Chapter 5: Complications

Archangel, brig, 4 February, C.E. 71

Mikhail Coast glanced up as the brig hatch slid open. “Hello, Alex.”

“Doctor,” Alex said simply, folding his arms and leaning against a bulkhead facing the cell.

For several minutes, the two Coordinators regarded each other in silence. They had a history, more so than Alex had yet admitted. The prosthetic arm he wore was just the tip of the iceberg, for Coast was in fact a colleague of Alex’s father. He had worked for a time in the genetic research facility in the Mendel colony, before returning to the PLANTs and setting up a small private practice.

The last time they had met face to face was two weeks after the Mandelbrot Incident. Upon learning of his father’s involvement with Hibiki, Alex had visited Coast in search of information. Although he detested the man, Alex had known full well that Coast was his best lead, possibly his only one.

Coast had not been informative. He had said frankly that Ulen Hibiki was the only Natural who had ever earned his respect but had given little detail. He had warned Alex to stay away from Mendel, the heart of the Ultimate Coordinator project, because of the bio-contaminants. When asked why he was being so concerned, Coast had replied that he had put a lot of effort into Alex’s well-being, and did not want to see it wasted; besides which, he hated the thought of more Coordinator deaths, citing their low birthrate.

That was typical. Mikhail Coast only cared about people in the abstract, seeing them primarily as bits of data. He was utterly merciless on the battlefield, leading some Earth Forces pilots to nickname him “Doctor Death”. This proved particularly appropriate in C.E. 70. In that year, Coast, along with future Le Creuset team member Miguel Aiman, had between them destroyed over fifty Moebius mobile armors and three warships while escorting the East Asian resource satellite Nova to the PLANTs. There, it was transformed into the military fortress Boaz, one of two bases guarding the Coordinator homeland.

Coast had not stayed, preferring the front lines, where he could continue to destroy Naturals, which he regarded as a disease. (That attitude had on more than one occasion caused Yzak to snort in disgust. He had his problems with Naturals, but, like anyone else familiar with Mu La Flaga’s exploits, considered such notions both stupid and dangerous.)

“I admit I was surprised to find you out here,” Coast said at last. “Oh, once I saw your mobile suit, I realized who had to be piloting it, but the notion of you helping the Earth Forces seems a bit out of character.”

Alex snorted. “That was before Rau Le Creuset launched an unprovoked attack on a neutral space colony,” he replied.

“Unprovoked?” Coast smiled thinly. “Really, Alex, the fact that Morgenroete was building mobile suits for the Earth Forces was all the provocation necessary. They did violate their own neutrality, after all.”

The younger man rolled his eyes. “Don’t be absurd. You know as well as I do there was not the slightest possibility the Orb government was involved in that. It was Rondo Ghina Sahaku, possibly with the assistance of the Seiran family, who gave the use of the Morgenroete facilities at Heliopolis. In any case, Le Creuset’s decision to use bunker busters there was illegal, though I’d be willing to bet he lied to the Council about the colony’s collapse.”

Coast chuckled. “Be that as it may, the Naturals got what they deserved.”

“Your contempt for Naturals is one of many reasons I despise you, Doctor,” Alex said coldly. He took a step forward, his cold blue eyes hard as gemstones. “Like Patrick Zala, you forget that the Naturals are responsible for our very existence. And I seem to recall that you actually respected the late Doctor Hibiki.”

The doctor shrugged. “Hibiki was the exception that proves the rule.” He smiled thinly. “Speaking of whom, how has your search been going?”

“It hasn’t been going at all,” Alex said, more than a little disgusted. “I’ve been busy trying to find a way to stop Patrick Zala from wiping out the Naturals. All I know is that there was a single survivor of the artificial womb, that he has a Natural twin sister, and that they’re both still alive.”

“Actually, there was another Ultimate Coordinator,” the white-haired ZAFT pilot corrected. “Seized by the Eurasians fifteen years ago. I don’t know his name, but I do know he considers himself a failure.” He shook his head. “If he even survived, he’s no failure.” Coast stood and faced Alex directly. “By the way, you should keep in mind that the girl’s genetic profile is uncertain; I don’t know whether she’s Natural or Coordinator, and neither did your father.”

Alex digested that. “I see. It looks like I will have to check Mendel itself. Don’t bother reminding me of the bio-contaminants,” he added. “By now, they’ll have run their course.” He started to leave, then turned back. “Why are you telling me this?”

Coast shrugged again. “Call it curiosity. I’d like to see just how far Hibiki’s project went.”

