Chapter 32: Rau Le Creuset Unmasked

Mendel nearspace, 11 July, C.E. 71

Though the Earth Forces had pulled back, and Neo ZAFT seemed to be as well, Andrea was still worried. Her brother Alex had accompanied Mu La Flaga, Kira Yamato, and Athrun Zala into the colony, and nothing had been heard since. It had not been exceptionally long, but since they had gone in pursuit of Rau Le Creuset, she could not help worrying.

“Worrying about your brother?” Dearka asked, the Buster appearing to her left.

Andrea nodded. “Yeah.”

He smiled. “Andrea, I’ve fought against him. Trust me, he’s not going down that easily.”

She forced her muscles to unknot. “Yeah. Yes, you’re right.” She snapped her Trikeros up, vaporizing an enemy GuAIZ that got too close, then keyed her comm. “Archangel, Valkyrie, any word on the others?”

“Nothing yet, sorry,” Lia said.

“We haven’t heard anything either,” Murrue said, sounding tense. No surprise; her relationship with Mu was well known, and she saw both of the twins as younger siblings.

“Don’t start panicking yet,” Yzak put in. “They’re our best pilots, and both Alex and Athrun are crack shots. Le Creuset isn’t going to take all four of them by himself.”

Andrea nodded again. She knew her cousin was right, but she was still worried. Rau Le Creuset was quite possibly the greatest soldier ZAFT had ever known; awarded the Order of the Nebula after the Battle of Yggdrasil, hero of the Grimaldi Front, commander of an elite unit, skilled pilot in his own right…

She clenched her hands on the Specter’s control bars. If you hurt my brother, Le Creuset, I will kill you myself.

Archangel, bridge

Murrue leaned back in her command chair, rubbing her eyes wearily. “At least we have a chance to catch our breath,” she said.

“Duel, Buster, Blitz, and Aegis have returned to the ship, Captain,” Mir said. “Deck crew is commencing resupply.”

“Understood,” Murrue replied. “Make sure the pilots get some food and rest while they can.” She looked up at Flay. “Any word from the colony interior?”

Flay shook her head, her face pale and drawn. “No, ma’am. Nothing from any of them.” She swallowed hard. “According to Commander La Flaga’s last transmission, it was definitely the Providence, though, so it must be Commander Le Creuset in there.”

Murrue frowned. “Are you all right, Flay? You sound like you’re worried about more than Le Creuset.”

The redhead nodded. “According to Alex, the only logical place for Le Creuset to go is the GARM facility, where Kira and Cagalli were born.”

“And you’re afraid Kira will learn something he doesn’t want to hear,” Murrue said.

“Yeah,” Flay admitted.

Miriallia smiled at her friend. “Don’t worry so much, Flay. Kira already knows about his origins, and even if he does hear something new, he is not alone there. You can bet Athrun will back him up.”

“Don’t forget Alex,” Sai added. “The only time I’ve ever seen him lose his cool was when Captain Badgiruel took Lacus hostage. He’s got ice water in his veins.”

“Commander La Flaga won’t let Le Creuset get away with anything,” Neumann said.

Flay turned back to her board, feeling marginally reassured. Kira, my love, be careful in there. Please, come back safe.

Mendel colony interior, GARM facility

It was a strange tableau. The enigmatic Rau Le Creuset stood in the open, gun in hand but pointed at the floor, a slight smile on his face. Alex Strassmeier stood directly opposite, face unreadable as usual, his heirloom Luger held in a rock-steady grip, aimed directly at Le Creuset. Mu La Flaga also had his weapon aimed at the masked man; he looked angry. Athrun Zala stood protectively in front of his friend Kira Yamato, weapon ready but not actually aimed.

“This place is a forbidden temple,” Le Creuset said. “A monument to the twisted dreams of people who thought they could play god.”

“Save the melodrama, Le Creuset,” Alex said coldly, his trigger finger tightening very slightly. “We’re not the kind of people who can be impressed by theatrics.”

Le Creuset shook his head pityingly. “You never did appreciate the theater, did you? Very well.” He looked at Kira. “You know of your origins, of course, presumably thanks to Chief Representative Athha.”

“So what?” Kira glared at him.

