Ahoy-hoy, everybody! As you can plainly see, I am BACK on FF. And I have a nice, juicy, long-awaited chapter for you guys, and hope you aren't too miffed at me for disappearing for ages. I'd like to apologize for how long this took me to do, I have had other life things to deal with, like college, and honestly, Avatar the Last Airbender took up a good deal of my time for a while. I have to admit that part of the long wait was just procrastination and laziness, but also, I found writing this chapter to be a little rocky, as I have wanted it to come out perfect and believable. Not sure if it's perfect, but I think I managed to make it fairly believable. At least I hope. lol.

Overall I'm pleased with how it turned out and I'm excited to get to writing the next chapters. We're getting started, now! More details on my return and my intentions with my stories can be found in my updated profile page, so feel free to go have a look.

And a big THANK YOU to all who have continued to read and enjoy this story, I've gotten every review you've sent me, along with every fave/alert! You guys make this all worth the while. However, I'm not going to answer them here on the chapter pages anymore, since I know you guys came for the story, and have been waiting too long for it. So, here you go, Chapter 19 of Aftermath! I hope you enjoy it!

Disclaimer:: Oban Star Racers and all characters (c) Savin Yeatman-Eiffel and Sav! the World Productions


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-Chapter 19-

-Nervous Negotiations-

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"I have a proposition for you, Lao."

Aikka felt as if ice cold water had washed over him as he stood, frozen to the spot just outside the chamber from where Kross spoke. He resisted the urge to let a shiver take him, focusing all his being on hearing this out…figuring out what devious scheme Kross was concocting this time around.

"And what might that be?" Lao asked sternly, crossing his arms across a vast chest. Nori's gaze had never left the holographic Crog. Kross grinned momentarily before continuing; he relished being able to enjoy this new torment of the pitiful Noursaians.

"Tell me, Lao, which is of greater priority to you as a King, the lives of the many, or the life of one?" Kross asked the king with relish, watching as the King drew in a sharp breath, his eyes widening.

Nori's glare fell straight off of her face at this, only to be replaced by a look of horror. It wasn't hard to tell what Kross was hinting at, and she knew she would have none of it. Not while she was queen. Her glare returned, the beautiful but deadly glint back in her eyes, as she marched straight up to stand beside her husband.

"If you truly believe we will sacrifice our son, you are sorely mistaken, General." She spoke harshly at the device. Aikka felt his heartbeat rise, out of fear, fear of the consequences his mother was begging for in his honor. Never before had his mother spoken so out of turn. Save for when they had called him for a conference back on Oban, but then, that wasn't towards a Crog! Much less Kross!

"This is no proposition, it is exploitation!" Nori waved an angry hand in front of her, her motherly instincts taking over her.

"Nori, please," Lao murmured nervously as the Crog general cackled over static again. "Losing our tempers will not help us, or our son!"

Nori looked sideways at him, her look losing none of its unusual darkness. Turning her gaze back to Kross, who was waiting patiently, almost gleefully for the queen's priceless outburst to pass. Aikka held his breath. It was as if he were listening to his fate be decided, and even worse, it was torture hearing his mother do this…If Kross were there in person, that outburst would have likely been answered with violence…Something he hardly wanted to imagine.

"You never let me finish, dear queen! It's not your precious Prince I'm after at all!" Kross laughed condescendingly.

Lao and Nori both donned looks of confusion, while Aikka silently tread the floor, slowly and carefully seeking a gap in the curtains he could look through. He felt only a vague sense of relief of the fear of his own fate, while the feeling in his gut grew stronger still. At last, a single crystal eye peered through the tiniest vertical slit in the curtain, just in time to see the distant likeness of Kross narrowing his eyes.

"I will remove all my troops from your pathetic planet, your kingdom. I will leave you and your people free to go. We have gotten the use out of your resources, now all that is left is this old score to settle. On one condition will I lay this last odd between us to rest." Kross declared.

Lao shifted uncomfortably, Nori felt delicate fists clenching at her sides, and Aikka watched with increased apprehension, still denying himself the luxury of breath. He saw Kross tilt his head forward slightly in a menacing manner as he knew he held the royalty's complete attention.

"I know you are harboring her. I know she's in your little city, in your very palace. Her and her despicable little family." Kross hissed.

In that moment, everything seemed to stop for Aikka. He felt his eyes widen, and had to clamp a hand over his mouth to keep himself from making a sound. It wasn't him they were asking to be sacrificed at all. It was Eva. His Eva.

"Now, Lao, I'll ask you again; which is more important to you, the lives of your people, or the one life of this miserable human?" Lao once more hesitated to answer, while Nori pieced together the information in her shock.

"What are you getting at, Kross?" Lao said with a dry throat, almost afraid to actually answer such a damning question.

"Just this, Lao." Kross said icily, not lamenting over the question being ignored. "I will remove all of my influence, as I said. The condition is, you give me the girl. The winner of Oban. And, as an added bonus, for your queen's little rebellious attitude, I would like someone very specific to personally deliver her to me."

Aikka felt his hands go clammy, the one covering his mouth falling away slightly from his face. He saw his mother's stance shift at the mention of her, but he also noticed the woman's fist clenching tighter around a clump of her elegant skirt. She seemed to know just as he did where this was going.

