Chapter 13: Waltfeld

Valkyrie, cafeteria, 18 February, C.E. 71

Kyle Perry leaned back in his chair, looking out at the stretch of sand. “Four days since landing, and already things have gone crazy.”

Hiro Nakamura snorted. “We’re up against Andrew Waltfeld himself. What did you expect, a tea party?” He sipped from a cup of, fittingly, tea. “From what I’ve heard, he’s even better than Rau Le Creuset.”

“Hiro’s right,” Brian Kilgore said from his seat near the counter. “Waltfeld isn’t as ruthless, but he’s a lot more devious. We’re in for the fight of our lives.”

“At least you and Alex can fight at all,” Chris Madsen said sourly. He waved at Kyle and Hiro. “The three of us aren’t much more than armored gun turrets in the desert. Our machines don’t have any mobility worth talking about in this environment.”

Kyle sighed. “I hate to say it, but I agree with you, Chris. There just isn’t much we can do here.”

Much as they wanted to, no one could disagree. If they were in the desert, the Devastator, Shinobi, and Inferno Gundams were of limited use. Unlike the Stormbird, Scorpion, and Kira’s Strike, they could not fly, and while OS modifications would allow them to run in sand, they would be hopelessly outmatched by BuCUEs (or worse yet, Waltfeld’s LaGOWE).

“Say,” Chris said, changing the subject. “How long do you think it’ll be before Alex admits he’s in love with the princess?”

“Won’t happen,” Brian said. “You know him. He keeps everything inside except with a select few.”

“And Cagalli happens to be one of those few,” Chris pointed out.

Hiro looked at the Devastator’s pilot. “What do you think?”

Kyle did not answer at first. “I think Chris is right,” he said at last. “I wouldn’t have said that a month ago, but now…” He waved a hand. “Frankly, I think it’s a good thing. You all know what Alex has been going through.” His companions nodded. “He needs someone who can keep him going, and Cagalli is the only one who can really do that. Sure, he and Lia have been friends for a long time, but it’s not the same.”

“It’s strange, though,” Hiro murmured. “Alex is cold as ice most of the time, whereas Cagalli is more like Yzak Joule, except that she’s not arrogant. Hard to imagine those two together.”

Kyle shrugged. “Opposites attract, Hiro, you know that.”

“So how long will it be?” Chris asked again.

“I give it a month. Maybe two.” Kyle grinned. “I can’t wait to see how the higher-ups in Orb react. I don’t think her father would mind, and the Sahakus would probably swallow their pride, since Alex is related to Ezalia Joule, but some of the others won’t be so sanguine.”

“Like the Seirans,” Lia Ramius said as she stepped through the hatch. “Especially the Seirans; Cagalli used to be engaged to Yuuna Roma.”

Brian looked at her in surprise. “That creep? Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes. She told me herself.” Lia raised an eyebrow. “What, you know the guy?”

The young pilot grimaced. “I saw him at a diplomatic function in Aprilius a month before the war broke out. My dad’s an aide to Representative Canaver, so I got dragged along.”

“What did you think of him?” Hiro asked.

“He’s an arrogant, slimy, smarmy, worthless, lying, incompetent, bigoted fool,” Brian said, an uncharacteristic edge of contempt in his voice.

Hiro chuckled appreciatively. “That’s what I thought.” He looked at Lia. “Where’s Alex?”

She smiled. “In his quarters, talking to Cagalli.”

Chris grinned. “Bingo.”

Alex’s quarters

Despite Chris Madsen’s innuendos, there was nothing romantic going on. Alex and Cagalli had simply settled into a routine in the weeks since Heliopolis. They had lunched together frequently, true; Lia had said that it only made sense for the princess to take some of her meals with what passed for the ranking officer. Alex, for his part, was starting to suspect she had an ulterior motive.

Not that he cared. He was happy to give Cagalli a chance to relax, and it was a relief to have someone to talk to occasionally. This time, they had somehow wound up talking about Alex’s family history.

“We’ve been able to trace the family at least as far back as World War II,” he said, sipping his coffee. “An ancestor of mine was a Luftwaffe fighter pilot, Oberleutnant -that’s First Lieutenant- Heinrich Strassmeier. He was no Nazi, mind you; there actually weren’t very many Nazis in the military.”

Cagalli leaned forward, fascinated almost despite herself. “Did he survive the war?”

