I don't own anything except Ken DiFalco, his team, and Sophia DiFalco
I also do not own the Odin; it is Deathzealot's creation, and the credit is his, not mine
The fierce battles that raged around Jachin Due were decisive in ending the First Bloody Valentine War. Through the courage, strength, and sacrifice of the men and women of the six ships that chose to oppose ZAFT and the Earth Alliance alike, the nineteen-month-long conflict between Earth and the PLANT colonies finally came to a close.
The battles between ships and mobile suits were not the only ones to take place, however. Not long after Lance Cooper sacrificed himself and his ship to eliminate the insane Patrick Zala, the agents of True ZAFT that had been left in the PLANTs themselves stormed the Supreme Council Chamber in Aprilius One. Led by Eileen Canaver, the last member of Siegel Clyne's Council faction to remain in hiding within the PLANTs, they swiftly detained and arrested the caretaker government, led by Zala's most trusted supporter, Ezalia Joule; in what amounted to a bloodless coup, full control was secured even before the weapon of mass destruction known as GENESIS was destroyed by its own creator.
In the end, the process was peaceful; Joule's own son contacted her as soon as he learned of Canaver's actions, and convinced her -with a dose of his new commander's inside knowledge- that Zala's actions had nearly led to the loss of everything she believed in. With that knowledge in mind, Joule and her fellow Council members made no protest as Canaver secured temporary control of the Coordinator Homeland.
The operation that had long ago been termed "The Shiva Option" was a complete success. For all the sacrifices that had been required, including the entire crew of the True ZAFT Mobile Suit Transport Arkbird, the plan worked, with a far lower body count among its own than its creator had dared dream.
The war was over, and a tense but controlled situation existed within the PLANTs... yet the architects of that very success were almost conspicuously absent from the post-war proceedings...
PLANTs, Aprilius One, Eileen Canaver's Office, October 1st, C.E. 71
As they waited just outside the door of the interim Supreme Council Chairman's office, Murrue Ramius noted with some amusement that her companion seemed uncomfortable in his current uniform, without his perpetual trench coat over it. It was all very proper, of course; a ZAFT red uniform, with the gray feather collar tabs and distinctive shoulder patch that denoted a member of True ZAFT's core group, the Gray Demons. Tailored to perfection, the collar was probably as uncomfortable as that of any dress uniform she knew of... though it might also have been the sling that was bothering him.
"It'll be fine, Ken," she said encouragingly (she herself still wore the white uniform of a True ZAFT commander). "It's not like this is the first time you've been in this particular office, you know."
Ken DiFalco smiled faintly. "Yeah, I know... but last time I was here, it was Patrick's office, and my arm wasn't in a sling." He did not, Murrue noticed, mention the bandages covering several broken ribs; but then it was unlikely he was complaining about physical discomfort at all. Stoic even now where injuries were concerned, he was probably just worried about keeping up appearances.
"I think Chairman Canaver will understand," she pointed out dryly. "It's only been a week since you were injured, and it was for a good cause. You're lucky it was just an arm and a few ribs." Even luckier when you considering that I'd have killed you myself if you hadn't come back to me...
"True enough," he agreed quietly, a distant look in his eye (as always, his left was covered by the patch that kept out much of ultraviolet and infrared spectrums). He was remembering someone, a man not much older than he, who had been one of his best friends -and his most trusted subordinate... "I nearly got blown up two or three times during that battle," the ace continued after a pause. "As it is, I guess I got off pretty lightly, at that."
"Commander DiFalco?" the Chairman's secretary politely interrupted. "The Chairman will see you now."
Ken nodded. "Thank you." Steeling himself one last time, as Murrue's hand slipped through his good arm, he stepped into the office.
It had been over a year since his last time in that room. Spacious as ever, with the same furnishings that he remembered, it was a brighter place than he recalled. Its previous occupant had preferred low lighting... but it was no longer Patrick Zala seated at that desk.
In fact, the room's occupant wasn't seated at all. "It's good to see you, Commander DiFalco," Eileen Canaver greeted, reaching out to shake the pilot's hand. "And may I say, it's an honor to meet you, Captain Ramius."
"Thank you, Ms. Chairman," Murrue replied, shaking the woman's hand in turn. "I must say, I never expected to walk into this office."
"I'm sure. And frankly, were it not for the efforts of you and your forces, you wouldn't have been able to; the Earth Alliance's nuclear weapons would've seen to that." Waving them to a couch near one wall, Canaver settled into a chair facing them. "The PLANTs owe all of you a great debt," she said quietly. "To quote a twentieth century politician, never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Murrue had to smile when Ken immediately replied, in his usual quiet voice, "That would be Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain, just after the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. As I recall, a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, upon hearing that, said 'Someone must have told him about our bar bills'."
Canaver smiled appreciatively. "I should've known you'd be familiar with it, Commander; though from your reputation, I somehow doubt bar bills are of any consequence here."
"True. Besides, I can't get drunk."
"Quite." She leaned back in her chair. "I realize the two of you have a celebration to attend, so I won't keep you long; I just asked you here because I was curious about your plans, now that the war is over."
"That's all right, Ms. Chairman," Murrue assured her. "As for our plans... Well, first thing we're going to do is take a vacation. Ken tells me he hasn't had one since the fighting started in the blockade, back in 69, so it's time he got some time off." She smiled. "Time I did, too; this year hasn't exactly been relaxing."
"No doubt." Canaver steepled her fingers in thought. "I was actually more interested in your long-term plans. After all, even with the war over, there's still much to be done. For example, though the neutron jammers have effectively eliminated the radiation by now, the Orb Union will need a lot of work to bring it back to its former status."
Ken nodded. "Yeah. The nuclear attack devastated anything even remotely connected to the military, as well as several civilian areas; hardly a surprise, when you consider that nuclear weapons are hardly precision ordnance." He idly rubbed his eyepatch. "I understand that part of the truce agreement holds that the Earth Alliance relinquish all control over the remnants of Orb."
She nodded. "That's right. In the formal treaty, we hope to restore national borders to what they were pre-war; the Earth Alliance will give up Orb, Carpentaria, and the United States of South America, while we give back Kaohsiung, Gibraltar, and our holdings in the South African Union. Also, we hope to include an anti-nuclear provision. We have no problem with the use of nuclear reactors for civilian purposes, but the scourge of nuclear weapons is something we hope never to see on the battlefield again."
"I can't disagree there," the ace agreed quietly. "They cost me my home, my first love, and very nearly my life." His gaze sharpened. "But you understand, don't you, that the genie is out of the bottle? There have been many treaties over the years regarding the use of nuclear weapons, but in the end, they also return to the battlefield."
Canaver sighed. "You're very likely right, Commander. But at least we can keep them off the table for a little while."
"There I can agree." Ken nodded slowly. "If you want my opinion, I'd say this treaty concept is sound; it avoids the problems the Versailles Treaty caused after the First World War. 'We were stabbed in the back,'" he quoted. "That was one justification Adolf Hitler used. If you try to restrict the other party too much, there will be resentment, and it will be justified. A treaty that attempts to solve all the problems for one side only leads to the war beginning anew a few years down the line."
