Chapter 17: Reunions

Pacific Ocean, near Orb Union, 23 March, C.E. 71

It really was a shame, Alex decided, that the drubbing they had given those submarines at the Strait of Malacca eight days earlier had not given the Zala team pause. True, he had not held out much hope, but it would have been nice if Athrun had taken the warning and spared them the annoyance.

Annoyance is right. They were facing four Gundams on Guul subflight platforms with three Gundams of their own. Kyle, Chris, and Hiro were on the Valkyrie’s forward deck playing armored gun turret, leaving Alex, Brian, and Kira to take the fight to the enemy with their flight-capable machines.

At least they are pretty much ignoring our ship, Alex thought grimly. With their proximity to Orb, Athrun had apparently decided that attacking the Valkyrie was a waste of effort and power, so his team was focused on the Archangel.

“Time to change that,” Alex muttered. Predictably, Yzak was concentrating on the Strike; though he hated to admit it, the white-haired pilot’s facility for carrying a grudge was very nearly equal to Daniel Bartlett’s. “Brian, cover me.”

“Roger that.”

Smiling grimly, Alex angled his machine toward the Duel. See how you like this, Cousin.

From Athrun’s perspective, the battle was going well. The black ship’s machines had done little so far, and the Strike was for the moment pinned to the legged ship’s deck.

The Duel’s movements caught his eye. “Yzak, don’t be reckless!”

“Shut up!”

“Try to aim for the engines,” Athrun continued, ignoring Yzak’s insolence. “Nicol, flank them on the port side!”

“Right.”

Athrun followed his own directive, targeting the legged ship’s port Igelstellungs. If it goes down, he thought, then cursed as the Scorpion flashed past, throwing off his aim. Knowing that a Gundam was far more of a threat than some machine cannons that could not hurt him anyway, he shifted his aim, or tried to. The transformable machine was maddeningly agile.

“What’s with this guy?” A hurried series of laser blasts missed completely; Kilgore repeatedly paused for a split second in front of the Aegis’s optics, seemingly as a taunt.

“Nice try!” Forgoing his weapons completely, Kilgore slammed his machine into Athrun’s, throwing the Aegis off balance, then darted away again.

“Blast it!” Athrun fired a burst from his thrusters, stabilizing his machine, then looked warily for his opponent. The old fighter pilot adage, “Lose sight, lose the fight,” held true for mobile suits as well, and Athrun had no intention of losing.

Archangel/Valkyrie, Bridge

Murrue gripped the arms of her command chair as the Archangel shook wildly. “Damage report!”

“Igelstellungs Four and Five are hit, ma’am!” Sai responded. “Sealing bulkheads!” The ship shook again as he spoke.

“Direct hit on the starboard levitator,” Chandra reported. “It was the Blitz’s lancer darts.”

“Buster approaching from above!” Tonomura sang out.

Dearka’s attack was considerably nastier than Nicol’s. The Buster’s anti-armor shotgun, orders of magnitude more powerful than lancer darts, struck the Archangel’s port side, taking out a good-sized chunk of their CIWS.

“We can’t take much more of this,” Murrue said grimly. “Lia, what about you?”

“They’re ignoring us for the most part,” Lia said. “Since we’re so close to Orb, Zala probably decided we were a pointless target.”

“I agree, Captain,” Natarle said. “Commander Strassmeier has made no secret of his intentions, so they’d have to know that the Valkyrie will no longer be a threat when it reaches Orb.”

Which did not help them very much. “Is there anything you can do?” Murrue asked.

“Some. Brian’s keeping the Aegis busy, and Alex is going after his cousin.” Lia grimaced. “That’s all, I’m afraid.”

“It’ll have to do,” Murrue said, looking down into CIC.

Natarle nodded agreement, then turned to Mir. “Tell Ensign Yamato to target the Guuls,” she ordered. “He is to ignore the Duel; it’s clear Strassmeier will be taking Joule personally.”

Lia overheard, and acted of her own. “Target Lokies on those Guuls,” she said crisply. “Focus on the Buster; if we can take it out, their only ranged attack that could really threaten either ship will be the Aegis’s Scylla.” Then to her helmsman, “Increase speed to flank.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Open sky

“Hey there, Yzak,” Alex called. “Looks like you’re in trouble. Again.”

The Duel immediately stopped its attack on the Strike. “Buzz off, Alex. It’s time for him to pay!”

Alex shook his head sorrowfully. “You take things way too personally, Yzak.” His machine slammed into the Duel, knocking it away from the Archangel.

“You’re one to talk!” Yzak shot back, sending an ineffective railgun slug at the Stormbird.

“For your information, cousin mine, there is a qualitative difference between a war wound and an abduction.” Alex dodged his cousin’s fire almost effortlessly. “For you to even consider such a comparison tells me that you are perilously close to losing your wits.”

“Shut up!” Forgetting Kira entirely, Yzak drew a beam saber and charged the Stormbird, snarling all the way. He drew back for an overhand strike…

And then everything changed.

A mobile suit appeared seemingly out of thin air between the two combatants. Pure white, it bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Blitz, although its profile was narrower. It had the distinctive Trikeros system, and the way it had popped out of nowhere proved that it had Mirage Colloid.

The biggest surprise came when the mystery suit’s pilot spoke. “Stop it, Yzak!”

Alex and Yzak both froze in their tracks. They knew that voice. It was a voice neither had heard in years, though they had always believed its owner still lived. The speaker was someone dear to both, someone who had vanished three years before.

“Yzak, what’s wrong?” Athrun asked; it was, to put it mildly, unusual for Yzak to suddenly stop in the middle of an attack.

“Alex, what’s going on?” Murrue and Kira asked simultaneously.

Neither was able to answer.

The white mobile suit turned to face the Archangel. “Sorry,” the pilot said. A visual appeared on the bridge’s main monitor, a girl of about sixteen, with space-black hair and ice-blue eyes. “I guess my arrival caught everyone by surprise.” She smiled. “My name’s Andrea Strassmeier.”

Murrue Ramius felt her jaw drop. “You…you’re Alex’s sister?”

“It’s her, Aunt Murrue,” Lia said, more than a little shocked herself.

“Hi, Lia,” Andrea said cheerfully, then looked at her brother’s machine. “Come on, Alex. Aren’t you happy to see me?”

Alex finally found his voice. “Y-Yeah, of course I am. Andrea…” Even now, with the evidence right in front of him, he was having trouble believing. Is it really you, Sis?

Andrea laughed. “I don’t blame you for being shocked.” She then turned to the Duel. “And you, Yzak, need to calm down,” she said in a remarkably astringent tone. “So that Kira guy gave you a scar. So what? Alex lost his arm to a shark; did he go bonkers when he recovered?”

“I…” Yzak was not sure how to respond to that. “I’m glad…you’re alive.”

She laughed again. “We’ll have plenty of time to catch up.” She returned her attention to Murrue. “Lord Uzumi sent me out when he heard who was approaching Orb waters. He wants both ships to dock at Onogoro Island, along with the ZAFT mobile suits. He knows his daughter is on the Valkyrie,” she added.

“Of course, we’ll come right in,” Murrue said, feeling like she was in another world.

“We’re coming, too,” Athrun said. “There’s a lot that needs to be cleared up.” He smiled. “Besides, there’s no way I’d try to keep Yzak from something like this. He’d probably kill me.”

“You’d better believe it,” Yzak said, though he was not sure he meant it.

Andrea grinned. “Follow me, then. I’ll guide you in.”

Docking facility, Onogoro Island

Alex had returned to his ship before they entered Orb waters, and now he sat in his usual place on the bridge, staring fixedly out the forward viewport. Even though he had heard the voice, he still could not quite believe it was his sister in the white mobile suit.

No, that was not quite right. He did believe it; it was just that he was afraid of being wrong. If this turned out to be a hoax…

Stop it, Alex told himself firmly. You have always known she was still alive.

“So, you’ve finally found her.”

He looked up. With her normal post superfluous (since they had no mobile suits deployed), Cagalli stood next to Alex’s chair. “And where I least expected to,” he agreed. “I should have expected it, though; Andrea’s not the kind of person to just sit there and wait to be rescued.”

She smiled. “You think she stole that mobile suit?”

He snorted. “I do not for an instant believe its resemblance to the Blitz is a coincidence, so yes, it seems likely. Which lends credence to my original story.”

“Come on. I believed you the first time.”

Alex waved that away. “I know that; I was talking about Lieutenant Badgiruel.”

She bent down and gave him a quick kiss, ignoring the huge man behind her. Cagalli had been a little nervous when Kisaka caught her holding Alex’s hand, but the bodyguard had merely smiled knowingly. She still wondered just what was behind that smile, but it was not a major concern now.

“I know,” she said.

“Docking now,” the helmsman interrupted.

Alex stood. This was something he had been waiting for a long time. “All right,” he said, his voice noticeably less steady than usual. “Let’s go.”

He never had any memory of going from the bridge to one of the external hatches. All he ever knew was that he was suddenly outside the ship, and a girl in a white flight suit was running toward him. Andrea Strassmeier practically tackled her brother, wrapping her arms around him in a fierce embrace.

Alex hugged her back, tears running freely down his face. “It’s really you,” he whispered. “I was afraid it was somehow a trick.”

“I know,” she whispered back. She looked up at him. “But I’m back.”

He pulled away slightly, just enough to get a good look at her. Andrea had grown at least fifteen centimeters since he has last seen her. Her hair was longer than he remembered, running down to midback, and the way she moved suggested that she had at least kept in shape.

Or the bastards who kidnapped her forced her to stay in shape, a corner of his mind added, but he ignored it.

Anyone who looked at Andrea Strassmeier could see that she was closely related to Alex, but there was one major difference. No one except Cagalli would have called Alex handsome; his angular face had been compared by more than one person to a bird of prey. His sister, though… While there was a pronounced resemblance, Andrea’s face was not quite as angular. In simple terms, she had gone from merely pretty to stunningly beautiful.

Whoever wins her heart is either the craziest man alive, or the smartest, and the luckiest. He looked up at the sound of footsteps “Hey, Yzak!”

Yzak did not care what else was going on. He did not care that he was within shouting distance of the Earth Forces’ newest warship. It did not matter that he had just been interrupted to take down the Strike. He did not even care that he was in tears, and that not only his teammates but the Earth Forces soldiers, including Kira Yamato, could see it.

He had his family back, and that was all that mattered.

Andrea broke away from her brother to embrace their cousin in turn. “Great to see you, Yzak. Miss me?”

Yzak returned the embrace, thinking in the back of his mind that they looked ridiculous. “Too much. When we heard what happened…”

“Say no more, Cousin,” Andrea said. She looked back over her shoulder, spotting Lia, Kisaka, and Cagalli. “And there’s the princess-” She broke off, staring, then burst out laughing. “I don’t believe it! You gave her Mom’s necklace?”

Alex blushed. “Uh, yeah. You remember, Mom said I should give it to whomever I thought would wear it best…”

Yzak laughed. “So, you gave it to the princess of Orb.” He punched his cousin’s shoulder. “And you told me there was nothing romantic going on!”

“There was nothing romantic then,” Alex retorted in a pained tone. “At least not consciously; it wasn’t until she briefly vanished that I was able to sort out my own feelings.”

“Yeah, sure.” Alex winced, hearing that tone. Yzak was having an “I told you so” moment, and he was guaranteed to milk it for all it was worth. “So, you’re the princess,” Yzak went on, apparently deciding to spare his cousin any further embarrassment…for now.

“Don’t call me a princess,” Cagalli snapped, but then she smiled and shook Yzak’s hand firmly. “Alex’s told me a lot about you.”

“I’ll bet he has.” Yzak nodded to the other girl present. “And you’re Alex’s Junk Guild friend?”

Lia smiled. “That’s me. Lia Ramius, Captain of the Valkyrie.” She started to say more, but then she looked past Andrea’s shoulder, and her face lit up. “Mom! Dad!”

Yzak watched her go. “You have weird friends, Alex.”

“Tell me about it.”

Kira almost collapsed from sheer exhaustion when he released the Strike’s zip line. The battle outside Orb had been short but fierce; if Alex’s sister had not intervened, it could have gotten a lot nastier.

“Kira!” Predictably, Flay had appeared at his side. “Are you all, right?”

He smiled at her. “Just tired. I’ll be fine.”

“That’s good to hear.” Athrun Zala came up to them, his friend Nicol Amalfi in tow.

Kira let Flay help him to his feet. “Athrun. It’s… it’s good to see you again.” He looked away. “I wish…”

Athrun held up a hand, stopping him. “It’s all right, Kira. I understand why you did it.” He looked over at the other dock, where Yzak was talking with his cousins. “Maybe Strassmeier’s sister can get your Earth Forces friends to see the error of their ways.”

Kira blinked. “I thought you’d just want them dead.”

“I did, at first.” Athrun shrugged. “But then I heard from two different people, Lacus and that princess, that you were being treated well. That kind of…gave me hope that maybe they weren’t like the rest of the Earth Forces.”

“They aren’t,” Kira assured him. “Captain Ramius held us at gunpoint at first, but it was because we’d been exposed to classified Earth Forces technology.” Athrun nodded; even though they were on opposite sides, he could not blame her for that. “Anyway, when she learned that you and I were friends, she let me use disabling attacks on your machine.”

“Lacus told me that,” Athrun said. “It’s not the sort of thing a Blue Cosmos fanatic would do.” He frowned. “But why did that XO go along with it? I’ve heard she’s pretty by-the-book.”

Kira shrugged. “She said it would be to their advantage if we recaptured the Aegis.”

“That makes sense,” Athrun agreed. He blushed suddenly, remembering that they were not alone, and turned to Flay. “I apologize for my rudeness; I shouldn’t have ignored you.” He held out his hand. “I’m Athrun Zala of the Le Creuset team. This is Nicol Amalfi, same team.”

She smiled. “Flay Allster, and don’t worry. You and Kira haven’t seen each other in years except on the battlefield.”

Cagalli was right, she is no Blue Cosmos operative. “That’s no excuse, but I’m glad you understand anyway.” Athrun glanced again at Andrea. “I have a feeling that she’s going to drop a major bombshell.”

“Yeah,” Nicol agreed. “That machine of hers looks a little too much like my Blitz to be a coincidence.”

Kira nodded soberly. I think even Lieutenant Badgiruel will have to question the Earth Forces’ motives. “So, how have you been, Athrun?” he asked, changing the subject. “Last time I saw you; your father had recalled you to the PLANTs.”

Athrun shrugged. “Not much happened until January of last year. It was about then that I got engaged to Lacus.” He nodded at the robotic bird that landed on Kira’s shoulder. “It’s also when I gave her that first Haro.”

“Yeah,” Kira agreed. “She told me you built those.”

“I joined ZAFT about a month after the Bloody Valentine,” Athrun went on. “I was assigned to the Le Creuset team right after I graduated, last September. There wasn’t much going on though, not until Heliopolis, and you know as well as I do what happened after that.”

Kira nodded again. “It probably won’t matter,” he said. “If that girl confirms Alex’s story, and I think she will, then I don’t think we’ll be with the Earth Forces for much longer.”

“If even half of what he’s said is true, it’s a whole lot worse than anything ZAFT has done,” Flay agreed.

Athrun sighed. “I hope you’re right. I really hope you’re right.”

“Man, what a crowd,” Mu muttered.

More to the point, it was several crowds. Alex, Cagalli, and Colonel Kisaka were talking with Yzak Joule; as Mu watched, they were joined by Yzak’s teammate Dearka Elsman. Kira and Flay had met up with the other two Le Creuset team pilots, Athrun Zala and Nicol Amalfi; Kira’s expression as he finally had a chance to talk with his old friend spoke volumes.

Mu, Murrue, and Natarle had been left alone at first, and then who should show up but the Captain’s brother.

“It’s good to see you again, Murrue,” Michael Ramius was saying. “When I heard about Heliopolis, well…”

“I know what you mean, Mike,” Murrue said. “Admiral Halberton said the same thing when we met the Eighth Fleet.” She hugged her brother, then waved at her two companions. “Two of the Archangel’s officers, Lieutenant Natarle Badgiruel, XO, and Lieutenant Commander Mu La Flaga.”

Michael shook their hands, smiling. “It’s an honor to meet the Hawk of Endymion.” He nodded to the brown-haired woman at his side. “This is my wife, Naomi.”

“Mom! Dad!”

The three officers stepped back almost in unison as Lia Ramius seemed to explode into their midst, trapping each of her parents in a brief but enthusiastic hug.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” her mother whispered. “I knew you could take care of yourself, especially with Alex out there, but I couldn’t help worrying.”

“Mom, you always worry,” Lia said, giving her another hug.