“Oh, absolutely.” Alex grinned. “He actually became close friends with a British pilot; Sergeant Michael Rork, I think the name was. They shot each other down repeatedly over the course of four years, starting at the Battle of Britain.”

The princess shook her head. “Kind of weird, shooting each other down so many times, and when the war ends suddenly, they’re friends.”

“It’s not as weird as you might think,” Alex said. “Frequently, warriors on all sides of any given conflict have a lot in common. Oh,” he waved a hand, “there are exceptions. A large number, possibly a majority, of Earth Forces soldiers are Blue Cosmos sympathizers.”

Cagalli frowned. “Come on. Do you really think most of the Earth Forces like people getting blown up?”

Alex shrugged. “Maybe sympathizers isn’t the right word. Most Earth Forces soldiers don’t support blowing people up at random, which is essentially what Blue Cosmos does, but they do share the idea that Coordinators are a disease.”

Having met some Earth Forces diplomats -primarily from the Atlantic Federation- she had to agree. “The people on the Archangel are too good for the Earth Forces.”

“I agree. Leaving aside the fact that Murrue Ramius is Lia’s aunt, that crew is definitely not typical Earth Forces.” Alex stood and opened his cabinet. He drew out an ancient-looking auto pistol. “On a more pragmatic note, Murrue has asked me to help with a supply run in a couple of days.”

Cagalli raised her eyebrows. “A supply run. Where?”

“Banadiya.” Alex chuckled at her expression. “Yes, Waltfeld has his headquarters there. Unfortunately, it is also the only settlement within a hundred kilometers that could charitably be called ‘civilized,’ which means it’s the only place our Desert Dawn friends can get better equipment.”

She winced. He had a point. “Anyone besides you?”

“Colonel Kisaka is going to meet with some arms dealer,” Alex said. “Kira and Flay are also going, mainly to get those two off the ship for a while; believe me, they need it. Lieutenant Badgiruel will supervise the initial steps, and Ensign Neumann will be driving.” He tucked the gun under his jacket. “I was wondering if you’d like to come, too.”

Cagalli thought for a moment, then grinned. “Sure, why not. It’ll be fun.” Another thought struck her. “But what about you? Waltfeld met you before, so wouldn’t it be dangerous?”

“Andrew Waltfeld has no intention of killing me; I realized that in the last battle. Probably because of my aunt.” He chuckled. “This will be worth it just to see Natarle Badgiruel out of uniform.”

The princess could not help laughing. Badgiruel was so by-the-book that it was hard to imagine her in anything remotely resembling a relaxed situation.

There was, of course, a certain amount of risk. Alex himself might be safe, but there was no guarantee that Waltfeld would be so gracious with the others if they were caught.

Archangel, Murrue’s office

Murrue dashed her signature at the end of the last report and sat back, closing her eyes. Even in the middle of nowhere, the paperwork never seemed to end; she was fortunate to have an exec like Natarle to carry the load. The younger woman (who was rumored to share Alex’s obsession with efficiency) made the Archangel run like clockwork, leaving Murrue mostly free to consider their next move.

The hatch slid open. “You wanted to see me, ma’am?” Natarle said.

Murrue sat up. “Yes, I did. Have a seat.” She waited until Natarle had complied before continuing. “First, do you have a team set up for the supply run?”

Natarle nodded. “Colonel Kisaka and Mister Ashman will meet with an arms dealer in Banadiya. Meanwhile, Ensign Yamato, Crewman Allster, Commander Strassmeier, and the princess will have a look around the town itself, getting some much-needed rest in the process.”

The Captain raised an eyebrow. “Much-needed?”

“They’ve all been on edge since we left Heliopolis, Ensign Yamato especially,” Natarle explained. “Leaving aside the fact that his best friend is with the Le Creuset team, we have gotten this far largely through his efforts. With all due respect for Commander La Flaga, we could not have survived without the Strike. True, the Valkyrie was with us, but you know as well as I do that, they have their own agenda.”

Murrue nodded. “We’re fortunate that the agenda doesn’t mean fighting us; I highly doubt we would have survived otherwise. It seems unlikely that Kira could have taken five G-weapons on his own. He’s good, but not that good.”

“I agree.” Natarle smiled wryly. “It’s lucky for us that your niece is close to Commander Strassmeier. In any case, he volunteered in part because he knows his own limitations.”

“In other words, Alex wants to get a better feel for the local environment. Makes sense.” Murrue frowned. “One thing, though. Alex has met Waltfeld before. What if they run into each other again?”