Alex was silent for a long moment. “So, would I,” he said, and was gone.

Archangel, bridge

“Talk about crazy,” Mu La Flaga said, shaking his head ruefully. “We solve one problem and pick up another in the form of a pink-haired princess. The endless challenges we face.” He gave a rakish salute. “A real treat, Captain.”

Murrue leaned back in her chair. “This after we meet a princess at Heliopolis,” she said, throwing an amused glance at her niece.

“Whatever you do, don’t call her a princess,” Lia warned. “I don’t think there’s anything she hates more.” She glanced briefly as Badgiruel. “Which reminds me, Cagalli asked that her identity not be revealed to anyone in the Earth Forces. She doesn’t want Orb involved in this any more than it already is.”

Badgiruel hesitated, then nodded. “I believe that would be the best course, Captain. Much as I dislike having to conceal information from the high command, in this case I believe we have no choice. She’s more Strassmeier’s problem than ours, anyway.”

“Speaking of Strassmeier and the princess,” Mu said, “what’s up with them? I thought she hated his guts.”

Lia chuckled. “They had an argument just after we left Heliopolis. From what Cagalli told me later, Alex got mad enough to spill his guts about his sister. She apologized, and now they’re friends.” She looked out the starboard viewport, watching her own ship cruise alongside. “A good thing, too.”

“What do you mean?” Murrue asked. “More than just the fact that she doesn’t think he’s a spy anymore, judging by your tone.”

Her niece sighed. “Alex may not show it, but this has been really hard on him. It is bad enough that his parents are dead and his sister’s missing, now he must fight his own cousin. He hasn’t been able to relax since he left the PLANTs, not even with Kyle and me.”

Mu settled into the copilot’s seat (Tolle was off duty). “Is there anybody besides that princess that can really get to him?”

Lia grimaced. “One: Yzak Joule. Not exactly an ideal situation since he’s one of the guys trying to blow us out of space.”

“And Kira’s got the same problem,” Mu said, shaking his head. “Who’d have thought Patrick Zala’s kid would be a good guy?”

“With all due respect, Lieutenant,” Badgiruel said, “we do not know whether this Athrun Zala is such a person; for all we know, he could be cut from the same cloth as his father. And even if he is not, he did lose his mother in the Bloody Valentine.”

“Losing a parent like that would affect anyone,” Mu countered. “And, for all that Kira’s a little naive, he’s not stupid. I can’t see him being best friends with a psychopath.”

Murrue nodded agreement. “Lieutenant La Flaga is right, Natarle. I saw Athrun’s face when he saw Kira. He looked both shocked and dismayed, and I do not for an instant believe it was feigned.”

She stood, clasping her hands behind her back. “I have long felt that Alliance policy toward Coordinators is wrongheaded at best. Even those Coordinators who are official members of our forces, like Jean Carrey, are distrusted, and that is simply wrong. It is both foolish and immoral to assume that every Coordinator is a ZAFT spy or some such.”

“High command doesn’t see all Coordinators as the enemy,” Badgiruel protested.

Mu shook his head. “You’re wrong there, Ensign. I have seen it, too. Admiral Halberton’s not that kind of guy, or so I have heard, but the Alaska brass are something else. I’ve met Carrey, for that matter, and there’s a reason his GINN is painted white.” His expression turned grim. “Part of it is to distinguish him from the enemy -he is piloting a GINN, after all- and part of it is to make him an easy target if he betrays us.”

“And all that makes me inclined to believe Alex’s story about his sister’s abduction,” Murrue said. “Something doesn’t smell right. I do not understand why our forces would have engaged in an outright kidnapping -and it was our forces, Natarle; it predated the formation of the Alliance- but, as you yourself have pointed out, such an act is inexcusable.”

Badgiruel shook her head. “I have difficulty believing that the high command was involved in such a thing. It’s more likely the perpetrators were rogues, and that’s if any Atlantic Federation personnel were involved at all.”

“And what about the Mandelbrot Incident?” Mu asked pointedly. “Whatever you think of the war, that was a crime by any standard.”

The ensign had to grant that point. She had still been in the Academy at the time of the incident and the subsequent blockade, and, while she felt (correctly) that cadets -and ensigns- had no business meddling in policy, she did have the vague impression that the blockade was the wrong way to go.

Badgiruel certainly had nothing against Coordinators in general. Loyalties aside, she had never believed the official story of the Copernicus bombing (she knew perfectly well ZAFT would not be that stupid); her problem with Kira was the fact that he was a juvenile civilian, and she was naturally suspicious of Alex, since he was related to Ezalia Joule.

