I don't own anything except Kevin Walker

Leona Colde is the creation of arekuruu-inabikari-no-She

Unknown Location, January 25th, C.E. 71

After a quick extraction from the neighborhood with a stolen car, which would eventually find its way to the bottom of the ocean, the female agent went back to her hotel, which functioned as her safe house and base of operations, to see whether her handlers had left her any new messages at the hotel's front desk. Finding none, she returned to her penthouse suite and took a long, hot shower in the bath.

She stood silent under the hot spray of water, unmindful of any lingering pain from the heat, and after leaving the shower she wiped away the accumulated moisture on the lavish mirror above the nearby sink and gazed at her sad, smiling face with lifeless jade eyes.

When she emerged from the bathroom, she picked up her cell and made a secured phone call to an unlisted number. After several rings, the other end picked up and she made her report. "Targets have been eliminated as ordered."

"Were there any problems in their removal?" the voice-altered receiver asked

Still faintly steaming from her hot shower, she sat down on the bed with a thick towel wrapped around her body and poured herself a glass of red wine. "None whatsoever, shall I eliminate the primary target as well?"

"That will not be necessary at this point in time, we will assign another cell to finish job if it comes down to it."

"Understood," came the ever monotonous reply from the agent, but before she could end her debriefing, the altered voice on the other end spoke again.

"One of our sleeper agents in Heliopolis sent something interesting data to us before we lost communications with him, and from his reports it seems that Hydra has been found."

The agent was silent, slowly processing this new piece of information, an unwanted surprise in her own opinion, but before she could ask the one and only question in her mind pertaining to him, the altered voice on the other end spoke again.

"No, until we get further confirmation from our sources, you will return to the colony and wait for further orders there."


"Are we clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"We've compiled several new identities for you and sent them to your laptop. One of these shall be your new identity until further notice."

The conversation ended, the young woman let herself fall back onto the bed for a moment to gaze at the elaborate patterns of the ceiling panels, thinking about the disconcerting information revealed to her.

Abruptly, she sat up and booted up her laptop, going over the files of her 'new' false identities. She had been Kei Nagase for half a year now, a long time in her job occupation. Before that she was Erza Scarlet, before that Tear Grant, and so on and so forth. Now was the time for another new name.

"Robin, Ada, Ursula, Elisa, Rain, Kanon, Leona…"

She paused and poured herself another glass of red wine. "…Leona."

The name struck a chord within her own embittered spirit. So she made her choice and got up from her mattress, heading out to her balcony which afforded her a magnificent view of the city's nightlife.

The view would usually give her a brief sense of relaxation after a mission, though; with the news of his reappearance all her thoughts were bent to this one man.

Kevin Walker.

Marie Curie, Bridge

Heliopolis died.

In the final analysis, it really did come down to such simple words. The commander on Marie Curie's bridge, one eye socket hidden by a patch, reflected distantly that language was, really, a cruel thing… completely inadequate to describe such a moment.

A survivor of the Bloody Valentine Tragedy, the one-eyed commander looked at Heliopolis' death, and felt something twist inside him. Another colony, come apart so easily, right before his eye…

"Talk to me, Lance," someone rasped in his voice. "What happened here?"

Lance, hurriedly examining the latest data from their recon drone, swallowed. "Hard to say, Boss," he said quietly. "There was so much going on in there…"

"A rough estimate," the one Lance called "Boss" snapped. "Did we do this?"

Lance winced at the bite in the Boss' tone, and frowned down at the table display. According to the drone's cameras, at least five mobile suits had been involved, taking both sides into account, plus the new warship; the sheer amount of firepower being flung around was… impressive.

After several moments of intense scrutiny of the imagery, Lance straightened, and turned back to the Boss. "Commander," he said formally, "the exact details will require more in-depth analysis, but it would appear the collapse was precipitated by a combination of the Earth Forces' warship's cannons, and D-package weaponry from the Le Creuset team's GINNs."

The commander's hands clenched into fists. "Le Creuset," he whispered harshly. "D-package weaponry, inside a colony? However badly Orb may have violated their neutrality, such measures were not justifiable."

"He'll have some difficulty justifying this to the Council," Lance interjected carefully. "Chairman Clyne won't sit still for this."

"Rau is smarter than that," the Boss countered, shaking his head. "And it's a week from here to the Homeland; he'll have plenty of time to polish his cover story by then. Clyne may not buy it, but there'll be enough doubt that he can't move against Rau. Nor," he admitted grimly, "can the Initiative. It's too soon, and this is not worth breaking cover for. Damn it."

"So," a new voice mused, from the bridge hatch, "even in ZAFT, there are those who fail to live up to the noble standards of your ideology, hm?"

The Boss turned, eye narrow, to look at the new arrival. A tall, broad-shouldered man who had the look of someone once muscular, but had since fallen out of the habits needed to maintain that body. His hair was a leonine mane of graying blonde, a vivid scar marred the left side of his face, and he wore a slightly tattered silver uniform.

Even the reserved commander had to force his face not to display any scorn. "Watch your tongue, Null," he advised coldly. "Any other man would've shot you on sight, old lion. I still might."

Null shrugged, unconcerned. "As you wish. But you can't deny my point, can you? Otherwise your 'Initiative' would never have come into existence at all."

"Hmph." The Boss looked back at Lance, deliberately ignoring Null. "Captain Cooper. The fallout from Heliopolis' destruction is immaterial to us at this time. The new warship will almost certainly have survived it, and her mobile suits likewise."

"Agreed, Boss." The big captain tilted his head. "Priority?"

"Follow her," the Boss said simply. "The Le Creuset team is in a better position than we are to deduce their course, so we'll follow them; when they move, so do we. Rig for stealth, and have the hangar ensure my Ghost is ready for launch on short notice. I intend to give away as little as possible, and learn as much as possible; this may be a turning point."

Lance nodded. "Understood, Commander. Helm," he went on, pulling himself to his seat in the bridge's center, "get those engines hot. The game is afoot."

The helmsman nodded… and toward the aft, the old man called Null smiled sadly to himself. "Ah," he murmured, "but which game? And who is the hound, and who the fox…?"

Archangel, Bridge

Murrue Ramius slowly came to her feet, staring with wide, shocked eyes at the scene beyond the viewports. What had, hours before, been a vibrant, almost idyllic home in space… was now just so much rubble, drifting aimlessly about them.

Unlike the Strike, Archangel had not exited the colony before the collapse; rather, the colony had simply fallen apart around her, nearly taking the ship with it in its death throes.

She had no words to describe the sight. She'd seen a handful of skirmishes in space before, participated in the Battle of Jachin Due, but this… this kind of carnage was totally outside her experience. It was not, however, outside Mu La Flaga's, and, emerging from CIC, he simply uttered, "Son of a bitch."

"…I don't think that quite covers this, Lieutenant," Murrue managed. "I've never seen anything like this."

"I have," Mu said grimly. "Twice. Endymion, when they set off the Cyclops, and before that, the AI weapons test at Bowman Station." He nodded at the floating debris around them. "On the bright side, this time people were prepared for something catastrophic before it happened. Most of the population, at least, got out in the lifeboats before the collapse."

