Part 1 - Chapter 3

Dominia must have left before he woke up. He stared at the empty space where she had been and ran his hand across the sheet. He wished he could have promised her something more meaningful, but he couldn't. At least not until he could sort out his own feelings first, which he was a little more determined to do now that his destructive train of thought had been derailed.

He got up and looked around for his underwear, but he couldn't find it. He searched every corner and every bunk, every space in the room, but they were nowhere. Could Dominia have taken them?

I guess that's a hook to make me come back, isn't it?

In defeat, he got his shirt and pants back on and stepped back into his boots before realizing his gloves were still in them. He took them out and stuffed them in his pockets, and reflexively reached for his coat. The Yggdrasil was warm enough that it might not be practical anymore. That coat was encrusted in everything Solaris used to stand for, given to him on behalf of Emperor Cain for his service to Solaris. He didn't need it anymore. He thought about having it burned for a moment, but decided, for the first time in a long time, that he shouldn't be doing something that drastic so early in his thought process.

He wasn't even sure what time of day or night it was, or where in the world the Yggdrasil was.

He took the sheet and cover off the bed he and Dominia had used and rolled it up. There wasn't that much of a mess, but it was still nominally rude, even if the room didn't have a permanent occupant. After collecting himself, he stepped out to look for someone he might know, or at least someone who could tell him where the laundry was. As soon as the door swished open, something bright pink that wasn't Seraphita swished past him. "What--"

"Ohhh... You're that pale Solaris guy! You've been sleeping for way chu long!"

"I-I'm sorry?" He didn't know what else to say. Solarian dogma dictated that, of the barely sentient surface dwellers, the U-ki were as low as pigs or cattle, and conversing with one was grounds for expulsion.

Chu-Chu got uncomfortably close trying to look at him. "You are just chu did that happen? Solaris is much closer chu the sun."

Before he could find words to stumble over, the familiar voice of Mother Marguerite interrupted them. "Chu-Chu, stop being weird!!"

"Chuuuu...there's a lot of talk about chu going on upstairs, Commander."

Ramsus clutched the bedsheets, bracing himself for the awkwardness that was sure to follow. The last time they had met, he had knocked over half the city in Vendetta, and would have leveled the Cathedral if Elly hadn't stopped him. "I-is that so? Are my girls up there?" Small-talk with an U-ki...

"You should talk chu someone soon get your own room. Sigurd asked people chu clear off until you were up but I don't think chu can stay there privately chu much longer, Commander."

Margie came up on them just in time for him to spout awkwardly, "You don't need to call me that anymore. There's no one to command anymore. Not for me, anyway."

"I don't think you're going to dissuade your girls from calling you that, though, Ramsus. Heck, even I feel awkward just calling you Ramsus. When you introduced yourself, I thought it was your first name, but it's not. It's Kahran, right? That's what Sigurd says."

"That's right. Uh, Kahr for short, if you like." Why is this so awkward?

Margie nodded, but had nothing else to add, which increased the awkwardness.

"I'm sorry to bother you, Miss Marguerite, but is there some kind of laundry receptacle somewhere? Or anywhere I could get a shower or a change of clothes? I don't even know how many days it's been, but I feel pretty gross."

"Oh, I can show you the way to all that. Come with me!" Margie didn't seem to have any interest in breaking her cheerful demeanor, and Ramsus was grateful for that. Chu-Chu followed them, uncomfortably close. She could smell him, he could tell.

He found himself clutching the laundry tighter against his body, feeling suddenly vulnerable without his coat. "I figured it would be safer if I take an apologetic stance from now on, considering what I've done."

"Yeah, you're right about that..."

"Um, I don't know how to really go about starting to apologize to you...about Nisa--"

Margie stopped and exhaled. "I'll give it to you straight: you have a lot to make up for, and you're on really thin ice with...what's left of my family. I think you have a lot to offer if you play your cards right, and if you do, then I think you'll be on solid ground to offer your apology to me then. Did you know that Shakhan was about to exhume my mother's body for her eyes? Did you know that Nisan had been how it was for over 500 years, and how many of those buildings you didn't need to knock over?"

