Chapter 6: Separate Ways

Archangel, bridge, 6 February, C.E. 71

Acting Crewman Kuzzey Buskirk sat up as his board beeped at him. Hmm? A signal? He tweaked his controls, adjusting the gain, then looked down at the Captain. “We’re receiving a signal, ma’am. Header indicates it’s from the Montgomery, assigned to Eighth Fleet.”

Murrue sighed with relief. “That’s Admiral Halberton’s command. We’re almost there.”

“You are, at least,” Lia said from her own bridge.

Murrue raised her eyebrows at her niece. “I take it you have a longer journey in mind?”

The younger Ramius nodded. “We’re making for Orb, since we’ve got the princess with us.” Behind her, Cagalli Yula Athha rolled her eyes. “Besides, as far as we are concerned, Orb is the only sane nation left on Earth. No offense, Ensign,” she added, glancing at Badgiruel.

Badgiruel shook her head. “None taken, Ms. Ramius; I may have my doubts about who was responsible for the abduction of Strassmeier’s sister, but I don’t blame either of you for feeling as you do. Particularly since your friend is a native of the PLANTs.”

“That reminds me.” Murrue shifted her gaze to Cagalli. “Miss Cagalli, how are we supposed to handle your presence? Given the role you have on the Valkyrie, you’re not exactly inconspicuous.”

“When I’m out on my own, I drop the last part of my name,” the princess responded. “I’ll go by Cagalli Yula.”

Murrue nodded. “That should work.”

“Another message from the Montgomery, ma’am,” Kuzzey said. “Vice Foreign Minister George Allster is on board.”

“Tell him that his daughter is safe,” Murrue said. “Kira saw to that.”

Behind Lia and to her right, Alex Strassmeier snorted. “I’m not sure how grateful he’ll be,” he said. “The Vice Foreign Minister’s opinion of Coordinators isn’t exactly a secret. Which explains Flay’s former attitude; she practically absorbed it through osmosis.”

Murrue shrugged. “We’ll just have to hope Flay can convince him otherwise. She and Kira have become fairly close since we got out of Artemis.”

“You might prove more of a problem,” Badgiruel put in. Alex raised an eyebrow questioningly, and she shrugged. “I intend no offense, but as you yourself have pointed out -several times- you are related to Ezalia Joule.”

Alex nodded. “Believe me, Ensign, I am acutely aware of the potential difficulty. I’m not a big fan of the vice minister, but I’m perfectly capable of restraining myself.” For a moment, his face had a wry look. “For Flay’s sake, if nothing else; I never thought I’d say this, but I consider her a friend.”

Murrue shook her head, bemused. He is certainly changed in the past couple of weeks. She was inclined to agree with her niece’s belief that Cagalli was responsible for the change. Alex still seldom showed emotion in public -by now, everyone knew why- but at the same time, he seemed more approachable somehow.

And if he can warm up to someone like Flay Allster… She glanced over her shoulder at Kuzzey. “That reminds me. Given that we have several Coordinators with us, we should probably have Flay present when we speak to her father. As Alex just pointed out, Vice Minister Allster isn’t very fond of Coordinators.”

Neither was Montgomery captain Koopman, as it happened. Much as some people -notably Natarle Badgiruel- would have liked to deny it, anti-Coordinator sentiment was pervasive both in the military and the government. “Space monster” was a common epithet, implying that Coordinators (the majority of whom lived in space) were inhuman and dangerous.

Such attitudes played into Patrick Zala’s hands. In his speeches, he often cited them as proof that the Naturals, despite (or because of) their “inferiority”, recognized that Coordinators were a new species. Though he stopped short of calling for a campaign of extermination, Zala did his best to incite hatred against Naturals in general. Thus far, it had only worked on the most hardcore.

“Zala isn’t helping matters,” Alex said, voicing Murrue’s thoughts. “I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his speeches, but I can tell you, even though he hasn’t actually called for the extermination of the Naturals, he manages to make it abundantly clear that it’s what he wants.”

Mu La Flaga snorted. “No kidding. I saw the one from just after the Bloody Valentine. Man, his glare could punch through the Archangel’s laminated armor.”

Alex’s lips twitched in what might have been a sneer. “And he is not exactly known for moderation; if anything, he’s even worse in private. Aunt Ezalia’s told me quite a bit.” He shook his head, visibly disgusted. “I swear, the only good thing that guy ever did was to have a kid.”

“Perhaps so,” Murrue said, “but we don’t have to worry about that right now. We have more immediate things to deal with.” She looked at Kuzzey again. “Inform Captain Koopman -and Vice Minister Allster- of our situation. Make sure they understand that the Valkyrie is a friendly.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Bismarck, bridge

So, Daniel Bartlett thought, gazing at the tabletop display. The games afoot.

His flagship had been repaired at the PLANTs, just in time to join the Le Creuset team in the search for Lacus Clyne. Search and rescue were not his preferred duty, though he understood why it had to be done. The morale effects of her loss would be profound, and Bartlett certainly sympathized with Athrun Zala, since Miss Clyne was the young pilot’s fiancée.

