Chapter 21: Aegis

Archangel, cafeteria, 16 April, C.E. 71

“Yeah, flying that Skygrasper was fun, but I’m looking forward to taking over the Aegis,” Tolle said, sipping from a glass of milk. “Even though it’s not as maneuverable, the Aegis has better defense and firepower than any fighter.” He made sure to mention defense to soothe his girlfriend; Mir was looking worried enough as it was.

“Agility in atmosphere is the one thing fighters have over mobile suits,” Alex agreed; he and Cagalli were visiting from the Valkyrie. “Most mobile suits, which is the Freedom, and the Justice can fly rings around any fighter I know of.”

Mir still looked worried. “Tolle, please be careful out there. If something happens…”

Tolle squeezed her hand. “It’ll be all right, Mir. Athrun and his buddies aren’t going to be shooting to kill, and nothing the Earth Forces have right now can take the Aegis.”

“Don’t put too much stock in that,” Alex cautioned. “You’re correct that the Zala team won’t be shooting to kill, but accidents do happen. As for your second point, it’s only a matter of time before the Earth Forces conquer the OS problem and deploy mobile suits of their own.”

“I know, I know.”

Even with the Archangel having deserted, the Alliance still had data from the prototypes, if only because of the ship’s now-deceased captain making regular reports. The basic designs were sound, as Kira and the Zala team had proved repeatedly since Heliopolis; all that remained was the OS problem Alex had just mentioned. Once the OS problem that the Alliance was dealt with, there was no telling what Orb and its ZAFT allies would face.

“You know, it’s lucky for us that Kira is good with computers,” Sai commented. “Kuzzey’s departure isn’t the only thing he has to cover up, after all.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”

Sai nodded at his uniform. “You’re a ZAFT Commander now; I don’t think the Earth Forces high command would be happy to see a red uniform on this ship.”

“He’s got a point,” Cagalli said. “That’s why I’m not coming in when we get to Alaska; the Earth Forces aren’t happy with Orb, either.”

“Because your father won’t give them Andrea,” Alex growled. “Believe me, I am painfully aware of that situation. It is something I intend to discuss with whoever is in charge in Alaska. And since I am not with the Alliance military, they cannot exactly court-martial me, either.”

Tolle chuckled. Having seen Alex in a bad mood before, his only regret was that he would not be present when Alex gave the Alaska base commander a talking-to. Oh, well, the hearing is bound to be recorded. I will get Alex to copy the tapes for me.

“Say, Alex,” Mir said suddenly. “Athrun mentioned a ZAFT Elite being involved in remote weapon project, kind of like what Commander La Flaga was doing back in Orb. The guy’s name was Cadwallader or something like that. Sound familiar?”

Alex nodded. “Troy Cadwallader. He is the son of the Prime Minister of Oceania, and one of the very few Naturals in ZAFT service. He has the same level of spatial awareness as Mu and me, and as such is the only Natural to wear the red uniform. Yzak told me that before he was tapped for the project you refer to, he piloted a captured Moebius Zero mobile armor.”

“Have you ever met him?” Sai asked.

Alex shook his head. “He didn’t join ZAFT until after I left the PLANTs, and I’ve never been to Oceania, so no, I’ve never met him.”

“Excuse me for interrupting,” a new voice said. Natarle had arrived while they chatted. “No, no one is in trouble,” she said, smiling at the nervous looks she got. “There’s something on the news you might be interested in.”

Frowning, Alex clicked on the monitor, and blinked in surprise. At least two major news channels were carrying a speech by George Allster’s replacement live, and his words were anything but encouraging. None of it made sense, but what really startled the group was the accusation that Rear Admiral Lewis C. Halberton was a ZAFT agent.

“Are these guys crazy, or what?” Tolle demanded. “It sounds like they’re saying Admiral Halberton is a traitor just because he treated Kira like a normal human being instead of some freak!”