"We're aware of that," she assured him. "And that's why I'd like to ask you to be on hand when we start hammering out the treaty for real." She raised a hand then, to head off his protest. "I know you're not a politician, or a diplomat, Commander. I won't ask you to help draft the treaty. All I want is the perspective of a student of history who also participated in the war; if there's a bad historical precedent for any of it, I want to know about it before we end up with another Versailles."
Murrue frowned thoughtfully. "You know, Ken, she has a point."
Ken rubbed his eyepatch again, and sighed. "Yeah, I guess so. All right, Chairman, you have a consultant... though I warn you now that my perspective won't be exactly unbiased."
"I'm aware of that, Commander." Canaver tilted her head. "On another matter... I gather you have no plans to return to active duty in ZAFT."
He shook his head. "No, I'm afraid I don't. Too much bad blood between me and ZAFT now, Chairman; while there are many who, in the aftermath of the Battle of Jachin Due, understand what I was doing, there are also a great many who consider me nothing more than a murderous traitor. And even those who think I was doing the right thing would be wary of me now, after all the ZAFT blood I spilled to end the fighting."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I can see that... So, what do you plan to do now?"
Ken smiled almost wistfully. "For a start... Well, like you said, Orb needs a lot of work. Most of the population survived by fleeing to Ame-no-Mihashira, but now that the islands are habitable again, they'll need to rebuild the cities. I started out in engineering, you know, so I thought I might turn my talents to architecture."
Canaver blinked. "I think that's an excellent idea, Commander... but I must confess, I can't quite picture you helping to build cities instead of planning how to conquer them."
He grinned slightly. "To be perfectly honest, Chairman, neither can I. War has been my profession since early adolescence, with my engineering talents geared toward weapon development. But my war is over, and it's time to try my hand at building peace, instead of war. I'll leave peacekeeping to a younger generation."
She smiled in amusement. "You know, Commander, that sounds a little odd coming from someone only eighteen years old... but I suppose it must seem a lot longer, to you. You were under a burden no one should've had to carry."
"It was my own fault," Ken said simply. "GENESIS was my responsibility. My sin, for which I had to atone. But I've found redemption now, in the destruction of that infernal machine and the man who chose to use it to try and annihilate humanity." He scowled then. "I understand that the decision has been made to classify Rau's actions."
Canaver nodded. "I'm afraid so. It's the opinion of the majority of the interim Council that releasing the details of Commander Le Creuset's insanity would only hurt the PLANTs. I'm not sure I agree with that, but there's little I can do." Her gaze hardened. "I can assure you, however, that Zala's actions will not be covered up. Even if we could hide atrocities of that magnitude, we wouldn't; what he did must never be forgotten... and can never be forgiven."
"That'll be hard on Athrun," Murrue mused. "It sounds like it won't be healthy to be a member of the Zala family for a few years..."
"I know," the Chairman said quietly. "And for that, I'm sorry. However, we're already making arrangements to provide Athrun Zala with a new identity, one untouched by his father's stigma. It's not fair -no one should be judged by the sins of their fathers- but it's the best we can do."
"And in the meantime," Ken murmured bitterly, "Rau's actions will never see the light of day." He met the woman's gaze challengingly. "He had confederates, you know."
Canaver nodded. "I know. And that's another reason I asked you here, Commander." She peered at him intently. "You've long hinted that even ousting Zala and removing Azrael wouldn't be the end of the matter. I won't ask you for details; I am well aware that it may be best for me not to know... but I have a proposal for you."
The ace tilted his head. "What kind of proposal?" Murrue noted, though, that he didn't reject it out of hand; there was a curious gleam in his eye, like he was anticipating his next challenge.
Which doesn't surprise me at all, she thought. I know him too well; he'll find the challenge of rebuilding Orb enjoyable, but his heart is that of a warrior. She smiled to herself. Well, whatever it is... at least it won't be right away. And we'll face it together...
"It's something right down your alley, I think," Canaver was saying. "One thing I saw during this war -and the interim Council agrees- was that having a third party, beholden to neither side, was a very valuable thing. An impartial group, that fought against both sides to restore peace... That's something this world needs, Commander. I've discussed the matter with Lady Rondo Mina Sahaku, and she has agreed to my proposal of a jointly-funded organization, supported by both the PLANTs and Orb, but answerable to neither one. A peacekeeping force, of a sort, with broad military and police functions, commanded by someone who need not have the skills of a politician of diplomat. Someone with an experienced eye for military realities, and a sense of right and wrong that both Lady Sahaku and I trust."
"In other words," Ken said slowly, "me."
She nodded. "You. I think we're all agreed that you made a number of errors during the war, most notably GENESIS and your... questionable handling of the situation with Kira Yamato. However, throughout you demonstrated you had a clear sense of right and wrong, and a talent for staying objective under even the most adverse circumstances. A man like you would be ideal for command of the organization we envision."
The ace glanced at Murrue, and she nodded. Why not? her look clearly conveyed, and he leaned forward. "Tell me more."
"Well," Canaver began, encouraged by the pilot's response, "it would, as I said, be supported by both Orb and the PLANTs. Within the Homeland itself, this organization would have essentially complete access to even the most secret military and civil facilities; Orb, once back on its feet, will give you about the same privileges. Now, your usual function would probably be as more of an anti-terrorist force, since terrorist actions tend to be more common than full-blown wars. As such, the ability to act without overt military force would be essential; that's another reason we want you for this job. The covert actions of you and your subordinates before True ZAFT itself came together proved that you know how to operate in the shadow world of antiterrorism and more sensitive police matters."
"It's something I've had to get used to," Ken acknowledged. "I think, though, that it would be best if I not use the title of 'Commander' in that role. Not only would it suggest a continuing, active connection to ZAFT, but under the circumstances, it's probably a good idea if we simply let the Gray Demons -at least the surviving ones- lapse into obscurity." He swallowed, remembering a sacrifice from only a week before. "The gallant actions of those like Lance Cooper must be remembered, but I myself -and, I suspect, Leanne and Tom- prefer not to remain in the spotlight too long. I've done my part; now it's time to move on, and let the world forget."
Canaver nodded in understanding. "We'll see what we can do about that, Commander. As to a title... I think 'Major' would work well. It has paramilitary connotations that would fit such an organization, and its common usage is close to your old ZAFT rank."
"Major..." The ace frowned, considering it for a moment, then nodded. "All right, that works. Certainly no one would expect the Grimaldi Falcon to operate under such a title..." He winced at himself. "Grimaldi Falcon... how I hate that name."
Canaver glanced at Murrue, puzzled, but the younger woman simply shook her head. He still can't let go of Endymion, she thought sadly. It wasn't so obvious before Jachin, but the name that ZAFT once held in such high esteem only served to remind him of the one battle on the Grimaldi Front that he truly remembers... the one that cost him most of his team and nearly his life.