Natarle stepped forward. “You knew about Strassmeier’s sister, correct?” Both Junkers nodded. “Forgive me, but I have to ask: Is his story true? Was his sister abducted by our forces?”

Michael Ramius sighed. “Andrea and Lord Uzumi will explain in greater detail, but for now…” Another sigh. “It’s true. There is a great deal about the Earth Forces that you do not know. Some of it…” He trailed off, shaking his head, then looked at his sister. “Murrue, if I’d known then what I know now, I would have done everything I could to stop you from enlisting.”

Murrue stiffened. He did not say that sort of thing lightly.

“You don’t have to take my word for it, either” he continued. “There is someone else here, whom I believe you know well.” Michael looked toward a far door. “And if I’m not greatly mistaken, there he is.”

None of the officers could conceal their shock. They knew who it was, all right. They had met with him barely a month before, only then he had worn the uniform of an Earth Forces rear admiral.

Murrue could not help staring. “Admiral… Admiral Halberton?” She could not believe it.

“It’s been a while,” Halberton said, coming over to them. “Surprised to see me?”

Natarle moistened suddenly dry lips. “Admiral, with all due respect…” She took a deep breath. “What is going on here?”

“All in good time, Lieutenant.” Halberton raised his voice, making sure all present could hear him. “Chief Representative Athha would like to meet with all of you, to explain the highly unusual situation.” He met Athrun’s gaze. “Including you and your teammates, Commander Zala.”

Athrun nodded sharply. “We’ll be there.”

“Good.” Gesturing for those assembled to follow him, Halberton led the way out of the docks.

Athha residence

This should be interesting, Alex thought. Cagalli’s father wants to meet with a gaggle of Earth Forces soldiers, independents, and four ZAFT pilots. Unusual, to put it mildly.

Andrea caught his eye and smiled reassuringly. “It’ll be fine, Alex.”

“She’s right,” Cagalli said softly, squeezing his hand.

He squeezed back. “Thanks, both of you.”

Given the size of the group, they met with the Chief Representative in a large conference room on the ground floor. A long table dominated the center of the room, with small computer terminals inset directly in front of each chair. One wall featured a large viewscreen.

Lewis Halberton and Andrea Strassmeier moved to flank the tall, dark-haired man at the table. “Welcome, all of you,” Uzumi Nara Athha said, standing to greet his guests. “I apologize for any confusion this may have caused, but as I am sure you will agree, the situation is unique.”

As he spoke, Uzumi assessed the somewhat ragtag assembly. The Archangel officers (who had been joined by Ensign Arnold Neumann) looked understandably confused. Kira Yamato, the youngest (whom Uzumi knew a great deal about indeed), was less nervous than he might have been, probably because of his close friendship with Uzumi’s daughter.

The ZAFT pilots were more of a puzzle. Athrun Zala, as befitted a team commander, had no expression beyond polite interest. Nicol Amalfi seemed fascinated by his surroundings, while Yzak Joule was naturally focused on his cousin almost to the exclusion of all else. So was Dearka Elsman, though clearly for different reasons.

And then there were the two from the Valkyrie. Lia Ramius, of course, stayed near her aunt. Alex Strassmeier, though, was another matter entirely. Uzumi suppressed a smile at the sight; Alex might have been hard to read, but Cagalli was not, and she was not even trying to disguise her possessive attitude toward him.

Besides, she is wearing Elena Strassmeier’s necklace, Uzumi thought. Klaus, you may have been right about how your son would have reacted, but they fell in love anyway.

“Unique is right, sir,” Murrue said. “First Alex’s sister appears out of nowhere, literally,” she added, recalling the Mirage Colloid effect. “Then we find Admiral Halberton here, in Orb uniform. That tells me that something was going on within the Alliance.”

Uzumi nodded. “Correct.” He nodded at the girl next to his chair. “And Ms. Strassmeier’s story is where it begins.”

Andrea took the floor. “As some of you know,” she said, sounding oddly like Natarle Badgiruel, “three years ago, I was kidnapped by an Atlantic Federation special forces unit.” She gestured to her brother. “Alex was also a target, but he was able to escape.”

“So, he was right,” Natarle said softly.

The girl nodded. “I was taken to a secret base in the Aleutian Islands. When I woke up -they’d hit me with a stun gun- they told me I was to be part of something called the ‘Combat Coordinator’ project.”

Neumann frowned. “Combat Coordinator?” he repeated.

“It was a project to counter ZAFT’s mobile suit corps,” Andrea explained. “Since, with a very few exceptions, Naturals can’t pilot mobile suits without a special OS. So, we were brought in. Basically, it involved a combination of psychotherapy and drug treatments, to make us ‘obedient.’ “

“Bastards!” Yzak hissed.

Andrea gave him a stern look. “Yzak, remember that no one on the Archangel had anything to do with what happened.” She smiled at his expression, a mixture of anger and chagrin. “Anyway, unfortunately for them, it didn’t work, so what they had was a bunch of angry Coordinators.” She smiled like a shark. “While it took me a lot longer to escape, I did quite a bit of damage on my way out.”

“I’ll say you did,” Mu said. “What is that thing, anyway?”

She brought up an image on the wall screen. “GAT-X210, the Specter. Like the Blitz, it’s designed as a special ops unit. Its equipment is identical, except for this.” She indicated the left arm. “Instead of the Gleipnir, it has an energy-draining claw, intended for capturing enemy machines.”

Uzumi gestured to Admiral Halberton as Andrea moved to join her brother and cousin. “This is where the admiral’s story begins.”

Halberton cleared his throat. “Last month, while you people were still mucking about in the desert, I did some digging of my own. Commander Strassmeier’s story about his sister dovetailed all too well with some other things I had heard. So, naturally, I made some quiet inquiries.” He shook his head. “I found more than I ever wanted to know.”

“What was it, Admiral?” Murrue asked softly.

The admiral clenched a fist. “That the Earth Alliance…is nothing more than a front for the terrorist organization Blue Cosmos.”

There was a collective gasp from the Archangel’s people, but the ZAFT pilots were anything but surprised. “That explains how they were able to get that nuke onto the Roosevelt,” Athrun said bitterly.

“It does indeed, Commander,” Halberton agreed. “At any rate, I found out exactly what happened after the Mandelbrot Incident. It wasn’t pretty, to put it mildly.”

“So that’s why you chose to desert?” Murrue asked softly.

Halberton snorted. “I would likely have done so eventually, but I wasn’t given time to consider; I was looking into things that were none of my business, you see. To make a long story short, the high command tried to purge me, only to find that the entire crew of the Menelaos was on my side. We sought refuge with Orb, and Lord Uzumi was kind enough to help us out.”

“Where’s the Menelaos now?” Mu asked.

“Docked at Ame-no-Mihashira. As you know, Orb does not have much of a space fleet, so an Agamemnon-class battleship is an unbelievably asset.”

For a long moment, there was nothing but silence as those assembled mulled over what they had just heard. The Zala team, of course, were in no way surprised, except perhaps at the news that the Alliance had tried to purge its best space commander.

The Archangel officers, on the other hand, found themselves faced with a serious dilemma. What they had just learned made even Natarle Badgiruel sick, but at the same time they were Earth Forces soldiers. They had all given their loyalty; desertion, even though it was starting to look like the only choice, came extremely hard.

Kira finally spoke. “I agreed to pilot the Strike so that I could protect my friends,” he said, giving Athrun an apologetic glance. “I enlisted when they did so that I could continue to protect them, but this…” He shook his head, then turned to his fellow officers. “If the Earth Forces are just a front for Blue Cosmos, then I can’t remain with them. Maybe they had let me go on for a while, but the moment I outlived my usefulness, they would kill me. I won’t give them that chance.”

“Kira,” Murrue said softly.

The Coordinator turned back to Uzumi. “Sir, I don’t like to fight, but if Orb could use a mobile suit pilot, I’m available. If I must fight, then I want it to be for something I believe in.”

Mu La Flaga stood. “I’m with the kid. There’s no way I can continue to fight for the Earth Forces, not if it helps a bunch of slimeballs like Blue Cosmos.”

“I have to agree with Commander La Flaga,” Murrue said. “If the truth about the Alliance was enough to get the Admiral to desert, then I shall follow.”

“I agree as well,” Natarle said. “In light of what I have learned here, I cannot in good conscience continue to serve the Earth Alliance.”

“I’m in, too,” Neumann said.

Uzumi nodded gravely. After what he had heard from Halberton and Kisaka about these people, their reactions were about what he had expected. “I realize that this is exceedingly difficult for all of you. Turning your back on your homeland is never easy. Indeed, if you had found it easy, I would not be able to trust you.” He raised an eyebrow. “What of the rest of your crew?”

“They’ll likely go along,” Murrue said. “The student volunteers for sure; with the exception of Flay Allster, they’re all from Orb anyway.”

The Chief Representative frowned. “George Allster’s daughter?”

“She’s also Kira’s girlfriend,” Cagalli said. “She’ll go wherever he goes. Bet on it.”

Uzumi nodded, satisfied. “Very well, then.”

Kisaka stood. “Those of you who chose to join Orb’s military will be promoted, and we will assign additional crew to the Archangel,” he said. “Your current crew will remain with you unless they specifically request reassignment.” He looked at Kira. “We do, however, have another job for you. Since Orb is not at war with anyone at present, your first assignment will be to help in the development of our new mobile suits, and in the training of their pilots.”

Kira nodded. “I can handle that. What do you need?”

“Thanks in part to the G-weapon project, we have the technology to produce mobile suits superior to anything short of those original prototypes,” Kisaka explained. “Unfortunately, we haven’t yet been able to produce an OS that our people can use.”

“So, you need me to come up with an OS that will let Naturals pilot mobile suits,” Kira said, nodding again. “I’ll do what I can.”

“That is all we could ask.” Kisaka looked over at Alex. “We would like your assistance, as well.”

Alex shrugged. “We have to earn our keep somehow.”

“Speaking of Alex’s operation,” Yzak said, “just how did they get the kind of resources they needed to build a warship and five mobile suits?” He quirked an eyebrow at Alex.

The other shrugged again. “Well, the Junk Guild helped some since Lia’s parents are members. Still, I admit to being a little puzzled at how some parts appeared right when we needed them. It happened too many times to be a coincidence.”

“That would be my doing,” Uzumi said.

All eyes turned to the Orb noble in shock. “Say what?” Yzak blurted.

“Father, are you saying-” Cagalli could not finish.

Uzumi smiled at his daughter. “Come now, Cagalli. Your attachment to Commander Strassmeier is obvious to all but the willfully blind. I don’t think you have any reason to complain.” Cagalli blushed, and the Chief Representative nodded at Yzak. “You heard correctly, Mister Joule. I arranged for much of the resources he needed, though I do not know how he obtained the PSA technology. Orb has to date been unable to duplicate it.”

Alex looked uncharacteristically sheepish. “No, we stole that ourselves.”

“That’s my brother!” Andrea chirped.

Athrun frowned. “But why? Why would you lend covert assistance to a group like that?”

Uzumi sighed. “Though my personal sympathies lie with the PLANTs, particularly in light of recent revelations about the Earth Forces, I must confess that I share many of Strassmeier’s suspicions about your father, Commander.”

The ZAFT soldier closed his eyes briefly. “I wish I could blame you, sir, but I can’t. My father is not exactly known for moderation. I do not think he wants all Naturals dead, but I can understand why someone would think otherwise. And since I’m aware that Alex has no intention of harming the PLANTs…”

Uzumi nodded. “You see the position I find myself in. While I still live, Orb will never align itself with the Earth Forces, but we cannot at this point lend our support to the PLANTs, either. Giving aid, however covert, to someone like Alex Strassmeier, was the best we could do.”

“I understand, and I will so inform the Supreme Council,” Athrun said.

Uzumi stood. “I believe that concludes any official business. Commander Zala, you may make use of our own comm facilities to file your report; I understand a Vosgulov-class submarine lacks the needed equipment, and this would be faster than returning to Carpentaria.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You may also rest here for a time, so long as you maintain a low profile.” Uzumi smiled. “If nothing else, I believe some of you have some catching up to do.”

The now-former Earth Forces officers started to file out, followed by the ZAFT pilots, Andrea Strassmeier, and Lia Ramius. Alex moved to follow, but Uzumi’s upraised hand stopped him.

He turned. “Sir?”

“I have some additional matters to discuss with you, Commander,” Uzumi said. “Cagalli, if you and Kira would remain as well.” The two exchanged puzzled looks but complied.

They did not start right away. Uzumi had called for a couple more people, and Alex’s eyes narrowed when they arrived. He recognized them instantly: Haruna and Caridad Yamato, Kira’s parents. What is going on here? Alex had known they were Orb citizens, but it was odd that the Chief Representative would know them.

Haruna’s expression was difficult to read, but his wife was another matter. The instant she saw Kira and Cagalli sitting side by side, she looked almost dismayed, as though this was something she had hoped would never happen.

Kira’s eyes widened. “Mom? Dad?”

“Lord Uzumi, what is going on?” Caridad asked, sounding afraid of the answer.

Uzumi seemed to hesitate. “We can no longer hide the truth,” he said softly. “As you can see, the children have met.”

Alex’s eyes, already narrow, shrank to icy crescents. ” ‘The children have met’?” he repeated softly. “Is this about what it sounds like?”

Uzumi nodded. “Kisaka told me of your quest, and how you hoped to receive help in Orb.”

“Yes,” Alex said slowly. “I take it you have some information?”

Another nod. “I know exactly what happened to the twins you seek.”

“And they are?” Alex said when the Chief Representative paused.

Uzumi shot a glance at Haruna Yamato, got a resigned look in return, and finally answered. “Kira Yamato is the Ultimate Coordinator, and Cagalli is his sister.”

The resulting silence was profound. Alex had been convinced for a while that Kira was the Ultimate Coordinator, but it had never occurred to him that Cagalli might be the other twin. Now, though, as he looked at them, he was struck by the resemblance. Allowing for the obvious gender differences, they are almost identical. Why didn’t I see it sooner?

The twins themselves were in shock. Kira and Cagalli had felt connected since they had first met, but they had never thought they might be related.

Kira finally looked at his parents. “Mom? Dad? Is it… is it true?” They nodded mutely. “Why… why didn’t you tell me?”

Uzumi answered for them; Haruna seemed unable to speak, and his wife was in tears. “There was a great deal going on at the time,” he said. “Your birth parents had just been killed in a Blue Cosmos attack. To my knowledge, only two of Ulen Hibiki’s colleagues survived, Mikhail Coast, and Alex’s father, Klaus Strassmeier.”

Alex’s lip twisted. “I spoke with Coast when I began my search, three years ago. He’s a ZAFT pilot now; we ran into him at Junius Seven.”

“It was decided that the twins would be separated, in order to keep them safe,” Uzumi continued. “Accordingly, Kira was adopted by the Yamato’s, while I took Cagalli in myself.”

Haruna finally spoke. “We had hoped to keep these events secret, though Lord Uzumi said that we wouldn’t be able to forever.”

“But why didn’t you tell us?” Cagalli burst out. “Why did we have to be kept in the dark?”

Alex took her hand. “Cagalli, would you tell a little kid he’s the product of some insane medical experiment?”

“It would have been better if the secret had never been revealed,” Caridad Yamato said suddenly. She glared at Alex through her tears. “If you hadn’t gotten involved, this would never have happened.”

He exploded out of his chair. “How dare you!” he hissed. “I can understand keeping it from them temporarily; as I said, telling that story to a little kid would be crazy. Ultimately, though, they had an absolute right to know, and you were obligated to explain it the moment they were capable of understanding.” When all three Yamato’s flinched, he forcefully reigned his voice in. “Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that you love Kira just as you would if he had been your son by birth. Still, that does not change the fact that he needed to know, eventually.”

“Alex is right,” Uzumi said. He laid a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I intended from the beginning to tell you when you were old enough. Your friend’s quest merely accelerated that.” He looked at Kira’s parents. “And even if Alex hadn’t gotten involved, it would have gotten out eventually.”

Haruna squeezed his wife’s shoulder. “He’s right, Caridad, And so is Strassmeier. Kira and Cagalli have a right to know the truth.” He looked at Kira. “I won’t blame you if you’re angry, Kira. Just remember what your friend said. We love you just as if you were our son by birth.”

Kira nodded slowly. “I know.” He rose and embraced his parents. “It’s hard, but I understand.”

His sister agreed. “When Alex told me about his search, I never thought I was one of the people he was looking for.” She froze briefly as another thought occurred to her. “Father, if Kira and I are siblings… what am I?”