“That was more or less my reaction, Crewman,” Natarle agreed. “And in case you’re wondering, the most common anti-Coordinator pejorative in the Alliance military right now is ‘space monster,’ probably because they’re so well suited for life in space.”

“I’ve heard it,” Alex said sourly. “I guess whoever it was that performed the treatments on George Glenn is thought of as a latter-day Doctor Frankenstein.” He stood. “Well, I’d best get back to my own ship. Coming, Cagalli?”

She took his hand. “Right behind you.”

Tolle waved, then returned his gaze to the screen. The more he heard from the dimwit speaker (who made Flay’s late father look benign by comparison), the more his hands itched to be grasping the Aegis’s control bars. Everything the man had said thus far was completely wrong; as far as Tolle could tell, only the “big lie” propaganda technique was letting the bastard get away with it.

The Earth Forces will get what they deserve, Tolle thought. We will see to that.

Cousteau, pilots’ locker room

“Man, this is getting weirder all the time,” Dearka said to no one in particular. “We capture some new mobile suits, fight two new warships, chase those warships halfway across the planet, and now we’re helping them, instead.” He leaned back against his locker; hands clasped behind his head.

Athrun looked up from squaring away Nicol’s gear. “Not to mention faking the destruction of one of our own machines,” he said. “Speaking of which, I wonder how Nicol’s doing.”

“Alex told me he’s helping the Valkyrie’s mechanics get the Blitz back up and running,” Yzak said. “It’ll be a while yet before it’s operational again, but it’s not like we’re going to be taking on the main Earth Forces fleet. He’ll be fine.”

Dearka shook his head. “Assuming those mechanics don’t drive him nuts first. Remember that Murdoch guy from the Archangel?”

His friends rolled their eyes in unison. Kojiro Murdoch was friendly enough, and Kira had assured them that he had nothing against Coordinators, but he was also a very strange man. Typical for a mechanic, he had more interest in machines than people, but at the same time he kept an eye on the pilots of those machines.

The Valkyrie’s people were another matter entirely. Coordinators to a man, they seemed to delight in driving the pilots (and Lia Ramius) completely insane. Alex had told them of one particularly spectacular incident just after he had wiped out the Coast team at Junius Seven. It seemed that the crew chief had rigged a waste receptacle to explode and douse whoever was unfortunate enough to open it in red paint. The others were just as bad if not worse.

“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” Athrun said. “Nicol’s a lot like Kira; I don’t see mechanics going out of their way to bug him.”

“So, when’s the next ‘fight’?” Yzak asked, changing the subject.

“Tomorrow. We’ll be heading for the Marshall Islands.” Athrun closed Nicol’s locker. “Alex’s people will plant some more explosives, and Kira and I will fake the destruction of the Strike and the Aegis.”

Yzak and Dearka both nodded. It would be rough on the machines, albeit not as bad (hopefully) as what had done to the Blitz. Still, while no one on any of the ships liked it, it was the only way to convince the Alaska brass that the Archangel was still an ally. All would depend on that.

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira pressed one final key and leaned back with a groan. Purging the ship’s computers of all records of Kuzzey had taken longer than he had expected, and he was exhausted. It had taken the better part of a day just to deal with footage from the surveillance cameras, let alone such minutia as Kuzzey’s Bridge duties; as comm operator, his friend had had a large workload.

“Aren’t you finished yet?”

A smile spread across Kira’s face. “Hi, Flay. Yeah, I just finished.” He stood and crossed to her, wrapping her in a hug. “There was a lot more than I’d expected.”

She laid her head on his chest. “Okay, if that’s what the problem was, I’ll forgive you… this time.” A bright smile took the sting out of her words.

“It wasn’t just about Kuzzey, either,” Kira said, drawing her down next to him on his bunk. “Alex and Cagalli visited a little while ago, and that uniform of his would be a pretty big red flag.”

Flay chuckled at that. She agreed with Cagalli that Alex cut a dashing figure in his red ZAFT uniform, but that was not the way to convince the Earth Forces high command that Murrue and her crew were still allies. Alex’s involvement would be hard enough to justify without telling Alaska that he had just joined ZAFT.

