Part 1 - Chapter 9

The crowd dispersed, and the Neo-Elements and Ramsus were left to themselves. The girls re-clustered around him, waiting for some kind of speech.

"I, uh..." Dominia started.

"Oh, er..." Ramsus continued, looking at the others guiltily, "I...guess Dominia told the rest of you...?"

"Dominia has been in love with you for a very long time, Commander. She told us she finally revealed her feelings to you, and that you did not push her or her affections away," Kelvena said. Her tone was gentle and unreadable as always.

Tolone nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, like, it's pretty obvious that she cares a lot about you, and you haven't been cared for properly in a really long time. It's better than continuing to hurt and getting worse, for both of you."

"I hope this doesn't put a wedge between myself and you all..." he offered.

Seraphita crossed her arms. "Dommi's our sister, so you're on your own if there's drama, but, Iunno, I think you guys can work it out."

"Solaris no longer exists, and you and Dominia are consenting adults, no longer bound by any military regulations. Even if Solaris were still around, your rank as the Commander of Gebler would have afforded you any social indiscretions to begin with. You may do as you please. I consider Dominia my friend, and I hope all of us can become better friends with you as well, Commander," Kelvena said.

"Thank you...all of you. You've been so much more patient with me than you needed to, commanding officer or no. You don't need to call me Commander anymore, if you don't want to," he said.

"That's going to be a really tough habit to break, Commander," Dominia said, smirking sadly. "Fei beat me to calling you Kahr already. I'm jealous."

He smiled at her and put a hand on her shoulder. "It really doesn't matter what you call me, honestly. What I mean is that there's no longer a need to stand on ceremony or worry about stuff like propriety, at least when it comes to me." Dominia seemed to glow a little brighter at that. He leaned in closer to her and added, "Also, speaking as somewhat of an expert at being jealous of Fei Fong Wong, there's nothing to be jealous of. It seems like it's more polite to be familiar with this crowd, so I wouldn't think much of it."

Dominia nodded. "I'll try."

"Hmmmmmmmm, we should get going," Tolone said, noticing the Commander and Dominia's closeness.

Kelvena began to lead Seraphita and Tolone back down to the Yggdrasil's lower deck, and Dominia took a step to follow them, but Ramsus stepped ahead with her. "Hey, before we all go, I wanna ask you something."

"Sure, what is it?"

He leaned in toward her ear, lowering his voice, "So, I'm down one pair of underwear. I don't know where it went. Something tells me you might know where it is."

Dominia lifted an eyebrow and smirked. "Maybe...?"

He smirked back. "I know it took a leap of faith to confront me about my bullshit and tell me how you felt about me, but I don't quite get the underwear thievery. I'm not mad or anything, but I wouldn't expect that kind of thing from you."

"Maybe I was a little afraid you'd wake up and decided that that was the first and last time you wanted to spend like that with me," she said, looking down at the Yggdrasil's deck.

"I was hoping it wasn't the last, if that's all right with you," he said, putting his arm on her shoulder, hoping she would look up, which she did.

"That's very all right, sir," she said, beaming.

"There were a lot of new things I saw and felt last night that I really liked, and wouldn't mind...multiple repeats of." He leaned in kissed her gently.

She kissed back, but pulled away quickly. "I wouldn't mind that either, but we shouldn't keep the others waiting. I kinda don't trust myself not to get overexcited."

Ramsus sighed, but smiled. "Me neither, honestly."

"C'mon, let's go."

It was a bit of a squeeze, but Ramsus was able to fit into Bladegash's co-pilot seat. It was painfully obvious that it was made to fit Kelvena. "I'd like to applaud you on your brilliant and versatile gear-designing skills, Hyuga," he said sarcastically over the intercom.

"It is not my fault that you are not Kelvena, Kahr. I am impressed you fit at all."

"On a second thought, maybe it would have been more practical for the Commander to ride in Marinebasher with me?" Kelvena asked, conveniently way too late.