“In any case, there’s no point in speculating right now,” Murrue said. “I’ll speak to Admiral Halberton when we reach the Eighth Fleet.”

And maybe then we will get some answers.

Archangel, corridor/cafeteria

Flay Allster drifted down the corridor. She was not sure what she was up to, but she knew it was more than just getting lunch. The things she had heard since coming aboard the Archangel, things about the very government her father served, had her more than a little confused.

Then there was the rescue of Lacus Clyne. Flay had been prepared to hate the Pink Princess, but the combination of Alex’s experiences, Kira’s repeated acts of bravery in protecting the ship, the sight of the remains of Junius Seven, and Lacus’s own personality had made that impossible.

What am I supposed to believe? she wondered. Is everything I have heard about Coordinators nothing more than a lie? Flay did not think her father had lied to her, but she could not help wondering if he was simply wrong.

She jumped at the sound of footsteps. Turning, she spotted a familiar hawk-faced figure walking down the corridor toward her. Alex’s presence made her nervous but learning the reason for his attitude had lessened the effect. So, after a brief internal debate, Flay approached him. “Alex?”

Alex stopped and looked at her curiously. “Something on your mind, Flay?” he asked in a surprisingly mild tone.

She hid a sigh of relief at his manner. “I wanted to ask you something.” The Coordinator nodded for her to go on. “What are people like in the PLANTs?”

He leaned against the bulkhead, folding his arms as he thought. “Pretty much the same as people on Earth. Oh, there are some differences; inevitable, given the environment.” Alex gave her a piercing look. “But that is not what you really want to know, is it? What you want to know is whether or not Naturals are hated there.”

Flay nodded. “Yeah. I mean, except for Orb, Coordinators aren’t exactly popular on Earth.”

“That is largely the product of simple ignorance. Blue Cosmos is something else, of course; though how preventing the genetic modification of humans is supposed to protect the environment is beyond me.” Alex shook his head. “Anyway, to answer your question, no, Naturals are not generally hated. There are quite a few of them in the Junius farming colonies, as it happens. As for ZAFT, only the really hardcore types actually hate Naturals.”

“Since they have Natural allies in Oceania and the African Community.”

Alex nodded. “Exactly. There are even a few Earth Forces officers whom many ZAFT soldiers would happily fight besides if they could be persuaded of the error of their ways. Admiral Halberton, for example, he is known to be sympathetic to Coordinators. Then there’s Lieutenant La Flaga. Most ZAFT soldiers -my cousin Yzak included- see him as a worthy opponent rather than some sort of monster.”

“What about Kira’s friend, Athrun?” Flay asked. “His mother died in the Bloody Valentine, and you’ve said that his father wants all Naturals dead…”

“Don’t confuse the father with the son,” Alex advised her. “He knows perfectly well that Kira is a first-generation Coordinator; in fact, though you’d have to ask Kira to be sure, I believe he’s met Kira’s parents. In any case, Zala’s intentions are far from well known. I do not know Chairman Clyne very well, but I do know he would never stand for something like that. For that matter, ZAFT itself would probably revolt.”

Flay considered that. From what she had heard (mostly from her father), she agreed that Alex was probably right about how Siegel Clyne would react to a plan for outright genocide. He openly desired coexistence with the Naturals. Which, Flay admitted to herself, was a point in favor of both him and his daughter. “Can I ask you something else?”

“Flay,” Alex said gently, “just because I’m cold-blooded doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of me. I admit I’m suspicious of your father; he is a high-ranking Atlantic Federation official, after all.”

Flay nodded. She did not like it, but she understood. “It’s about that guy we captured yesterday, just before Kira brought Miss Clyne aboard.”

“Coast?” Alex flexed his right arm. “He and I go way back. He was a colleague of my father’s, and our family doctor.” He indicated a point midway down his upper arm. “My arm is a prosthesis from about here down. Mikhail Coast was the one who fitted it.”

“How did you get it?”

Alex allowed himself a smile. “I disagreed with something that ate me,” he quipped.

Flay could not help it. She burst out laughing. “It was bitten off?”

“By a half-ton shark, to be exact. My mom ran an ichthyoculture farm, and I got a little too close to one of its denizens.” He shook his head. “Coast makes Rau Le Creuset look warm-hearted, which is why I’m glad he’s no longer a practicing doctor.”

“Sounds like a real creep.”

