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.”


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.