Chu-Chu tugged at Margie's cloak. "Margie..."

"No, it's all right. I...understand. All I have are words right now, but I will back them up with my actions. There's no excuse for what I did," Ramsus said.

They continued in silence until they reached the laundry room. For the whole walk down, he had just been following her, which avoided the annoyance of keeping up eye contact. She stopped to look up at him and he saw the anger plain across her face, her deep blue eyes uncharacteristically narrowed. "You still owe me some Chiffon Nisan, Kahran Ramsus. Good luck finding anyone still alive to make it." Her eyes narrowed further at her last sentence, and she straightened her frown as she saw him lift his eyebrows and swallow in fear.

She walked off and he stood there for a moment, just as stunned as he was when Hyuga had slapped him earlier. This hurt worse. When it was Krelian and the Gazel yelling at him, he had an urge to fight back, but without a single leg to stand on, he realized just how much more difficult his life was going to be from now on. He felt a little nauseous. Chu-Chu lingered until Margie called for her, then he was alone again.

To avoid any further altercations with people he recognized, he stepped into the laundry room. If he stopped to count the number of things that were his fault right now, he'd never move again.

He deposited the sheet and comforter in what he hoped against hope was the dirty laundry bin. From the smell of it, it was, and he kept it balled up. He had been holding onto it tightly enough that there were imprints of the wrinkles on his arms. He didn't think he'd gotten that frightened by Margie, but the people he knew on the Yggdrasil were the only reason he and the girls weren't imprisoned or worse.

He stepped into the showers and left his clothes on the bench just outside the stalls. At least, he guessed they were shower stalls? His stay in Bledavik was brief and atypical, and Fatima Palace's shower system was much grander than these crude stalls. He ran his hand over what he thought should be the sensor to start the water, but nothing came out.

Broken, he thought.

He checked the next three stalls and all of them seemed to be the same way. "Come on, you can't all be broken." He fiddled with the unfamiliar metal knobs and was spooked as he turned something a certain way and the water sputtered violently out, and at an obscenely cold temperature.

It took him a few moments to figure out the hot and cold glyphs embossed onto the knobs--his memory of the written Surface Common language wasn't as sharp as it had been. He supposed he should get on that as soon as possible. Getting situated in the shower shouldn't be this complicated.

As he showered, he realized that he hadn't had time to properly assess all his bruises from the last few fights he'd been in. The Yggdrasil's nurse had patched him up pretty aggressively with a bunch of standard issue ether techniques when he arrived, so he was physically stable enough to feel like he was falling apart. There were was a bruise on the inside of his right arm that had faded from purple to a sickly green color, and whatever damage that'd been done to his leg when Amphysvena exploded was now an unsightly purple streak on his shin. How Dominia had overlooked all of that was beyond him.

He looked around for any sign of soap and found two bars of things that both looked like soap labeled (in surface common, of course) in a small enclosure in the stall. One was greyish and looked to have abrasive rock or sand or something in it, and the other was about as pale green as he felt. He couldn't really figure out why there were two of them, but he figured it best not to scrape something with sand on his bruises, so he went with the green one. He didn't see any bottles or dispensers for shampoo, and his hair felt gross, so he decided he might as well try to wash it with the soap, which smelled surprisingly good.

When he emerged from the shower, he found that someone had thought to place a towel and a set of plain clothes on the bench closest to the stall he was using. "Hello?"

No one answered.

He got dressed and exited the showers, not really sure of where to go until he recalled that Marguerite had mentioned that the girls were on the upper deck, so he guessed he should wander that way. Thankfully, there was a map posted, but that was in Surface Common as well. He hadn't needed it, surrounded by Gebler soldiers, so his grasp of it from school and Krelian's pre-programming had slipped away. When he'd learned it at Jugend, it put enough polish on the knowledge of it implanted in his neurons that he was certain he was fluent, but between the DRIVE and what had happened in the past few days, he may as well have been a five year old staring at an encyclopedia. Before he could decipher anything, another familiar voice called out to him.

"Hello, Kahr."

He hadn't seen Sigurd face to face since he took his leaving of Solaris, and aside from his attire and the eyepatch, there was almost nothing different about him visually. "H-hello, Sigurd."