Dominia chuckled. "Nah, we can make this work. No sense taking more time to get re-situated."

"So, Commander, now that we're better friends, we get to ask you all the personal questions we want, right?" Tolone asked.

"Sure, why not?" Ramsus replied.

"Okay, first things first. your favorite color?"

"Gold," Dr. Ricdeau said before Ramsus could answer.

"Uh, no? For your information, my favorite color is white, Hyuga."

"What? That is preposterous! I cannot believe I got that wrong. I could have sworn your favorite color was gold. That is why I asked them to paint Wyvern gold when I designed it for you..."

"Maybe that was Emperor Cain's favorite color? Something tells me it might have been, what with how he was always covered in gold, too? I mean, I do like gold, but I like white better?"

"I am extremely sorry, Kahr. I went off an assumption."

Kahr laughed, "It's really no big deal, Hyuga. There are a lot of things more important than custom gear paint-jobs right now."

"B-but I am truly sorry..."

"Hyu. Stop."

"I never thought I'd hear this kind of conversation between you and Ramsus, Doc..." Fei interjected.

"We should get in the elevator, guys," Dominia said.

"Dommi, you're the killjoy as always," Tolone replied.

"Hey, we can continue with your super-important prattle on the elevator, Tolone. It's not often that I get to go to Zeboim, okay?"

"Man, you and Zeboim..." Tolone gave her a raspberry over the intercom, but they all piled into the Lighthouse and descended.

"Wait, I didn't know you wanted to be stationed at Zeboim..." Ramsus said, not over the intercom.

Dominia flushed. "I've always been really interested in it, but I didn't want to interfere with your battle strategies, so I never spoke up," she admitted, looking back at him nervously.

"I would have made room in my plans for it if you'd have told me it meant something to you," he said sympathetically.

" were just...really, I don't know, super-human in my eyes for so long that I didn't want to chance a reprimand for personal reasons. I always tried to set myself up to impress you, and I didn't want to appear weak for wanting reassignment for personal reasons."

"I'm sorry I gave the impression that I would have been cruel to you for wanting an assignment you were personally interested in." Now he felt really bad for yelling at her before he lost to Fei in Amphysvena.

Dominia sighed. "Well, we won't have that problem from now on."

Ramsus leaned forward to try to hug her, but belted in as he was, it was uncomfortable. "I'm really sorry."

"What is this, an Ex-Elements Apologize Unnecessarily Party?"

As they descended and began to see the horizon of the city below them, Dominia leaned forward and turned the intercom back on. "This place is so fucking cool."

"It's just a ruin with some neat tech in it, and now that neat tech is our buddy Emeralda. I don't get the continued enthusiasm," Tolone said.

"What Tolone said. It's so daaaark and I'm scared!" Seraphita wailed.

Before Dominia could bluster back at Tolone, Fei offered, "You probably had some kind of significant event occur here in one of your past lives, Dominia."

"M-maybe..." she said. Ramsus reached out for her shoulder, and she put her hand on his. "Is there any way to know for sure what happened?"

"I got most of my more prominent memory flashes when I was close to the Zohar Modifier, but being close to the place that the event happened makes things clearer for me," Fei explained. "With as many lives as most of us have lived, it's hard to know what took place where and when, though. Maybe if Big Joe wants more money, we can canvass the area until we find something you're drawn more strongly to."

"Speaking of being drawn to, I think we have company already!" Seraphita said. Something was indeed waiting for them at the bottom of the elevator.

It didn't take long for the six of them to kick over the swarm of frogmen and singing semi-sentient snails that styled themselves as human divas, but the five dragons that came up on them afterward were another story.

"We are attracting too much attention as a unit of six. It might do to split up, Fei," Hyuga said after the battle was over.

"Right, Doc, we'll do three and three. Since Citan and I both know the way, we'll lead you to Big Joe from different directions around the city so that no one gets lost. Is that all right, girls?" Fei proposed.