“So how does it feel?”

Flay looked up at him, confused. “How does what feel?”

“Being allied with people who used to be enemies.”

She exhaled slowly. “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be. With my father gone, I do not have any real ties to the Atlantic Federation anymore; everyone I really care about is with either Orb or ZAFT. Even though that Le Creuset guy gives me the creeps.”

Kira understood that perfectly. Le Creuset had contacted them directly about an hour before the Archangel had left Orb. Kira had been on the Bridge at the time, and the man’s featureless mask had sent a shiver down his spine.

Mu’s reaction had been stronger. He had gazed at Le Creuset with thinly veiled loathing, though the ZAFT officer did not appear to have noticed.

“But they have people like Athrun and Nicol, too,” Flay went on. “And Commander Waltfeld is a nice guy.” Indeed, she had grown fond of the Desert Tiger.

“Remember what Alex told you,” Kira said. “Most people in the PLANTs really aren’t like Zala.”

Flay nodded. She had gotten to know the Zala team well, and the only member of the Valkyrie’s crew who was not from the PLANTs was Lia Ramius. In fact, she had spent time with their chief engineer, a native of Junius Four, without realizing the other girl was a Coordinator.

“Still, I’m worried,” she said in a deep voice. “Not about what Athrun’s team will do, but what you have to do tomorrow. Even though it was staged, the last battle was a narrow escape for Nicol, and you’re going to have to do the same thing…”

Kira stroked her hair. “It’ll be all right. This one will not be a split-second thing the way the Blitz was. I’ll be out of the cockpit before the bombs go off.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t worry.”

Flay just tightened her grip on him. As she had said, everyone she cared about was with either Orb or ZAFT, and there were not very many of them. Kira, of course, Cagalli, Miriallia, Sai, Murrue, even Athrun Zala (as far as Flay was concerned, any friend of Kira’s was a friend of hers).

“Everything will be just fine,” Kira whispered.

Valkyrie, hangar, 17 April, C.E. 71

Alex snapped his pocket computer shut. He had been over the plans for the next day’s battle and the subsequent trip to JOSH-A, and everything checked out. He just wished he could be as confident as his electronic minion was. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong; it is best if we take that into account now.

“All right,” he said at last. “Tomorrow we have our second and last battle with the Zala team. We will be planting more explosives to simulate the destruction of X105 Strike and X303 Aegis. Once the battle is done, those two machines, along with Strike pilot Kira Yamato and his friend Tolle Koenig, will join us here. At the same time, the Justice will transferred to the Cousteau. Questions, comments, anyone?”

Hiro nodded at Nicol’s machine. “Will the Blitz be ready in time for the next major operation?”

“I think Nicol is in the best position to answer that,” Alex replied, nodding at the younger pilot.

“No problem,” Nicol said. “Your mechanics are better than some back in the homeland, and they’re getting the Blitz back up in record time.”

“They’d better,” Chris Madsen muttered. “I’m looking forward to getting the Inferno flight-capable; there’s no way it’ll happen by the time we hit Alaska. Speaking of that…” He looked at Alex. “What’s the plan when we get there?”

Alex’s lip twisted. “Lia and I will temporarily transfer to the Archangel; our involvement is such that their high command will almost certainly want to speak to us. I’m anticipating some unpleasantness, that’s for sure.”

Brian raised his eyebrows. “How come?”

His friend snorted. “The current base commander in Alaska is one Captain William Sutherland. He is, among other things, a member of Blue Cosmos, so highly placed that he reports directly to Muruta Azrael.”

More than one person inhaled sharply at that. Hearing that a high-ranking Earth Forces officer was with Blue Cosmos was not too much of a surprise, but it still was not a pleasant thought. Not to mention the fact that Andrea was put on the wanted list by the Alliance for desertion; there was no way the top brass would not connect Alex’s last name.