Alex grimaced. “You don’t know the half of it. Anyway, just remember that just as there are good and bad Naturals, there are good and bad Coordinators. You have people like Mikhail Coast, Patrick Zala, and Rau Le Creuset on the one hand. On the other, there’s Siegel and Lacus Clyne, all four of Le Creuset’s Gundam pilots -ironic, I know- Kira, Kyle, Lia…”

“You,” Flay added, surprising them both.

He looked at her curiously, then shrugged. “Me,” he agreed, then turned to leave. “By the way,” he added over his shoulder, “Cagalli has asked that her identity be kept secret; she doesn’t want Orb involved in this any more than it already is. And since your father is a high-ranking official…”

Flay nodded. “I understand.” She watched him go, then stepped into the cafeteria, deciding that, for all his coolness, Alex Strassmeier really was an all-right guy.

The place was, as usual, crowded, what with the refugees. Flay greeted her fellow survivors, then spotted Kira, Kuzzey, and Mir at a far table. She moved to join them; after talking to Kira and Alex, she had decided she wanted to get to know the Strike pilot a little better.

Mir noticed her approach, and nudged Kira. “Hi, Flay.”

“Hi, Miriallia,” Flay said.

Her friend raised her eyebrows. “Something wrong?”

Flay shrugged. “I… had a talk with Alex. Curious, I guess.” She hesitated. “He kind of got me thinking. All my life I have heard about how dangerous Coordinators are. But, when Kira took the Strike out, fighting to protect the ship,” she smiled at the young pilot, who blushed faintly, “even fighting his best friend, well…I am not sure what is right anymore. And then Alex told me about the PLANTs, how people there are mostly the same as people on Earth…”

“That’s Alex,” Kyle Perry said. “If he doesn’t scare you out of your wits, he makes you think.”

Flay jumped. “Kyle! I-I am sorry! I didn’t see you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a laugh. “When Cagalli first came aboard the Valkyrie, she looked right at me for about ten seconds without noticing me.”

She could not help chuckling. She had not had much contact with Cagalli and was more than a little puzzled by her mysterious bond with Kira, but she had nothing against the princess. Still, Flay found the idea of Cagalli being startled by Kyle’s mere presence funny.

Even if it happened to me, too. She looked at Kira. “How are you doing? It must have been tough out there, at Junius Seven.”

Kira shrugged. “It actually wasn’t that difficult, physically; there’s no way a dozen GINNs are going to beat six Gundams. It’s just that, I felt rotten afterwards; I did kill two of them, after all.”

“You’ll get used to it, Kira,” Kyle said. Kira winced, and the Devastator’s pilot nodded in understanding. “I know, you don’t want to get used to it. Well, let me tell you, getting used to it does not mean liking it. Remember, I blew up one of Coast’s ships. I didn’t like it, but I knew it had to be done.”

Kira nodded reluctantly. “I understand.” He rolled his eyes suddenly. “Not that I’m feeling sorry for Coast; there’s something about that guy that gives me the creeps.”

“Alex doesn’t like him either,” Flay said, shuddering.

The students turned at the sound of footsteps. Lacus Clyne stood in the hatchway, looking around curiously, her pink robot, Haro, bouncing next to her. As Alex had noticed the day before, she showed no awareness that she was on an enemy ship. Indeed, the pink-haired pop star appeared completely at home.

“Is that Miss Clyne?” Flay asked in a whisper. Mir nodded.

Lacus caught sight of them then. Recognizing Kira as the pilot who brought her aboard, she came over, smiling. “You’re the one who recovered my life pod, aren’t you?”

Kira nodded jerkily, not quite sure what to make of this girl. “Uh, yeah.”

“I wanted to thank you,” she said. “I would probably have died if you hadn’t found me.”

“Uh, it was nothing,” Kira said.

“Still, I am grateful,” Lacus said. “May I ask your name?”

He blinked, still off balance. “Uh, it’s Kira, Kira Yamato.”

Lacus’s jaw dropped. “Kira Yamato? From Copernicus?”

Kira’s eyes widened. What the…How did she know that? “Yeah, but how did you know?”

“Athrun has told me a lot about you,” the Pink Princess explained. “He often speaks of you with great fondness.”

The young pilot felt himself gaping like a fish. She…she knows Athrun? It is true that they are both children of Supreme Council members, but… “You…you know Athrun?”

“Of course!” She smiled brightly. “Athrun Zala is the man I will eventually be marrying. It’s good to meet a friend of his, whatever the circumstances.” Kira looked away. “Is something wrong?”