After a moment, Canaver shrugged, and continued. "If you choose to accept, Commander, I'll leave the organizational details to you; you're not a politician, and I'm neither a soldier nor a policewoman. I leave that to the professionals."
Ken closed his eye and lowered his head, thinking. The war is over... I can just walk away from it all, go home and leave the fighting -and the dying- behind... Except that I no longer have a home, do I? Junius Seven is gone, Heliopolis is shattered, and the PLANTs will be hostile to me until the scars have had a chance to heal. There's always Orb, once reconstruction starts... but I can't bear the thought of being trapped in a gravity well, denied the freedom of the stars...
Murrue watched him, understanding better than almost anyone alive what was going through the pilot's mind. He wants to let it all go, start a new life, and forget the war... but as long as he is who he is, and the world remembers the name Ken DiFalco, he's got almost nowhere to go. Ken... what will you do? Where will you go? Whatever you decide... I'm with you.
At last, the pilot looked up, and met her gaze. "Well, Murrue? What do you think?"
"I think that it's time for you to start over," Murrue said simply. "You can't go back, and you can't stay where you are... and if I know you, the warrior will always be inside you. You can be happy designing architecture as a side job, but you'll always be driven to find the next challenge, and you know it."
Ken smiled slightly. "Yeah, I guess you're right." He looked back at their host. "All right, Chairman Canaver. I'll take the job. And, while of course I can't speak for them, I suspect Leanne and Tom will also be looking for work. I just wish... Never mind." He shook his head, trying to dispel the memories. Later, in private...
Canaver raised an eyebrow at the reaction, but refrained from comment. "Thank you, Commander... or should I say, Major. We can discuss the details later; but there's something I might mention now. I understand you have a dislike for living on planet?"
He winced. "Yeah, you could say that. You could also say that I'd get lost if I went ten meters without a guide." He remembered all too well the last time he'd gotten lost on Earth...
She smiled. "Well, I doubt you'll need to worry about that. According to what Siegel and Yuri have told me, you captured a space station from the Earth Forces during your hit-and-run operations leading up to Jachin; from what I know of it, especially given its remote location, I expect it would do nicely as a base for your new organization."
Ken nodded thoughtfully. "You're probably right. I do have one question, though: under the circumstances, it would probably be unwise for us to use the name True ZAFT, or Gray Demons. What exactly will this unit be called?"
"Something suitably mysterious," Canaver replied, "that can't be definitively connected with the PLANTs or Orb, thus helping to emphasize the third-party nature of the outfit. We were thinking of calling it 'Section Nine'..."
PLANTs, Aprilius One, Cemetery for the War Dead
After climbing out of the official transportation Canaver had insisted on supplying, the two made their way down the path to where the others were waiting, both in a contemplative mood. There would be celebrations ahead, but first it was time they honored those whose lives had been lost in the conflict.
As they walked, Murrue glanced sidelong at her companion. "You know," she murmured, "you were being pretty mysterious back there. It looked to me like Canaver knew you knew something, but didn't want to ask... so I'm going to. Just what is it that has you so eager to take command of this new organization? There must be more to it than just boredom."
Ken was silent at first... but his silence didn't last long. The time for his eternal secrets was over; in his new life, there'd be no room for hiding things from those close to him. "The end of the war was not the end of the cause that gave rise to it," he said at last. "Patrick is dead, and so is Azrael... but there are other radical elements waiting in the wings in the PLANTs, and even Azrael had someone behind him."
She frowned. "But I thought Azrael was the leader of Blue Cosmos."
He nodded. "He was. But Blue Cosmos was only part of a larger organization, which very few people even realize exist. They provoked the war, used Blue Cosmos as a weapon... and I highly doubt they'll be satisfied with how the war ended. It may take years, it might even take a decade, but they'll be back, setting up yet another conflict."
Murrue sighed. "Somehow, I'm not surprised. What's their motive, though? Genetic prejudice, like Blue Cosmos and Zala?"
Ken snorted. "No, although I expect they're no fonder of Coordinators than the average Blue Cosmos diehard. Actually, their motive is pure greed: they're a consortium consisting mostly of weapons manufacturers, intent on increasing their own profits by fanning the flames of war. That's how I heard the story, anyway. I first caught wind of them last year, when I was helping set up security for the conference in Copernicus that ended up bombed; I heard the occasional rumbling about them throughout the early stages of the war, too. When I deserted ZAFT, and began setting up what would become True ZAFT, I had my people start looking into the matter, and they dug up a lot of dirt on quite a few prominent individuals." He scowled. "A couple of them are highly-placed in Orb, and therefore untouchable... for now. But they are out there, and they are a danger."
She nodded slowly, understanding dawning. "Which is one reason Leanne and the others were so fanatical about keeping you alive, even beyond the bounds of friendship." She looked at him shrewdly. "Let me guess: most of the information about them exists only in your head, right?"
"Old habits die hard," he said simply. "But that's a big part of why I accepted Canaver's offer. With such sweeping access to both Orb and the PLANTs, with significant -and legal- resources all our own, Section Nine will be able to make a dent in this consortium's -they call themselves LOGOS- operations. At first, we should be able to operate with relative impunity; it'll take time for them to realize that Section Nine is straying beyond their 'primary' mission of counterterrorism. And eventually, we'll work our way up the chain -hopefully with some arrests, certainly with a few dead bodies- until we can deal with the big fish."
Murrue smiled, and squeezed his arm. "Well, I'll be with you all the way, Ken. I'm not letting you get away from me now."
The gathering was coming into view now, over a hill. In a cemetery made depressingly large by the sheer scale of the conflict, there was plenty of room. "Boss! Murrue!" Tom Delaney called. "Over here!"
As they ambled over to the group, Ken smirked at his old teammate, and called back, "That's Major to you, Captain; there've been a few changes."
The engineer-pilot turned mobile assault ship-captain shook his head tolerantly. "Something tells me Chairman Canaver bamboozled you into something during that meeting, 'Major'. Well, can't be any crazier than the last time..." His face fell suddenly into shadow, as he remembered someone else from "the last time", who was no longer with them.
"I know, Tom," Ken said quietly. "That's why we're here..." He was not speaking of his new career.
Standing around a new memorial, the group was an eclectic one. They all wore the same cut of uniform -save for the Kusanagi and Odin representatives- but the colors and insignia varied amongst them, a collage of green, gray, red, and white, with the both variants of the True ZAFT emblem, as well as those of Orb and Odin's independent faction.
Though they were collectively a group, they tended to stand in pairs; Kira Yamato and Cagalli Yula Athha stood to one side, quietly talking with Athrun Zala and Lacus Clyne, Miriallia Haw knelt with Dearka Elsman, looking at a pair of names on the monument itself; Andrew Waltfeld and Aisha exchanged war stories with Rear Admiral Lewis C. Halberton and his flag captain, Jason Chance... who stood with Natarle Badgiruel. Ledonir Kisaka, captain of the Kusanagi, appeared to have fallen into his bodyguard habits, watching the perimeter with almost unconscious care.