“There’s no way someone like that wouldn’t recognize your name,” Cagalli said. “Are you sure he wouldn’t realize something’s, not, right?”

Alex shook his head. “My hatred for Patrick Zala is no secret,” he pointed out, “and it’s a matter of public record that numerous ZAFT soldiers have died by my hand. Sutherland probably won’t think I’m a spy if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Lia’s voice cut off further conversation. “We’re approaching the battle zone,” she said. “Demolition team, prepare to debark and plant charges. Mobile suit pilots, to your machines.”

Alex moved to the intercom. Technically, since he was the team commander, the last order was his responsibility, but it was a minor thing. “Acknowledged, Lia. We’re ready.” He turned and strode to his machine.

Cagalli caught up with him. “Be careful, Alex.”

He gave her a quick kiss, then grasped his zip line. “I will.”

Archangel, hangar

Kira hurriedly strapped into the Strike’s pilot seat. This is it. One last battle with Athrun, and then we can stop hiding. Oddly, he found himself looking forward to it; he hated to fight, but this was not a real battle. Even though they would be shooting at each other, he and Athrun would be working toward the same goal. Kira thought of it like a sparring match, which he had found he honestly enjoyed.

“You ready, kid?” Mu asked from his Skygrasper.

Kira nodded. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Good.” Even though Mu’s helmet hid all but his eyes, Kira could tell he was grinning. “The Aegis is all yours. I’ve got the Buster, and I think Alex will manage the Duel.”

Kira nodded again. Even when they were on opposing sides, Alex had insisted on dealing with his cousin himself.

“Stay alert, kid; this may be a staged engagement, but accidents happen.” The Hawk gripped his stick firmly. “Mu La Flaga, launching!”

“Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!”

Open sky

The fight was shaping up to be a three-on-three; Brian’s Scorpion was the only other flight-capable machine the Valkyrie had, and it was down due to an OS malfunction. With Kyle, Hiro, and Chris playing gun turret on the forward deck, which left Alex to assist Kira.

“We have them,” Cagalli said over the comm. “Duel, Buster, and Aegis, coming this way.”

“Roger that.” Alex switched frequencies. “Here we go, Yzak. You ready?”

The Duel’s right hand reached up and drew a saber. “Let’s do it!”

Alex drew a saber of his own just as Yzak reached him. Two blades of red fire clashed, locking the mobile suits together. Then they pulled apart, the Stormbird’s superior mobility allowing it to dodge a missile barrage. The winged mobile suit returned fire with its rifle, a CIWS burst shredding the missiles as an afterthought.

Yzak, seeing that his cousin was pushing the pace, switched to his own rifle. Emerald darts of energy crisscrossed the sky, none even coming close to their mark. The Stormbird was far too maneuverable to hit, and while the Duel was restricted to its Guul subflight unit, Yzak was still good enough to make it dance.

A little way away, the scene was far different. Dearka Elsman’s Buster might have had the edge in firepower, but Mu’s Skygrasper, even hampered by the Launcher Striker pack, was flying rings around the ZAFT unit. So far, Dearka had not as much as scratched the paint on the nimble fighter.

I knew he was good, Dearka thought, but this is amazing! I guess Coordinators do not have as big an edge as we thought.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Mu said, having read Dearka’s mind. “You’re good; your machine just isn’t meant for this kind of high-mobility combat.” The friendly tone seemed incongruous with the red Agni blasts.

He has a point. Dearka shifted his attention to the Archangel, a bigger target. Snapping his main weapons together, he fired in shotgun mode, blowing one of the Valiant linear cannons clean off. A secondary explosion vaporized an Igelstellung, and then he got distracted by another pass from Mu.

The Hawk shook his head, glad that the pilot he was fighting was really an ally. Slow though the Buster might have been, it was also heavily armed, and Dearka had proved to be an expert expert shooter. Unless the target was particularly agile, like the Strike or Mu’s fighter, he hit what he aimed at.