"Sounds good to me," Seraphita replied. "Tolone, let's go with Fei. Kelvena, you and Dominia, with Doc Ricdeau, okay?"

"That is a sound strategy," Kelvena replied.

"Roger that," Dominia replied, falling in step behind Fenrir.

Fenrir, Bladegash and Marinebasher made their way down the ill-lit remains of Zeboim's city streets. So many buildings towered above them, their original occupants long gone, but some seemed to stare down at them. The air was stagnant and the streets were silent aside from the sound of distant fighting, and the occasional diva snail's incomplete aria, but even though Ramsus considered himself an outsider to the rich history of this world, he could tell that this place had a lot of sentiment soaked into it. This section of Zeboim city completely dwarfed Etrenank's high-rises, which filled him with as much dread as it did excitement.

Dominia must have caught him staring and nudged him. "Isn't it amazing, Commander?"

He looked over at her and smiled. He could tell that she was legitimately excited. "I think the only time I've ever been more awestruck by architecture was when I first set foot in Babel Tower. Zeboim gets more credit from me simply for the fact that humans that were born on this planet built something this impressive on their own. I think that speaks our ingenuity. We don't need to have Deus' approval to do or make something as staggering as this."

Hyuga cleared his throat over the intercom. "I do not believe I could have put that better myself, Kahr."

"It's also impressive that so many portions of the city survived intact," Kelvena said.

"Yes. I am not sure how much of this was on your reports when you sent Tolone and Seraphita down here to retrieve Emeralda, Kahr, but the only reason this portion of the city is not submerged is because enough material piled on top of it during a tectonic shift to create an air pocket." Hyuga replied. "I'm sure if we dove deep enough outside this area, we could find completely submerged ruins off the coast of Aquavy."

"I would be very interested in joining such an endeavor if it were to take place, Doctor Uzuki!" Kelvena said, excitedly.

"Uzuki?" Dominia puzzled.

"Uzuki?" Ramsus was almost in unison with her.

Hyuga chuckled. "I was not expecting the Elements to be calling me by my other name so soon."

"I'm not sure I'll ever get used to people calling you Citan, Hyuga," Ramsus admitted.

"It took a while for me to get used to the name, myself. It comes with the territory of attempting to remain covert, I suppose. Once other people start using it, it starts to normalize," Hyuga replied.

"Are you not also married to your wife under the name Uzuki, Doctor Ricdeau?" Kelvena asked.

"That I am, Kelvena. The name Uzuki was supplied to us by Emperor Cain. I can't rightly say I know anything significant about it. I am equally at a loss for the meaning of the given name Citan, though I have grown fond of it."

A herd of frogmen swarmed at their ankles and they had to take a few moments to stomp them out.

"Would you prefer us to start using your other name, Hyuga?" Ramsus asked after the battle was over, glad that there weren't any gear-sized opponents in this group.

"Hyuga Ricdeau was a warrior, a cold and cruel young man who infiltrated Shevat on behalf of his Emperor and fell to the earth when Yui Gaspar plucked out his heart. Citan Uzuki is the man who got to rise from Hyuga's ashes, who got to be able to live in peace with the woman he loved, and learned the true value of human life." he replied. "I am both of these men, especially now that we need to fight to protect all life that remains on this planet, but it is my hope that I can seal my swords after the fight, and only be Citan Uzuki for the remainder of my life."

The rest of the group was silent for a moment, but Dominia was bold enough to break it with, "Daaaaamn."

"So I take that as a yes?" Ramsus asked.

Hyuga cleared his throat again, "Well, I will not be offended if you do not, but if you can manage it, I would appreciate it. Sigurd is not even trying, but I would prefer my daughter not have to know too much about Hyuga Ricdeau."

Before they could speak further, they were swarmed by more frog men. "It seems that this tribe has some sort of grudge to settle with us. Maybe if we favor them with a battle hand-to-hand, they might stop swarming," Kelvena mused.

