Chapter 1: Reunions

"I won't get in trouble this time, I promise", the blue-haired young man said, acting as innocently as he could, but his bruised eye didn't help much.

"Yeah, yeah, Gilbert, say what you want, but there's no guarantee that you'll get rid of them", the pretty brunette girl complained, knowing his friend well. After all, they had spent their entire life together at the orphanage.

"There's also no guarantee that you'll stop behaving like you are doing now, eager to show up on TV!", the lad protested, after moaning when another friend of his, an older, short girl with red hair tied up in two ponytails, pressed an alcohol imbibed cotton over a cut in his shoulder.

"How dare you say that?", the first girl exclaimed furiously. "At least I'm no petty gangster, hanging out with a crappy mob"

"I've quitted, I've told ya'!", the beaten boy insisted, angry, since no one believed him.

"Sorry to upset you even more, but once you get in, you stay there forever, they say", an older guy with short orange hair said, disappointed.

The remaining person in the room, a young seminarian carrying a silver cross around his neck, leant his head against the wall and sighed, tired. Thank God that Father Alphonse was away, or he would have gotten preached by the generous, yet strict middle-aged man.

It was getting troublesome to run the orphanage, but luckily, and thanks to Father Alphonse, the soon to become Father Paul –or Father Pauly, as everyone already called him, under his protests- managed to run the orphanage that had hosted him since his early childhood, with his friends' help. The worst part came when his friends proved to be more troublesome than what they were worth. Like at that very moment.

Tired of the constant arguing, he rubbed his eyes nervously before asking for some peace.

"Can't we behave like grown-ups and stop accusing each other?", he begged in despair. "What kind of example are we giving the kids here?"

The older girl smiled at him proudly. However, she ended up laughing at his statement. "We used to argue with the Idiot back there a lot when you were children, Pauly", Semyl recalled, smiling. "We still do!"

"Glad that you recognize it", Razma said, sighing.

Pauly shook his head. "These two are far worse than what you were and still are. You were joking. These two," –he said, gesturing at the younger boy and girl- "instead, mean every word they say"

Jojo and Gilbert looked at each other by the corner of the eye, defiantly. None of them would give in to the other's opinions.

A few knocks at the door were heard, interrupting the group's argument.

"I'll go", Pauly said, jumping from his seat. He needed some fresh air. "Oh, Hope!", he exclaimed, smiling warmly. "Come in, don't be shy"

A young woman, who must have been in her early thirties, came in. She was tall and thin, and had her dark red hair tied up in a high ponytail. She looked serious and shy, and her eyes showed a hint of sadness and regret.

Semyl looked in another direction when the newcomer got into the room, while Razma sighed. That young woman had a certain negative effect on them, something that they couldn't –nor wanted to- repress.

They had their reasons to behave that way, though.

Pauly shook his head at his friends' attitude towards her. "What's the matter, Hope?", he asked, resigned.

"I wanted to ask you what we are going to do to get the new donation", she said, calmly, as if nothing had ever happened around her. "I mean, it's an important one"

Pauly bit his upper lip, thoughtfully. There were way too many children at the orphanage, but little help from the grown-ups. Apart from Razma, Semyl, Jojo and Gilbert, there were few people to take care of the kids. And Hope was one of the few administrative workers there, but she didn't want to mess around the kids, to get involved with them. It seemed as if the furthest she was from them, the better.

"I can go", Semyl said, shrugging.

"No!", Jojo interrupted her, nervously. "It's my new audition, and you promised to come with me!"

"Hell, I've completely forgotten about it!"

"If they are going somewhere else, we have to stay with the kids", Razma said.

"I can go", Hope offered herself, determined.

"But it's a long way from here…", Pauly hesitated, unsure.

"There's no problem. I can do that easily", the red-haired woman said, calmly. "I'll take the orphanage's LEV, and then, I'll ask for help to put the things on it"

"But you don't want to mess with the kids' affairs, or am I wrong?", the soon-to-become priest asked her, confused.

"I don't want to stay with them, but getting things for them is another matter", she explained. "That, I can do it"

"Then, if no one else can go, I don't see any obstacle for letting you go"

Hope smiled, thankful. "Thanks, Paul. I'll get the things ready to leave as soon as possible", she said, walking to the door. She waved at everyone before leaving, even if she knew that only Pauly would care about her greetings.

Semyl sighed, annoyed. "She gets on my nerves… after all this time", she said, angrily.

"You should give up on those hard feelings, Semyl", Pauly advised her, feeling sorry for her combative behavior. "You should give Hope a second chance…"

"Why do you keep on calling her 'Hope' when her name is 'Mikenne'?", the short red-haired girl asked furiously. She couldn't handle her rage anymore. Thinking about her made her remember the final days of BIS, when everything at the battlefield was just too difficult. Because of her, Hazel got to know the fate of her parents' the hard way. Because of her, Ares' life became miserable once again. Because of her, Myona suffered the consequences of the MindFlow System once more. Because of her, her entire assembled family was gone. There were many things that were Mikenne's fault.