"Your son, Prince Aikka, will hand the girl over to me, if he knows what is good for his kingdom." Kross said, narrowing his one yellow eye even further. "I'm sure you have been wondering where Aikka's true alleigence lies, in his kingdom, or in this love affair, correct, Lao?"

"And should we refuse to give up the girl?" Lao suggested, trying to hide the slight shake in his voice. Kross would have smirked if he had the facilities. The King had played perfectly into his design.

"Should you refuse, I also have my troops set. Not only around your planet," Aikka saw the hologram of Kross change to that of an orb, Nourasia. Around the orb, there were several triangle indicators. Many, by the looks of it. Another Orb appeared next to that, a bit larger, and with more triangles surrounding it. "But around the girl's, as well. Should you refuse, it would be the end of your people, and hers. My troops are poised to attack all of your cities, and many of Earth's, on my word. It would be the beginning of the end for both of these planets if you find the impudence to refuse."

Aikka fell back a few steps, the image of what turned out to be two planets at Kross's mercy burned into his vision. Setting a hand on the throne chair near him, both to keep his wavering balance and assure himself that he was still there, still conscious, that he wasn't in some sort of sick dream. Spirits, how he wished he were dreaming. How he wished that he'd suddenly wake up in a cold sweat, Eva still clinging to him in their secret place above the city, and that this whole, stupid proposition were some horrid nightmare.

The prince buried his face in shaking hands. It had so suddenly come down to this wretched choice, and not for the first time; him choosing between his people, or his love. Again, he was being asked, if not forced, to betray her. The thought of letting his people down, letting them fall to the Crog's enslavement, if not total annihilation, was too much, too painful to bear.

But no. There was no way he'd do this. Never again, not to her. Nor to anyone, for that matter. He'd already betrayed her friendship during the races, and her life wasn't totally in danger by him doing so back then either. If he did what Kross ordered… If he was to be the one to send her off to her death, or who knew what Kross had in store….Even if Kross kept his word and never touched Nourasia again, he'd never be able to live with himself. Thinking of betraying her left him with an emotion so painful it gripped him in a physical pain. It was simply unthinkable.

"If Aikka does not show up, with the girl, in that primitive racing arena of yours by the time the Star rises, I will give word to my troops, and you'll not only be responsible for the terror unleashed on your people, but on Earth's as well." Kross continued from within, while Aikka tried pulling himself back together. "And that's not something you want on your conscience as you're waiting on death's doorstep," Kross grinned evilly at the king and queen, who seemed just as shocked and appalled by Kross's deal. Before anyone could object to his terms, Kross was gone in a hiss of static.

Aikka stole another peek through the curtain, watching his parents stand silent. It seemed an eternity, before either of them moved out of their shocked stances. His father was the first to move, turning towards the curtain where Aikka himself was standing. About to flee, before his father would discover him, Aikka was relieved as his mother spoke up, causing his father to turn back around.

"Lao, what are you going to do?" She implored him, sounding exhausted.

"I'm going to call for Aikka. We must discuss this." Nori stepped up to him.

"You cannot possibly think that Aikka would go along with this! That girl, that innocent girl, is his friend, he cares deeply for her! How can we expect that he'd toss her away so willingly!?" Nori asked indignantly.

"Be that as it may, our people…The girl's people, are in danger! I don't know what we can do to stop this!" Lao retorted. Nori frowned.

"So you will sacrifice this girl. Eva is a wonderful girl, and she makes Aikka happier than I've ever seen! The spirits were smiling on him when they guided them together. Even if you want to give her up to those disgusting creatures, Aikka will not allow it. And you cannot force the guilt of such a thing on him!" Aikka found breath difficult to come by as he watched his mother plead for him, but he felt his heart skip a beat under his shirt as his father raised his voice slightly.

"I do not want any of this, Nori! I don't want Aikka to be forced into such a harsh decision! I don't want that girl to pay for our freedom, and I don't want anyone to be attacked! But as it is, I'm king, and I have to make these hard decisions. And Aikka is a part of this, and he must be told, one way or the other." He sighed as his voice came down again. "I simply do not know what to do." He finally admitted, his shoulders sinking. Aikka's gaze fell to the floor.

Silence reigned again as Nori's shoulders sank. It was a somber assessment, but nor did she have any idea of what could be done. That, and the amount of time they'd been given to consider things, was extremely harsh and terrible for the queen to accept. Her husband was right, he was the king, and had this decision, and because of the bloodline, that weight also fell to Aikka. More so because of the emotional attachment he felt with the girl, which Nori was not afraid to acknowledge.

By the time dawn would come in just a matter of a couple of hours, her son would know. Her son would be devastated. She knew he'd hate this; he'd hate everything about it, as she did.

What she didn't know, was that her son was running down the throne room on the opposite side of the curtain. Not making a sound with his Nourasian agility until he met the lavish crimson curtain and tossed it violently aside, running down the hallway past an occasional confused maid or palace care-taker.

It was like experiencing Oban all over again, this hurt, this confusion, this choice looming over him like an axe ready to sever him in two if he so much as moved wrong. The assignment. The Crogs. The girl, the Earth Princess's welfare hanging in the balance.