"Most," Natarle Badgiruel murmured darkly, still in CIC. "Better than three years ago… But," she added, raising her voice, "I'm afraid that really isn't our concern at the moment."

Murrue turned to her, grateful for the distraction. "You're right," she agreed after a moment. "Our own survival comes first right now." She frowned. "So where's the Strike? Is Kira all right?"

"I don't know," the ensign replied. "That's what I'm about to find out." Turning her attention back to her console, Natarle pressed one hand to the headset she wore. "Strike, this is the Archangel; do you read me? Kira Yamato, if you can hear me, please respond…"

Space, Heliopolis Debris Field

GAT-X105 Strike hung in space, drifting slowly along, coasting on momentum alone; its pilot had not yet attempted to regain control of it, leaving it to the vagaries of space.

Within, Kira Yamato swallowed hard, taking a deep, shuddering breath. Minutes after his first kill, his shocking encounter with a ghost of the past, and being sucked out of the collapsing colony, he was finally beginning to regain control, of his craft… and himself.

"How could this… happen…?" he whispered, horrified. "The entire colony… just… it just…"

Heliopolis' death was something completely outside Kira's experience. Oh, he'd seen the news reports covering the war between Earth and the PLANTs, watched footage of Junius Seven's death in nuclear fire… but that was something seen at a remove, from a detached perspective. Actually living through the collapse of an entire space colony, watching it happen all around him…

Kira shuddered. How many people just died here? How many were liked us, trapped outside of shelters? Mom, Dad… you're okay, right?

Remembering the sheer amount of property damage just from his first clash with a GINN, let alone the ion blasts the second one was firing, he wasn't nearly as sure of that as he would've liked. Even before the colony's collapse, so much damage had been incurred.

He shuddered again. Now he had a better understanding of what Kevin was accustomed to dealing with, and he very much wished he didn't. Kira lacked his friend's conditioned detachment from such carnage, and hoped never to have to. Just seeing something like that once was too much.

And what he'd seen on top of all that… Kira closed his eyes, remembering the voice he'd heard over the radio. Three years it had been, but there was no mistaking that voice, and it confirmed the impossible sight he'd seen back in the ill-fated Morgenröte hangar, amidst the fires and smoke. The ZAFT soldier who'd nearly killed him with a knife…

Was Athrun Zala.

"The PLANTs and Earth will see eye to eye," he heard from the distance of memory. "There will be no war." His friend had smiled then. "You'll be coming to the PLANTs too, right, Kira?"

Kira had known, even then, that there was more to those words than a desire to keep their friendship strong. The third member of their trio had disappeared the previous year; Athrun didn't want that happening to the two of them, as well.

And it hadn't. No, neither of them had "disappeared", exactly; they'd gone their separate ways, one to his homeland, the other to neutral territory. To where the two of them should've been safe, been free to sit things out and meet again once peace was restored.

Instead, they met again all too soon, in the worst way imaginable. On opposite sides of a dividing line.

Of all the ways they could've met again, Kira had never, in his worst nightmares, suspected it would involve gunfire.

Chiming from his comm system distracted Kira from the dark thoughts. "Strike, this is the Archangel; do you read me? Kira Yamato, if you can hear me, please respond. Repeat, this is the Archangel…"

Kira quickly keyed his transmitter. "Strike here," he said, voice coming out a little rough. "I read you, Ensign."

Natarle's sigh of relief was audible over the radio. "I'm glad to hear it, Strike. What's your status? Can you move?"

He gave his displays a quick scan, and nodded sharply to himself. "All green, Ma'am," Kira reported. "No damage; I can make it. I'm low on power, though." Unsurprising, considering the mess he'd just come through.

"Not a problem," Natarle told him. "You're close; just follow the beacon. Archangel, clear."

The transmission cut off, and Kira slumped back in his seat. All right… it's just about over, he thought, relieved beyond words. I shouldn't have to do that again, at least…

Gripping the controls once more, Kira eased the Strike into motion, canceling its aimless drift, and began to orient it toward Archangel's beacon. The sooner he got back aboard, the sooner he could get out of this damned cockpit and leave the fighting to the professionals.

Before he'd covered even a fraction of the distance to the ship, though, a blip on his detection systems caught his eye. Almost completely hidden from radar by the debris field, it showed up as a bright spot indeed on infrared… too bright to be random wreckage.

"Is that…?" Kira zoomed in his display, and blinked. A long, cylindrical object, drifting much as he had… "That's a lifeboat. And it's damaged…"

Archangel, Bridge

"The Strike is returning," Natarle reported, coming up out of CIC. "It's still in one piece."

"Good," Murrue said, with palpable relief. "That's one less thing to worry about, at least. We're going to need it… and him, probably."

The ensign grimaced, still unhappy with having a civilian at the controls of a state-of-the-art prototype, but didn't bother trying to dispute the point any further. The decision had clearly been made, and even she had to admit young Kira had at least proven his worth as a pilot.

"Well," Mu mused, "that's done. But what's our next move? We may be intact, along with the Strike, but Heliopolis is gone… and Le Creuset is still out there."

Murrue nodded. "I know," she grimly. "We've bought a little time, but we're still in a combat situation, and cut off from support. We need to get out of this area and into Alliance territory as soon as possible."

He shook his head. "That's not going to be easy," he said quietly. "Right now, we've got exactly two battle-ready mobile weapons, the Strike and my Zero. Le Creuset has his CGUE, at least one surviving GINN, and a demonstrated willingness to deploy our own prototypes against us. Those are not good odds, Captain."

She had to agree with him on that point. Had the Le Creuset team possessed a full complement of GINNs and nothing more, it might've been different; it was entirely possible the Strike could've handled a situation like that all by itself, and almost certainly could with the aid of Mu's Möbius Zero. It wouldn't have been easy, but the Strike's PSA and firepower combined with the Zero's wired gunbarrels could've pulled it off.

With no fewer than four of the G-weapons in enemy hands, however, all with essentially the same capabilities as the Strike…

"We do have Tallgeese, as well," Natarle offered. Ignoring Mu's look of mild disgust, she continued, "I know the Lieutenant has concerns about the pilot, but leaving that aside, it does have great potential. Ten years ago, the only stumbling block preventing it from being an effective unit on an individual basis was the difficulty in finding a pilot capable of handling its acceleration. We do have one."

"It only has one weapon capable of harming phase-shift," Murrue pointed out. "And I thought there were issues with its operating system."

Natarle waved a hand. "Considering what Yamato did with the Strike, I don't think it would take him long to update Tallgeese's OS enough to be usable. As for armament, it would still be potentially useful against the stolen G-weapons, and Mister Murdoch and Kevin are going to look into modifying it to mount some of the Strike's spare weaponry."

"Could work," Mu conceded after a moment's thought. "Probably only as a distraction at first -I don't care how high that guy's G-tolerance is, there's no way he's taming that wild horse this fast- but still…"

"We've also got that unmanned unit," Arnold Neumann interjected, turning in his seat at the helm. "I know we still haven't worked out the OS bugs yet, but maybe…"

Mu looked at him sharply. "Unmanned weapon? You don't mean…"

Natarle nodded. "Yes, Lieutenant. We were assigned one of the Ghosts that survived the Bowman Station test, in hopes that Morgenröte might be able to correct the errors in its AI."

