Author Note: Going through some difficulties in my life at the moment, a whole slew of heart issues (and not in the emotional sense). Please try to bear with me, especially those of us who frequent the forums. Oh, and Archangel, if you're still reading this... the last scene is for you.

xxxx

New Eden, Garden City, Praetorian Enclave, May 1st, late evening

"Are you doing all right, sir?" Alexander rumbled, looking back at his commander, as Kunai stumped up the stairs a few paces behind his giant lieutenant. As ever, Kunai walked with an extremely heavy gaint, as much stomping as truly walking, but that was only to be expected, given his somewhat unique method of locomotion. Still, there were plenty of clues for the discerning observing to notice that showed that Kunai was pretty beat. His sweat, which Alex could both smell and taste from this close range, even though Kunai was not prespirering, contained a high degree of salt and acid content, from strenuous exertions. His breathing was just a tiny bit labored, and his footfalls were slightly slower than usual, a few fractions of a second longer between stomps than Alex knew was usual for the Master of Praetorians. He kept his concern carefully well shielded, beyond the neutrally toned remark, as he was well aware that Kunai disdained any form of physical aid with his disability, no matter the circumstances.

"A little worn out, Alex." Kunai replied, with the ghost of a smile fleetingly on his lips. He knew better than to deny his state of being, at least in the relative private of just him and Alexander. Of course the Praetorian would take his word at face value no matter what he said, but all the same, it helped to let down his guard a little with his chief disciple, helped Alex feel more trusted and part of Kunai's intimate circle, if they shared a certain hard honesty at times like this. It was little manipulations like this which had helped him become so powerful while he was Sai Argyle, the small, almost deliberate indiscretions and "human moments", shared between him and the people whose confidence he needed to maintain. It was almost an instinct for him now, he was barely even aware he was doing it.

And he had plenty of things to be worn about, certainly. With Kira's latest bid to go on the offensive, the sneak attack on Heaven's Base, being fended off to no conclusive finish, the Edenites once moe found themselves stalemated and stalled. Which was not a good position to be in, with the USN gaining greater momentum with every passing hour. He'd known of course, from the beginning, that such trials would be ahead of them. The USN was strongly based in many respects upon his own Isolation after all, he was very well aware of the sort of resources such a collective nation could pour into a major war. Still, in the privacy of his own deepest mind, Kunai did wonder, sometimes, just where victory would eventually come from. Yggdrasil maintained, in Its way, that victory was not only possible, but inevitable, but nothing in the readiness reports and strategy meetings Kunai had seen contained much in the way of positive information of late.

The rate of attrition was just too steep an obstacle for them to surmount, and every failed attempt made each subsequent attempt that much harder. The USN could rebuild the units lost in a major battle within a month, and train up new crews in only a few weeks more. Garden City and the other city states had done a lot of hasty industrialization during the early parts of the war, and were just now hitting their stride, but all the same, they could barely produce a dozen Mobile Suits and twice as many Mobile Armors in that month, and a properly trained Custodian took at least three months to be ready for combat. Kunai shook his head, running absentminded fingers across his scar creased bald scalp. He wasn't covering any new ground with such thoughts, and there was no profit in dwelling on things he was already doing his best with.

He speeded up his TK assisted strides, catching up with his towering bodyguard and assistant just as they reached the outer doors to Kunai's combination of office and living quarters. Hardly a patch on the grand mansions he'd grown almost used to as President Argyle, but more than enough for a man of Kunai's rather more aesthetic tastes. As ever, reflecting on his former life only served to darken his emotions and fill his core with bitterness and regret. So much potential, so much hard work, such a bright future... all of it wasted. Crushed to ruin by the actions of a single madman. A single madman he now half relied on for hope in the current war. The world was certainly a more twisted place than he'd ever given it credit for!

That will be all. Kunai sent to Alex with a brusque underscore of gruffness to his thought tone. It almost amused him that speaking telepathically with someone, which was far more intimate than verbal speech in many ways, was yet considered the more formal type of speech in many Edenite conversations, while the spoken word was something more personal, shared between people who were closer. Such was the side effect of the Wind of Words, which, like the internet before it, made a newer form of communication far more prevalent and accepted, to the point where older standards of communication were beginning to be seen as rustic and awkward. Telepathy was the wave of the future, and merely speaking was inefficient in comparison, the same as phsyical mail was inefficient compared to e-mail.

Of course, sir. Rest well. I will return in the morning. Alex nodded, his back stiff in a pose of near attention that was about as close as any Praetorian could get to a form of saluting, before he stalked away along the passage, heading upwards to the training halls located above. Kunai had raised and mentored most of the Order himself, and had set out from day one to instill into them a strong independent spirit, which was already strong in most Edenites anyway, so he hardly expected rote formalities anyway. It was another throwback to his past. Sai Argyle had never been comfortable recieving salutes from people, not even when he was the President of the World, so he'd done what he could to ensure he wouldn't have to suffer such awkwardness as Kunai. Either that... and he was self conscious enough to admit this, if only to himself... or Kira had rubbed off on him yet again. His former friend had always flouted pretty much every military rule and regulation he'd ever encountered in their time aboard the Archangel, acting instead as he felt right in any given situation.

This time, Kunai did smile with grim amusement, as he considered how a somewhat starched and rule abiding person such as his much younger self had eventually evolved into someone who went out of his way to foster informality in his daily life, while Kira, the most informal man alive, had slowly become tangled in situations that demanded he put on a facade of formality and duty. Just one more indication that the world was a very twisted place indeed. Still smirking, Kunai stumped through the door into his office space, finally alone, and glad for the reprieve. Even the most accomplished manipulators and greatest of leaders needed a few moments to themselves every now and again. Even when he'd been married, he'd still treasured a moment alone every now and then.

"I don't see that there's anything to be smiling about right now." An entirely unexpected voice snarled from behind his desk, where the chair was turned about to face the section of wall that could slide aside to reveal a large viewscreen. Had he the ability, Kunai would have jumped in surprise, but his paralyzed legs remained firmly rooted to the ground. All the same, he swayed alarmingly, almost losing his balance, before a quick push of TK re-centered his stance. Even as his physical balance was restored, Kunai fought to do the same to his mental balance. This was TWICE now he'd been ambushed in his own office! Tired or not, this was not a good habit to get into! At least this time though, a trip to the hospital afterwards would hopefully not be necessary.

"Kira. What a pleasant surprise." Kunai answered, after a few fractions of a second's pause as he gathered himself. "I hadn't realized you'd returned to the city yet."

"There's a lot you haven't realized about me. Which is kind of strange, given that you've known me longer than just about anyone still alive." Kira replied coldly, as he slowly swiveled the office chair around to face his former friend. He was lounged almost comfortably in the chair, to help hide him from view of the doorway, but he straightened now that he saw that he and Kunai were truly alone. He kept his emotions carefully concealed beneath his mental shields, focused in such a way as to be almost undetectable to a passive mental scan, though Kunai knew that if he'd bothered to actively search his office out, he'd have known at least that someone was in there waiting for him. He resolved to make such checks a part of his daily routine from now on.

However, such resolutions were only occupying part of his mind. Most of the rest was focused on Kira's lap. Or rather, the bared, purple bladed, crystalline sword resting almost casually across it. Kira's right hand was loosely clenched around the hilt, while his other was almost absently stroking a single finger down the fuller of the blade, back and forth, back and forth. The Executor's Burden, Kira called it. A LEMIM artifact from Vaul's own hands. Kunai possessed several similar items of his own, but did not habitually carry them around, especially within the City and the Enclave. The Twig of the World Tree and his TK Shards were in his quarters, which might as well have been on the moon for all his ability to get them right now.

"People change." Kunai managed at last, after finding his throat unaccountably dry for a moment. He didn't think Kira was astute enough to read such a sign of anxiety, but then again, as he was so unpleasantly reminded right now, there was a lot about Kira that he still didn't know. "Neither of us is the person we used to be back then. A lot has happened. Some of it we did to ourselves. Some of it happened regardless of what we did to try and stop it." He leaned carefully back against the wall opposite his desk, adopting a posture of relaxation. Or at least it would be for someone who relied on their legs for mobility in a tough situation. Even someone trained to understand body language would probably be wrongfooted by Kunai, since what would be lowering a guard for most people only freed up more of his power for offensive uses if need be.

