I honestly think I might have sprained something in my brain trying to write this damn thing. I think I'm back in the swing of writing things for reals again, so expect more updates from me very soon (Lift will definitely be next on my hit list). This was a fanfic request from ZeroGal a little less than a year ago, but because of school/job/college related issues, it took me until now to finish it. I actually got this story back from my beta almost three weeks ago, but I decided at the last minute that I wanted to change some things and added two big scenes. I'll hand this off to my beta again tomorrow, but for now, I'm posting this fanfic as it is. Zero has been far too patient with me to be kept waiting any longer.

Here. Have more Chaos Cammerce/fatherly!Grappler musings. Warnings for canon character deaths and minor meions slash. Also, this is my AU Chaos-verse, so it's not the same universe as my last fanfic with Chaos Cammerce or the same universe as ZeroGal's original Chaos-verse. As always, thanks goes to Ultimate Evil Person for the beta. Constructive criticism is loved. Also, you guys can follow me on my Tumblr if you want updates on my writing. Concrit is loved and cuddled. I only own a few of my briefly named OCs and Chaos Cammerce belongs to ZeroGal.

I'm going to bed. Night, kids.


I am not prepared to be strong

I just can't believe I am losing you

Not prepared to carry on

Count all the times you were there protecting me

Losing You – Dead by April

i

Grappler Gouf's death had been an accident.

In almost comedic contrast to the horrible way it happened, that particular afternoon in Neotopia had been beautiful. The weather was pleasant and practically abuzz with warmth, absolutely perfect and serene, the trees fully decked in the vibrant green of oncoming summer. Considering the string of severe thunderstorms that claimed the majority of the week beforehand, it was practically a godsend to be blessed with such gorgeous weather. It was a fantastic opportunity for families to take the day off for a picnic or go through a stroll in Peace Park. Or for running a standard reconnaissance mission, if you just so happened to be from the Dark Axis.

According to Blanc Base's long range scanners, the Zakorello Gate opened up a little ways beyond Neotopia's main metropolis in an open field at approximately fourteen hundred hours. They brought to Komusai with them but were otherwise grievously unarmed, even between twenty Zakos and all three squadron leaders – Grappler Gouf among them. It was obvious from the start that they weren't planning to fight. At first, she was initially convinced that Chief Haro would just give them the order to let them be so they could spare their ammo for an actual attack. After all, the last thing they wanted to do was draw the attention of the public by starting a full blown out fight. The field where the Dark Axis touched down wasn't near a civilian sector per say, but it would have been better to not to risk exposing the SDG by going after weakened enemies. Besides, they had left the Dark Axis alone plenty of times before when they ran their recon missions. They never hurt anyone, so long as they were left alone.

That was not the case this time, though. Chief Haro ordered that they arm the gunperries and begin an immediate assault. Moments like this were ones where she had wonder who was really more violent ─ the Dark Axis or the SDG. Moments like this, she could barely tell the difference.

And that was how what was once a beautiful afternoon took a fateful turn for something straight out of Chaos Cammerce's worst nightmare.

The Dark Axis really was seriously unarmed, she realized once they showed up at the field. They all had weapons, true, but the Zakos had at least only two solid clips each. None of them were quick on reloading either, so the SDG would simply be able to neutralize them before they had a chance to restock and attack a second time. Zapper Zaku had all his standard weapons as well, but only so many rounds that he could fire – or waste, since his aim and lack thereof depth-perception was something awfully pitiful – before he had to resort to brute melee. Destroyer Dom was even worse off, unbelievingly armed with just a standard rocket launcher and his mace. Grappler Gouf only had his sword and bare claws: not even the comfort of his shield or second arm attachment on standby.

Taking them down should have been easy. They should have been able to detain them without a hitch. They should have been able to do something without Grappler dying so terribly in the process, but they couldn't.

When they were close enough to the Dark Axis to see their poor expressions smothered in disbelieving confusion − before the Axians could hope to call the Zakorello Gate back to evacuate − Captain Gundam gave the shouted order to attack. All of them abandoned the gunperries midflight and set themselves loose on the Axians, Chaos Cammerce among them. Guneagle was the first to dive bomb into the fray, firing off rounds at Zakos who barely managed to dodge his fast barrage of laser fire. Captain, Zero, and Bakunetsumaru were right behind him, flanking out on either side to engage their respective targets. As Guneagle immediately, viciously set himself upon another group of frightened Zakos, Captain lunged at Destroyer Dom and barely managed to dodge a swing of the blunt end of a rocket launcher before delivering knee to the heavy mech's stomach. Bakunetsumaru went after Zapper Zaku, introducing the maroon mech to the sharp point of his twin blades, and Zero engaged Grappler Gouf in a sword fight that quickly escalated into a venomous blood duel. In the midst of all of all the bedlam, Chaos Cammerce busied herself trying to stop a second cluster of Zakos from fleeing back to the Komusai, presumably to activate the weapons system to at least help their comrades in their losing fight. She had turned her back to most of the fighting, focusing the entirety of her attention on stopping those few Zakos.

That was when it happened.

"CHAOS!"

The sound of her name registered in her CPU, as did something else. Rapidly coming up behind her, detected just barely on her radar by the miracle of her briskly responsive battle computer, was a concentrated burst of energy: a stray shot from someone's plasma rifle. Captain and Guneagle were the only ones equipped with energy weapons on the field that day, but the distinct energy profile that it gave off did not heed the same signature as any weapon her two friends wielded. No, this was definitely a burst of plasma – a curious thing too, noting that no one on the field that afternoon had plasma rifles in their personal arsenal. At least, not that she knew of. Maybe the Dark Axis wasn't quite as unarmed as they appeared to be. There was also something else striding quickly beside her from the right side, closer and closer, fifteen, ten feet, five feet…

It all happened so fast. Something slammed into her full force from the side, knocking her sideways so violently that the breath was knocked right out of her intake pumps. At first she thought it was Zero – he had been the closest Gundam to her – but the distinct flash of cobalt in her vision indicated that it was actually Grappler Gouf. Her creator somehow must have managed to disengage himself from his fight with Zero to charge and tackle her. Why he did it became very clear a moment later. As she tumbled to the ground, disorientated, equilibrium ruined and twisting to look at the squadron leader in stunned befuddlement, there was a distinct hiss of an energy weapon's concentrated fire. It was the burst of plasma right upon them, now. The oxygen all around her felt choked, strangled, as the molecules in the air heated and vibrated with the disruption of the plasma blast. Whatever kind of weapon it was, it was very powerful. Thank Primus that Grappler had knocked her out of the way.

And that was when it hit her.

Grappler Gouf knocked her out of the way.

Her creator's reflexes were fast enough to save her, but ultimately, there was no time left for him to save himself. Milliseconds before the plasma burst hit him, she caught the briefest glance of his face. It was the way she would remember him forever, and it was not a pleasant image. His mouthpiece twisted in indignation, optic bright and practically glowing white in anger… he was looking at her, too. They locked gazes only briefly, red against pink… and then he was gone forever.

And that was how Lord Grappler Gouf died.

The blast scorched through his armor like it was weak plastic rather than reinforced Axium alloys, tearing into him without a sliver of mercy. There was a hiss of acidic energy, a flash of brilliant light, and the rumble and sharp boom of an explosion that completely stunned her. Between the disorienting stimuli in the air from the highly concentrated energy weapon and the sudden burst of energy that leapt off Grappler Gouf's wildly flailing energy signature, Chaos Cammerce was thrust headfirst into total pandemonium. Blind, deaf and tumbling, she hit the ground and whacked her head hard enough to make black and red lights bloom across her failing optical relay. Barcode and static flashed in her processor as her battle computer fell offline and tried to reboot, only to glitch and further block out the rest of the world. Her logic center was still scrambling to make sense of what just happened when she finally detected that something was on top of her, pinning her to the scalding grass. The offending weight was heavy, unmoving, burning, and soaking her with some kind of offensive smelling fluid, like burning tar and rubber mixed into one foul concoction. She shoved the aberrant mass off her with an unsteady heave and rolled away onto her back.

When her vision cleared and her processor began to finally recollect itself from the intense whiplash, she saw Grappler was lying beside her at barely an arm's length. He was laying on his right side, his head twisted at an odd angle, just staring at her. He looked shocked, wearing an identical look to the one he wore last week when she slapped him across the face during a close combat brawl, but that expression had been hilarious. The look he was giving her now was haunting, intimidating and eerie all at once. His optic was flared bright and boring straight into her, unseeing and glazed, and he was lying very, very still.

She had seen plenty of gruesome injuries before: especially in the slideshows of successful Dark Axis dimensional takeovers Grappler Gouf used to show her on the Magna Musai, before she left for Neotopia and joined the SDG. Those horrible images of brutally slain Gundams were disturbing enough, yes, but to see such carnage up close and afflicting someone she knew was an even worse experience. In fact, it was so horrible that she couldn't quite grip just how bad the damage Grappler had taken was. Everything felt so disconnected that it felt more like a nightmare than reality. Her creator's chest was a mangled mess of profusely bleeding oil and energon and mutilated wires. The once pristine metal of his armored chassis was jagged and torn, protruding sharp and serrated edges like teeth in the jaws of a monster. It was a strange thing to be able to see his mutilated fuel pump too, writhing and still attempting to push fuel through the severed junction cables. She even had an excellent view of his chrome engine, of his burst fuel tank, of his shattered spark chamber with its rapidly dwindling spark and all the way through the other side, where the plasma had eaten all the way through his back and spinal support…

Chaos Cammerce felt her breakfast rush up into her throat, and she barely had time to pitch herself to the side and retract her mask before she purged everything of value in her tank. There was distinct tang of energon in her mouth: she was bleeding internally, probably from the force of the explosion rupturing a cable inside of her. It finally occurred to her that the black and pink fluid staining her armor was his. It was then that she realized that she could have very easily been the one who was shot instead. If Grappler hadn't shoved her out of the way, if he hadn't of taken the blow in her place, then she… she

Grappler Gouf saved her life, and in the process, he had sacrificed his own.