"You guys do what you want with this. I don't like the idea of leaving the Commander in Bladegash alone, and I'm pretty sure he's not up for fighting on foot yet," Dominia said. "I'll stay here in case any larger hostiles come our way."

"That sounds delightful!" Kelvena piped. "Doctor Uzuki, would you like to join me fighting hand to hand?"

"Absolutely, my dear."

Ramsus flipped the comm off. "Thanks for keeping me away from the fight. To be honest, being belted in here isn't doing my bruises any favors."

Guilt flickered across Dominia's face. "Do you want to switch up and ride with Kelvena once they get done?"

"Yeah, I think that'd be for the best, at least for today. Sorry," he said, grimacing.

Dominia flipped the comm back on and waited until Kelvena and Hyuga were done. "Hey guys, while you were having fun, the Commander kinda got himself pinched in the co-pilot seat back here. Kelvena, is it okay to switch up? I was in such a rush to get down here that it ended up not very battle-practical."

"That is fine. He is much more likely to be comfortable in a space built for someone your size, Dominia," Kelvena responded.

"Aw, put a cork in it!" Dominia spat back playfully.

Dominia helped Ramsus out of the co-pilot seat and kissed him on the nose. "We'll meet up later."

"I'm holding you to that," Ramsus said, winking at her before limping down the ladder.

Marinebasher was much less cramped, and Kelvena looked him over before they headed back out. "Commander, you are putting yourself at risk for greater injury the more you choose not to rest." She poked and prodded in the places she remembered his injuries from Merkava being, and he hissed at every one of them.

"I couldn't refuse Fei his first request. I've been asleep for much longer than I had any right to be," he said, continuing to hiss as she kept poking him. "Ow! You already did that one..."

Kelvena muttered her restorative ether chant, and all the recent stings and cramps from trying to fit into Bladegash subsided in a wave of effervescent blue light. "That should take care of the damage Dominia did to you today. You might be limping back into the Merkava if you are not careful with your left leg, though."

Ramsus looked down at his leg. There was still a nasty bruise the last time he'd checked it, but no one could really tell at the moment. "I don't exactly remember some of these injuries..."

"When we dragged you from the wreckage of Amphysvena, among other things, your tibia was splintered. You were still on enough DRIVE to kill Miang and stab Krelian on that leg despite the pain, but when you dropped, you didn't get up. Dominia had to knock you out to pry you away from Miang's body when we made our escape back to the Yggdrasil with the others. That was the last time you were in Marinebasher. You probably do not remember it, do you?"

Ramsus shook his head. "The first thing I remember after that was waking up on the Yggdrasil and seeing all of you girls and Hyuga, then going back to sleep."

"If you had not almost killed Elly in Vendetta, we would have been able to heal you quicker in one of Sage Taura's nanomachine tanks. It took Billy Lee Black, the Yggdrasil's nurse, Doctor Ricdeau, and myself to get you to the point where you did not need crutches for that leg."

"This trip is enough to make me appreciate the need to be grounded. I had no idea how bad I was...I'm sorry."

"We did not get a whole lot of time to talk to you about your condition before Doctor Ricdeau slapped you. That should have been handled differently."

"It'll be all right. Thank you so much for your help, Kelvena. Sorry for being...awful."

Kelvena shook her head. "Think nothing of it, sir. Let us get back to the task at hand."

"How are you doing, Commander?" Dominia asked over the intercom once they started moving.

"He is doing much better now that he can bend his legs, Dominia," Kelvena quipped.

"Sass!" Dominia huffed.

"I admit, we probably should not have dragged you down here in your condition, Kahr. Your leg needs to heal before you can pilot Vendetta again safely," Hyuga's assessment was on-point, as usual.

"So Kelvena tells me," Ramsus replied.

"We are almost there," Hyuga said. They were only a few steps away from the others when another dragon came to block their path. Ramsus checked to make sure he was belted in tight enough and the party engaged. It was easier to see what was going on from Marinebasher, and he could tell that Fenrir was running muchquicker and smoother than he'd ever seen it move before.