The office was dimly lit, the lights in repose mode. Clearly Kira had been in the room for some time, and had taken the opportunity to apply his entirely well earned computer skills to arranging the environment to his choosing. A gentle telekinetic tug at the door controls revealed that the door was locked shut, obviously to prevent interruptions, as Kunai was hardly able to run away. What light there was struck glittering rainbows from the edges of the Burden as it sat carefully on Kira's lap, ready for use in a heartbeat, the threat open and obvious, as only a bared sword which can cut through solid stone could be. Both of them could see well enough, Edenite's eyes being well adapted towards using what little available light there was. Still, Kira's dark Praetorian garments seemed to meld into the black chair, and served to draw attention to both the sword, and to his face, which was set in a hard frown, eyes like frozen amethyst's glaring at Kunai, silver pupils reflecting the rainbow glimmer from the sword's edge.

It could have been quite intimidating, but Kunai had stared down hostile Chimera before. For that matter, he'd been far closer to Frost's face during the first office ambush, and nothing about Kira could hold a candle to the demonic illumination of that monster's red bioluminescent stare. Perhaps sensing this, Kira spoke up again. "People do change. Some of us for the better. Some of us for the worse."

"And you think I'm worse, huh? What a shock." Kunai deadpanned drolly. "Not like you haven't made it obvious before now though, so why these theatrics now? And besides, you're hardly one to throw stones, Kira. You've changed a lot too recently, and I don't think its all to the good either. And don't go on about only doing what you have to do... its the same for me, even if you don't want to recognize it."

"Listening to you try and justify yourself and who you've become isn't why I came here." Kira retorted grimly, his grip tightening on the Burden's hilt. "Remember when you first made me an Executor? I told you then that if you were going to give me that kind of power, that I WAS going to use it. That I would use it to punish evil and injustice and misdeed, whenever and wherever I found them. On the battlefield, and off. Against the USN... and amongst the Edenites themselves." Kira let that hang in the air for a few moments. He was getting better at this sort of thing, Kunai noted. And then his thoughts were scattered to the winds by what Kira said next. "I know what you've done now." Kira declared in condemning tones. "You hid it well, but now I know all about it."

Well, it obviously wasn't the REAL secret Kunai was keeping from his former friend, because if Kira knew about THAT, Kunai figured that he'd have been met with the edge of the sword, not bladed words. So there was really only one or two other things for Executor Yamato to be steamed about. "The New Years Day attack." Kunai supplied, abandoning any pretence at cordiality as he stared flatly back at Kira. "What the Oosen calls "Blue Monday", right? It was an operation conceived by me, under strict advisement from Yggdrasil Itself. A bid to take out the USN TIAMAT program which had been causing us such concern in the early stages of the war. The idea was to show the USN that if they were going to use nanites on our population, then we weren't afraid to do the same in return..."

"I said I wasn't here to listen to your justifications. You appointed me as an Executor. Its time for me to live up to that duty." Kira snapped back, rising from the chair, sword in hand. "You killed over five hundred MILLION people. Civilians. During a holiday. With Blue EDEN. Including Dearka's whole family. Deliberately. Coldly. It's mass murder by any name, and its exactly the sort of evil I won't tolerate. It did nothing to bring the war to a close, it sent no message other than raw hatred. And all because Yggdrasil said so? Do you trust the Tree so much? So blindly, that you'd do ANYTHING for it?"

"Almost anything." Kunai replied frostily. He distinctly recalled carrying away Kira's daughter from the flames of Rex Lodge, even though Yggdrasil's plan only called for the extraction of Lacus and her son. Leaving the little girl to burn to death in order to provide full authenticity for the plan had been beyond even his ability to justify. They'd just have to make do with the severed arm, and as it turned out, that had been more than enough anyway. He wasn't soulless, regardless of what Kira might want to believe.

"And that's why you're so dangerous. Too dangerous. Even moreso than Frost, at least in the immediate sense, though it pains me to say it. You can do almost anything, to anyone, if it means you can justify it as part of Yggdrasil's grand plan. Doing evil acts with a clean conscience from such simpleminded justification is worse than committing them because you have no conscience at all!" Kira edged out from around the desk, taking his sword in both hands as he slipped into a front guard position. Kunai absently noted that his former friend made the transition look pretty natural, which was all more unnatural given who he had once been, refusing to even carry a knife for self defense, and throwing guns rather than shooting them.

"And how does that make us different, anyway?" Kunai riposted cruelly. "How are my justifications for following Yggdrasil any different than yours are for allying with Frost? We need their power in order to survive. No matter the fallout, survival must trump conscience. Every innocent person Frost kills from now until he finally dies has their blood on your hands, because you've sanctioned him, and let him grow in power as part of our forces. Even your friends lives may be be painted on your hands because of that, and you try to take ME to task for Blue Monday? Hypocrite! You always were one though..."

"They're not my friends anymore." Kira hissed, his sword point wavering downwards for a moment, before he straightened his guard and took a cautious step towards the lounging Kunai. "No more than you are now. They've made their choices, and I've made mine. It does not please me, but if their blood must stain my hands, then I'll dip them in to the elbow. That's what being an Executor of the Edenites means. And as an Executor, I am pronouncing you as an enemy of the Edenite people and..."

Kunai didn't wait for his friend to finish the formal pronouncement, such as it was. He saw in Kira's eyes that his former friend was all too serious about this, and wasn't going to just be satisfied with breaking his hands, like Frost had. Focusing his mind, and fuelling it with his own indignation, Kunai paused only a moment to appreciate the irony of Kira trying to kill him, while Kunai could not return the favor. The Edenites needed Kira, now more than ever. So he had to fight to subdue an opponent who was desperately trying to kill him for real. Just as Kira used to fight all those years ago. Of course, subdue didn't mean he had to be gentle about it...

His telekinetic pulse hit Kira, still in the act of raising his sword for the deathblow, and mouthing off his formal judgement, in the sternum with the power of a sledgehammer, only slightly diffused so as to not break the ribs themselves. Of course, with his Latent abilities, Kira saw the blow coming, such as it was, and was already twisting, so the pulled blow landed only indirectly. It was still enough to send him staggering backwards a couple steps though, and Kunai kept up the pressure, launching a barrage of telekinetic thrusts, jabs and shoves at Kira, targeting his arms and legs for the most part, bruising flesh, wrenching muscles and, more than anything, trying to yank the Burden out of his grip, preferably without slicing open or impaling either of them.

"You dodn't really think I was just going to let you walk up to me and cut me down, now did you?" Kunai shook his head sadly, as he slowly let himself drop to the floor, freeing up his full concentration for the fight, such as it was anyway. There was a reason he was the undisputed Master of Praetorians, and why even while crippled physically, he was undefeated in combat against other members of the order. He was simply the strongest human telekinetic alive, and a single man, even a single Executor, was not a threat to him when he had time to focus and prepare. "Now put that damn thing down before you hurt yourself with it, or break something in my office."

"I came here to kill you, not talk with you!" Kira snorted out in reply, taking a hand off his sword and drawing a pistol from his right thigh holster. A regulation pattern plasma beam pistol, a standard sidearm for most Custodian officers, Kunai recognized it instantly, even as Kira snapped it up and fired right at his face from less than five meters away. Green light strobed in the dim office, and the harsh smell of melting stone filled the air, as the emerald colored beam spat from the pistol and almost instantly veered to one side and upwards, expending itself harmlessly in the ceiling.

"Then you should have done THAT the moment I walked through the door." Kunai berated him. "You might have had a chance to hit then. A small one, but a chance." He deflected another couple of beam shots, which was child's play for him, as plasma had next to no mass itself, and then lashed out at the pistol itself, crumpling its barrel like tinfoil, and causing Kira to cast it aside in disgust. "Now give it up, and I'll forget this ever happened. I understand you don't agree with Blue Monday, I never thought you would. But its done now, and killing me won't change anything. You can't beat me, Kira. Its not gonna be like with Flay out in the desert night that time. Here and now, you're the one who CAN'T beat me. At long, long last, I'm the stronger one now."