Sophia "Victorian Kestrel" DiFalco and Mu "Hawk of Endymion" La Flaga were holding an earnest conversation, a lot of it with their hands as they described maneuvers they'd pulled in early battles of the war, before either of them got involved with the Archangel.
Yzak Joule and Shiho Hahnenfuss appeared to be swapping battle techniques; Ken smiled to himself at that. Yzak may be oblivious, but I know Shiho. She'll get him in the end; she's one of my Demons, after all...
Flay Allster and Sai Argyle were off to one side, conversing in low tones; exactly what they spoke of, the ace preferred not to know. It wasn't his business, and whatever issues the two still had, it was something they would have to work out between themselves.
Asagi Caldwell, Mayura Labatt, and Juri Wu Nien were in the middle of an earnest discussion with Morgan Chevalier and Alicia Cateau; it seemed that the two ex-Earth Forces pilots were at loose ends, and the Astray test pilots were looking for something to do while Orb slowly began to rebuild. Hm; might have to talk to them, Ken thought, making a mental note.
Nicol Amalfi and Leanne Eldridge, along with the rest of Archangel's Bridge crew, rounded out the group of True ZAFT higher-ups; the rest of the crews of the True ZAFT ships were off celebrating in their own way, away from the senior officers. It was something Ken had learned long before: lieutenants and below prefer not to rub elbows with captains and above when all they want to do is get drunk and forget the battles.
"I guess everyone's here, huh," Ken murmured to Murrue. "Think it's time?"
She nodded. "Yes. And you're the one to do it, Ken; you were there from the beginning until the very end... and you're the one who's always making speeches anyway."
He gave her a quizzical look -even now, he remained cheerfully oblivious to his own oratory habits- but stepped over to the monument's base anyway. It was a cenotaph... and inscribed upon it were the names of all the people they had lost in the long war, from the Bloody Valentine until the Second Battle of Jachin Due. It was a long list... but one that needed to be honored.
"It's quite the victory that we won, these past days," Ken began without preamble, effectively shutting off the muted conversations. "A couple of hundred of us stood against the millions on both sides, be they ZAFT, Earth Forces, or Blue Cosmos irregulars. The odds were against us, and both sides desired our destruction, but we chose to fight anyway. We all had our own reasons; Kira fought for an end to the bloodshed, for example. And to be sure, that was a part of my own thinking. But I fought mostly for the PLANTs, for my fallen comrades... and, in the end, for my own redemption. The rest of you no doubt had your own reasons; not one of us thinks exactly alike." His one-eyed gaze swept solemnly over the gathering, and he had to swallow before he could continue. "And we won... but not all us who fought are with us here today, save in spirit. Ending a conflict whose destruction was exceeded only by the Reconstruction War at the beginning of the current era was only accomplished at great cost. For some of us, like me, that cost first drove us onto this path less traveled by. I lost my home and the one I loved at the Bloody Valentine, and over half my team at Endymion. My sister and I both lost our parents at Heliopolis. Murrue," he went on, nodding at his captain, who had become so much more to him, "lost someone dear to her as well, in the war." He forbore from mentioning how it occurred; even now, some of his deeds were better kept private. "And the Archangel's first loss came on April Seventeenth of this year, when Tolle Koenig chose to fight to protect his friends and the girl he loved, and fell in his attempt."
At those words, Athrun lowered his head, still ashamed of that act. Though Mir had forgiven him, he still wasn't sure he could forgive himself...
Mir herself closed her eyes, and leaned instinctively into Dearka's comforting embrace.
"That, unfortunately, was not to be the last life lost in our struggle," Ken continued, past a lump in his throat. "Perhaps the single greatest example is Orb, where the Archangel took refuge after the betrayal at Alaska. On June Sixteenth, the Earth Forces launched a nuclear attack, and while most of the civilians had been evacuated to Ame-no-Mihashira, some still remained, and nearly the entire government of Orb perished, by their own choice." He turned to the monument, lightly running a hand down the endless list of names. "Throughout the subsequent battles, we were lucky; the only serious casualties of Mendel were my eyes, and we emerged from Zantetsuken and GENESIS Alpha battered but alive. But then... then came Jachin." He swallowed again, and his voice wasn't quite steady. "On September Twenty-sixth, we lost a number of our Astray and GuAIZ pilots, as well as the Bridge crew of Asmodeus,several crewmen on Archangel, Eternal, and Kusanagi. And... and..." The pilot's voice broke, tears threatening to escape before he could regain his control. "And the entire crew of the Arkbird, including Lance Cooper."
He had to pause for a few moments before he could continue. "Sparky was... one of the best friends I ever had," he ace said haltingly. "We went through the Academy together, served together during the blockade, and were stationed together at Martius Three before the First Battle of Jachin Due. When the time came for me to form my own team, he was my first choice, as my exec, my tactical alter ego. Together, we put together the team that would soon be called the Gray Demons, selecting the best candidates we could find. That, unfortunately, included another friend of mine, Victor Tempest, whose insanity nearly cost me my life, but he redeemed himself in the end. But I digress. Sparky... was a fine pilot, a good friend, and an excellent ship captain. His integrity was without question, his loyalty absolute... and he will be sorely missed."
With that, Ken bowed his head and stepped away; there were others to be spoken of, like Tolle, but he was not the one to do the speaking. He'd considered Tolle Koenig a friend, but in truth had not taken the time to get to know him very well. And now, I'll never have the chance...
It was Sai who ended up speaking of Tolle, with -of all people- Dearka's encouragement. As he did, Yzak walked quietly over to Freedom's pilot. "Kira," he said quietly, a peculiar look in his eye, "there's something I have to ask you."
Kira tilted his head. "What is it, Yzak?" He had a hunch that he knew, though.
Duel's pilot glanced away. "That shuttle... the shuttle I shot down during the battle with the Eighth Fleet. Was it carrying troops?"
"No," Kira told him softly. "They... they were survivors from Heliopolis. After the colony collapsed, I found a damaged lifeboat, drifting in the wreckage, and brought it aboard Archangel. When we rendezvoused with the Eighth Fleet, they were transferred to the Menelaos, and from there were to take a shuttle down to Earth." He looked down. "I was supposed to be on it, too..."
Yzak closed his eyes. "So Commander Le Creuset was right... I did kill those people." He clenched a fist. "It wasn't supposed to be that way," he whispered. "Civilians aren't supposed to get caught in the crossfire; only soldiers should be on the battlefield..." He cursed under his breath, directing it both at the late, unlamented Rau Le Creuset... and himself.
"It's not your fault, Yzak," Cagalli told him quietly. "Even Kira has to admit that. You saw a military shuttle descending from an Earth Forces battleship; what else were you going to think? I'm not sure it's a good idea to take out your anger on something like that in the first place, but you certainly couldn't have known that it was full of civilians, not troops."
"Maybe not, but..." The silver-haired pilot sighed. "I guess that's a lesson to remember. That'll teach me to lose my temper in a battle..."