Besides, the Coast team had disappeared in the Debris Belt on this very mission. Given the Doctor’s skill both as a pilot and commander, that meant he had run into something nasty, and that something nasty was almost certainly the legged ship. And that, in turn, meant the Valkyrie was involved.

That will make this whole trip worthwhile, even if we must work with the Le Creuset team. Favored though he was by the high command, Rau Le Creuset had more than his share of detractors. Bartlett himself was among them (one of the few cases where he agreed with Alex Strassmeier); others ran the gamut from feckless incompetents like submariner Marco Morassim, who often referred to Le Creuset as a punk, to highly skilled warriors like Andrew “Desert Tiger” Waltfeld.

“From what we’ve heard, the legged ship and its companion were almost certainly responsible for the Coast team’s disappearance,” Michael Harriman said. “They may well be nearby.”

Bartlett nodded. “I agree. Le Creuset does, as well, or so I judge by our status. Whatever else Alex Strassmeier might be, he is not stupid, so such a large force is common sense.”

“But will Joule be willing to open fire on his cousin?” Harriman asked. “That could be a problem.”

“Le Creuset has already given Joule permission to use disabling attacks if we do encounter those two ships,” Bartlett replied. “The same for Zala and that Yamato kid.” He shrugged. “Le Creuset is in charge, so it’s his decision to make.” A feral light showed in his cold gray eyes. “I, on the other hand, am under no such constraints. If I get within range, Strassmeier is doomed.”

It did not even occur to Harriman to question that statement. Despite the skill Alex Strassmeier had exhibited in their previous encounter, despite his superior machine, Bismarck’s captain believed that his commander would win the next engagement. (Such overconfidence was why Captain Zelman considered Harriman an incompetent.)

They would get a reality check when the two forces faced off again…

Gamow, hangar

Yzak Joule sat in the cockpit of his Duel Gundam, hands flying over the machine’s keyboard. As a group, ZAFT soldiers were more individualistic than their Earth Forces counterparts. Mobile suit pilots were allowed great leeway in personalizing their machines; Miguel Aiman, for example, had customized his GINN for higher performance. (Unfortunately, he had also had more breakdowns than most.)

Even more than regulars, the four Gundam pilots were expected to make whatever modifications they felt necessary to bring out the best in their one-of-a-kind machines. So it was that Yzak found himself in his cockpit, tweaking the OS.

He sighed. His main reason for working on his machine was to try to distract himself, but it was not working. Yzak’s mind was only half on the task at hand. He could not stop thinking about the coming battle; he knew as well as anyone that they would soon be facing the legged ship again. And facing the legged ship meant another confrontation with the Valkyrie.

Alex, why do we have to keep fighting each other? Yzak was profoundly grateful that Commander Le Creuset was allowing him to use disabling attacks on the Stormbird, but that was only part of the problem. He knew perfectly well that Alex would never surrender, that his cousin would prefer death to falling into the hands of ZAFT as it now was.

“Hey, Yzak.”

Yzak glanced up. “Nicol? What are you doing in here this late?”

The pilot-cum-pianist shrugged. “Same thing you are I had an idea for an improvement on the Blitz’s OS, so I figured I’d better take care of it, ASAP. We never know when we’ll run into Earth Forces units.”

“Especially when we’re searching for Lacus Clyne,” Yzak agreed. He frowned suddenly. “But there’s something…”

Nicol blinked. “Yzak?”

“You can bet the legged ship’s going to turn up again,” Yzak said slowly. “The captain’s older brother is in the Junk Guild; the guy’s daughter is in command of the black ship, and she’s one of Alex’s closest friends…” He trailed off, then abruptly snapped his fingers. “Of course!”

“What is it?”

“About ten years ago, Alex told me he had a friend in the Junk Guild,” Yzak explained. “He didn’t mention her name, but he did ask that I keep it quiet.”

Nicol frowned. “Why would he do that?”

Yzak shrugged. “You know the Junk Guild: they’re stubbornly neutral, even more than Orb. The girl’s parents did not want her friendship with a Supreme Council member’s nephew to be widely known. Anyway, I think that she must be the black ship’s captain.”

“Makes sense,” the other agreed. He drifted towards his own machine.

Yzak watched him go. Initially, he had thought Nicol a coward, but, as he got to know the younger pilot, Yzak was reminded more and more of his cousin. Alex Strassmeier had a soft core, however much he tried to hide it; Yzak was one of the few people who had seen it.

He sighed and resumed typing. Whatever happened, he had to make sure the Duel was ready for the next battle.

Vesalius, bridge, 7 February, C.E. 71

“So,” Rau Le Creuset said, “it appears we have company.”

“Yes, sir,” Ades agreed. “A Nelson-class ship, and two Drakes.”