Natarle shrugged. “As Strassmeier himself pointed out, they only met once, and briefly. It’s entirely possible that Waltfeld won’t recognize him.”

“Perhaps. Still, Alex showed me a picture of his family, and I can tell you that his resemblance to Yzak Joule is uncanny. I would not be at all surprised if he were recognized through that alone.” Murrue sighed, shaking her head. “If Alex says he can handle it, then he can handle it. He can take care of himself.”

That was true enough. Natarle knew from personal experience that Alex Strassmeier was an extremely dangerous adversary. A crack shot with most weapons and a martial arts expert, he would be more than enough to deal with any sticky situations.

Natarle stood. “Is there anything else?”

“No.” Murrue smiled. “Thank you. Dismissed.”

“Ma’am.” The XO saluted and left.

Murrue leaned back in her chair again. Unless she was greatly mistaken, Natarle’s attitude toward Alex had changed for the better since they had landed. The by-the-book exec still did not like the youngster, but it appeared that she no longer distrusted him.

It was, Murrue decided, a good thing.

Gibraltar Base

This is boring, Yzak thought. We have been sitting here for days. When are they going to turn us loose? He slammed a fist onto the table in front of him. The Duel and the Buster had been repaired in less than a day, despite the local mechanics’ lack of experience with the ex-Alliance machines. Yzak and Dearka were ready, so why hadn’t anything happened?

Footsteps sounded behind him. “Got some news,” Dearka said, coming around and sitting across from Yzak. “Commander Bartlett just landed at Carpentaria.”

Yzak frowned. “Carpentaria? What for? He’s spent the war in space, just like us.”

“He’s had some training in submarine ops,” Dearka reminded him. “They’re putting him in command of the Ballard, something about a new operation.” He shrugged. “I don’t really care; it keeps him away from us, at least.”

The scarred pilot had to agree. There were not many people in ZAFT that he genuinely hated, but Daniel Bartlett was at the top of that short list. Anything that kept that idiot as far away as possible was something Yzak was in favor of.

Bartlett, of course, was not the only problem. “What about the legged ship?”

“They’re in the desert, in the Waltfeld team’s area of operations, or so I hear.” Dearka snorted. “Rumor has it that we might be loaned out to the Tiger; those two ships beat him twice, so he might need some heavier firepower.”

Yzak grimaced. He wanted to take down the legged ship, but fighting them meant fighting Alex, which was something he desperately wanted to avoid.

Dearka noticed his friend’s sudden brooding. “Hey, Yzak, forget about the black ship.”

“How can I when they insist on sticking with the legged ship?” Yzak shot back.

The Buster’s pilot waved a hand. “Everything we’ve heard suggests that they’re headed for Orb; if we can take out the legged ship, your cousin and his friends should stop bothering us.”

That made sense. Alex’s one connection to the Earth Forces was the Archangel; if that ship were destroyed, there was every reason to believe that he would simply resume his journey to Orb. It was not the best outcome -Yzak desperately wanted his cousin to return to the PLANTs- but it was the most likely.

“You’re right,” he said at last. “I won’t fight Alex unless he comes for me. I’ll concentrate on the legged ship…and the Strike.”

Of course, he probably will come for me, Yzak added silently. If he is so determined to protect the legged ship, then there is no way he had just let us sink them.

“Say,” Dearka said suddenly. “Has your cousin been to Orb before?”

Yzak thought back. “Yeah, about four years ago. He was at a reception of some sort. Why?”

Dearka reached into his red coat and pulled out a computer disc. “I intercepted some transmissions between your cousin and his ship up in orbit.” He plugged the disc into a laptop he had brought along. “Wait till you see who he’s talking to.”

Yzak watched the recording, not sure what his teammate was getting at. Alex was talking to an unfamiliar blond-haired girl. There was obviously a rapport between them; Yzak knew Alex well enough to see that. It was strong, too; Alex was showing more emotion than was normal with someone outside his own family.

He looked up when it ended. “Some girls? So what?”

“She’s not just ‘some girl,’ Yzak.” Dearka pocketed the disc. “I got curious, so I ran a voiceprint analysis. That’s Chief Representative Athha’s daughter.”

Yzak sat bolt upright. “Are you serious? What would someone like that be doing on Alex’s ship?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” the other said. “Obviously, you know your cousin a lot better than I do; I’ve met him maybe twice. Why would he have the Chief Representative’s daughter be on his ship?”