"Sorry for the terseness of the lodging situation. We don't have a whole lot of private space we can set aside for someone on the Yggdrasil."

"It's not a problem. I'm grateful that you haven't kicked me out."

Sigurd had had a mildly friendly expression before, but he seemed more conflicted about it all of a sudden. "We'll work that out soon. I would like it if you came with me to talk to Hyuga and Jesse in the Gun Room. You're not really in trouble, but we would like to talk to you. We want you to tell us more about you – the real you. Then, Fei has some questions for you."

Ramsus nodded and Sigurd led the way. The Gun Room wasn't far from the room he had started in. When the door swished open, Jesse made himself immediately known with a laid back "Eyyy!" If not for that, he might not have recognized him at first when he and Sigurd descended the stairs. Jesse was seated at a table across from Hyuga. There was an older man that he didn't recognize behind a counter polishing glassware. He seemed to be quite Fatima-ish by the look of him.

"Maison, this is Kahran Ramsus. Kahr, this is Lawrence Maison, who has been with the Fatima family through two generations."

Maison nodded his head politely. "How do you do?"

Terribly depressed and unsure about the future, would have been a very rude thing to say, so, "Pleasure to meet you, sir," was what he said instead.

"A charming young man, not that much unlike the Young Master," Maison replied.

Ramsus could tell the strained politeness in his tone, and took a few moments to process Young Master in his head. Did he really just say I was like...

"I hate to disturb you, Maison, but may we have the Gun Room to ourselves for a while? We have some catching up to do," Sigurd said, looking similarly disturbed that Maison would compare Kahr to Bart.

"Of course. Perhaps our new guests on deck might like some tea?" Maison produced a tray within moments and was on his way.

Jesse pulled out the chair next to him at the table. "C'mon, Kahr, siddown for now. We're not going to beat you up worse. Well...I'm not, anyway. I can't speak for Hyu or Sig."

Kahr took the seat offered to him and felt very self-conscious now that everyone was looking at him. Sigurd took a seat across from him, and the original Elements were officially reunited.

"Man, you sure do look like hell," Jesse said.

Kahr looked at the bruise on his arm again, but hadn't really stood in a mirror since arriving, so he didn't have a clue what his face looked like. "I don't think I've looked at myself in the mirror or slept for at least five days before I ended up here."

Sigurd frowned. "How much DRIVE were you on?"

"I don't remember. Enough to make everything worse."

Hyuga was drumming his fingers on the table, making him nervous. He was waiting for Kahr to say something, but he gave no indication of what. The longer he looked across the table at Sigurd, he began to wear the same expression of bottled anger Margie had just before she left. Jesse was concentrating on drinking some kind of hard liquor, and did not seem to expect a thing.

"I fucked up, and I'm sorry."

"You're goddamn right you fucked up!" Sigurd stood up and slammed his chair into the table. "As if working with Shakhan wasn't bad enough, what happened to Nisan wasn't even strategically necessary!"

"You're right, I was wrong to do that, and I don't even have a good reason for it. I just wanted to...needed to get at Fei. I had to."

Jesse drank more of his whiskey and turned to Ramsus, attempting to change the subject. "Hyuga told us what you told Fei about your grudge with him. That's some pretty heavy shit. And I don't know about you two, but if it were me, I might not have gone as far, but...shit, man, I guess friendship don't count for anything anymore."

"But we're perfectly fine being buddy-buddy with the Demon of Elru?" Ramsus was trying to keep his voice down, but it cracked at Elru. He could feel himself getting worked up all over again.

Sigurd started pacing the room. "You've made yourself the Demon of Nisan, and much worse for what's happened with Elly."

"How was I supposed to know that Van Houten was the goddamn Anti-Type? There was no way I could have possibly known. Hyu, you were there the whole time. They just sat back and explained everything like it was some kind of bedtime story to them. Both Krelian and Miang both knew how dependent on them I was, so it was just so easy for them to wind me up until I was completely blind to everything I was doing after I met Fei on the surface again."