“Hmm.” Le Creuset gazed thoughtfully at the display. “Given that there’s nothing nearby that the Earth Forces care about, I would have to say they’re here to resupply the legged ship. In which case, we have a golden opportunity.”

Athrun Zala looked up in surprise. “Sir, aren’t our orders to-“

“I’m well aware of our instructions to search for Miss Clyne,” Le Creuset said. “However, we cannot afford to pass up a chance to destroy the legged ship.” His voice softened a little. “I don’t blame you for being anxious, but first and foremost we are soldiers.”

Athrun swallowed hard, then nodded. “I understand, sir.”

“In any case, we might find your fiancée at the same time,” the masked man went on. “I would not be at all surprised if those two ships passed through the Debris Belt after they escaped from Artemis, and from what Yzak has told me, Strassmeier, despite his cold-blooded exterior, would happily perform a rescue operation. Therefore, if we encounter the black ship, only its weapons and engines will be targeted.”

Assuming we can even see it, Athrun thought sourly.

None of them realized they were worrying about the wrong ship…

Archangel/Valkyrie, bridge

Having reached communications range with the advance force, the two mobile assault ships coasted along at a relatively slow speed. The Archangel flew slightly ahead; Captain Koopman of the Montgomery was slightly nervous about the Valkyrie.

As Murrue had requested, Flay stood on the Archangel’s bridge, and she smiled when her father appeared on the screen. “Hi, Daddy.”

Atlantic Federation Vice Foreign Minister George Allster slumped in his chair, visibly relieved. “Flay, thank goodness you’re safe.” He looked at Murrue. “Thank you, Captain Ramius. I owe you a great deal.”

“And not just for that,” Koopman put in. “You’ve done well, keeping both your ship and the Strike intact.” He frowned. “But what of the other ship?”

“The Valkyrie joined forces with us just before Heliopolis collapsed,” Murrue responded. “My niece Lia is in command.”

Koopman nodded and shifted his attention to the younger woman. “You have our thanks, as well.”

“Don’t mention it,” Lia said cheerfully. She jerked her head at the expressionless Coordinator behind and to her right. “Alex doesn’t much like the Earth Forces, but he’s not a fan of ZAFT, either. And he really hates Rau Le Creuset.”

The Earth Forces officer blinked. “Alex?”

“Strassmeier,” Lia supplied.

Allster surged out of his chair. “Strassmeier? Ezalia Joule’s nephew?”

“Correct, sir,” Alex said, speaking for the first time. He cocked his head. “Is there a problem?”

The vice minister ignored him, addressing Lia instead. “What is someone like him doing there?” he demanded. “A Coordinator, a relative of one of the biggest radicals in the PLANTs, no less?”

Lia’s eyes narrowed. “It was Alex’s idea to build this ship and its attendant mobile suits, Vice Minister. All of this was part of his plan to stop Patrick Zala from wiping out all Naturals.” Her expression hardened. “And for your information, sir, I too am a Coordinator.”

“And so’s the pilot of the Strike,” Flay put in. “If he hadn’t picked up the life pod I was in, I’d be dead.”

That rocked Allster back a little. A Coordinator…saved Flay? But they are… Now he was confused. He disliked Coordinators (to put it mildly), and yet one of them had saved his daughter’s life.

“All right,” he said at last. “Perhaps the young man is an exception, along with your niece, Captain, but surely you realize that they are exceptions. Most Coordinators are our mortal enemies.” He glared at Alex. “As for him…”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “You seem to have a problem with me, sir.”

“Of course, I have a problem!” Allster snapped. “You clearly pose a danger to everyone on the Archangel.”

The Coordinator’s eyes narrowed to slits; Lia and Cagalli, both of whom knew the signs, winced. “Just what are you accusing me of?” he asked in a deceptively soft voice.

Allster looked at him as though he was not paying attention. “No one with your background would help the Earth Forces, so you’re obviously a spy.”

“Daddy!” Flay protested.

“Sir, with all due respect, that was uncalled for!” Murrue said.

Cagalli gazed at the vice minister with thinly veiled contempt. What an idiot. Hard to believe Flay’s his daughter; she is such a nice girl.

Alex’s thoughts were much the same. Flay’s related to this bigoted fool? The mind boggles. He stood, his face somehow more hawk-like than usual. “Sir, if you’d bothered to read any reports of the final moments at Heliopolis, you’d know that your accusation is baseless. As the crew of the Archangel will confirm, I personally struck down the Magic Bullet of Dusk, Miguel Aiman, in that battle. Even Patrick Zala isn’t ruthless enough to sacrifice his own people just to maintain a spy’s cover.”

“He’s right,” Mu put in. “Zala’s a nut, but he wouldn’t try something like that.” His gaze sharpened. “And Alex isn’t the sort of person who’d kill without a good reason.”

“In any case, you have nothing to fear from me at this point,” Alex said. “You may find it hard to believe, but I consider Flay a friend, and I have no intention of bereaving her if I can possibly avoid it.”