"Hyuga, what kind of engine is that?"

"It is one of Big Joe's OMEGA100 engines. It is optimized for maximum power, but god help you if you need more than 1000 fuel."

"Wait, what?! That is absolutely insane. No wonder you people got the jump on us all the time - you were experimenting with dangerous equipment!" Ramsus exclaimed. "What the hell is your output, Hyu?"

Kelvena plugged away at her console. "100. That name appears to be ironic."

Dominia was heard snickering in an unflattering manner over the intercom.

Hyuga chortled and added, "Well, we have been jumping from junk shop to junk shop, but I think this is the first of the exceptionally dangerous equipment we have seen. Not all of us are going to go my route for this fight. My role in the strategy is to be a damage dealer."

Ramsus sighed. "You people are nuts."

"Have you re-considered your choice to join us, Kahr?" Hyuga asked nervously.

"No, I think this problem needs people who are nuts. I just hope I'm nuts enough to keep up with you."

The dragon went down eventually, and in a few steps, they met up with Fei, Tolone and Seraphita again.

"This is the place. We're going to have to go on foot from here," Fei said.

The party dismounted and entered one of the few buildings that still had lights on. Per normal, the girls clustered around the Commander, even without orders. When they entered, Big Joe was blasting upbeat music on the upper level of the building.

Fei sighed. "Sorry if you guys find this music obnoxious. I think it's just his way of keeping his head up."

"Considering what's happening, I don't blame him," Ramsus replied, shrugging in a way he hoped would come off amicably.

"Hello~!" a voice called.

"Hello, Big Joe!" Hyuga answered back.

The party ascended the stairs and Big Joe had his back turned to them, nodding his head to the beat of the music, snapping his fingers to it. "Sounds like you've got some new friends, Fei..." he sang, turning around to look at everyone with a signature pose.

Seraphita was impressed. "Big Joe~!" she sang along, mimicking a pose that Ramsus guessed was another famous one of Joe's.

"Heyyy, I thought you said Big Joe was for babies, Seraphita!" Tolone growled.

"I only said that so I could watch his show alone in peace~!" Seraphita said, holding her pose.

Tolone struck another Joe-like pose. "Ha. Joke's on you. I have high fidelity audio-visual receptors, so I watched his show by myself and didn't tell anyone."

Big Joe clicked his tongue and blew a kiss to the girls. "Thank you, thank you, ladies, for your continued loyalty to the Joe Way." Joe struck a different pose, and the girls imitated him.

Dominia and Kelvena looked at each other, then at the other girls. "I did not know this 'Big Joe' had a personal broadcast..." Kelvena said.

"I haven't watched civilian broadcasts since I graduated Jugend," Dominia added.

Fei stepped in front of Tolone and Seraphita. "Hey now, these girls are incredibly powerful fighters."

"And incredibly powerful fans!" Tolone and Seraphita sang in unison.

"Well, thanks for not being there to throw cans at me at the Bledavik Tournament," Fei said, shuddering to think at how much damage would have been dealt to him if Tolone and Seraphita had been throwing tin cans at him along with the regular crowd.

"Not fans? No problem. Fei had that same problem and he's still my friend. How about you, albino guy? You a fan?"

Ramsus was silent for a moment, not socially prepared to be in the spotlight even though the whole point to coming down here was to talk to this person. The way Big Joe had addressed him would have been seen as a serious insult according to high society Solarians, but the only high society Solarians that survived the crash and being mutated to serve Deus were either high in the mountains surrounding Aquavy or in this room. So, he put himself in Dealing With Jesse mode, and let himself laugh a little – just enough that it wouldn't appear fake. "Albino guy? I...kind of like that."

Big Joe sauntered closer and looked him over. "Ah, Fei...Fei, this white rabbit is famous, ain't he?" Ramsus tried to act like his proximity didn't bother him. Whatever Big Joe was using to keep his hair shiny smelled like 4000 year old oven cleaner.

