Part 1 - Chapter 1

He was staring at the ceiling again. The Yggdrasil was much warmer than he expected it to be, though his initial assumption of it being cold was based on what he'd observed visually of its outer hull. He hadn't heard Sigurd talk of the Yggdrasil when they were at Jugend, but not being a member of the Fatima Dynasty, nor a patriot of Aveh, he was not entitled to know such a thing. Maybe even Sigurd himself hadn't known. It stung to realize just how little he turned out to have known about someone he used to care about so much. The Surface had not been kind to Sigurd, so it made no sense to Kahr that there could be anything of worth there for him. When Sigurd left Solaris, Kahr read all his reasons as hollow excuses, but as they came closer to meeting again, through fighting friends of friends, he began to realize just how solid those reasons were. Much more solid than anything Ramsus himself ever had.

The current sting of having to grovel before people he had made bitter enemies out of was only slightly better than being Krelian's puppet and Miang's plaything. His mind knew that what they'd done to him was awful, but the lizard-brained need for approval - any approval - still burned in the back of his mind. He played the memory of their confession to him in the Merkava over and over again: that every move he'd made in service to them had been to serve only their cold, detached objectives to ressurect Deus. No matter how many sacrifices he had made, it still wasn't enough. How low he'd bowed for Krelian at Miang's behest, how many relationships and he'd destroyed to keep Miang's interest...

Even when he was sure he'd proven himself, it was never enough. He always thought, that if he could meet a certain threshold of approval, it would be worth it, but he refused to see his cage for what it was. He had rebelled, but not in a way that set him free, so the only way he could be free was if someone else freed him. The thought was humbling, but his inner critic preferred the term "humiliating."

His skin was still tense where Hyuga had slapped him hours earlier. He was grateful Hyu had cared enough -to- slap him. Genetically speaking, it could be argued that Kahr was the prince of Solaris; aside from the existential "no"s he received from Miang and/or Krelian and the Gazel, he was usually charismatic enough to always get his way. It had been way too long since anyone had managed to push past his charisma bubble. The thing about true friends was that they cared enough to set you straight, and being surrounded by yes-men and subordinates for twelve years had made him rampantly bratty. He wished he hadn't driven everyone who truly had his best interests at heart away. He wished he hadn't forgotten how to act around real people.

Krelian and Miang were both still alive, technically. There was still a chance to fight them. People were scrambling outside like mad to help. He had every reason to join them, but he was still too prideful about being -the- person to do it. He didn't want to help them fight, he wanted to do the whole thing himself, which simply wasn't feasible. It was a problem that needed months for him to get over, but the crisis needed to be resolved immediately, and he didn't even have his own Gear anymore. How would that look? The Dethroned Prince of Solaris, puttering up in a busted hand-me-down from someone who worked for the Prince of Aveh, attempting to face down Mother God? The thought of being laughed at by Fei and his friends made him angry. The thought of being laughed at by True Miang and Krelian made him never want to get out of bed again.

"Please, just give me some space for the rest of the day. I have a lot to think about," he'd asked the girls earlier. They'd crowded him after he apologized to them, but there was still something hollow about it. He wouldn't trade the girls for the world, especially not now, but his pride dictated he had to work through some of this alone.

Eight hours later, he realized that he had backslid by isolating himself. He'd locked the door before passing out, but he could hear them just outside.

"Dominia, I hate to say this, but maybe we should just let him rest today," Tolone said, "He was up for four days between Nisan and Merkava. There's no way eight hours is going to be enough."

"We've left him alone long enough," Dominia grumbled, "If you have stuff you want to do, go ahead, but I'm going to stay here until something happens."

"Best of luck, of course, but...I want to hurt the people that hurt him!" Tolone said.

Seraphita spoke next. "There's still things to fight, and we're still standing~! Sigurd and Doc have outfitted us to fight the Seraphs, ee hee hee, and I'm not going to let that go to waste!"

"What about you, Kelvena?" Dominia asked.

"Hmm..." Kelvena mused, " appears that you are going to stay whether or not we go, so I will join Tolone and Seraphita. If we need Bladegash, we will send for you, but there may not be a need today."

"You never know what might blow up next, though," Tolone interjected.

"There is little infrastructure left to be destroyed, Tolone, but Dominia is predictable enough that we won't have to look very far if we need her," Kelvena said.

Kahr heard them leave, and Dominia walked over to the door. "Commander, I don't know if you're in a place where you can hear me, but if you do, I know how complicated this is, and I'll understand if you don't want to fight alongside Fei. Whatever happens, I'm not going to leave your side."

Dominia was waiting for some kind of reaction, but he hesitated long enough that she started talking again.

"I know everything might seem like it's worse right now, especially since Van Houten is somehow Miang, but if we beat this, beat Deus, beat -her-, there'll still be things to do, even if you don't fight. There will be a need to build back up afterward. There will always be a need to do things, and to go forward, to stand back up."