"I've run across worse tempers on the battlefield, Yzak," Ken told him, coming up behind him. "And better a nasty temper than outright insanity, like Victor Tempest and Rau Le Creuset." He frowned, recalling something else. "Speaking of those two defective clones..." The ace turned to where his siblings stood. "Hey, Sophia," he called, "did you ever crack the last of Metzinger's files?"
"Almost all of them," Sophia acknowledged, walking over with Mu. "Why?"
"Oh, just something that was never cleared up. It's mostly a matter of curiosity, but I'd be interested in knowing exactly how I came about. Was I cloned, or...?"
"You're not a clone, Falcon," she assured him. "If you were, you'd have manifested the accelerated ageing long since. No, you were born in a relatively natural way, via preserved genetic material from Mu's parents. Still a little out of the ordinary -I understand you were the 'prototype' subject for the artificial womb- but not a direct copy of anyway else. You're you, nobody else."
"Not that it was very difficult to figure out," Murrue said dryly. "As near as I can tell, Ken, the only personality trait you share with your father is a touch of his arrogance."
"More than a touch," Mu opined with a grin, "but at least it's better justified than our father's." He cocked an eyebrow. "By the way, what was up with that 'Major' business when your got here? I've never heard you call yourself that before."
Ken smiled. "My new career, Mu; or one of them, anyway. Chairman Canaver has requested me -and I have accepted- to set up a new, third party paramilitary force, something supported by both Orb and the PLANTs but accountable to no one. According to her, she wants something like the True ZAFT faction to be around in case of future conflicts; a group that can intervene to support one side or the other, or neither, as the case may be. Apparently, she trusts my judgment in that regard. In any case, we've determined that it's best if the surviving Gray Demons just fade into obscurity now, so when I assume command of this new 'Section Nine', I'll do so under the codename Major."
Kira looked at him through narrowed eyes. "I should've known you couldn't stay out of the game for long," he said shrewdly. "Admiral Halberton told me about the difference between a soldier and a warrior, and I see he was right. If war comes again, you'll be right in the middle of it, won't you?"
"When, Kira," the ace said softly. "Not if. If you truly think the war we just won was the last, then you weren't paying any attention. Mankind will always find reasons to kill each other... and as long as there's breath in me, I'll continue to try and minimize the damage. I won't deny that battle is part of what defines me... but just as in the war, it's duty that drives me." He shrugged then, pulled a flask of something alcoholic-smelling out of his uniform jacket, and took a careful sip. "Anyway, it's not like it'll be my only job. Like I was telling Chairman Canaver earlier, I'm going into architecture, to help rebuild Orb."
"The great Grimaldi Falcon designing a city," Halberton chuckled, joining them while his flag captain and Natarle continued their own conversation. "I never would've believed it... but I guess even you need a rest, after your long mission."
"He does, Admiral," Murrue told him. "He does." She remembered how her love had collapsed into her arms after the Battle of Jachin Due, exhausted beyond belief. Had his sheer willpower been any lesser, she doubted he'd have made it as long as he had, fighting for so long.
"She's right about that, Lewis," Ken agreed quietly. "There's only so long a soldier can spend on the sharp end before he reaches his limit; I think I surpassed mine, in the end. I have every intention of doing absolutely nothing combat-related for the next six months or longer."
"Wise of you," Halberton said sagely, and turned to his old protege. "And what about you, Murrue? What areyour plans, now that the war is over?"
Murrue smiled, leaning her head against Ken's shoulder. "Well, first, I'm going with Ken on his vacation. After that... I wasn't always a soldier myself, you know. After graduating from the Academy, I was a reserve officer for most of the years before the war broke out, and spent my time as a school teacher. I think that would be a good thing to return to." She raised an eyebrow. "What about you, Admiral?"
"Me?" Halberton laughed. "Well, nothing so glamorous for me, I'm afraid. I'm just going to retire, and leave matters in the hands of you youngsters. I can't go home again, of course -the Earth Alliance would never let me back into the Atlantic Federation- but Chairman Canaver has graciously offered to let me remain in the PLANTs, among the people we all fought to save. I know, I know, I'm only in my late forties... but war is one thing you're never too young to retire from. Besides, how can I possibly top being involved in a battle like this one? It's a fine crowning achievement for my career."
"I agree, Sir," she said fervently. "You've earned your retirement, and then some." She looked over at Kira. "What about you, Kira? I can't see you staying with the military, unless something drastic happens."
Freedom's pilot smiled, tucking an arm around Cagalli's shoulders. "I'm going to Orb, of course, once the cities have started to rebuild. They're going to need Cagalli down there; that's why she was sent with us into space to begin with... and I'm not leaving her."
"If you did, I'd have Ken's new unit hunt you down," Cagalli growled.
Ken shuddered. "I'd do it, too; my partner is scary when she's in a bad mood..." He glanced at the son of his former friend and recent enemy. "And you, Athrun? Chairman Canaver was saying something about setting up a new identity for you..."
Athrun shrugged. "I don't really know, Falcon. Wherever we go, Lacus and I will be together... but we're not sure where to go. Even with a new name, the PLANTs may not be healthy for me, so..."
"We'll probably end up in Orb, too," Lacus put in. "My father's retiring, and moving there; it would probably be ideal for us, as well."
"You won't have any trouble there," Cagalli promised. So, I guess you'll be having a special election soon? I mean, with your father retiring, and Chairman Zala dead..."
"Yeah," Athrun confirmed, and glanced sidelong at the ace. "By the way, Falcon, you might want to hurry up about getting your new career going. I know it's only been a week, but I've already been hearing rumors of you being pushed for the post..."
Ken shook his head emphatically. "Not happening, Athrun," he said firmly; and, shooting Lacus a sharp look, added, "and you can tell your father to forget it, Lacus. I don't want the job."
She shrugged, with a faint smile. "Can't blame him for trying."
"Sure I can. In the first place, the same objections apply to this that do to my return to ZAFT: there's just too much bad blood. In the second place, I can't stand politics. I'll be better off countering terrorists and designing buildings, thanks."
"Your talents do seem to be in that area," Kira noted dryly.
Murrue smiled. "Which? Countering terrorists or designing buildings?"
"Both... except I wasn't thinking buildings, exactly." His own mouth twitched. "Buildings are too small-scale for that kind of ego."
Ken rolled his eye. "I think you can assume my ego's been suitably downsized, Kira; I'm very, very lucky I'm not dead, and my arrogance nearly cost us the rest of the world, too." He lowered his head a little, eye disappearing in the shadow of his dark brown hair. "A mistake I won't make again..."
He heard a throat clearing, and looked up to see Jason Chance coming over, Natarle in tow. "Excuse me, Comm- er, Major," Odin's captain began, "but I understand you're setting up a new paramilitary organization?"
Ken raised an eyebrow. "Either word travels fast, or you have good ears, Captain. Yes, I am. Why?"
"Because my crew and I have run into a bit of a problem," the ex-Earth Forces soldier explained. "We seem to be unemployed at the moment, with nowhere to dock our ship... and the Odin's maintenance costs are a little beyond the reach of a crew of unemployed spacemen." Chance smiled. "In other words, Major, if you're looking for recruits, we've got a shipfull of them, and even a mobile suit or two to go with."