"How would you know if he was famous, Big Joe? Ramsus and the girls here are all from Solaris, which you probably didn't have access to," Fei said. Hyuga had been standing to one side in the corner, watching all of this unfold with a look of restrained glee.

"If Big Joe still knows how to do one thing after 4000 years, it's to keep in step with the media's pulse, worldwide, baby. Big Joe didn't have to be in Solaris to pick up Solarian broadcasts. You can't rise to the top and not get filmed. Hell yes, I know who Kahran Ramsus is. Did you bring him down here to try to haggle my prices down with his legendary charisma and naturally wavy hair?" Big Joe traced his finger in the air in a curve meant to emulate his bangs in a way that was frighteningly accurate.

"This isn't a game, Big Joe! We're running out of time and we have more fighters to outfit. What do you even spend our money on?! There's nothing to buy right now, down here! What do you do? Trade with the frogmen?" Fei had lost his temper with Big Joe much more quickly than Ramsus expected. It put him at ease to see that Fei could indeed be rattled.

"Hey baby, I get out and back to Nortune every once in a while. There's a lot of people still alive, and this moola still means something to some of them," Big Joe said, running a hand full of rings through his hair. "Plus I gotta support my good looks."

"I'm beginning to think this might be futile. How can you really argue with that, Fei?" Ramsus asked, mostly facetiously.

Big Joe let out a belt of laughter that made Kelvena jump. "See Fei, Ramsus gets it! Is there really anything more to life than being a knockout?" He clapped a hand on Ramsus' shoulder and laughed some more. While he was laughing, Ramsus winked at the others, hoping they'd get the hint and play along. Tolone winked back at him. There was an opportunity here, and it was to make Joe think he was getting his way.

"I can think of only one thing, Big Joe, and that is being in the company of other knockouts. If you've never seen them before, these are the Neo-Elements," he said, walking Big Joe over to each of the girls and introducing them.

"Ravishing, every last one o' you!" Big Joe exclaimed.

Tolone and Seraphita made high-pitched squeaks of joy at the compliment.

Big Joe stood in front of Dominia a little longer than the others. "Yizkor, eh? Tell me, my dear, do you sing at all?"

Dominia frowned apologetically and shook her head. "No, not really. Why do you ask?"

Big Joe narrowed his eyes at her and took a step back. "Heh heh kids are the ones that have opted out of being parts for Deus by reincarnating, right? Well, Dominia, you my dear happen to look startlingly like the frontwoman for Ravine."

"What?!" Fei gasped.

"Calm your face, baby, I mean Ravine the band, not the terrorist group," Joe said with a wave of his arm. He motioned for people to follow him to the back of the room, where a dusty band poster hung on the wall. Big Joe wiped the dust off the poster in a motion he tried to pass off as suavely with his jacket sleeve, which revealed a woman baring her teeth angrily at the camera that bore remarkable resemblance to Dominia.

"Well then..." she said, blinking. "...uh, is that bad?"

Fei seemed a little more twitchy all of a sudden. "Uh...well, I guess Gebler never actually looked into the history here in too much depth."

Ramsus shook his head. "Miang was behind the scouting operations. The information we were given was very sparse, aside from the goal of retrieving Emeralda."

"Well, that explains a whole lot, then. The Zeboim civilization was the most advanced on the planet 4000 years ago, but despite having the best technology, the people were dying out because they were starting to become infertile. Miang was sitting at the leader of Zeboim's right hand, and pushed very strongly for nuclear war. I don't think she would have liked you finding her face plastered up all over the place in a 4000 year old ruin," Fei said.

"No, no, she wouldn't have liked that at all," Ramsus scoffed.