He was just as confused now as he was then, with the same things at stake on either side of the bargain. His love, his friend. Two entire races of people.

He didn't know what to do either. But one thing was going to be different about this occasion.

He wasn't going to hide it from Eva as he did last time. And he wasn't about to let his father decide that for him. He didn't know what could be done to stop this horrible plan of Kross's, but he would decide with his princess. Eva would not be left in the dark this time.

---

"They want…me…" Eva felt herself slump against the balcony railing, her eyes fixated on the stone floor. This is what Jordan, her over protective partner, wanted her to do? How could going with them solve anything? How on Earth could she play along to that?

"Molly, I ran here as fast as I could, we only have until daylight to figure out what we must do," Aikka told her, stepping closer to her. "The only problem is, I don't know how to escape this. Both of our planets' fates are at stake here…But I could never give you to them." He told her with gleaming blue eyes, his spirit near broken and his heart confused.

Eva stayed quiet for just a few moments, mind racing, trying to figure out what Jordan had in store ahead of time. How this could possibly work.

"Eva?" Aikka asked, nervous at her silence.

"Let's do it." Eva murmured, causing Aikka's eyes to widen.

"No, I can't let you give yourself to them!" he immediately countered. Eva, however, turned one of her famous, confident grins at him.

"Aikka, this is what I have to do. Jordan visited me tonight," Aikka's expression immediately changed from pleading to wonderment as she continued. "He was vague, as I'm beginning to think most avatars are, but he told me this;"

"I'm listening," Aikka said cautiously.

"He's getting help, but he needs more time. We have to buy him some. We have to play along." Eva pushed herself off of her perch, trying to convince herself that she was confident about this plan. Right now her complete trust was in Jordan's hands. Aikka was instantly stunned.

"Play along? How can we do that, this isn't a game!" Aikka retorted worriedly.

"I'm not completely sure either, Aikka, and frankly, I'm scared myself," Eva admitted, rubbing her arms from a chill that wasn't there. "But Jordan told me to do this, and he said I'd figure it out when I needed to."

Aikka still looked unsure, as he glanced upwards at the reddish glow that was fading from the night sky. It would be dawn in only a couple of hours. They needed a plan and this one was the only one. And despite his pride, Aikka admitted that the human gunner turned divine entity did have Eva's best interests at heart. How could he not, after all, the young man had only fallen in love with her the way he himself had. Still, the thought of Eva walking off with the Crogs, be it to play along or not…Was as unpleasant as it gets.

"Alright." Aikka agreed with a sigh. "But we're running out of time…I think we should go talk to my mother and father…" Eva nodded in agreement. Taking his hand, she led him back into the palace while Satis followed them both inside.

"Don't worry, I promise I won't bite off more than I can chew," Eva told him, knowing almost exactly what he was so apprehensive about. Aikka stared at her with this affirmation, but still…

The foreboding feeling in his core remained.

---

If Aikka had been reluctant about Eva's idea, the king and queen were nearly double. It was hard to imagine someone being more fearful than Aikka was now, but it was also true that they had not seen Eva's true and surprising potential, the now-Avatar's deep love and protection of the girl, and not to mention, they were also worn from Kross's 'visit,' the carriers of pressure of not one, but two planets' welfare.

It was no wonder they needed some coaxing into the idea of meeting Kross head on, as Eva had put it in a stirring presentation of Jordan's plan. If this was the wrong move…They were balancing on the edge of a knife; one wrong step and they would fall, and two planets with them.

By the end of the talk they had been educated on her true relationship to the one and only Avatar, and her visit with him. Eva thanked the difference in culture for them being so understanding, thinking that she'd be considered absolutely out of her mind if she'd presented this idea, her story of meeting the Avatar, to any less spiritual creature. The meeting days previous with the President was proof enough of that.

By the end of the talk, Eva felt pumped with adrenaline, the thought of beating Kross leaving her crimson eyes intense with purpose as she stared at the king and queen, while they deliberated without words. She was suddenly confident, and in an odd way, thrilled, though at the same time, terrified beyond reason. The silence in the room as she stood rigid, Aikka at her side, hummed loudly in her ears after she finished speaking.

It would be alright, Jordan would not let them down. Much less lead her into an inescapably dangerous situation. Jordan would come, he would bring help. She would know what to do.

She would know what to do.

She kept repeating these words in her frantic mind, and somehow hoping that they would receive the encouragement through some sort of telekinesis that she wasn't even sure the Nourasians could use…much less when speaking with a human.

Aikka shifted after moments that seemed like hours. He could sense daylight drawing nearer. They needed his mother and father's agreement for this to go through…Though he somehow doubted that disapproval would stop the rebellious girl next to him from keeping her word to Jordan. He nearly laughed at the thought of something as trivial as words stopping her. It was, in a word, preposterous. He knew her far too well. Yet still, she stood, silent under the scrutinizing eyes of his father waiting, just waiting for approval.

"Aikka," His father finally sounded in an exhausted but obligatorily strong voice, meanwhile Aikka snapped to attention. Blue eyes met the focused grey of Lao's gaze expectantly. "You know where Kross has ordered his meeting with you?"

"Yes," Aikka nodded quickly. Eva transferred her gaze from Nori and Lao to their son, turning her head just barely enough to put him in her peripheral vision.