Pauly sighed, irritated. "Hey, that girl appeared in this place one day, when we were desperate… Remember that the orphanage was about to close. That woman appeared and agreed to work in exchange of food and shelter, as long as she didn't have to deal with the kids because she considers herself a 'bad influence'. She knows her limitations, and I know her entire story. She's trying her best to redeem herself, to mend her past mistakes…You shouldn't be too hard on her, Semyl. At that moment, you didn't say anything against her"

"You said it: we were desperate"

"Alright, but she does her job well, and in exchange, I want to give her a second chance in life, something that not so many people can have… That's why I call her 'Hope'. She's totally fine with it"

Semyl looked down, slightly embarrassed, but she was so stubborn. She couldn't forgive that easily, like her Christian friend. How on Mars could he do that?

"Besides, she also suffered from the exposition to the MindFlow System, not only Myona", Pauly added, calmly. "She's also a victim here, even if she had done more pain to the others"

"You should listen to Pauly from time to time…", Razma said, but was shortly interrupted by Semyl.

"You say that because everything's fine while the being you are talking about has a pair of boobs and a nice ass", Semyl replied back, annoyed.

"Language!", Pauly protested, hitting his palm over his forehead.

"You say it in a way that makes it sound way too disgusting", Razma said, annoyed. "As if I were a professional pervert"-

"Well… you can't say that she's wrong, pal!", Gilbert teased him.

"As if you behaved different", Jojo complained, rolling her eyes.

"That's why I can tease him, because I understand him!", he said, shaking hands with an unenthusiastic Razma. "Come on, pal, get over it! Don't let them ruin your mood!"

"I wonder what kind of future do the kids have with us in charge…", Paul mumbled desperately.

The young, brown-haired woman walked down the spaceport stairs, trying to get used to the Martian atmosphere once again.

Her tidy brown suit and skirt were something she hardly expected herself to wear back on the days when she was a High School student, and her hair tidily tied up in a bun was just… impossible to even imagine for her at that time. However, there are things that change some people's lives, and that alter their path's forever.

That was what Martian Diplomat Cynthia Stack thought as she walked along the spaceport, just as she sighed at the only sight of the fashion boutique that stood a few meters away from her. Without doubting even once, she switched her dreams of becoming a fashion designer to become a diplomat after the "Revival Crisis", named after BAHRAM's supposed revival after the Aumann Crisis. Having taken part of the fight herself made her change her ideas, only that she never told anyone –only to some loyal friends- the real story behind her change of mind.

Behind Cynthia, her assistant Alessa Janthurs followed her, seriously. A dedicated Diplomacy student, Alessa believed that she had to be grateful for working at Miss Stack's side, but she disagreed with her superior's ways of action most of the time. She was sure that Cynthia's passionate yet rude and rebellious behavior was the reason behind this kind of suicide mission that had been handed down to them. That, and the fact that no one else wanted to take it.

"I think that your silence reflects the fact that you are considering to turn into gardening, am I wrong? Or at least, into something where the chances of seeing me again are next to non-existant", Cynthia asked her assistant, sarcastically. Her sarcasm was one of her best weapons, and it stood like her trademark on any Diplomatic meeting.

"I won't walk away from the path that I've already chosen for myself before meeting you", Alessa replied, annoyed.

"You are too delicate in your treat, even when you are mad… like now", Cynthia stated, sighing. "That will please other diplomats, but will end with you in little time"

"At least I'll be respected by them, unlike you", the fair haired assistant replied back, bitterly.

"See? That's the kind of attitude you always have to show when defending your planet", Cynthia said, now pleased with her assistant. "About my comrades respect… they can keep it for themselves. They all run away like rats when this meeting was nothing but a project. I don't mind that kind of people's respect"

"And because of that, they thought that you were the best option to send as Martian representative in the annual Earth-Enders meeting… so, when we are finally made a colony, people will have at least one person to blame"

"And if we get to succeed, they'll jump at us, saying that they knew our potential from the very beginning and that they were always right", Cynthia said, shrugging.

"Nice scenario, but highly unlikely to happen"

"Why do you always have to see the negative side of things? You should also consider the positive possibilities"

"I'm not negative, I'm realistic. Maybe that's why you keep me at your side", Alessa said, seriously.

Cynthia smiled. "Maybe you are right. Or maybe because you have potential, or because you are too efficient and remind me of someone else", she said, as she recalled a certain black-suited, black glasses man she had met in her youth.

"Whatever", Alessa said, as she stared at the spaceport's hall. "Shouldn't be someone here to pick us up?", she asked, looking everywhere for someone from the Martian Embassy with some kind of despair.

"I don't know, but I've already spotted who I was looking for", Cynthia said smiling, as she waved at a familiar face.

Alessa looked in that direction, puzzled. A Latin-descent man, who should be in his late twenties –just like Cynthia- waved at them. If she was still doubting that he was the one waiting for them, she only had to see her boss running to him, quickly, leaving her luggage behind. What's more, Cynthia hugged the stranger tightly, thing that froze Alessa, so it was obvious that he was the one waiting for them.

"You look quite good in your pilot uniform", Cynthia teased the man, laughing.

"What can I say about your current look, Miss Diplomacy", he teased her back, after staring at their uniforms. "I've just arrived from the office, and I barely made it on time. Too bad that the space-travel had been banned, or I would have convinced the Company to lend me a plane, so I could take you as a top diplomat"

"I still doubt I'll make a good impression that way, either", Cynthia laughed. A touched smile arose in her face. "Thanks for picking us up, Elian. It's been a long time…", she said, softly.