The Hawk of Endymion gave a vigorous headshake. "Errors, hell! Those damn things went homicidal on us! Captain, I'd be against deploying that thing at all, let alone without lobotomizing the AI first." There was a haunted look in his eyes, now. "Like I said, I was there for the test last year. That wasn't an error in the IFF systems, Captain, that was a deliberate revolt by the Bowman Station AIs, and they damn near killed everyone involved."

Mu's vehemence surprised Murrue, but after a moment's reflection she realized it probably shouldn't have. The X-9 Ghost unmanned mobile armors had been intended as a counter to ZAFT's mobile suits, a program competing with the G-weapon project and advocated by Earth Alliance hardliners who were against using "Coordinator-based technology" to even the odds. And, to be fair, the Ghosts' capabilities had proved to be quite spectacular, exceeding expectations.

Unfortunately, they demonstrated those capabilities in an attempt at wiping out every manned unit at Bowman Station, and very nearly succeeded.

Exactly what went wrong, no one was sure. What was clear was that the artificial intelligences operating the Ghosts went rogue the moment full autonomous control was granted, and promptly began shooting up Bowman Station, center of the project. Proving to be horrifically effective, they'd wiped out over a dozen warships and three mobile armor squadrons, before being engaged by the Möbius Zero unit.

Mu La Flaga and his comrades succeeded in blasting most of the Ghosts to pieces, in a running dogfight lasting several hours… at which point the survivors set about destroying Bowman Station itself, apparently out of spite. Possessing complete schematics of the station, the AI weapons blew the spacebase to rubble, taking a thousand people with it.

Two Ghosts had bee recovered reasonably intact. One had later been captured by ZAFT when the transport carrying it came under attack, and was eventually spotted fighting for the PLANTs, having been modified for use by a human pilot. The other was currently on Archangel's hangar deck, carefully locked down. The project as a whole had been dropped, and if Murrue recalled correctly two of the admirals behind it had been court-martialed, with long prison terms.

"Right then," Murrue said presently. Tapping thoughtfully at her armrest, she looked out at the depths beyond the forward viewport. "A damaged Zero, the Strike, and an unreliable antique… plus low supplies. That's not going to make this easy."

"No," Mu agreed. "I don't think that's enough to get us to Ptolemaeus, Captain. Even leaving aside the Le Creuset team, we don't have the food and water; we're at L3, directly opposite the Moon. We'll starve a week before we get anywhere near."

The Captain nodded glumly. Performing the near-impossible and getting past the Le Creuset team's stolen G-weapons would be meaningless if they couldn't keep fed afterwards. And it would be humiliating to go so far and die so pathetically…

Standing to her left, one ear still listening to the Strike's progress reports, Natarle had acquired a frown. "…There is one possibility," she said at length. "We're not too far from Artemis."

"The base with the Umbrella Shield?" Mu pursed his lips. "Could work. It's well within range, and it's certainly defensible. Never did understand why they built the Umbrella at a backwater base like that, but it'd certainly help us." He quirked an eyebrow. "You don't sound very happy with the idea, though, Ensign. Something we should know?"

She shrugged uneasily. "Not really, Lieutenant. Not about Artemis specifically, anyway. It's just…" Natarle sighed. "Artemis is a Eurasian base, and I met some of the Eurasian detachment to South America three years ago. It was…" She shrugged again, uncomfortable with going into detail.

Mu gave her a knowing nod. "I can imagine, Lieutenant; I've dealt with Eurasians myself. But from everything I've heard, Heaven's War made a lot of Atlantic Federation troops crazy, too, and most of the rest can probably be put down to rivalry. Our nations aren't exactly on the best of terms."

That, the trio of officers knew, was something of an understatement. Were it not for the PLANT threat, it was entirely possible the two Federations would be at war with one another… again.

"All of that is immaterial beside our current problems," Murrue put in, gesturing at the map display now on the display mounted on the forward deckhead. "The fact of the matter is that we have insufficient supplies to reach Atlantic Federation HQ, and insufficient combat power to fight off a determined attack. Unfortunately, we're also a top-secret prototype, bearing only internal Atlantic Federation codes. We don't have recognition codes that Artemis will accept."

"Do we have a choice but to try?" Mu asked, glancing significantly at the map.

She was silent for a long moment. "No. I believe you're right, Lieutenant: we'll have to make for Artemis." Murrue paused. "Carefully."

Archangel, Hangar

Within Tallgeese's cockpit, Kevin Walker slumped against the seatback, suddenly too weary to even pull free the cable jacked into the back of his neck. "Son of a bitch," he whispered, replaying the radio exchange in his mind. "Athrun… what the hell are you doing here…?"

Kevin was prepared for the possibility of fighting old friends. The past that had brought him to this point left him no choice but to face that possibility; that which had made him what he was had ended in a way that almost made it inevitable.

But Athrun Zala… Three years… no, four years ago now, he thought, Athrun had been just a child, Coordinator though he was. A child who hated the thought of fighting, the "peacemaker" of Copernicus'

"Terrible Trio". The one who made Kira study and made Kevin back off when things heated up.

The sandy-haired soldier had been prepared to fight former comrades-in-arms. It had never entered his head that he might be faced with a childhood friend who had once been so innocent. The thought of what could change someone so peaceful into someone willing to participate in an operation such as the G-weapon theft…

It made Kevin shudder. He himself had been changed, terribly, but he'd possessed something resembling a combative mindset from the start. Athrun had once been even less receptive to the use of force than Kira.

He was also one hell of a smart kid, Kevin remembered. Brains, reflexes, coordination… Crud. Him behind the controls of a G-weapon is a damn scary thought.

And he had very little idea what might be done about it. Kevin was not only not exactly a mobile suit pilot by training, but also completely out of his depth in dealing with an opponent he did not want to kill. He was trained to seek and destroy; fighting those instincts would be as challenging as the combat itself.

Fortunately, perhaps, for Kevin's peace of mind, he suddenly had something else to think about. Still linked into the ship's comlinks via the cable plugged into one of the sockets at the back of his neck, he missed Kira's first transmission, but was immediately jolted out of his apathy by Natarle Badgiruel's heated response.

"You're doing what? Who gave you authorization?"

"Authorization for what?" Murrue could be heard asking in the background.

"The Strike has arrived, Ma'am, but he's brought a Heliopolis lifeboat with him! Kira Yamato, what is the meaning of this? You can't bring that here!"

"What was I supposed to do?" Kira fired back angrily. "Its propulsion systems and life support are both damaged; if I'd just left it out there, they wouldn't have made it!"

"That is not our responsibility!" Natarle snapped. "This ship is highly classified, and a warship at that! You can't just bring a lifeboat full of civilians aboard. That's unacceptable!"

"It's humane, Natarle," Kevin interjected, keying in a command to patch telemetry from the lifeboat into his displays. "You're suggesting we just let them die? As bad as our supply situation may be, they've got it ten times worse. And besides, I seem to remember another time when someone did something that was 'not his responsibility'. Am I wrong?"

"Our meeting in Outer Heaven was not the same thing," she retorted; but Kevin could almost see the flinch. "The situation we're in now-"

"Enough, Ensign," Murrue broke in, sounding very tired. "Kira, go ahead and bring it in, just do it quickly."