He wasn't even sure how to respond to that one. Dominia gave up thinking he could hear her.

"Commander, I'd like it if, one day, I could call you Kahr like the original Elements did. I'm not sure how I can ever get there, but that's my goal." She paused for a moment and cleared her throat. "It might be a few seconds from now or years from now, but I'd like to be closer to you now that Solaris is gone, and there's no one to command anymore. The other girls might not see it that way, so I guess this is my resignation. I'd rather attempt to be your equal and try to help you get through this than politely stay your subordinate and watch you fall further away."

Dominia surprised him by shouting at the door. "What you said at Merkavah hurt me!"

That outburst made him move a little quicker. He tried to get out of the bunk he'd climbed onto as quietly as he could, but his surroundings were unfamiliar and if his thoughts hadn't kept him up, he would be catching up on the sleep Tolone was right about him needing. He made it to the door panel to unlock it just as Dominia drew breath for another outburst. He already felt like he was putting enough of a strain on his newly reforged ties with Sigurd and Hyuga, and he didn't want to be responsible for any more public upset. "I'm awake. I heard everything. What I said at Merkava...what I did at Merkava, didn't need to happen. I see that now. It was unfair of me to ignore you when you were just trying to diffuse the situation. Please, come talk to me, Dominia. I was wrong."

The door unlocked and Dominia hesitated entering, but walked in after a few moments.

It had been a long time since she'd seen Ramsus without his jacket. It hung on the corner of one of the bunks, and below it, he'd stuffed his gloves in his boots, which left him in the standard Solarian black high-necked top. The only thing that remained remotely command-distinctive were his pants. Once she was inside the room, she locked the door behind her. The time he spent sleeping had put the color back in his face, but there were still dark circles under his eyes. Even damaged as he was, she still felt so strongly. "The rest of what I have to tell you...might not be very nice."

"That's fine," he said. She hated how defeated he sounded.

"I have always only ever aimed to help you, Commander, and I'm so angry that I was too scared to question Miang's hold on you. Had I realized what was going on sooner, I would have knocked over every building in Solaris if it would have made you see. With as much as I am completely in love with you, I've always been too scared to do anything about it. There was always some power structure in the way or some standard of decency or some fear of rejection holding me back from what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to say to you. And I'm sorry I wasn't brave enough to tear any of that down to save you or stop you, or--" She couldn't keep eye contact. "I don't even know what I'm trying to say anymore. you know, I guess, that I love you."


"I'm done hiding my feelings, Commander. From now on, I'm going to be 100% honest with you. I love you. I've always loved you, but...even after all these years, I can't figure out in my head how to make this work," she said, tears pricking the back of her eyes. The last time he had seen Dominia cry was seven years ago when she was a helpless refugee, running in terror from Id's destruction of Elru. Any outflow of emotion had ceased when she entered Jugend, and she had kept herself stern and strong-looking, but as she spoke, that brave face began to crumble away.

She sat down on one of the bunks and motioned for him to sit next to her, which he did. Sitting next to him meant that she didn't have to keep eye contact. "You have been everything to me since Elru was destroyed, but I can't possibly be everything to you. Not yet, at least...and I'm not sure either of us want that."

"I thought that by submitting myself to Miang completely and putting aside my own intuitions, that I had gained and managed to keep the perfect lover. But that was...probably the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life. Any comment I have to make about love or trust or commitment is going to upset us both, but I am honored...flattered, and glad to have the affections of such a strong, beautiful, truly loyal person like you, Dominia."

This was not the ideal scenario in which she imagined being with the Commander for the first time, but then again, the whole thing had been so abstract for her until the past two days. She had fantasized about those perfect lips of his meeting hers a thousand times, running her hand through his immaculate hair, being able to keep eye contact and maybe break through his indelible scowl, which being beaten for the final time had somehow washed off his face before she had the chance. She frowned, deeply. "I couldn't have fantasized more beautiful words coming out of your mouth, but--"

What the fuck are you saying shit like that for?! You aren't even a meter away from him. Just stop talking, lean over and--

Ramsus interrupted Dominia's inner critic before it had completed its thought. "I'm sorry I can't love you the way you want me to, but there is absolutely nothing standing between you and I right here, right now, and you know more than anyone that I'm very vulnerable right now, too. I'm not going to push you away. I don't want to hurt you any more than I already have, so if you feel that not acting on your affections will keep you safe, I understand. I am no longer your Commander. I can't tell you what to do anymore. In fact, I'd be a lot more comfortable if you told me what to do." The unfamiliar pleading expression was gone, replaced by a pained, concerned look that made her feel instantly more comfortable. It wasn't the pain, perhaps, but more the concern that drew her in. Kahran Ramsus gave a fuck. He'd always given a fuck, even when no one else did. That's what made him special. She couldn't not kiss him, and when she leaned in, her fantasies were not dashed.