Lao met Aikka's word with a slight hesitation. Looking towards Nori, her intense blue eyes focused and confident, he silently weighed the options one last time. Nori tilted her head forward just slightly, not taking her eyes from his.

"You shall take Lady Eva there at dawn. Negotiate with them…as you may," He let the last bit out as a hesitant grunt, and he then grew silent in the rather confusing situation. "Protect her as long as you can, and hope to the spirits that the Avatar pulls through."

"By any means necessary." Aikka needed little incentive to agree. Nori now stepped forward.

"Lady Eva," Eva's eyes snapped from their dumbfounded stare at the king onto the queen. "You have our blessing, and our planet's thanks for your efforts. You have done so much for us and our son already without asking anything in return," She smiled appreciatively. Eva was reminded of her own mother, staring into those warm eyes, that kind smile. Nori then bowed. "My prayers are with you, my son, and the Avatar. There may be hope for our cause yet," She said serenely as Eva flushed once more from the humbling sight of the queen bowing again to her.

"It's my honor," Eva bowed in return, "I hope you don't mind me saying, that this planet…It's like a second home to me," Eva confessed quietly, her eyes slightly misty. Nori's smile only deepened, her crystal eyes sparkling in the torch-light. Eva smiled back, still flushed with color.

Aikka smiled, and respectfully dismissed himself and Eva in the tension that suddenly surrounded the approaching day. It left them both with a deep pit of tension, excitement, adrenaline, and fear in the deepest part of themselves. And Aikka was amazed to begin with that his parents had been so compliant, even after learning of his eavesdropping. But the fact was, this was happening, and now it was time to look forward, and already the gears were turning in his head.

There wasn't much they'd be able to do in the event that this plan completely fell through, protecting Eva in that scenario would only be prolonging the inevitable since the planets would fall not long after failure. But he refused to believe that Jordan would let it go that far, especially with Eva's life in the balance.

What could be done, however, was a little insurance. Jordan was coming, that he knew in his heart, he put all his faith in it. But who was to stop Kross and his ranks from taking a cheap shot at Eva in the meantime? Jordan would stop the downfall of the planets…Simply because of the sheer amount of imbalance the Crogs had been creating and were still planning to create.

But the individual life of Eva, that was in Aikka's hands, and he knew it. As a ruler-to-be, he knew the rules. Special treatment of an individual was unlikely to be something promoted by the Creators, that's why Jordan was not considered Earth's personal bodyguard, hard to understand as that may have been for President McMillan…

So through the halls, he quietly laid out his plans to Eva as they walked, straight down towards the guest hall where the early risers of her little misfit family were likely to already be getting up.

Eva felt confident with his plan, involving the participation of the Nourasian Knights and Janni. What she wasn't convinced about was the fact that she had to tell her father about this. He wasn't going to be happy with her exposing herself to such dire situations…He hated that she still raced in the simplistic races back on Earth!

Nonetheless, she met the situation with determination as she often did when Aikka went to separate and rally the forces. Knocking on the door before entering, she sought reinforcements from Janni.

"Where have you been all night?! I've been up for half an hour, I was about to come looking for you!" Janni raved protectively instead of greeting Eva. The racer, however managed to calm her friend down as she dragged her out of the room…Only before putting her back into apprehension when Eva explained the situation to her.

"Aikka's off getting the knights together, he's doing everything in his power to make this work without back-firing," Eva explained in a hurried whisper to her friend in the hallway. With a sigh, she concluded her story. "Now all I have to do is tell my father. Easier said than done."

"Oh, really, like he's going to stop you, Eva." Janni hissed, rolling her eyes. "Come on, let's get this over with." With that she dragged Eva and presented her to the vertical plane that was her father's suddenly intimidating door.

She rehearsed her lines in her head as she knocked, glad to hear some activity inside. The door opened, and a groggy Don Wei met her gaze.

"Eva? What are you doing up this early?" He then remembered the happenings of the previous night and his expression turned cautious. "What happened last night, is everything ok? If that prince has hurt you anymore…"

"It's all been taken care of, dad, its fine," Eva somehow managed to fend off the blush that came from the memories of her and Aikka's activities the previous night. She immediately looked up at her father, crimson eyes intense as she met with his obsidian eyes that she knew were about to be wrought with worry.

"Listen, dad…There's something happening…Something I need to do. I know you're going to freak out, say I shouldn't do it…But I have to. Earth and Nourasia are both depending on it." Eva explained quickly. Don's look immediately changed, his rough look from just waking up was replaced with suspicion.

"This has to do with the Crogs? What's going on, Eva?" His voice gradually went from bewilderment to an almost scolding tone, as if Eva had been lying or keeping something from him. Eva shook her head, involuntarily.

"I'm…Helping Jordan out with something. He needs my help to end this war. Aikka and Janni and the knights are going to help, but dad," She looked at him pleadingly now. "You have to promise to stay away from this. This is something I need to do. Jordan's counting on me, and I can't let him down or we're all in deep trouble!"

Don looked, wide-eyed, at his daughter. She gazed back at him, urging him wordlessly to understand. He could not get involved, could not follow. He could not keep her from doing this.

"Eva, what's going on?" He asked darkly.