"Captain!" Natarle protested.

"We don't have time for this," the Captain said sharply. "Those two are right about the 'right' course of action, but I honestly don't even care about that just now. We need to get moving, and we do not have time to argue among ourselves. Just get the Strike and that lifeboat onboard, and rig for silent running."

There was a palpable, almost fulminating pause. "Understood, Ma'am."

Natarle's concession sounded to Kevin like the words of someone recognizing the futility of further argument without conceding one iota of their position. Funny, he thought to himself, finally disconnecting the network jack. I thought Natarle was more reasonable than that…

Closing down the Strike's systems at last, Kira heaved a relieved sigh. It was done; he'd gotten back to the Archangel in one piece, brought some otherwise helpless survivors with him, and finished what he'd set out to do.

Now I can leave the fighting to the professionals, he thought wearily. If they still need help, they've got Kevin here… He felt guilty at the thought, but the fact was that, however much he hated what his friend had been forced to become, there was no denying that Kevin's present persona was considerably more comfortable with the thought of combat.

And, Kira mused as he released his restraints and reached for the hatch controls, almost enthusiastic about it. It disturbed him, but the simple fact was that Kevin enjoyed a good fight, if not necessarily the inevitable consequences of a battle with these stakes.

That, however, was a matter for another time. Popping the hatch, Kira was faced with the much cheerier sight of civilians debarking from the damaged lifeboat, entering the safer environment of the ship itself. Wondering idly what the Archangel crew would do with the lifeboat afterward -probably simply eject it into space, he figured- he pushed off from the Strike… and blinked when the mechanical bird on his shoulder abruptly took off on its own.

"Birdy!" it trilled, taking wing for the lifeboat.

"Birdy!" Kira echoed. "Hey! Where are you going?" He wasn't used to his little pet acting on its own in such a manner; wondering what on earth could've gotten the attention of its simple-minded AI, Kira altered his own trajectory in pursuit. "Get back here! You'll just be in the way!"

Drifting across the open space between the deactivated mobile suit and the inert cylinder on the deck, Kira glanced curiously at the passengers, wondering if somehow one of them could've been responsible for Birdy's bizarre behavior. I don't see how, but I can't think of anything else that makes any sense… Wait, is that…?

One of the civilians caught sight of Birdy, then of the youth chasing it, and quickly pushed away from the lifeboat's hatch. "Hey! I know you!" the red-haired girl exclaimed, floating swiftly toward Kira. "You're one of Sai's friends, right?"

Kira caught her by the shoulders before she could go careening on past, and stared at her in surprise. "Flay? Flay Allster?"

Flay nodded. "That's right! And you're… Kira Yamato, wasn't it? …Where are we?" She glanced about, taking in the hangar's contents for the first time, and her eyes widened. "Wait a minute-"

"You're safe," Kira assured her quickly. "This is an Earth Forces ship, not ZAFT."

"You're lying!" she accused, pointing at the Strike. "There are mobile suits here!"

He shook his head. "That's an Earth Forces prototype. And see that one? It's the Tallgeese; you've heard of it, right?"

Flay bit her lip. "And how do I know ZAFT didn't steal it?"

"Because they wouldn't bother, that's why," Kevin said dryly, arcing over to them from Tallgeese's hatch. "Everybody has the specs, and the only advantages it has over modern units are impractical. There'd be no point."

She turned to him. "Um… You're another of Sai's friends, right? …Walker, I think…?" Flay frowned. "I see what you mean… but then what's it doing here, if it's useless?"

"Desperation," he replied. "And there's someone on the ship who actually can use it." Kevin glanced at Kira. "You wanna take her to see Sai and the others, maybe? I'm going to check in with Natarle, so…"

Flay latched onto that suggestion at once. "Sai's here?" she said.

Kira smiled, ignoring the odd pang he felt at her enthusiasm. "Yeah, him and Miriallia and a couple of the others. Come on."

Archangel, Bridge

"Reaching Artemis isn't going to be easy," Mu mused, once the drama over the Heliopolis lifeboat had passed. "This is the Le Creuset team we're up against, and he's one tough customer. Smart, sneaky, and very dangerous personally."

Murrue nodded soberly, absently tapping her armrest. "So I noticed," she said, gesturing at her own place in the bridge's center seat.

She didn't need to elaborate. Already, their foes had succeeded in infiltrating Heliopolis, setting charges around the Archangel herself, and smuggling in mobile suits before being noticed. They'd blown up most of the ship's crew, stolen four of the new G-weapons, and only failed to destroy the ship because they underestimated her armor.

They'd deprived the ship of most of her crew, almost her entire mobile weapon compliment, and left a mere lieutenant in command, in very short order. "Sneaky" was probably an understatement.

"I suppose we could try to outrun them," Mu said thoughtfully. "I understand the Archangel is a fast ship… or so I've been told, at least," he said, lifting an eyebrow.

"Faster than anything else in our fleet," Murrue acknowledged. "But a Nazca is a fast ship as well. The best we could hope to do is leave the Laurasia behind us, and she'd catch up quickly enough once the Nazca forced us into evasive maneuvers."

The lieutenant nodded in glum understanding. ZAFT hadn't offset their numerical disadvantage by Coordinator superiority alone; with the sole exception of beam weaponry, their technology had also maintained a consistent edge, up until the G-weapon project began to bear fruit.

"Sounds like silent running is about our only option," Natarle interjected, coming up out of CIC. She still looked disgruntled from the earlier argument, but like a professional she wasn't letting it interfere with her other duties. "Go EMCON, accelerate for a short time, and go ballistic the rest of the way."

"Not good enough," Mu said, shaking his head. "They're watching the debris field closely, I'm sure. The first signature that starts moving under its own power will get their attention right away…" He trailed off, a proverbial light bulb blinking on in his head. "Wait a second…"

"Lieutenant…?" Murrue began carefully, watching his arrested expression warily.

The pilot slowly smiled. "That's it… The first signature will get their attention." His eyes came back into focus, and he turned his gaze -and the full power of his smile- on the younger officer. "Captain, I've been called a man who can make the impossible possible. Want me to prove it?"

Vesalius, Bridge

Fredrik Ades gazed out at the debris beyond the forward viewport, where once had been an Island-3 space colony, and shook his head. "This is going to be hard to explain to the Supreme Council, Commander," he murmured, turning his attention back to the man standing on the other side of the map table. "What do we tell them? Launching the raid to capture the Earth Forces prototypes on our own initiative was one thing, but this…"

He didn't need to elaborate. The wreckage that once been a haven against the harshness of space spoke for itself.

"If you're referring to the destruction of Heliopolis," Rau Le Creuset replied softly, "I agree it's going to be… difficult. Particularly as I suspect another party was a witness, one who will doubtless draw his own conclusions and make his report accordingly. But make no mistake about one thing, Captain: for all that this is tragic, that was no 'neutral' colony that was lost."

"Morgenröte's aid in developing the G-weapons is certainly a clear breach of Orb's neutrality," Ades conceded reluctantly. "Even so, the response will doubtless be seen as… extreme, by some quarters. They'll question if five mobile suits and a new warship were worth this."