Allster sat back, stunned. After hearing what had happened at Heliopolis, he was not that surprised that Flay and the Strike pilot would have become friends -Kira did save her life, after all- but someone like Alex Strassmeier? “Strassmeier, what are you-“

He never got a chance to finish, for at that moment, the ZAFT vessels Vesalius, Gamow, and Bismarck reached attack range.

“Warning!” Romero Pal snapped. “N-jammer levels increasing! Three ZAFT warships approaching!”

“Checking profiles,” Chandra sang out. “Vesalius, Gamow, and Bismarck. They’re heading this way!”

Ramius immediately punched an all-call button. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

Archangel, hangar

Kira hurriedly strapped himself into the Strike, barely aware of Mu La Flaga doing the same in the Moebius Zero. “Kira here. I’m ready,” he said, lowering his visor.

“Roger that, Kira,” Mir said. “Orders are not to launch but be ready in case that changes.”

“Got it.” He wondered, though. He knew that they were facing all four stolen Gundams -including Athrun, and Alex’s cousin- and that the Montgomery’s mobile armors were no match for any mobile suits, let alone Gundams. Going into battle without the Archangel was suicide.

Withdrawing will not save us, so why are they doing this? They are just getting themselves killed. Unless… “Miriallia, what about the Valkyrie? Have they moved at all?”

She glanced at something offscreen. “No sign of activity yet, but you can bet Alex won’t just sit around. He’ll want to protect Vice Minister Allster for Flay’s sake, and you know how he hates Rau Le Creuset.”

“Yeah.” I still think this is a mistake, though. Alex and his friends cannot handle everything…

Open space

Kira and Mir were right; Alex had no intention of just sitting around. Even before Murrue Ramius brought her ship to battle stations, Alex was pulling on his flight suit (a green one, ZAFT surplus; he could have gotten one in elite red, but he did not feel worthy to wear it). By the time Kira strapped into the Strike, X108 Stormbird was moving to the Valkyrie’s starboard catapult.

“What are you planning to do?” Cagalli asked.

“If possible, we’re going to save Koopman and Allster in spite of themselves,” Alex said. “Yzak and Bartlett are both out there, a complication I could really do without.”

She nodded. “You’re clear for launch. Be careful out there.”

“I will.” His hands tightened on the control bars. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

The Stormbird hurtled out into space, followed closely by the Devastator, the Scorpion, and the Shinobi. As the last machine, X112 Inferno, was guided to the catapult, pilot Chris Madsen made one last check of his systems. The flamer particularly concerned him; such weapons were not easy to adapt for space use.

This time, though, it checked out. Seeing the results, Chris nodded in satisfaction, then assumed his usual unhinged manner, which very few people knew was just as much a facade as Alex’s cold demeanor. “Chris Madsen, Inferno launching!” As the catapult spat him into space, he glanced one last time at the symbol on his status screen: the emblem of the Serpent Tail.

“All right, people,” Alex said. “Let’s do it!”

Two mobile suit forces closed at high speed. Though the ZAFT teams had the advantage of numbers, they had only four Gundams; the rest were in GINNs and a CGUE. Against five Gundams, the odds were basically even.

Alex quickly found himself engaged by two machines at once, his cousin Yzak’s Duel, and Daniel Bartlett’s custom CGUE. The CGUE was clearly the greater threat; he knew Yzak would not be willing to shoot to kill, at least not yet. Ignoring the Duel, he fired one shot at the CGUE, which simply splashed on the ZAFT machine’s shield.

Bartlett laughed harshly. “You’ll have to do better than that, Strassmeier!” He returned fire with both his beam rifle and shield Gatling; the latter intended merely as a distraction.

Alex took the beams on his own shield and ignored the bullets completely. “You persist in underestimating me, Bartlett. One day that sort of thing will get you killed.”

While the two rivals exchanged gunshots and verbal barbs (watched by an extremely nervous Yzak, who was unable to intervene), the larger battle continued unabated. Athrun ignored the Valkyrie’s mobile suits completely, concentrating on the Earth Forces warships. Kyle and Dearka found themselves trading artillery shots, while Hiro played hide-and-seek with Nicol’s Blitz. Brian, meanwhile, gave the ZAFT ships’ CIWS fits with his unpredictable maneuvers.

Scorpion’s mobile armor mode is just what the doctor ordered, he thought with a tight grin.

Alex spared him a brief glance. You are doing well, Brian. Keep it up. Boosting away from the Duel and Bartlett’s CGUE, he pulled his plasma cannon and leveled it at the Bismarck. “Try this,” he muttered, and fired. The red-orange blast cored through the ZAFT ship’s starboard engine pod.

“You’ll pay for that, Strassmeier!” Bartlett shouted, his beam rifle spitting emerald darts. When they struck the Stormbird’s shield without any noticeable effect, he cursed. “Just go down!”