Yzak wracked his brain. There was a certain logic to the situation; Alex had made no secret of his belief that Orb was the only sane nation on Earth. What that did not explain was how Cagalli Yula Athha could have gotten on the black ship.

Unless… “Maybe she was at Heliopolis. Alex recognized her and got her aboard his ship when everything went to pieces.”

“Even if she was there, why would she have escaped on the black ship instead of an Orb ship?” Dearka was more than a little skeptical. “With her connections, it wouldn’t be too hard; she is a princess, after all.”

Yzak through up his hands. “How should I know?” He shook his head. “Just as well that the black ship is not a priority target, though. The last thing we need is to kill the Chief Representative’s daughter.”

“Tell me about it,” Dearka agreed. “They were screaming after Heliopolis; if we off their princess, they’d get mad enough to declare war, and we’d be toast.”

All too true. Their failure to duplicate the Alliance’s Phase-shift aside, it was well known that Orb had better technology then either ZAFT or the Earth Forces. If the Orb Union were to enter the war as anything other than an ally of ZAFT, the PLANTs were finished.

“So, what do we do?” Dearka asked.

Yzak sighed. “We keep quiet. I do not like it, but it is not like this is going to hurt ZAFT any. I’ll talk to Alex about its next chance I get.” That there would be such a chance, he had no doubt.

“Okay,” Dearka agreed. “I don’t like it either, but you’re right.”

Banadiya, African Community, 20 February, C.E. 71

A slightly overloaded jeep came to a stop just inside the city. Even though the driver and passengers were a rather mixed group, no one gave them a second glance. This was very much desired by all concerned.

“Good luck, all of you,” Natarle said. Though she tried to hide it, she was acutely uncomfortable out of uniform. “We’ll see you later.”

Four youngsters stepped out, and the jeep sped off, presumably heading for a meeting with an arms dealer. Only two of them, Kira Yamato and Flay Allster, were military, and neither was in uniform. Kira wore a blue outfit borrowed from his friend Tolle Koenig and Flay was in the same pink dress she had worn when Kira retrieved her life pod at Heliopolis.

The other two were more ambiguous. While Cagalli held rank in the Orb military, she was seldom seen in uniform; for this trip, she wore her usual khaki pants and red t-shirt. Alex, for once, had discarded his usual black outfit in favor of tan pants and a light blue shirt.

“Pretty dusty,” Flay remarked, stifling a sneeze.

Alex barely twitched. “It’s a desert, Flay. What did you expect?” His voice held no condemnation, however, and Flay did not take offense. “If you can stop yourself from sneezing, you should be able to have a little fun.”

The redhead punched his shoulder lightly, something she would not have dared do a month earlier. “What do you know about fun?” she asked in a teasing voice.

He smiled. “I’ll grant that my idea of fun is probably very different from yours, but I do know how to enjoy myself.”

“I know. I’m just teasing.” Listening to her words, one would find it hard to believe that Flay had once been afraid of Alex.

“We should probably split up,” Alex said. “We don’t look suspicious, but best not to take chances.”

“Colonel Kisaka told me about a restaurant not too far from here,” Kira said. “Why don’t we meet there later?”

Alex nodded. “Good idea. Don’t go too far, though; we need to be able to support each other if necessary.”

Flay waved, then tugged at her boyfriend’s arm, dragging him to the nearest shop; she knew perfectly well that it was unlikely she would be able to find anything of interest, but it never hurt to look. Kira went along, feeling out of his depth; his experience at shopping was limited to computer supply stores and an occasional grocery run.

It would have amused him to learn that Alex was having similar problems. He had gone shopping before, true, but he had never had any real enthusiasm for it. He preferred to practice martial arts or spend time on a firing range. Wandering around a bazaar looking for who-knows-what was not his area of expertise.

Cagalli smiled, noticing his discomfort. Finally, she had found a situation where she was more comfortable than he was. Not that she wanted to drive her cold-blooded friend insane; she simply owed him for all the times he had unnerved her.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you,” Alex muttered, a barely discernable sour note in his otherwise toneless voice.

Cagalli looked at him with an innocent expression that fooled neither of them. “What makes you say that?”

“Don’t play innocent with me,” he grumbled. “I haven’t stayed alive this long without being able to read people, and one thing you aren’t good at is concealing your emotions.”