Kira took a deep breath. “Athrun and I… well…” He met her gaze. “You know he joined ZAFT after his mother was killed in the Bloody Valentine, right?” Lacus nodded. “The Earth Forces were building mobile suits at the neutral resource satellite Heliopolis, where I was living. The Le Creuset team attacked ten days ago, stealing four of the new machines. I wound up piloting the fifth one so I could protect my friends…and because of that, I had to face Athrun on the battlefield,” he finished quietly.

Flay laid a hand on Kira’s shoulder. She was becoming more certain by the moment that what she had heard about Coordinators was simply wrong. Lacus was impossible to dislike, and Kira’s obvious pain cut Flay to the heart. This is wrong. Kira must fight his best friend; Alex must fight his cousin; just what is going on here?

“I’m sorry, Mr. Yamato,” Lacus said softly. “It must hurt for you two to have to fight each other.”

“It does,” he acknowledged, “but I have no choice. I’m not the only one with that problem, either; Alex is related to one of Athrun’s teammates, Yzak Joule.”

Lacus nodded. “I know. I’ve met him, of course, and I know that he and Alex are awfully close, despite having quite different personalities.” Deciding it would be wise to change the subject, she looked at the other students. “You’re all Kira’s friends?”

Mir held out her hand. “That’s right. My name is Miriallia Haw.”

“Kuzzey Buskirk.” Nervous though he was around Coordinators, Kuzzey knew better than to be rude to a guest.

“Flay Allster.” Flay was even more nervous than Kuzzey, albeit for different reasons.

Lacus smiled. “A pleasure to meet you.” She sat at Mir’s invitation, then paused, remembering the sight of a GINN in the ship’s hangar. “Alex said something about a Mikhail Coast?”

“The Doctor’s team attacked us just before Kira found your pod,” Kyle explained. “I think they may have been searching for you, but we couldn’t afford to be found.”

“I see.” Lacus’s voice sounded curiously flat for a moment, and she shivered very slightly.

Kira raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”

She shook her head. “I met Doctor Coast once, on a tour. I sometimes perform at ZAFT bases,” she explained at Kira’s blank look. “For the troops. Normally I enjoy such trips, but when I met Coast… He somehow felt wrong. He was polite, but very cold, almost soulless.”

“Talk about hitting the nail on the head,” Kyle muttered darkly. “Anybody who calls Naturals a disease…” He shook himself. “This isn’t the time for that sort of thing. Why don’t we just enjoy our meal.”

Lacus smiled. “You’re right.”

For the next hour, the six of them chatted amiably, forgetting for a while the turmoil of war.

Valkyrie, bridge

“It seems Miss Lacus is settling in just fine,” Lia said. She and Alex had returned to the Valkyrie minutes earlier. “She’s even got Flay Allster out of her shell.”

Alex snorted. “Only a convinced misanthrope -or a Blue Cosmos operative, if there’s a difference- could dislike Lacus Clyne. Normally I would be concerned about her being on an Earth Forces warship, but since your aunt is in command, I don’t think there’ll be any problems.”

He crossed to his own chair on the starboard side of the bridge. Flay’s reaction to Lacus had taken care of one of his last worries. Since she was the daughter of an important Atlantic Federation official, Alex had feared that her attitudes could cause trouble. Fortunately, those attitudes seemed to have vanished; apparently her time on the Archangel was doing her some good.

Alex sipped from a coffee mug at his elbow (he did not have Andrew Waltfeld’s obsession with coffee, but he did enjoy a good brew, and one of the few things he hated about free fall was having to drink through a straw). There was still the possibility of a ZAFT attack, but he highly doubted that even Rau Le Creuset would open fire if he knew the daughter of the Supreme Council Chairman was on the Archangel. No, his worries were far more personal, and not just about his cousin.

If only Zala had not gone off the deep end. Then Yzak and I could be fighting side by side. Few people alive knew that Alex had almost joined ZAFT himself. The deaths of his parents and his sister’s abduction had combined with the Bloody Valentine Tragedy, filling him with a desire to see the Earth Alliance destroyed.

Then he had learned of Patrick Zala’s plan to exterminate the Naturals. Feeling betrayed, Alex had vowed that he would never serve under Zala; he knew better than to blame all Naturals for the actions of a few deranged fanatics.

Alex sighed, fingering the collar of his black coat. If it had not been for Zala’s madness, that collar would have borne the insignia of the PLANTs, and the coat would have been a different color, green or perhaps even elite red; he was confident enough in his abilities that he could have won the red uniform.