"Stronger maybe. But you're still stupider." Kira retorted, getting shoved back almost to the wall behind the desk by the insistent and invisible pressure from Kunai's TK pulses. "You think I came here to do this on a whim? That I haven't researched TK powers, and trained against them? And not just against human opponents either. You're strong, Sai. But you've still got a limit to what you can LIFT!" Kira called upon the Seed, even as he let the Burden slip from his fingers and embed itself safely in the floor. The bright purple seed, veing with silver, dropped through his mind, feeling slower than usual, as if it was waiting for him to reach out and grab it. He certainly could have, he was acting out of rage for all those murdered innocents in the Second Earth colony, but he forbore using the Ascended Seed just then. Activating it would draw attention from half the Enclave, and if possible, he wanted this deed done before they had an audience. Not least because he still didn't know which way most of the Praetorians would side on the issue.

The regular Seed was more than enough though, giving him the resilience to shrug aside another wave of TK pulses, the speed to dive behind and beneath Sai's desk, and the strength to push upwards on said desk, lifting it and hurling it upwards and forwards towards his supine target. He felt Sai's shock through the wind, intense and bright, as his planned strategem clearly took the TK master off guard. Sai's desk had been carved right out of the solid granite of the mountain, and was a part of the floor itself, not a moveable object of furniture. But that was easily, and near invisibly, remedied with a few cuts from the Burden. Then it had just been a matter of luring Sai close enough to the desk to make it feasible, which the conversation had managed nicely enough.

A nearly solid granite desk, with inbuilt computer and storage shelves, still massed almost eight hundred pounds. Kira felt like he'd torn muscles in his back and shoulders as he used his whole body, Seed boosted or not, to hurl it even a few feet, much less halfway across the room. The effort cost him more than pain, it all but exhausted his Seed as well, expending in moments what he would normally use over minutes. But he had no other choice, no other viable stratagem. Personal attack on Kunai was almost impossible, man to man. His TK was too strong, too prevalent and too well controlled. You'd need heavy weapons to have any chance of getting through his defenses, and even then you'd probably have to catch him off his guard.

For his part, Kunai knew that he didn't have it in him, even with Seed, to catch his entire desk, which Kira had cunningly detached from the floor to use as a tool of execution, probably his plan from the getgo. He could probably take six hundred pounds of mass off the falling object, but the other two hundred would still crush his bones to powder and his organs to pulp, falling from that height. A bright blue Seed, veined with gold, cascaded through the darkness of his willpower, before exploding with cerulean light, and he felt lighter all over as the full flush of his potential rippled through him. There was not much of him for his Seed to physically enhance, so it all channeled straight into his Newtype abilities. And there was more to the rush of power than just boosting his mass limit.

Catching the desk was impossible, so instead, Kunai hurled his next thrust into the top of desk as it fell towards him, imagining his power as a lance... and then as a bomb, exploding from within the confines of the desk itself. after he'd punched through the outer shell and cracked its largest side. It didn't QUITE blow the desk to fragments, but it did break it up from one looming mass into a bunch of chunks of fifty or sixty pounds each, many of which were no longer falling directly towards him. Debris waterfalled over him, not just the peices of desk, but the things within the desk, not least being the cartons of Refined Deathstalker Venom. Hopefully Kira would be too busy trying to murder him to think about why Kunai might have so much of the substance so close at hand.

Despite his best efforts, there was no way he could deflect all the wreckage, and Kunai grimaced as his body was pelted and bruised and gashed all over, as he focused his attention on protecting his head, using his arms as well to shield himself. One chunk of granite bouncing off his skull might not kill him, but it would certainly daze him and make focusing much harder, or even knock him out entirely, and then he'd wake up without a head. Half buried in the rubble and detrius, Kunai forced himself to go on, randomly grabbing and hurling chunks of rock and office supplies towards where Kira had been. If Kira wanted tomake a serious effort at this, then it was only fair to reciprocate. He'd worry about fixing up the Executor with a hospital stay, rather than talking him down with the futility of it all!

Rock split and sheared into glassy surfaces as the Burden, once more in Kira's hands, cleaved them apart and batted them aside, protecting his own face as much as possible. It didn't quite work so well as people in some movies made it look, most of the things were cut so cleanly that it barely even slowed their momentum, and plowed on to be deflected with Kira's arm or dodged entirely. Seeing that Kunai was runnning out of things to chuck at him, Kira took a step towards him, before throwing himself to the floor and rolling to the side, as several chunks of rock he'd already dodged came zooming at him from behind, forewarned only by his Latent senses. Breaking the desk into pieces had done more than just save Kunai's life, it had given plenty of weapons to use against Kira, and TK pulses could manipulate from any direction, not just hurling objects linearly.

"I wanted to be nice about this, Kira, but you've given me little choice." Kunai gritted out angrily. A broad sweep of one arm hurled an arc of debris at the Executor, before a looping twist of TK power yanked Kira's feet out from under him at the same time. A chunk of rock hammered down on Kira's wrist, just shy of breaking the bones there, and a simultaneous yank on the blade of the Burden sent it skimming from Kira's involunatarily loosened grip. A straight on TK punch blackened Kira's eye and puffed blood from his nose as he tried to rise, knocking him back to the floor. "I could have ripped that eye right out of your head, or crushed your throat like a straw, if I'd wanted to." Kunai informed him pointedly. "This outcome was never in doubt. It was a good try, Kira, but doomed from the start." Kunai lifted a piece of granite about the size of a baseball, and massing about twenty pounds, lining it up for a piledriver throw at Kira's forehead. Maybe a fractured skull would get the lesson across!

"I came into this expecting to get trashed." Kira grunted in return, sounding winded but still more than game. "I've noticed something about powerful Actives, you know? First with Noah, now with you... you all tend to underestimate just what a Latent who knows what they're doing can do..." Kira reached into a pocket and withdrew a small transmitter device, the button upon which he promptly pressed. A dull "WHUMPH" sounded from the ceiling, which was more solid granite, hacked from the heart of the mountain. Kira had done some hacking of his own earlier, using the Burden to carve out a large, pyramidal chunk of ceiling, leaving it attached by only a small spur, onto which he'd moulded some plastic explosive. A little spackle and dust had disguised the cut lines from casual view, and the dim lighting had further concealed the sabotage.

Close on to three quarters of a ton of SOLID granite block detached from the ceiling, directly over where Kunai helplessly lay. Exactly where Kira's Deep Sight had told him the target would be. He couldn't say that EVERY event had happened as his foresight had predicted, but he never expected it would. The future was just that, and could never be predicted with complete accuracy, no matter what Yggdrasil might like people to believe. But if you knew your opponent, and had an hour or so alone to prepare the ambush, and meditate on the possible scenarios, then a little precognitive fortunetelling could go a long way. There was nothing Kunai could do against such a solid block of material. Funny how TK was so effective against modern weapons like a beam pistol, but pretty much useless against one of the oldest weapons imaginable... a very large rock.

The execution block slammed to the ground, grinding everything beneath it to powder and sending cracks rippling across the floor for almost a meter in every direction, landing like a stone from a catapult. But it did not land on Kunai. Something had blurred through the air even as the block fell, a shadow seperating from the deeper shadows of the wall, and colliding with the falling bock, redirecting it, physically shoving it aside with a stength beyond any other human. Glowing red eyes burned with exertions that had little to do with the most recent one, as Frost glared at both of the other two stunned figures, since the door was still quite firmly locked, and any help or investigation for Kunai several minutes away. "Yamato. Tree Bitch. Now's not the time for fooling around with deathtraps." Frost snapped at them both savagely.

"What the hell?" Kira and Kunai coroused, almost in unison, blinking away shock, since Frost had literally, as far as either could tell, just stepped out of thin air! As bad as that shock was... and for Kunai, having his life saved by the very man who'd crippled his body and murdered his family was about as big a shock as could be imagined... what came next almost sent Kira to the floor and made Kunai question whether he'd really blocked all the rocks raining down on his head after all. Frost moved to stand between them, and then bowed his head to Kira. Literally bowed his head, and held out his hands beseechingly.

"The Mouse! I've lost the Mouse! So help me get her back, Yamato! You're good with things like that, right?" Frost demanded, his tone frantic.