"Considering the degree of superiority they have over our current models, I would say extreme measures were entirely justified," Le Creuset said, staring pensively at the orbital map. "Indeed, had they succeeded in deploying more than one of the G-weapons, more extreme measures would've been necessary. As it was…" He shrugged. "What happened was a regrettable accident, Ades, and arguably as much the Earth Forces' fault as our own, if not more so; they deployed even heavier weaponry than we did."

Ades grunted unhappily; and against the aft bulkhead, Le Creuset's armored agent stirred. Invictus had his own opinions regarding the events leading up to the current situation, but decided it was better to keep his own council. This kind of warfare was not his area of expertise, and political matters were… perhaps not beyond his capability, considering, but certainly beyond his inclination.

This other matter, on the other hand… Invictus considered not mentioning his deductions, what with the particular nature of them. In fact, under other circumstances he would almost certainly have remained silent. But with the current situation…

"If I may, Commander," he said quietly, "there's additional evidence of Orb's… lack of neutrality in this instance."

The two officers turned to him. "You mean Tallgeese?" Le Creuset asked. "I considered that myself, but bearing in mind its obsolescence, my assumption is that some Earth Forces soldier simply chose it for an escape vehicle. Until there's actual evidence of Orb collusion in using it an offensive role…"

"No Earth Forces soldier could do it," Invictus countered, with a certainty Ades found puzzling. "Access to Tallgeese itself was kept restricted; only specific individuals could bring it online."

"Sahaku, perhaps?" Ades offered. "They were likely the instigators of the joint project here."

"No." The assassin's expression was inscrutable behind his helmet, but his unease was clear. "Commander, we discussed the possibility of a certain individual being present. I believe this to be his work."

Le Creuset looked at him sharply. "He had access?"


Ades glanced between the commander the obviously uncomfortable Invictus. "…Is there something I should know, Sir?"

"Later, Ades," the masked commander told him, turning back to the map table. "I'll explain when we have the time; suffice to say Invictus has raised an interesting point… For the moment, let's leave the political implications aside; we can worry about that once the immediate tactical situation is dealt with. Our priority now is finding and destroying the Legged Ship."

"Of course, Sir." Ades didn't really like the answer, but Le Creuset was right about priorities. "In that case, Sir… I'd think they'd be heading straight for Ptolemaeus Base, on the Moon. That seems the most logical course of action."

"Hm…" Le Creuset stared thoughtfully at the map. "Logical, yes… too logical. Too obvious, Ades. Admittedly, I've a feeling their command structure took a severe hit from our attempt to destroy the ship in dock, so this may be the act of an inexperienced commander. Still…"

There was silence for a few moments, and Invictus withdrew back into his own thoughts. Ptolemaeus, he mused. If that's the case… at some point during the chase, Kevin will be abandoning that ship. He won't go anywhere near Earth Alliance HQ, I'm sure; and Kira will doubtless leave, too. With those two gone…

The armored agent frowned behind his helmet. His position as Le Creuset's agent had been one mostly free of complications; Invictus, certainly, had no qualms about fighting the Earth Forces, so considering his origins, it was as good a way as any to make his way through the world. Heliopolis had introduced at least three unexpected complications.

The prospect of them no longer being in effect appealed to him mightily… hence his concern at Le Creuset's apparent doubts.

"Captain?" The voice of the sensor operator, toward the bridge's bow, interrupted the contemplation around the map table. "We've got a heat signature departing the debris field. Its thermo pattern matches what we have of the Legged Ship."

"Course?" Ades said sharply.

"Consistent with an orbit leading to the Moon, Sir."

Nodding, Ades turned back to Le Creuset, only to see the masked man shaking his head. "No. That's a decoy, I'm more sure now than ever; even if they chose the obvious course, they wouldn't make for it in such an obvious manner. They have to know we're still out here."

"Then where are they going?" Ades asked, an edge of exasperation creeping into his voice despite his best efforts.

Le Creuset tapped a point on the orbital map. "Right here, Ades. Artemis Base, the local Eurasian outpost. Close by -a boon both for strategic and supply reasons, if they're as strapped as I suspect- and well defended, what with the Umbrella Shield. An ideal place for them to make for, prior to moving on toward Lunar Headquarters."

"…That does make a certain amount of sense," Ades conceded. "But," he warned, "if you're wrong, Sir, we'll lose them completely."

The commander shrugged. "If I'm wrong, we miss one ship and two or three mobile weapons; an inconvenience, no more. If I'm right…"

"If you're right, we have only one GINN to send after them," Ades pointed out, bringing up the next problem. "And with all due respect, Sir, we already know their single G-weapon can take GINNs."

"True. However…" Le Creuset smiled thinly. "We have four G-weapons ourselves. Even if they succeed in repairing the Möbius Zero and deploying Tallgeese, we still have the superior force." He saw the look on Ades' face, and his smile widened. "Oh, don't worry, Ades. We've already retrieved the data from them; in the end, that's far more important than the machines themselves. Right now, their primary value to us is in a proactive role."

"Understood, Sir." The captain wasn't happy about it, but he knew when the discussion was over. "Your orders, then?"

"Get us underway, on course for an Artemis-based interception." Le Creuset paused. "And send word to the Gamow: I have something in particular in mind for them…"

Archangel, Enlisted Quarters

With the ship underway once more, slipping stealthily away from the remains of Heliopolis, there was much for the crew to do… yet almost nothing to occupy the minds of the civilians caught up in Archangel's plight, nothing to distract them from their unaccustomed peril. The orderly, peaceful world they'd lived in just a few hours before was gone. A war had taken its place.

Most of the civilians from the lifeboat had been allocated to other areas, filling the crew spaces left empty by the deaths of so many meant for the ship. The single doctor among them had consented to take the place of Archangel's deceased surgeon, however, and Flay Allster had joined the small group she was at least slightly acquainted with.

A group that knew more about what was going on than the newer arrivals, but wished they did not. Ignorance, as the saying went, truly was bliss.

"I wonder where we're going to go from here," Kuzzey lamented, staring at the deck. "You'd think they'd be nice enough to at least tell us that much… not like we're a security risk or anything."

"Yeah," Tolle agreed. "We're kinda stuck here right now." He was perched on one of the upper bunks, making a perhaps vain effort to relax after the tension of Heliopolis' destruction.

Sitting on one of the lower bunks, Flay looked very troubled. "Just what is going on here, anyway? Why was Heliopolis attacked? Does it have anything to do with those mobile suits I saw when I came aboard?"

Sai, leaning against a bulkhead, absently wiped his glasses with a cloth. "That's about the size of it," he said. "Somebody in Morgenröte apparently cut a deal with the Earth Forces to help them build mobile suits to counter ZAFT's, and this ship with them. I don't know who, or what they expected to get out of it, but…" He shrugged. "Somehow or other, ZAFT found out about them, and after that it was probably only a matter of time before something happened."

Flay clasped her hands together, anxious. "But… that's a violation of Orb's neutrality, right? I mean, you guys are all from there; you should know that better than anybody! Why would your people do something like that?"

No one answered, and Kira, resting against the far bulkhead, frowned pensively. Flay had hit the nail on the head, zeroed in on the question that mattered most. The one which bothered all of them: who had taken such chances, and why? It had cost the six of them their home, others their lives, and forced Kira and Kevin into a very uncomfortable situation… however little anyone else knew of it.