Uzumi smiled. “You, like your brother, are a Coordinator. While you were not removed from your mother’s womb, as he was, you did undergo the more standard treatments.”

“Though whether the word ‘standard’ can be applied to Coordinator technology in the first place is an open question,” Alex said wryly. He looked up at Uzumi. “Sir, one more thing. Why were you so ready to help?”

“It’s quite simple, though few are aware of it,” Uzumi replied. “Did your father ever tell you about his time as an exchange student in Orb?”

Alex frowned. “He mentioned it, but not very often…” He trailed off, an arrested expression on his face.

Uzumi nodded. “Exactly. I knew your father well. Indeed, one reason I covertly aided you was because of a promise I made, long ago. Klaus asked me to look out for you, should anything happen to him.”

“That explains some things,” Alex said slowly.

“More than you realize,” Uzumi said dryly. “When the engagement with Yuna Seiran fell through, I actually suggested a match between you and Cagalli.” The princess blushed at that. “Your father, however, warned me that you would not react well to something like that.”

Alex snorted. “My father was undoubtedly exaggerating. My opinion of arranged marriages is no secret and never has been.”

“That is precisely what he told me,” Uzumi agreed. “In any case, it appears to be a moot point.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “So, you’re not objecting to my relationship with Cagalli?”

“On the contrary, I was delighted when I saw you together.” Uzumi smiled. “I recognized your mother’s necklace.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.”

Haruna stood, Caridad and Kira with him. “If you’ll excuse us, My Lord.”

“Of course.”

Cagalli followed her brother out. Alex started to move, then paused and looked back at Uzumi. “Just one more thing.” He hesitated. “I want to thank you, for taking care of Andrea. That is a debt I can never repay.”

“There is nothing to repay,” Uzumi said. “I could not leave anyone in such a state, let alone the daughter of an old friend.”

“Still, if there’s anything you need…”

Uzumi smiled. “Make Cagalli happy. That is all I ask.”

Alex grinned, came to attention, and saluted in the ZAFT manner. “You got it,” he said, and departed.

Chapter 16: Fateful Encounters

Indian Ocean, 7 March, C.E. 71

Alex stared at the red CGUE in disbelief. His laser blast had caught the thing dead center, and it should have been gutted, but the beam had splashed off harmlessly. That is impossible. Nothing can survive that! He frowned, a sudden suspicion forming in his mind. Unless…

Bartlett smirked. “That’s right, Strassmeier. My CGUE now has an anti-beam coating. Even that plasma cannon of yours is useless.”

“For now, perhaps,” Alex said coldly. “But it can still be worn down.” He fired again, missing this time as Bartlett dodged.

“You don’t have what it takes, Strassmeier!” The CGUE leveled its rifle and shield cannon at the Stormbird. “You’re going down!”

Alex cursed, twisting madly to avoid the hail of beams. Just what I do not need. He stabilized briefly, fired, missed again, and dove, hoping to throw off his opponent’s aim. The effort was successful, but just barely; a green flash nearly struck his plasma cannon.

Kira, meanwhile, ignored the GINNs and DINNs bearing down on him completely. He got a lock on one of the GINNs attacking the Archangel, fired, and shifted to its partner even as the first exploded. The second GINN followed into oblivion.

“Bastard!” One of the DINNs fired all its weaponry at once, peppering the Strike with missiles and solid slugs.

Kira was unimpressed. Bartlett’s made one mistake. None of those DINNs have energy weapons, and there is no way they can wear down my armor before I get them. Suppressing a sigh, he fired three precise shots, reducing the DINNs to junk.

“Great shooting, kid!” Mu called, then swore as a DINN came at him, firing madly. He threw the Skygrasper into a violent spin, narrowly missing the mobile suit with an Agni burst.

Alex would have gone to the Hawk’s aid, but he had his own problems. Bartlett was not letting up, and the way he was firing suggested that the CGUE had a new high-density energy battery. Not exactly good news, since PSA was useless against beam weapons.

This is really getting on my nerves, he thought, then cursed as a beam grazed his left leg. He spun around and returned fire, managing through sheer luck to vaporize the hilt of the CGUE’s sword, then dove again to avoid another hail of beams.

“You can’t run forever, Strassmeier!” Bartlett called. “Sooner or later, you’re going down!”

Alex ignored him. If you let him get you angry, it will cloud your thinking, and if that happens, he is won. Gritting his teeth, he unlimbered the Stormbird’s plasma cannon and took aim at Bartlett’s Guul. He fired once, missed, and a laser blast struck his weapon before he could get off another shot. The resultant explosion knocked him back, almost slamming him into the Archangel’s superstructure.

“Alex!” Kira shouted. He tried to bring his own rifle to bear but was immediately distracted by the last GINNs. While their deceased fellows had used heavy missile launchers, these two bore ion cannons like the one Miguel Aiman had used.

“You’re dead, traitor!” the lead GINN pilot snarled. He fired three times; the shots barely blocked by the Strike’s shield.

Kira hissed through clenched teeth, then took off, trusting the mobility advantage the Aile pack gave him over Guul-equipped GINNs. It worked; the Strike flew rings around its opponents. None of them could touch him, whereas he could attack at will. Two precise shots lanced out, destroying the last GINNs without an era of wasted power.

I hate this, he thought to himself as he dropped back to the Archangel’s forward deck. But I have no choice. There are some things you cannot protect without fighting, and if Alex is right about Athrun’s father, then ZAFT must be stopped.

The only major fight left was Alex’s duel with Bartlett; Brian had destroyed the underwater mobile suits and sunk the trailing Vosgulov. Unfortunately, he had also nearly run out of power, and a freak hit had damaged his verniers, so the Scorpion had temporarily lost its flight capability.

“Having fun yet?” Bartlett taunted.

Alex did not dignify that with a reply. He knew enough about psychological warfare to know what his old nemesis was up to. Knowing did not help him, though, and he swore again as a beam struck his machine’s left leg, shearing it off at the knee. Simply great; all I need is for him to reduce me to a basket case! As if to punctuate the thought, another blast vaporized his right wing. No!

Behind his eyes, a blue seed burst.

Using his remaining thrusters, Alex spun his machine in midair, aiming his rifle not at Bartlett’s CGUE, but at the Guul it rode. The precise shot split the lifter in half, and the CGUE dropped like a rock.

“You’ll pay for that, Strassmeier!” Bartlett shouted as he fell.

Kira’s Strike caught the damaged Stormbird. “You okay in there, Alex?”

Alex doffed his helmet and wearily rubbed his temples. “Yeah, I’m fine. Bit of a headache, maybe, but nothing worse than that.”

“Glad to hear it,” Mu said, coming in for a landing. “Did the princess make it back all right?”

Alex and Kira exchanged puzzled looks. “Make it back?” Kira echoed.

“She took out that DINN, but it hit her at the same time,” Mu said. “What, you didn’t see her?”

“No, we didn’t.” Alex added a few choices German curses under his breath. “This is bad, Mu. Cagalli is a close friend, as well as the daughter of a major figure. For both reasons, we need to find her.” And if she dies, I will skin her killer alive. Slowly.

“You’re right,” Mu agreed, unaware of his young friend’s thoughts. “Kira, you’d better get Alex back to his own ship, then resupply.”

“Roger that.”

Cagalli forcefully restrained herself from cursing. The DINN had taken out her navigational systems, and now she was reduced to flying by eye. Which would be fine, if there were any landmarks, or any land for there to be landmarks.

Simply great. The one hit I take knocks out every nav system I have, including the compass. Could this get any worse?

She had her answer soon enough. A spec appeared in the sky ahead of her. It quickly resolved into the unmistakable shape of a ZAFT mobile suit transport. With a maximum capacity of three mobile suits, it was a big, lumbering vehicle, though it did have adequate defensive weaponry.

Cagalli thought for a moment, then made her decision. It was a ZAFT transport, and it was clearly carrying at least on ZAFT mobile suit. Ergo, it was a threat to her friends on the Archangel and the Valkyrie. She tightened her hands on the joystick.

Judging by the transport’s motions, her attack came as a complete surprise. She managed to graze the plane with a shot from her beam turret, forcing at to jettison its cargo to stay aloft.

Cagalli blinked, recognizing the mobile suit as it fell. That is the Aegis. She felt a jolt as the significance of that knowledge hit her. I… I almost killed Kira’s friend.

And then she had no time to worry. The transport’s crew returned fire, hitting her Skygrasper’s right wing. A secondary explosion shredded her starboard engine, and then she was falling toward a nearby island. Cagalli closed her eyes, bracing herself for the crash.

At least I will be on land, she thought, and then the world went black.

Archangel, Bridge

Murrue sighed and closed her eyes. “Any word?”

Kuzzey shook his head. “Nothing, ma’am. Commander La Flaga hasn’t found anything, and neither has Kira.”

If only the Scorpion and the Stormbird were not still in for repairs! Not that she blamed Brian or Alex; underwater combat was difficult and fighting Daniel Bartlett one on one was even worse. In any case, Alex was even more agitated than Murrue was, and she knew he was beating himself up over the damage to his mobile suit.

“Get me the Valkyrie,” she said suddenly.

Lia appeared within moments. “What is it?”

She was no more cheerful than Alex was, Murrue noted. Not a surprise, really; Lia and Cagalli had become close friends. “You should probably have a talk with Alex,” she said. “He’s blaming himself for the damage the Stormbird sustained in that last fight, and…” She trailed off, shrugging.

Lia grimaced. “Say no more, Aunt Murrue. I know exactly what you mean. He was just like this when his sister was kidnapped. Don’t worry, I’ll straighten him out.”

“Good.” Lia’s image vanished, and Murrue looked down into CIC. “Natarle, I want a constant communications watch.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Natarle was already turning to her own intercom.

Sai and Mir looked at each other, more worried than wanted to admit. “I hope she’s okay,” Mir said softly.

“Me, too.” Sai was not as close to the princess as Kira and Alex were, but he still liked her.

“What if she ran into some more ZAFT units?” Tolle wondered. “Would she have made it?”

Murrue sighed again. “She wouldn’t have gone down without a fight. I wish I could say more, but we simply don’t know.”

The Archangel’s captain hated these situations at the best of times. The fact that it was Cagalli made it worse; Murrue had come to see her as almost a kid sister (and was not that a fine attitude to have about the daughter of a foreign leader!). It was worrying her almost as much as Alex and Kira.

Cagalli, please be safe.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Though no one who did not know him could tell, Alex was more agitated than he had been in years. Outwardly, the only sign was a slight tightening of his face, and a barely noticeable shortness to his words. Very few people were capable of noticing, and only one of them was on the same ship.

If only I had taken Bartlett out faster! he snarled to himself. Then she would not have gone missing!

“I thought this would happen.”

Alex turned. Lia Ramius had come in without him noticing. Getting sloppy, Alex. “You thought what would happen?”

“That you’d be blaming yourself for something that wasn’t your fault,” Lia said.

“And how, pray tell, is this not my fault?” Alex demanded irritably. “If I hadn’t let Bartlett take me by surprise, the Stormbird wouldn’t be so badly damaged, and at the very least I’d be able to help search for Cagalli.”

“Oh, come on!” Lia rolled her eyes. “You had no way of knowing he’d have anti-beam coating on his CGUE, and even if you had known, how would that have helped?”

“I’d have known from the start to aim for his Guul,” Alex shot back.

She snorted. “Maybe, maybe not. Cagalli’s a good pilot, too; you had no reason to expect her to take a freak hit. That sort of thing happens in battle; no one is to blame, least of all you.”

Alex took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I… guess you’re right. It’s just that…”

“It’s just that this reminds you of what happened to your sister.”

“Doesn’t everything?” Alex said sardonically.

Lia came over and gave him a sisterly hug. “I didn’t mean it that way, and I don’t blame you for feeling like this, but you can’t let it paralyze you.” She pulled back and looked him in the eye. “And this differs from what happened to Andrea in one important respect: Cagalli isn’t helpless.” Alex winced, but did not dispute it. “She’s a fighter. I can’t see her going down that easily.” She grinned. “She’s a perfect match for you.”

Alex gave her an Et tu? look but said nothing.

Lia laughed. “Sorry, Alex. I know you’re tired of hearing this -especially from Mu La Flaga- but it’s true, and the only people you two are fooling are yourselves.”

“Whatever.” Alex shook his head. “Did you come here for any reason other than to berate me?”

She gave him her best innocent look. “Aunt Murrue asked me to talk to you. You know me; would I be here otherwise?”

Alex snorted. “I do know you, and yes, you would be here, even if your aunt hadn’t put you up to it.” He smiled, feeling at least a little better. “Thanks, Lia. Where would I be without you?”

“Probably dead,” Lia said, smiling to take the sting out of her words. “Anyway, I’m not saying you shouldn’t worry -anyone who doesn’t worry about a close friend in a situation like this isn’t human- but it still isn’t your fault.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.” Alex sat in front of his desk. “I’d still like to expedite repairs to the Stormbird, though. If another ZAFT team comes calling, I’d really like to be able to fight back.”

“Point,” Lia said. She stepped to the hatch. “I’ll see you later.” A pause. “And Alex. When Cagalli gets back, don’t let this one slip away.”

Alex went over the crew chief’s report on his machine with only half his mind. The other half was with a certain blond-haired girl, wherever she had gotten herself to. Soon it was more than half, and he eventually gave up in disgust, cursing himself for not including a couple of vestals in the Valkyrie’s inventory.

What is with me? Even after Andrea was kidnapped, I did not have this much trouble concentrating. With a half-angry shake of his head, he moved to the window, gazing out at the endless ocean.

Part of his mind seemed to chuckle. Do not fool yourself. You are in love.

Shut up, Alex thought, wondering if he was finally starting to lose it. It would certainly explain why his brain seemed to be talking to him independently. He shook his head again, dismissing the notion as his fatigue talking, then collapsed on his bunk. He was asleep within moments.

Deserted island, 8 March, C.E. 71

The first thing Cagalli noticed was that she had a splitting headache, most likely due to landing impact. Moaning softly, she forced her eyes to focus, wondering where on Earth she was. Her last memory was of the stolen X303 Aegis dropping from a transport she had just attacked.

They hit my wing, and then something went wrong in an engine. She grimaced, surveying the damage. I might have gotten down alive, but the plane’s sure not in good shape. At least I hurt that transport.

In any case, there was no point in just sitting there. Making sure to check her sidearm, Cagalli popped the canopy, wincing as sore muscles complained about being strained. She leapt lightly to the ground, landing in a crouch. Pistol in hand, she carefully assessed her surroundings.

No one’s here. Still, no sense in taking chances. Especially since it is not just ZAFT I must worry about. Cagalli remembered her survival training, and she had no intention of becoming a snack for the local wildlife. The tropics were home to some particularly nasty (and poisonous) creatures.

There was still the chance that she would run into another person. If X303 Aegis was there, that meant she had a good chance of coming face to face with Athrun Zala. And if that did happen, it could be awkward. Cagalli had no intention of killing Athrun, but there was no way to know how he would react to her.

“I guess I’ll just have to find out,” she said, and set off into the island’s interior.

Of all the things to run into, it had to be an Earth Forces fighter. Athrun had recognized the design from intelligence reports; an FX-550 Skygrasper, a new design intended specifically to support the Strike. From what he had heard, it could use the weapons from all three Striker Packs; Dearka had described one of the fighters using the Sword pack to slice through a land battleship’s turrets.

“At least it was shot down.” And at least it did not mean Kira had been hurt or killed; there was no way he would be in a fighter instead of the Strike.

He had already activated the Aegis’s distress beacon, so ZAFT would be coming for him sooner or later. In the meantime, the best course of action was to simply have a look around. Drawing his machine pistol in case of unfriendly strangers, be they animal or human, Athrun cautiously started forward.

An hour’s worth of searching turned up little. He found some food, along with fresh water, but nothing else. Well, there was also a cave that would probably come in handy…

Footsteps sounded, causing Athrun to spin around, his gun snapping up into a ready position. “Who’s there?”

“I thought I might run into you.”

Athrun frowned. It was a female voice, and young, too. “Show yourself.”

A blond-haired girl stepped out of the brush. She, too, held a pistol, but the muzzle was pointed at the ground. “You’re Athrun Zala, right?”

He frowned harder. What exactly is going on here? “What if I am?”

“If you are, then I’m not going to shoot you,” the girl said bluntly. “Kira’s been through enough; I’m not killing his best friend.”

“Kira?” Athrun did not lower his gun, but if the girl did not intend to threaten him… “Then you were on the legged ship?”

“Actually, I’ve spent most of my time on the Valkyrie, but yeah, I’ve been on the Archangel, too.” She shrugged. “Since they’ve been traveling together, it’s not too hard.” She looked away. “I was the one who attacked your transport.”