Five hundred meters distance from the other combatants, X105 Strike and X303 Aegis closed at high speed. Neither had opened fire yet; Kira and Athrun had agreed beforehand that melee combat was the best way to make it look real without killing each other by accident.

They would not, however, completely refrain from shooting, and Kira mentioned his shield just in time to intercept a green blast. He returned fire, grazing Athrun’s Guul but doing no real damage. Some shots sizzled between them, and then they were in melee range, the yellow saber in the Aegis’s right arm clashing with the Strike’s red one.

Then the Aegis jumped off its Guul, and Kira’s eyes widened as the machine transformed. Knowing what would happen next, he threw his machine back and to the side, just in time to avoid a blast from the Scylla. When he saw the Aegis land back on the subflight unit, Kira charged again, beam saber flashing.

“Almost there, Kira,” Athrun grunted.

“Roger that,” Kira said, then swept his saber low, cutting off the Guul’s port wing and engine.

Athrun forcefully stifled a yelp; it was all part of the plan, but that did not mean dropping out of the sky was fun. Especially not when a mobile suit that could fly was diving after him. A precisely aimed shot destroyed the Strike’s beam rifle, and then a saber slash destroyed his in turn.

The next few minutes felt like an eternity. A red blade cut off the Aegis’s right arm. A yellow blade took the Strike’s left. The Aegis’s head pierced through the eye, just as the Strike’s torso was gashed. By now both combatants were running low on power.

“It’s time!” Athrun yelled. He transformed his machine again and pinned the Strike in its claws. “Kira, now!” He opened his hatch and leapt out; behind him, Kira did the same.

And then the bombs went off.

High above, Alex and Yzak paused in their pseudo-dueling. The explosives Alex’s people had planted were by necessity of a much higher yield than the ones used to conceal the Blitz; they had to fake the destruction of two mobile suits instead of one.

Yzak stared worriedly into the smoke. The last vestiges of his rivalry with Athrun had burned away when his cousin reappeared. Now all he felt was concern for his comrade. “Athrun, Kira, you guys, okay?”

There was a long silence. “I think so,” Kira said, coughing on the smoke. “The explosion cracked my helmet visor, and I think I blacked out for a minute, but I’m okay now.”

“What about Athrun?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know.”

More coughing, from another source. “I’m here,” Athrun managed. “Tolle launched about when Kira took out my Guul; I think he deliberately crashed near the Valkyrie.”

“He did,” Cagalli confirmed. “We just brought him onboard.” She chuckled. “I don’t think Mir’s happy with him, though.”

There was a general round of laughter at that. No one doubted Mir’s love for Tolle, but she could be counted on to hand him his head whenever he did something crazy.

“All right, then,” Alex said. “Let us get things moving. Kira, the Valkyrie is on its way; you can come aboard with the Strike and the Aegis. Athrun, you’d best stick around too, so you can pick up the Justice.” Both pilots acknowledged.

Alex switched frequencies. “Murrue, we’re done except for the cleanup. What about you?”

“The Buster is badly damaged; Mu shot him down,” Murrue said. “Though not before he was able to damage our levitators. That should be enough to convince the Alaska brass.”

“I’d have to agree,” Alex said with a snort. “They’re well aware of what the stolen machines are capable of.” He clicked off.

The smoke cleared within a few minutes, and it was soon obvious why Kira and Athrun were so banged up. X105 Strike looked like someone had gone berserk on it with a giant sword (not too far from the truth), and Athrun’s X303 Aegis was barely recognizable as a mobile suit.

Alex sighed. It is gonna take a while to pick up the pieces. No help for it, I guess.

With the Buster irreparably damaged and Alex’s other machines on sentry duty, only the Duel was available to help in recovery. Yzak came along willingly enough; he did not much like it, but he understood the necessity.

Then, with no warning at all, “We’ve got an Earth Forces fleet incoming!”

Alex whirled, cursing. Of all the times… He stared hard at his visual and radar displays; his cold blue eyes narrow.