Le Creuset smiled. “Did Lord Uzumi tell you everything? Did he tell you how many were sacrificed prior to your birth?” He waved at the long-dead embryos. “A great many of your siblings perished before you, the one success, were born.”

Kira’s eyes went wide. “No…I didn’t…”

Athrun gripped his friend’s shoulder with his free hand. “Kira, it’s not your fault,” he said firmly. “You’re not responsible for what happened.”

“He’s right,” Alex said, not taking his eyes off Le Creuset. “Is there a point to that, Le Creuset? That’s like blaming Athrun for his father’s plans for genocide.”

Mu found his voice. “What does my father have to do with this?” he demanded. “He died a long time ago.”

“Ah, now we come to the crux of the matter,” the other said. “Your father, Al Da Flaga, was a major source of funding for Doctor Hibiki’s experiments. One could say you’re young Kira’s godfather.”

“Word games,” Alex said, his poker face slipping just enough for a hint of contempt to show through. “Enough of the riddles, Le Creuset. If you have something to say, then say it, and stop wasting our time. We have a war to fight.”

“All in suitable time.” Le Creuset gestured expansively with his free arm. ” ‘Today my secret shall be revealed. I did not come into this world through natural birth.’ George Glenn was the first Coordinator whom humanity knew.”

Athrun snorted. “Everyone knows what happened to him.”

His former CO gave him an approving nod. “Exactly my point; it’s good to see you still have your quick mind. Yes, it ultimately led to his death, and far more. I wonder if he ever fathomed what kind of darkness, he unleashed with that one announcement.”

“So, you’re blaming George Glenn for the actions of a few psychopaths?” Alex did not bother to conceal his skepticism. “Blue Cosmos started out as an environmentalist group; they’d have been crazy even if Glenn hadn’t spoken out.”

“Perhaps so,” Le Creuset conceded. “Nevertheless, even those who don’t support Blue Cosmos are often uncomfortable with our kind.” He waved a hand. “Oh, I admit it’s not always the case; even Patrick Zala never accused Mu of such prejudice.” He nodded politely at the Hawk.

Mu glared at him. “Just what are you getting at?”

“Hatred feeds on hatred,” Le Creuset said. “Coordinators see Naturals as vermin, Naturals view Coordinators with a mixture of envy and disgust. That cycle has no end, but it certainly had a beginning. And Ulen Hibiki’s work only made things worse.”

“Watch it, Commander,” Athrun said, his voice unusually soft. “It’s not Kira’s fault people want to kill him.”

Le Creuset laughed. “Oh?” He looked at Kira. “The dream of humanity, the ultimate Coordinator. Why wouldn’t people, even other Coordinators, see you as a threat?”

“I don’t see him as a threat,” Athrun snarled. “He’s my friend, no matter how he was created.”

“Ah, but you have a long-standing connection to him,” Le Creuset said. “Your bond is such that even learning of his origins was unlikely to separate you. Do you really think others would react the same?”

Neither Athrun nor Kira answered. Alex, however, was unaffected. “The same could be said of the basic conflict between Naturals and Coordinators. Orb is proof that there can be peace.”

“And yet Orb was invaded,” Le Creuset said. “Besides, isn’t one of the Five Noble Families opposed to Coordinators?”

“Unato Ema Seiran is a traitor, and his son is a fool,” Alex countered. “Orb has always been a refuge for our kind, and you know it.”

Le Creuset smirked. “No longer now that Orb is a protectorate of the Atlantic Federation. It was inevitable, you know.” He shook his head. “Lord Uzumi should never have adopted one of Hibiki’s progeny; all it did was put Orb in greater danger.”

“You’re really losing it,” Mu said with a snort. “There’s no way the Earth Forces know what she is.”

“Even if they don’t know, there’s the trivial matter of her engagement to Commander Strassmeier here,” Le Creuset said. “It’s common knowledge that he is related to Ezalia Joule; hardly something to make the Alliance feel at ease.”

Alex’s eyes flashed. “Uzumi has never cared about making the Alliance feel at ease.”

“But you are a byproduct of the same project that produced Kira, are you not?” Le Creuset smiled at his brief look of surprise. “Oh, yes, I know all about your father’s participation. So, how does it feel to know that he used you in an experiment?”

Alex gritted his teeth, though his aim never wavered. “That’s none of your business.”