Athrun tightened his grip. “If you don’t want Kira to hurt any more, then why did you attack if I was on that plane?”

“I didn’t know it was you until I saw your mobile suit drop out,” the girl countered.

She had a point, Athrun conceded. There was no way she could have known who was on the transport she had attacked. “All right,” he said, slowly lowering his weapon. “What do you want?”

“I don’t think either of us wants to stay on this island forever,” was the reply. “If we work together, we should be able to get out of here alive.”

Athrun gave a slow nod. “You’re right. I’ve already activated the Aegis’s distress beacon, but it’ll take time for any rescue party to get here, assuming they pick up the signal in the first place.” He started to turn, then paused. “Uh, I didn’t catch your name.”

She blushed slightly. “Oh, yeah. I’m Cagalli Yula.”

The ZAFT pilot smiled. “Nice to meet you.” He gestured for her to follow him. “I found a cave that should provide some shelter. Good thing, too,” he added, gazing speculatively at the sky. “I think we might be in for some rain.”

Carpentaria Base

Nicol stared moodily out the lounge’s window, watching the mechanics swarm over the damaged transport. The pilot had reported being attacked by an Earth Forces fighter and had been forced to jettison the Aegis -and Athrun Zala- to stay aloft.

He cursed the Alliance under his breath. If Athrun does not make it, those Earth Forces bastards are going to pay.

The hatch slid open behind him. “No sign of Athrun,” Yzak said.

Nicol turned. “Then why aren’t we searching for him?” he demanded. “If the Earth Forces-“

“It’s too dark for a search,” Dearka pointed out. “It’s already past nightfall where the transport was attacked, and the weather’s getting nasty. We’ll have to wait till morning.”

“Dearka’s right,” Yzak said. “Besides, there’s no reason to worry; no way Athrun’s going to let something like this take him down.”

“But we don’t know that for sure!” Nicol protested. “He might be hurt, or worse!”

Yzak snorted. “Maybe. We still cannot head out tonight. It’d be a waste of time.”

Nicol looked rebellious for a moment, then visibly reigned himself in. “All right, then.” He turned to leave. “But I’m going after him first thing tomorrow.”

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira slammed a fist into his pillow. Hours of searching had proved fruitless; he had not even picked up a beacon. Cagalli had vanished, seemingly without a trace. Why? Why did this have to happen? Why did she have to go missing?

A pair of arms wrapped around him from behind. “Kira?”

He felt himself relaxing a little despite the situation. Flay had a gift for that. “I couldn’t find her. I looked for hours, but there was nothing. Nothing at all!”

Flay moved around in front of him. It did not even occur to her to be jealous, not anymore. “She’ll be all right; she isn’t some brain-dead spoiled brat who can’t take care of herself.”

“I know, but…” Kira shook his head. “What if she ran into ZAFT?”

Flay, too, had been worried about that, so she had checked with Mu. “I asked Commander La Flaga; he said that a Skygrasper can take anything short of one of the stolen mobile suits. Cagalli would know not to fight one of those.”

“And a Skygrasper can outrun something like that,” Kira added. “I’m still worried, though.”

“Of course, you are. She’s your friend.”

Kira blinked at her tone. “You’re not jealous?”

Flay laughed softly. “Kira, I’m not going to be jealous just because your friends with another girl. What about Miriallia, or the Captain’s niece? I know you like them, too.”

Good point. “You’re right.” He smiled. “Thanks, Flay. Without you, I don’t think I’d have made it this far.”

Flay smiled back and stroked his face. “And without you, I’d never have realized that Coordinators are people, too.” She leaned close and kissed him.

He held her tight, stroking her hair. She is right. Everything is going to be fine.

Deserted island

Athrun was proved right with a vengeance. Rain poured outside the cave in almost a solid sheet, or at least that was what it looked like. Every so often, there was a flash of lightning, followed by a loud boom. Fortunately for them, the cave went nice and far back, so they were able to stay dry.

“I’ve never seen it rain like this,” Athrun murmured, settling in front of the fire.

Cagalli snorted. “This is your first time on-planet; when have you ever seen rain?”

“It rains in the PLANTs,” he said mock-defensively. “But not this hard, and only when the people in charge of life support tell it to.”

She could not help smiling. Once he came out of his shell, Athrun had proved to be an easygoing sort; it was easy to see how he and Kira could be so close. It was hard not to trust him, and Cagalli had to forcefully remind herself that he was still the enemy…sort of.

Sure, he’s ZAFT, but so’s Alex’s cousin. Besides, he’s Kira’s best friend; that must mean something.

“So, uh, Cagalli,” Athrun broke into her thoughts. “You said you know Kira?” She nodded. “How is he doing?”

She gazed into the fire. “He’s doing all right, considering the pressure he’s under, but it’s hard on him.” She sighed. “He doesn’t want to fight, but it’s the only way to protect his friends.”

“Those Earth Forces bastards,” Athrun growled. “They’re just using him, but he can’t see it!”

Cagalli bristled. “That’s not true, Athrun. The people on the Archangel aren’t like that.” She shook her head. “They’re too good for the Earth Forces.” She glared at the ZAFT pilot. “And the only reason Kira joined them in the first place was to protect his friends, and he only had to do that because ZAFT attacked his home.”

“Because Orb was building mobile suits for the Earth Forces!” Athrun shot back.

“Alex proved that the government wasn’t involved,” Cagalli retorted. “And what about the collapse of the colony, huh? Kira was using the Sword pack, while that bastard Le Creuset sent GINNs in with heavy weapons.”

Athrun winced; much as he wanted to, he could not dispute that one. He was there, after all.

“I’m not saying I like the Earth Forces, because I don’t,” Cagalli went on. “Especially not after what happened to Alex’s sister. Still, I do not like what ZAFT is doing, either.” She nodded at Athrun’s flight suit. “Alex was on his way to a recruiting center when his friend Kyle Perry stopped him.”

Athrun snorted derisively. “You mean with the news of my father’s supposed plan to ‘exterminate’ the Naturals?” He rolled his eyes. “My father doesn’t like Naturals, but that doesn’t mean he wants to wipe them out.”

“Then why does he keep denouncing Naturals?” Cagalli countered. “Why not the sponsor nations? Not all Naturals hate Coordinators; Kira’s friends are proof of that. I don’t care what someone’s genes look like, either.”

Athrun frowned. She had a point about Patrick Zala’s rhetoric, but still… “I don’t hate Naturals, myself,” he admitted. “I’ve met Kira’s parents, and I don’t want to see them hurt.” He looked at her sharply. “Still, there are Naturals in ZAFT; if my father wanted all Natural’s dead, why would they be allowed in?”

“Probably because he can’t do anything about it…yet.” Cagalli shrugged. “That won’t last forever. Alex told me a while ago that he thinks your father will replace Chairman Clyne.”

“You have a lot of faith in his judgement,” Athrun observed. Not that he disagreed with Alex’s prediction of the next election’s outcome.

Cagalli chuckled ruefully. “I didn’t at first. I thought he was a ZAFT spy. He predicted the attack, after all.”

“Not to mention the fact that he’s the nephew of a Supreme Council member, and is almost obsessively patriotic,” Athrun agreed. “I’ll bet that was interesting.”

“It was.” She chuckled again. “It only took me a couple of days to get over it; he got mad, spilled his guts about his sister, then apologized. Lieutenant Badgiruel -that’s the Archangel’s XO- took a while longer. Till we got to the desert, in fact.”

Athrun frowned. “I think I remember the name from some intelligence reports; Commander Le Creuset makes sure we know about potential adversaries. She’s from a military family, right?”

“That’s right,” Cagalli confirmed. She sobered. “She was the one who made that broadcast after the advance force was destroyed. The one about Lacus Clyne.”

He clenched his fists. “So, she’s the one who-” He could not finish.

“Who took Lacus hostage,” Cagalli said with a nod. “Alex was angrier than I’d seen him up to then. He went so far as to pull a gun on her.”

“I believe that” Athrun conceded. “I’ve met Strassmeier before, and that’s exactly the sort of thing he’d do. Still, what happened to Lacus proves that Strassmeier is making a mistake!”

Cagalli shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. Badgiruel was acting on her own, and Alex is only helping the Earth Forces because it helps him. Well, and because he has friends on the Archangel,” she amended. “Anyway, once we get to Orb, we’re through with the Earth Forces. What’s wrong with that?”

How can someone so smart be so naive? Athrun wondered. “What’s wrong is that it brings the legged ship that much closer to Alaska. It’s a risk we can’t afford to take.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “If only Kira would just leave…”

“It’s not going to happen,” Cagalli said firmly. “Someone he loves is on that ship; if it’s destroyed, she’ll die.”

Athrun looked up, surprised. “Kira has a girlfriend?”

She nodded. “A girl named Flay Allster.”

“Allster? As in George Allster?”

Cagalli frowned. “She’s, his daughter. Why, is there a problem?”

Athrun hammered a fist into the ground. “George Allster was a high-ranking member of Blue Cosmos; that proves that Kira is being manipulated, and in the worst way possible! If she-“

He did not get any father. Cagalli got up, walked around the fire, and slapped him. “Don’t you dare talk about her like that! She’s the only reason Kira hasn’t lost his mind!” She glared at him. “Sure, Flay used to hate Coordinators, but she changed her mind when she Kira repeatedly risk his life to protect everyone on that ship!”

Athrun rubbed the side of his face, feeling more than a little stunned. Whoever this girl was, she was fiercely protective of Kira, in much the same way Athrun himself was. It clearly was not romantic, judging by how defensive she was about Kira’s girlfriend.

“I’m not surprised her father was a member of Blue Cosmos,” Cagalli went on. “When we met up with the advance force, he was really angry when he found out we had Coordinators with us.” She waved a hand. “But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Flay is not like that, and she loves Kira more than anything. He’s all she has left.”

The ZAFT pilot sighed. “Maybe we should drop the subject, or we’ll probably kill each other.”

“Yeah.” She dropped to the cave floor again, stifling a yawn. “Look, I really don’t think you’re a bad guy. You and Kira are best friends; that must mean something. I just think you’re too blind to see what’s really going on.”

Athrun shrugged. It did not matter, anyway. Their respective comrades would find them soon enough, and then they would be on their way back to civilization. In the meantime, he really needed to get some rest. We will see what happens later.

Indian Ocean, near land, 9 March, C.E. 71

Kira was deeply grateful for the Aile Striker pack. Without it, his search would have been far more difficult, since the only alternative would be to see how well the Strike could swim. In Aile mode, by contrast, he could cover a great deal of territory in a relatively short time.

Now if only I could find something, he thought, then glanced down as his display beeped at him. Huh? A distress call. He adjusted the gain, and a grin spread across his face. It is Cagalli! I have found her! Twisting the Strike around, he soared toward a nearby island. Hang on, Cagalli.

Deserted island

Athrun was not sure at first what had awakened him, but then the beep repeated, and he recognized it. It was the Aegis’s comm unit. Jumping to his feet, he ran to the mobile suit, leaping lightly into the kneeling machine’s cockpit. “This is Athrun Zala.”

“Great to hear you, Athrun,” Nicol said. “I’m on my way in.” A pause. “The Strike is on its way, too.”

“Don’t worry about it; Kira won’t be here for you or me.” Athrun smiled ruefully, though his friend could not see it. “I’m not the only one stuck here.”

“Roger that.”

Athrun dropped to the ground just in time to see Cagalli coming toward him. “That was my teammate, Nicol. He’s coming to pick me up.” He nodded in the general direction of her crashed Skygrasper. “He also says the Strike is on its way in. Kira will probably head for your fighter, so you’d better get going.”

She smiled and waved. “Got it. See you.” She took off at a run, glancing briefly over her shoulder. “Maybe we’ll meet again, someplace that isn’t a war zone.”

Athrun shook his head. That girl was a strange one, no doubt about it. She shot his transport out of the sky, and then when they met face to face, had offered to cooperate so they could both get out alive. To top it off, she had turned out to be a close friend of Kira Yamato.

An Agile-class attack helicopter landed nearby, and Nicol Amalfi hopped out. “We’ve got a transport coming to retrieve the Aegis. Ready to go?”

“Yeah, I’m ready.” Pushing his thoughts aside, Athrun climbed into the chopper’s rear seat. “Thanks, Nicol.”

“No problem.” Nicol looked over his shoulder as they took off. “Say, you said you weren’t the only one there. Who else was stuck?”

“Hmm?” Athrun had been lost in thought again. “Oh, yeah. It was the person who attacked my transport. Turns out she’s a friend of Kira’s.”

Nicol nodded. That explained why Athrun was still alive. “She Earth Forces?”

“No, she’s a civilian.” Athrun shrugged. “Actually, she’s been traveling on the black ship. Anyway, it does not really matter. We need to get back to base before something else goes wrong.”

Cagalli skidded to a stop in front of her fighter, gasping for breath, then looked skyward. Soon enough, she spotted the unmistakable shape of the Strike in Aile mode. “The Strike!” she shouted, waving frantically. “Kira!”

It was unclear at first if Kira noticed, and then the Strike began to descend, its heavy-duty thrusters scattering loose debris for a hundred meters in every direction. It landed and knelt, the hatch in its torso opening. Cagalli immediately jumped in, giving Kira a brief but fierce hug.

Kira hugged her back, a little startled by her enthusiasm. “I’m so glad you’re safe. Everyone was worried.”

She moved to the side, out of his way. “Sorry. That one hit took out my nav gear, and then I ran into a ZAFT transport.” She paused. “It was carrying the Aegis.”

Kira stiffened. “Did you meet…Athrun?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry, he’s fine.” Cagalli squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “We agreed that trying to kill each other made no sense, so we cooperated until someone came for us.”

“Did anything happen?”

She shook her head. “We argued some, but nothing worse than that.”

“Good.” Kira heaved a sigh of relief.

Archangel, hangar deck

A large reception awaited them on their return. Murrue and her niece were both there, along with Mu and all of Kira’s classmates. Ledonir Kisaka and Alex Strassmeier stood with the two captains, the former looking relieved, the latter expressionless as usual.

Or is he? Cagalli had learned to read Alex to a certain extent, and to her he looked like he had just been hit by a truck.

Murrue stepped forward, a broad smile on her face. “Cagalli, thank goodness you’re safe.”

The princess grinned. “It’s good to be back.” She nodded to Kira’s friends, then moved over to Alex and Kisaka. “Sorry I worried you.”

“As long as you made it back safely,” Kisaka said. “I’d hate to have to explain things to your father.”

That was an understatement. The only thing worse than having to explain to Uzumi Nara Athha that something bad had happened to his daughter was to be the person who made it happen in the first place. He was not called the “Lion of Orb” for nothing.

Alex said nothing, but the look in his cold blue eyes spoke volumes to someone who knew what to look for. Cagalli was one of the few who did, but she was not sure what to make of it. Relief, certainly, and perhaps something more? She was not sure.

Though she did not know it, she would find out soon enough.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters, 10 March, C.E. 71

Alex sprawled on his bunk, his thoughts in turmoil. It had been less than a day since Kira had rescued Cagalli from that island, and his reaction still surprised him. His worry over her disappearance was natural, as they had become close friends, but seeing her safe had affected him in ways he had not thought possible.

The young Coordinator sighed. He had not been that upset over someone going missing since his sister’s abduction three years before. Cagalli’s appearance on the hangar deck had jolted him, and he had been forced to reexamine his own feelings for the first time in years.

The hatch slid open, and Cagalli herself stepped through. “Hi, Alex.” She blinked at his expression; it was the same one he had had when Kira brought her back. What is with him? “You, okay?”

He swung his legs off the bunk. “Sorry. Yeah, I am fine. The last couple of days have been a little rough, that’s all.” He shook his head. “Stupid thing to say. You’re the one who’s had it rough.”

Cagalli laughed softly. “It wasn’t that bad. Athrun and I got along. Maybe it’s because we’re both friends with Kira.”

“Perhaps.” Alex shrugged, then seemed to come to a decision. Standing, he reached into his cabinet and drew out what looked like some sort of jewelry.

Cagalli watched curiously. She knew at once that the necklace (at least that is what she thought it was) was an heirloom; Alex did not normally collect that sort of thing. “What’s that?”

He held it up. It was indeed a necklace, a gold chain, with a spherical gem of the same shade of blue as his eyes. “This belonged to my mother, originally.” His eyes closed. “My father paid for college by working as a miner, up in orbit. During that he found a gem, this gem.” He smiled almost wistfully. “Fittingly, it came from the resource satellite that would later become the space fortress known as Jachin Due.” He opened his eyes and met her gaze. “He gave it to my mother when they started dating. She originally intended that my sister have it, but Andrea refused. She’s almost as big a tomboy as you are, and that sort of thing didn’t interest her.”