“Once again, you underestimate your opponent.” Alex spun his machine and fired past his cousin’s Duel, striking one of the Vesalius’s GINNs. One spectacular detonation later, he turned back to the red CGUE. “Here’s a piece of free information: my shield absorbs energy, channeling it into the Stormbird’s battery. In other words, you’re recharging my machine for me.”

Bartlett raised his eyebrows. “Why tell me this?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because it doesn’t help you any. You still have no choice but to use beams, since projectiles are useless against Phase-shift.”

A dry chuckle from the ZAFT commander. “Perhaps so. But even your shield can only take so much.” He laughed harshly and abruptly boosted away.

Alex did not realize the danger at first. What is he up to? Then he suddenly found himself looking down the barrels of Bismarck’s cannons. Uh-oh. He kicked in his verniers just before the ship fired. Stormbird made it out untouched; the Bernard was not so fortunate. The Earth Forces vessel vanished in an instant, destroyed with all hands.

Archangel, hangar/open space

Mu La Flaga watched the battle with growing alarm. Like Kira, he had strapped into his machine as soon as the alarm sounded; now he contacted the bridge. “Captain, we need to launch, now. The advance forces are getting slaughtered, and I don’t think withdrawing will save us, even with Alex’s people out there.”

Murrue hesitated, the reluctantly nodded. “You’re right. Moebius Zero, Strike, launch at once!”

“Roger that. Mu La Flaga, launching!”

“Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!” Kira echoed.

Sai’s face appeared on his screen. “Kira, Flay’s father is on one of those ships…”

“I’ll make sure he gets out alive,” Kira said. “I promise.”

The mobile suit and mobile armor flashed into space side by side. Mu took on a pair of GINNs, while Kira moved to engage Athrun’s Aegis. Athrun, having just taken out the escort ship Law with his Scylla energy cannon, came at the Strike with his rifle blazing.

Soon it was Kira alone; Mu was able to destroy one GINN, but then took several severe hits in rapid succession and was forced to retreat. With the Moebius Zero out of the fight, and Kira effectively deadlocked with the Aegis, the mobile confrontation rested almost entirely with the Valkyrie’s machines.

Alex glanced briefly at the Strike, wincing in sympathy as Kira traded laser blasts with his dearest friend, then returned his attention to his own battle. So far, he had been able to keep Bartlett under control -he had destroyed two of the Bismarck’s GINNs- but he was not sure how long it could last.

Then his force was suddenly reduced to four mobile suits; the Buster had finally gotten a solid hit on Kyle, blowing the Devastator’s right arm off at the shoulder. “Sorry, Alex. I have to fall back.”

“Don’t worry about it. You did your best.”

Nor was that the only problem. After several crazy maneuvers, Brian, too, was forced to pull away before the Scorpion ran out of power. Shinobi and Inferno were still in action, but there was not much they could do at that point.

“You seem to be running low on mobile suits, Strassmeier,” Bartlett said mockingly, clashing his sword against the Stormbird’s shield. “I think we have the upper hand.”

Alex started to retort, then shut his mouth with a click. He is right. We must fall back, somehow.

At that moment, the Vesalius opened fire on the Montgomery, blowing the Earth Forces ship in half. On the Archangel, Flay Allster screamed once, then fainted. All but one person onboard was frozen with shock, and that person’s next action took everyone by surprise.

“This is the Earth Forces warship Archangel,” Natarle Badgiruel said. “Presently under the protective custody of this ship is PLANT Supreme Council Chairman Siegel Clyne’s daughter, Lacus Clyne. We rescued her as a humanitarian gesture, but if you continue to attack, we will be forced to take matters into our own hands.”

Athrun Zala stared at the “legged ship” in horror. “What monsters you are!” He turned to glare at the Strike. “Well, Kira?” he demanded, his voice soft. “Do you still feel justified fighting by the sides of these cowards?” His voice rose to a shout on the last word.

Kira’s mouth worked silently, stunned by Badgiruel’s action. “Athrun, I…”

“I’m going to rescue her. That’s a promise.” The Aegis spun around, heading back to the Vesalius.

Yzak Joule clutched at his controls, a white-hot rage going through him. “See, Alex?” he whispered, so angry he was beyond shouting. “See what happens when you help the Earth Forces? It’s just like with Andrea, isn’t it?” Without waiting for a response, the Duel jetted back to the Gamow.

It was just as well that Yzak had not waited. Alex did not even hear him. His mind was not even in the present; it was in a time three years earlier.

He and his sister were running from their home, chased by Atlantic Federation soldiers.

“Come on, Andrea!” Alex said. “Hurry!” The girl tried to keep up but tripped over some debris. Alex skidded to a stop. “Andrea!” He started back but froze when his sister was surrounded.

“Alex, keep going!” she shouted. “Run!”

Alex ran, ran harder than he ever had before, tears mingling with blood where a rifle stock had split his cheek open. When he was sure they were no longer following him, he collapsed on the ground, exhausted. “Andrea, I’ll save you someday,” he whispered, then bowed his head, sobbing.