There was a sound steadily rising around her, diving deep into her audios and slowly building to a crescendo inside her head. At first she thought it was her CPU malfunctioning again from shock, but then her logic chip registered that it was actually someone screaming. Not necessarily in agony – Grappler wasn't making a sound, so it couldn't have been him – but the howl was painful enough. By the time she was able to collect her bearings and focus on something else other than her disjoined hearing, Zapper Zaku was suddenly dropping down onto his knees beside Grappler. She briefly had to wonder if she was imagining the look of unrestrained anguish knotting his face, twisting his mouthpiece into a fierce grimace and causing his optic to sparkle with moisture, but then again, Chaos Cammerce's wasn't sure of anything anymore. Regardless, Zapper Zaku was in front of her, armor rattling as he trembled and gently lifted Grappler's upper torso into his arms. The broken cobalt mech made no sound even as something vital in his shattered shell popped and snapped. Probably part of his already spinal strut, she imagined. Zapper wordlessly hunched over the other Axian and simply held on, shaking.

The battlefield was as silent as death.

Tragically ironic, wasn't it?

While her remarkably keen sensory array usually provided her with a benefiting edge in battle, it acted only as a curse to her now. As if watching her creator die was not bad enough, she could practically feel his death as well. His choked, wet engine revolutions died down until they went silent and the block shuddered to a hiccupping stop. His fuel pump continued to bleed out until there was nothing left to circulate, whereupon that stopped functioning as well. His systems shut down quickly, one after another, until all that was left was his spark and quickly failing CPU. The spark suddenly gave an anti-climactic pop and fizzled out of existence. The very moment it did, Grappler Gouf shuddered, breath hitching and catching in his throat, and then he was completely gone.

Grappler Gouf was dead.

Grappler Gouf − her creator, her mentor, the only mech from the Dark Axis who showed interest in retrieving her simply because she was his creation and not just a traitor − was dead.

Chaos Cammerce's logic center crashed.

Zapper Zaku trembled violently, curling over the other Axian in a rare display of legitimate sorrow for his teammate, before suddenly snapping his gaze up and casting a bloodily aglow glare toward someone out of Chaos Cammerce's range of vision. She didn't bother to follow his sights. Her optics were locked on Grappler's graying corpse.

"I'm going to kill you," Zapper Zaku said flatly. His rumbling voice sounded distant, despite his not even being more than three feet from her. Slowly, surely, his voice rose from a harsh whisper to a ferocious roar. "I am going to kill you. Do you hear me? Do you HEAR ME!You are a DEAD MECH! DEAD!"

Chaos wasn't sure what happened after that, but she blacked out. The sound of a scuffle, shouting, and then absolutely nothing. The next time she came to, she found herself laying on her back with an oxygen mask pressed over her exposed faceplate. There was a familiar tingling in her equilibrium sensors that she recognized right away, no matter how scrambled they were: they were flying in one of the gunperries. When had they come back to the meadow? How long had she been out?

Had she simply been having a nightmare? She hoped so.

Captain Gundam was directly above her. His own faceplate was retracted, and the usually stoic mech's face was a mask of worry. "How are you functioning, Chaos Cammerce?"

She opened her mouth to try to speak, but no words came out. Only a choked, small sound. Not quite a whimper but neither a whine. It was a sad noise. The inside of her mouth tasted like vomit and she realized dazedly that she hadn't been dreaming. She could feel the drying solution of Grappler's life fluid against her armor, sticky like tar.

"You almost killed her," Bakunetsumaru was raving in the background, surprisingly angry sounding. The Arkian Gundam was usually the last person to jump to her defense given his less than trusting stance toward her origins, and she honestly had to wonder if she was hallucinating his next few lines of dialogue. "You never would have been able to hit that Zako soldier anyways, and yet you still fired! Once more, you fired with your weapon on its highest setting, no less. This is why we stopped using guns in Ark centuries ago. Shooting an enemy in the back is one thing−"

"We never aimed to kill anyone today," Zero voice chimed in. Despite the cool, soothing alto of his voice, there was a distinct fire of anger beneath, cleverly and skillfully hidden. "Not only did the Dark Axis get away when our intent was to corral them, but now a mech has needlessly died. The Dark Axis may be scum, but… he saved her. That could have been her who was killed today, Guneagle. Let's just be thankful that Lord Grappler Gouf was able to compensate for your arrogance today, despite how dearly he had to pay."

"I'm sorry," a small voice said. Guneagle. "I just… I thought I could get him. How was I supposed to know that Zako was going to drop out of the way? How was I supposed to know she was in the way? I mean, sure, I'm glad that that other guy took the hit but… but I never wanted to hurt Chao−"

Before she blacked out, she turned her head and saw something lying not too far away. Covered in a thin, energon stained sheet, tied down to the floor of the gunperry like a piece of cargo.

Slipping into an uneasy recharge with that image in her head, she came to a sad, unsettling realization.

Grappler Gouf's death had been an accident, but the fact remained that it was still entirely her fault.

ii

She did not sleep well after that. Not anymore.

Probably never again.

On the night that he died, she did not go to sleep. After being cleaned up and given five days off-duty to recover from her "minor" injuries, she stayed awake for forty-two hours before passing out in the training room, where she had to be wheeled into Kao Lynn's office to be checked over and be forcibly put under. Even then, an attendant had to see her instead of Kao Lynn because the infirmary was being dedicated to taking apart and analyzing Grappler Gouf's body. The humans called it an autopsy, except they weren't looking for what killed him: how he died was already painfully obvious. Instead, they were dissecting him like some kind of cheap science experiment, sort of like the time Shute and Sayla had to dissect frogs for school once. Except Grappler wasn't a frog. This hardly stopped the SDG from treating his corpse like one, though.

His image haunted her dreams like an ominous force that refused to leave her alone. When the nurse knocked her out, she didn't dream. The next time she woke up and managed to finally eat something without wanting to purge it right away, she tried to take a quick nap. Her dream, at first, was relatively peaceful. It took place in Peace Park, sometime in the early spring when the lilacs were starting to bloom, and she was sitting on a bench with a human woman who she did not recognize. The woman was eagerly pointing out boats on the waterfront and Chaos Cammerce found herself genuinely enjoying her company until she heard someone shout somewhere behind her. She turned to find the source and saw no one. The park was empty and everything had gone deathly still. When she turned back around, intending to address the woman, she was gone too.

And in her place was Grappler Gouf, staring at her.

She woke up screaming. No one heard her.

This was hardly the worst dream, though. For the next three nights that followed, while she slipped further and further into what she imagined had to be "depression" – she was unaware if her programming actually allowed for such a thing, although her Dark Axis emotion coding was elaborate enough to render the idea believable – she continued to see him. She would constantly wake up in the middle of the night whenever she saw him, so how many times he actually made an appearance became vague to her. Sometimes she couldn't even remember what the dreams were about, just that Grappler had somehow been in them. They were never "bad" per say, but Grappler's image was haunting nevertheless. Once she was walking down a street, only to realize that she was walking toward the now dead squadron leader. Other times she would be navigating the hallways of Blanc Base, barely able to keep up as she followed him along the long winding corridors.

The worst dream happened on the third night, early in the morning. A violent memory purge, or as Shute might have called it, a nightmare. It was a scene-for-scene replay of the battle that had killed him, except this time it was raining and swirling thunderheads were looming menacingly overhead. When Grappler tackled her out of the way to save her, time slowed, and from outside her own body, she could see how devastating the blast actually was. It ripped him apart, melting through his armor and corroding, eating, way at his insides. The look of sheer agony that twisted his face, the overpowering flare of pain receptors across his neural net, the way his spark was twisting and writing in unrestrained pain inside the oxidizing spark chamber…

"I'm sorry," he said.

She woke up screaming. Again. This time someone finally heard her.

"Babe?" Guneagle was suddenly in her room, quickly crossing the space between the door and her berth. He sat down on the edge of the berth and took her up in his arms. The automatic sliding door was slightly akimbo, indicating that it had actually been forced open and broken. Chief Haro wasn't going to be happy. Guneagle was none the wiser. "You alright? Baby, what's wrong?"

"Just a bad purge," she croaked before she could stop herself, before she could get a handle on her already frayed emotions. She came to the sudden, horrified realization that she was crying. It was the third time it had ever happened in her entire life, and the first it had happened since joining the Gundam Force. Angrily, furiously, she tried to swipe at them. It vaguely occurred to her that this mech was the one who had killed Grappler Gouf to begin with, but in spite of herself, her processor refused to let her acknowledge it. She was far too busy with her tattered sentiments to talk to him about it. Grappler Gouf's death was an accident, after all: an accident that was her fault, but an accident nevertheless. Guneagle never meant to shoot him in the back, and she rather liked being held by the brash flier. "I'll be okay."