Cagalli chuckled. She remembered that much about Andrea Strassmeier. “So, you wound up with it instead.”

“Mom told me to give it to the person I thought would wear it best.” He visibly braced himself, then, to Cagalli’s astonishment, held it out to her. “And that would be you.”

Her eyes widened. It took almost a minute before she trusted herself to speak. “Me? But…why?”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s not because you’re a princess; I know perfectly well how you’d react to that. No, it is just…I cannot think of anyone else. For that matter, I’m not sure I’d want to.”

Cagalli accepted it, wondering just what he was getting at. “Thank you.” Something this important, why? Then it clicked. Is he saying what it sounds like? Is that why he looked so relieved to see me yesterday? “Alex?” she said, giving him a suspicious (but not hostile) look.

Alex looked away briefly. “You’re not making this easy, are you?” He blushed at the smirk she gave him. “All right. It took what happened over the past two days to get it through my thick skull, but…I… I love you.” He looked at her challengingly. “There. Are you satisfied?”

The smirk became a genuine smile. “Definitely.” Before Alex could respond, Cagalli stepped forward, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him firmly on the lips. His eyes went wide for a moment at her unexpected reaction, and then slowly closed as he held on tight.

She pulled back, not extremely far. “So, do I need my head examined?”

Alex groaned, though his heart was not in it. “Who told you that one?”

Cagalli laughed. “Kyle told Kira and the others, and Kira told me.”

“Figures.” He shook his head ruefully, then smiled. “I guess I was wrong. Anyone who calls you crazy has no sense of self-preservation.”

“Good.” She kissed him again, then rested her head on his shoulder.

“It’s about time!”

They started to pull apart, then relaxed when they saw who had spoken. Kira Yamato stood in the doorway, with Flay Allster on his arm.

The only people who are not going to embarrass us. “How long have you been there?” Alex asked.

“Long enough,” Kira said with a grin.

Flay punched Alex’s arm. “You two have been dancing around about it since we left Heliopolis. It’s about time that stopped.”

“Yeah, sure.” Cagalli snorted. “And it was the day after; before that, I thought Alex was a ZAFT spy.”

“Because his aunts on the Supreme Council, and his cousins with the Le Creuset team,” Kira agreed. He nudged his girlfriend. “Come on, let’s leave them alone a while longer.”

“Right.”

Cagalli watched them go. “Those two…” She shook her head fondly.

“Yeah.” Alex smiled, and drew her close.

Soon enough, they would reach Orb, though there would be more battles on the way. But for now, all was at peace.

Chapter 15: War at Sea

Desert Dawn Base Camp, 1 March, C.E. 71

“To a new Desert Dawn,” Sahib Ashman said, raising his glass. Those assembled drank, though Natarle had a small coughing fit.

Alex gazed at the amber liquid in his own glass. Will I ever see a new dawn?

Mu looked at his young friend curiously. “Aren’t you a little young for that?”

Alex shrugged. “Different cultures have different rules, Mu. Besides, I am a Coordinator. My liver is much better at filtering out impurities.” He tossed off his drink, then grimaced. “I don’t like it, though.”

The Hawk grinned. “Never had the urge to drown your sorrows in a strong drink?”

“I have never understood the attraction of deliberately altering one’s own consciousness, and ‘drowning your sorrows,’ as you put it, only makes things worse in the end.” Alex shook his head. “I’ve had enough problems in my life without adding alcoholism into the mix.”

Cagalli laid a hand on his arm, almost…protectively? Mu was not sure. “And getting drunk is inefficient, right?”

Alex did not visibly change expression, but he seemed to relax slightly. “Very,” he said in a deadpan voice. “I can’t be in top form if I’m drunk.”

Yep, Mu thought. She’s sweet on him, and the feeling’s mutual, even if Alex has cold-space lubricants for blood.” I do not think I have ever met a pilot who controls himself the way you do. Are you sure you’re human?”

Alex smiled thinly. “I’ve never denied having feelings, Mu. I just don’t believe in showing them much.”

They were interrupted when Ledonir Kisaka raised a glass. “To a day when Natural and Coordinator can live side by side,” he said, smiling at Kira Yamato and Flay Allster. As Flay was a Natural and Kira a Coordinator, no one doubted the Colonel’s meaning.

“Anyway,” Mu said, “how are you holding up? You fought your cousin again yesterday.”

The youngster twitched slightly. “I can hold on long enough to reach Orb. Then I won’t have to fight him anymore.”

He is hurting, even if he does not show it. “You’re dodging the question, kid. I’m sure you can make it to Orb; that’s not the point.”

Cagalli bristled -making Mu even more certain of her feelings- but Alex held up a hand. “I won’t deny that having to fight Yzak hurts, but you’re making it out to be a larger problem than it is. Neither of us intends to kill the other; even if we were not facing each other in battle, we would still be on opposite sides because of Zala. That is the central difficulty.”

Mu held up his hands. “Okay, okay.”

Sometime later, the guerrillas and people from both ships stood on a hill behind an elder. The old man spoke slowly, reciting the names of every person killed in the conflict between ZAFT and the people of the desert. It was long, too long for some, who broke down in tears.

That is why we must press on, Alex thought. So that the sacrifices of these people will not be in vain. We must stop Zala.

Archangel, Bridge, 3 March, C.E. 71

Two majestic ships, one brilliant white, one space black, crossed out over the Red Sea. With the desert behind them, they were entering a new stage in their journey. Though all concerned (except for Ledonir Kisaka) were happy about the change, they knew it was far from over. Now that they had reached the sea, ZAFT’s submarine forces would be waiting.

“Crossing over the coast now, Captain,” Arnold Neumann reported.

Murrue smiled. “Excellent.” She looked down into CIC. “For the time being, I will allow off-duty personnel out on the upper deck. Please inform the crew.”

There was general cheering at that. They had gotten air aplenty during their time in the desert, but “fresh” was not a word most of them would have used to describe it. Kuzzey Buskirk was relieved; born and raised in Heliopolis, he had not reacted well to the sandstorms.

Natarle keyed her intercom; crossing over the ocean had reminded her of something important. “Chief Murdoch, what’s the status on the sonar unit?”

“The kid’s working on it,” the mechanic replied. “Don’t know when it’ll be ready, though.”

“Tell him to expedite. And Chief,” here the XO’s voice turned uncharacteristically teasing, “I would be careful about calling a superior officer ‘kid’. It could wind up on your record.” Murdoch’s only response was a low groan.

Ledonir Kisaka gazed thoughtfully at a computer map. “The journey will be a difficult one,” he said. “We may have bypassed Gibraltar, but that still leaves Carpentaria all too close to our best course. Somehow, I don’t think ZAFT is going to ignore us.”

And with the two ships over the ocean, that meant submarines. Marco Morassim was known to operate in the Red Sea, and while he was not the best ZAFT had to offer, he was no pushover either. Worse, communication intercepts suggested that Alex’s old nemesis Daniel Bartlett had been transferred to Carpentaria. That was enough to give anyone pause.

“We still have time to relax, though,” Murrue said. “It’s a good thing, too; the battle with Waltfeld took a lot out of everyone.”

Especially Kira and Alex, the latter fighting his own cousin, the former dueling with someone he could have called friend. If anyone needed a rest, it was those two youngsters.

Archangel, upper deck port

Kira tossed his jacket aside and sat heavily on the deck, breathing hard. He had been under a lot of strain lately, both mentally and physically. Andrew Waltfeld had been an exceedingly difficult opponent, but his words were, if possible, worse.

“I have no idea what your reasons are for fighting against your own people. Especially since your best friend is with the Le Creuset team.”

“There’s no other way. I’m not giving up…until one of us is destroyed!”

He shook his head violently. Stop it!

A shadow fell over him. “Kira? Kira, what’s wrong?”

Kira looked up. “Flay? Sorry, I was kind of…” He shrugged helplessly. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

Flay sat down next to him. “Like what?”

He sighed. “You remember what Waltfeld said, about my reasons for fighting against my own people?” She nodded. “Well, I can’t help wondering. What if he was right? What if I am fighting against my own people when I shouldn’t be?”

She snuggled against him. “Don’t worry about that. Alex was right; this is not about fighting your own people. You’re just trying to protect your friends, no matter what their genes look like.”

“I know, but still-“

Flay pressed a finger to his lips, cutting him off. “It’s not your fault, Kira. No one is to blame except Rau Le Creuset. You did what you believed was right; that’s what’s important.”

Kira smiled and kissed her. “Thanks.”

They stayed like that for a while, not saying a word, taking comfort in each other’s presence. Kira, for all his hatred of the events that had brought him into the war, had to admit that it was not all bad. If he had not boarded the Strike, he would never have gotten to know people who were now particularly important to him. Murrue Ramius, who had treated him well despite their initial hostility; Mu La Flaga, who was like an older brother; even Natarle Badgiruel, despite her by-the-book exterior.

He smiled down at the redhead nestled against his side. If I had not gone to war, Flay and I would not be together. That must be worth something.

Two sets of footsteps sounded. “Are we intruding?”

Kira’s smiled widened, and Flay’s face lit up. “Hi Alex, Cagalli. No, you’re not intruding at all.”

“So, what brings you two here?” Flay asked.

Alex moved to stand near the railing, while Cagalli sat on the deck opposite Kira. “Visiting friends, mainly. Even I get lonely on occasion, believe it or not.” All four of them grinned. “Colonel Kisaka is meeting with the officers, trying to decide where we go from here.”

“We’re going to be facing ZAFT submarines sooner or later, right?” Kira said. “That’s why I had to work so hard on that sonar.”

Alex shrugged. “Most likely. Morassim does not worry me, the man’s an incompetent. Unfortunately, we have more than him to deal with.” His lip twisted. “According to some comm intercepts, my old friend,” his voice dripped sarcasm on the last word, “Bartlett was transferred to Carpentaria just after we landed.”

Kira groaned. “No offence, but I’m really glad he’ll be concentrating on you.”

The older pilot chuckled softly. “I don’t blame you at all. Andrew Waltfeld was one thing; he was a professional. He had fun taking you on, but it was never a matter of revenge. Bartlett, on the other hand…” Alex shook his head in disgust. “His facility for carrying a grudge is all but legendary. On the plus side, I can probably exploit that; if he is still mad about that tournament, as seems likely, he won’t be thinking as clearly as he should.”

“Hey, Cagalli,” Flay said suddenly. “What do you think of all this?”

The princess shrugged. “I don’t really like the Earth Forces, except for the people on this ship,” she said. “It was their project that provoked ZAFT into attacking Heliopolis, and I really don’t like how they treat Coordinators.” She smiled at Kira and Alex. “My feelings toward someone aren’t determined by what their genes look like.”

Flay grinned. “Same here.” She rested her head on Kira’s shoulder.

“But I don’t like what ZAFT is doing, either” Cagalli went on. “When it was formed, they actually did some good, but Zala’s been twisting it, even if most ZAFT soldiers don’t know it.”

“Exactly,” Alex said softly. He looked at Kira and Flay. “I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but I was literally on my way to a ZAFT recruiting center when I heard about Zala’s true goals.”

“That’s why I can’t stand what that bastard’s doing,” Cagalli said. “Alex is a patriot, but he can’t help defend his homeland because the head of ZAFT is a lunatic.”

“This is just wrong,” Kira said bitterly. “This war is splitting friends, even families apart.”

Alex sighed. “It isn’t enough to know what you’re fighting for. It is just as important to know what you are fighting against. I don’t think many on either side know what they’re fighting against.”

Flay looked at him. “What are you fighting against?”

“Patrick Zala’s dreams of genocide, and Blue Cosmos,” Alex replied. “And fighting the latter means being against virtually everyone in the Earth Forces, excluding, to my knowledge, only Admiral Halberton and the crew of this ship.”

He shook himself. “But that doesn’t matter right now,” he said, turning to gaze out at the ocean. “We’re out here to relax, so let’s just forget the war, if only for a little while.”

His friends nodded agreement. There was no point in trying to relax if all they were going to do was talk about the course of the war. To be able to perform to the fullest, it was occasionally necessary to forget about it entirely.

Alex sat next to Cagalli, resolutely ignoring the way Kira and Flay exchanged knowing grins. Maybe this war is splitting my family, but I will not let it be permanent. I will find my sister, and once Zala has been stopped, we will finally be able to go home.

Archangel, upper deck starboard

Kira’s friends had gathered on the other deck. The mood was far lighter; none of them had Kira’s deep-seated worries about the war. All they thought about was enjoying the sea breeze. Mir was especially delighted, immediately removing her pink jacket and dashing to the railing.

“Oh, that feels good,” she said, sighing contentedly. “It’s been so long.”

“Yeah,” Tolle agreed, moving to stand next to her. “Heliopolis had some nice spots, but nothing like this.”

Predictably, Kuzzey was less sanguine. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen this much water in one place.”

Tolle glanced over his shoulder. “That’s right, you were born and raised on Heliopolis. Have you ever been to Earth at all?”

“Never.” Kuzzey looked mistrustfully at the water far below them. “I’m getting dizzy.”

Mir grinned mischievously. “And there are monsters deep in the ocean,” she said.

The dark-haired student blanched. “There are?”

“Oh, stop teasing him, Mir,” Tolle said. “Kuzzey, the only monsters in the ocean are ZAFT mobile suits. That’s why Kira had to get that sonar working.”

Sai leaned against the railing. “You’re right, though, Mir. It has been too long. I mean, living in space is nice, but sometimes you just want solid ground under your feet.”

“Don’t let Alex hear you say that” she said. “He doesn’t like being under full gravity.”

Tolle waved a hand dismissively. “That’s because he’s from the PLANTs. He’ll get used to it if he’s going to spend much time in Orb.”

His girlfriend grinned. “I’ll bet he spends a lot of time there, even if he takes out Zala. You’ve seen how he and Cagalli act around each other.”

He laughed. “Remember what Kyle told us last month, about Alex saying that any girl who fell for him should have her head examined?”

“Oh, my!” Mir giggled. “Can you imagine anyone saying that about Cagalli Yula Athha?”

Sai tried. “Not to her face. That’d be suicide.”

Tolle laughed again. He had been around the princess enough to be able to imagine what would happen if anyone tried something like that. She was cheerful enough under normal circumstances, but it was well known that she had a short temper, as well.

The ship’s alarm cut through the laughter, freezing them in place. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!” Murrue Ramius’ voice said sharply.

The deck was suddenly empty.

Gulf of Aden

“I knew this was going to happen,” Alex muttered, strapping into his machine. “What’s the situation?”

“One submarine carrier, Vosgulov-class,” Cagalli responded; Skygrasper 2 was down for repairs, so she was filling her old role. “Four mobile suits; two AMF-101 DINNs, and what we think are a pair of UMF-4A GhOONs.”

Alex cursed. “Morassim, almost certainly. Fortunately for us, he’s nowhere near as good as Waltfeld or Le Creuset.” He looked at the Scorpion. “Brian, you’re the only one with any real underwater capabilities. Can you handle it?”

“No problem, Alex.” The younger pilot saluted. “Chief Murdoch managed to cobble together a makeshift phonon maser for me. Combine that with the Scorpion’s scale system, and I should be able to take the subs, no sweat.”

“Good.” Alex gripped his control bars. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

Marco Morassim spotted the launch. “So here comes the traitor!” Signaling his partner to deal with Mu’s fighter, he aimed his own machine at the approaching Gundam. “I’ll send you to the bottom of the Gulf!”

“Talk is cheap,” Alex said coldly. “If you think you have a prayer of defeating me, then you’re an even bigger incompetent than I thought.” He leveled his rifle at the DINN.

Morassim may not have been the smartest soldier around, but he was a good enough pilot to dodge Alex’s initial attack. He responded with his rifle and shotgun, trying to wear down the infernal machine’s phase-shift. Alex let him try; Stormbird had the advantage of armor and raw firepower, but a DINN was at least difficult to hit.

Alex’s next shot was a graze, melting some armor off the DINN’s right arm but not doing any major damage. “You’ll have to do better than that, boy!” He lined up for a shot at the Gundam’s optics, then found himself jolted by another beam, this one from below. “What the?”

“He’s not alone!” Kira shouted, beam rifle flashing.

Morassim cursed, dodging again. Even with his DINN’s mobility, he was having a hard time avoiding laser blasts from two different directions. Even worse, both mobile suits had PSA, which none of his weapons could penetrate. It was only a matter of time.