“As you wish.” Le Creuset’s smile turned faintly mocking. “People try to play god, and the result is chaos. Nothing ever changes.”

He is rambling, Alex thought in amazement. Rau Le Creuset is rambling. Never thought I would see that happen.

Dominion, bridge

“It seems things are tougher than we thought,” Muruta Azrael commented.

Captain Sutherland grimaced. “That’s putting it mildly, Director. The Spider of Artemis, the traitorous Hawk of Endymion, and Rau Le Creuset in one place. A recipe for disaster if there ever was one.”

“Not to mention Yamato and Zala did a number on our new GAT-X models,” Azrael agreed. “A pity about La Flaga, though; he really was the hero of the hour at Endymion. Maybe we’d have kept his loyalty if we’d promoted him a little faster.”

Sutherland shook his head. “He doesn’t care about rank, Director, and he positively hates being called a hero. We got all the use out of him that we could.”

“And he was always too kindly disposed towards Coordinators in any case,” Azrael agreed. “I guess it was inevitable.”

“As for Murrue Ramius, she’s a protégé of Admiral Halberton, another traitor,” Sutherland went on. “The real surprise is Badgiruel.” At his superior’s questioning look, he tapped his screen. “She comes from an old military family, Director. I find it hard to believe someone like that would turn traitor.”

Azrael raised an eyebrow. “You think maybe she’s just pretending to be loyal to them, trying to take them from within?”

“Unfortunately, no.” Sutherland shook his head again. “Not everything they said at Alaska was a lie, Director; I could tell that her support for that space monster Yamato was completely genuine.”

“Oh, well.” Azrael shrugged. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and if victory means losing someone with Badgiruel’s ability, old military family or not, so be it.”

Sutherland nodded. “In any case, I believe we should make Strassmeier a priority target, as well.”

Azrael looked at him questioningly. “Why him? I’m not criticizing, simply curious about your reasoning.”

The captain began ticking off points. “First of all, he is without a doubt one of ZAFT’s best strategists; rumor has it he is being called the next Rau Le Creuset, and the Artemis fiasco certainly bears that out. Secondly, his mobile suit is vastly superior to anything we have, and he is fiendishly good with it; there is a reason our people are calling him the Silver Death. And finally, his engagement to the princess,” here he grimaced in obvious distaste, “has given both ZAFT and the Orb exiles a considerable morale boost; neutralize him, and there should be a corresponding drop.”

“Not to mention hurting the princess herself, and thus degrading her skill,” Azrael said thoughtfully. Not an insignificant point; the Akatsuki was an enormously powerful unit, and Cagalli Yula Athha fought like a demon. “All right. We’ll probably have to swarm him with mobile suits; few of our pilots are up to his level, or so I judge by the way he took the Moonlight Mad Dog apart.”

Sutherland grunted. “Unfortunately, I will not be at all surprised if Chevalier turns his coat. He was never comfortable with Alliance policy.”

“Um.” Azrael winced. “Good point. We’ll have to make sure he doesn’t come back alive, then.” He turned to look out the forward viewport. “Just a little longer…”

Valkyrie, cafeteria

Cagalli chewed her food without really tasting it. The pitched battle outside the Mendel colony had been rough, but generally successful; both the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT had been forced to pull back. Nevertheless, they were not yet out of danger, particularly since their top pilots had gone chasing Rau Le Creuset.

She swallowed, looking out at the abandoned colony. It looked so peaceful, but Cagalli knew it was anything but. Her fiancé and her beloved brother had gone in there in pursuit of a madman. And that’s where Kira and I were born, she thought.

“Worried about Alex?” Lia asked, sitting down opposite the princess.

Cagalli sighed. “Yeah. I mean, I know he’s good at what he does, but there’s so much about that place that we don’t know…”

Lia smiled. “Cagalli, I’ve known Alex Strassmeier nearly all my life. Trust me, there’s nothing in GARM that would faze him in the least.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right…” Cagalli sighed.

Lia just watched her for a moment. She loves him so much that she cannot help worrying, even when he has the upper hand.

“So,” she said at last, deciding a change of subject was in order. “You two set a date yet?”

Cagalli smiled, grateful for the change. “We’re thinking next year, late May or early June. Assuming we get out alive, of course.”

“Cagalli, you’re both too stubborn to die for the Earth Forces’ convenience,” Lia said. “You’ll make it.” She sipped her drink. “Have you decided anything else?”