The ace fingered his eyepatch. "It so happens, Captain Chance, that I find myself in possession of a space station that might serve nicely as dock for your ship. Welcome aboard." He tilted his head. "Though as far as mobile suits are concerned, it was my understanding that you only had the one pilot, and I haven't spoken with him..."
"Count me in," Morgan Chevalier told him, cigar clamped between his teeth as he and Cateau wandered over. "I don't trust the Earth Forces, and they wouldn't let me back in if I did... And besides, I ain't ready to retire. Putting out the occasional brush fire sounds pretty interesting."
"I'd like in as well, Sir," Cateau put in, with a sad smile. "I know you forgave me for the Bloody Valentine, but I still feel I must do my part... and while I may not be the finest mobile suit pilot in the world, I rather think you need ground combat specialists as well as ship crews and pilots. As it happens, I was Eurasian Federation Army Recon before becoming a mobile armor pilot, and I happen to know a thing or two about sniping and covert infiltration."
"Recon, eh? Hm; I was cross-trained in it myself, at the Academy... Well, I can't agree that you still have a debt to pay off, Lieutenant, but I'll be glad to have you." Ken chuckled quietly. "It seems the manpower side of things may not be difficult, at that. Which reminds me..." He raised his voice. "Tom, Leanne... and you too, Nicol. Over here."
"What's up, Boss?" Tom asked. "And is it just me, or is everybody starting to come over here?"
"Never mind that," Ken said dismissively. "I've got something to ask the two of you." He paused, thinking over his next words. "I... don't really have any right to ask you this," he said slowly, "considering how things turned out the last time I asked you to do something, but... Could you two come with me? At Chairman Canaver's suggestion, with the support of both the PLANTs and Orb, I'm organizing a new paramilitary organization, to fulfil essentially the same function True ZAFT did during the war. It will probably be a little safer than that venture was, but..."
Leanne reached out and gripped her commander's shoulder. "We're with you, Boss," she said quietly. "We've followed you since the battles on the Grimaldi Front, taken your orders even into desertion and treason this past year. We're not just a team now... we're a family. We'll follow you to the end."
"Leanne's right," Tom agreed. "Following you's worked out so far; might as well see where the future takes us, eh, Boss?"
Ken swallowed. "Thank you, you two. Thanks a lot..."
"Count me in, too," Nicol requested. "I can't think of anything better to do with my time then to help protect the world... no matter what enemies we find along the way."
The ace nodded slowly. "I think this is going to work out, people. Let me say now, though, that this won't exactly be a full-time job. It's going to take months of preparation that we won't even be involved in to get the basics set up, and after that our Section Nine duties will only come up when there's a mission to carry out. We'll train often enough, but the only time we're likely to be on full-time operations is in time or war. So," he added with a smile, "Nicol can keep up being a concert pianist, Tom and I can help rebuild Orb, and Murrue can teach without too many interruptions."
"Probably fewer interruptions than the rest of you," Murrue said dryly. "I doubt I'll have any real involvement except in wartime; I am a shipboard officer, after all. I think Odin can serve your transportation needs most of the time. And besides, we have... other plans for the Archangel. For one thing, we took a lot of damage in that last battle, which will take some time to make good."
"That's true." Ken stared moodily into the distance, remembering well the Archangel's damage. It would've been even worse, he thought, if I hadn't put Preybird in that shot's path. They would all have died... just as I nearly did. How did I survive? he wondered, not for the first time. The timing... if my barriers hadn't blown at the precise instant they did, I probably would've been disintegrated... And what I saw afterwards...
He honestly couldn't decide if what he'd seen had been a dream or not. Most certainly, every person he'd seen -or thought he'd seen- during that period was dead; he'd been there for their deaths. Still...
The pilot shook himself. There are some things mortal man is simply not meant to know. Stay away from the metaphysical, O Falcon of Grimaldi, stick with the practical things like engineering.
Murrue lightly shook his arm. "Don't start getting moody on me, Ken; I don't want you to start thinking about kamikaze attacks again or something."
He laughed lightly. "The war's over, isn't it? I'm not crazy, Murrue." Ken glanced over at Yzak. "Speaking of the war being over, Yzak... what are your plans? I know your mother was arrested during Jachin, and you've maybe burned a few bridges, but..."
Yzak shook his head. "I'm not looking for a job, if that's what you're wondering, Commander. My mother was released as soon as it was clear she didn't know about Zala's plans, and Chairman Canaver has offered amnesty to ZAFT members who served with you. I'm going back, along with Shiho." He smiled sheepishly; an unusual expression for him. "I know she's one of your Demons, but..."
Ken shrugged. "Ex-Demon, Yzak, and not one of those who fought at Endymion. She'll be missed, but only three of us remain from that group..." He rubbed his eyepatch. "What about Dearka, though? Any idea what he's going to do?"
"I'm going back, too," Dearka himself answered, coming toward them with Mir at his side. "I'd like nothing better than to join you in your new job, Falcon, but... it's not quite the path I need to take, I think. I'm a pilot, not a covert operative, and besides, with you leaving, somebody needs to keep on protecting the PLANTs themselves."
"But only after a vacation," Mir put in quickly. "He'll be gone often enough as it is; I'm not about to let him go straight back to work after this."
Ken raised an eyebrow. "So, you two are... ah..." The faint reddish tinge to Dearka's face told him all he needed to know. "I see. Well, as a mutual friend -or at least, that's what I like to think I am- I have to say I approve... not that you need my approval."
Mir laughed. "That's right... but did you know there were rumors flying around about us for a while?"
He blinked. "'Us'? As in, you and me? ...Why?"
"I heard about those," Kira noted. "That was before Alaska... before we left Africa, I think. It was probably Murdoch's people that started it, but whoever first thought it up, there were rumors you two were gonna get together. I guess somebody noticed you kept disappearing to someplace or other, and, well..."
Ken rolled his eye. "Oh. That. For your information, Kira, we kept disappearing in order to discuss the results of our impromptu spy operation. That was when we were beginning to be suspicious of Flay, and were keeping an eye on her." He rubbed his eyepatch, and went on thoughtfully, "I suppose the rumors might've made for good cover, though; always wise to have a plausible excuse for activity during an intelligence operation."
Mu laughed. "Yeah, I think you'll fit into covert ops just fine, little brother. Always use everything to your advantage, eh?"
"Yeah. Something like that." He turned, gazing thoughtfully at Flay and Sai. "I wonder what those two will do," the ace murmured. "The name Allster still carries quite a bit of weight in the Atlantic Federation, but I rather think Azrael's surviving confederates are unlikely to permit her to exercise that influence; not when she's been tainted by association with Coordinators. If she's smart, she'll disappear somewhere... and maybe Sai, too. I know most of us at Heliopolis had no idea they were once engaged, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was fairly common knowledge amongst the Atlantic Federation upper crust. That could make him a target, too."
"Flay still has a place on the Archangel, whenever she might want it," Murrue said quietly. "Sai, as well; and if she ever flies the skies of battle again, I'd hope to have them with us. The ship just wouldn't be the same without the old crew aboard..."