"It's like when Canaletto destroyed Oban and it was up to me, Aikka and Jordan to make things right. We're all so close to destruction and there's only one way out." Eva explained, not bringing herself to tell him the real answer that involved her somehow playing into the Crogs' plans.

"I need to do this, dad. All I need you to do is let me do it, and put your trust in Jordan." Eva said before flinging her arms around his waist. "And I promise I'll come back. Just like I did last time." She said quietly, tears starting to form in her eyes from the fear, the guilt of leaving him there in the dark.

She didn't give him a word to say otherwise before abruptly letting go and turning on her heel, running down the hall with Janni in tow. Don started after, in a confused daze, but a strong hand on his shoulder kept him where he was. Turning, he saw Rick's face, shaking from side to side.

"You're lucky he's used to you saving the world." Janni said as they ran, trying to lighten the mood. "You should have seen my parent's faces when Jordan said he wanted to join the army when he was seven!"

Eva laughed darkly, wiping remaining tears from her eyes. Glances out the window showed a deep violet sky; the deep blue hues of night beginning to turn to the red of the day. It was nearly time. Her heart leapt out of her chest.

The girls were met in the stables by a considerable collection of Nourasian knights, Takai and Aikka standing at the front as they came in. Their expressions looked dark; the Crogs must have already settled into their meeting point.

"Everything is under way," Aikka said mutedly to the both of them as Takai gave orders to some of the knights, watching them all sprint off and out the bridge doorway and disappearing without sound. "Those knights are going to surround the area, hide out on the cliffs. The Crogs will not know of their presence, and if they try anything…"

"They won't know what hit them," Janni grinned approvingly, "I like this." Aikka nodded.

"Takai and Janni, you two will flank those doors," He pointed at the doorway leading to the racing canyons, to the Crogs, "You will do the same and keep a close eye on the situation from above. Janni, your aim with that is good enough to shoot down there without risk of hitting Eva or myself, right?" Aikka asked apprehensively.

"Aikka, don't you know anything about me?" Janni griped, patting her gun confidently. "My gunning wasn't top of the class for nothing."

"Good. Keep it focused on Kross." Aikka grinned. "And if anything does happen…I'm leading Eva back up here. You two will cover us and get us through."

Takai nodded, and took Janni aside so they could both prepare. That left Aikka and Eva alone. Eva strode over to the door, stopping just beyond the point where she'd be seen by the Crogs below. She rubbed at her arms, the feeling of anticipation, the nervousness, making her feel like she was on pins and needles. Aikka walked quietly up to stand next to her, for a second just taking her in once more.

"It…feels like I'm on Oban again. This is the same way I felt before the races." Eva whispered to her companion. "Like I'm afraid…Terrified…But there's no way I'm not doing it." Aikka set a hand on the small of her back.

"I don't like it either..." He smiled at her, hoping it was encouraging. "But I'm not abandoning you this time."

Eva looked back up at him, Crimson eyes suddenly glittering as the sun finally made its appearance through the wide race doorway.

"I know." Eva said softly. Aikka leaned his forehead against hers for a brief moment, before it was finally time. Takai and Janni sidled up in the shadows on either side of the door, keeping themselves well out of sight from below. Janni cued Takai, and Takai nodded to Aikka.

The prince, setting one hand on his sword hilt, the other into Eva's nearly trembling hand, began to walk forward as more star light filtered into the stable. They emerged into the full light, nearly shielding their eyes from the bright red around them. Below, at the bottom of the canyon, on the other side of the sloping stands…Was Kross. Flanked by three other Crogs and two tridents parked on the stone ground.

Eva had a difficult time of deciding whether to watch Kross or her own unsteady steps down the slope from the stables to the canyon floor. At least Aikka was there to catch her if she fell…He guided her protectively out across the plane surrounded by cliffs, their sandals both scratching on the stone below them as they walked. The Crogs loomed larger and larger the closer they got. Kross began snickering as Aikka stopped them both about fifty feet in front of Kross. Aikka's hand instinctively closed tighter around Eva's hand.

It was now when Eva started looking for her signs. The signs that would show her what to do.

"Well, well. Aikka, how surprising yet delightful to see you here!" His eye narrowed amusedly at the sight. "How wonderful to know that your parents can still talk sense into you."

Aikka merely glared, saying nothing to tempt attack. He instantly felt that ache back in his stomach; and though he was getting used to it, it didn't make him feel any better. He felt Eva's hand go slightly clammy against his own.

The girl, meanwhile, looked downcast, in part playing the role of the betrayed human, and part in waiting for inspiration to hit. She felt Kross's eye then focus on her, and she finally paid the creature a look, her eyes flashing momentarily to the red gleam of starlight on his robotic arm.

"And you, human, you must be so devastated!" Kross cackled at her. "Betrayed by your beloved Nourasian after all! How pitiful."

"You wish," Eva scoffed back. "I came here completely on my own. It'd be an honor to get you away from Earth and Nourasia."

At this, Kross simply glared at her. The girl inwardly smirked at the fact that her remark seemed to bother Kross, made him think that his little mind game of breaking her spirit and her faith in Aikka was unsuccessful. Which of course meant that so far, the General was buying their con. It was at this moment she was struck with the observation on how easy it was to spur Kross's anger, how simple it would be to light his short fuse. The Crog, in turn reacted instinctually and quickly, taking a step forward at her words. The alien rose readily and easily to challenge.