The princess shook her head, smiling. “I see why Alex is so fond of you.” She shrugged. “We’ll actually have two homes, Alex’s in the PLANTs, and the Athha residence in Orb, so it’ll be a little crazy.”

Lia laughed. “Yeah, I can imagine.” She looked her friend in the eye. “Do you have any regrets about this?”

Cagalli shook her head again, firmly this time. “None. I don’t even care that our engagement was timed in order to beef up morale; like my father said, it would have happened eventually anyway.”

“That’s what I thought.” Lia nodded. “Don’t worry, your husband-to-be will come back alive.”

Cagalli nodded. “I know.”

GARM facility

“I don’t see what this has to do with anything,” Alex said, glaring at Le Creuset over the sights of his weapon. “Ulen Hibiki is dead, Al Da Flaga is dead, my father is dead, Mikhail Coast is now with ZAFT –I’m amazed he didn’t join Zala’s faction- it’s all long over.”

“Are you sure, Commander?” Le Creuset asked. “You yourself spent years searching for Kira and his sister, ever since your father died. How do you know it isn’t over?”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “Now that I’ve found them, the matter has been brought to a close.”

“Not quite,” the other said, looking at Mu. “Aren’t you curious as to why your father would have funded Hibiki’s research?”

“Who cares!?” Mu snarled. “My father always thought I was a weakling; why should I care who he was funding?”

Le Creuset laughed. “Exactly the point! We met once before, Mu, long, long ago, before we ever met on the battlefield.”

“Just what are you saying!?” Kira snapped, having regained his equilibrium.

“You and I have much in common, Kira,” Le Creuset told him. “Both created to serve another’s selfish ends, both accomplished warriors…both feared by others.”

“Shut up!” Kira yelled, shaking. “I’m nothing like you! Sure, I’ve fought, but only to protect people important to me!”

“Like your Natural lover?” The masked man chuckled at Kira’s expression. “Oh, yes, I know all about that. Difficult to conceal, given whose daughter she is.”

Athrun’s gun snapped into position. “That was a low blow, Commander,” he hissed angrily. “Kira’s been through enough; he doesn’t need you adding to it.”

Le Creuset ignored him. “Al Da Flaga hated the thought of Mu as his heir; the thought of someone like that inheriting all that wealth turned his stomach. That is why he turned to Doctor Hibiki, quite possibly the most brilliant geneticist of our time.”

“Or the most insane,” Alex countered. “Anyone who would use his own son in an experiment like that.”

“Insanity and brilliance are frequently two sides of the same coin,” Le Creuset said. “I have no doubt that in his own twisted way he had Kira’s best interests in mind, and Kira does seem to have turned out well, given the circumstances. How long that lasts remains to be seen.”

Despite being artificial, Alex’s knuckles were white as he gripped his pistol. “Why don’t you get to the point,” he suggested, “before I decide to do what I swore to do after Heliopolis.”

“All in good time.” Le Creuset gestured once again at their surroundings. “It was here that Al Da Flaga made his attempt to cheat that which he most feared.” He was starting to sound more than a little unstable. Suddenly, he grinned. “I am he, that arrogant fool, who thought he could thwart death itself with his money. Al Da Flaga, your father, but I am merely that man’s defective clone!”

Mu stared in disbelief. “My dad’s clone!? Do you really expect anyone to believe that fairy tale!?”

“I don’t want to believe it either! Unfortunately, it’s true!” Le Creuset was definitely sounding mad now.

Alex had been watching him closely, so he knew exactly when and where to dive when his opponent started shooting. “You’re even crazier than Bartlett, and that’s saying a lot,” he said, returning fire and missing.

“With each step, humanity moves farther along the road to oblivion!” Le Creuset said, firing repeatedly. “No matter what we do, no matter what we learn, nothing ever changes! People are amazing that way!” His voice was actually starting to quaver.

“Bastard! What gives you the right to sound so superior!?” Mu demanded, then grunted in pain as a bullet grazed his shoulder.

“I am the only one who’s earned that right!” Le Creuset cried. “In all the universe, I alone have the right to judge all humanity!”

Alex cursed as his gun jammed. Unfortunately, Lugers were notorious for that. “Now who’s playing god?” he muttered.