"W-What?" Kira stuttered, unable to make sense of the sudden change of events.

"The... Mouse... has... gone... missing." Frost enunciated, slowly and loudly, with a disgruntled expression stealing its way across his face. "I... don't... know... where... she..."

"I got that part." Kira interrupted irritably. "But did you just save Kunai's life? And then ask me for HELP? ME?"

"Goes against my grain too, don't worry. But this is desperation speaking, Yamato!" Frost retorted with no less asperity. "I didn't think I'd have to explain this to you, of all people. The Mouse is MISSING! GONE! NOT HERE! NOT WITH ME! Someone TOOK HER! She wasn't where I LEFT HER! Do you not SEE the PROBLEM?"

"You mean she finally escaped your clutches, you deviant monster? Sounds like a cause for celebration." Kunai said, still shaking from his close call and inexplicable rescue. But just because Frost had saved his life, didn't mean he felt any gratitude towards him. Frost never saved anyone's life except when he meant to torment them even worse in the future. It was less a rescue and more just a stay of punishment. A brief stay, as it turned out, as hardly had he put his oar in, than Frost had pounced on him, howling with beastial fury, punching through a frantic TK shield like it wasn't even there, to latch one hand around his throat with the power of an industrial vice. Gagging, Kunai flailed his arms and tried to work up the focus to blast aside his attacker, but it was a little hard with his throat being crushed like a tin can.

"YOU THINK THIS IS A JOKE?" Frost screamed, lifting Kunai until he was dangling almost a foot off the floor, and then hammering him back into the wall. "THE MOUSE IS MINE! MINE! MINE! No one else may have her, no one else may take her!" He shook the Master of Praetorians like a ragdoll, before letting him drop, just shy of ripping his head off his shoulders. He might still need the Tree Bitch for the rescue after all. He looked over his shoulder at Yamato, who had his pretty little sword back in his hands and held between them, clearly caught between the urge to attack Frost while he was lost in his frenzy against a helpless victim, and the cold logic of the fact that he'd been trying to kill Kunai anyway, so why not let Frost do the dirty work? Frost let his hands drop to his sides as he took a deep breath. It didn't actually calm him down any, but it gave Yamato a second to make his choice, and grudgingly back off. This was not their How, apparently.

"The Mouse is mine, Yamato. You know that. You don't like it, but it's the truth. The Mouse is mine. And I am the Mouse's. Don't you see that? Don't you understand? You, of all people..." Frost said, almost conversationally, the closest he could come to a whisper in his current state. Before Yamato could answer, and Frost saw in his eyes that he did understand, now, finally, the door to the office was all but blasted off its hinges, as Alexander, in full armor, rushed into the room, backed by a half a dozen other Praetorians, armed to the teeth. "And there's the Turkey, late to the party as usual. Warble, warble. But maybe it's for the best. Yamato. Tree Bitch. We need to talk. Right now... it is, what do you call it, oh... it's a matter of national security, you might say..."

xxxx

Earth, Orb Archipalego, Orphan Island, May 4th, Late Morning

"If I hadn't just seen it with my own eyes, I'd never have believed it." Haman Al'jib, the Djinn, said for about the tenth time in as many minutes, as he finished fitting his recovered Praetorian armor around his body and ran a quick systems test to make sure its stay buried in the soil of Orb's mainland hadn't adversely affected it. The man next to him, helping him with the armoring, smiled and shook his head, also for about the tenth time, and replied with a degree of forced levity.

"Hell, I walked THROUGH it, but I'm still not sure I should believe it." Heine Westenfluss, the Shooting Star, said. "Where the FUCK did Zacharis Frost get the ability to teleport people, is what I want to know! And why has he waited until NOW to show us this? This could have been SO USEFUL so many times before now!"

"Divining the thoughts of a madman will only land you in the same situation." Haman answered with a diffident shrug. "I wonder how it works. Can we replicate this technology? This could turn the whole war around for us. Those Oosen fleets would be useless if you could deploy strike teams directly into their heartlands from our bases, and vice versa. Its the ultimate raiding tool."

"Mr. Abyss would never work for the likes of you." Frost announced, striding up behind them, carrying one of the inflatable speedboats they'd brought with them through the abyss portal as part of their support gear. The large box was almost three hundred pounds, but he carried it lightly on one shoulder, with a cheerful bounce in his stride. Both Praetorians jerked, having not heard him approach... no one could accuse the mad Executor of lacking stealth ability, when he wanted to anyway. "He, like the Mouse, is Mine. Mine alone." Frost informed them with a sneer, as he set the box down on the beach and turned on his heel, stalking back up the gentle slope towards where the abandoned house was situated, near the equally abandoned chapel-dormitory structure that formed the two largest buildings on the small island.

Heine looked over at Haman, once he was sure the Executor was far out of hearing range. "Did that just send a chill down your spine like it did mine?"

"He didn't even insult us, much less threaten us." Haman agreed, his jaw agape inside his helmet. "It was almost conversational. Perhaps even informative."

"I'll be damned, but he really DOES have it bad for her, doesn't he?" Heine thought about smirking, but really wasn't sure if it was anything to smile about. Frost by himself was cause for concern. Frost driven to the edge of his limits and out of his normal behavior patterns because the girl he loved was in danger... who knew what might happen next! By the Tree and the Shark, he'd been almost NICE to them just then. Overhearing their conversation and butting in with a comment that was certainly arrogant, but far from confrontational or demeaning. And he'd been doing grunt work for the team while doing so, lifting and carrying under the advice, if not direction, of Executor Yamato!

"Time for another hallucination test, I think." Haman said, all but reading his friend's mind, as they turned to each other and soundly slugged each other on the shoulder. Armored fists clunked off equally armored pauldrons resoundingly, and they both felt it. "Damn..."

"Love makes you do funny things. Even if you're a mass murdering psychopath who wants to either destroy or rule the world, or both. I guess." Heine shook his head once more. "I hope to God she knows what she's doing, getting him in a family mindset like this."

"Maybe we should put her in life threatening danger more often, is this is the sort of cooperation we get as a result." Haman postulated, only half jestingly. "I wonder how many times we could "kidnap" her, before he caught on and destroyed us all..."

"Kidnap who?" A different voice asked, coming up from behind them, though this time neither of them jumped, having heard her footsteps from quite a ways away. "I'm warning you, Haman, I've had enough of wandering around an island paradise with you for the next decade at least. Any attempt to take me off the front lines again is going to meet a lot of resistance." Khala jested, trying to cover up her awe of being near not one but two Arboreal Praetorians. Well, since she'd been stranded behind enemy lines with Haman for weeks, she'd gotten over her awe of him, but now there was the Shooting Star as well, and far more besides! She'd actually come down to the beach to get away from the main huddle, the pure awe power of the gathered team sending her senses reeling. Two Executors, the Master of Praetorians, three Arboreal Praetorians, and five more regular Praetorians. Plus one short pygmy with black eyes that creeped her right the hell out. And her, the very junior Custodian from Legio Megaladon. Nothing to be intimidated about there.

"And do you have someone who would gleefully destroy us were we to kidnap you?" Heine replied with a smile.

"The Executor, maybe?" Khala answered, clarifying after a moment. "The good one, I mean. Kira Yamato. From what I hear, the other one's already involved with the person we're supposed to be rescuing. And generally isn't the rescuing type himself, from what I hear."

"To put it mildly. Generally speaking, he's the one who the girl needs to be rescued FROM." Haman told her with a shudder.

"He doesn't seem that bad to me. It's kinda cute actually. He's obviously devoted to her. Its rare to see such a childish concept of love in a man that age. He'd do anything for her, its obvious."

"Including murdering every last one of us with his bare hands if he thought it would help. Or even if he thought it wouldn't hurt." Heine pointed out, reasonably enough. "He's just childish enough to place absolutely no value on anyone except the person he cares about. And even then, his concept of "caring" is more what the rest of us call heinous abuse. I have no doubt he'd charge headlong through enemy fire to save her... that much has been made clear to me by now. The issue is, he'd leave the rest of us pinned down at the same time to do it. Do NOT rely on him, for anything. This is a temporary attitude of cooperation only, I assure you."