Beneath the waves, Brian Kilgore stared at the Vosgulov through narrowed eyes. The GhOONs had not noticed him yet, which was fine with him. If he could take out the submarine, the mobile suits would be at his mercy. The sooner, the better.

He looked at the readouts for his makeshift weapon. No telling how long it will last. I had better make my shots count. Brian knew it would not take very many hits; neither ZAFT submarines nor the mobile suits they carried were intended to dive more than a hundred meters or so.

Blow one good hole in that Vosgulov, and it crumples like a beer can.

A torpedo flashed past within meters of his cockpit, and he cursed. “The GhOONs. Simply great.” Not that he was very worried; he had just wanted to take out the mothership first.

“So, I kill the suits first instead. Fine.” Brian took careful aim with the maser, targeting the machine that had fired on him. One shot blew it in half.

The other one was on him in an instant, crashing into him. He cursed again; if his PSA went down this far underwater, he was dead. Forcing the GhOON away, he tried to bring his maser to bear, only to have the ZAFT unit vanish.

Brian shrugged it off. The escape was only temporary; once he sank the sub, that GhOON pilot was doomed. Nodding to himself, he brought up the maser again, aiming for the Vosgulov’s center section. Steady…steady…now! He pulled the trigger, wincing at the thought of what was about to happen.

He blinked. While his shot had connected, there had been two explosions, one halfway between the Scorpion and its target. He frowned in puzzlement, and then it hit him. That GhOON must have gotten in the way at the last instant. Confirming his thought, a piece of debris drifted past his suit’s optics, unmistakably the arm of a GhOON.

Brian started his ascent, keying his radio at the same time. “Alex, I’ve taken care of the GhOONs, and that sub. Mission accomplished.”

“Roger that, Brain,” Alex said. “We’ll finish the job.” He glared at the DINN ahead of him. “It’s over, Morassim. You’ve lost.”

“Not yet!” The ZAFT commander hit his thrusters, charging the Stormbird. “I’m taking you with me!”

What does he think he is doing? Alex supposed it was possible Morassim intended to ram him, forcing them both underwater, where neither machine would survive. Not that he intended to allow that to happen. Raising his rifle, he let the oncoming DINN grow in his sights for a few seconds, then fired.

The other DINN exploded at the same time, blown in half by a shot from Mu’s Agni.

“Hey, Alex,” Kira called. “Wasn’t that just a little too easy?”

“We had the advantage of numbers and firepower, Kira,” Alex said. “Besides, as I have said, Morassim was an incompetent. Don’t expect all our battles to be this easy.”

“I know.” Kira knew all too well. He had faced some of the best ZAFT had to offer and had no illusions that the worst was behind him.

Mu’s Skygrasper waggled its wings. “Come on, guys. Let us head back. You can bet we’re not done yet.”

He was right. Marco Morassim was only the beginning. There were other enemies beneath the glittering waves, enemies that would not fall as easily. And one enemy, who would stop at nothing to destroy them. As Alex had said, Daniel Bartlett was legendary for his ability to carry a grudge.

Vosgulov-class submarine carrier Ballard, 4 March, C.E. 71

A blond man in the gray uniform of a ZAFT ship captain scowled at the report. His new commander had predicted Morassim’s defeat, but this went beyond even Bartlett’s expectations. Morassim had been soundly trounced by the legged ship and its midnight-black consort.

He keyed his intercom. “Commander, this is Captain Styles,” he said.

Bartlett’s face appeared on the monitor. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, the Morassim team has been destroyed,” Styles said.

“As expected,” Bartlett said.

“According to our reports, they never even scratched either ship. It was a complete route,” Styles went on. “As far as we know, no survivors.”

Bartlett snorted. “I warned Morassim not to take Strassmeier and Yamato lightly. He chose to disregard that warning and paid with his life. We, of course, will be more circumspect.” He consulted something on his own terminal. “How long until we can intercept those two ships?”

Styles checked with his navigator. “If we get moving immediately, three days, sir.”

“Then do so.” Bartlett smiled thinly. “We will succeed where even Le Creuset and the Tiger failed.”

“As ordered, sir.”

Bartlett’s quarters

So now I get another crack at you, Strassmeier. Do you know I am coming? Probably, I know better than most that one thing you are not is stupid.

Bartlett clenched a fist. He did not want to fight an idiot -what was the fun in that? – but he could have wished Strassmeier was a little less of a warrior. As it was, Strassmeier kept beating him, and making it look easy. There were few things more maddening than competing with someone who was always just a little better.

This time, though…this time I will win. He had been able to bring his personal CGUE with him to Earth, and the techs at Carpentaria had given it even more extensive modifications. It had been fitted with a new, more efficient energy battery, one with four times the capacity of a standard model. In addition, the shield-mounted Gatling gun had been replaced with a mutli-barrel beam gun. As well as one new feature for the main body…

Bartlett sighed. He was painfully aware of his own weaknesses, of the way his facility for carrying a grudge often clouded his thinking. Such tendencies could prove fatal when dealing with someone like Strassmeier, but he just could not help himself.

“Stop it,” he told himself firmly. “Strassmeier is good, but he’s hardly invincible. If you do not stop dwelling on your defeats, you’ll never beat him.”

The problem was that he would not be facing the Stormbird alone. If he were to attack Strassmeier, it would also mean fighting the Strike, and while Bartlett was nearly the former’s equal, he did not even approach Kira Yamato’s skill.

Valkyrie, Bridge, 5 March, C.E. 71

Kisaka found that he was grateful for the tabletop display Lia and Alex had insisted on when their ship was built. It showed far more detail than the small screen on the Archangel, and it also had much greater image clarity. Not to mention larger maps.

“Almost home,” Cagalli said softly.

Kisaka glanced at his charge. “You sound disappointed.”

Cagalli jumped; she had not realized she had spoken aloud. “A little. You know how much I hate being a princess.”

The big Colonel smiled. “I don’t think you have much to worry about. Your friend Strassmeier seldom appears to remember your status, and I think it unlikely that your father would separate you.” Not with the connections that young man must Orb.

Of course, hard though Alex was to read, Kisaka could tell that he did not even know those connections existed. That could make their arrival…interesting.

The bridge hatch slid open, and Alex stepped through, accompanied by Mu La Flaga and both Captains Ramius. “As you’ve seen, our ship is only partly based on stolen blueprints,” the Coordinator was saying. “We didn’t have much trouble getting the parts we needed.” He frowned. “In fact, they seemed to keep appearing at precisely the right time.”

“Quite a coincidence,” Mu observed. “You ever figure it out?”

“I never did,” Lia said. “What about you, Alex?”

“My theory is that someone in Orb, probably highly placed, got wind of what we were up to, and approved of it.”

If you only knew, Kisaka thought, hiding a smile at the thought, and the way Cagalli’s face lit up when she saw Alex.

“So, Colonel,” Alex said. “How do you think Lord Uzumi will react when he finds out his daughter spent the past two months on an armed-to-the-teeth warship that answers to no one?”

Kisaka smiled wryly. “He probably won’t be pleased with Cagalli; our headstrong princess has a history of this sort of thing.” Cagalli gave her bodyguard a half-angry look. “I think, however, that he will be grateful to you for keeping her alive through all this.”

“Even though she flew in combat on two separate occasions?”

“She does have military training,” the Colonel pointed out. “Such experience could prove beneficial later.”

“That’s good to hear,” Alex said with a nod. “Despite our initial clashes,” he and Cagalli exchanged slightly sheepish grins, “I consider her a close friend, and I do not say that lightly.” He met the Colonel’s gaze. “I hope Lord Uzumi won’t object to that.” His tone was mild, but at the same time challenging.

On the contrary, it will almost certainly make things much easier. “You have nothing to worry about, Commander. Nor does your friend Kira.”

Alex nodded again. “I’ll make sure to tell him. It’s not the first time he’s befriended someone highborn -his best friend is Patrick Zala’s son- but it will still be a relief, I think.”

“I’m sure.” As it happened, Kisaka knew more about Kira than Kira himself did, and while he had meant it when he said the Strike pilot had nothing to worry about, it would still be complicated. Especially since Cagalli had mentioned Alex’s little quest.

Lord Uzumi will have to make the final decision, but even if he continues as he has thus far, it will only delay the inevitable. Alex is no fool; he will learn the truth sooner or later.

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Alex said. “Getting to Orb will be tricky; the best course will take us closer to Carpentaria than I’m comfortable with, but I don’t see an alternative. Murrue?”

She nodded unhappily. “I agree. It’s fortunate that both of our ships are well defended.”

“That’s an understatement, ma’am,” Valkyrie’s comm officer put in. He indicated his board. “According to communications intercepts, Le Creuset’s G-pilots have reassembled at Gibraltar.”

Mu and Alex swore simultaneously, the former because of the trouble those pilots routinely caused, the latter because it meant he would fight his cousin yet again.

“This’ll be fun,” Alex muttered. “We haven’t fought all four Gundams since the Eighth Fleet was destroyed. And since only three of our machines can fly in atmosphere…”

“We won’t be able to fight them on even terms,” Mu said in disgust.

“That depends on how good they are in this environment,” Murrue pointed out. “You fought against Elsman and your cousin during the Talbadiya battle, Alex. What was your assessment?”

Alex rubbed his chin. “I only really confronted Yzak, but I can say that he was out of his depth. In fairness to him, it was his first planet-side battle. Most likely, Dearka was the same.”

“What about the other two?” Kisaka asked.

The Coordinator snorted. “Nicol had never been on-planet in his life before this operation. I doubt Athrun had been, either.”

Murrue shook her head. “I asked Kira about that. He says Athrun has never been on-planet before.”

“Which means that we’ll have at least some advantage until they’ve had a chance to work up,” Alex said. He tapped the screen. “It should be a while before we have to face them; there’s no way they can attack us now, so they’ll probably transfer to Carpentaria.”

“Makes sense,” Mu agreed. “It’s their only stronghold that’s anywhere near Alaska.”

Unfortunately, as they all knew, it was highly likely that they would face other attacks before Athrun, and his comrades became a problem. Marco Morassim had been defeated, but he was far from the only submariner in their path.

Gibraltar Base, 6 March, C.E. 71

For the first time in nearly a month, all four ZAFT Gundam pilots were once again gathered. Considering the nature of their mission, Rau Le Creuset had assigned them to a submarine carrier, the Cousteau, and placed Athrun in command. As Alex had surmised, the newly formed Zala team would soon be transferred to Carpentaria.

Predictably, Yzak was not pleased with the new arrangements.

“Why would Commander Le Creuset put Athrun in charge?” he grumbled. “Urgh! ‘Commander Zala,’ humiliating.”

“No use getting upset about it,” Dearka said, walking beside him. “Obviously, they think he’s cool under pressure. He has even made reports to the Council. But you know when he is out on the battlefield, he tends to be careless.”

Yzak stopped, glaring at his friend. “What are you trying to say, Dearka?”

“If anything goes wrong, it’s his responsibility.” Dearka looked back at Yzak. “It’s a Commander’s fault if he can’t control his subordinates.”

Yzak’s lip curled in a snarl. “Don’t be vulgar.” He stalked away.

Athrun watched the two pilots from an upper window, his emotions decidedly mixed. He was honored that Commander Le Creuset had picked him for command, but he could have wished for a different mission. Fighting against the legged ship meant another encounter with Kira’s X105 Strike.

“Athrun?” Nicol had come up behind him while he brooded. “You, okay?”

The Aegis’s pilot shook himself. “Yeah. I am just envying Yzak, I guess. The closer those ships get to Orb, the less likely it is he will have to fight his cousin again. I’m not so lucky.”

Nicol laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. He knew what Athrun meant; even if the Valkyrie stopped at Orb, the Archangel would continue to Alaska. “Look at it this way. All we must do is take out the legged ship’s engines, then run the Strike out of power. With four of us, we can do it.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Nicol suppressed a sigh. Athrun had been growing increasingly depressed since Heliopolis, and the Blitz’s pilot was starting to worry. No one could blame Athrun for not wanting to fight his best friend, but he could not let that paralyze him. They had more enemies than just the Strike, after all.

“Don’t worry, Nicol,” Athrun said, as if he had been reading the other’s mind. “I know we’ve got to do it, even if it means I have to fight Kira. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“You’d be crazy if you did,” Nicol said with a smile. He turned to look out at the bay. “Even though it is for war, I’m glad I came to Earth. There’s just something about it…”

Athrun smiled back, grateful for the change of subject. “I know what you mean. The PLANTs are beautiful, but they can’t compare to Earth.”

“Do you know anything about Orb?”

“Kira’s originally from a small town on Izanagi Island,” Athrun said. “He didn’t live there long -he was about six when we first met- but he spent some time there on school breaks, while I was in the PLANTs.” He smiled again, wistfully. “I promised him that I’d see it for myself someday.”

“Then you’d better make sure you take him alive,” Nicol said. “Then you can do it together when the war’s over.”

Athrun nodded. “You’re right. Thanks, Nicol.”

“What are friends for?” the other responded, grinning.

Indian Ocean, 7 March, C.E. 71

They had reached the Indian Ocean by the time the inevitable next ZAFT team found them. Unlike Morassim, though, their current opponent was no pushover. Even without the Ballard’s unique acoustical signature, the blood red CGUE told them who they were fighting.

“What is it with that guy and red mobile suits?” Mu wondered, gripping his Skygraspers control stick.

Alex snorted, keeping a wary eye on the CGUE. “He fancies himself a latter-day Manfred von Richtofen,” he said. A dry chuckle. “What he does not know is that while the Red Baron was an excellent marksman, he was an average pilot at best. Crashed several times, in fact.”

“And average is one thing this guy isn’t,” Kira put in. “Miriallia, what do we have coming besides that CGUE?”

“Five GINNs, all of them on Guuls,” Mir replied. “The same number of DINNs, and sonar detects at least two GhOONs and a ZnO.”

“Thirteen mobile suits?” Natarle said incredulously. “Isn’t that a bit much for a single Vosgulov?”

Alex frowned. “You’re right, Lieutenant. He must have help.”

“That’s affirmative,” Lia chimed in. “We’re detecting another sub, same class.”

“Wonderful.” Alex did not know how Bartlett had gotten another submarine assigned to his team, but it did not really matter.

Another voice broke in. “Hello, Strassmeier,” Bartlett himself said. “Ready for another round?”

“Do you think this is some kind of schoolyard squabble?” Cagalli snapped from the other Skygrasper. “Is that all the war is to you?”

The ZAFT pilot looked at her fighter with sudden interest. “Remarkably young for a fighter pilot, aren’t you? From the sound of your voice, you cannot be much older than sixteen or seventeen. I wasn’t aware the Earth Forces employed child soldiers.” He indicated the Strike with his beam rifle. “Except for traitors, like him.”

“You bastard!” Cagalli shouted. “Don’t you dare call him that!” Only the knowledge that her fighter was doomed if she charged kept her from doing just that.

“Calm down, Cagalli,” Alex said, then turned back to his old nemesis. “Bartlett, Kira Yamato is an Orb national who enlisted in order to protect his friends.” He smiled thinly. “He’s also a better pilot than you could ever hope to be, and the Strike has the advantage in atmosphere.”

“Perhaps he has more mobility,” Bartlett conceded. “But it remains to be seen what he can do with it.” As he spoke, the other airborne mobile suits assumed a formation around him. “Enough talk. Have at you, Strassmeier!”

His subordinates ignored Alex completely; Bartlett had given orders that Alex was to be left to him. Two DINNs went for the Skygraspers, forcing Mu and Cagalli to break in opposite directions. The remaining DINNs and three of the GINNs focused on the Strike; thus, unknown to them, sealing their own fates. The last two GINNs, equipped with the same sort of weapons the Le Creuset team had used at Heliopolis, dove at the Archangel.

“Just the two of us, now, Strassmeier,” Bartlett taunted. “This is our last battle.”

Alex’s cold blue eyes narrowed. “For once, I agree with you, but I will not be the one to fall today.” He raised his rifle.

Bartlett smiled. “Go ahead. It won’t do you any good.”

We will see about that. Alex squeezed the trigger, the brilliant green beam struck the CGUE’s hatch…and splashed against it, leaving the mobile suit unharmed. “What the-!”

Chapter 14: The Tiger’s Last Stand

Land Battleship Lesseps, 26 February, C.E. 71

Andrew Waltfeld stared at the report in disgust. His request for additional BuCUEs had been denied. Instead, he was forced to make do with obsolete TAF-2 ZuOOTs. Well, ZuOOTs and a pair loaned from the Le Creuset team. Not that the Tiger was happy with that; Yzak Joule and Dearka Elsman had zero terrestrial combat experience, and he had never liked Rau Le Creuset in any case.