Kira abruptly sprinted from cover, firing as he came. “No! It will not happen! I won’t let you!” Le Creuset fired back, gashing Kira’s flight suit, and knocking him off balance but doing no real damage. Kira missed all but one shot, grazing the side of Le Creuset’s head and tearing the mask from his face.

The four of them froze, staring in disbelief. Rau Le Creuset’s face was indeed that of a young Al Da Flaga, a blue-eyed face, framed by his long blonde hair. After seeing the photo of Mu riding his father’s shoulders, though, the crazed look seemed very out of place.

“Commander,” Athrun whispered.

“Do you really think you can stop this!?” Le Creuset demanded. “No one can do anything about it, for the whirlpool of hatred is engulfing the universe!” He turned and sprinted away; Alex, the only one with a clear line of fire, was unable to intervene with his jammed gun.

Kira moved to Mu’s side. “Can you stand?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Mu said. “He just grazed me.” He looked at Athrun. “You, okay?”

Athrun nodded. “Just startled. I knew there was something strange about him, but this is unexpectedly.”

“Save it for later,” Alex said. “We have to get back to the fleet.” He gave the room one last look. “There’s nothing for us here.”

Together, the four left GARM behind them.

Archangel, bridge

“Captain, it looks like at least some of the Earth Forces ships have effected repairs,” Tonomura said. “They’re closing; Neo ZAFT also appears to be moving in.”

“Captain, I have the Strike, Freedom, Justice, and Anubis on scanners,” Mir said. “All machines undamaged.”

Murrue sighed with relief. “That’s good to hear. Any word from them?”

The answer came from the bridge speakers. “We had Le Creuset cornered, but he got away,” Mu said. “He grazed me, but it’s nothing major. I’m still in action.”

Murrue swallowed. “Please, Mu, be careful.”

Though all she could see were his eyes, she could tell he was smiling. “Don’t worry, Murrue. I’ll be fine.”

Izumo, bridge

Rondo Mina Sahaku sat in the chair once occupied by her late brother. His death at the hands of Cagalli Yula Athha, though upsetting, had also forced her to reexamine her own actions and beliefs, and that had led her to certain decisions.

I do not know if I can ever forgive her, she thought, but we do not dare act as enemies now. Too much is at stake.

“Lady Sahaku, both the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT are moving to engage the Orb and ZAFT units,” her XO said. “What are your orders?”

Mina sighed. “We have no choice. The Earth Alliance will suck Orb dry if we do not do something, and Patrick Zala is a threat to everyone. We assist our countrymen.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She looked at her private screen. “You know what to do.”

A man in a jade green flight suit, his helmet visor opaque, nodded. “I know, Mina. You can count on me. Besides,” here there was a note of humor, “it’ll be funny to see how they react afterwards.”

Mina could not help grinning. “I’m sure it will.” The image winked out, and she turned back to the main viewer. “Engage the enemy.”

Mendel nearspace

Alex blasted another Strike Dagger to pieces, then swung his Shirasaya through an unfortunate 105. “Come into my web!”

He was joined by the Golden Gundam, its beam rifle flashing. “Take that!” Cagalli snarled.

The return of the four Gundams had provided a much-needed morale boost. With both of their adversaries moving in, both ZAFT and the Orb exiles knew they were in for a nasty fight. Freedom and Justice were an especially welcome sight.

“Alex, you, okay?” Yzak asked, bringing the Duel up alongside the Anubis.

Alex blasted an enemy GuAIZ before replying. “I’m fine. Get this: It seems your old CO is a clone of Mu’s father.”

“WHAT!?” Stunned, Yzak almost missed the Duel Dagger bearing down on him. He sliced it in half. “Are you SERIOUS!?”

“You heard right, Yzak,” Athrun put in, stabbing a CGUE with his saber. “We even saw him without his mask. He looks younger, but there’s no doubt about it.”

“A defective clone,” Mu added, his gunbarrels spitting emerald death. “He ages too quickly, shortened telomeres. It drove him insane.”

Yzak shook his head, trying to clear it. “So, what does he want?”

“To bring the entire world down with him,” Mu said simply.

Then they hit the main enemy force, and there was no more time for talk. The Earth Forces reached them first, led by the three new GAT-X machines. Kira and Athrun squared off against Forbidden and Raider, while Dearka found himself exchanging fire with the Calamity.