"So I keep hearing." Khala shrugged. "Though since I also hear that Executor Yamato recently tried to murder the Master of Praetorians in his own office, I'm beginning to wonder if ANY of the high commanders are safe to rely on anymore... don't they know there's a war for survival we're fighting right now?"

"That's unfortunately not the worst point you've ever had, Khala." Haman admitted. He turned to Heine. "What could have possessed him to do such a thing? I mean, I know they've had their differences in the past, but... but trying to KILL him?"

"Don't look at me, I didn't condone it. But he's an Executor. He doesn't need our permission to act as he sees fit. That's the whole point of the position. That's the responsibility and the power of the office. Though I imagine something about the 500 million dead civilians using a nanite-bomb flipped a switch with Kira that ought not to be flipped. To be entirely honest, I'm not all that happy about it myself. Its a smear on the honor of all Praetorians, to be associated with such a senseless massacre. But to straight up try to kill Kunai? Summarily? I think that may be going a little far." Heine replied seriously. "Though he MUST have gotten pretty damned close with his attempt. I haven't seen Alex out of sight of Kunai for the last two days, and he's the last guy you'd expect to tolerate that kind of hovering."

"And now we're relying on them to work together to save Lilia. That's great. Alongside Frost. Lovesick Frost. This keeps getting better and better. Our three most powerful fighters... and they all hate each other with a passion, and now, have all attempted to kill each other at least once, and often a lot more. How did we get into this position? Even the Oosen government isn't this fucked up. Entirely." Haman groaned.

"Must be a pretty special girl." Khala said, half enviously. "To get both Executors and the Master of Praetorians to set aside their personal conflicts in order to come rescue her. And to get the Executor everyone seems scared shitless of to fall in love with her."

"She's the best of us." Heine said, unabashedly. "Not the strongest, or the quickest, not the smartest or toughest or even the most powerful... but she's the best of us all the same. Lilia embodies what it means to be a Praetorian. The unquestioning service to the people of New Eden, not just for the Greater Good, but for the Good of All. When Kunai created the order to police and patrol New Eden, Lilia was the only one who actually conformed to that ideal fully. The rest of us were old warhorses like me and Haman, who could never get past the idea of being soldiers in an army waiting to happen, or many others who viewed it as a path to personal power, or as joining a private force under Kunai's command. Though oddly enough, in his way, Alex is almost the same as Lilia, despite his political leanings. He serves for the good of all Edenites, regardless of their relation to him, or even opinion of him."

"Though I'll admit, I never expected Frost to actually fall in love with her. I didn't believe he had the capacity." Haman added. "I guess she was right about no one being beyond redemption."

"Its a long way from falling in love with her to being redeemed." Heine cautioned him strongly. "He may value her, but thats all. He'd do anything for her. For HER. The rest of us are still very much out in the cold. And very probably next on the chopping block too, once he gets this war sorted out. He's as much as said so himself."

"Yet we're all still here, helping him and relying on him." Khala pointed out. "And from what I understand, its because he came to Kira and Kunai for HELP. Because he couldn't do this by himself. I don't know about his redemption or otherwise, but it sounds to me like he's not quite the same as he used to be. And its because of Lilia, one way or another. The first time doing something is always the hardest, it gets easier with every subsequent attempt, until it can become like second nature."

"A certain sense of optimism isn't a bad thing." Haman agreed with her. "We'll certainly need as much hope as we can get for this crazy scheme to get pulled off."

"It's not THAT crazy." Heine said breezily. "Sure, there's only thirteen of us. And we are going to try to break into, in broad daylight more or less, one of Orb's most secure and fortified prisons. The blueprints of which we do not know. To free our comrade, whose location and physical condition we also do not know. We'll be outnumbered a dozen to one at best, hundreds to one at worst. The enemy will likely have heavy weaponry, vehicles and even Mobile Suits, all of which we lack. Our three leaders hate each other's guts, and may try to kill each other during the confusion of battle. And, lest I forget, we have a tagalong cannibal pygmy, who thoroughly creeps me the fuck out. What's so crazy about all this?"

"The fact that we're relying on Frost for our extraction plan?" Haman replied morosely. "The man for whom retreat is a foul word is in charge of our escape plan? And through a method he alone can control? And that our two chief tactical advantages are, hopefully, surprise and sheer balls out audacity? Neither of which can stop a bullet? And of those thirteen participants, one is the cannibal pygmy, one is dear Khala, who really isn't trained for this sort of mission, and one of which cannot move faster than a walking pace without being carried."

The two Arboreals looked at each other one more time. "No, not particularly crazy." They agreed. "I've done worse before." Heine added.

"Like that drop on the Great Endeavor at Cape York, over the open ocean, using Mobile Suits that could neither fly forever nor swim." Haman recollected.

"Or attacking the Brotherhood Gundam head on, using Mobile Suits that were about four generations behind its least advanced systems." Heine trumped.

"All that proves is that both of you are completely insane!" Khala bemoaned. "And far luckier than any two men have any right to be!"

"But successfully so, you must admit..." Haman countered with a smile.

xxxx

Orb, Maximum Security Island Detention Center, Interrogation Room 2, 100 kilometers north of Orphan Island, May 4th, Late Morning

"You're putting us into a difficult spot." The man with the demon-dog mask said woodenly as he sat across the bare metal table from Lilia, his voice rendered unidentifiable and barely human by the vocoder built into the battle helmet. It turned his words into a harsh rasp, like a file sawing through a metal bar, meant to be jarring and intimidating. His battle dress uniform, a camouflage mottling of white, grey, black and dark blue, was festooned with a full war load, everything but the primary small arm. Grenades. Knives. At least two side arms, one of which looked rather more like a beam pistol than Lilia had known the Oosen were capable of producing. The other three Stormhounds in the room, two flanking the seated interrogator, and the third, the massive brute every bit as big as Alexander, hovering behind Lilia's own chair, were even more heavily armed.

It was quite a showing for a unarmed woman who was chained hand and foot to a solid metal chair bolted to the floor, with a auto-taser brainwave monitor device surgically glued to the side of her temple, which would shock her unconscious if she even tried to use a Newtype power or access the Wind. A part of Lilia felt proud that they were so obviously frightened by her, even though she knew that it was only proper really. She was an Arboreal Praetorian after all, and more than that besides. She was every bit as dangerous as they feared, and likely moreso than they could imagine. Even without her weapons, armor, allies or Newtype abilities, she was a serious threat to anyone she felt the need to be. She'd already seen... and ignored... several opportunities to at least make a nuisance of herself to the guards. Not escape per se, but certainly batter them about and scare the crap out of them.

Because, like her interrogator, Lilia was in a difficult spot of her own. A new consideration had entered her life, and she had no idea how to handle it. Nothing in her training had ever prepared her for this kind of situation. She'd never even considered the possibility. Of being captured, certainly. Of needing to resist interrogation, even torture, of course. Of having to die for her beliefs, in the most undignified manner, if need be. But never... NEVER... while pregnant with the child of the man she loved more than anything. Her duty as a Praetorian demanded that she do everything possible to obstruct her enemies and deny them any information she possessed, no matter what they did to her in turn. Her duty as a mother demanded that she protect the new life inside her at all costs. The baby was blameless, completely innocent, not even truly sentient as yet... she could not allow it to suffer harm if she had the choice, could she?

"We're under something of a time crunch here." The Stormhound went on, his actinic blue camera eye lenses boring steadily into Lilia's own lilac around gold colored eyes. "The USN needs the information you possess, and is determined to get it, at any cost to you. Orb laws forbid the torture of prisoners, but Orb laws only apply in Orb. And if we can't get the information out of you in the next twenty four hours or so, the Solar President is going to force a change of custody. You'll be taken into orbit, probably to Galileo LFB, or some other secure location. Far from help. Far from rescue. Far from anyone who may care to aid you in even the slightest manner, or who would even treat you like a human being."