"Mind your tongue, Human. Your insolence will not save you here as it did in the final race!" Aikka took a ghost of a step closer to her at this point, feeling the conversation was going too fast in the wrong direction. For Eva, however, something in Kross's words clicked.

"Just remember that Kross is still sore over the outcome of Oban."

Oban. Of course. Her eyes then shifted to the Crog's threatening mechanic arm, his prize of the race. The race was Kross's strongest point of anger, what he was most vengeful about, the whole reason she was at this meeting in the racing arena of Nourasia. And Jordan, it seemed, wanted her focusing on it, with that one hint he gave her.

"You are in no position to escape me this time, Human. I have you now, and I won't hesitate to extract my vengeance!" Kross continued, bringing Eva out of her sudden lapse of realization.

Aikka had responded to Kross's words with another inch closer to Eva, this time letting a small growl escape him. Kross nearly glared at him, before Eva drew his attention. Stepping forward and past Aikka's protective shoulder and astounded gaze, she wore a little grin. Had Aikka been able to see that grin, he'd know that it was one of her grins of competition. Of a challenge.

"If the race is all you're still chasing me for, then why don't we settle this correctly?" Eva challenged the Crog, putting all her courage into her words. No matter what Jordan had said to assure her, she still needed everything she had to put herself on the line like this, as Kross's eye glinted over her. She couldn't show any fear, yet her heart was pounding so hard, she wouldn't have been surprised if Aikka or the Crogs had heard it. "If you want to prove which one of us is the best racer, why don't you just do it?"

Aikka gasped behind her, realizing where she was taking this negotiation. But in the name of the Moon spirits, why was she doing it? This was Jordan's brilliant plan?

Kross, with his eye blazing in anger, took a looming step forward. "Just what are you insinuating, human?" He growled as his good fist clenched at her outburst. Eva set her own fists on her hips, gaining a little more confidence; Kross was reacting beautifully to her improvised plan.

"What do you think I'm insinuating? If you're really the greatest pilot in this galaxy, if my victory was just a fluke, why don't you just prove it? It certainly still bothers you enough to start another war against us," Eva goaded the enormous Crog, raising more tension in the Nourasian behind her. "Why not take back the victory you so deserve?"

"Why would I waste my time with that, when I could easily end you right where you stand?" Kross growled, advancing yet again, sinking Eva in shadows and sending a chill up her back.

Perhaps it was instinct, but Aikka too advanced, evening up with Eva, his hand tighter than ever around the hilt of his blade. He glared up at Kross with almost enough fury to rival the Crog's.

"Molly, what are you doing?" the Nourasian muttered under his breath at the girl, never taking his eyes off of Kross.

It was at this point that Kross noticed the blue glare, the Nourasian's rising tension of the situation that was quickly evading his control. The General inwardly grinned; it seemed this situation was taking an interesting turn in terms of his torturing of Aikka…Eva, meanwhile, pressed on, treading carefully, knowing this was the path Jordan wanted for her, knowing that this was going to plan. It had to have been. And while she knew Aikka had just spoken to her, she knew it had to be done. This was their only chance.

"I've got a ship, and we've got a racing course. You can have your pay-back from me, but why not do it on the racetrack?" Eva dared the Crog, knowing the next step in the baiting process would put her on thin ice. "Unless you're too much of a coward to show who's the rightful winner of Oban, once and for all!"

"You will die where you stand!" Was Kross's response as he loomed further over her, taking yet another step into the argument, his mechanical arm twisting and clinking into a fist. Eva took a frightened step back, but clung hopelessly to her faith in her Partner and his word. Unheard to them was Janni in the stable door behind them, leaning into her aim with a cock of her gun, the stretching of straining bowstrings as the Nourasian knights surrounding them became on edge.

All but Kross was lost to Eva, until Aikka quickly lept in the small space remaining between Crog and Human, sword partially drawn, hate etched into his tan features and blue eyes. "You will not touch her," was his guttural snarl, again an act of instinctual protection of his beloved. Kross took note of the young man's reaction and proceeding range of emotion as Eva spoke again, barreling on with her plan.

"If it's a race this war is about, then a race should finish it Kross! Don't tell me you're afraid to battle me for a prize again!" Eva regained her near-control over the situation, drawing Aikka slightly out of his position between her and the enemy with a glance towards her, full of apprehension that Kross could too easily sense. The Crog's expression turned heinously entertained for a moment.

"Battle you for a prize? And without the Ultimate Prize, what do you have to offer me in this contest?" Kross pointed out with a dark laugh. "What incentive do I have to agree to my prisoner's terms?"

Eva shrugged, "Like I said, you get to prove what a fantastic racer you are, that you should have been the one to win Oban rightfully…" Eva was careful to lace her words with just enough sarcasm to keep Kross hooked by a challenge to his ego without letting too much get her into serious trouble. Her eyes then focused directly at his as her voice grew serious. "And everything stays the same. You get me, and all the revenge you could possibly get your fill of, and leave our planets alone. But you also get your honor as a great racer back, you show the galaxy what General Kross is really made of, and I concede my honorary title as the winner of Oban."