“What is with those guys in Gibraltar, anyway?” he demanded of his aide. “Why are they sending us ZuOOTs? Are they all out of BuCUEs?”

DaCosta shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. Maybe they think they are doing us a favor, sending us those two.” He nodded at the transport outside, where the Duel and the Buster were being unloaded.

Waltfeld snorted. “The pilots’ battle experience is limited to space.”

“They are from an elite unit…”

“I don’t like the fact that they’re part of the Le Creuset team. I could never stand that guy.” The commander gazed thoughtfully at the Duel. “There’s one silver lining, though…”

DaCosta frowned. “Sir?”

“I promised Strassmeier that I’d pass on a message to his cousin,” Waltfeld explained. “He said he wants a chance to talk before everything goes nuts. And if anyone can get that kid to see reason, it’s Yzak Joule.” He stood. “Well, let’s go greet our new teammates.”

Yzak stepped off the transport with Dearka, assessing the welcoming committee through narrowed eyes. Andrew Waltfeld was easy to spot; as ZAFT’s most famous ground commander, his face was in the news frequently. Flanking him were a red-haired man in standard green and a woman in a blue jumpsuit.

“Welcome to the desert,” Waltfeld said. “I’m Andrew Waltfeld. This is Aisha, and my XO, Martin DaCosta.”

Yzak came to attention and saluted; it was always a good idea to make a good impression on a new commander, even if the assignment was temporary. “Yzak Joule, of the Le Creuset team.”

Dearka followed suit. “Dearka Elsman, also of the Le Creuset team.”

Waltfeld returned the salutes. Then his eyes narrowed slightly, as he inspected Yzak’s face. “You know, when someone doesn’t have a scar removed, it’s usually taken as a sign of determination,” he said. A thin smile crossed his face. “Or is it…humiliation?”

The Duel’s pilot struggled to control his temper. What is it to him? he thought irritably. Still, better to not shoot his mouth off. There was no telling how the Tiger would react.

Waltfeld stepped back, apparently satisfied. “We’ll be moving in two days. Oh, and Joule.” He pulled a disc out of his pocket. “Your cousin asked me to pass on a message.”

Yzak felt a jolt. “What kind of message?” he asked carefully.

“He wants to meet with you face to face, before everything goes crazy again.” Waltfeld handed him the disc. “This contains the location of the meeting site he suggested. It’s on some pretty rocky terrain, so you don’t have to worry about your machine sinking.”

Yzak stared at the disc without really seeing it. “Can you get a signal through to the black ship?”

“Easily.”

“Then tell Alex…that I’ll see him.” He looked off into the desert. “Maybe…I can make him see reason.”

Waltfeld nodded. “That’s what I’m hoping for. It’d be nice to only have to fight one ship.”

Neither of them was optimistic, though. Alex had, if anything, become even more convinced that Zala had to be stopped. It was unlikely that even Yzak Joule could convince him otherwise. No, they would most likely have to fight both ships once again, and no one expected that to be easy.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

“All right,” Alex said. He clicked off the intercom, then sat heavily in his chair. “So it begins.”

Cagalli looked at him. “What is it?”

“Yzak has agreed to a meeting,” Alex said. “Tomorrow, on an outcropping southeast of here.”

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “That’s good. Maybe you can get through to him.”

The Coordinator snorted. “He’s probably thinking the same about me, and we’re both almost certainly hoping in vain. No, it’ll be good to see him, but it won’t change anything.” His words were almost toneless, but those who really knew him could discern the pain in his voice.

Maybe it will not change anything, but at least he will be able to see his cousin again, Cagalli thought. She herself had few living relatives; the only ones she saw very much were her father and an uncle.

“Should I go with you?” she asked softly.

Alex shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, but no. It will just be Yzak and me; I trust Waltfeld enough to know that ZAFT will not interfere. Unlike Rau Le Creuset, he’s a man of his word.” He sipped from a mug at his elbow; the same coffee brew the Tiger had served, from the smell of it. “I’ll be fine.”

Cagalli reluctantly nodded. Much as she hated to admit it, Alex was right about Waltfeld. Ruthless though he might be, the Tiger never broke his word. If he said ZAFT would not interfere, then ZAFT would not interfere. Any soldiers foolish enough to disobey would be in for a rude awakening.

“Well, I’d better get down to the hangar,” Alex said, standing. “The last thing I need is for the Stormbird to fail on me.” He left; the hatch sliding shut behind him.

The princess slowly got to her feet. Moving with a vague idea of visiting the Archangel, she stopped when the picture over Alex’s bunk caught her eye. She had noticed the resemblance between Alex and Yzak before, but something else had just struck her. Yzak’s white hair and hotheaded nature, Alex’s black hair and cold personality.

They are like day and night. Yzak looks bright, and his anger is as hot as the sun. Alex is dark, and as cold as space itself. Cagalli was not sure why she was suddenly thinking in verse, but it seemed to fit. Day and night, different yet inseparable.

She hoped it would be more than just words.

Archangel, Murrue’s office

“I’m against it,” Natarle said flatly. “Going alone to meet with a member of the Le Creuset team…”

Mu rolled his eyes. “Are you thinking Alex is going to betray us?”

The lieutenant shook her head. “No, he’s finally convinced me that he can be trusted. My concern is that his intent could put him in danger.”

Mu snorted. “In danger from who? Even if he is a hothead, there’s no way this Joule kid is going to attack his own cousin.”

“I think Natarle is worried that the Tiger might set a trap,” Murrue said. “Is that it?”

Natarle nodded. “Exactly. As has been pointed out numerous times, Andrew Waltfeld is to ground operations what Rau Le Creuset is to space. How do we know he won’t simply kill Strassmeier?”

“Because he’s a man of his word, Lieutenant,” Mu said. “I’ve studied his record, or what we know of it, anyway. If he says Alex will be safe, he means it.”

“Commander La Flaga is right,” Murrue said. “In any case, we do not have any authority in this matter. If Alex wants to go meet with his cousin, that is his choice, and his alone.”

Much as Natarle hated to admit it, the captain was right. Strassmeier was an ally, but not a member of the military. He had a right to conduct operations as he saw fit; if that meant going off on his own, so be it.

“Very well,” she said at last. “I withdraw my objections. Not that they would have done any good,” she added wryly. Natarle shrugged, then stood. “If you’ll excuse me, Captain.”

“She’s sure turned around,” Mu commented when the XO had left. “Thought Alex couldn’t be trusted, and now she’s concerned for his welfare.”

Murrue chuckled. “I don’t think Natarle actually likes him, but that seems to be just a clash of personalities. They don’t have to like each other to be able to work together.”

From what Mu had seen, it was more a clash of wills than of personalities; had circumstances been different, Alex Strassmeier and Natarle Badgiruel could have been the best of friends. It was their differing views on the war that made them battle; Natarle was a loyal Earth Forces officer, and Alex, his hatred for Zala aside, passionately supported the cause of ZAFT and the PLANTs. Neither of them blamed the other for their attitudes, of course.

“You know,” Murrue said, “I actually hope Le Creuset’s G-pilots survive. At the very least, I’d like to meet Kira’s friend without us trying to kill each other.”

“I hear that,” the Hawk agreed. “Those four are a lot better than most ZAFT types; Alex tells me they’re all redcoats. Not just anyone gets to wear the red uniform.”

That was an understatement. While there were undoubtedly more of them than the Earth Forces knew about, they had been able to positively ID exactly six: Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, Athrun Zala, Shiho Hahnenfuss, and Troy Cadwallader. Four of them were with the Le Creuset team, and the other two had recently vanished from the battlefront with no explanation.

While it was true that the enemy Gundam pilots were all sons of Supreme Council members, not even the most extreme Coordinator-hater accused ZAFT of nepotism. If they were not the best, they would not be wearing the red uniform, pure and simple.

“Well,” Murrue said at last, “we can’t really do anything for the next two days. Maybe Alex will have good news.”

Not that she was getting her hopes up.

Libyan desert, 27 February, C.E. 71

Two mobile suits stood facing each other on a rocky outcropping. One belonged to ZAFT, Yzak Joule’s GAT-X102 Duel, its assault shroud making it look like an armored knight. The other was an independent, Alex Strassmeier’s winged MBF-X108 Stormbird.

Neither pilot was in a flight suit; as this was to be a meeting, not a battle, such garb was pointless in atmosphere. Alex wore his usual black outfit, his heirloom Luger holstered at his right thigh. Yzak stood a mere five meters away, resplendent in his red uniform.

Day and night, Mom always called us, Alex thought. I never realized just how apt the comparison was.

Yzak was having similar thoughts, seeing in his mind’s eye an image of Alex in the same uniform he himself wore. He should be in ZAFT red, not that black suit. Sure, that looks good on him, but this is not how things were supposed to be!

Alex spoke first. “Hi, Yzak,” he said, managing a smile. “How’s Cassandra?”

At least he was starting with something innocuous. “She’s fine. Still cannot figure out why she cannot talk, though.” Yzak sighed. “She misses you, Alex.”

His cousin snorted at that. “Cassandra’s what, five? I’m amazed she even remembers I exist.” Alex shook his head. “No matter.” He eyed Yzak’s face. “I see you have a bit of a souvenir.”

Yzak flushed. “Your buddy Yamato gave me this,” he snarled. “He’ll pay.”

Alex stifled a sigh. “You brought it on yourself, Yzak.”

“Alex-“

“I warned you not to underestimate Kira,” Alex said icily. “You chose to ignore that warning and paid for it. Be thankful; if Kira hadn’t promised me, he wouldn’t kill you, you would be dead.”

Yzak laughed harshly. “Come on. I’ll take him down next time.”

“Unlikely. Kira is out of your league.” The statement was flat.

The Duel’s pilot glared at his cousin. “That’s crazy. How can he possibly be better than me?”

“Because I have reason to believe that Kira Yamato is in fact the Ultimate Coordinator!” Alex took a step forward. “I can think of no other way for him to learn mobile suit combat so fast despite never having been within shouting distance of such a machine in his life. The only G-pilot who would have any real chance of defeating him is Athrun Zala, and even that is doubtful.”

Yzak shook his head violently. “If Yamato really is the Ultimate Coordinator, why does he stay with the Earth Forces? You know as well as I do what they’re like.”

“As Kira has told Athrun at least once, possibly more, the men and women on the Archangel are very different from the rest of the Earth Forces.” Alex waved his prosthetic hand. “There’s also the fact that he still has friends on that ship. And one other, a girl he loves very deeply, and would give his life to protect.”

Commander Waltfeld had mentioned her, a redhead named Flay Allster. “Fine, forget Yamato,” Yzak said. “What about you? What are you doing fighting us?”

A derisive snort. “You actually had to ask that?” Alex laughed harshly. “Leaving aside my feelings about Patrick Zala, the fact that Rau Le Creuset attacked Heliopolis without provocation is enough for me to fight him. I swore that day that he would pay for the colony’s collapse.”

“If those Orb bastards hadn’t been building mobile suits for the Earth Forces, it wouldn’t have happened,” Yzak shot back. “We positively I.D.’d an Orb noble there.”

Another snort. “Contrary to Le Creuset’s paranoid fantasies, the presence of Rondo Ghina Sahaku constitutes irrefutable evidence of the exact opposite.” Alex nodded significantly at the Duel. “The odds of Uzumi Nara Athha cooperating with the Sahakus on anything, much less something of this magnitude, rank somewhere below the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell. What Le Creuset did, in my opinion, amounted to outright piracy.”

“Piracy?” Yzak felt himself gape, his face turning bright red. “Are you out of your mind?”

“I should ask you that, after what you did in the Eighth Fleet battle.”

Yzak closed his mouth, glaring even harder. “You mean where you stopped me from blowing away a troop transport?” he demanded.

“I stopped you from committing murder,” Alex said, his voice abruptly harsh. “Those weren’t soldiers, Yzak. Kira found a damaged life pod in the ruins of Heliopolis. Knowing that life support would have given out before rescue could have arrived, he brought it onboard. Except for Flay Allster, who enlisted at the last moment, all of them were on the shuttle you almost destroyed. Two of them are Coordinators.”

Yzak dropped his gaze, stunned. He had no choice but to believe; he knew Alex would never lie to him. “I didn’t know.” His head came up. “What about the princess?”

Alex did not even twitch. “Princess?”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Alex.” Yzak’s voice, though still heated, was nowhere near as strident. “Dearka intercepted some transmissions, and I.D.’d her with a voiceprint analysis. What is the Chief Representative’s daughter doing on your ship?”

His hawk-faced cousin was silent for several moments. “Cagalli came to Heliopolis after hearing rumors that Orb was building mobile suits for the Earth Forces,” Alex said at last. “Kira and I tried to get her to a shelter when you attacked, but the only one within reach was full. At that point, I brought her aboard the Valkyrie to keep her safe; the last thing I needed was to antagonize Orb’s Chief Representative.”

“Anyway, we didn’t hit it off at first.” Alex chuckled. “As a matter of fact, she thought I was a ZAFT spy. It was only after I read her the riot act that she was disabused of that notion.”

Despite the situation, Yzak could not help laughing at the image; he knew better than most how difficult it was to get Alex to lose his temper, and how nasty it could get when it did happen.

Then he noticed something else in Alex’s voice. “You like her, don’t you.”?

Alex shrugged. “Certainly. Our initial differences aside, we’ve actually become close friends.”

Yzak grinned slyly. “That’s not what I meant.”

Alex started to ask what Yzak did mean, then stopped and narrowed his eyes. “Really. For your information, cousin mine, there is nothing romantic about our relationship. Nothing whatsoever. We trust each other, which I will grant is a rare thing for me, but you know as well as I do that close friendships can be forged very quickly under the right circumstances.”

“Whatever.” Yzak shrugged. “We’ll keep it quiet; no reason to make things worse.”

Alex nodded. “That’s something, at least.” He sighed and turned away. “In any case, I can’t stay here any longer. In less than twenty-four hours there is going to be a major battle, and I have no doubt both of us will be in the thick of it.”

Yzak felt tears sting his eyes, his momentary levity gone. “Alex, please, it’s not too late,” he said in a pleading tone he would never have let his teammates hear. “You can still come back. Forget those Earth Forces bastards and come with us. Come home.”

Alex did not turn. “I’m sorry, Yzak. So long as Patrick Zala holds any position of power, the PLANTs are closed to me.” He reached for his zip line.

Yzak stood there for a long time after the Stormbird left, struggling with a mixture of rage and grief. No matter what he did, his beloved cousin was still committed to his insane course. Nothing seemed to reach him, not even the knowledge of what that Earth Forces officer had done with Lacus Clyne.

Alex, why? Why are you so sure Committee Chairman Zala wants to kill all the Naturals? Why do you insist on helping that Earth Forces ship? Why do you keep fighting me?

He was starting to fear that he would never know.

Archangel, Bridge, 28 February, C.E. 71

It was time. This day would define the desert war, whether ZAFT or the Earth Forces would triumph. Either the two ships and their Desert Dawn allies would escape, or Andrew Waltfeld would destroy them. Victory and life, or defeat and death, those were the choices they faced.

At Sahib Ashman’s suggestion, they had opted to make their stand in the Talbadiya factory district. It was by then uninhabited, so there was no danger of collateral damage. Archangel and Valkyrie were well-armed, and their mobile suit force would have the assistance of a minefield, which was expected to deal with any careless BuCUEs.

“So that’s the plan,” Murrue said. “Alex?”

“The Skygraspers will give us an additional advantage,” Alex said. “In addition to mounting the Sword Striker pack, Cagalli will be carrying spare power charges for the Scorpion and the Stormbird. Our other machines will be drawing power directly from the Valkyrie’s main reactor.”

Sahib nodded. “And your friend Kilgore won’t need a recharge for quite a while, since you’ll have him hidden in the sand until the time is right.”

“Exactly.” Alex nodded back. “I will keep the Duel busy; Yzak has no intention of killing me, but the Stormbird’s mobility advantage is such that even his disabling shots won’t even come close. The Buster will be a danger mainly to the ships; it doesn’t have enough mobility to threaten our suits and fighters.”

“I agree,” Natarle said. “It will be difficult, but we should be able to pull through.”

Cafeteria

Kira slumped in his chair, uninterested in his food. He knew he had to eat, but he had no appetite. Images kept whirling through his mind, friends, enemies, enemies who used to be friends, enemies who under other circumstances would have been friends. Alex Strassmeier, Flay Allster, Rau Le Creuset, Athrun Zala, Nicol Amalfi, Andrew Waltfeld, the list was seemingly endless.