He let that sink in, for it was nothing but the truth. He didn't like it, but it was the truth. Ramierez was a Stormhound through and through, and more than that, he was a Hellhound. He'd done things in his life that he could never be proud of. Things which haunted his dreams nowadays. But he'd done them all the same, and even now, he wouldn't un-do them either. He'd interrogated many hardcase prisoners, and done whatever was necessary to crack them open. His methods weren't as refined as the Lieutenant's, he just wasn't able to get inside the person's head like his boss had. But he was a maestro when it came to the balance of inflicting grievous physical harm and the mere threat of inflicting grievous physical harm... something which he had employed to good effect on Athrun's cousin Hazy not that long ago. Still, it went pretty far against his grain to torture a pregnant woman, for all that she was the lover of one of the people he hated and feared more than anything.

"So we're not going to beat you up, or waterboard you, or put you in any physical distress, even though we could, despite it being against the law. Laws only apply when someone is there to enforce them after all. But looking at you, I'm sure you've been trained to resist such methods anyway. And given who your lover is, I'm not sure ANY application of mere physical pain could crack you. You'd laugh in my face as I twisted a knife in your guts. You'd die smirking before you let yourself be broken by torture. Its not something most people can do, even the people trained to resist. Every professional soldier knows that they have a limit, a breaking point, past which they'll crumble. That point can be pretty high, but we all have one. The only ones who don't... are the crazy fuckers. Like your boyfriend. And like you." Ramierez went on, glad his vocoder could conceal his loathing and disgust.

"I had a limit once. I was pushed to it. I broke." Lilia answered coldly. "But you're right. Zach has freed me from such limits now. I don't think there's much of anything you could do to me that would be seriously worse than a hardcore bout of angry sex with Zach. Not without killing me outright. I am a Sufferer. And proud of it."

"You're a stone cold crazy bitch, is what you are." One of the Stormhounds flanking the interrogator, the female who smelled strongly of the hulking brute standing behind Lilia, snapped out. "A fucking menace to humanity."

"Zach and I don't want to destroy humanity. Never that. The exact opposite even. I don't even enjoy conflict myself. Not even Zach can make me love battle. But I do recognize the need for it. Without conflict, humanity will stagnate. We will become weak. Rusted. Vulnerable. We will not stand against the trials to come. Which WILL destroy humanity. Unless we act now to prepare ourselves..." Lilia retorted.

"Yada, yada, aliens coming to lay eggs in our chests, etc, etc, yeah." The other flanking Stormhound, the one that had one red eye and one blue in his battle mask replied wearily. "We've heard that doomsday spiel from you before. Its no more creditable now than before. You're a crackpot, dear, get used to it."

"Getting back on track..." The interrogator said emphatically, clearing his throat with a harsh buzz of static. "We're not going to torture you, Lilia. It's pointless. And it turns my stomach, personally, the thought of torturing a pregnant woman. Regardless of who knocked her up. But just because we won't, doesn't mean it won't happen. The USN is going to torture you. They're going to cut you open, take out that embryo, and dip it in acid until it dies, unless you cough up all your secrets first. They'll do whatever it takes to violate your body and break your spirit. They'll chew you up and spit you out. You know it. I know it. And the only thing that can protect you from that is coming clean of your own accord. All we want is the location of Garden City. I don't care about anything else you know. Just tell us that, and we'll protect you. Keep you in Orb, under our watch. You'll miss the rest of the war, but you'll do so in good health, and with all the care your baby will need in the future. That's a promise from Her Majesty the Queen herself."

"I can't be the first person you've asked for that information. Garden City's location isn't that big of a secret. Pretty much any Custodian could tell you." Lilia answered flatly. "You expect me to believe that you only want that?"

"Funnily enough, you're right." The man mountain behind her rumbled, though he didn't sound all that amused. "We ask that question of every Eddie prisoner we've yet got our hands on. Some resisted, some didn't. And they all say the same damn thing. But when we GO to that spot, when we detail warship fleets to scan it and overfly it with our survellience jets, there's NOTHING there. Nothing at all. The only thing we haven't yet done is a ground level survey, because we can't get there on the ground just yet... thanks to your guerilla warfare efforts in the foothills, amongst other concerns. So maybe what the Master Sergeant means to say is we want to know why all you Eddies are saying its at the foot of Everest when it plainly goddamn ISN'T?"

"You're an Arboreal Praetorian. I realize that puts you outside the usual chain of Edenite command. If we had a Strategos in our custody, rest assured, we'd be asking them, not you. But we're fresh out of Stategos at the moment. And since you're outside the usual chain of command, I figure you may not be given the same bullshit story as the rest of the troops. You may even know the truth. I'll even go so far as to say its likely." The interrogator leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and his chin on his clasped hands. "I've been to Garden City, you know? I got captured in Borealis, during our first push there. Seeking this same information actually. I've seen the huge fricking tree. I'm still not sure I wasn't hallucinating it, cause we sure as hell can't find anything like that now. Given I was in Eddieland, its far from out of the question that I was being continually mindfucked the whole time I was there. It's what I would do in their place. But I've been there. So it does exist. So just tell me why we can't find it!"

Lilia stared at them. Of course she knew the answer. She couldn't explain the mechanics of it, but she definitely knew it was Yggdrasil's doing. She remembered the first time she'd ever seen Yggdrasil, how It had revealed itself from some form of cloaking that defied all sensors and senses. Just like the peace-field which allowed humans and non-humans, even predators, to live in harmony around Garden City. Nobody really knew what Yggdrasil was actually capable of. It was the same for all the Grand Chimera. Sure, they'd measured the radius of the Caller's usual area of mental influence, and had seen several examples of Leviathan's telekinetic might so far during the war. But nobody knew if those were the limit or the average for the Grand Chimera. And Yggdrasil was by far the most mysterious and enigmatic of the Grand Chimera. It was a manipulator, which never showed Its full hand. Which was why she no longer trusted Yggdrasil, or believed in Its goals, whatever those might be.

But all the same, she also knew that she could never reveal this answer to them. If Garden City was occupied or destroyed, if Yggdrasil was captured or killed, it would be the end for the Edenites. And potentially all life on New Eden, if a Grand Chimera's death echo was anywhere near as tramautic as she feared it would be. Especially since Yggdrasil was the nexus of the Wind of Words! If the Oosen could reliably pinpoint Garden City, or at least realize that they already had, then the war was over. It could be finished at any time with a sustained orbital bombardment from their massive fleets, if they were willing to pay the cost to all living things on the planet's surface. And knowing the USN, even if they did take into consideration the death echo, it would only be to evacuate their own troops before burning Yggdrasil down.

It was terrifying, beyond all words! The information she had could literally be the doom of all life on New Eden, and was certainly the final nail in the coffin for the Edenite war effort regardless. But she also knew that the Stormhound wasn't lying about what the USN would do to her, and her baby, Zach's child, to get this information from her. And that was what was really terrifying. It was her baby. Her and Zach's. It was the most special and amazing thing that had ever happened to her, for all that it was unintentional! She could not let anyone harm the life inside her. She could not. If she could die right then, in a way which wouldn't kill the baby, she'd do it in a heartbeat. But she couldn't do that.

And so she had to choose. Between giving up information that would kill thousands, maybe millions of people, and could end the entire world as she knew it. Or letting them take and destroy her own child, the unexpected but NOT unwanted fruit of her and Zach's union, the most amazing thing to ever happen to her. Either way it would be selling her soul. Selfishness, to keep her baby safe, knowing that it would be the heir to humanity's own salvation in the future, from the Black Ghosts who WERE coming, in exchange for killing potentially everyone else she had ever known or loved. Or sacrifice, to throw away her life, and that of the baby, to extinguish that hope of the future in exchange for preserving the state of the world as it was now, and leaving Zach alone and berefit of the only love he'd ever known or would know.

She sat in stony silence for many long minutes, with only the slight rasp of the Stormhound's breathing filling the room. It wasn't a choice she knew how to make. Become a traitor to her people. Or become a traitor to the man she loved above all others. Doom the world now... or potentially doom the world in the future. One person could make all the difference, if they were the right person. Where would the world be without Lacus Clyne? Without Noah Borander? Without Kira Yamato? Others might have stepped up to fill their places. Or they might be irreplacable, people without which the world and humanity would be lost to their own destructive impulses. Never before in all her life had Lilia so wished she could consult Yggdrasil for a clear vision on what the future might hold. But that was impossible. And even if she could, she no longer believed she could trust such a vision. Yggdrasil had Its own agenda. Nothing It showed them could be taken at face value, with that in mind.