Aikka felt his stomach twist as she offered herself up, but the pause from Kross, almost made it feel as though he was contemplating the offer. Aikka knew that the Crogs prided themselves in their own, twisted sense of honor, but could Eva really be playing to that sense? It was obvious that she was using his temper to her advantage, but challenging him to a race and raising the stakes...questioning his abilities to claim even a false victory was almost a sure way to get Kross to respond. The Crog's eye was still pressed into a slit that glared high above Aikka and Eva, but somehow, something seemed to be clicking. Was Jordan's premonition really coming to realization? Kross's gaze glanced slightly at the Nourasian once more, and Aikka felt as if he was being measured; he felt a sudden and burning evil in Kross's eyes as he looked him over, reading into the Nourasian's tension. It was if his surveying gaze was able to see straight through to his turning stomach, his flustered and anxious soul.

"You get your revenge twice, and all it takes is a race. You and me, no rules, anything goes." Eva continued baiting Kross. "I have no where else to run, with your troops everywhere. You have nothing to lose," Eva drew up her courage again; this would make or break the deal. "Anyone could see that you could easily kill me here, but unless you're afraid to race a pathetic human, you'll always be only second best from the Race of Oban."

A great rumble of a growl emitted Kross. Aikka's eyes went from Kross to Eva, finding her red gaze perfectly solid. If she was afraid, it was not visible on her face.

"Me, afraid to race a pathetic human?" Kross spat, building himself up as the towering creature he was. "It seems you do not yet know your place, 'princess!'"

Far behind them, Janni and Takai felt their own breath restricting, just waiting for a fist to fly. The gunner kept a steady hold on her weapon, keeping it trained directly at Kross. Takai also kept his weapon ready, lean muscles still holding the end of his arrow tense on the string.

Eva could feel more and more warmth on her from the rising star, and she prayed that it lend her strength as Kross loomed over her and on his final decision. She could almost see the gears in his head turning over her challenge.

"End it, then. Teach me my place." Eva goaded, her own eyes narrowing with a competitive edge. "And take me as your prize, not just some bargaining tool. I may be ready to give myself for the sake of my friends, but I'm still not going down without a fight. Wouldn't you rather toy with your prey before you eat it?"

Kross's eye gave a flash, his broad shoulders and chest going momentarily stiff; a sure sign of consideration. Eva held tight to the edge she'd found, glaring him down, challenging him further, wordlessly. She felt the heat of the Nourasian star growing slightly hotter on her face as it rose steadily up the sky. Everything was getting brighter in the stadium, and she took it carefully as a good omen.

Suddenly, Kross's great arms—including the prosthetic, loaded one—found their ways back to his sides as he pushed his chest out.

"Very well, Human." Even his fellow Crogs were stunned at the words from their General, who was now glaring, almost smiling, at the human girl. "Let it not be said of the Crogs that we cannot negotiate a deal. If torture is what you want, then I will only be happy to give it to you." He gave a look towards his Trident and his underlings, who snapped out of confusion and into attention under his scrutiny.

"Dawn tomorrow. You be here with your useless racer so I can enjoy myself scrapping it." Kross ordered, as the other Crogs lumbered to the Trident, preparing it on some unspoken order. "You run, you die, and the rest of both your people with you." He gave Aikka and Eva one final warning before giving a deep, dark chuckle that still chilled Aikka to his bones.

With that, he finally retreated to his ship as well, leaving the two smaller beings with their hearts hammering. It wasn't until the Trident twisted with a devious hum into the sky and off to the Crog outpost, that either one of them dared to move. Aikka's thoughts were firing off in so many different directions at the development, but Eva was the first to actually say a word.

"I…I did it…" She wheezed, her eyes widening as she stared at the sky where the Trident was last seen. "I can't believe it. I actually talked down a Crog!" Her hands we slightly shaky as she looked at them, hardly daring to think that it wasn't a dream.

With that, she clasped them, and gave almost a little hop. Aikka finally pried his hand of the hilt of his sword, the blade sliding back into place in its sheath…but the prince was far from relieved.

"Molly, are you sure this was the best course of action?" She gave him an odd look.

"Aikka, this is what Jordan told me! He was vague, but everything did make sense, just like he said…" She articulated with a few waves of her hands, before sighing and dropping them to her sides. "Everything came through. We have Kross on our watch, now. Jordan's a genius." She looked relieved almost to the point of being elated.

Aikka's face soured, possibly over the entire situation, possibly with a tinge of jealousy for the regard of the Avatar. Shaking his head of such thoughts, he meant to further engage her on the subject, but they were suddenly being joined by Janni and not far behind, Takai.

"Did I seriously just see what I thought I saw?!" Janni mused, a huge, signature grin on her face. "Way to go, girl, you scared away a Crog!!" She quickly overtook her charge in a gripping hug.

"Something tells me it isn't quite over," Takai put in calmly, looking meaningfully at Eva and then Aikka, whose gaze fell away, troubled.

"No, it isn't over yet," Eva confirmed over her smile. "We should take this back inside where we can talk freely…" Though not visible anymore, the red glow just beyond the planet's atmosphere was acknowledged by the group as they nodded and headed for the stairway.