Which reminded Kira: as soon as there was time and seclusion, he needed to talk to Kevin privately, about that and… other things.

"…Sahaku," Kevin himself said at length, sprawled across the bunk across from Tolle. He had the case he'd retrieved from the Yamato residence in his lap, and was studying the contents intently. "It had to be one of the Five Noble Families, and they're the only logical choice."

Tolle glanced at him curiously. "Oh, yeah? How so?"

The sandy-haired youth unfastened the belts holding his holsters, and tucked them into the case. No more use for those toys, he mused. They're adequate for calmer times… but if I'm going to be flying through a war, it's time to take up my old gear…

"Simple enough," he said aloud, snapping the case shut. "Seiran has virtually no connection to Morgenröte, and in any case seems to be waiting to see where the wind is blowing before trying anything rash. Athha, of course, is the originator of the neutrality policy, and mostly isolationist to boot. Onishi might've tried it -they were behind the Tallgeese program ten years ago- but they're basically dead; the patriarch is gone, both heirs are missing. I think there's an uncle holding things together, but nobody even pretends he actually does more than manage the finances."

"Yuroba might be dumb enough to do it," Kira noted, picking up the thread, "but they're not bright enough to see any advantage in it, either. Sahaku, though… they're both ambitious and smart. They might find it an acceptable risk, for whatever reason."

"And to top it all off," Kevin finished, swinging around so his legs dangled from the bunk, "I ran into Mina Sahaku on the way to Tallgeese."

Flay turned to him, eyes wide. "Wait… you brought that thing here? How?"

"My father was involved in the project, ten years ago," he said, shrugging. "And you might as well know: I'm Orb SOCOM, inactive reserve. I'm a qualified conventional pilot, with some mobile suit training." Kevin grimaced. "And a distinct aversion to getting involved in all this, which is why I was attending college, not wearing a uniform."


Flay was young, sheltered, and a little naïve. Stupid she was not; frightened, she most definitely was. A corner of her mind thought something about that explanation was lacking, but she was too worried about the immediate future to think much of it.

A few hours ago, her future seemed secure. Attending a technical college, with reasonable marks, knowing her father was safe in the heart of Atlantic Federation territory and herself on neutral ground; even her prospects after graduation were being arranged, whatever little doubts she might have about her father meddling quite so deeply into her personal life.

The war was a distant thing, something she had a fair amount of knowledge of intellectually, through her father's position as Assistant Secretary of State, but not something she was staring right in the eye. It was a dreadful thing, yes, but not her concern.

Now Flay was in an unfamiliar environment, her "safe" home ripped away, the only people she could rely on a couple of friends and their acquaintances, including the strange Kevin and the admittedly cute Kira.

That morning, her future was bright. Now, her future seemed entirely likely to be abruptly terminated by particle beams.

The uncomfortable silence lasted for several minutes, each youth brooding on their own private fears. Tolle slid down to Miriallia's side, wrapping a comforting arm around his girlfriend; the two drew some solace from one another, but the others had no such recourse. Kuzzey, a pessimist as it was, was alone with his own fear. Sai and Flay, for all that they had a newfound connection of their own, were not yet quite close enough for that.

Kevin's mind was on the battle ahead, and on a friend he realized could well be on the wrong end of a rifle from him soon. And beyond that, a blonde girl with eyes like his own, a face he'd not seen in several years, a face connected to a deep wound in his soul.

Kira, too, thought of the friend he'd seen in the moments before Heliopolis' destruction, and the course of the next few hours. It was something he feared greatly; already, he'd fought in two battles himself, and wondered anxiously what would come next.

He knew the Archangel's situation, at least in general. He knew ZAFT's available forces were more than a match for what the Archangel had ready, that if they were found now, the odds would be badly against them.

He knew Athrun would almost certainly be one of those trying to destroy them, and that Kevin would be out there opposing the attack.

One way or another, if it came to battle again, the outcome was something Kira feared. If he were to someone get involved again, he would have to fight Athrun; even if he did not, Kevin would have to do so. If neither of them did, they likely would not survive. If both of them did… survival was still far from certain.

Kira Yamato did not want to die. Nor did he want to fight. And at the very heart of the matter, he could not bear the thoughts of his friends dying, any one of them…

A quick rap against the bulkhead next to the compartment broke the dark silence abruptly, and the refugee students looked up gratefully to see Mu La Flaga standing there. "Pardon my interruption," he said, glancing over the obviously downbeat group, "but I thought you might appreciate some news."

"News?" Kuzzey said eagerly, speaking for all of them. Even if it was bad, at least they'd have something concrete to brood about.

"Yeah," Mu confirmed. "We're currently on our way to Artemis; it's a Eurasian military satellite not too far from here. I know it's not a safe haven we can drop you kids off at, but at least it should be a safe haven."

"The Umbrella shield?" Kevin guessed.

The pilot looked at him through narrowed eyes. "You're well informed… though I suppose that's your business. Yes, that's it: if we can make it to Artemis' harbor, ZAFT will pretty much have to give up the pursuit. The only thing known that can penetrate a light-wave barrier is another light-wave barrier, and so far only Eurasia even knows how to make the things."

Kuzzey sighed in audible relief, and the shared smiles between Sai, Tolle, and Miriallia prompted Flay to do the same. It wasn't Orb territory, but right now they'd settle for any port in a storm.

Kira, exchanging a quick glance with Kevin, merely waited for the other shoe to drop.

Mu didn't disappoint. "In the meantime," he continued, "we're settled a couple of other details, in the event we're unable to evade detection. Walker, Petty Officer Murdoch has his hands full repairing my Zero, so Tallgeese could use your attention, if it's to be of any use to us. In particular, he suggested you should make sure its backup power supply is still in working order."

Kevin nodded. Tallgeese predated the N-jammers; as such, its primary energy source was a fission reactor. It had served within the confines of Heliopolis, out of the direct influence of N-jammers, but from here on out it would be useless. Fortunately, Tallgeese's reactor had been an experimental model, not fully trusted; the battery backup would therefore allow it to operate yet, though at decreased capability.

That was not the other shoe, of course.

The lieutenant's gaze next moved to the other Coordinator. "Kira, we'll be counting on your help with your machine."

"…My machine?" Kira stared at him, his earlier doubts now brought to a boiling point by Mu's words. "The Strike…? Wait, what do you mean, my machine?"

Mu shrugged. "Let's just say that's how things worked out."

"Worked out with who?" Kira demanded, stiffening. "Okay, sure, I piloted it twice, but I never agreed to keep doing it! I… I'm not a soldier, okay? And nobody ever asked me about doing this again!"

"Kira…" Mu sighed, placing a hand on the bulkhead. "Look. We may have gotten out of Heliopolis, but we're still in a very nasty situation here. We're nowhere near out of the woods yet, and the fact is you're our best hope; you've taken down two GINNs already, despite not being trained and the second one knowing full well what he was up against. We need your help, kid."