He came back to himself abruptly. After glancing around to reorient himself, he keyed his radio. “Hiro, Chris, get back to the ship. I’ll be there shortly.” The two pilots acknowledged, and he switched frequencies. “Cagalli, Hiro and Chris are on their way in. I’ll be back soon, after I… check things out on the Archangel.”

“I understand.” And she did; a matching outrage burned in Cagalli’s golden eyes.

Alex boosted towards the Archangel’s starboard catapult. Natarle Badgiruel, you just made an excessively big mistake.

Archangel, bridge

“I had no choice,” Badgiruel was saying. “I couldn’t let them destroy us.”

Murrue shook her head. “I understand that, Natarle, but still…” She trailed off, but her tone made noticeably clear that she disapproved of her subordinate’s tactics.

Both women turned as the rear hatch opened. Alex Strassmeier stormed onto the bridge, his normally expressionless face livid, his eyes blazing. Badgiruel flinched despite herself; Alex had proven his willingness to kill if necessary, and she had no desire to be his next target.

Still, in her opinion, his anger was misplaced. “Strassmeier,” the ensign began.

“Just what did you think you were doing?” the Coordinator asked in a deceptively soft voice.

Badgiruel blinked, slightly unnerved. “I was merely acting to protect this ship and those aboard. I had no alternative.”

“Oh really?” Alex responded, still softly. “What about the fact that the taking of hostages is a crime anywhere?”

“Regulations allow for emergencies-“

She did not get a chance to finish. Alex snarled viciously and backhanded her across the face. “Your treacherous coward!” he shouted, trembling with fury. “How dare you presume that you have the right to use an innocent civilian as a pawn! Lacus Clyne isn’t a chess piece, dummkopf!”

Badgiruel started to rise but stopped when she found herself looking down the barrel of Alex’s pistol at fifteen centimeters.

“Give me a reason,” Alex whispered. “Give me the slightest reason to pull this trigger, and I swear I will.”

Given the choice between remaining still and receiving a forty-five-caliber bullet through the brain, Badgiruel wisely opted not to provoke him.

Alex held his aim for a moment longer, then nodded. “Good.” Holstering the weapon, he turned to Murrue. “I will only say this once: if something like this ever happens again, I will personally reduce this ship’s engines to a puddle of molten slag. And don’t talk to me about the refugees; Valkyrie can take them on if necessary.” With that, he spun around and stalked away.

Murrue stared after him, more than a little shaken. “You know, since we left Heliopolis, I’ve often wondered what it would take to get him to explode. Well, now I know.” She shook her head, then looked at her XO. “However, he was right about one thing. Such tactics can have no justification, and they will not be used again. Is that clear?”

The ensign saluted; though she disagreed, she knew she had no choice. “As you command, ma’am.”

Murrue sighed and settled into her command chair. Sai had taken an unconscious Flay to the infirmary, so the EW station was unmanned, but that did not matter at present. Even Rau Le Creuset would not dare attack with Lacus Clyne onboard; not only was she the daughter of the Supreme Council’s Chairman, but, according to Kira, she was also engaged to Aegis pilot Athrun Zala.

She closed her eyes. Alex’s tirade had not come as a surprise; indeed, Murrue was mildly surprised the young Coordinator had stopped short of killing Ensign Badgiruel. In any case, this incident was likely to solidify his view of the Earth Alliance, which could cause problems, not for the Archangel itself, but for the whole of the Alliance.

The only reason I am still alive is because he is friends with my niece, Murrue realized. Still, she could not help wondering how far that consideration would go.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex was still fuming an hour later. It took a lot to crack his self-control, but a stunt like Badgiruel’s, especially one that brought back memories of his sister’s abduction, did the job. Badgiruel was luckier to be alive than she realized; Alex had come remarkably close to shooting her, regardless of whether she moved or not.

There was also the fact that Alex and Kira both had close connections to the opposing force. Even this was unlikely to split Kira and Athrun apart since Kira clearly had nothing to do with it. If Lacus got out alive, Athrun would be forgiving. Probably.

Yzak, on the other hand… Yzak Joule was not known for moderation. He was not likely -this time- to hold Alex responsible for what had happened, but a few more such events could change that. Eventually, his temper would get the better of him, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Alex clenched his fists, cursing the twist of fate that had forced him to cooperate with the Earth Forces. This one was not even Zala’s fault; the blame lay with the Earth Forces, who had built mobile suits and a warship inside a neutral colony, with Rondo Ghina Sahaku, who had allowed it, and with Rau Le Creuset, who had treacherously attacked the colony.

The hatch that he had forgotten to lock slid open behind him. “Alex?” Cagalli called softly.

He looked up. Normally, the only person he tolerated this from was Lia Ramius, and yet somehow… “Something up?”

She drifted over. “I was just wondering what happened…” She trailed off, looking closely at him. His eyes seemed a little red. “Have you been crying?”