"Sorry for interrupting…", Alessa finally said, softly. "But are you the one who came to pick us up?"

"Oh, what an idiot!", Cynthia cursed, annoyed with herself. "I haven't introduced you yet. Alessa, this is Elian Ferraro, a long time friend. Elian, this is Alessa Janthurs, my assistant"

"Nice to meet you", Elian said, grinning.

"The pleasure is mine", Alessa said, always diplomatically.

Elian chuckled at her. "Wow, you won the big one, Cynt! You have quite an assistant", he said, winking at the younger woman. "Not only a cutie, but a responsible lass, too"

"See? She suffers greatly by my side, but she's the one who stops me from doing worse things"

"Could it be worse?", Alessa thought in despair, but smiled at them, trying to look as calm as she could.

"Well, I'll take you to your hotel, and then, we are off to have dinner at home. The kids are anxious to see you", he said, staring at Cynthia.

The brown-haired woman smiled, touched.

"Am I supposed to go?", Alessa mumbled, not so diplomatically, to Cynthia, while Elian walked a few meters behind them, taking their luggage.

"We've already chat about it. If you don't feel like coming, there's no problem. Don't stay up too long, and don't wait for me because I don't know how much I'll stay with my friends"

"Alright, I'll see you in the morning, then", Alessa said, leaning to grab her suitcase.

However, Elian was quicker than her and grabbed it first, as well as Cynthia's one. "Don't worry, I'll take both of you to the Hotel, wait for you to check in, and then I'll take Cynthia away, for your rejoice. You'll have some time to rest", he said, winking at the younger girl.

Alessa smiled. That man understood how she felt.

"Hey, you say it as if I were a delinquent or something like that!", Cynthia complained, funnily.

"I'm afraid you've been spending much time in the cotton-like Diplomatic world, so I have the duty to bring you back to real Mars"

"Hehehe, have you heard, Alessa?", Cynthia asked the younger woman, teasingly. "He thinks the Diplomatic world is far too delicate"

"Well… it's not exactly like that", Alessa said, shyly.

"It's quite the opposite!", Cynthia stressed, strongly. "Now, let's get going, or I'll fall asleep right here"

Elian laughed and asked them to follow him, while he carried their bags.

"I wonder how this will end up", Cage Midwell ask rhetorically to his wife, Myona, as they walked to the door.

"Everything will be okay… I don't know why you are nervous", Myona said, while brushing Valerie's –their only child- light blue hair quickly. "And to believe that you were so enthusiastic when she first invited us", she teased him, smiling.

"Alright, here it goes", Cage said, ringing the bell.

In a few seconds, the door opened, and a long, light blue haired woman appeared, welcoming them.

"Cage! Myona! I'm so happy to see you again!", the grey-eyed woman exclaimed happily, hugging them as they came in.

Myona hugged her back, with more affection –real affection- than what she thought she would ever feel for her. "Hazel, you are looking great!", she finally said, after examining her former BIS companion for a short while.

Hazel blushed. "I look just like when I last saw you… all those years back", she said, shyly. "But come on in, we've been waiting for you!", she said, picking their wares and leaving them in a small side room.

Cage and Myona moved shyly around Hazel's home, while waiting for her to lead the way. They felt so odd about being there. They had never argued, and they had to admit that Hazel had behaved great and had been really helpful on Ares' last moments, but they hadn't talked again since his funeral, eight years ago. This visit was going to be something ground-shaking for everyone.

"I can't believe this beautiful young lady here is your daughter!", she said, kneeling down to see the girl better. "I'm Hazel, a friend of your parents. What's your name, sweetie?"

"I'm Valerie", the five-year-old girl replied, proudly.

"That's a nice name!", she said, smiling at her. Then she stared at Cage and Myona silently, with a thoughtful look in her face.

Myona nodded. There was no need for words there.

Her brother managed to fulfill his promise to be his sister's side, somehow.

"Alright. My kids are getting ready, they'll show up at any moment, so you'll have pals to play with tonight!", she told Valerie, cheerfully.

The young girl looked pleased, yet shyly.

"She's adorable", Hazel said to the proud parents, who were smiling with joy.

"She's a blessing", Myona said, lovingly. "How old are your children, Hazel?"

"Athina's almost eight, and Derek is four. We wanted to enjoy our first daughter before starting to look for the sibling"

"It's reasonable. With the hard work they give us…", Cage said, smiling.

"Yes, they give some work… but they are adorable and worth it"

Right then, several footsteps came running down the stairs, making some fuss. A light-haired girl appeared, with a blonde boy holding her hand. They were introduced to Myona and Cage by a proud Hazel, and then appeared a sixteen-year-old girl with brown hair and a bandanna tied up around her wrist, for some unknown fashion sense.

"Did you hire a nanny?", Myona asked, surprised. "If we were going to be such a nuisance, we would have just come for a coffee"

"Don't be silly!", Hazel chuckled, funnily. "She's Jess, one of Alen's gym trainees. She doesn't mind helping us from time to time"

"Hi", Jess greeted them, smiling lightly. She was overall serious, but tried to look cheerful. "I don't mind looking at the kids… don't worry"

Myona felt embarrassed. "No, please, don't misunderstand me. It's not that I don't trust you, it's just that I thought that we were more trouble than what we are worth"

"How can you say that?", Hazel nagged Myona, embarrassed. "I wouldn't have invited you if I thought that way!"