Ken nodded. "I know what you mean."
"I think we'll be assigning temporary protection to Miss Allster," Kisaka mused, also joining them. "Orb owes a debt to the Archangel that it can never repay; but we will do what we can." He smiled faintly. "It's something we're good at, as I'm sure you recall."
The pilot nodded. "I remember."
Cagalli glanced curiously between her partner and her former bodyguard. "You know, I remember that you two acted like you knew each other, back in Africa, but you never did get around to explaining how..."
Ken shrugged. "Not much to tell, really. During my goodwill tour in Africa last year, the Colonel and I ran into each other, and had a... difference of opinion. At the time, I was less than impressed by Orb's neutral stance, and the Colonel was already in a foul mood about something; I later found out it was the Talbadiya incident. Anyway, his temper was a little frayed..."
"...And I thought I might take it out on a ZAFT soldier," Kisaka admitted sheepishly. "He'd just made a disparaging remark about our neutrality, so I took it as an excuse to work out some of my anger at the destruction in Talbadiya. I thought it would be over in a matter of seconds, but I must admit I underestimated the Commander."
The ace nodded sagely. "We came out of it with, between us, two black eyes, seven broken or fractured bones, three sprained fingers, a certain respect for each other's abilities, and a profound change in my opinion of Orb." He smiled ruefully. "As I remember it, I was rather grateful afterwards that Orb wasn't involved in the war. Fighting the Colonel was not something I ever cared to try again."
"Nor I you, Commander," the bigger man asserted. "Especially after I noticed the sword you'd left within easy reach. I was rather thankful you preferred not to use firearms."
Ken's mouth twitched. "I suppose I should be grateful, too; having someone else in charge of Kusanagi during those battles might've been a bad thing." He turned away then, glancing briefly at the empty graves, and then up at the sky, beyond which he knew lay the endless depths of his true home, the vacuum of space...
Murrue noticed his introspective. "What are you thinking about?" she asked quietly, as the others began to drift apart again.
The pilot smiled faintly. "Past. Present. Future," he said, echoing his words to her on the Archangel's deck, months before, as they sailed over the Red Sea. "Mostly future, now. You know, until the moment I landed on the Archangel after destroying GENESIS, I never let myself dream I could have a future... and now that I've got that chance, it's almost scary... It reminds me of a story I once heard about a woman who defected to the United States of America from the Soviet Union, in the mid-twentieth century. She ended up returning to the Soviets, because she couldn't handle the bewildering number of choices at the grocery store. That's kind of how I feel right now. I've got a future... and I honestly don't know what to do with it."
She leaned against his shoulder. "Well, that's something we'll have plenty of time to explore, Ken. Together..."
Ken nodded contentedly. Together... that's something I thought I'd never experience again. After the Bloody Valentine... but that dream, or whatever it was, was right. It's time for me to move on. Goodbye, Laura... and thanks for everything.
Ken's past had been resolved at last. Now it was time to face the future.
Before the ace could face the future, however, there was one last thing he had to do. Later, after everyone else had left -with Murrue waiting for him outside the cemetery- the now officially-ex-ZAFT pilot stepped up to one particular headstone.
Unlike many -perhaps most- of the graves in this place, such as the many for the victims of the Bloody Valentine, this grave was not completely empty. The body had been completely destroyed by the fierce heat of nuclear meltdown, but the man had left a single personal effect behind at the Gray Demons' Eyrie on the Moon: an expertly-crafted katana, with a red, twine-wrapped hilt and crimson scabbard. That blade now lay within the coffin, in lieu of the man's body.
The ace stopped before the headstone, straightened to attention, and snapped his right hand up in a perfect ZAFT salute. Goodbye, my friend. I never imagined life without you around to help me out, but you did not die in vain. I'll never forget you...
He lowered his hand, turned, and walked away from the grave... whose marker read: Lance Cooper: In memory of a true Patriot who saved the world.
"After the truce that effectively ended the Bloody Valentine War with the conclusion of the Second Battle of Jachin Due, a curious thing happened: with the exception of three members who returned to ZAFT, and a handful of highly-placed Orb soldiers and officials, every single member of the so-called 'True ZAFT' faction, widely believed to be the driving force behind the early end to the war, vanished without a trace. Attempts have been made to track down some members for interviews, but even of those who could be found, only Earth Alliance Forces Rear Admiral (retired) Lewis C. Halberton was prepared to comment on the group that is believed to have been the nucleus of True ZAFT.
"'There's not much I can tell you, really,' Admiral Halberton said in response to questions. 'The Gray Demons were the people who started it all, but if you're looking for front-page heroes, you should look somewhere else. I know them well, their commander in particular, and I can tell you that none of the survivors have any interest in publicity. They did this to protect their Homeland, and now that they have, all they want is peace and quiet. Where they are now, well, that's not really something I can tell you.' The admiral also declined to comment on the disappearance of the Escort Ship Odin, aboard which he spent the latter days of the war.
"It seems clear, however, that Admiral Halberton was correct about the soldiers known among their peers as the 'Gray Demons' desiring a return to obscurity. No trace has since been found of Leanne Eldridge or Thomas Delaney... and the only sign of the so-called 'Grimaldi Falcon' has been a lack of information. We have attempted to obtain copies of his military records, but all of ZAFT's records on Kenneth DiFalco have mysteriously vanished, and none of the Earth Alliance's remaining records include a physical description. The only data we have is from interviews with ZAFT soldiers who served with or trained under Commander DiFalco, and they describe him as a tall, slightly-built young man with brown hair and an eyepatch... a description that has not been matched by anyone we've been able to locate.
"Perhaps it's true Commander DiFalco is in retirement; if so, I cannot blame him. Rumors have it that he was personally responsible for the design of the weapon of mass destruction known as GENESIS, which the late Chairman Patrick Zala used on the final day of the war. According to what we've been able to ascertain, Commander DiFalco intended it originally as a way to the stars; and, after the Bloody Valentine Tragedy, a defensive weapon against invasion. When his leader chose to use it offensively, Commander DiFalco then assumed responsibility for it, and fought the remainder of the war against his own people, in order to stop his own creation. If that is so, then I can only say, in my personal opinion, that he deserves the rest. That is more of a burden than any teenager should ever have to bear... In any case, since September 26th, Commander DiFalco has not been seen to fly the skies of battle, and perhaps never will again.
"In other, possibly related news, it has been publically announced that Orb and the PLANTs are jointly funding a new paramilitary organization to act as an impartial peacekeeping and counterterrorism force. With rumors beginning to surface that this 'Section Nine' has, as its transport, the aforementioned Odin, very little has yet been confirmed. All that is known for certain is that Section Nine's commander is known only as 'the Major'..."
-Excerpt from an article by freelance reporter Jess Rabble
Earth Orbit, Section Nine Headquarters, March 10th, C.E. 72
As usual, the room was dimly lit; both to see displays with greater clarity, and so that one of their number could dispense with his eyepatch with comfort.