It should have been green at the very least, he thought. But Zala took that away. As a patriot, having to leave the PLANTs to stop a madman from having his way hurt more than he cared to admit, but that did not make him an Earth Forces sympathizer. Indeed, were it not for the fact that he saw the Archangel as separate from the Earth Forces as a whole, he would almost certainly have opened fire on them.

A hand on his shoulder jolted Alex out of his reverie. “Hey, you awake there?”

He looked up, somehow not surprised to see Cagalli standing over him. She had changed from the drab outfit she had worn at Heliopolis to khaki pants and a red t-shirt. “Isn’t that an unusual outfit for a princess?” he asked mildly. “You’re not exactly incognito at the moment.”

She glared at him. “What, you think I should be in a dress? You know I hate that. And do not call me a princess, got it?”

“As you wish,” Alex said with a shrug. “From what I remember of that party, you looked good in a dress, but the fact that you visibly hated it spoiled the effect somewhat. So no, I don’t think you should be in a dress.”

Cagalli shook her head. “I’m still not sure what to make of you,” she muttered, but there was a glint of humor in her eyes. Her voice softened. “Brooding again?”

He shrugged again. “Something like that,” he admitted, fingering his collar. “It’s strange how things turn out sometimes.”

She frowned. Something in his voice… “What do you mean?”

Alex stared out the forward viewport for a moment before responding. “If I hadn’t learned about Zala’s madness, I would probably be helping track down the Archangel; I was literally on my way to a ZAFT recruiting center when Kyle stopped me.” His fist clenched. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so betrayed. I wanted to join the fight, make the Alliance pay for what it did to my family, what it did to Junius Seven.”

“So instead, you went underground, fighting your own fight,” Cagalli said. “Against both ZAFT and the Earth Forces.”

Alex nodded. “To be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that Lia’s aunt is in command of the Archangel -and of course Mu La Flaga’s involvement- I would probably have attacked that ship at Heliopolis.” He shook his head. “Like I said, it’s strange how things turn out.”

He has got that right. Though she supported her father’s insistence on keeping Orb neutral, Cagalli’s sympathies for the most part was with the PLANTs, especially after Junius Seven. Her time on the Valkyrie had reinforced that, though she too liked the Archangel’s crew (especially the pilot of the Strike, as everyone on both ships knew).

“It must be frustrating,” she said at last.

“To put it mildly. I should be wearing a ZAFT uniform, but Zala made that impossible,” Alex said bitterly, then shook himself “What’s done is done, and there’s no point in moaning about it,” he said in his usual tone. He punched up a schematic on his terminal. “A more immediate concern is what they’ll do with the stolen G-weapons. Especially this one.”

Cagalli stared at the black-and-red machine on the screen. “The Blitz? What about it?” Then it hit her. “Mirage Colloid.”

“Exactly. I shudder to think what a man like Patrick Zala would do with such a system.” He glanced out at the Archangel. “But even that isn’t our biggest problem. Recall that the Archangel has Lacus Clyne aboard. Lacus, in addition to being the Supreme Council Chairman’s daughter, is incredibly famous as a singer, which means ZAFT will be searching for her; I think that’s probably why Coast was out in the middle of nowhere, in fact. Then there is the fact that she is engaged to Kira’s friend Athrun Zala. And since Athrun is a member of the Le Creuset team…”

She winced. “Rau Le Creuset will come out in person.”

“Most likely,” Alex agreed. “And not just with the Vesalius, either. With the defeat -from ZAFT’s perspective, disappearance- of the Coast team, Le Creuset will not be taking chances. At the very least, he’ll have the Gamow along.”

Cagalli knew exactly what was bothering her friend there. “Which means you’ll have to fight your cousin again.”

He sighed. “Almost certainly. Yzak and I won’t actually be trying to kill each other, but you know as well as I do that a mobile suit can be neutralized without killing the pilot.”

She squeezed his shoulder gently, silently cursing both Zala and the Earth Forces. Most of her ire was directed at the Earth Forces; while Zala wanted to exterminate the Naturals, his views were not widely held, even in the wake of the Bloody Valentine. The Alliance, on the other hand… Cagalli shook her head in disgust. The more she learned of the Earth Alliance, the more convinced she was that the men and women on the Archangel were too good for them.

Lia Ramius watched from her command chair, smiling to herself. While Kyle Perry was Alex’s de facto second-in-command, she knew Alex far better than he did. They had first met ten years earlier, when she visited the PLANTs with her parents.