"Well, you think it over." The interrogator Stormhound said at last, after almost twenty minutes of silence. "The clock is ticking, Lilia. Orb will do everything it can to prolong your stay within our borders and in our custody. We believe in giving you every chance to cooperate with us without the need for unpleasantry. But the Solar President himself is breathing down our necks on this. If we can't get the info we need by the 6th, thats a little over a day and a half from now... then we'll have no choice but to turn you over to them. And by them I mean FEAR. How long you'll last past that point, I can't say, but I wouldn't expect you to be recoverable after even five hours in their care. You'll break, Lilia. You will. They'll find a way. You should let us help you avoid that."

He got up, and turned for the door. "We'll be back in a few hours. The cameras will be watching and listening, so if you need anything... or feel like talking, just say the word and we'll be back as quick as a snap. We aren't your friends, Lilia. We're your enemies. But there's much worse enemies to have than us."

xxxx

Orb, Orphan Island, the Yamato-Clyne residence, May 4th, slightly after Noon

He started in the foyer, just inside the door that led to the front porch. The first place anyone entering the house from the front would see. The antechamber, with the coat closet and the warm and simple furnishings, some of which he'd made with his own hands, or at least reinforced to be child proof, as there always was a constant stream of children running and playing through this area, even before they'd had Akira and Aoi. Kira ran his thumb across one of the side tables, the one that held the ceramic dish that Lacus would always fill with candied treats or slices of fruit, for anyone coming in and out of the house to snag as they went. There was a dent on the side facing the door to the common area to the left. Aoi had left that dent with her head, running from a gaggle of the orphans in a simple game of chase that they really should have been playing outdoors.

There had been a lot of blood, or so it seemed at the time, though looking back on it, Kira knew that he and Lacus both had over-reacted. It had been more a gash than anything, and scalp wounds always bled freely. Aoi had been just fine. If Lacus hadn't seen it happen, the kids probably would have continued to play without much pause. Aoi would have just slapped some mud over the wound to staunch the bleeding, and gone on like nothing had happened. His daughter was just like that. Amazingly self sufficient and tough, even when she was barely old enough to walk upright. Kira's smile curdled on his face. His daughter had BEEN that way. But she never would be again. The jaws around his heart threatened to clamp shut and take him to his knees, but he managed to struggle away from the black pit of loss.

He'd come in here of his own choosing. No one had forced him to do so, other than himself. He'd known it would be painful. There were so many memories in this house. So many little things that only he would notice, things which would make him rueful o amused in happier times, and which now unceasingly stabbed daggers of remorse and anger into his chest. The outer grounds were no different. He'd walked over each and every inch of them so many times he could find his way around with his eyes closed. Or with Akira's hands clapped ove his eyes while giving a piggyback ride. Kira shook his head, almost able to feel the phantom hands clasping over his eyes as his giggling son encouraged him for another ride around the island, this time a little faster. It was ironic though, that the very memories which so pained him now, were actually the key that brought them here at all.

After getting the story out of Frost... which had been a serious undertaking all its own, at least to do so coherently... he and Kunai had set aside their "business" in order to set up rescue efforts. Not only was Lilia an important friend and student of theirs, but she was an Arboreal Praetorian, privy to all but the most secret of the Edenite's military information. There was little limit to the damage her knowledge could cause, if and when the USN got her to talk. Frost of course had sneered at the mere idea of anyone being able to torture information out of Lilia, other than himself of course, but Kira was less sanguine. She'd be in the care of the Stormhounds, and he knew firsthand how tricky, devious and outright frightening they could be. And most of them had an axe to grind against Frost, so he doubted they would be entirely as nice with Lilia as they would with any other prisoner.

And even if the Stormhounds didn't get her, the USN would. Durandel would stop at nothing to break her. It wouldn't be personal with him, but all same, he would doubtless condone any method necessary to break her spirit and acquire the information he desired. Even if the process didn't kill her outright, if they left her too long in the USN's hands, there might not be much left of Lilia herself, as a person, physically, emotionally or intellectually, to rescue. So if any rescue was to take place, it would have to be in Orb, the obvious place for Lilia to be taken after being recovered on the battlefield. Carpentaria base was closer, but lacked the facilities for a true deep interrogation of a valuable prisoner. Orb was still the most secure of all the USN's terrestrial holdings, the Glasshouse keeping away all but the most massive attack forces, which would be seen from a greater distance, giving them time to evacuate Lilia and prepare a defense.

And the Edenites could not afford yet another costly battle, not so soon after Heaven's Base, and not even for Lilia's sake. So that meant rescue would have to be a small force, somehow infiltrated into Orb in time. The Praetorians had an insertion shuttle, the same one they'd used to rescue Kira himself, but Orb was wise to that ploy after the first time, and especially after the attack on Nara-Attha City and the Hameya's Attlatl mass driver. The Glasshouse had been strengthened remarkably since then, and would not overload nor so easily be bypassed by EM shielding. That said, the shuttle had still seemed like the best bet, even if it meant most of them might be physically debilitated by the burnout of Green EDEN in their cells from the transition. A weak force was better than no force.

Of course, that was when Frost had butted in once more, deriding their foolishness, such as it was, and offering the use of something he called "Mr. Abyss" instead. After realizing just what Mr. Abyss could do... and getting over the terror-shakes at such power being in the hands of Frost of all people... some hasty modifications to their plan had been in order. Of course there was still a chance for physical debilitation, since a clean teleportation of even a single person required an exceptional amount of focus on Frost's part, or not all of that person would come through the portal, leading to internal bleeding or even death. And exceptional focus wasn't exactly the first thing that came to mind when he thought of Frost, at least not in the traditional sense. On the other hand, as Frost had proved, when he was obsessed over something, NOBODY had focus like he did.

But before Frost could teleport them anywhere, he had to know where to open the portal. Which was easy for line of sight transports, or when going to places he'd been before. But all the places that Frost had been to in Orb were places where transporting a heavily armed team of Praetorians, not to mention Frost himself, would be extremely obvious and detrimental to the pupose of their mission. Teleporting directly to the prison island was also an option, but since only Frost was at all used to the abyss portals, it was decided the risk of appearing debilitated and disoriented inside a heavily secured enemy perimeter was not the best of ideas. It would take longer, but was safer all around, if they could infiltrate Orb somewhere quiet and unnoticed, and then travel to the prison once they were inside Orb. That also gave them an opportunity to meet up with Haman and Khala, who had been operating behind enemy lines for quite some time by then, and were in need of rescuing of their own.

Of course, finding somewhere to serve as their infiltration point required detailed insider knowledge of Orb, and Kira was the only one present with that kind of knowledge. And nobody, least of all himself, wanted to risk merely describing the location in question to Frost, since who knew how accurate such a transport would be. No, there had been only one choice... he'd had to let Frost take the memory from his head directly. Just like Frost had done to Cyprus, and Lilia and who knew how many others! The process had not, however, been as awful as Kira had been dreading. If anything, Frost seemed to find it more distasteful than he did, and had completely avoided any extraneous rummaging around in Kira's thoughts and memories, despite having the opportunity to do so unimpeded.

"I already know all I need to know about how you think, Yamato, and I never want to understand how you feel. Bad enough I'm cursed to look like you, I could not palate knowing how you tick too..." His nemesis had retorted upon being questioned about it. "There's nothing about your memories that interest me in the slightest. And taking away your recollections of your spawn and Pink would only soothe your pain, so why would I ever do that?"

Kira had been somewhat concerned that one of his former friends might have put a watch on Orphan Island, where his and Lacus's house had been built, next to Reverend Malchio's orphanage. It was about as far from civilization as it as possible to get and remain within Orb's territorial waters after all, and thus would make a great infiltration rendevous point, assuming one could get through the Glasshouse unnoticed. But apparently the memories of that place were as bittersweet painful to his former friends as they were to Kira himself, and he'd come through the portal to find the place completely abandoned. It didn't look like anyone had set foot there since the Stormhounds had taken him into custody during Frost's rampage. He still wasn't sure whether to be disgusted or relieved about it though.