Guneagle held her tighter. His eyes were bright in the darkness, their stunning green a shocking contrast to her bright red. "You want to talk about it?"

"No."

"Do you want me to stay?"

She nodded and turned her head into his chest. "Yes."

"Okay," he cooed.

They sat there for a long time, all through the rest of the night and well into the morning.

iii

Actually, the first time she ever cried was very shortly after she had first come online, and it was a time she remembered well.

A hand touched her arm. "Wake up."

Her first conscious thought had been how bright it was. The room she was born in was in a smallish workshop with just a workbench, chair, and gurney for furnishings. The only source of light came from a crude lamp fixture above the bed, which swung back and forth whenever a tremor overtook the ground beneath her. She found herself blinking in disorientation at it, trying separate the lingering fogginess of her mind from everything coming so quickly into focus. The light, the sounds, the smells… the sensation of a lingering hand clasped around her shoulder, trying to shake her awake.

"I know you're awake," the shape next to her said, exhausted and harsh sounding. She turned her head to look at him and squinted. Color was starting to fill in the sepia haze, splashing her surroundings with much more interesting shades. The mech at her bedside had a fine sheen of precipitation covering his cobalt armor, and his pink optic was locked directly on her. She found herself shrinking back from that intense stare, but he gripped her shoulder and held her in place. "Easy, easy. You're fine. How do you feel?"

She chewed on her bottom lip. "Um…"

The mech sighed, reaching up with his other hand to scrub tiredly at his face. His fingers lightly touched the deep scar in his helm that up away from the mouth of his visor. "Damn it. Your language index must still be booting up. Do you even understand what I'm saying?"

Without even realizing what she was doing, she moved her head up and down. Then words finally did come to her. "I do. I just don't think I'm speaking the same language as you."

"That's Nordic English," he said. Now the sound of his voice changed. It was smoother than before, a lot less intimidating to listen to. He sounded relieved. "I was speaking the Arkian dialect Japanese before. It was the first one I programmed in your language center, so I figured you would have tried to use that first. It's easier to speak, too."

"I don't like it," she said. "It's too… mean sounding. Can we keep speaking this language?"

He laughed. Still tired, still exhausted, but it was a happy sound nevertheless. "Sure, considering it's the one we use most often. How do you feel, then?"

"Tired," she answered, unsure of herself. All the words were there in her head, all their definitions, but it was still strange trying to actually use them for the first time. The fact she knew how to work them into her sentences without having previous knowledge of how to communicate at all was discerning. "Everything is fuzzy and bright."

"Try to adjust your optical sensors."

She did as she was told, taken aback by how easily she was able to control her own eyesight. Things became less blurry and bright, and the colors finally settled. She blinked, bewildered. "This is all very strange."

"You'll get used to it," he said, vented mouthpiece twisting upward into something akin to a grin. "Do you know your designation?"

The answer did not immediately come to her. Focusing, biting her lip, she searched the inside of her processor for the answer. Something came up, foggy by still definitely there. "My designation… my name is Chaos."

"Huh," the cobalt mech said. He leaned back in his chair. The coolant dotting his face and shoulders was thick and glaring in the light, as if the room temperature was twenty degrees hotter than it should have been. Her internal thermostat only read the temperature as being seventy degrees Fahrenheit. "Not the first thing I would have chosen, but alright. If that's your name, that's your name. You still need a secondary squadron leader title, though."

"Okay," she said, not sure how to respond. "What's… your name?"

He blinked, as if her question had legitimately caught him off guard. "Oh. Right. Sorry, I'm… I'm Grappler. Grappler Gouf is my full title, but you can just call me Grappler when we're by ourselves. I'm your… creator."

"My creator," she repeated. "You made me?"

"Yes." He grinned. "Not very easily, but I made you."

"So I didn't exist before just now?"

Grappler's expression fell, slowly, as if she had smacked him in the face and he wasn't quite sure how to react. His answer was a very careful one, despite how simple of a question it had been. "…No. You did not exist until just now."

A lie. A small one, perhaps insignificant, but a lie all the same. Somehow she knew it was a lie too, but she had no idea how that could possibly be true. She had no memories of anything before waking up in the room, and Grappler had been nice enough to her so far… pushing the nagging feeling aside, she determined it in her best interest to trust him. "Okay. So now what?"

"Now I need you to sit still," Grappler said. He made to stand up from his seat and grunted with effort, as if the motion had somehow hurt him. "All your vitals appear normal, so I'm going to unhook you from the life support and have you sit up − not now! Pitt, hold your gunhorses, let me get this out of your arm first. Pull on that and you might tear the circuitry. It took me hours to wire that."

As soon as the last needle was out of the tubing in her wrist, she sat up. Her head spun a little and she had to recalibrate her equilibrium sensors, but for the most part, it felt better than lying down. "Why did you make me?"

"Talkative, aren't you?" Grappler joked, a little breathless sounding. Now that she had a higher vantage point that him, it was easier for her to fully make him out. Despite his cool and laid back mannerism, he looked closer to passing out than anything else. There was a slight waver in his posture too, which had her far more concerned than curious. "You're a bit of a science experiment. I created you because I was commissioned to, and−"

The door to the room suddenly burst open with a crash, startling her something fierce. It was the loudest noise she had heard since coming online. At least Grappler seemed just as taken aback. The cobalt mech staggered and had to use the edge of the gurney for leverage as he nearly toppled backwards in shock. Bright light, brighter than the overhead lamp, came surging into the room before two figures entered the doorway and blocked it out. The first mech to enter was mostly a maroon color and bulkier than Grappler. His optic was a deep red color, a sharp contrast to her creator's piercing pink. He looked alarmed, darting his sights to Grappler before finally seeing and recognizing her. As his optic met her gaze, his expression fell. "She's online."

"Nice to see you too, Zapper Zaku," Grappler said, decidedly stiff sounding. He was glaring at Zapper venomously. It was almost frightening, Chaos thought, how her creator could go from looking so relaxed to murderous all in a matter of seconds. "I really could have used your help, you know. Why don't you do me a favor and get out."

Zapper Zaku flexed his vents as if to speak, but before he could get a chance to say anything, the other mech who had accompanied him decided to make himself known. He shoved past Zapper, comically trapping the already irritated looking mech between the doorframe and his massive body, and looked her over. His optic was the same shade as Grappler's, but he was at least a quarter larger and much more intimidating looking. He blinked at her once, twice, and then tilted his head as if her very existence had him deeply puzzled. "Duaah… little femme is Gundam?"

"Yes, Destroyer. We went over this." Grappler sounded very aggravated now. His body language had become very tense, as if the presence of the other two mechs had him prickled. "Professor Gerbera commissioned me to create a Gundam. I only told you about – you know what? Never mind. It would just go over your head anyways."

Destroyer blinked again. He never once looked away from her, even as he tilted his head the other way. "Duh, little Gundam is pretty. Purple and red are good colors."

She felt her face grow hot. She looked to Grappler, unsure what to do in response.

At Destroyer's words, Grappler obviously deflated. The defensive air about him dropped and he seemed much more comfortable. He turned to Chaos and offered a weak flex of his vents? "Say thank you."

"Thank you?"

"Not to me, to Dom."

"Oh." She turned back to the mech in question. "Thank you."

Destroyer made some kind of unintelligible sound and clapped his huge paws together. Despite how oversized and scary he originally appeared to be, he seemed otherwise fine. Slower perhaps, maybe a little on the dumbed down side, but fine all the same. She was sure he would have been grinning like a fool if he had a mouthpiece like Zapper or Grappler. "Haha, I like this Gundam!"

Zapper, it seemed, was entirely incapable of smiling in the slightest. For one, he was still pinned against the doorframe and looked like he was going to kill something. "I don't."

Oh. Chaos felt something flicker inside her chassis, deep beneath the surface of her breastplates. It was a hot sensation, like fire, but it didn't feel nice – nothing at all like the warmth she felt at Destroyer's compliment.

Destroyer jerked away from Zapper as if he had been burned.

Grappler looked worse. His optic flared brightly, and his growl was a barely restrained warning. "Zapper…"

"You gave her the same color optics as me," Zapper said accusingly.

Grappler let out a wolfish snarl. "Get. Out."

The two of them were glaring each other down, as if intending to ward off the other with their hate filled stares alone. Chaos felt a little more than awkward watching the exchange, but the feeling in her chest refused to lessen and that made it so much worse. Her throat felt tight and her face around her cheeks was warm. Finally, slowly, Zapper Zaku finally seemed to back down. The mech snorted angrily and turned to leave. He said nothing. Destroyer looked back and forth between him and Grappler.

Grappler let out a deep sigh and turned to look at Dom. "Go. I'm fine. Just keep an optic on him."

"Should I tell Commander about little Gundam?"

"Give it another hour," Grappler said with a wince. At this point, Chaos couldn't tell if it had to do with the mention of the Commander – whoever that was – or the fact that her creator looked like he was suddenly going to be ill. "I want to give her a while longer before she has to meet him."

Destroyer Dom nodded, albeit a bit sullenly. "Okay." He looked at her. "Bye-bye, Chaos."

"Bye, Dom," she croaked.

As soon as Destroyer Dom was gone, Grappler went ahead and attempted to close the door behind him. It wouldn't stay shut: somehow they had managed to break one of the hinges when they barged in. Grappler exhaled heavily in exasperation and turned around to regard her, only for his expression to drop into worry moments later. "Chaos, what's wrong?"