The two had quickly become close friends, though few were aware of it; Alex had told Yzak he had a friend in the Junk Guild but had never mentioned Lia by name. This had been at the request of her parents; given that the Junk Guild was stubbornly neutral, they preferred that Lia’s friendship with a relative of a Supreme Council member not become widely known. (This was before her father’s sister Murrue Ramius joined the military.) Alex and his parents had agreed readily enough.

In any case, Lia was one of the few people with whom Alex would drop his emotionless mask. The only people who truly knew him better than she did were Andrea Strassmeier, who was missing, and Yzak Joule, whom he now had to fight.

Which was why she was glad to see Cagalli taking an interest in him. Lia could see the pain Alex had been going through ever since the Mandelbrot Incident, and facing his cousin in battle had only compounded it. He needed someone who could help him keep going, and Lia knew she herself could not do it; they were remarkably close, but there had always been a certain distance just the same.

But Cagalli can get to him without any trouble, she thought, somewhat bemused. And he does not even realize it; I will bet he did not notice the line about her looking good in a dress slipping out.

Cagalli seemed to sense her scrutiny. She glanced over her shoulder, giving Lia a look that unmistakably said, “What are you looking at?” Lia just shrugged, looking innocent. The princess frowned, then turned back to whatever she and Alex were talking about.

Those two… Valkyrie’s Captain thought, suppressing a chuckle.

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira Yamato sprawled on his bunk; Birdy perched nearby. In just ten days, his life had altered drastically. He had gone from studying at a technical college to piloting a mobile suit off an Earth Forces warship in less than twenty-four hours. In the process, he had faced his best friend in battle, fought another friend’s cousin, and befriended a princess. Since then, he had taken on two GINNs simultaneously and rescued another princess…who turned out to be his best friend’s fiancĂ©.

Athrun. Kira closed his eyes, remembering their time together in Copernicus. They had been inseparable, despite their differing backgrounds, close enough to be brothers. For seven years, Kira and Athrun had gone to school together, not a care in the world. Even when his father, Patrick Zala, had called him back to the PLANTs, Athrun had been unconcerned.

“The PLANTs and Earth will see eye-to-eye,” Athrun said. “There will be no war. This evacuation doesn’t mean a thing.” He extended a hand, on which perched a robotic bird.

Kira reached out in turn, hands cupped, and the bird hopped into them. “Thank you.”

Athrun smiled at his friend. “You’ll join me later in the PLANTs, right, Kira?”

Kira wished he had, but that was not to be. Instead, he had to fight his friend, so that his other friends would live. It just is not fair! I am just fighting to protect my friends! Why can’t he see that?

Nor was Athrun his only dilemma. During the Battle of Artemis, he had faced off against one of the stolen Gundams, the Blitz. He had spoken with its pilot, Nicol Amalfi, and learned that Nicol, too, was a friend of Athrun. Kira sighed, knowing that, if things had been just a little different, Nicol would have been his friend, too.

Not that he was completely alone. Sai, Kuzzey, Tolle, and Mir, supported him, albeit reluctantly in Kuzzey’s case. Alex knew how he felt, since they were in the same situation. Cagalli, of course, had grown very fond of him in the short time they had known each other.

And then there was Flay Allster. Even though she was engaged to Sai (by parental arrangement, which had caused Alex to snort in disgust; he made no secret of his hate for such things), Kira had taken a liking to her.

“Taken a liking”, ha! Kira told himself. Do not fool yourself; you are in love. Unfortunately, he did not dare do anything while she was engaged to Sai, and he had no intention of trying to break that up. Kira Yamato was not that sort of person.

Flay said she is behind me; that is enough, at least for now. Putting that thought aside, Kira sat up and retrieved a photo Alex had gotten for him. It was a graduation photo from the ZAFT academy; Kira did not know how Alex had gotten a hold of it, but he was grateful. Four young men in red uniforms looked out at him. The first, with white hair and ice-blue eyes, he easily identified as Yzak Joule; while Kira had never seen him, the pilot’s resemblance to Alex was striking. Next was a tall, blond youth, whom Alex had recognized as Dearka Elsman, pilot of the Buster. The third Kira knew by sight: Nicol Amalfi, pilot of X207 Blitz.

Last, of course, was his dear friend Athrun Zala. Athrun had not changed much; he had grown some, of course, but, aside from that, he was just as Kira remembered him. A little harder in the face, perhaps, but still the Athrun Zala he had known for so long.