"But I…" Privately, Kira had to admit the lieutenant had a point. Probably a very good one. Yet the fact remained he himself was not a soldier… and that going out there again would mean…

Mu didn't know the exact reasons for Kira's hesitation. He knew nothing of the conflict in the youth's soul, of what, exactly, he was asking of Kira. He didn't know any of that. But while he may not have fully understood Kira's hesitation, Mu did discern the other side of Kira's confliction.

He couldn't honestly say there was no thought of taking advantage of it in his mind, because the fact was that they needed Kira's help; yet it was also with the intent of easing the teenager's inner turmoil that he spoke his next words.

Words that, little though Mu realized it, would shape not only Kira Yamato, but to a large degree the fate of the world.

"Kira," he said gently, "you can fly the Strike. You're the only one who can. That gives you a power here, over this situation… the chance to change things." He looked Kira right in the eye, holding the youth's gaze. "If you have the power to make a difference… why not put it to good use."

Kira met that gaze, unwilling but unable to look away, for several moments… and then, unable to stand there any longer, tore his eyes away and shoved off, pushing past the officer and vanishing around a corner. His friends called out after him, but he could not bring himself to reply. Not then.

After he'd gone, Mu quirked an eyebrow at Kevin. "So. You're the expert: what do you think he'll do?"

"Good question," Kevin admitted, frowning. "With everything that's going on… I'd better go after him. We… need to talk…"

A moment later he, too, was gone, with Mu slipping away himself. That left the other students, including a very confused Flay. "Wait a minute," she protested. "What was that about? That Kira guy… he was piloting that mobile suit? But why? I mean, he's not…"

"Not a soldier," Sai confirmed. "Of course not. But…"

"He's a Coordinator," Kuzzey said bluntly. "Like Kevin."

"Kuzzey!" Tolle said sharply, not liking his friend's tone.

Flay glanced uneasily in the direction Kira had departed. "A… Coordinator? But… Coordinators are…"

"He's a trusted friend," Miriallia said firmly. "Sure he's a Coordinator, but he's always been a good friend. He can pilot a mobile suit, but he doesn't like to, and he did so to protect us. It's okay, Flay. He's with us."

Flay nodded in reply, but it was a nervous gesture. Kevin being genetically engineered was no surprise; Flay may have been sheltered, but even she knew eyes like that didn't come about by accident. Orb Special Forces at least meant he was someone who, though perhaps… unnatural, had at least been vetted by someone, and presumably watched carefully.

Kira, though… A Coordinator who lived among Naturals, not calling attention to himself, made her nervous. All her life, she'd heard stories about Coordinators and their abilities, and knew that ZAFT was made up almost entirely of them. And, of course, that well over ninety percent of all Coordinators lived in the PLANTs, the orbital nation rebelling against Terra.

By rights, Kira Yamato should be someone to be feared. By everything she knew. Yet he seemed all right…

"Hm…" Flay murmured to herself, and sank into quiet thought.

Vesalius, Commander's Office

Athrun hesitated outside the hatch, tense. He'd known this meeting was coming; and, in fact, was surprised Le Creuset had waited this long. In one sense, he'd been grateful for the reprieve… yet it had also given him too much time to think. To remember the fates of Miguel and Rusty, and the person he'd so unexpectedly encountered within Heliopolis.

He could wait no longer, though, and so Athrun keyed the chime. "Enter," came the commander's voice, calm as ever.

Athrun stepped inside, stopped before Le Creuset's desk, and came to attention. "Athrun Zala, reporting as ordered, Sir," he said, saluting sharply.

"At ease, Athrun. You're not in any trouble," Le Creuset said soothingly. "I'd merely like an explanation, that's all. I presume you know for what."

"For my launching on my own initiative," the pilot acknowledged, lowering his hand. "I… apologize for my rashness, Commander. I have no excuse."

"Perhaps, perhaps not." The commander lightly tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. "I must admit to being surprised by your actions, Athrun. Such initiative is not necessarily a bad thing, but this particular expression of it seemed… unusual, coming from you."

Athrun swallowed. He'd debated with himself, long and hard, exactly what he was going to say when the inevitable questions came. At first, he'd wanted to give some lie about being too eager to see for himself what the Earth Forces' new weapons were capable of. To say anything but the truth.

He quickly realized, though, that Le Creuset would see through such a clumsy story immediately. It was common knowledge that Athrun had joined ZAFT because of the Bloody Valentine Tragedy, that there was an element of revenge in his motives, but Le Creuset knew well Athrun was too disciplined to act so impulsively.

So in the end, truth was the course he chose. He did not know what to do, and honesty was not only smart, but might allow his commander to provide him with some advice.

"The truth is, Commander," Athrun began slowly, "I… encountered someone I knew, within Heliopolis. Or I thought I did, anyway. When I in the Morgenröte facility, just before capturing the Aegis, I fought briefly with an Earth Alliance soldier on top of the G-weapon we failed to acquire, and was… interrupted."

Behind his mask, one of Le Creuset's eyebrows went up. "Curious place to meet someone familiar. An old friend from the PLANTs, somehow being here at Heliopolis?"

Athrun shook his head. "Not from the PLANTs, Sir. From Copernicus. You probably know I attended a prep school there, up until three years ago? I… had a couple of very good friends there. One of them was Kira Yamato, and I thought it was somehow him that got between me and the Earth Forces soldier."

Le Creuset nodded slowly. "Meaning this individual was onboard the G-weapon when it defeated Miguel the first time. You went in to confirm that?"

"Yes, Sir."

"And did you?"

He swallowed again. "I did, Sir. Kira was not only aboard the G-weapon, but was probably the one piloting it as of Miguel's defeat. He… definitely was when Miguel was killed."

Another slow nod from Le Creuset, this one very thoughtful. It explained much, the commander mused, both Athrun's uncharacteristic actions and the way the mobile suit had so visibly changed its performance mid-battle, as if someone else had taken over from the original pilot.

Though it still left one question…

"That's very impressive for a Natural," the masked commander said quietly. "Your friend must be an exceptional individual, Athrun."

"He is, Commander," Athrun agreed. "But… he's not a Natural. He's a Coordinator, like us."

And just like that, the final piece fell into place. Athrun's hesitation, his discomfort even after admitting to the friend's involvement, and the mobile suit's surprising improvement in performance. An old -and clearly close- friend of Athrun's, and a Coordinator… fighting for the Earth Forces.

On top of which, Le Creuset thought to himself, there was something about the name. Kira Yamato… it sounds… familiar…

"Very well, Athrun," he said at length. "As I said at the start, you're not in any trouble for this, and all the more now that I know your reasons. You've been put in a very difficult position, facing your friend on opposite sides of a battlefield." Le Creuset leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk. "Naturally, I'll not have you to participate in the coming battle. I can't ask someone to fight such a close friend."

To his surprise, Athrun shook his head, a pleading look on his face. "Sir, please… I would like to be involved in the next sortie. I… If I talk to him, I'm sure I can bring Kira around. I know him! He wouldn't be doing something like this willingly. If I explain to him that there's another way…"

It was the only answer Athrun had been able to come up with, after his hours of thought. That Kira had, in some fashion, been forced into his current position, fighting for the Earth Alliance against his will. The Kira he knew would never do so if he had a choice; of the three of them, only Kevin had been anything resembling a fighter.

And this option meant Athrun could still salvage things before they reached the point of no return.