Fei nodded and continued. "There was a great social pushback against the war, peaceful at first, and Ravine was one of the musical acts that frothed the crowd up. I don't remember what happened to turn Ravine the band into Ravine the violent protestor group, but it had everything to do with trying to sabotage the city's infrastructure to try to disarm our weapons and make the war an impossibility. Unfortunately for Zeboim, they failed."

"That makes me wonder if I've been fighting against Miang all my lives," Dominia said. She put her hand on the poster and wiped more of the dust off. The band standing behind her past self consisted of people she expected not to recognize, but the hair on the drummer - a tall, skinny girl with hair over her eyes – was familiar enough a shade of white that she looked back over at Tolone. "Hey. Tolone, come look at this."

They must have spent fifteen minutes looking at that poster. The bassist was a scruffy-looking man with pink hair that everyone could connect to Seraphita, and the lead guitarist, although a tall and brawny young man, had Kelvena's coloring and presence as much as the lead singer had Dominia's.

"No way," Tolone said, backing up a bit and shaking her head. "I'm a robot. Krelian built me."

"No, Tolololo, you keep on saying that you're a cyborg. This means at least some part of you used to be human and reincarnateable," Seraphita said.

"That's not a word!" Tolone spat back.

"Seraphita is correct, Tolone. Krelian must have used at least some human component when he constructed you. There seems to be no other explanation," Hyuga said.

Tolone grew silent for a while. "Krelian...lied to me, then."

"He lied to all of us," Ramsus said, offering her a hug, which she dove into. The rest of the girls piled around them and Ramsus felt a sharp pang of guilt as he heard a sob come out of her. He had never seen Tolone cry before.

"He lied to me! And he used that lie to make me fight for him!" she screamed. Not many people heard it, because she was screaming into the Commander's chest.

"We'll make him pay, Tolone," Seraphita said, trying to reach her head to pat it.

"I thought all of you were stupid, once. I used to think that if I needed to, I could betray all of you if Krelian needed me to. E-even you, Commander."

"It's all right, Tolone. That doesn't matter now. We're going to stop him, and Fei's going to help us," the Commander said, hugging her tighter.

"He said he'd call on me if he needed me to subjugate any of you...but he never did. Thank god he never did," Tolone continued. After a few moments, she lifted her head up and wiped her tears away. "Tears. This is so much bullshit. I'll tear him limb from fucking limb."

Seraphita took her hand. "Do you wanna go outside and wind down, Tolone?"

Tolone looked like she was going to yell at Seraphita again, but instead, she nodded and followed her outside. "E-excuse us, please," she said as an afterthought to those that remained. Before she left, she got Ramsus' attention and winked at him. He had been feeling legitimate guilt before, but the wink signaled that this had been a ploy. He winked back and tried to keep his expression dark.

"I'm really sorry, fellas," Big Joe said. "I didn't know something like that woulda caused such a big reaction."

Ramsus crossed his arms and gave him an annoyed look. "So, we're out to kill Krelian, and the thing that's going to kill -all- of us if we don't stop it. We don't have a lot of time to do it in, and you're charging us extra for..." he lifted his eyebrows "...what reason, again? I forgot."

Fei gawked at Hyuga, who grinned back at him like the cat that just ate the canary.

Big Joe cleared his throat and shifted his weight. Dominia fixed him with an unimpressed stare, and Kelvena looked like she was about to open her eyes. "H-how 'bout this? I'll give you half off. If y'all win, you can pay me back what you owe. And believe you me, I'll find'ja."

This seemed to satisfy Kelvena immediately, but Ramsus held his expression. Dominia lightened her stance and pointed her head toward the poster. "Is it okay if I take the poster? If it's precious to you, I can return it. I just want the image."

"N-no, you can have it, darlin'!"

She gingerly took the poster off the wall and rolled it up, then walked over to him and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, Big Joe. I'll remember this." Dominia passed the poster to Kelvena and began to walk out. "Kelvena, I trust you to keep this in better shape than me. We should go out and make sure Tolone's all right."