And swore again. The enemy fleet consisted of two aircraft carriers, four battleships, and at least a dozen destroyers. He knew that even with him and Yzak tied down, they had more than enough firepower to take them; that was not what worried him. If even one gets away, this mission is over.

He keyed his comm. “Yzak and I are still tied down her. Andrea, with the Archangel in the shape it is in right now, this one is up to you. Don’t let any of them get away!”

“Roger that, Alex,” Andrea said. “Andrea Strassmeier, Specter launching!”

To her right, Devastator, Shinobi, and Inferno rode on Guuls borrowed from the Cousteau. Coming up behind them were the hastily repaired Scorpion and the ORB-01 Akatsuki; with both her brother and her boyfriend pinned down on the island, Cagalli had no intention of sitting this one out.

Andrea smiled to herself. She and Cagalli had become close over the past month. Lia’s right, those two are a perfect match. “Like Alex said, don’t let them get away. We can’t afford having our cover blown.” Matching action to words, she brought up her Trikeros, locked on to an F-7D, and fired. The Earth Forces fighter exploded in a rain of debris.

Kyle Perry ignored the fighters completely; his machine was unsuited for attacking such targets. Instead, he snapped his guns together in sniper mode, took careful aim at one of the destroyers, and fired.

BOOM.

“Burn, baby, burn!” Slipping back into his pyromaniac persona, Chris Madsen unleashed his flamer on a quartet of fighters maneuvering for a strafing run on the Duel and the Stormbird. Polymers and metal alloys melted, and then the flames reached the fuel tanks.

Hiro shook his head, seeing the sleek fighters turn into fireballs. Even though he now knew much of what he had seen was a facade, he still considered Chris a lunatic. Pushing those thoughts aside, he dropped several mines on the flight deck of one of the carriers. Two even fell down an elevator shaft, with spectacular results.

“Die, space monster!” A trio of beam-equipped fighters closed on the Shinobi. They had him bracketed…

And then they vanished in a flash of green light. “Take that, you bastards!” Cagalli snarled.

The machine Nicol had dubbed the Golden Gundam spun in midair, rifle and back-mounted cannons spitting emerald death. One fighter tried to ram; Cagalli responded by snatching out a saber and slicing down its long axis.

In the few minutes since battle had begun, things had gone badly for the Earth Forces, and now it was about to get worse. The Alliance pilots stared in disbelief as an FX-550 Skygrasper, one of their own designs, joined the fray. Mu La Flaga, once a hero of the Earth Forces (though he never thought of himself as such), slashed through the enemy formation like a thunderbolt. Six fighters blew apart in the first pass.

Andrea grinned at the carnage. She did not enjoy killing, but her ordeals had left her with a deep hatred for the Earth Forces. Time to teach them a lesson. Energizing the Specter’s beam saber, Andrea cut a long gash in the hull of one of the destroyers, just above the waterline.

Judging by the sudden explosion, she hit the ship’s magazine.

“Nice trick, Andrea.” Brian’s Scorpion appeared next to her in mobile armor mode. The Stinger flashed, and another destroyer sank beneath the waves.

“I try,” she said wryly. “How are we doing?”

“Still got a few destroyers left, plus one carrier and all four battleships… or not,” he added as a blast from the Valkyrie’s Gottfrieds reduced the capital ship to scrap.

“I’ve got the carrier,” Chris said. He grinned nastily. “Jet fuel burns really hot, remember.”

Andrea shook her head. Hiro’s right, that guy is a lunatic. There was no denying his skill, though; two fighters were being spotted for launch were suddenly engulfed in flames as the aptly named Inferno Gundam torched the fuel lines. The fire quickly spread to the superstructure.

That one is a write-off.

Then she caught sight of something else. The still-disabled Buster had surrounded by several attack helicopters, and it looked like they were not interested in giving Dearka a chance to surrender.

Not that he would anyway, Andrea thought furiously. So, you bastards think you are going to kill him, do you? Over my dead body!