"Huh?" She perked up at the address. "What?"

"You're crying." Grappler immediately walked back over and touched a finger to her face, just below one of her optics. And that was the first time she realized she had two optics, too: not just the singular optic like her creator or Destroyer Dom and Zapper Zaku.

She nodded. "I don't like it. It feels bad."

"It's okay," he said gently. "It's just… an emotional reaction. You'll learn to control them as you get used to them."

"Why am I doing it?" she asked, taking a reflexive swipe at her own face.

"Probably because what Zapper said." A foul expression crossed his face, but it was gone almost as soon as it came. "It wasn't a very nice thing to say."

"Is he always like that?"

"He just needs some time to get used to you."

"But I'm not like any of you," she stated tersely, feeling more and more defensive. A new emotion was rising up in her. It wasn't one she necessarily liked the feeling of, either. "I'm not like you at all. I'm a… a…"

"Gundam," he finished for her. His optic met hers and he held her gaze very seriously. Admittedly, she felt very safe under his vision. "You're a Gundam. The rest of us on the ship are Axians."

"But why am I different? Why did you make me different?"

"Because we need someone different to help us take over Neotopia," he said, this time with deep conviction. He took her by the shoulder closest to him with his free hand, giving her a firm, reassuring shake. "Give Zapper Zaku some time and he'll come around. At least Destroyer liked you, right? Honestly, I was a lot more worried about him than Zapper. Dom can be harmless on his better days, but give him a bazooka and enough rockets and he'll go totally off the deep−"

Grappler Gouf collapsed.

It happened to abruptly that Chaos was honestly unsure how to react. One moment Grappler had been standing there talking to her, and in the next, his optic rolled back in his helm and he was suddenly sprawled out on the ground, motionless. Chaos squeaked, tossed her hands over her mouth, and stared down at him. "…Grappler?"

He groaned. "Slag."

She found herself sitting up and standing up for the first time after that. Her legs were weak and she felt dizzy trying to keep her balance, and if it wasn't for the chair, she would have collapsed right on top of her own creator. Steadying herself, she maneuvered around him and knelt beside him. "Grappler, what happened? What's wrong, what did I−?"

"I told Zapper I could have used his help," he snarled, voice strained. After hearing the sound of her own voice after Zapper was cruel to her, and after hearing the similar croak in her creator's voice, she wondered if he was going to cry, too. His breathing was shallower than before and small, scarcely noticeable shivers were working their way up and down his back struts. Chaos raised her hands over his body in an attempt to help him but stopped herself short when she realized she had no idea what she could possibly do. The urge to help him surge incredibly strong in her chassis like an open flame that it was physically painful for her not know how she could help. Finally, Grappler seemed to regain some coherence of his surroundings and turned his head to look at her. His optic was glassy. "S-sorry, Chaos. I just… I had to physically jumpstart your body using my own spark as a conductor. It took a lot more out of me than I realized."

"Are you going to be okay?"

"Yeah," he said. "Just… give me a few cycles so my systems can recharge."

"Oh." She began chewing on her bottom lip again. It seemed to be a compulsory action. "Grappler?"

"Yeah. What."

"What's this burning feeling in my chassis?"

He laughed softly. "It's called your souldrive. I'll show it to you once I…"

Grappler's body forced him into a mandatory recharge. And she waited. She waited in that small little room for an entire hour while creator lay passed out on the floor, and even with tears still fresh in her optics, she felt safe. And that was all that mattered.

iv

Two more sleepless nights later, Chief Haro had her placed back on duty.

Later that afternoon, a memo was sent out to all the Gundams in Blanc Base to report to the medical wing for a debriefing. The message was sent by Kao Lynn. Chaos was hardly surprised. The eccentric old man usually always wanted to talk to the Gundams about their performances during battles. It was a way for the chief mechanical expert of the SDG to better understand how well his creations were functioning, as well as whether or not checkups or upgrades would be in order to ensure their top performance. Although Zero, Bakunetsumaru, and Chaos weren't actually invented by Kao Lynn himself either, they were usually encouraged to attend those meetings as well. Their technology was similar enough for Kao Lynn to recognize anyways, regardless of Baku's techno-organic nature and Zero's mana powered mechanics. In fact, Chaos Cammerce was probably the most like the Neotopian Gundams from a mechanical standpoint. Apparently her internal workings were most similar to Captain Gundam's, although distinctly more advanced.

What Chaos wasn't expecting upon walking into the infirmary was Grappler Gouf's corpse spayed on the nearest table.

Kao Lynn was standing over the Axian's shattered chest cavity with the other Gundams gathered around him. Chief Haro and Chief Bellwood were there as well. The only mechs unaccounted for were Gundivers Three and Four, but the whereabouts of the missing mechs hardly mattered. The point was that Grappler, her creator, was on the table displayed like some kind of twisted lab project. She understood that Kao Lynn expressed his interest in wanting to preform an autopsy, but that was an entire week earlier. The body would have – should have – been cremated by now. Instead, it was being used as the centerpiece for some presentation he wanted to give to the Force.

He was shining a flashlight inside, pointing something out. "…and as you can see, the fuel pump is significantly larger than what we're currently using for our Gundam models. Captain's fuel pump is barely half the weight of this one."

"What does that mean?" That was Gundiver Two.

"It means that he could circulate fuel throughout his body twice as fast as I can," Captain offered. He was looking over his creator's shoulder with interest, although there was a distinctly haunted look in his optics. "I may have been stronger than Lord Grappler Gouf, but his endurance definitely surpassed mine."

"Which is why we're so fortunate to be fighting enemies that aren't Gundams," Chief Haro nodded. He was standing across Kao Lynn, hands behind his back and shoulders squared in a professional posture of indifference. "If the Dark Axis mechs were made out of Gundamium rather than Axium, we would be dealing with an incredibly formidable enemy. Captain might as well have been completely wiped out by Zapper Zaku and his soldiers the first day they showed up in Neotopia."

"This is barbaric."

All those present in the room turned their attention to Bakunetsumaru, who was standing toward the back of the room away from the congregation around the gurney. He was leaning against a support pillar with a dark look on his faceplates.

Captain cocked his head. "Bakunetsumaru?"

"How can the lot of you stand there and simply ogle at him like that?" The Arkian mech was looking even more peevish now, adjusting his glare at the floor to train on everyone around Grappler. "The Dark Axis is scum, my views on them have not changed, but this is no way to treat a warrior fallen in battle. If this was Ark, we would have sent him off from the moment he fell – not treated him as a pet science project."

"We're gaining a better understanding for the enemy," Zero offered, although he didn't sound too certain of his own words. In fact, the knight was looking a little uncertain himself.

Bakunetsumaru snorted. "Lord Grappler Gouf gave his life to save one of our own. How is it that we still have the gall to consider him an enemy?"

It got very quiet after that, and Chaos was certain that she could hear every mechs' and humans' individual breathing. The fluorescent lamp suspended over Grappler's body gave a faint hiss and flickered, throwing dark shadows over the jagged wounds that killed him. It was the first time she had seen his body since the accident, and she was reminded about the time Shute's grandfather had passed away. She, Captain, Bakunetsumaru, and Zero had all been invited to the wake to go with Shute as moral support. His grandfather, a man named Isaac Clarke, had been Shute's greatest inspiration and the reason why the boy was so interested in being an engineer and inventor. Before dementia deranged Isaac's mind, he and Shute used to spend entire summers at his house on the other side of the Topia just building and trying to invent things. He had died in his sleep at the hardened age of ninety-three. It was an open casket funeral. Right before the beginning of the ceremony, everyone was invited to go up and say their last goodbyes. Shute wasn't able to bring himself to go up, and Captain ended up having to pull the boy into his lap to comfort him while the rest of them went up. Zero was escorting Keiko up, his arm linked with hers, while Chaos and Bakunetsumaru brought up the rear.

The casket was made of soft cherry wood, and its interior was lined with white silk. Isaac Clarke was dressed in a black suit and red tie with his bony, frail hands crossed over his midsection. His skin was grey and sagging and his lips held a distinct shade of blue, but the old human otherwise looked as though he were sleeping.

Grappler Gouf, meanwhile, did not look like he was sleeping. He just looked dead.

Guneagle was the next to speak. His usually bright eyes were darkened with a solemnness that Chaos Cammerce once thought impossible for the impish mech. He sounded the same as he had been in the gunperry after that fateful battle. "You heard what Kao Lynn said. The Dark Axis' armor is weaker than Gundamium. She would have been okay."

Bakunetsumaru barked a laugh. The samurai stood up straight and pointed an accusing finger at the young flier. "You're a fool, Guneagle. You saw the damage she received just being close to the blast. She was very fortunate to have such a selfless creator, otherwise that would be hear on the table instead of Grappler. Tell me: have you even told her who was responsible for nearly shooting her in the back? For killing her father?"

"But I didn't kill her!" Guneagle's voice raised in pitch and cracked. He was looking particularly distressed now. "I didn't kill her, I killed Grappler Gouf! I killed the enemy!"

"You weren't even trying to kill him! You were aiming for someone else and your negligence nearly cost us the life of an ally!"

"Yeah, well she doesn't need to know that," Guneagle snapped, suddenly angry. The flier's wings bristled and he puffed himself out like a furious, cornered bird. "Grappler Gouf was a bastard and always tried to drag her back to the Dark Axis. Now he's dead. You losers ought to be treating me like a hero for crying out loud!"