“Annihilate!” Clotho Buer shouted, swinging the Mjollnir at the Freedom.

Kira grimaced, dodging at the last instant. “What is wrong with this freak anyway?” he wondered. Drawing a saber, he chopped down on the Raider’s shield.

Nearby, Athrun dueled with the Forbidden, his double saber against Shani’s scythe. To the Alliance pilot’s fury, Athrun was pushing the pace, wheeling, and dodging the clumsy scythe strokes while at the same time forcing the Forbidden back.

Alex and Yzak fought as a team, combining Yzak’s ferocity with Alex’s coldly precise marksmanship. Like with Kira and Athrun, anything one missed the other was likely to hit; a Strike Dagger somehow evaded the Anubis’s DRAGOON spiderweb, only to receive a railgun slug dead center.

“Die, Earth scum!” Yzak snarled, firing all his ranged weapons at once. The hurricane of beams, missiles, and solid slugs reduced an entire squad of Daggers to useless junk.

Alex sighed, watching a Duel Dagger evaporate under his DRAGOON assault. “Idiots. What can you hope to gain from this?” He prepared to fire again, but his machine was struck from the side. “What the!?” Then he saw what had collided with him. “You again.”

The blood red Deathdealer Gundam hung in space before him. “Ready for a rematch, Strassmeier?” Bartlett taunted.

Alex’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Get out of the way, Bartlett. I don’t have time for you.”

“But it’ll be fun,” the other protested. He was definitely sounding unstable, though not to the same extent as Le Creuset. “Come on, traitor!”

“So be it,” Alex said, snapping his sabers together.

“I’m with you, Alex!” Yzak called. He glared at the Deathdealer. “I’ve had it with you, Bartlett!”

Bartlett laughed. “I can tell where your loyalties lie, Joule. You were always an idiot.” With that, he fired a blast from his beam cannons.

Which promptly bounced off the Akatsuki, Cagalli having gotten in the way at the last instant. “Not this time, bastard!”

That gave the Neo ZAFT pilot pause. He was well aware of the Akatsuki’s mirror coating, and while he also knew its weaknesses, exploiting them against a pilot of Cagalli’s skill would be difficult. Far from impossible, though.

I will teach this spoiled brat a lesson, he thought viciously.

Eternal, bridge

“So, Bartlett’s back,” Waltfeld said.

DaCosta nodded. “We’ve identified his machine as ZGMF-X15A Deathdealer, a unit that was in the planning stages, but never actually built.”

The Tiger grunted. “Looks like Zala’s people decided to build it,” he said. “Well, with Alex, Yzak, and Cagalli so close, there’s not much we can do.” He looked over his shoulder. “Sound okay to you?”

Lacus Clyne nodded. “Yes. Alex in particular is an exceptional pilot; with Yzak and Cagalli backing him, he should be all right.” She looked at Aisha. “What about Kira and Athrun?”

“They’re fighting two of the Earth Forces’ GAT-X machines,” the older woman said. “Kira’s fighting the Raider, and Athrun is battling the Forbidden.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” Waltfeld said. “Kira and Athrun are the best we have, and those thugs make Bartlett look calm and collected. They’ll be fine.” He turned his attention to Aisha. “What about the Calamity?”

“Dearka’s handling that,” she said. “The Calamity might be a superior machine, but Dearka is definitely a better pilot.”

DaCosta, meanwhile, was frowning at his monitor. There was something very odd, but he was not sure what. A heat signature was barely visible, far away from the combat zone. What is that? he wondered. It looked like a ship, but it was too far away to be sure.

Then it hit him. “Commander, I have the Izumo on thermal.”

Waltfeld straightened. “The Izumo? What is Sahaku doing here?” He knew that with Ghina dead, his twin sister Mina was in charge. Since it had been Cagalli who killed Ghina, Mina’s reaction was unpredictable.

“Commander, we’re being hailed by the Izumo,” the comm officer said. “It’s Lady Sahaku.”

Waltfeld shrugged. “Put her on.”

A dark-haired woman appeared on the main viewer. “Greetings, Commander Waltfeld,” she said. “And Miss Clyne.”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but what exactly are you doing here?” Waltfeld said bluntly. “Your family supports the Earth Forces, and everyone knows about your rivalry with the Athhas.”