"Then, I'll go with the kids", Jess said, smiling.

As she walked into the living room, the kids –that were already introducing themselves and chatting- gathered around Jess, happily.

"That was a good idea, I have to admit", Cage said, chuckling.

Right then, Alen came down the stairs. He still had a broad back and a developed body, but those were the remaining of his gym training back in his teens. He had retired from the competitions a while after he decided to stay in Mars, due to an injury, and had been a gym instructor since.

He got into the room and greeted the couple. Even if he tried his best to look fine, something within him was troubling him. He tried his best to make it the least obvious he could.

He never felt too well around Hazel's friends, mostly because they've been involved in the incident that killed his sister. Unlike Hazel, he still held a grudge against the BIS members, especially Ares –when he was alive- and Myona.

Hazel smiled, trying to make everyone feel comfortable. "Well, let's go to dining room. Dinner's almost ready"

They followed her into the dining room, and soon, everyone was gathered around the table, helping themselves. The dinner went well, taking friendly about common places. Once the kids finished eating, they disappeared from the table, eager to play with Jess.

The grown-ups stared at each other, clueless. It was as if they found themselves naked after the kids left. So much exposure in front of people you hadn't seen in a while…

"How's your arm doing now, Cage?", Hazel asked with a smile, trying to break that icy atmosphere.

Cage smiled. "It's much better. Thanks for asking"

"That's how I met him again, do you remember, Alen?", she asked her husband, trying to make him more sociable. "I helped Dr Wobart when he came to the Hospital because he had fallen down and some heavy boxes fell over his arm"

"Oh, I remember you told me, now", Alen replied, smiling.

"I was quite shocked when I saw you there… I wasn't expecting to see you!"

"Yes, you looked quite puzzled", Hazel said, chuckling. "Apart of being in pain, that is"

"I mean… I knew you were a nurse, but I never thought of finding you right there!", Cage laughed, entertained. "I guess the surprise helped me to forget the pain I felt until then"

"Yeah, and I couldn't recognize you with the beard!", Hazel stated, cheerfully. "I knew I knew the person, but I couldn't tell from where!"

The couples laughed, finding the memory entertaining. They kept on chatting about their lives and businesses.

Myona and Cage's delivery company was running quite well, and it would be doing better if the UNSF hadn't banned civilian space-travel six years ago, after a small rebellion in Jupiter, with Martian aid. They had been keeping an eye on the planets, waiting for the moment to show up and take control of the situation. It was even rumored that Earth itself had started the rebellion, or that it was behind it in some way, but nothing came out of that, and they were proclaimed (almost by themselves) as the protectors of peace and justice in the universe. Space travel had been greatly controlled after the Aumann Incident, and there had been regular bans, but after the rebellion, it became completely forbidden.

Many lives had been severely damaged with that course of action. Again, many lives were lost, for an invented cause. The number of orphans and invalids rose again greatly. Hope seemed so distant… just like those past days. A few things were different, but most of the situation was the same. It seemed like only their ages, appearances and circumstances had changed.

Alen and Hazel looked quite the same, despite the ten-year span time that had gone through. A calm expression was reflected on Hazel's eyes, while Alen's seriousness became clearer.

Cage and Myona looked more mature than them, on the other hand. Cage's beard was something that made him look wise, somehow, and trustworthy. Myona now kept her long hair tied up in a single braid.

The children were now happy, playing together as if they had been friends since their birth, under Jess' cautious look. But once Valerie knew that that slim, brown-haired girl was a gymnast in training, she bugged her to show her some of her gym skill, and so, she ended up being more of a new toy for them rather than their watcher.

Myona stared at the kids, smiling. "Are you sure we aren't being a nuisance to her?"

"Of course not! If it would be like that, she wouldn't have accepted to help us", Hazel replied, quickly. "It's no trouble at all"

"She's good", Cage said, even if he knew nothing about gymnastics. "She seems so agile"

"She could be better, if she hadn't over trained by herself", Alen recalled, annoyed. "She's getting back in action, after a long recovery from a nasty fall"

"That's sad", Myona stated, pitifully.

"Yes, it is… but who else apart from us could say that life's not fair?", Alen stated, determined.

Again, silence filled the room.

"Well, there's no use of getting depressed over the things we know quite well and by heart", Hazel said, strongly. "Why don't you tell us a bit more about your business, guys?"

Cage and Myona stared at each other. While Alen looked the same, Hazel was like another person to them. Sure of herself, much stronger, much capable… quite different than what they recalled her.

Rather than following her studies to become an Arquitect, she switched careers and became a nurse, to everyone's surprise. Alen, on the other hand, kept on training and ended up becoming a gymnastics coach for a Martian club. He didn't have many paths left once the interplanetary flights were banned. Apart from the injury that took him out of the mats.

Cage and Myona decided to run an errands business, since it was what Cage knew best, and something he enjoyed. Myona became used to it quickly, and loved it as much as Cage did. They were their own bosses, the ones who wrote their own destiny.