"There's no honor in murdering−!"

"Enough!" Chief Haro slammed his hand down on the table beside Grappler. The table rattled, causing the empty shell of her creator to rattle with it. "What's done is done. There's no changing what's already happened."

Bakunetsumaru hardly looked pleased about it, but the Arkian backed off and went back to leaning against the pillar. Guneagle still had an expression of high distress clenching his faceplates.

"…Oh no." Zero spoke softly, but with unmistakable horror. "Chaos?"

Everyone in the room jumped and pivoted to face her with shocked expressions. Clearly, none of them had heard her come in. Bakunetsumaru immediately righted himself straight and Guneagle was looking at her with a shocked, guilty face. That was when Chaos finally felt the odd pressure in the back of his throat constrict, and she couldn't help herself when she let out a fairly weak, choked noise.

"Chaos, wait−"

She couldn't stand to listen. She turned and rushed out of the room, and it wasn't until she got back to her own quarters that she realized she was in tears again. She didn't care.

To the Pitt with everything. She just didn't care.

v

He was her father. Not in the traditional sense – she was not his "biological" sparkling – but that hardly mattered. He built her protoform from scratch and sparked the flame of her souldrive with just a flint and his bare hands. He jumpstarted her shell with his own spark. Despite how she had been nothing more than a pet project dumped onto his work plate by Professor Gerbera at the time, he took her under his wing like his own child. She was stupid and naïve, and he showed her all the reasons why she didn't need to be. He trained her how to fight and defend herself. He taught her how to lift a gun, to aim, to shoot with deadly accuracy. He went out of his way for her, and she was never able to appreciate his sacrifices for her until he was gone.

And ever since she saw the way the Gundam Force treated his body, she honestly began to wonder why she even left the Dark Axis at all.

It was a terrible thought to begin with, although the unyieldingly horrible presence behind it remained. As much as she hated to hurt others, the Dark Axis only took over dimensions in order to ensure of their own survival. The people of Neotopia were frighteningly similar in their own way. Many humans in the lower class section of the city worked their GMs without pay or praise despite their sentience, and the GMs who had recently been trying to fight back against them had, in more severe cases, resorted to killing their human handlers. Chaos Cammerce had honestly to wonder whether or not Neotopia would become its own Dark Axis someday, if the rising GM riots were any indication. The humans were treating their robots less and less civilly, and wasn't that what started the rise of the Dark Axis to begin with? Grappler had told her about the War once. Axia used to be ruled by humans, and the oppressed robots that rebelled against them came to call themselves the Dark Axis. One time when she asked about the War, back when she still lived in the Dark Axis, Grappler Gouf told her that he'd seen history holotapes. He refused to show them to her, and the haunted look that reflected in his optical lens indicated that she probably wouldn't have wanted to see them anyways.

"Maybe when you're older," Grappler said distractedly, decidedly uneasy looking. It was a sharp contrast to his usually cool persona, whereupon he usually radiated a sense of perfectly natural nonchalance. She didn't have time to question his nerviness before he resumed. "We don't want to mentally scar your databanks too soon. You're still a sparkling, more or less."

She had been created as an "adult" so, frankly, calling her a sparkling was still a bit of an overstatement. She let it slide and obediently nodded. "Yes sir."

"Don't. I told you could just call me Grappler, remember? We're not in front of the Zakos or Commander anymore," he said tiredly, scrubbing his face with his hand. The claws on his other hand twitched on the edge of the berth, clinking against the metal as he stood up. "Just get some recharge. We'll resume training tomorrow to work on improving your equilibrium. Your balance could use some work."

"You… you're not going to turn the light off, are you?" Chaos sat up and nervously glanced around.

Grappler stopped in the doorway and lingered, hand hovering over the light switch. There was a certain hesitation in his tone that he reserved only for her. "You can't properly recharge with the light on."

"I don't want to be alone in the dark." She drew her knees close to her narrow chassis.

"There's nothing to be scared of."

And he was right. There wasn't anything to be scared of, but Chaos was still young: she hadn't been able to learn that for herself yet. Her entire world had been comprised of nothing but the inside of the Magna Musai and following at Grappler Gouf's heels like an obedient puppy. Still… "I had a bad dream the other night."

"About?"

She felt her souldrive flare painfully in her chest. "I was all alone."

Grappler said nothing. He stood there in the doorway, his back still to hers, before he left and shut the door behind him. He left the light on. Chaos hadn't expected him to come back, so she nearly jumped out of her own casing when the door to her room hissed open again. Grappler had come back. Under one arm was a makeshift bedroll and thrown over the opposite shoulder was a light blanket. He hit the light panel and the room went dark, the automatic door shutting behind him. The only source of light came from their optics: bright pink and deep red. "You won't be able to preform at full capacity tomorrow if you don't get a full recharge."

"You're staying?" She hadn't expected that. "What about Lord−?"

"Zapper Zaku can take care of himself," Grappler instantly rebounded, decidedly guarded sounding. His mouthpiece was twisted into a deep frown. "I don't have enough personal items for him to go looting through, anyways."

Her room used to belong to Grappler before she was created. How he managed to convince Zapper to let him move in with the other warrior, Chaos Cammerce had no idea. Neither did Destroyer or the rest of the Zakos, from what she learned when she asked them about it. She would have asked the Commander too, but Sazabi was intimidating and Grappler warned her to stay away from him unless he or Destroyer happened to be nearby. Regardless, Grappler's own quarters had been one of the many things he had given to her, beyond presenting her with life and offering himself as her own personal trainer. He had given her his free time, one of his personal handguns from his days as a medic, his constructive criticism, someone to simply talk to… and here he was now, curling up on the floor on a sleeping mat as if it were the most natural thing in the universe.

"Go to sleep," he said. His back was to her, but he could still undoubtedly detect her fully functioning energy signature. "We'll get back to work in the morning."

"Good night," she said tentatively, curling up on her side and keeping close to the edge. Close to him. "Thank you, Grappler."

He didn't reply in words, but the low rev of his engine was answer enough.

Chaos Cammerce fell asleep and woke up sometime later, coming online in a strange room. She flailed a little and looked around for her creator in panic, but once mind cleared and her vision adjusted to the darkness, she realized that it had simply been a dream. She was in her room in Blanc Base.

Grappler had given her many things. His affection, his protection… and most importantly, he had given his own life.

Chaos Cammerce buried her face in her hands and cried, and there was anyone could do to console her. Not anymore. Probably never again.

vi

There were three sharp knocks on her door the following evening. "Chaos? Chaos, I need to talk to you. Let me in, babe? Please?"

It had been six days since Grappler Gouf's death. She hadn't left her room since the incident in the medical wing. She didn't want to think about the fact that her creator's remains were still there, but no matter how hard she tried to focus on something else or try to bring herself to leave her quarters, something would stop her. She wouldn't let anyone in, either. A few people had come by since she locked herself in her room, too – Captain, Zero, Seven, Six, Julie, even Shute − but no matter how much they pleaded, she refused to speak to any of them. She simply couldn't deal with trying to communicate with the others. Not after what she had seen.

Not after what Guneagle had said.

"Yeah, well she doesn't need to know. Grappler Gouf was a bastard."

So what was Guneagle going to do? Was he just going to continue going on with his life and never personally admit to her what he had done? Did he honestly think she was stupid enough not to have already known? She was semi-cognizant during the flight back from that battle to hear what he said. She knew all along that it had been him, and yet the flier didn't have the blister to just come up and tell her what exactly he had done. Bakunetsumaru was certainly right about this whole thing being inhumane, too. Grappler saved her. He saved her life, and how was he being rewarded? By being used like some kind of rare trophy to be put on display and picked apart.

There were three more urgent knocks at the door. Chaos sighed, heaved herself off the bed, and cracked the door open just barely. Through the slit, Guneagle's optics widened at the sight of her. "Chaos… Chaos, you look awful."

"I haven't slept in seventeen hours," she announced flatly. "What the frag do you want?"

"I, uh… wanted to talk to you?"

"So talk."

"Not out here," he said pitifully. He shoulders sagged and his wings drooped like a sad canary. "Can I come in?"

A large part of her wanted to shut the door in his face and leave it locked forever. However, the small voice of reason in the back of her CPU demanded otherwise. Finally conceding, she stepped back and let the door fully hiss open. Guneagle stepped inside right away, obviously wary that she could suddenly decide to change her mind if she wanted. As the door slid shut behind him, he took her into a huge hug. "I'm so sorry you had to overhear that the other day, babe. I just… how much did your hear?"

"All of it."

He shuddered and held her tighter. It was obviously supposed to be a comforting gesture, but the femme's sleep deprived systems barley registered the embrace as anything beyond added pressure encircling her. "I was going to tell you babe, but I… I just couldn't figure out how to do it. When I thought my shot was going to hit you, I… Oh God, I thought I was going to kill you. I was never more scared in my entire life. Not even when I went flying for the first time and my thrusters shorted at forty-five thousand feet." He gave a hard shudder, voice dropping to a trembling whisper. "I never wanted to hurt you. Never. Never…"

The flame of her souldrive flickered and ached toward him. Despite her own lack of strength, she found it in herself to wrap her arms around his taut shoulders. "I know."

"I love you."