Sahaku shrugged. “We were using the Earth Alliance for our own ends, as you probably deduced. However, after my brother’s death I found myself reexamining our goals, and I did not like what I saw. As for the Athhas, rivalries have no place here. The Earth Alliance and Neo ZAFT threaten us all, so we are here to offer our assistance.”

Waltfeld thought for a moment, then nodded. “All right. You are from Orb, so you are more Uzumi’s problem; I will make sure your people are tagged as friendly. Watch out for Alex, though; he’s not an enthusiastic fan of your family.”

Sahaku smiled. “Thank you. As for Commander Strassmeier, let us just say I have a way of cooling him down.” She saluted, and the image winked out.

“A way to cool Alex down, huh?” Aisha commented. “It’ll have to be a doozy, given his opinion of the Sahakus.”

“Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it,” Waltfeld said.

Mendel nearspace

Alex gasped for breath. Even with him, Cagalli, and Yzak together, Bartlett had proved more of a handful than he had expected. The three of them had just barely been able to drive him off, and he had been laughing all the while.

“Man, what’s with that guy?” Yzak wondered. “Talk about going off the deep end.”

“I wish I knew, Yzak,” Alex said. “He’s always been vindictive, but this is over the top even for him.”

“You guys are about to get some help,” Waltfeld’s voice cut in.

The three exchanged puzzled glances. “What kind of help?” Alex asked. “Neo ZAFT is pulling back; all that’s left are some Earth Forces cannon fodder.”

“And those three G-weapons,” Waltfeld pointed out. “Anyway, Rondo Mina Sahaku offered to lend a hand.”

“Sahaku!?” Cagalli demanded incredulously. Alex and Yzak both winced at the volume. “Since when does she care!?”

Waltfeld chuckled humorlessly. “She says that she reexamined her goals after you killed her brother and didn’t like what she saw.”

Cagalli did not answer right away. “All right,” she said at last. “I’ll let it go for now. What kind of help is she sending?”

Another chuckle. “A single M1.”

“A single M1!?” Yzak repeated. “Is Sahaku insane!?”

“No, Yzak,” Alex said softly. “She isn’t.”

Yzak and Cagalli turned and spotted what Alex had already seen. A single MBF-M1 Astray, jade green in color, was tearing into a group of Earth Forces mobile suits. Despite the fact that at least three of them were the more advanced 105 Daggers, the mysterious Astray pilot went through them like a buzz saw. Pieces of mobile suits flew everywhere; at least one Buster Dagger was actually liquefied.

The Earth Forces pilots were not taking it lying down, of course. After the initial shock, they managed to at least start returning fire. Unfortunately for them, the Astray always managed to be elsewhere, sometimes at the last instant. More debris spewed in all directions.

Who is this guy, anyway!? Alex thought in disbelief. The only person I know of who can pull those stunts in an M1 is…well, me.

Yzak whistled in admiration. “This guy’s good.”

“You can say that again,” Cagalli agreed. “Whoever this guy is, he’s no rookie.”

Even the druggies were jolted. “Who is this guy!?” Orga demanded.

“He’s not human!” Clotho said in shock. “Nobody can do that in a grunt suit!” Shani, a man of few words, just stared.

Then, though it had not seemed possible, it got even worse. The stranger was no Kira Yamato or Athrun Zala, but he was still an extremely dangerous individual. Yet more pieces of Daggers exploded in many directions, along with half of a hapless Neo ZAFT CGUE.

“Thorough, isn’t he?” Alex commented a few minutes later.

Orbital dock, December City, PLANTs, 14 July, C.E. 71

Following the Battle of Mendel, the Izumo was escorted to the PLANTs by the Archangel and the Valkyrie. Though they were grateful for Mina’s assistance, they were also wary. The Sahaku family had a well-earned reputation for scheming, so the allies could not afford to take everything at face value.

A fairly large group watched the Sahaku ship slide into the dock. Lord Uzumi stood flanked by Alex and Cagalli, the former expressionless as usual, the latter visibly tense. Also present were Siegel Clyne and his daughter Lacus, both Captains Ramius and Natarle Badgiruel, Lewis Halberton, Kira Yamato, and Athrun Zala, as well as Ezalia and Yzak Joule. Alex’s sister Andrea stood with Dearka Elsman and Nicol Amalfi. Andrew Waltfeld and Aisha completed the gathering.