It was entirely possible that the Alliance pilots never knew what hit them. The weather had turned dark and rainy, so there was no real sunlight to gleam on the Specter’s white form. Not that it would have mattered if she had spotted the pilots; none of the choppers had beam weapons, which meant they had no way to defeat the Specter’s Phase-shift.

In any case, it took Andrea thirty seconds to annihilate them.

“You okay, Dearka?” she asked anxiously.

Dearka stared at the white mobile suit that had just saved his life. “Yeah, thanks. I owe you one.”

“No problem!”

“I think the others have dealt with the rest of the fleet,” Alex cut in. “As far as we can tell, no survivors.” To those who knew him, he sounded regretful.

Which he was. Willing though he was to fight, Alex did not like killing, and he would have preferred to take prisoners. He had known from the start that it was impossible, though; if even a fraction of the enemy crews had survived, the Valkyrie and the Cousteau would have been unable to manage them, and they did not dare put any on the Archangel.

“I know how you feel, Alex,” Andrea said gently. “We had no choice.”

Her brother shook himself. “I know. Let us get this finished and get out of here.”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

It was a somber group that gathered in the small cabin. Alex and Cagalli sat together on his bunk, Andrea sprawled in a chair with her feet on Alex’s desk, while Kira stood at the window, gazing out at the sea.

“Do you think… we did the right thing?” Kira asked softly.

Andrea slid her booted feet off the desk. “You mean about that Earth Forces fleet that turned up?” Kira nodded. “I know you don’t like what happened, Kira, but it’s like I told Alex. We had no choice. If any of them got away, it would have blown the whole operation wide open.”

Kira clenched his fists. “I know, but so many deaths…” He shook his head.

Flay may not have been there, but that did not mean Kira was alone. “Don’t beat yourself up,” Cagalli said, coming forward to embrace her brother. “It’s not your fault. All we can do is end it as quickly as possible.”

“It’ll be bloody,” Alex agreed, “but I don’t see any way to avoid it. In any case, you personally had nothing to do with this one.” He glanced at his friend sidelong. “And even if you did, you’d have no reason to feel guilty. Not with that bunch.”

Kira blinked in surprise. The last sentence dripped vitriol, and while that was not unusual coming from Alex, it sounded strong even for him. “What do you mean?”

“I had Hiro check up on that task force,” Alex explained. “It was chock full of hardliners, people who see us as inhuman monsters. I have nothing against Naturals, as you well know, but I’m not shedding any tears for the people we just wiped out, either.”

Kira was of two minds about his friend’s words. On the one hand, he appalled by Alex’s apparent callousness; on the other, he understood why Alex felt that way. He would have to more than human not to, after what he and his sister went through.

He looked at Andrea. Not difficult to do; Sai’s jaw had dropped when he first saw Andrea Strassmeier. At 170 centimeters, she was taller than most of the Heliopolis gang, including Kira himself. Slender, with a disposition that made her seem like a perky, black-haired version of Cagalli. Outside of battle, at least; in the cockpit, she acted disturbingly like Natarle Badgiruel.

“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” Kira said at last. “I just don’t like it.”

“Kira,” Alex said gently, “if you did like it, you’d be a danger to yourself and others. You have done nothing in this war that you need to be ashamed of. Yes, you have killed, but only in defense of the people who meant the most to you.” He laid a hand on Kira’s shoulder. “A soldier and a murderer are two different things.”

Kira nodded. When put in those terms, it made perfect sense. Kira Yamato was a protector, someone who would give his life for those he loved.

Of course, I hope it does not come to that, he thought wryly. Not that he was afraid for his own life; now, the only machine that could match the Freedom was his friend Athrun’s Justice. For that matter, even if he had still limit the Strike, there were few pilots who really approached his level, and most of them were on his side.

He moved to the hatch. “I’d better get down to the hangar. The mechanics will need help getting the Strike squared away.”

“I’ll go with you,” Cagalli said, joining him. She smiled at Alex and Andrea. “I think those two need to talk anyway.”