He had told her those same three words many times before, back when their relationship first started. Those times had been playful, just like his boisterous personality, but now they were spoken with such powerful sincerity that it was intoxicating. Guneagle was not known among the Gundam Force for being a serious mech by any means, but the sheer conviction in his voice… Chaos Cammerce heaved a deep breath and nuzzled into his chassis, careful not to let her commander fin bump the side of his helm. "I love you too."

"I'm just glad that that bastard took the hit for you."

Her souldrive's flame immediately reeled back, as though it had been splashed with ice water.

In reality, she felt like she had been punched. Like he had literally pulled away and punched her, directly in the stomach, right above the abdominal plating. Her breath was literally knocked out of her and a cold bitterness snapped all the heat out of her body. Guneagle was still holding her, but she no longer felt inclined to be in his arms.

"Now he won't ever be able to hurt you again," the flier continued, completely oblivious to her shock and newfound revulsion for him. "You're finally free, now."

Except she wasn't free. She was the total opposite of free. When Grappler died, he managed to tear off a piece of her and take it with him. It was probably in the infirmary with his broken body right now, buried deep inside that horrible wound in his chest, behind his motionless fuel pump, snarled deep among the charred wires and sharp cobalt metal and greasy black oil and−

Chaos Cammerce tore herself out of Guneagle's arms and punched him as hard as she could.

Neither one of them was prepared for it. She snapped herself out of his embrace with all the strength she had – which was very little to begin with, given her exhaustion – and she nailed him right between the eyes with her closed fist. Her souldrive was doing flips in its casing, flaring and hiccupping at random intervals as she sent the other Gundam reeling backwards into the wall. He collided with a small bookshelf and instantly went down, breaking the fragile piece of furniture and sending her personal belongings flying. When the flier finally recovered, his only response was to stare up at her with his cracked optics in terror-stricken shock. There was a profusely bleeding fracture running down the center of his forehead and down behind his battle mask, spilling a quickly welling trail of fluid. "Chaos, wait−!"

She rushed out of the room and didn't look back. Not even once.

v

"We still need a secondary designation for you," Grappler said seriously, carefully moving the buffing cloth up her shoulder.

It was the night of her promotion, where she was finally going to be given an honorary commander fin. With it came the official rank of squadron leader, second only to the Commander rank… or Doga Commando or Zakorello Color Guard ranks, depending on which division you were working towards. Usually a candidate for squadron leader would have to fight against another candidate and win in order to be dubbed an official Dark Axis colonel, but because of her unique upbringing as a Gundam, the fighting aspect of her coronation was going to be skipped entirely. Instead, she was going to have to present herself to the Commander, take the Oath, and then she would be done.

"Coming up with your own surname is an old Dark Axis tradition," her creator continued. "When you present yourself to the Commander, you have to present yourself with a last name too. It has to be in old Axian and it has to have relevance to who you are as a soldier."

"I don't know any Axian," Chaos frowned behind her facemask. She usually kept it down when she was around Grappler, but because the wax was still setting in, he refused to allow her to retract it. "The language isn't in my database."

"It's an extinct language," Grappler admitted. "It was lost after the War. The only one who knows how to fully speak it now is General Zeong. Professor Gerbera can understand it, but he can't speak the full dialect for himself. I guess it takes up a lot of hard drive storage space."

"Huh." She frowned a little. "What does Zapper's surname mean, then? Zaku."

"It's the sister word to zako, which means dog," Grappler answered. Chaos could feel Grappler's scrubbing motions against her back become slightly harder. He was obviously disturbed by the subject matter. "He took it to honor a Zako who was murdered here on the Magna Musai ten years ago. When Zapper was fighting to become the resident squadron leader, the mech he was pit against ended up cheating and using weapons. The duel was meant to me melee only and Zapper was completely unarmed. He had entrusted his machine guns to a runt Zako in the audience who ended up trying to run into the middle of the fight to deliver them. Solitary Gyan shot him in the back with a missile and killed him. Zapper… Zapper couldn't handle it. He completely lost his self-control and murdered Solitary Gyan. After Commander Sazabi declared Zapper the winner, he took the title zaku… which means wolf."

She flinched. "That's a sad story."

"Zapper never got over what happened. He loved Neon to pieces." Grappler finally took the buffing cloth away and replaced it with a much softer silk cloth. "Destroyer's surname means strength. Believe it or not, he supposedly used to be an engineering genius. Used to help build invasion Musais. There was some kind of freak accident and he took a lot of damage that impaired the cortex of his processor. Trying to repair it ended up damaging his personality core too, so his IQ dropped a few hundred points and he turned into a berserker. They had to lock him away for a few years because he would just lash out and kill anyone who got within a few feet of him. When he finally calmed down enough to go through the Academy and become a squadron leader, he took dom as a surname because his strength was the only thing he had left."

"Do any of these naming stories have happy origins?"

Grappler snorted smugly. "Sazabi means rose."

"…You're kidding me."

"Nope. Don't ask me why he chose it, either. I have no idea, and I strongly encourage you not to ask him."

"And what about you?"

Grappler did not immediately reply. "Gouf means guardian."

She could hear the strain in his voice and decided not to press further. Grappler continued to polish her, pausing eventually once it was almost time for her to meet with the Commander in front of the rest of the troops.

"Cammerce."

"Say what?"

"Cammerce," Grappler repeated. "It means balance. Like how you're a balance between Gundam and Axian. Sort of like a Yin and Yang."

Chaos Cammerce. The name rung in her processor and left a good taste in her palate when she mouthed it behind her battle mask. "I like it. I like it a lot, actually."

"Chaos Cammerce it is then," Grappler smirked, standing up and walking around her. He extended his hand. "Let's go."

Except, as she came to realize, she was hardly able to live up to her full name. She had not been able to balance her Axian half with her Gundam half and ended up betraying the Dark Axis in the process. She left after she realized that what the Commander said about invading Neotopia was wrong. The humans there were kind, hardly the monsters that her creator tried to convince her they were. She could still remember the look on Grappler Gouf's face too, right before she jumped through the Zakorello Gate and into the late night storm that was ravaging Neotopia at the time of her betrayal. While Destroyer Dom wore a look of battered confusion and Zapper Zaku bore a mask of unrestrained hatred, Grappler's face had been one of profound sadness.

Unlike her, even in death, he still lived up to his title.

Gouf.

Guardian.

vi

She left the base and high jacked one of the gunperries – again, for what had to have been the millionth time – to head to her favorite spot outside Neotopia's main limits. The planet that the city was stationed on was only populated in one sector. Consequently, this left the rest of the planet uninhabited by humans or GMs. The council that ran the planetary Topia projects made it illegal for citizens to go beyond the set boundaries unless a permit was given to the city to widen its borders. Although illegal, leaving Neotopia for the untouched peninsula gave her a sense of much needed freedom and space. The cliff overlooked the small sea adjacent to Peace Park, and Chaos Cammerce could make out the glow of the main metropolis's lights on the dimming horizon line. It was a great place to go whenever she wanted to be alone. She landed the gunperry, killed the engine, and stepped out onto the rough grass. The sun was setting to the west, staining the sky orange and pink and outlining the clouds with oily yellows. The air smelt of salt and seawater. It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, in taking in her surroundings, she never noticed the rogue energy signature rushing her some few minutes later until it was too late.

There was the sound of snapping twigs from the forest behind her, and the Gundam had little time to react before she suddenly found herself being held in a tight headlock. A flash of maroon gave away who her attacker was before she could clearly get a look at his face. Her training – Grappler's training − kicked into high gear even before her battle computer even came online. Chaos Cammerce quickly kicked her leg out to snag the back of Zapper Zaku's closest leg. It was a move Grappler had taught her, once upon a time. The Axian cursed and let go of her, dropping to one knee before he could find the chance to retaliate. Seizing her chance, Chaos pivoted on her heel, spun, and roundhouse kicked the older mech in the face.

"Glitch!" Although Zapper would have usually stayed down after a hit like that, he struggled back up. Clearly he was being more stubborn than usual. "C'mere!"

He made a lunge for her. She danced out of the way, twirling around him, and it was the first time that she realized how achingly similar her fighting style was to Grappler's. She learned all of her best material from him after all, and it showed now that she was finally bringing herself to think about it. Unfortunately, her thoughts drove her to distraction and she didn't see Zapper plunge for her until he grabbed her arm. He twisted her entire body around so that her back was pressed tight against his chassis. He leaned in close, throwing his other arm around her neck and shoulders in a powerful choke hold. One false move, and he could choose to very easily snap her neck. If she wasn't so tired, she might have had the advantage and been able to avoid being trapped altogether. Between her exhaustion and Zapper Zaku's brute strength though, she found herself completely subdued.

His voice was impassive. "Truce."

"Truce!" Chaos exclaimed, voice cracking. She swung her arm and pushed away from the maroon squadron leader. His grip had loosened and she managed to get free right away, but her anger kept her from attacking him again. She was careful to put a few feet's distance between them before raising a hand and pointing angrily at him. "You come here to start a fight and then you call a truce!"

Zapper Zaku's voice was firm, but the deadly harshness concealed within it was frighteningly venomous. "If I wanted to kill you, you would have been dead on the ground with an axe in the back of your skull five minutes ago. Now truce, dammit."