Slowly, without realizing it, the former BIS members stopped seeing each other, and it was from time to time when they realize that someone was missing, or that it had been a while since they last heard about some of their former mates. They all regretted it, but no one could help it. They were all in their own businesses, trying to make things better, the best they could.

So, when Cage got into the Hospital and found Hazel working there, it was quite a shock, but a nice surprise, as well.

One of the few things that passed through his mind while greeting her after all those years was the certainty that Ares would have been delighted to see her like he found her. Hazel looked so fresh and natural, with a gentle smile in her lips, and the determination of the grown-ups. She didn´t look troubled at all, and that was refreshing and nice to see in her.

After the doctors took care of his bruised arm, they agreed to meet with their families, to remember old times… And that was how they ended up in Hazel's house.

"I wonder how everyone else is doing…", Myona said, smiling. "It's been ages since I last saw them"

"What about Semyl?", Hazel asked, surprised. "I thought you got in contact with her rather frequently"

"Yes, we used to send e-mails frequently, but then each one started to get busy in our own businesses. Last thing I knew, she was helping at the orphanage with Razma"

"Oh, my God, Razma!", Hazel smiled, in fond remembrance. "I knew those two would end up together… they are like flesh and meat"

"They still aren't together, perse", Myona explained. "But I hope they'll make up their mind some day"

Suddenly, a piano melody could be heard, filling the entire house. Myona felt slightly unease, yet touched. There was something about the melody, or rather the way it was played, that reminded her of her brother. She started following the music, and soon found Hazel's older daughter at a piano keyboard connected to a PC, with the rest of the kids staring at her in awe.

Myona clapped, touched, once the melody was over. The young Athina turned back, puzzled.

"It's alright, honey, don't be so shy", Hazel encouraged her daughter, smiling proudly.

The girl looked down, embarrassed, her cheeks bright pink.

Myona walked next to her and knelt down, so she could feel closer to her. "You are a great piano player, you shouldn't be ashamed of that"

"Thanks", the girl mumbled. "It's only that I'm not that used to have people around listening to me, apart than my parents, my teacher and Jess"

"But I'm like part of the family, so that's why I don't count", the teenager said, chuckling.

"Anyway, you shouldn't feel ashamed. It was a lovely piece", Myona went on. "How did you know that you wanted to play this instrument?"

Athina thought for a while. "I don't know. Piano and violin are my favorite instruments, but it's easier to practice piano with a PC, so that's how I ended up with it", she explained, now feeling better with the stranger.

Hazel stared at the scene, touched. She was feeling so proud of her little girl. Cage was a bit clueless, but he also found it remarkably good the fact that someone else could play a digital piano with such skill as his departed friend. Only Alen was uncomfortable at the entire situation, and he couldn't tell why.

"I hope I'll be able to listen to you again, some time, Athina", Myona said, smiling. "And don't think about quitting your piano classes, you are good"

The girl smiled proudly. "I won't!", she said, before leaving with her brother and Valerie to some other part of the house.

Myona stared back at her husband and friends. "What a delighting child she is", she commented. "Both of them are so cute!"

"Thanks", Hazel thanked, smiling broadly.

Again, seeing Hazel like that was like a kind of miracle. Myona felt that her brother had had the right to see her like that, but life had had another plans for him.

"Alright, let's go and have some coffee, don't you think?", Hazel asked, since everyone remained silent. She felt awkward, but someone had to enlighten things up. Especially since Alen wasn't proving to be of much help tonight.

"Alright, I'll help you with it", Myona offered.

"Hey, Alen, how's gymnastics going?", Cage asked him, trying to be friendly. "I think you don't have much troubles, being originally from Earth"

Alen finally seemed interested in the conversation. "Oh, fine, thanks for asking", he said, smirking. "I never regained my full shape, but yes, it was easier for me to compete here rather than on Earth, but I couldn't do much since in Earth I had already been replaced, and I wasn't accepted by the Martian federation because I wasn't a Martian, so I had no choice but to compete internally, and to become a trainer. And then, interplanetary flights became banned, so I got stuck here… apart from the fact that Hazel had everything here, you see. But I don't think it turned out badly…"

"You are a lucky man", Cage complimented him, patting him on the back. "Your kids are wonderful, and Hazel's a great person… It's so good to see her smiling like that. She's like another person… Don't let her loose that"

"I'll try", Alen replied, uncomfortable. Something kept on troubling him, even if he didn't know what it really was. Why those pieces of advice, that he hadn't even asked for? Why had they appeared in their life, once again? Couldn't they just decline the invitation?

Cage noticed that he wasn't wanted there, but there was no thing he could do to escape from that place without looking suspicious and unkind. He would have to act as if he had never noticed anything.

"Hey, why don't you tell me more about gymnastics?", Cage finally asked, rubbing his neck nervously. "I mean, with Myona we are trying to decide on an activity for our Valerie, but we can't reach an agreement. I would want her to take up piano, just like your daughter, but she insists that it would be better if she takes up ballet…"

"I'd gladly try to help, but why those two rather different choices?"

"Well… I thought about the piano as homage to a friend of mine… and she says ballet for the same reason… it's a long, boring story", Cage explained, omitting the fact that that friend meant Ares, just in case.