Alex started to snap, then stopped himself. He only tolerated that sort of query from a handful of people; he wondered just when the princess had become part of that group. “A little,” he said at last, not sure why he was even admitting it. “When Ensign Badgiruel made her…announcement,” Cagalli winced at the venom in her friend’s voice, though she agreed wholeheartedly, “I had a bit of a flashback. Specifically, to when my sister was kidnapped.”

Cagalli was not surprised in the least. “And that’s why you were so angry.”

“That, and the fact that Badgiruel’s actions were despicable in and of themselves,” Alex confirmed.

He stood and began to pace. “This is a textbook example of why I despise the Earth Alliance. The PLANTs have been oppressed from the outset. Even before the Alliance was formed, the sponsor nations imposed ridiculous quotas while at the same time keeping the PLANTs completely demilitarized.”

“Which was why Siegel Clyne and Patrick Zala founded ZAFT.” Despite the seeming irrelevance of the story, and despite knowing most of it already, Cagalli was fascinated.

“Precisely,” he agreed. “Even I will admit Zala wasn’t always a madman; it was probably the Bloody Valentine that triggered that. Anyway, before ZAFT was formed, we were helpless against Blue Cosmos and other anti-Coordinator groups. And when the sponsor nations attacked the Supreme Council directly…”

Cagalli grimaced, remembering the incident. Her father had had some very nasty things to say about the Atlantic Federation at the time. “Talk about crazy. Weren’t the sponsor nations almost completely dependent on the PLANTs for resources by then?”

Alex nodded. “If you will pardon the cliché, it was a case of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. That, however, was only the beginning.”

She knew exactly where he was going with that one. “Copernicus.”

“Copernicus.” His voice was flat. “That, as you know, was what prompted the declaration of war; from what I heard later, they tried to claim that Chairman Clyne’s shuttle malfunction was deliberate.” He snorted. “Preposterous, of course, but that was all they had. They couldn’t let the real culprit be identified.”

Cagalli blinked. “The real culprit?”

Another snort. “Conventional wisdom has it that Blue Cosmos was responsible, but it wasn’t. It was an Atlantic Federation special forces unit -possibly the same unit that kidnapped Andrea- that carried out the attack.”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. This she had not expected. “Are you serious?”

“Very.” Alex’s eyes were suddenly very cold, but only for a moment. “Despite Badgiruel’s stunt, I still believe the people on the Archangel are different from the rest of the Alliance. And, however angry I might be, I don’t think it will be a problem much longer.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

Alex did not answer. He did not have to; a moment later, Lia’s voice came over the intercom. “Alex, the Strike is launching, and I somehow doubt Aunt Murrue authorized it.”

He pushed a button on his desk. “Understood. I’ll be heading out as well, making sure the Earth Forces don’t interfere.”

“Got it.”

He started for the door, but Cagalli’s voice stopped him. “Alex.”

Alex glanced over his shoulder. The princess was looking at him with an unreadable expression. “Be careful.”

“I will.”

Archangel

While the officers debated what to do next, Kira had already made his own decision. Unable to stand the situation any longer, he drifted down the corridor towards Lacus’s quarters. He hesitated at his destination, then pressed the hatch control. “Miss Clyne?”

Lacus sat up and blinked. “Mister Yamato? What are you doing here this late?”

“Please, hurry up and get dressed,” he said. “I’m getting you out of here.”

A few minutes later, they moved quietly for the pilots’ locker room. As it was ship’s night, they did not meet anyone until they were almost at the door. Kira, hearing movement, motioned for Lacus to duck around the corner, out of sight.

She moved just in time. Sai Argyle and Miriallia Haw almost collided with Kira. “Kira, what are you doing up?” Sai asked.

Kira forced a nonchalant attitude. “Couldn’t sleep. You?”

“We were checking on Flay,” Mir said, then froze as Lacus appeared behind Kira. “Um…”

His expression hardened. “Please, don’t try to interfere. I just can’t let this go on.”

Sai and Mir conversed in low tones, then looked up. “We’ll help,” Sai said.

Kira smiled, relieved. “Thank you.”

The pilot and the princess were soon suited up (given the transfer method Kira had in mind, Lacus need a vac suit, though her bunched dress made her look somewhat overweight), and the four teens made it to the hangar without incident. Sai and Mir watched for trouble, allowing Kira and Lacus to reach the Strike.

Lacus smiled at the young volunteers. “Goodbye, then. I hope we meet again someday.”

Sai shrugged. “I’m not so sure we will.” Then, to Kira, “Kira, you’ll be back, right?”

Kira nodded. He understood why Sai wanted to make sure, since his friendship with the pilot of the Aegis was common knowledge. “I will. I promise.” He closed the hatch, ignoring the shouts Sai and Mir exchanged with Murdoch, who had come out of nowhere, and then he was launching, and it did not matter.

bridge

Murrue and Badgiruel jerked upright simultaneously as alarms blared. “What is going on?” Murrue demanded.