She laughed. “Come on, don’t tell me you’ve never gone shopping before.”

“Of course, I have. That does not mean I like it, and I don’t.” Alex suppressed a grimace. “Andrea, on the other hand, loves it; the one thing I’m dreading after I find her is what will happen if -when- she meets Flay.”

That will be fun, Cagalli thought. One thing she remembered about Alex’s sister was that the girl was perky beyond belief. Combining that with someone like Flay Allster was a recipe for weirdness.

She started to say as much, then froze at Alex’s expression. “What is it?”

He nodded at two men across the street. “See those guys?”

Cagalli felt her eyes narrow. She knew by how the men moved what Alex was talking about. “They’re military.” Now that she knew what to look for, she spotted several more. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. It’s not that surprising that Waltfeld would have some of his people out in civilian clothes.” Alex frowned. “The question is, why?”

“Do you think he knows we’re here?”

Alex shook his head. “The Tiger isn’t omniscient. Oh, it is possible that he is onto us, but it is not likely. No, I’d say that whatever ZAFT is up to right now, it has nothing to do with us.”

Cagalli grimaced. “So, we just keep acting normal, and hope Kira and Flay do the same.”

“Right. Unlike me, neither of them has the look of a soldier.”

As it happened, Kira and Flay had no idea that anything was amiss. The two of them chatted happily, just like a young couple out on a date. Kira especially enjoyed it; it was his first chance to just let go since he had found himself in the cockpit of the Strike almost a month before.

Flay had not found anything she cared about, not that she had expected to. Still, the day was not a total loss; she got to enjoy Kira’s company outside the confines of the Archangel. The ship was more comfortable than most such vessels, partly because they were so shorthanded, but it was still nice to get out in the open air for a change.

“It’s been so long,” Kira murmured. “I don’t think I’ve been on-planet more than three times since we moved to Heliopolis.”

“You were born in Orb, right?” Flay asked.

Kira nodded. “It’s been a while, though. I spent more time in Copernicus, with Athrun.” He suppressed the twinge that name produced. “Then we moved to Heliopolis, after things started to edge towards war.” He checked the bag he was carrying, making sure he had not lost anything.

Flay smiled. “Haven’t you ever shopped before?”

“Sure, I have. Athrun and I spent a lot of time in electronics shops, looking for stuff to use in our projects. He was hardware, I was software.” Kira smiled wistfully. “I miss those days.”

Talking about someone like Athrun Zala while in ZAFT territory might have seemed dumb, but Kira’s friendship with the Aegis’s pilot was not that well known.

Flay kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll both make it, and you’ll meet again as friends. Remember that.”

Having finished with their shopping, the two youngsters headed for the restaurant Kira had mentioned earlier. They found a table with four chairs and sat; Kira paid for the whole thing, explaining that he and Flay were waiting for a couple of friends.

Those friends joined them half an hour later. A waiter appeared as if by magic, asking what they would like. Kira and Cagalli both ordered kebabs and juice, Flay chose an exotic-looking salad dish, while Alex ordered (predictably, for those who knew him) seafood.

“How did they find something like that around here?” Flay wondered, looking at Alex’s plate.

Alex swallowed. “Modern transportation, Flay.” He indicated his lunch, a hammerhead shark, of all things. “Besides, we’re not all that far from the Mediterranean.” He took a sip of coffee. “Sharks are also found in fresh water, believe it or not.”

“He’s got a point,” Cagalli said. She chewed thoughtfully on a kebab. “This is really good.”

Kira agreed. Not normally an adventurous eater, he had found the local cuisine very much to his liking. “It’s a nice change.”

“Enjoy it while you can, Kira,” Alex said, lowering his voice. “I’ve spotted several ZAFT soldiers in civilian clothes.”

Flay barely kept herself from jumping in fright. “Are you sure they’re military?”

“Positive. Soldiers have awfully specific mannerisms that are exceedingly difficult to disguise.” Alex shrugged. “I don’t know why Waltfeld would have his people out and about like that, but the fact of it remains.”

They quieted for a while after that. It was unlikely that ZAFT was onto them in any case; four teenagers in a restaurant were hardly recognizable as Earth Forces (especially since only two of them were in the military to begin with). No, it was more likely that Waltfeld had something else on his mind.

And then a voice spoke behind Kira. “Excuse me,” the tall, brown-haired stranger said. “I couldn’t help noticing what you ordered. As it happens, kebabs go great with yogurt sauce.”