"Well, it's strange… but we can go and chat with Jess, who can give you a better idea of female gymnastics"

"Alright, let's go", Cage said, eager to leave that taciturn, icy-staring guy behind.

"Auntie Cynthia!", the childish cries welcomed the Diplomat, as soon as she got into Elian and Meredy's home.

Cynthia knelt down to hug her god-children, Katie and Nicholas, who clanged to her neck joyfully. She barely had time to hug Meredy when they came after her to beg her to join their games and tell her all the things that had happened to them since the last time she had seen them.

For an hour and a half, Cynthia stopped being the Diplomat, and became the troublemaker child she had once been, making more fuss than the children. She played with them, laid over the floor with them, chase after them, and told them stories from her childhood, which she felt so distant now that she was a grown-up. She watched TV with them, and enjoyed the cartoons as if she was just another child.

Meredy and Elian watched her from afar, touched. Cynthia looked quite different than when she got into the house, tidy and serious. She laughed loudly, her hair was a mess, and her clothes weren't as tidy as they were supposed to be. But she was happy.

Her married friends felt pity for her, since she was still single, and they knew she would make a great mother. They also noticed that something was troubling her. A dark shadow seemed to be over her.

That strange shadow of doubt and despair was more troubling for them, rather than her single status.

Since it was a week-day, the kids had to leave her sooner than what they wanted, and went to sleep under protest, after making Cynthia promise that she would visit them sooner. Only after that, they left obediently, as their parents told them.

"Please, excuse them. They had been counting the days to see you", Meredy said, as she returned from her children's room.

"Oh, it's fine! I was eager to see them again!", the brown-haired woman said, smiling weakly, leaning over a two bodies sofa. She was exhausted, but satisfied. "They are so beautiful, so full of life", she said, turning taciturn.

"There was a time when you too were full of energy", Elian stated, worried.

Cynthia made a sad grin. "So it's too obvious, isn't it?", she asked, trying to cheer herself up. "That I'm beaten, I mean. I'm not done with, yet…"

The married couple held hands, looking at their tired friend, concerned. It was sad to see Cynthia feeling as if there was no way out. Maybe she needed another thing to think about to look as they recalled her. Meredy thought that a little bit of nonsense chat could help, and so, she tried her idea out.

"It's gossip time!", Meredy exclaimed, enthusiastically. "I can't keep it for myself anymore... You won't believe this one! Matt ended up being gay!"

Cynthia rose an eyebrow, startled. That was just imposible. "You say gay... but gay as a happy person, or gay as... gay?"

Evidently, when she was off-duty, the formal vocabulary disappeared from her mouth. Or it was just the surprise that lead her to that kind of statement. Matt had always been a terrible skirt-chaser, and she knew he acted as some girl's gay friend -or tried to- to gain her trust, but she never thought he would get that far.

"Gay as the latter one", Elian teased her, playing with his wife's hair.

Cynthia let go a deep sigh. "I'll have to see it to really believe it…"

"Then, pay a visit to Aretha at the TV studio. He's her stylist, assistant, everything"

Cynthia's eyes and mouth opened wide, astonished. "No, thanks… I'll believe you, then. I always thought that those two would end up together… but well, not like that"

"Yes, it was a real surprise when we got to know"

"Just look at me, and tell me if it's not a surprise!", the young Diplomat exclaimed.

"Have you seen Aretha's show?", Elian asked her, funnily.

"I haven't had the strength… nor the time, to finish watching a single show of hers", Cynthia admitted, disgusted. "I mean… too much gossip. She must feel in Heaven with it. She still keeps sending me invitations to her show, but I happen to lose them everytime", she explained, mischievously. "My assistant is so reckless…", she said, sarcastically.

"Not that I can blame you", the young man admitted, laughing.

The three of them turned silent, smiling at each other. But Cynthia got worried again soon.

"Cynt, what's troubling you?", Meredy finally asked, worried.

Cynthia sighed. She knew they would notice. And she knew she needed to talk about her pain with someone. Having the opportunity right in front of her, she wasn't going to let it go.

"I'd always been somewhat of a rebel. Then, I knew I shouldn't show everyone how I really was, and played the skeptic and sarcastic type. College came, and I've woven many dreams, that my job ended up annihilating, because there's no better word than that to describe my dreams' whereabouts. I tried to remain true to myself, while pretending to be too strong and intelligent to believe in childish things. Now, I'm a full-time sceptic... who has an overly obedient and realistic secretary by her side", Cynthia complained, annoyed with her life. "Yes, I needed some time off, to see you, guys, so I got to remember what life was like before I condenmed myself to this slavery"

Elian and Meredy, holding hands, stared at their hopeless friend. That wasn't the Cynthia they knew. Something was wrong, and she had to become her old self someway... but they didn't know how to help her.

"I'm a bitter, defeated, already tired woman… and I'm not even 30 yet…", she complained, in a whisper.

Meredy dropped Elian's hand and run towards her friend, in angst. She hugged her silently, while her mind was in an emotional turmoil. Meredy couldn't tolerate it anymore. That one sitting in front of her wasn't Cynthia, but her shadow. Cynthia wouldn't give up that soon. Alright, Cynthia's job was quite different to anything that she – a simple Primary School teacher – could imagine. But it couldn't kill Cynthia like that. That couldn't happen.