She glared, searching his face for an indication that it was a trick. Had he been… waiting for her? Was she really so clueless not to pick up on his energy signature hiding in the underbrush when she originally landed? How had he even known where to find her? They were disturbing questions, but Zapper's completely open body language indicated that he wasn't going to attack her anytime soon. The Gundam femme quickly stretched her scanners and found that there was no one else in the area other than her and the other squadron leader. Zapper had come alone, completely unarmed and obviously not intending to attack again anytime soon. Relenting, deciding that maybe the other mech had something worth wile for her, Chaos Cammerce forced her battle computer offline. "What the frag do you want?"

"To talk," Zapper huffed stiffly. "About Grappler."

"What about him?" she asked. "He's dead. There's nothing to talk about."

"There's everything to talk about," he snarled. His optic gave a bright flare, and that was when she noticed something peculiar about the other Axian: Zapper Zaku looked utterly exhausted, sapped of all his energy. Although his stance was rigid, his optic immediately dimmed and flickered from an obvious lack of recharge. His shoulders were sunken, his usually bold air was deflated, he seemed to carry himself as if he weighed a few hundred pounds heavier… if he looked anything like he felt, Zapper Zaku was probably feeling worse than she was. "Now are you going to listen to me or are you going to be a dumb brat?"

At least he still acts like himself, she thought. "How did you find me?"

"Does it matter?" Zapper made a face. "I didn't come here to fight, if that's what you're still thinking. I just wanted to talk to you. That's all."

They stared each other down for a very long time. The sound of ocean waves crashing into the rock face from beyond the cliff filtered into her audios like harsh white noise. Neither one of them moved, almost for an entire minute, before Chaos finally decided that she was in a better mood to talk to the other Axian than anyone else from the SDG.

"Fine," she snapped icily. "Talk."

The maroon mech scoffed but his posture visibly relaxed. Now he sounded more casual, albeit still guarded. "Just as stubborn as ever. Are you alright?"

The question caught her off guard. Zapper wasn't known to be concerned for the welfare of others unless they happened to be his Zakos. "I'm okay," she replied almost immediately, before she could stop herself. "Grappler saved my life, though."

A sudden tightness overcame the other Axian's shoulders. "I know. I watched him shove you out of the line of fire. I…" He paused, seemingly struggling for the right words, before continuing. "I saw the damage you took. You looked almost as bad as he did, aside from the gaping hole in his chest. You sure you're okay?"

"No," she admitted. Again, the words were out of her mouth before she could hope to stop herself. "No, I'm not okay."

"Good. Me neither." He turned away so that his back was to hers, so he could look out at the sunset beyond the high rise of the cliff. The red plane beacons at the pinnacle of Neotopia's twin towers started to wink in the far foreground outlining the city. Slowly, with caution, Chaos Cammerce stepped up alongside Zapper Zaku so that they were shoulder to shoulder. As soon as she was close enough, Zapper spoke once more. "Just wanted to make sure I wasn't the only one feeling like slag."

"I thought you hated Grappler."

Zapper's mouthpiece twisted into a sad smile. His optic gave another tired flicker. "Good. Goes to show that we tricked everyone, then."

His response was definitely off-putting, to say the least. "You and Grappler were friends?"

"You could say that," he said softly. It was a cryptic response. "What… did they do with the body?"

Chaos felt a chill go down her back strut. "They still have his body in the infirmary. Chief Kao Lynn kept the remains for… observation."

Zapper Zaku didn't say anything right away. When the Gundam femme turned his head to gauge his reaction, she was surprised to see how absolutely stone-faced he was. Whether or not it was a front to hide his real emotions went unanswered until he suddenly turned his head completely from her. His posture was rigid and Chaos was convinced that his expression had broken into something akin to sorrow, but the Dark Axis colonel was hardly willing to reveal his ruined composure to her. Even his voice was restrained, tight and wound to a coil to ensure that it wouldn't crack from grief. "Are they going to cremate him anytime soon?"

"If they don't, I'll do it myself," she said, and then thought suddenly occurred to her. "Do you want the ashes?"

He didn't answer right away. When he did, his voice trembled at the edges. "I'd appreciate that."

"Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?"

"No," Zapper admitted, heaving a deep sigh. "I got a few other things on my list. Commander Sazabi's already sent for a replacement squadron leader. Demon Darga used to by my squadron leader when I was still a Zako serving on the Hellwise Musai. She transferred over to the Shadow Musai to replace Grappler when he joined the Magna Musai crew, but now she's going to replace Grappler and she's damn vicious. I thought I'd give you some warning. She won't hesitate to kill you. Commander Sazabi already has a hefty bounty on your head."

"So why aren't you collecting?" Chaos Cammerce couldn't help but feel a little cynical. "After all the times the SDG has kicked your skid plate, wouldn't you want to hand me over to the Commander?"

"That would be betraying Grappler," he said simply. "He… he died to keep you safe. The Commander would just kill you if he got the chance. I… can't do that. Grappler would have been killed for no reason."

"I thought you hated me."

"I don't."

She scoffed. "All those times you tried to pump me full of lead say otherwise."

"Bullets don't kill Gundams," he derided mockingly. Whether or not his tone voice was intentional blew right over head, because the warrior had already thrown himself into a full tirade. "Pitt, you may be a brat and a glitch, but I could never bring myself to actually hurt you for real. You may have the body of a Gundam, but your spark is Axian. Your spark is…" He stopped.

She narrowed her optics. "My spark is what?"

Again, Zapper went silent for what felt like a long while. Before Chaos could bring herself to try asking again, he turned to look at her. His optic was bright, serious. "Your spark is mine. I'm your creator."

Which, as far as Chaos Cammerce was concerned, wasn't true. She remembered coming online perfectly well: Grappler had been the only one in the room with her at the time of her creation and Zapper absolutely loathed her. "No. Grappler was my creator. You're lying."

Zapper's mouthpiece twisted into a frown. This time, he spoke much more firmly. "No. I was your creator. Grappler was your carrier. Life for us doesn't just come out of the blue, you know. Souldrive or not, you still needed someone to spark you first. Or two someones."

For almost an entire minute, Chaos mulled over that information in her head, unsure exactly how to proceed. It took a few more seconds for the revelation to finally sink in, and once it was digested and finally hit her, she physically staggered backward and away from him. "You're not−"

"We had to hide you. Somehow." Zapper was very quiet now, not looking at her again. He had turned his undivided attention back to the sunset that was sinking further into the the horizon. It was just starting to touch the line separating the ocean from the sky, and further up into the stratosphere, the first stars were appearing. Elsewhere, somewhere in the forest behind them, a bird called. "When Professor Gerbera asked Grappler to work on his little Dark Axis Gundam project, he couldn't refuse. It wasn't like having a Gundam for a kid was my idea of perfect, but if we had tried to create you as a Zako sparkling, the Commander would have forced us to kill you. I… actually suggested to him that it might be a good idea to abort you when we first found out. Grappler pretty much sent me to the infirmary in a matchbox and locked me out our bond for a full eight hours."

"You and Grappler were my parents." She felt dizzy saying it.

"What, do you want a slagging prize? Of course we were!" Zapper puffed up like an irritable dog, snapping his gaze back toward her. The pistons in his neck gave a pop. "How the slag do you think you adapted to combat so easily? Grappler was a medic and assassin for crying out loud. He couldn't program a battle computer to save his life. Your ability to adapt to combat wasn't programming: it was instinct from me. Your style of fighting definitely belongs to Grappler, but your drive and determination are all mine. You have my right hook, too. That's not the point."

She stared at him. Coherent words were desperately trying to form an intelligible reply in her processor, but whenever her CPU sent the commands to her vocalizer to speak, the communication got lost halfway between.

"You remind me about him," he said sadly, expression dropping. "He used to say that you reminded him of me, but… you have Grappler's personality. All of it. He used to get so passionate over stupid things and he was smart and he…" Zapper stopped himself and took a shaky breath. "You're too damn elegant for your own good, just like he was. He loved you, you know. He really loved you. He loved you more than you'll ever know."

Zapper stopped himself again, taking another deep breath through his vents to calm his frayed nerves.

Finally, Chaos Cammerce found herself able to formulate a full sentence. "Are you mad at me because I took Grappler away from you?"

"No," he admitted. "No, it wasn't your fault that your friend's aim was off or that you were in the way. If anything, I would have taken the shot. I just wasn't close enough. Grappler just happened to be in sprinting distance. The last thing he said to me over the bondlink before shutting me out was that he didn't regret what he did. So long as you keep living, a piece of him will stay alive."

"Thank you," she said. "And I'm sorry. About everything."

"Me too. I know I was never good to you, even when you were still a member of the Dark Axis. I guess I just couldn't accept you for being a Gundam like Grappler could. And I'm sorry."

She bit her lip. "But… what about the bondlink? Are you going to−?"

Zapper laughed softly, sadly, and then reached down into a subspace pocket closest to her. Chaos wasn't sure what he was doing until he pulled his hand back out. She couldn't understand what the item was at first due to its size, but then the handgun's barrel glinted in the late spring light and her souldrive's flame wilted with its horrified realization. The gun itself was dwarfed in his hands, but Zapper hardly seemed to care about the size. He was looking at it with a disturbing level of fondness. "I don't know who the Commander will replace me with, but I don't think you'll have to worry about them too much. Whoever they are, you can take care of them. I was hoping it wouldn't have to come to this, but Grappler took some of my spark with him when he left. Better kill myself now than have to worry about who I might accidently hurt once I lose my mind. Grappler may have shut me out of the bond right before he died, but it's only a temporary solution. My spark has already started to short out. I haven't recharged in sixty-seven hours and everything feels numb, and I keep seeing Grappler watching me…"

Halfway through his speech, just as his explanation began to turn into self-musing, Chaos moved forward and took him by the shoulders. As soon as her hands were on him, he leaned forward and pressed his forehead to hers. Their command fins touched – his single rank stripe brushing briefly against her four – and then he started crying. He seemed completely unaware of it, too.