“Hey.” Mu La Flaga set another plate in front of him. “Eat up. Those go great with yogurt sauce.” He blinked when Kira flinched. “You, okay?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Kira shook himself. “It’s just that, the Tiger said the same thing, it goes great with yogurt sauce.”

Mu raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? The man knows his food.” He laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Listen, forget about him. When you are fighting for your life against someone you know personally, it’s that much harder.”

“But I…”

“I’m not saying you should forget about Athrun,” Mu said. “You can’t expect someone to throw away a lifetime of friendship at the drop of a hat. Besides, it’s not like you’ll be fighting him here.”

He is right about that. “What about Alex’s cousin?”

Mu laughed. “Joule’s good, but he’s no match for Alex, at least not on Earth. The Duel was unsuited for this sort of combat even in its original form, let alone with that assault shroud attached. While he is taking potshots, Alex is going to fly rings around him in the Stormbird.”

Kira sighed. “I get what you’re saying. It’s just that…Waltfeld seemed like such a nice guy, even when he was pointing a gun at us.”

“He’s the sort of ZAFT soldier I could like,” Mu conceded. “Still-“

He was cut off by an alarm. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!” Murrue’s voice said. “The Waltfeld team has spotted the minefield. This will be difficult, but we can do it.”

“That’s our cue,” Mu said. “Let’s go.”

Skies over the Desert

It was a bizarre setting for a battle. On one side were the three land battleships of the Waltfeld team, along with many BuCUEs and ZuOOTs, the Duel and the Buster, and dozens of Agile helicopters. Facing them were the Archangel, the Valkyrie, six mobile suits (only two of them airborne), two Skygraspers, and the Desert Dawn’s jeeps and artillery trucks.

Between the two forces was what was left of the Talbadiya factory district. Theoretically, the ZAFT forces had the advantage with their land battleships and BuCUEs. Unfortunately for them, no one had told Murrue and Lia Ramius, who were quite prepared to use their ships’ superior firepower.

This is it. Alex keyed his radio. “Here we go, guys. Kyle, Chris, Hiro, provide fire support from the deck. Brian, you stay hidden as planned.” He looked at the Skygrasper pacing him. “You ready, Cagalli?”

The princess gave him a thumbs-up. “You got it.”

“Here they come,” Kira said suddenly.

“Roger that.” Much as he hated to leave Kira out there alone, Alex had a different task here: keep the Duel and the Buster busy. Hitting his thrusters, he dove at the Lesseps, his beam rifle blinking all the way. The ZAFT warship was well-armored enough that his shots did little damage, but it was enough to get their attention.

The Strike, meanwhile, concentrated on the BuCUEs. Kira knew from experience that the Aile pack gave him a major advantage -BuCUEs could jump, but not actually fly- and he was making the most of it. A ZAFT mobile suit was foolish enough to jump right into his sights; he squeezed the trigger once, and the BuCUE exploded.

Several helicopters tried to swarm him, but he ignored them. They were no real threat, and soon they were less than that, as Mu’s Skygrasper flashed past, the Agni hyper-impulse cannon spitting crimson energy blasts. Three Agiles simply vanished, and their comrades fell to an almost contemptuous burst from the Strike’s CIWS.

This is too easy, Kira thought. Even with the Duel and the Buster, they cannot do much to us. What is going on?

His thoughts chopped off when Mu sped past again, drilling a hole through a ZuOOT. “Watch yourself, kid. There’s still a lot more coming!”

Kira shook himself. “Roger that.” Even as he swung the Strike around, looking for his next target, Andrew Waltfeld’s words echoed in his mind.

“So how do you determine the winners and losers? When every single one of your enemies has been destroyed?”

Back over the Lesseps, Alex was giving his cousin fits, just as Mu had predicted. Every time Yzak took aim, the Stormbird was somewhere else by the time he pulled the trigger. Laser blasts, railgun slugs, missile salvos, all were dodged with little effort.

“It would seem that terrestrial warfare doesn’t suit you, Yzak,” Alex commented, immolating a turret with his rifle.

Yzak’s face contorted in a snarl. “Shut up!” He launched another futile missile attack. “I’ll drag you back to the PLANTs if I have to!”

“An exercise in futility.” A radar antenna melted under the Stormbird’s fire. “It is highly unlikely that you can defeat both of our ships.”

“Says who?” Shifting his aim for a moment, Yzak blasted a Desert Dawn jeep unfortunate enough to stray into his sights.

Alex sadly shook his head. “A waste of energy. Those jeeps don’t mean much.”

Thus far, it was best described as a stalemate. None of the ships on either side had moved far from their initial positions, and the mobile suit battle was at this point indecisive. That would soon change, however; both Andrew Waltfeld and Alex Strassmeier were planning their own surprises.

Valkyrie, Bridge

“Set Lokies to anti-air,” Lia Ramius snapped. “Don’t let those Agiles get through!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Lia knew her ship had gotten lucky so far. If they got within range of any of the ZAFT ships, that would quickly change…but the same held true for the enemy. The Valkyrie outgunned any land battleship ever built; and such vessel that strayed within range of its main guns would have a quick and exciting life.

She looked down into CIC. “How long until we enter firing range of the ZAFT ships?”

A radar operator studied his displays for a moment, then shook his head helplessly. “Impossible to tell, ma’am. All this sand is messing up the scanners.”

That was what she expected. “Aunt Murrue, what about you?”

“We’re moving, slowly but surely,” the elder Ramius replied, grimacing as another hit shook her own ship. “Give us-” She broke off as the Archangel ground to a halt.

“What was that?” Natarle demanded from the other ship’s CIC.

Arnold Neumann snarled in frustration. “We’ve struck sandbank! We’re trapped!”

Murrue cursed. “It’s up to you, Lia. We can’t do anything unless we can get free.”

“I understand.” Lia found herself briefly wishing they dared use the Parsifals in atmosphere, then dismissed the thought. “Target Gottfrieds at that fuel station,” she ordered. “It’ll hurt ZAFT a lot more than us.” A beat. Then, “Fire!”

Four argent beams of green light lanced out, striking the fuel station dead on. It exploded in a giant fireball, spewing debris everywhere. A single BuCUE, unfortunate enough to be caught within the blast radius, was sent flying. It landed hard, then exploded.

“Two more BuCUEs incoming!” the tracking officer snapped. “They’re launching missiles!”

“Evade!” Lia barked.

Valkyrie’s maneuver allowed them to escape almost completely unscathed. One missile did connect, but it did minor damage, and the BuCUEs did not have another chance. GAT-X105 Strike appeared from above, its beam rifle catching both ZAFT machines off guard.

“You guys all right?” Kira called.

Lia smiled. “We’re fine, Kira. Thanks.”

“No problem.” The Strike pulled away in search of other targets.

Skies over the desert

It was still more or less a stalemate outside. Waltfeld’s BuCUEs had not been able to close with the ships, aside from the two Kira had destroyed, but the allies had not been able to push them back, either.

Kira had spotted the Archangel’s plight and was trying to assist, but a double flash of green cut him off. “What the?”

An evil-looking yellow machine had joined the party. “Hey there, hotshot,” Andrew Waltfeld said. “You gotta fight me first.”

Kira swallowed hard. There was no mistaking that voice, or the TMF/A-803 LaGOWE he piloted. “That’s no BuCUE.” He was in for the fight of his life, against his most dangerous opponent to date; Athrun Zala might have been better, but he had never intended to kill Kira.

The new battle did not go unnoticed. Alex and Yzak stopped exchanging laser bolts for a moment, fascinated by the confrontation.

“You might as well give up now, Alex,” Yzak said. “You and Yamato are both almost out of power, and there’s no way he’s taking out Waltfeld’s LaGOWE like that.”

Alex started to reply, paused to vaporize a ZuOOT, then shook his head. “You’re underestimating him again, Yzak. Not only is Kira the Ultimate Coordinator, but he also has the SEED.”

Yzak fired his rifle, cursing as the Stormbird’s shield absorbed the blast. “What?”

“Superior Evolutionary Element Destined Factor,” Alex explained. “Someone who has the SEED can go far beyond his normal abilities. I too have that power.” He gave his cousin an almost mocking look. “It is that power that gave you your little facial blemish.”

The other Coordinator felt his face heat at the mention of his scar. “So that SEED makes him better than me?”

“No, he’s already better than you are. The SEED just compounds that.” Alex blasted another ZuOOT. “As for the energy problem… Cagalli, now!”

“On my way!” The princess’s Skygrasper swooped in, dropping a peculiar cartridge into the Stormbird’s free hand. Apparently not satisfied with that, Cagalli deployed the Panzer Eisen grappler, latched onto the ZAFT warship, and sliced through two turrets with the Schwerht Gewehr. “Take that!”

Yzak frowned, not sure what had just happened, then cursed in shock as the Stormbird body checked his Duel, knocking him off the ship entirely.

“See how you handle the sand!” Alex called, his machine already shrinking in the distance.

Yzak swore repeatedly, trying in vain to get the Duel to move. What is going on here? I cannot move! He tried jumping, only to sink again when he landed. Swearing again, he pounded his controls in frustration, then glared at the retreating Stormbird. “It’s not over, Alex,” he whispered.

By then, the only major fight left was Kira’s duel with Waltfeld. The second half of Alex’s surprise had appeared, in the form of Brian Kilgore’s MBF-X304 Scorpion. He had made short work of the remaining BuCUEs, then tricked Dearka into freeing the Archangel with a shotgun blast.

Kira fired repeatedly, cursing as the infernally fast LaGOWE dodged his attacks. He is even faster than a BuCUE. “This is crazy!”

“I think someone’s going to run out of power soon,” Waltfeld said, grinning. He knew Cagalli would not be able to recharge the Strike; the sort of melee they were in precluded it.

“You’ve already lost the battle!” Kira shouted. As if to emphasize his point, the escort ship Henry Carter exploded under combined fire from the Archangel and the Valkyrie.

“Like I said, there are no clear rules for ending a war like this.” Waltfeld fired again, this time hitting the Strike’s beam rifle.

Kira swore, taking cover behind his shield as the weapon exploded. With his rifle gone, he drew a saber, sidestepping and slashing one of the LaGOWE’s wings off. Waltfeld skidded to a halt, then came around for another pass.

“Don’t do it!” Kira shouted desperately.

“I am not done with you yet, kid!”

Kira jumped and slashed again, this time destroying the ZAFT machine’s right foreleg. “It’s over, Waltfeld! Surrender!”

In the skies near their two motherships, Alex, Cagalli, and Mu watched the fight. Waltfeld had ordered a retreat, so even the Duel and the Buster had stopped firing (not that they were able to fight in any case). With them gone, the three pilots found themselves mesmerized by the unfolding drama between Waltfeld’s LaGOWE and Kira’s Strike Gundam.

“Shouldn’t we help Kira?” Cagalli asked nervously.

Mu shook his head. “If we tried to interfere in that melee, we’d risk hitting Kira instead of Waltfeld.”

“But-“

“Mu’s right, Cagalli,” Alex said. “There’s nothing we can do.” For some odd reason, he found himself wishing he could touch her, give the kind of reassurance mere words could not. He shook it off. “Kira can take care of himself.”

She reluctantly nodded. “You’re right.”

Kira jumped away from the LaGOWE yet again, slicing off its beam cannon. “Why keep this up? You’ve lost, and you know it!”

“Maybe I’ve lost, but so have you,” Waltfeld responded.

Kira started to speak, then looked down at his panel as an alarm blared. “No-!”

“There’s no other way,” Waltfeld said softly. “I’m not giving up…until one of us is destroyed!” He lunged at the Strike one last time, the double beam saber leading…

And behind Kira’s eyes, an amethyst seed burst.

Discarding the now-useless Aile pack, Kira drew an Armor Schneider and charged to meet the LaGOWE. He stabbed down into the enemy machine’s neck, and then both mobile suits were blown backwards. The Strike landed on its posterior in a sand dune. The LaGOWE was not so fortunate.

Aisha unstrapped from her forward gunner’s position. “Andy!” The Tiger pulled her close…

The LaGOWE exploded, spewing shrapnel everywhere, peppering the Strike. Kira, breathing heavily, stared at the conflagration in horror. “I…I…” He felt tears streaming down his face. “It didn’t have to end like this!”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex sighed, closing the file. “So much for the Desert Tiger. Gone, just like that.” He clenched his fists, cursing in German under his breath. “I am so tired of this.” He leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes.

Cagalli laid a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all, right?”

“Of course not. Why would I be?” Alex shot back, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be taking it out on you.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’s easy to see what’s eating you.” He looked at her questioningly, and she shrugged. “Since we were fighting the Duel out there, it’s obvious that Yzak didn’t listen to you.”

“All too true.” Alex grimaced. “Oh, I’m fairly sure I convinced him about Kira’s motives, but he’s still determined to bring Kira down. He also didn’t believe me when I insisted the Orb government wasn’t involved in the G-weapon project.”

Cagalli snorted derisively. “As if my father would work with the Sahakus on anything.”

“That’s more or less what I said.” Alex laughed softly, but there was no humor in it. “He also knows who you are.”

The princess’s eyes widened. “What? How?”

“The pilot of the Buster, Dearka Elsman, intercepted some transmissions between us, and ran a voiceprint analysis.” Alex wanted to kick himself. “Luckily, they have no intention of telling their superiors; he said they don’t want to make things worse.” He snorted. “He’s also starting to sound like Mu.”

Cagalli had no trouble figuring that one out. “He thinks we’re together?”

“Or that we’re headed that way, at least.” Alex rolled his eyes. “I have no idea what put that notion in his head, but it doesn’t really matter.”

“Did he say anything else?”

Alex sighed, closing his eyes again. “At the end, just as I was leaving, Yzak begged me to come home to the PLANTs. I’ve never heard him talk like that before.” He stood and moved to the window, gazing sightlessly out at the desert. “I replied that so long as Patrick Zala holds any position of power, the PLANTs are closed to me.”

Cagalli joined him at the window, not saying anything.

“Is this all there is?” The Coordinator’s voice had dropped to a whisper. “Is there no turning back? I have killed so many ZAFT soldiers since we left Heliopolis, I have fought against my own cousin so many times. I’ve sided with an Earth Forces warship.” He leaned his forehead against the glass. “Will I… will I ever be able to go home?”

She touched his arm. “Don’t worry about it. Keep up what you are doing, and everything will work out. I saw the look on Waltfeld’s face when you told him about Zala’s goals. If you can make the Desert Tiger think, then you still have a chance. It’ll take a while, but don’t give up.”

He looked down at her. “You’ve sure changed. Back at Heliopolis you thought I was a spy, and now you’re trying to cheer me up.”

“Hey, I didn’t know you then.” Cagalli smiled. “In the meantime, you’ll be welcome in Orb. I’ll make sure of that.”

Alex smiled back. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

He would indeed be welcome in the Orb Union, more than even Cagalli realized. Alex had a gift for anticipating others’ next moves, enemy, and ally both, but he had no idea what would happen when they neared Orb. The events immediately preceding their arrival would change his life forever…

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira tossed aside his uniform jacket and collapsed on his bunk, even more exhausted than Alex was. Going one on one with the Desert Tiger piloting a BuCUE was bad enough, taking on Waltfeld’s LaGOWE had been his biggest challenge yet.

“There’s no other way. I’m not giving up…until one of us is destroyed!”

He moaned softly, hearing that voice in his mind. It was unlikely that he would ever forget Waltfeld’s last words, spoken just before the Strike’s knife stabbed into the LaGOWE. And then the explosion, marking the final resting place of two brave people. There probably was not enough left to bury.

Why? Why does this keep happening? Why do I have to keep killing? Kira rolled over, burying his face in the pillow.

The hatch slid open, and Flay Allster stepped in. She was worried; Kira had not even tried to talk to her after the battle, and that was, to put it mildly, unusual. “Kira?” When the Coordinator did not respond, she moved closer to the bunk. “Kira, what’s wrong?”

He finally stirred. “I… I am so tired of this. All I wanted was to live in peace, but I cannot. I have to fight, or people I care about are going to die.” Kira half rose, slamming a fist into his pillow. “But to protect them, I must fight other friends, or people who might have been friends. Athrun, Nicol, Waltfeld…” He choked, unable to go on.

Flay sat on the bunk and gently embraced him. “It’ll be all right, Kira,” she whispered. “We’re going to make it, no matter what. We’ll put an end to this, and you won’t have to fight them anymore.”

Kira looked up, eyes glittering with unshed tears. “Flay…”

She caressed his cheek. “Let it flow, Kira. I’ll be here, no matter what.”

Kira gave in at last, sobbing quietly, while Flay cradled him, not saying a word. No words were necessary, not now. It was painful, but at the same time a relief. When the time came to fight once more, Kira would be ready.