The picture blurred as Kira’s eyes filled with tears. Setting it down on the table, he buried his face in his pillow and wept silently.

“Birdy!” The robot had no way of knowing what was going through the young Coordinator’s mind, but Kira found its presence comforting.

Vesalius, bridge, 5 February, C.E. 71

“Our mission is to search for the missing Silverwind, and rescue Lacus Clyne, assuming she’s still alive,” Rau Le Creuset said, sweeping his featureless gaze around the assembled soldiers. “In light of the power of the warships we faced at Heliopolis, as well as the disappearance of the Coast team, the Bartlett team has been assigned to support us.” He smiled thinly at Yzak’s look of distaste. “Don’t worry, Yzak. I am in overall command of this mission, and I have no intention of allowing Commander Bartlett to interfere should you encounter your cousin again. Use disabling attacks on the Stormbird if you wish; and that goes for you and the Strike as well, Athrun.”

Athrun and Yzak looked at each other, for once in complete agreement; neither of them liked Bartlett, and they were acutely aware of their shared predicament. “Thank you, sir,” they said in unison.

“Of course.” Le Creuset tapped the display. “We will begin with the outskirts of the Debris Belt. Comments?”

Yzak grimaced. “I’ll bet Alex was at least part of the reason Coast vanished.”

Nicol looked at him curiously. “Why is that?”

“They go way back; Commander Coast was the Strassmeier family doctor before he joined ZAFT,” Yzak explained. “Alex hates him.”

“Your cousin certainly has a healthy dislike of some ZAFT team commanders, me included,” Le Creuset said. “What does he have against Doctor Coast?”

Yzak shrugged. “He’s never said what, at least not to me, except that he thinks Coast should never have gone into medicine.”

“It’s true that Commander Coast doesn’t have much of a bedside manner,” the masked man admitted. “His personality is more suited to the battlefield that the hospital.” He shrugged. “In any case, he is not likely to be a factor at this point. Dismissed.”

corridor

Drifting down the hall with Dearka and Nicol, Yzak shook his head in disgust. “So now we have to deal with the Bartlett team again. Simply great.”

“Yeah,” Dearka agreed. “They’ll just get in the way.”

“I don’t think they’ll have a chance to get in the way,” Yzak said with a snort. “Not the way Alex and Athrun’s buddy fight. They’ll be taken apart.”

Nicol raised his eyebrows. “You think your cousin has more mobile suits than we’ve seen?”

Yzak snorted again. “Bet on it. Alex is not stupid. Judging by how his ship is built, I would say he has got at least five, and probably room for more, just like the legged ship. We’re in for a major fight if we run into them again.”

“Then we’d better be ready if that happens,” Dearka said, coming to a halt next to one of the main airlocks, where their shuttle waited. “Come on, let’s get back to the Gamow.”

Athrun’s quarters

Athrun stripped off his red coat and released it to drift in the small cabin. He did not bother putting it away; his mind was on other things. He thought of the PLANTs, of his deceased mother, of Kira, and of his fiancé, Lacus Clyne.

Lacus, I will see you again, I promise. Kira…will I have to fight you again? It does not have to be this way; you are a Coordinator, just like me! We should be fighting side-by-side, not trying to blow each other out of space…

Athrun sighed. Trying to persuade Kira to join them was probably futile, but he at least had to try. He could not bear the thought of having to shoot him down. Kira, please, do not make me do this.

He shook himself. It was not all that likely that they would encounter the legged ship in any event; there was no reason for them to sail through the Debris belt. Or so Athrun hoped, at least; from what Yzak had told him, Alex Strassmeier might well have persuaded them to do exactly that. The guy was certainly devious enough.

If they did encounter the legged ship and its companion, they would be in for a fight. Athrun had a healthy respect for Alex’s skills, and while he had not actually come to blows with Kira, Nicol had reported losing badly to him at Artemis. Even with the Gamow and the Bismarck, it was far from certain that the ZAFT contingent could win.

Athrun lay back and closed his eyes. No matter how hard he tried to avoid it, his thoughts kept turning back to Kira. Once the best of friends, now their loyalties forced them to be enemies. It was tearing Athrun apart emotionally, and he knew it was doing the same to Kira.

Kira, we will find a way through this. Until then, stay alive…

Author’s note: Next, the Le Creuset team will face off against Archangel and Valkyrie once again, Alex will have another run-in with his personal irritant, and Badgiruel will make him very mad.