Badgiruel stared at her display in disbelief. “The Strike is launching!” she said, astonished. She punched an intercom button. “Kira Yamato, just what are you doing?”

“You’re wasting your time, Ensign,” Mu said from the Moebius Zero. “He’s getting the girl out, and it’s too late to stop him.”

Badgiruel hissed in frustration. “Just what does he think he’s doing?”

Pal gave them another puzzle. “Captain, the Stormbird is directly behind us!”

Before Murrue could say anything, Alex’s face appeared on the main screen. “Alex, what is going on?” she demanded.

He smiled thinly. “I think, and I’m sure you do as well, that Kira is getting Lacus out, and there’s nothing you can do to stop him. If nothing else, I will make sure of that.”

“Strassmeier, just what do you think you’re-” Badgiruel began hotly.

Alex cut her off. “Keep your mouth shut, you coward,” he snarled, his voice abruptly harsh. “He’s only correcting the mistake you made. If you interfere, you will regret it.” He cut the link before anyone could respond.

Murrue sighed. “He’s right. It is out of our hands. Still…” She met Mu’s gaze on her arm viewer. “Be prepared to launch if Kira needs help.”

He flipped a salute. “You got it.”

Vesalius, pilots’ ready room

Athrun slammed his fist into a locker. “Lacus is a civilian! How could you take her hostage?” An image of Kira flashed through his mind. “Kira, how can you be with that kind of people? Aren’t you one of us, a Coordinator like me?”

An alarm sounded, followed by the voice of a radar operator. “We’re detecting a mobile suit launching from the legged ship!”

Then Kira spoke. “Attention, ZAFT vessel. This is the pilot of the Strike. My mission is peaceful; I am returning Lacus Clyne to you. She will be given over on two conditions: that you cut your engines, and that we be met only by the pilot of the Aegis.” His voice hardened. “If these demands are not met, I cannot guarantee her safety.”

Minutes later, Athrun was strapping into the Aegis. He keyed his radio. “Commander, please let me go.”

“We don’t know if Miss Clyne is in that machine,” Ades protested. “And there’s still the black ship…”

“Alex will be helping us here,” Yzak put in, “making sure the Earth Forces don’t get in the way.”

Le Creuset considered that, then nodded. “Very well. You’ve permission.”

Athrun smiled gratefully. “Thank you, sir.”

open space

Seeing the Aegis, Kira brought the Strike to a stop. “Athrun? Is that you?”

“It’s me, Kira,” Athrun replied.

Kira leveled his beam rifle. “Open your cockpit!”

Not wanting any trouble, Athrun complied. The hatch opened, allowing him to view the Strike directly.

“Say something,” Kira told the Pink Princess. “He can’t see you from there.”

“Hello, Athrun!” she called. “It’s good to see you again!”

Athrun smiled, visibly relieved. “I confirm it’s Lacus.”

“Then prepare to receive her.”

Kira gave Lacus a gentle shove, sending her into Athrun’s waiting arms. For a long moment, the two old friends gazed at each other across the void.

I still have a chance, Athrun thought. “Kira! You come along with us, too! There isn’t any reason why you should remain with the Earth Forces!”

Kira bowed his head, feeling tears sting his eyes. “Believe me, the last thing I want to do is fight you. But aboard that ship are people I feel obligated to protect.” He looked up. “My friends are on that ship!”

Athrun teared up as well. Why? Why did it have to come to this? “Then I have got no choice, Kira. The next time we meet in battle, I will show you no mercy!”

“Same goes for me.”

The Strike closed and spun on its axis, returning to the Archangel. Even as it retreated, Rau Le Creuset sprung his trap. He had come out personally in his CGUE, intending to take advantage of Kira’s action. He had it made, now…or so he thought.

“Commander?” Athrun asked, incredulous.

“Athrun, return to the ship with Miss Clyne at once!” Le Creuset snapped, then barked a startled curse as a green blast narrowly missed him. “What the?”

The Stormbird, having abandoned its position behind the Archangel, charged in at full speed. “Le Creuset, you bastard!” Alex snarled. “Kira came out in good faith!”

Le Creuset turned to engage the new threat, but another intervened. “Commander Le Creuset, what are you doing?” Lacus demanded.

“Miss Clyne, this really isn’t the time-“

“Are you planning to turn this into a battlefield in the presence of a memorial representative like myself?” she continued. “Commander, I am ordering you to break off your attack at once!”

The masked man cursed under his breath. Of all the times… Very well. “Understood. I’m breaking off.”

Kira, Mu, and Alex watched as the three ZAFT ships pulled away. Mu felt nothing but satisfaction. The two Coordinators felt differently, both saddened that they would soon have to fight people dear to them once again.

Mu at last broke the silence. “Come on, you two. Let us head back.”

Author’s note: not much to say this time, except sorry for taking so long. The author will try to do better. The author hopes this passes muster.