She is right, Andrea thought. It has been a month since we reunited, but we have not really had a chance to talk. Now, looking at her brother, she saw a hardness to his features that had not been there before. The past three years had been difficult for him, she knew, more than even Lia realized.

She turned to look at the photo over Alex’s bunk, smiling a little at the reminder of happier times. Alex, then just shy of his fifteenth birthday, had one arm around her. Their parents, Klaus, and Elena stood behind them. Yzak Joule stood on Alex’s other side, and behind him was Representative Ezalia Joule, his mother and Elena’s sister, holding her adopted daughter, two-year-old Cassandra.

“A lot has changed,” Alex said, as if he had read his sister’s mind. “Mom and Dad are gone, you were put through a living hell, and I-“

“Don’t you start feeling guilty on me, Alex,” Andrea interrupted. “You did the only thing you could do. It is not your fault that you could not find me, or that you had to fight Yzak. Blaming yourself for that is just as stupid as Kira getting all worked up over being a soldier. Things like this happen, brother.”

He started to reply, paused, then shook his head. “You’re right,” he said, smiling in the way she knew so well. He poured himself some coffee, then sat at his desk. “It turned out all right in the end. I don’t have to fight Yzak anymore, and I’m a ZAFT soldier at last.”

“And you’ve got yourself a girlfriend, too… finally.” Andrea laughed at his expression. “Oh, come on, Alex. Even Yzak and Lia do not know you like I do, and I have talked to the others. Yes, you were upset because I was missing, but it wasn’t just that.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “What else was there?”

“You were lonely,” his sister said simply. “Cagalli fit you in a way not even Lia could manage. Oh,” she waved a hand, “I am not criticizing Lia at all; you know as well as I do that, she has never had that kind of interest in you. You need…” Andrea fumbled for a moment. You needed a partner, and Cagalli was perfect for it.”

Alex frowned. Now that he thought of it, his sister had a point. He had been feeling increasingly lonely, and after Cagalli had stopped thinking he was a ZAFT spy, they had grown close very quickly. For that matter, the princess had learned to read him more quickly than anyone else, including Lia Ramius.

“You’re right,” he said slowly. “It was Cagalli who kept me going while we were fighting ZAFT. She promised to help in my quest to find Hibiki’s offspring.” They both laughed at that; Cagalli had never expected that she had promised to help find herself. “After that one confrontation -among other unpleasantness, I called her a pampered aristocrat- I don’t think I ever once made her mad. That’s not easy.”

Andrea smiled. “Exactly. It is not one-sided, Alex. She needed someone like you, too. Everyone else, except her father and Colonel Kisaka, drove her nuts. Half the time you don’t even remember she’s a princess.”

“That’s because she seldom, if ever, acts like one.” Alex sipped his coffee. “But enough about my love life, or recent lack thereof. What about you?”

She blinked. “What about me?”

He smirked. “I’ve seen how Dearka Elsman looks at you, and one way in which you differ from me is that you’re almost incapable of hiding your feelings. Are you going to tell me the interest isn’t reciprocated?”

Andrea blushed. “Wha… what are you talking about?”

“Oh, come on.” Alex nodded at the window. The Cousteau was visible outside. “I haven’t had much chance to talk to you, but Lia tells me you’ve been chattering about him like mad for at least two weeks. I know perfectly well what that means.”

She glared at him. “Alex, you’re reading too much into things here.”

“Then there’s what you did when those choppers attacked the Buster,” he continued, ignoring the retort. “Something like a dozen helicopters in thirty seconds flat. And I heard you over the comm, too. Sis, you were mad.”

“Alex, I’ve only known him for a month,” Andrea said, trying another tack.

He raised his eyebrows. “And that matters how? What about Cagalli and me, or Flay and Kira? Especially Flay and Kira; it took them all of three weeks.”

“Oh, you’re terrible!” They laughed together. Alex was feeling better and better about the current mission. He was looking forward to having it out with the Earth Forces brass. Assuming he could keep from punching the base commander in the face, at least.