Cagalli promptly started arguing with the newcomer, insisting he was dead wrong. Alex, however, was not listening; he had gotten a good look at the stranger’s face, and his blood ran cold. Of all the things he had thought could go wrong, the idea of coming face to face with Andrew Waltfeld had never occurred to him, and he cursed himself for the slip.

Flay looked at him, concerned. “Are you okay?”

The Coordinator hissed through clenched teeth. “I’m fine,” he forced himself to say. “It remains to be seen for how long, though.”

“Don’t worry,” the Desert Tiger said. “I’m not after you right now…Strassmeier.”

Alex let out a resigned sigh. “You knew who I was right away, didn’t you, Commander?”

Waltfeld grinned. “I never forget a face, Strassmeier. We only met once, but you stuck in my mind.”

The other three looked at each other, then at Alex. ” ‘Commander?’ ” Kira repeated carefully. “Alex?”

Alex sighed again. “Kira, Flay, Cagalli, this is Commander Andrew Waltfeld, the Desert Tiger.” Knowing that their number was up, he decided he might as well lay it all out. “Commander, my friend Cagalli Yula -she’s a civilian I rescued at Heliopolis- and two members of the Archangel’s crew, Ensign Kira Yamato, and Crewman Second Class Flay Allster.”

Cagalli gaped. “He’s…the Desert Tiger?”

“That’s what they call me,” Waltfeld said cheerfully. “Don’t worry; like I told Strassmeier, I’m not after you today.”

Alex snorted. “Then why do you have a bunch of guys out here in civilian clothes?” he asked pointedly. “Don’t bother denying it; I know soldiers when I see them.”

“I’ve got other prey on my mind right now. You’ll find out soon enough.” Waltfeld looked at Kira. “Besides, I was hoping I’d be able to meet you.”

Kira met his gaze, wishing he had Alex’s poker face. “Why would you want to meet me?”

“You gave me quite a fight a few days ago,” the Tiger said. “I wanted to see the man behind the machine. Not to mention,” he looked back at Alex, “I wanted to find out what’s going through his head.”

Alex gazed at him coldly. “This is hardly the time or place, Commander,” he said, his voice even colder than his expression.

Waltfeld was unruffled. “True enough, but we’ll have a chance to talk later. In fact, I don’t think you kids will have any problem with what I have in mind.”

“Why should we believe you?” Cagalli spat.

The Tiger shrugged. “I don’t expect you to-” He broke off, gazing at the rooftops through suddenly narrowed eyes. “It’s about to start.”

None of the youngsters had to ask what he meant; without warning, a rocket arced out from a concealed position. Kira, reacting on instinct, tackled Cagalli, upsetting their table and dousing her in sauce. Flay collapsed on top of them, while Alex, cool as ever, drew his peculiar auto pistol.

“Always prepared, eh Strassmeier?” Waltfeld asked, crouching behind the upended table.

Alex ignored him, sighting along the barrel of his weapon. The moment one of the attackers appeared in his sights, he squeezed the trigger. His opponent fell dead, a struck between the eyes by the nine-millimeter round.

“Who are they?” Flay asked plaintively. “Why are they attacking us?”

Waltfeld grunted, spraying another gunman with his machine pistol. “They’re Blue Cosmos,” he said, jamming a fresh magazine in. “I had people out here so I could take them out. Didn’t expect it to happen like this, though.”

No kidding, Alex thought, cursing as his gun jammed. Unfortunately, his weapon of choice was notorious for that. He holstered the gun, then twitched his right arm, causing the knife compartment to spring open. Another twitch of the arm, and a knife appeared in a terrorist’s throat.

“You’ll pay for that!”

Alex whirled, just in time to stop another thug from taking him unawares. A vicious chop to the throat ended that problem, and a bone-shattering punch with his right hand disposed of another. At almost the same moment, Kira took a flying leap, driving his foot into an enemy‚Äôs chin. There was a sickening crunch as the man’s neck broke.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

Andrew Waltfeld got to his feet, brushing himself off. “That went well, even if it wasn’t what I’d expected.”

A red-haired man in ZAFT green appeared. “Commander, are you all, right?” he asked, saluting.

Waltfeld smiled. “I’m fine, DaCosta. They took us by surprise, but we handled them.” He nodded at Kira and Alex. “These guys helped out, too.”