"It's true that they were playing you the whole time," Sigurd began, looking at Jesse and Hyuga, "and they were able to do that, at least in part, because we...all of us...kind of...ran out on you..." Sigurd sighed and gave him a lopsided smile, and made eye contact in a way that made Kahr flush a little.

Jesse put a hand on his back. "I'm sorry, Kahr."

Hyuga sighed and put a hand on his wrist. "Sorry, Kahr."

Sigurd offered his hand to shake. "I'm sorry, Kahr."

Kahr took Sigurd's hand and gripped it tightly. "I'm sorry to all of you, especially you, Sigurd. A-and I know it's going to take a lot more than just an apology to really show you and your family that I mean it. And that goes for the Blacks and the Uzukis as well."

"Looks like Hyu literally slapped some sense into you, heh," Jesse said.

Hyuga smirked sadly. "Would that more of our battles been hand to hand, this whole thing could have been a lot less bloody."

Kahr reluctantly loosed his grip on Sigurd's hand. "I'm not so sure about that, Hyuga. As screwed up as it was, Krelian and Miang were just as much my family as any of yours to you. You also can't a clone of Emperor Cain and walk off once you're the commander of the Solarian military. "

They all leaned in in unison, and Jesse said, "Yeah...about that work, again?"

Kahr blinked a little, feeling the self-consciousness settle flutter back in. "I was grown in a vat over the course of ten years in Krelian's lab. As I became more and more self-aware, he started to tell me about how I was the chosen one, and how Emperor Cain was old and beyond his use, and how I would be his superior replacement. He had failed in cloning Emperor Cain many times before, so he was taking extra care creating me. I wasn't much more than a collection of brain cells before I was...expunged from the laboratory. He just hadn't worked a whole lot on getting the physical part of me together yet before, well, you know..."

"What does that even mean, the physical part of you?" Jesse asked.

Hyuga stepped into the conversation. "It means that he must have been a collection of neurons cultured separately to prevent premature aging when attempting to speed up development of the knowledge centers of the brain. Kahr, you said he had failed many times Emperor Cain before, did you not?"

Kahr nodded. "That's correct. Krelian had...a body he had been saving from a previous experiment that seemed in-tact and was aged appropriately for his plans, but the brain in that body was completely undeveloped. The way it was supposed to work was that, when Krelian thought I was ready, he was going to put me in the tank with my body, and I was going to absorb...myself into his brain. It's...actually, kind of awful, now that I think about it." He had to break eye contact for a bit again.

Hyuga was morbidly interested in this. "But what happened instead was..."

"What happened instead was that Karen Wong came along and told Krelian that her son was the real Contact, and that there was no need for me, so I was flushed from my tank into Etrenank's waste disposal system and ended up escaping it close to Jugend. There was a young man, a student at Jugend, named Kahran Bekka, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and looked enough like my body to want me to absorb him. Whoever he was was essentially killed during the absorption. I-I didn't mean to kill him, but it just...happened."

"You were expecting to integrate into a human vessel specifically prepared for you," Hyuga said, sympathetically, "Even I may have come to the same conclusion at first."

"What happened to Bekka? I seem to remember that name on rosters before you showed up, actually," Jesse said.

"It took me a month before the shock wore off, and when I was able to venture out into Etrenank, I made it look like he'd just run away. I had nothing else to really go on since I didn't have access to his memories. I ducked out of Jugend for a while, legally replaced his surname with my project's code name and re-enrolled after I was sure no one would recognize me. The rest, you guys all know, sorta."

"Wow," was all Jesse could say.

Sigurd tried, "That's..."

"Completely fascinating." Of course Hyuga was fascinated by it.

"How did you manage to survive when you were...flushed?" Sigurd asked.

"I guess even if you're just a clone of Emperor Cain's neurons, you've got a certain amount of inherent power? I was able to see how the previous experiments went when I was in Krelian's lab. They were...pretty monstrous, but still alive." Kahr sighed. "Sorry for being this weird science experiment without telling you, but I'm sure you guys wouldn't have believed me if I'd tried to tell you at Jugend."

"You're right about that," Jesse said.

Kahr looked around at the table uneasily. "So, uh, you said Fei had questions for me next?"