"You understand, don't you?" He was barely speaking above a whisper. He was trembling, and the hand holding the gun was shivering badly enough that the metal of the barrel was clicking against his hand. "I can't stay here, anymore. The Zakos aren't sparklings anymore. You're not a sparkling anymore. You can all take care of yourselves, now. No one needs me anymore, but I need Grappler. I don't have a choice. He's somewhere out there all alone and I have to find him."

"I know," she breathed. Her souldrive was whirling faster and faster inside her chassis. Her throat was clenching and her faceplates were hot. "What should I do with Grappler's ashes?"

"Just leave them with me. Dom and the Zakos will find us." He bared a soft laugh. The motion of his heaving chest caused a small collection of tears to drop out of his lens. "The Magna Musai makes its rounds over Lacroa every few months. Once I'm cremated, they'll probably scatter our ashes there. They know it's where Grappler and I met."

Chaos Cammerce's souldrive gave a powerful shudder and activated. The rush she felt wasn't too much unlike the rush she felt during battle, but it was a agonized sensation rather than a rushing, fulfilling once. Careful not to catch her arms on her creator's shoulder mounted spikes, she tossed her arms around his neck and pull him close. Zapper was too far gone to hug back but he turned his head and kissed her on the side of the helm. His vents wafted warm air and Chaos was sure, at that very moment, her heart would have shattered into millions of pieces if she were human. "Thank you, Zapper."

"Bye, Chaos," he said.

And then Chaos pulled back and snapped his neck. He went down like a ton of bricks and Chaos let herself get dragged down with him, and like a wolf – like a zaku − she howled as the sun finally smashed into the ocean and died.

vii

No one stopped Chaos Cammerce when she finally returned to Blanc Base later that evening. Not even Chief Haro, who was usually the first to condemn her for leaving the SDG headquarters and stealing gunperries to do so, said a word to her as she passed by his open office on her way to the infirmary. She walked straight through the bridge and down into the lower portion of the base, taking the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator to save time. When she got the medical wing, she found Kao Lynn hunched over her dead creator − carrier, she reminded herself − with a welding torch, fastening a steel place over the gaping hole in his chest. Guneagle was looking over the old man's shoulders.

The flier immediately stood up from his seat beside the gurney as she came closer. "Cammy, baby, I−"

"You can talk to me in a minute. Not now," she commanded quietly, pressing two fingers against her boyfriend's battle mask. The flier visibly had some welding work done on his forehead where she punched him, and although his optics were mostly repaired too, there was still a glassy quality in their emerald color that suggested her issue of blunt trauma still had a lasting impact. Either that, or maybe he had been crying. She suspected it was a combination of the both.

"You have my right hook, too."

She moved around him to look down at her creator. Kao Lynn stepped back, pushing the welding mask up on his face so that he could properly see her. For such an unnaturally hyperactive old man, Kao Lynn's attention to detail was astounding. The steel palate covering the Dark Axis colonel's fatal wound was less than attractive but at least it served its purpose and concealed the gore. Grappler Gouf's armor was polished, the cracks in his casing had been filled, and aside from how his body radiated absolutely no warmth, he looked more like he really could have been sleeping.

"I made all the observations necessary to make a decent report on Axian anatomy," Kao Lynn said, his voice lacking its usual vigor. "We'll cremate the remains, now."

They wheeled Grappler into Kao Lynn's personal workshop adjacent to the infirmary where the incinerator was held. The room smelled like fouled slag, old ore, and soot. The incinerator itself was a huge dome structure at the center of the workshop, although it was used more frequently for smithing Gundamium ingots rather than cremation. The only way inside the machine was through a small door that opened and allowed a narrow platform to slide out.

As Kao Lynn gestured silently for Guneagle to set about opening the door, he turned to her again. "Do you want the ashes?"

"I do." She thought about Zapper Zaku. It hurt her souldrive to imagine how the Zakos and Dom were going to react. Then she remembered that his body was still on the cliff and she forced the image out of her mind. He was with Grappler, now. That was all that mattered. She never gave the existence of the afterlife much thought, but if the Well of Allsparks really did exist, she hoped that was where her creator and carrier were. Her parents deserved that much.

They hefted Grappler's body off the gurney and loaded it onto the sliding platform. Unlike humans, mecha didn't suffer from rigor-mortis. Grappler's clawed arm fell limply to the side as they tried to get him on the narrow sliding grate and Chaos carefully picked it up and placed it over his chest. As she did, it finally dawned on her that he had carried her. He had given her life and now she was acting as his final reaper. It was a strange feeling made painful by the realization that he was gone forever, but then she remembered Zapper's last words. As long as she lived, part of Grappler lived on. So would Zapper in his own way, too.

Ashes to ashes.

Dust to dust.

Everyone falls down.

"Bye dad."

And when the roar of the machine finally died down, Guneagle handed her the ashes in a small steel urn and she allowed herself tears one final time.

Guardian.

Wolf.

Balance.

viii

At the end of the summer, right before school for Shute and Sayla started again, Keiko and Mark hosted a barbeque. Most of the neighbors and members of Shute's extended family from across Netopia showed up, including several members of the SDG. Not that Shute's parents showed any awareness to this, of course. Julie, Kao Lynn, Bellwood, and a few spare human workers were all introduced as friends of Captain's. The only major person from the Gundam Force who was missing was Chief Haro, who declined to go for personal reasons. Chaos could tell that was a lie, but she hardly had the time to dwell on it. She was far too busy trying to keep Guneagle from running away and hiding.

The flier shrunk back nervous. "Babe, those other humans keep watching me…"

"They're just teachers from Shute's school. His mother works with them," she said. "They probably just think your wings are funny looking. Don't be such a baby."

"My wings aren't that funny looking!" His shout barely garnered anyone's attention, but it had been loud enough to make Entango whiney in response somewhere across the yard. The expression on his face was priceless. Despite herself, Chaos Cammerce found herself laughing. Guneagle instantly deflated. "What's so funny?"

"Just you," she said and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Walk with me. I want to see the new attachment Shute's been building off his workshop. Apparently they're building a room for Captain to stay in when he's off duty."

The attachment wasn't anything too impressive, yet. It was mostly just a skeleton of wood framework with the beginnings of a roof just starting to stretch across the angled top. It wasn't even shingled yet, let alone painted or having the decency of walls. They leaned over the railing looking down the hill where the workshop was seated. Chaos whistled. "I bet it will look great once its finished."

Guneagle snorted. "Better than that Darga loser's face when you kicked her in the face the other day."

Zapper hadn't been kidding about Demon Darga. Her surname roughly translated into monster. She was a vicious femme with a mean streak worse than Chaos Cammerce initially anticipated. The first time they ran into each other, it had been a week after Zapper's death and Grappler's cremation. She was mocking and obtrusive, and she treated the Zakos, Destroyer Dom, and Guillotine Galbaldy – the other new squadron leader – like slag. Clearly they were getting fed up with her, so it wasn't a surprise that no one came to Demon Darga's rescue when Chaos Cammerce roundhouse kicked her in the face to make her point clear that she wasn't a Gundam would be easily beaten. She was Grappler's and Zapper's sparkling, after all. Not like anyone else knew – no one else knew – but so long as Chaos kept that secret close to her spark, she knew she could use it to her advantage. Grappler and Zapper were never easy mechs to fight in life, and even in death, their legacy lived on.

Guneagle touched her arm. Chaos Cammerce looked to him and froze.

"I meant to give this to you a while ago," he said, pushing the plasma pistol into her hands. "I figured now is as good of a time as any. I don't ever want to use it again. It's overpowered nad dangerous… well, you know what I'm talking about."

Without a second thought, Chaos crushed the barrel and energy cell housing in her fist. She dropped the remains of the gun over the railing and it disappeared into the bushes, gone forever. "I forgave you for what happened, you know."

"It will be a long time before I can forgive myself," Guneagle admitted.

"We'll be okay."

"You sure?"

She turned her head and kissed him. It was a pseudo kiss, her battle mask simply touching his own, but it was a kiss regardless. "I'm sure."

"Fenn! Fenn, no!"

In the foreground, the spirit of Lacroa had decided that the barbeque would greatly benefit from his immediate assistance if he set the entire grill on fire. Zero, Gundivers Six and Four, and Bakunetsumaru were immediately attempting to contain the feisty spirit while Captain attempted to douse the fire by dumping one of Shute's cousin's beer coolers on top of the grill. Aside from the unhappy shouts of the cousins and one of Mark's drinking buddies – "Hey! I wanted one of those!" – the party had erupted into laughter at the pandemonium. Chaos found herself laughing too, and poor Guneagle barely managed to stop laughing right before he leaned too hard against the railing and caused it to give under his weight. With a startled shout, he fell over the side and landed a bush of bleeding hearts, though not before grabbing Chaos by the shoulder and taking her down with him. They were still laughing even after the impact, and for the first time in a long time, Chaos Cammerce was happy.

She was going to be fine. A little sad from her losses, but fine all the same.

Fin