DaCosta looked them over. He recognized Alex instantly; his resemblance to Yzak Joule was truly uncanny. Given that, it was obvious that his companions were connected to the Archangel. The two girls did not seem like much, but the brown-haired young man standing protectively over them was something else. From the way he moved, he was almost certainly a Coordinator.

“You’re right,” Waltfeld said, seeming to read DaCosta’s mind. “He’s a Coordinator. And not just any Coordinator, either. He’s the pilot of the Strike.”

DaCosta’s eyes widened. “Sir? Are you sure about this?”

The Tiger smiled. “It’s fine. Like I was telling them, they’re not today’s prey.” He looked back at the youngsters. “Why don’t you come to my place, get yourselves cleaned up.”

Cagalli glared. “Why should we trust you? You know who we are if you think we’re going to-“

“Don’t worry about it.” Waltfeld waved a hand. “You especially need to get cleaned up, and your Coordinator friends helped out in that little skirmish. I owe you for that.”

Alex laid a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine. Andrew Waltfeld is ruthless in battle, but he never breaks his word.”

She nodded reluctantly. “All right.”

Andrew Waltfeld’s headquarters

“Well, well, well.” A dark-haired woman greeted the small group as the entered the mansion Waltfeld used as his HQ. “So, this is the guy you’ve been talking about?” She nodded at Kira.

Waltfeld grinned. “That’s him, Aisha. The pilot of the Strike. Doesn’t look like much, does he?” He gestured at Cagalli and Flay. “Why don’t you get them cleaned up. I’ll take care of the other two.”

“Right. Come on.” Aisha smiled at the girls. “Nothing to worry about.” They reluctantly followed.

Alex and Kira trailed their host into a large office. It was sparsely furnished; Waltfeld apparently did not care for excessive decoration. There was a desk with two chairs, one behind and one in front, a small couch, and a large stone object on a table near one wall. Alex recognized it as a replica of Evidence Zero One, the artifact George Glenn had brought from the outer system. He had seen the far larger original before.

Kira had not seen it in person, but there were plenty of pictures. “Is that…?”

Waltfeld nodded. “Evidence Zero One,” he confirmed. “Not the original, of course; that’s an awful lot bigger. Right, Strassmeier?”

“I’ve seen it before,” Alex acknowledged. “I’ve been to Aprilius One several times, after all.” He and Kira accepted mugs of coffee from the Tiger. “Never paid much attention, though,” he added, sipping from his mug.

Kira did not know much about it; he had never been extremely interested in giant space fossils. He sipped his own coffee in silence.

“I have no idea why they call this thing a Whalestone,” Waltfeld said, sitting behind his desk. “Doesn’t look much like a whale to me.” He shrugged. “You might say that thing is the root of this whole conflict.”

Kira looked over at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Waltfeld nodded at the replica. “It was George Glenn’s revelations that started the whole Coordinator boom. And that was what turned the environmental group Blue Cosmos into a full-blown terrorist organization.”

“Leading to the Mandelbrot Incident, the Copernicus bombing, and Junius Seven,” Alex said tonelessly. “I will never understand how preventing the genetic enhancement of humans is supposed to protect the environment. Particularly since we are so well suited for life in space, where there is no environment save that which we create.”

Their host snorted. “Since when are terrorists rational?” he asked rhetorically. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what they do.”

“All too true,” Alex admitted.

The door opened, and Aisha stepped through. “They’re ready,” she said.

Kira felt himself gaping. His girlfriend was dressed in an evening gown of the same color as her hair. She…she is…Kira forced his mouth closed. He had always thought Flay was beautiful, but this was far beyond anything he had ever imagined.

For his part, Alex was having flashbacks. Cagalli wore a green dress startlingly like the one she had worn at that party, four years earlier. She had been striking then and had only matured since. If there was any doubt that she was a princess, that was dispelled. As always, Alex kept his face expressionless; if it had been just the two of them, or maybe Kira and Flay as well, that would have been one thing, but he did not dare react in front of the Tiger.

For some reason, maintaining his poker face was harder than usual…

Aisha broke the silence. “You know, Andy, I think these two boys are lovestruck.”

Waltfeld grinned. “You know, I think you’re right.”

Reactions to that varied; Kira and Flay both blushed, while Cagalli glared at both ZAFT officers. Alex did not bother responding; he considered the teasing to be beneath his notice. Instead, he remained vigilant, his hand near the grip of his holstered pistol, while his friends sat on the couch.