This was the first time they'd met here on true operational status; only now had the station -positioned in a standard orbit rather than at a Lagrange point in order to better facilitate access to trouble spots- been made ready. Months of work had been necessary to complete the modifications to the ex-Earth Forces space base, and technically, all five people in the room were still on vacation. They would meet today, and then go back to their lives.
"It's official," the brown-haired, blue-eyed young man called the Major said quietly; unlike his subordinates, who wore simple black base fatigues, he wore a slate-gray trench coat over his. "As of today, Section Nine is on operational status. Orb is beginning to provide their share of the funding, and Chief Representative Athha will be making an announcement about us tomorrow morning. Needless to say, that will be the only official notice taken of our existence, at least for the time being."
A twenty-ish man with iron-gray hair nodded. "In other words, we exist, but neither government will draw much attention to the fact."
Tom Delaney's companion, green-haired Leanne Eldridge, slightly older than the Major, frowned thoughtfully. "And the negotiations?"
"The Junius Treaty was signed this afternoon," the Major answered. "With that in effect, Gibraltar reverts to the Eurasian Federation, Carpentaria is returned to ZAFT, and Orb is once again an independent nation. Also, nuclear weapons are now completely off the table, as well as military usage of nuclear reactors by ZAFT or the Earth Forces." He smiled faintly. "Most people will doubtless assumes that applies to us, forgetting that while we draw support from two signatories of the treaty, we answer to none."
"Which is good," the blonde captain mused. "We still have several nuclear reactors in use at the moment." He tilted his head. "What about our status militarily?"
"Not good," the Major said unflinchingly. "We're fortunate things seem calm out there at the moment, because we took a lot of damage at Jachin. We have one combat-ready ship, your Odin, and Tom's Asmodeus is going to be in drydock for several months; losing the Bridge set off a number of problems elsewhere in the ship. We're also shorthanded as far as mobile suits are concerned. Our only X units are Nicol's Raiden, and my Preybird. Raiden is hardly enough by itself to fulfil our charter, and Preybird will be in for repairs even longer than Asmodeus, especially considering the modifications I intend to make." He grimaced. "And, of course, there's the matter of personnel. We have three Gray Demons, Nicol, and the crews of Odin and Asmodeus. And you, of course, Alley," he added, looking at the other woman in the room. "Not exactly a large force, when you consider that most of our operations will have the crews as little more than truck drivers for us."
"We do some recruitment, then," the woman, Alicia Cateau, said, with a noticeable French accent. "I have some experience in this area; for counterterrorism operations, we want to recruit SWAT and certain types of military personnel. With the generous amount of clout our charter gives us, we shouldn't have much trouble."
The Major nodded. "Good. I'll leave that to you, Alley. I may be somewhat experienced at covert operations, but I'm still new at genuine paramilitary activities."
She nodded. "Understood, Major."
"What about them?" the captain, Jason Chance, questioned. "What are you planning to do with them?"
The Major's eyes narrowed. "Keep them frozen. We still don't know exactly what Metzinger and Hibiki did to them, after all; even now, we're none too sure what was done to me. Best guess is that I was supposed to be a soldier, and Metzinger wanted me back because he wasn't finished, making this war irrelevant to him... but that doesn't explain them. I want to know exactly what was responsible for the accelerated ageing, and what kind of genetic modifications were made. Oh," he added thoughtfully, "and we need to make sure to store Victor's head separate from the rest of him. I don't want to take the chance of someone finding a way to reattach it and resurrect him again. More to the point, he wouldn't want to take the chance."
"And the other?"
"Old Metal Mask is an even greater concern," the Major said quietly. "I want to know exactly what went on with him, and why he got as far as he did. I reached my position through strategic brains and the creation of GENESIS, but we haven't yet figured out how he got in a position to influence the war as much as he was at the end. We vacuum all the records, and put his genetics under the closest microscope we can. Keep him on ice at least that long."
Tom nodded. "Got it, Major. I suppose your sister will be doing the investigation?"
The Major nodded. "Sophia's agreed to help us out that much; which if good, because she may not be a true geneticist, but she's the closest we've got that can be trusted with the examination of him."
"And for now?" Leanne asked.
"For now, we all go home," he said with a faint smile. "This isn't like the old unit; this isn't going to dominate our lives, at least not until the next outbreak of total war. For myself, I've got things to do, places to be... and people to get to know better." Ken DiFalco fitted his eyepatch into place, and turned up the lights. "By the way, Leanne, how are Kira and Cagalli?"
"Doing well,"she replied, as they began to file out of the room. "Cagalli's still coming to grips with her new position, of course, and Kira's still getting the hang of being a bodyguard... but he's had a couple of good teachers."
Ken chuckled. "Yeah, the Colonel taught him to guard, and I taught him to slice any would-be assassin. Even Kira agrees you don't dare risk trying nonlethal force in that kind of situation." He nodded to his comrades... his friends, really, and stepped out. "I'll be seeing you."
Murrue Ramius was waiting for him at the shuttle dock on the station's outer edge; unlike him, she wore civilian clothing. "Ready to go, Ken?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said, smiling as he pulled her close. "Let's go home. It's time to forget about finding a reason to live, and just live..."
Ken was convinced he hadn't seen the end of his time in combat... but that was for the future. The future could take care of itself, and in the meantime, they'd be waiting... together.
Author's note: Peace has returned, and now the members of True ZAFT go their separate ways. Their time on the battlefield may not be over, but for now, their war is, at last, over.
And so we come to the end of the story. Took me about twice as long to write as I expected, was about twice as long as I expected, and I got about five times as much feedback as I expected. When I conceived this tale, originally as another attempt at a Wing Commander/Gundam SEED crossover (that's what gave rise to Brothers in Arms as well), it was intended mostly as a way to pass the time until I could begin Brothers in Arms: A Call to Arms. Instead, it grew into a tale nearly half a million words long, and I realized midway through that I'd never be able to concentrate properly on A Call to Arms until I finished this. Ken DiFalco's tale has been complex, engrossing, and occasionally frustrating for me, but it was well worth the trip... even if it did prove to be far more ambitious than was probably wise. It made saying everything that needed to be said far harder at times, because of the sheer scope of what I had going on, but I think I at least pulled it off reasonably well.
Now, I expect most of you remember that, near the beginning of this story, I stated there would not be a sequel. Well... that may not be true after all. I've had a number of requests for it, and I myself have become intrigued by the possibilities -I'd have no choice but to change a number of things about the Destiny time line right from the start, as this epilogue indicates- so it's likely Ken DiFalco's story isn't over quite yet. It will take a backseat to A Call to Arms, of course, as Kevin Walker's tale has always been my priority, but you won't necessarily have to wait until it's complete before you see Ken DiFalco again.
Oh, yes, you should be seeing a revised version of Chapter 45 soon; I need to make a couple of changes and add a scene, so you should be seeing new things in it soon.
I guess that's really all I have say now. This story has gotten attention far beyond my wildest expectations, and I thank all of you who reviewed. Until next time. -Solid Shark.