Kelvena nodded and followed her, which left Ramsus alone in the room with Fei, Hyuga and Joe. "Thank you for such a generous discount, Big Joe," he said, flashing what he hoped was one of his better smiles. Judging by Big Joe's flustered expression, it was. "May we see what you have?" Big Joe guiltily opened a briefcase with a data pad that looked like it was stolen from Solaris. "Is that...a Datapad Phi?"

Hyuga leaned in and inspected it. "Last year's model, of course, but yes, this appears to be a Cerise Industries Datapad Phi."

"Well then, there won't be a whole lot of trouble with any currency conversion, will there?" Ramsus asked, reaching into his jacket and pulling out his credit reader.

"Kahr, what are you doing?" Hyuga asked.

"Are those prices properly discounted, Hyuga?"

Hyuga squinted and nodded.

"Fei, is your gear outfitted for its maximum possible efficiency?"

"Almost. I'm missing these, though," Fei said, pointing to a couple of items that wouldn't have been a problem at all last year for Ramsus to find money to pay for.

"Hyuga, how about you?"

"I am optimized, Kahr, thank you."

Ramsus stood and looked over the statistics on the equipment for a moment, then keyed in what Fei was missing, along with some equipment for the girls. The total was over 100,000g, and when he inserted his credit reader, he was expecting the screen to flash red – he always tried to keep his personal account at 191,808, but this years' losses had caused him to have to dip into his savings to pay for things like Haishao's replacement parts and the complete reconstruction of Wyvern's arm, so he didn't have time to adjust things to his vanity account balance. The money went through, he sighed with relief, and Fei's jaw dropped. He couldn't help but smirk a little. "How do we pick these up, Joe?"

"W-walk your gears 'round back. I have a Joe Brand outfitter bot. Remember, that's 100k you owe me after you kill god."

When the Commander, Fei and Hyuga exited Joe's, the rest of the Elements were clustered around Tolone, who wasn't crumpled or crying, but staring at the concrete. He ran down toward her and the girls made way for him, "Are you going to be okay, Tolone?" he asked.

"I had you pretty convinced, didn't I?" she said gleefully.

"Yeah, you got me. I'm impressed at how good of a con artist you are," he said, trying to look sympathetic as he said it. "You're gonna hafta keep that act up. I got each of you girls some equipment and you all have to go around back for it. I'm not sure how sentient the frogmen here are, or if they work for him, so just keep it up until we're back on the surface."

"Wait!" Fei sputtered loudly, but Hyuga grabbed him by the ear and shushed him. "Ow! Doc, what...?!"

"We need to keep up the con, Fei, either look angry or solemn," Hyuga hissed.

When he started nodding agreeably, Hyuga released his ear. "All right, all right," Fei put on a defeated stance and knelt by Tolone. "I can't believe that whole thing was a con."

"I honestly didn't have a clue of how we'd get the better of Joe until she started fussing," Ramsus said. "Pure genius."

Tolone made a show of rubbing her eyes. "It's really hard to know if you're not a cyborg."

Kelvena unrolled the poster and the others clustered around it. "I always thought all of us had known each other forever the first time we met. Having this proof fills my heart with joy. I shall put it up in our room at the Yggdrasil once we return to the surface."

Dominia eyed it again. "4000-Years-Ago-Me had much nicer teeth..."

"And by that, you mean she did not have fangs?" Kelvena giggled.

Seraphita giggled back. "You're mean today, Kel."

Dominia took the insult with stride, but put on a grumpy face. "C'mon, let's get those gear upgrades out of the way so we can get out of here."

"All right, but before we go, we should go find a gold thing to touch," Fei said.

" thing?" Ramsus asked.

"He means a Memory Cube. You know, the ones Krelian was using to spy on us?" Hyuga said, annoyed.

"Let that asshole spy all he wants. He'll see that Kahr and the girls have joined us, too. I want to rub it in his face!" Fei said, running off.

Hyuga sighed. "I cannot take that young man anywhere."