That settled for the moment, Waltfeld turned to Alex. “I’ve been wanting to ask you, kid: Why are you fighting against ZAFT?”

Alex sighed. “Didn’t Aunt Ezalia tell you why?” He did not wait for an answer. “I am deeply, unalterably opposed to everything Patrick Zala stands for. I do not know why, but it has been obvious for months that he is lost his mind. Maybe it was the Bloody Valentine…” He shook his head. “In any case, he wants every last Natural dead.”

Waltfeld did not bother debating that point. For one thing, he had his own suspicions about Patrick Zala. “What about the fact that you’re fighting alongside an Earth Forces warship? One that your cousin is trying to bring down, no less.”

The younger man hissed through clenched teeth. “Because Rau Le Creuset launched an unprovoked attack on a neutral space colony. I had no intention of getting involved with the Earth Forces, but Heliopolis forced my hand.”

Waltfeld raised an eyebrow. “Unprovoked? The Earth Forces were building a warship and new mobile suits there, and they did cause the colony’s collapse.”

“The first statement is irrelevant, and the second is an outright lie,” Alex shot back. “The Orb government had no knowledge of the Earth Forces project, and the collapse of Heliopolis was triggered by the Le Creuset team’s illegal use of D-package weaponry inside the colony.”

The Tiger blinked. The report he had received had blamed the Earth Forces for the collapse. Maybe he should have been a little more skeptical. Strassmeier was not lying, that much was clear. With a mental shrug, he tabled the matter. “All right, then,” he said, reaching into a drawer. “It doesn’t matter, anyway.”

Alex tensed. This is not good. His hand closed around his pistol grip.

“What matters is that we’re in a war, and there are no clear rules for ending a war like this,” Waltfeld went on. His hand came out of the drawer, holding a large auto pistol. “So how do you determine the winners and losers? When every single one of your enemies has been destroyed?”

Kira, Flay, and Cagalli leapt off the couch, Kira in front, and Alex whipped his own gun out. “Don’t do anything foolish, Commander,” the hawk-faced Coordinator said softly. “I’m well aware that we probably couldn’t fight our way out of here; I’m the only one armed, and all of your people are Coordinators.”

Waltfeld spared him a glance. It was his first good look at the youngster’s weapon. “A Luger, huh? There’s something you don’t see every day.” He shifted his attention to Kira. “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.”

Kira swallowed hard. I… I do not…

“Save the mind games, Waltfeld,” Alex said coldly. “It’s not a matter of fighting his own people, Kira is an Orb national, and his only reason for fighting ZAFT is to protect his friends. The fact that they’re Naturals means nothing.”

Waltfeld held Kira’s gaze for a moment, then slowly lowered his pistol. “It makes you wonder if we have no choice but to destroy each other.”

Cagalli stared at him suspiciously. “You’re letting us go?”

“We didn’t meet today as enemies. This isn’t a battlefield.” He smiled. “I just wanted to talk this time.”

Next time, you will not be so merciful. “Of course,” Alex said. He looked back at Kira. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll catch up in a minute.”

Kira nodded. “All right.”

When the others had left, Alex holstered his weapon. “Commander, could I ask a small favor.”

Waltfeld raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“My cousin Yzak landed on Earth at the same time we did.” Alex hesitated. “Could you tell him…that I’d like to talk to him? Face to face, before everything goes crazy again. There should be time; you know as well as I do that it will be several days before either side is ready to move.”

The Tiger slowly nodded. “I can do that.”

“Thank you.” Alex turned on his heel and followed his friends.

Libyan desert

Sitting in the driver’s seat of a jeep the resistance had left for them, Alex explained his plans to the others. They were sympathetic, as he had expected; fighting against a relative was one of the most painful experiences imaginable.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Cagalli said.

Kira nodded. “You need to clear the air with him, if it’s possible.”

“It might not be,” Alex said, sighing. “Yzak’s pretty stubborn. Thanks for the support, though, all of you.”

Flay smiled. “What are friends for?”

“I know.” Alex was silent for a moment, then spoke in a lower voice, so that Kira and Flay could not hear over the engine noise. “Cagalli… that dress looks good on you.” He looked away before she could respond.

Cagalli blushed. Did he say that? Not that she minded; it was just surprising. Maybe there was more to Alex than even she had realized.

They drove the rest of the way in silence. Soon enough, they would go into battle once again.