Aikka was the only one who lingered, if but for a moment. He gave a quick once-over to the stadium, the starting arena for every race he'd ever won on the planet, every one he'd ever lost. He briefly saw the arena on Alwas, the race between himself and Eva…The race between himself and Toros…Toros and Eva.

The disaster that could ensue in a no holds barred race in this very track, a track as dangerous as it was unique. Disaster.

The word, the emotion, rang in his chest as he forced himself after his friends. The love of his life, and Nourasia's greatest enemy, locked in a battle on a track that was brutal to newcomers, let alone ones of another species…

How had it come to this?

----

"You want to what?!" Stan's voice was sharp, the toothpick between his teeth going slack, almost to the point of falling out.

"Fix up the racer? To race Kross?!" Koji piped in, his voice a little more tremulous than his partner's. Eva groaned in dismay.

"Guys, I know this is insane, but we only have one day, and she's still pretty beat up after all the commotion the other day!" Eva pleaded, Janni flanking her. Eva clasped her hands together in a begging motion and looked at her mechanic friends desperately. "Please, you guys, I need your help with this. I promise on Jordan's word that I know what I'm doing." The boys could have sworn that she somehow added some of that innocent shine that brought the image of a puppy to their minds.

"We've heard that one before…" Stan grumbled. Koji nudged him sharply in the ribs, though he still looked fairly troubled himself.

"Of course we'll help you," Koji said weakly. "You're sure you know how insane this is, though, right?"

"I do, Koj. And thank you." Eva beamed.

"Yeah, yeah, just be gentle with her, ok? We'd like this masterpiece to last a little bit longer than a week. She cost us a pretty penny, you know." Stan replied with his own nervous approval.

"Don't worry, I'll keep an eye on her," Janni motioned towards a now scowling Eva, "And keep Kross off our tail. I won't let him near your precious baby."

"We appreciate it," Koji laughed nervously. The sweat beads were already beginning to form on his brow. "Alright…Let us get changed and we'll meet you in the stable, Eva." He said with a slight yawn, scratching an itch underneath his Nourasian sleeping clothes.

"Right. Well, Jan, guess there's one more thing to do. Again." Eva turned to her friend as Stan and Koji's door closed quietly before them. Janni's smirk fell into a frown of dismay.

"Don Wei, right?" She suggested, getting a nod out of Eva. She knew her father would be even less happy to hear about this than he was to hear about the meeting in the first place…And as such, she would have much rather gone off to find Aikka, who was, as far as she knew, talking things over with the king and queen. She did, after all, need some help preparing for the new track, and who better than the planet's best racer?

Either way, she had to get this over with so she could get on to more productive things. So, turning with Janni, the girls made for her father's door once again.

---

Kross once more settled into his station, keeping an eye on his troops; all of them were at their posts, scattered about the planet of Nourasia and the planet of Earth. The Earth based troops were having a slight trouble of Earthen uprising, but nothing his numbers there couldn't handle. He knew that the Earth battle ships had all been disabled a year before, and as far as the primitive race had advanced, it still took time and money to rebuild such technologies. They weren't that far into the intelligence department. And his last attack on the planet had devastated their military bases, as he'd anticipated.

With a dark chuckle and some rearranging of his Nourasian based troops to focus on areas surrounding the capital city of Daalan, just to ensure that he got his race, that the pitiful racer and her prince didn't move.

"General Kross, sir, with all due respect," his underling cautiously interrupted the great Crog, "Was this really the best course of action against the Nourasians and Earth? What if this is a trap?"

"A trap devised by the Nourasians and a band of misplaced humans," Kross chuckled darkly. "I hardly consider that a trap. If there is a revolt, we will quell it, as we have done since coming to this planet. But if the human would like her defeat handed to her in front of the gaze of her wretched beloved, so be it." He made a very convincing and threatening fist with his narration, staring into his holographic plans. "It's far too easy to make that young prince squirm, but it's an activity I enjoy, nonetheless." The general fell into unreadable silence, and his underling took this as the end of their discussion, giving an obedient bow.

"Sir," the Crog made to excuse himself, and Kross turned to face him just as he made his move to leave.

"I have an order." Kross's voice boomed again, the subordinate stopped rigidly in his tracks, yellow eyes wide and rapt with attention to his leader.

"Retrieve our good friend Toros from his cell. Bring him here."


And there you have it, chapter 19! Like I said, I hope I did this chapter well and was able to make the negotiation believable. I really played to Kross's vengeful feelings, temper that probably wasn't helped out by his loss in the race, and also his liking of putting Aikka in his place, in order to get him to go along with Eva's challenge to a race. Along with the idea of Crogs having some sense of honor. Given the fact that it has been confirmed that Toros surrendered HIMSELF to execution after failing to win against the Earth team, I see it as a slightly samurai sense of honor where failure is not an option. I applied it to Kross with the idea of him failing to actually win back the title of best racer in the galaxy. I hope this worked, and was probably the one part that kept me stuck when I was writing this chapter.

Next Chapter: Preperations for the big race are made, and word spreads like wildfire. And is Aikka still bothered by the whole situation? Tensions rise, emotions run high, as clouds form on the horizon and the race begins...