching bag! Just wait until I get my hands on you! And your little accomplice there... I won't forget..."

"Yuuwee."

"Wha..?"

Keitaro was mimicking Kei.

"Pwupoo head bunj baaaag."

"Oh no. You... you just forget that last part, Keitaro."

Kei blushed, and then glared at Yuri, who had come up for air, and was rocking the side of the floating lounge.

"See what you did? Teaching him bad habits at an early age."

"Me?" Yuri pouted with her most innocent face.

"I was just having some fun."

"Yeah? Well... go have fun with the guys. We want to be left alone right now, o.k?"

Yuri shook her head sadly and clucked her teeth.

"Poor mama Kei... old before her time."

Kotori copied Yuri, her infectious smile and bright eyes lighting up her face.

"Poor old mama Kei."

"Come on, Ko. Let's go make fun of those guys. When they come up after they dive, we'll yell out really low numbers."

"O.k. And we'll give them raspberries!"

"Now you're talking, sister. Bye, mama Kei."

"Bye bye, mama Kei."

"Good riddance."

Kei watched as the two swam off to get into more mischief. She thought once again about how her life had turned, and how she had come to rely more and more on the people in it, and how those people had become very dear to her. Yes, there would be more missions, more dangerous situations in the future, but those concerns, those bridges, well, she would burn them when she got to them. Preferably with an XE-2036 refracting wave cannon.

Today, however, was perfect.

Fin.

&&&&&&&

A/N: Thanks DPF fans, for reading what was my very first attempt at fanfiction, started so long ago. What a long, strange trip it's been...

W.