"It's not like that!", Meredy finally let go, anxiously. "This isn't how you are supposed to be! Where's the girl that got into an unknown OF while running away from an attack? Where's the girl that used to oppose to our Earth-loving teachers back at High School? Where's the young woman that went against her family's wishes and became a Diplomat? And where's the strength that makes her face her superiors when they are being just plain stupid?"

Cynthia stared at her friend, teary-eyed. She was grateful for that description she made of herself… but it only made things worse. Slowly, she said, "It's all gone… that's what I'm looking for now, and I can´t seem to find it"

"You are just disheartened, but this will end up sooner or later… it's just something temporary… Don't give up, this isn't like you"

"It's incredible… when I was 17 I could lecture my cousin about what she had to do with her life… and now I don't know what to do with mine…", the young diplomat remembered, wishing that the old, glorious day would return. It was in times like this when the past looked sexy and bright, compared to her gray-to-black present.

"Maybe you need to spend some days with Hazel, and you'll get back all your energy"

"I doubt it… Alen is too jealous and I don't really get on well with him, for some unknown reason. That, and my weird schedule made us apart", Cynthia said, defeated once more. How she allowed Alen to separate them, that was something that she still couldn't tell. If she hadn't been working so much, she would have realized sooner, and then, she would have done something about it at the correct time.

Now, it was too late. For everything. That was what she thought.

Meredy hugged her friend silently, while Elian thought of a way to lighten them up. But it was going to be hard. He also needed to see the Cynthia he knew. For Meredy's and for Cynthia's sake.

He coughed, trying to get their attention. "I think that you are just listening to your biological clocks needles moving… and you are still young for that! I think you are just in a normal analytical phase… only that you aren't 20 anymore… but you aren't 30 yet. You should be ashamed of making a fuss about that, when you have to deal with a planet's independence at work", he teased her, smiling.

Cynthia raised her head, surprised. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was just something that was going on in her unconscious, popping up whenever she had some free time. That was one of the reasons why she hadn't any of it.

"Do you think so?"

"He's right… you have to explode some way or the other… too bad that it's at home", Meredy said, pleased with her husband's occurrence. "Well, what are friends for, if not trying to help each other when the other is down?"

"They make a free psychologist", Cynthia said, smiling between her last sobs. She stared at her friends, and thought that they made a perfect couple. Even if she could feel jealous of Meredy, she knew that she could be too troublesome for someone like Elian, who needed his time to come over with a good way out. She stayed silent, realizing that she wanted to meet someone that could treat her well and look after her.

"What are you thinking about now?", he asked her. "I hope it's not the begging of the angst phase 2"

Cynthia smiled, confidently. "No, I won't grant you the honor… I have to get ready for the independence of a planet", she smiled, in her distinctive way that showed equal parts of seriousness and silliness.

Elian embraced Meredy lovingly, and she rested her head over his chest, smiling proudly. Cynthia wasn't completely lost… just a bit tired. There was still hope ahead to see her battling against the diplomats in her full glory, once again.

Dinner had already ended at Hazel's home, and the guys were talking about some trivial thing like sports leagues, while the women were back in the kitchen, taking care of the dishes and getting the coffee ready, even if Hazel would have wanted Myona to stay back in the dining room.

"So… Athina?", Myona asked, smiling.

"Aha", Hazel just replied, taking some glasses to the dish-washer. "So… Valerie, uh?"

Many years had gone by, and Hazel had changed much, but she still kept on being the most defensive person on the Universe, in Myona's opinion.

Myona smiled broadly. She was expecting something like that, sooner or later. She was still the Hazel she had known.

Hazel stared at Myona, smiling lightly. She knew what the purple-haired young woman was thinking of.

Myona smiled back, sighing. "Yes… we needed him to be with us in a way…"

"Me too", Hazel said, still remembering the Athenea frame that had saved her life in a way. "We made a small pact with Alen: none of our kids would carry the name of our deceased loved ones… We already have them in our hearts. But with Athina was different…"

"I guess it's one of those life-long scars, ain't it?"

"I suppose… or just our strong wish to have our departed ones together with us"

"Didn't he complain?"

"No, because I've never told him the frame's true name… or if I did, he didn't seem to remember… or that's what he made me believe"

Myona stayed silent, thinking that Hazel's relationship with Alen was based in many hidden feelings, but she wasn't someone that could say something against that. She herself had been a pile of secrets for everyone else. But now she knew that it wasn't something right to do.

"Hazel… I know I'm not the most appropriate person to talk about this… but aren't you hiding many things to Alen?"

Hazel stared at her confused. "What else am I hiding him, apart from my former frame's name?", she asked, unable to understand her reasoning. "I have nothing to hide from him, but now I know that sometimes, you can't tell some other person the entire truth, because you can't remedy what has been done, and you hurt them badly", she explained, thoughtfully. "I'll give you a crystal clear example: I've told Alen that both you and your brother had been involved in the Bonaparte III incident. What came out of it? Nothing good. Alen now knows who were behind his sister's death. I made him bitter, because he knows who to blame, but he can't do anything about it, and doesn't seem to be able to let it go. What's okay about it? But at that moment I needed to tell him what I knew. Now, years after that, I wished I had kept my mouth shut"

Myona looked down. Now, that was why Alen stared at her coldly whenever she realized it. But he also looked cold at Cage, and at everyone from BIS.