He passed from the foyer to the common and dining rooms, and the kitchen. Open, airy rooms that Lacus had rejoiced in redecorating every few months, often enliting the aid of Kira and later Akira for her makework projects. Nothing substantial was ever really changed about the room, other than its layout and perhaps the color of the walls, but all the same, it was the family moments of working together that were the important part of it. Aoi had usually preferred to play outside instead, though Kira had noted that his truculent daughter would tend to come wandering by to help whenever Lacus went out on an errand. It had always bemused him, the childish antipathy Aoi had for her mother, though he figured it was just a clash of personalities. If given the choice, he bet that Aoi would have chosen to be a boy, and did not seem to appreciate Lacus trying to interest her in girl things.

He avoided the stairs leading to the second story. He wasn't strong enough to face the memories he'd find up there, in the bedrooms. He didn't know if he ever would be. And certainly now, just before starting a mission to rescue a friend in need, was not the time to try and get caught up in those memories. But there was one thing he still had to do, something he'd put off for far too long. Something he had to face. He went out the kitchen door, the one leading to the garden where Lacus haphazardly grew a few vegetables whenever the mood struck her, being carful not to catch the relatively flimsy screen door on his sword sheath or the heavy combat shield slung across his shoulders.

Kira was attired for war, in heavy duty Custodian armor that covered his torso, shoulders, arms and legs with plates of Borealite, and sheathed his joints in a combination of oxiphant leather and metal scales. It was climate controlled, or else he'd have been sweating rivers in most New Eden climates, much less tropical Orb. The Burden was over his shoulders, beneath the shield. It felt comfortable there. He hadn't drawn it since his aborted attempt to pass judgment on Sai. He hadn't forgotten about that. Neither of them would, he was sure. Once this mission was over, once Lilia was safe, justice would still need to be done. Now that his first attempt had failed, it was time for his backup plan. Whatever Sai's personal power, there was still one arena in which he would never surpass Kira. Once it came down to the Lucifer vs the Exemplar, there could only be one outcome.

Sai knew that of course, and would do whatever he could to delay such a confrontation. He would gather allies, and connive to put himself in the best possible position. But it wouldn't help him. Five hundred million souls cried out for retribution, and Kira had no intention of letting them go unheeded, regardless of current circumstances. Evil was evil, and needed to be destroyed wherever it was found. And unlike Frost, Kira didn't believe that Sai's continued existence was a necessary part of the Edenite's war strategy. His old friend was still far more a politician than a warrior, and they had little need of politicians right now. Kira shook his head at himself. Not so long ago, thinking such thoughts would have appalled him with their coldness and venom. Then again, not long before that, he would have been appalled at himself for walking through his own home, his place of peace, armed for war and killing.

And now he barely thought twice of it. He had changed. Everything had changed. And there were more changes to come. More sacrifices to be made. More long held convictions to overturn perhaps. There was no telling what the war would demand of him next. All Kira knew was that he would pay whatever personal toll need be, in order to preserve the Edenite people, and uphold the standards of morality and justice that were his guiding lights now that his prior guide had been lost to him forever. He trudged through the garden, though his shoulders were straight and his back stiff. He'd come here because he knew he was ready for it. And because he had to. He set foot on the path leading out of the garden. More a faint track of beaten down weeds than a true path, but it was one he was intimately familiar with all the same.

It led to a small grove of palms and bushes, of no particular natural beauty or distinction of location. Nothing about it would appear special to the casual or unfamiliar eye. But all the same, it was the most special place on the whole island to him. Even more sacred than the bedchamber he'd shared for so many years with Lacus. Because it was here, at this unprepossing location, this normal grove, that the Reverend Malchio had prounced he and Lacus as man and wife, in their first and most private bonding ceremony, where it was just the two of them and the Reverend. It was the place where he and Lacus had formally begun their life together, even though they'd been fully intimate for quite a while before that. They'd consumated it again right afterwards, as soon as Malchio had gotten out of earshot. Oh, had they ever. He could still see the impressions they'd left in the sandy soil. Or at least he could picture it in his mind...

And as it was the formal beginning of his life with Lacus, Kira had felt it appropriate for it to also mark the formal ending of that golden age. It was here, far from prying eyes and well wishers, hidden by its very plainess and lack of ornament, that he had dug the three graves, after recovering enough from the Rex Lodge ordeal to contemplate doing such a thing. They were simple affairs, little more than large holes in the ground, not even fully uniform or life sized. He'd barely been in his right mind back then, he had neither the patience nor the will to make them perfect or beautiful. And now, he was glad of that. Perfect and beautiful were terms he would apply to Lacus and his children in life, but they were mockeries to try and apply them in death. Besides, it wasn't like Lacus, Akira or Aoi actually physically rested here anyway.

His children... wonderful Akira, vivacious Aoi... they had been burned to unrecognizable ashes in the flames of Rex Lodge. Even genetic testing of the chest of ashes the Edenites had returned with him to Orb had not been able to discern which clump of matter belonged to whom, only that his children's DNA was indeed mixed throughout it, probably from their hair. And as for Lacus's arm, deformed and disfigured from the heat, he'd wanted as little to do with it as possible after finding it in the ruins. His gorge rose at the mere thought of it. THAT was NOT Lacus, and he never wanted to be reminded of that when he thought of her. It had come as a relief when the Clyne Foundation had asked for the remains, such as they were, for interring in their planned memorial in the PLANTS. A place Kira planned to never, ever go. Out of sight, and hopefully out of mind.

It was quiet here, far from the beach, far from the house and orphanage. His comrades would no doubt be itching to get a move on, Frost especially, but they could wait. Kira slowly knelt down in front of the simple, hand crafted markers he'd placed in the sand, in the lee of a strong bush to ward them from wind and rain. They were unmarked and unadorned, but he didn't need nameplates to know which was for who. He'd never be able to forget. He could feel moisture in his eyes, on his cheeks, but strangely, he didn't feel the awkwardness or sadness he'd expected. He was crying, but it was tears of relief. He felt no judgement weighing down upon him. There was no sense of intrusion, not even in this place of utmost peace and happiness and loss and sadness. This was a place of Kira, but Executor Yamato felt no less welcome for all that.

Lacus, Akira, Aoi... were gone. Forever. Gone to a place he hoped was better than this chaotic and often twisted world. A place of endless peace and contentment, where they would be waiting for him when he eventually arrived, when his duty was finally done. They were gone, but he wanted to believe they were still aware of him. Still looking down at him, checking up on him in his dreams and unguarded moments. It wasn't quite faith, not in the way a truly religious person would mean it. But all the same, Kira took some measure of comfort from the idea that it wasn't an eternal seperation. And he took even more comfort that he could kneel here, as Executor Yamato, quite a different man from the Kira his family had known, though still recognizably him all the same, and feel no contrition or shame in so doing.

He wore armor. He carried weapons. He had killed many people, and would kill many more, though never as his first choice. He had raised his hands against former friends and even family with the intent to destroy. He had masterminded a devastating attack against the nation that was his homeland. He had allied with his own nemesis, and worked alongside an old friend-enemy re-invented, who was a mass murderer worse than any in human history to date, and apparently comfortable in that mantle. He had done things he'd never imagined he'd ever be capable of doing, and he'd done them of his own will. It was a long and bitter and hard road he'd walked, and there was still the majority of it to go.

But it wasn't a road he felt ashamed to walk. It wasn't a betrayal of who he was, despite what so many former friends seemed to think. And now, here, he knew that Lacus, Akira and Aoi agreed with him. They understood his burdens, in the way that only family could ever do. They did not judge him for his changes. They did not hate him for the sacrifices he'd made, or the battles he'd fought, or the choices he'd made. They didn't even rely on him for leadership and protection, not anymore. They merely assured him and supported him with their love and acceptance. They gave him the greatest gift of all... the certain knowledge that they would always love him, as a husband, father and person. As Kira Yamato.

He slumped forward, hands flat on the ground, eyes blurred to the point of near blindness, feeling the sand absorb his tears and slowly turn darker. But like him, no matter how dark it became... it was still bright colored sand at heart. "Thank you... Lacus... Akira... Aoi..." Kira sobbed. "Thank you..."

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