The hatch opened, and Rondo Mina Sahaku stepped out, a man in a jade green flight suit a half step behind her.

That has to be the Astray pilot, Alex thought.

“Lady Sahaku,” Clyne greeted. “I’m sure you realize that this is very unexpected.”

The rogue Orb noble smiled. “Think nothing of it, Your Excellency. It’s unexpected for me, as well.” She looked at Alex. “And for him, I’m sure. Tell me, Commander, did you ever expect to receive aid from a Sahaku?”

In one smooth motion, Alex took a long step forward, drew his Luger, and leveled it at the bridge of her nose. “Aid from someone who betrayed her country. Hardly. You seem to be a compulsive turncoat, Lady Sahaku.”

To his considerable surprise, Mina did not even twitch. “Do you think so, Commander?”

Alex snorted. “You allied with the Earth Forces, and I have no doubt the same motive holds true for your actions at Mendel.” He gave her a brief nod. “I am impressed, though. Most people who found themselves looking down the barrel of my pistol would be shaking about now.”

Mina merely smiled and gestured down and to Alex’s left.

Alex frowned slightly, followed her gaze, and froze. While they had been speaking, the M1 pilot had somehow gotten around without anyone noticing and was now holding a knife bare millimeters from Alex’s carotid artery.

“Why the fear in your eyes, Cousin?” the stranger asked, ignoring the stares from just about everyone else in the room. “That’s not like you.”

“Congratulations,” Alex said. “Not many have ever gotten the drop on me like that.” He raised an eyebrow, noting the other’s opaque visor. “Now, why did you just call me cousin?”

The stranger stepped back. “I’m surprised you of all people had to ask that,” he said, removing his helmet.

Alex went rigid, eyes widening in shock. The pilot had silver hair, cut shorter than Yzak’s but unmistakably similar, and ice-blue eyes. His face bore a strong resemblance to Yzak, though less angular than Alex.

“Samorei,” Yzak breathed.

Cagalli’s eyes widened. “Alex, that’s your older cousin? But you said he died at Junius Seven.”

“I thought he had,” Alex said, regaining his composure. “Come to think of it, his machine was never found, so he was declared MIA.” He holstered his pistol. “Presumably, it underwent an uncontrolled atmospheric reentry, and wound up in Orb. Am I right, Cousin?”

Samorei nodded. “That’s right. Mina took me in,” he said, nodding at her. “So, you can see why I didn’t appreciate you pointing a gun at her.”

“Yes. Yes, I can.” Alex stepped forward, and his left hand moved like a striking snake, catching Sam in the jaw, and laying him out flat.

“Samorei!” Mina called.

Sam held up a hand. “It’s all right! I deserved that.” He got to his feet. “I can tell why he did it.”

Alex shot Mina a brief glance. More to that relationship than meets the eye. “That’s right,” he said aloud, gesturing at Ezalia and Yzak. “You let your family believe you dead, Sam. Can you even imagine the kind of pain you put them through?”

His cousin winced. Alex had not raised his voice, but Sam knew him well enough to hear the considerable anger. “It’s a long story, and this really isn’t the place for it,” he said.

“So, you never told them!?” Andrea said incredulously. “Even after I saw you in Orb!?”

Alex wheeled on his sister. “You knew!?”

She nodded. “I met up with him just after Lord Uzumi took me in,” she said. “I thought you already knew he was alive; that’s why I didn’t say anything. Although,” she added thoughtfully, “I did wonder why he started wearing some freaky disguise.”

“Indeed.” Alex nodded slowly. “I suggest we take this home, so to speak.”

“I agree,” Uzumi said, speaking for the first time. “Lady Sahaku, though your actions were treacherous, I am willing to accept your renewed allegiance…provided you behave yourself.”

Mina bowed. “Of course, Lord Uzumi. I quite understand. And since Sam’s cousin is engaged to your daughter, I have some, call it added incentive.”

The Joules were already moving toward the exit; as this was a family matter, Cagalli had discretely stayed behind, chatting with her brother. She was glad to stay in any case; much as she loved Alex, she knew perfectly well that this particular family reunion was not going to be all sweetness and light.