"Can you understand me now?", Hazel asked her, softly. "I don't have anything to hide, but if I would have something like that, I would think it twice before talking. I don't want to hurt anyone more than what he or she already is"

Myona would have wanted to ask something more, but she heard the men coming to the kitchen, so she stayed silent.

It was time to leave. A dinner had been enough to make them all recall all those memories hidden under the carpet, and start wondering and thinking in "what if" scenarios, that would be interrupted by their children's needs.

After a quick coffee, Myona and Cage left, feeling strange, both for Hazel and for them. The meeting happened too quickly, they didn't have enough time to think about it. It was already in the past. They spent more time thinking about it, anticipating it, than what it really lasted.

Hazel, on the other hand, felt well, but tired. She needed to test herself, facing her past, and she had been victorious, for once. But it was too soon to claim victory, she already knew that, but couldn't help feeling okay about the dinner.

Alen was serious. Something was troubling him. Some nasty thoughts were taking over his mind. He tried to remain calm, but he couldn't.

Hazel, noticing that he was worried about something, hugged him, sweetly. "Thanks for tonight, darling. You were okay… you could have smiled a bit more, but you were okay"

"It was nothing, you don't have to thank me", he said, trying to sound natural.

But something was already bugging him. The piano melody, the friend's tribute, Myona's touched expression at Athina…

No, things weren't going to be the same for him since that night on…

Cynthia walked into her hotel room cautiously, trying not to make much noise to avoid waking up Alessa Janthurs, her assistant. However, she found her fully awake when she opened the door, taking a look at some memos and notes.

"Didn't I tell you to have a good night's sleep?", Cynthia asked her, annoyed. "I knew I was going to return late from my dinner…"

"I know, but I just couldn't sleep properly", the blonde woman replied, still reading some of their notes. "I want to be able to be helpful in a way, so I want to remember every little detail, everything could be helpful"

"Sorry to ruin your enthusiasm, but don't you remember from your College days –which aren't still over- that you can't keep everything in your mind? Something will surely leak…", the brown-haired Diplomat said, taking off her shoes and kicking them close to her bed.

"I know that… it's just that I couldn't sleep, and I thought that this would be better rather than wasting my time, waiting for the sleep to come", she explained, annoyed.

At times like that one, she hated being Miss Stack's assistant. When she first leant that Cynthia was going to be her tutor during her internship, she was delighted, but the feeling vanished quickly after meeting her. Cynthia was too disorganized, and too passionate about everything. She let words go out from her mouth before thinking well before talking, she argued with her superiors constantly… It was as if she did everything on purpose to oppose her superiors. However, she got results, from time to time, or was helpful. That was why she still remained in the government. But what surprised her greatly was that Cynthia hadn't already dispatched her, since they clashed way too frequently.

Cynthia smiled lightly at her companion, guessing some of the girl's feelings. "I know… I used to do that myself… Sometimes, I still do, thinking that details could bring out a whole new world for us… but I've already hit my head against the wall too many times, or I have been disappointed by the higher circles… You are still too soft and innocent; you are still fresh… which is a great thing, in my opinion. I couldn't preserve my own innocence and hopeful attitude through all these years, and I ended up developing my sarcasm and rebellious side even more to compensate my loss. It's nothing personal against you, I'm not determined to make you run away, annoyed at everything", she explained, tired.

Alessa sighed, trying to put some order in her mess of papers. The only idea of ending up bitter and sarcastic like her superior too young was a big ghost for her, a ghost that she kept on attacking. She was already more serious than Cynthia. Was the path already closed for her? Whatever, Cynthia became what she was now because of the higher-ups, according to her…

"Do you think we'll be able to do something for Mars?", Alessa asked, discouraged.

"I just hope so… we have to win a little battle, at least…", Cynthia wished, tired.

Author notes: Alright, welcome to ZoE: Countdown's long awaited, public claimed sequel! Alright, no one waited, no one asked for it, only my subconscious to get rid of this and focus on another things. Whatever. I hope you'll enjoy this one as much as I enjoy writing it.

One thing that hooked me up to FoM was its cast, it's one of the few games that made me care so much about it, and that made me like almost everyone. Hence, the fanfics. On the other side, introducing my own characters in that universe is kind of easy, and I got to love them just as the cannon (alright, they are mine, who doesn't love one's own work? ;) ).

I hope you'll enjoy this work as I enjoy writing it, and I hope it won't be disappointing. Maybe some parts will end up like "hey, this needed some more work, a little bit of more background", but I'll try to pull them the best I can. I'm restricting myself in the number of chapters and pages per chapter, so I don't end up writing another "beast" like Countdown.

The talk about choosing either learning to play the piano or ballet for Valerie, Myona's daughter, has its base in the sort of game prequel "Tomorrow will be a brighter day", where a certain friend of Ares and Myona was a ballet dancer, while Ares played the piano. Just to wrap up things nicely, in case you haven't read that small fic/have completely forgotten about it (I don't blame you, hahaha).

Well, I hope you'll stay around for this second ride… every comment is deeply appreciated, and don't hesitate to point out weird lines or whatever you find convenient. See you!