Le Creuset leaned back in his chair, considering. "Obtaining the final G-weapon, rather than destroying it, would certainly be a welcome outcome," he mused. "And I have no objections to your attempting to save your friend, Athrun. But I have to ask this: what happens if you cannot convince him?"

Athrun tensed, hands clenching involuntarily. This was something he didn't want to face… but one way or another, there was only one answer. "Then I'll shoot him down myself." Better it be me, than a stranger… But it won't come to that! It can't come to that!

The commander considered that a few moments more, then nodded. "Very well. You have permission to make the attempt; and your bold words aside, I'll do my best to see that the final decision does not rest on your shoulders." He paused, recalling something Athrun had said earlier. "Before you go… What with the interesting coincidences we've already seen in this operation, I feel I should ask: is there any possibility the other friend you mentioned was present during the attack?"

I've been asking myself that question from the moment the operation started. "I have to admit it's possible," Athrun admitted, frowning. "I was never entirely clear on his background, but I got the impression he was from a relatively important family in Orb. I came back to the PLANTs when tensions grew, and thought Kira was going to do the same, but I wouldn't be too surprised if Kevin were here."

Eyes hidden behind his mask, Le Creuset blinked, and glanced sidelong at a slight distortion in the air near a bulkhead to his right. It shifted slightly, and he knew the hidden man had also caught the name.

"Could he be in a similar position to this Kira?" Le Creuset asked quietly. "On the battlefield, against us?"

Athrun shrugged uneasily. "I… doubt it. Honestly, Commander, Kevin disappeared about a year before Kira and I left Copernicus, so I don't actually know what happened to him. But I don't see how he could in a combat position; he's a Coordinator too, and a weird one. Really slow maturation. If he was still aging at the rate I remember, I don't think he'd be capable of piloting a mobile suit at this stage."

"Mm…" Le Creuset exchanged another glance with empty air, then shrugged. "Well. It may be something to bear in mind, but for now, I'll take your word for it. At any rate, you have permission to proceed as you requested, and I suggest you get some rest while you can. One way or another, this is not going to be easy."

"Thank you, Sir." Athrun saluted again, and, feeling relieved on one hand and yet oddly disquieted on the other, took his leave.

Once he was gone, Le Creuset turned his attention to the distortion, which resolved itself into Invictus' armor. "Well? Your opinion?"

"The friend he cited was Hydra," Invictus stated, appearing uneasy himself. "Kevin Walker was the alias he used at Copernicus, and I happen to know the two of them were acquainted."

"And the likelihood of him being here?"

The assassin turned to face Le Creuset directly. "He is. I reviewed radio traffic from the last moments of the last engagement. A brief, anomalous transmission matched his voiceprint."

The commander steepled his fingers. "You indicated he had access to Tallgeese… and we both know he has the physical capabilities required. Hm. Let us hope, then, that we strike before they succeed in readying the unit."

"Affirm. Though Kira Yamato will be a greater threat, if I'm correct." Invictus may have been covered in featureless armor, but his unease was quite plain. "My knowledge of him is not nearly as current as of Hydra, but I know this, Commander: Kira Yamato's learning curve is frighteningly steep. If Athrun does not succeed now, we may never."

Archangel, Hangar

It was a face that might not have been out of place on a Medieval knight, like the armor protecting a warrior's face in the heat of battle. Still and silent now, it seemed almost noble, benevolent… a sharp contrast to what it had been made to do.

Others might find comfort in the face of GAT-X105 Strike. Kira Yamato looked into its dimmed eyes, and saw a turbulent future. A future of uncertainty… of pain. Of choices he did not want to make, now or ever.

He floated a meter above the catwalk providing access to the mobile suit's hatch, staring into the face of the machine that had both torn his home away, and given him the power to protect what remained of it. That which had helped him defend one friend, and put him in conflict with another.

Kira didn't have to look around to detect the other presence. He always knew when the other was there, felt it on a level deeper than conscious. "Athrun was out there today," he said quietly, not taking his eyes from the Strike.

"I know," Kevin replied, equally quiet. Drifting along the catwalk, he caught the railing and swung to a halt at Kira's side. "I heard the transmission."

"…You were using combat drugs, back when those soldiers attacked us."

The sandy-haired youth took the apparent shift in topic in stride. "I was," he acknowledged.

"You wrote a report for school about those things, years ago," Kira said conversationally. "You pointed out how dangerous they were. Increased battlefield performance, but highly addictive, and with dangerous withdrawal symptoms." He turned to face his friend. "You used them anyway."

"Janus," Kevin said, turning his own gaze to the Strike. "Binary drug, combines Hermeticus and Accel, for enhanced reflexes and synaptic rate. Normally one hundred percent addiction rate, and near-fatal withdrawal; the difference is that the people who made me created Retro, a counteragent negates the withdrawal. My kind is highly resistant to addiction."

These were waters they'd never discussed much in the past. Kevin had always been vague about his whereabouts and activities after his disappearance, and Kira had never thought it necessary to press for details. They were safe; if Kevin wanted to put the past behind him, there was no reason for Kira to quibble.

Now things had changed, and Kira needed to know. To have some answers… for his own sake.

"What did they do to you?" he said, voice almost a whisper. "Four years ago, you still looked twelve. You shouldn't have aged more than a year since then. Back then, you couldn't do the things I've seen you do. Not even a zoanthrope could do those things." He gripped Kevin's shoulder. "What are you?"

"You don't want to know. Not if you want to sleep at night."

"If I want to sleep at night, I need to understand, Kevin!" Kira said with sudden intensity. "What are you? How do you cope with it all? I have to know! Dammit, Kevin, I don't know what to do now!"

Kevin blinked, turning to meet Kira's eyes for the first time. Despite the unnatural glow in his own jade eyes, Kira met the gaze unflinchingly, desperate and unyielding. It was a look Kevin had never expected to see there. And it was a look that demanded an answer.

"…I am a weapon," the black-clad youth said slowly. "You know I was altered. You couldn't have failed to notice when we met again, and of course you made a very telling request before you launched last time." Kevin turned fully. "Four years ago, I was taken. I was changed. I became a weapon… and then the makers of the weapon I became were killed. Part machine since that time, I found meaning only on the battlefield. I fought in Heaven's War.

"I never wanted to fight again."

Kira swallowed. He'd suspected some of that, knew already his friend's body was no longer fully human. He'd never known it had been forced. Kira had assumed Kevin's reticence was a product of Heaven's War, thought his change in attitude was a product of the horrors he must've witnessed there.

This cast a more sinister light on it… and seemed to take them farther from answering the question Kira so desperately needed solved.

"Then why did you jump into things at Heliopolis? I know you, Kevin. You were heading for a fight the moment you realized what was going. If you hate to fight, why?"

"I like to fight," Kevin corrected, gloved hand tightening its grip on the catwalk railing. "I don't like being put in a position where I have to kill. I do it all too easily, Kira. They made sure of that. But why did I put myself in that position anyway?" He shook his head. "Because someone had to. And if someone had to do it, better it be one whose hands are already indelibly stained with blood."

"Were you immediately heading for Tallgeese?" Kira glanced at the white behemoth beside the Strike. "Were you trying to protect the colony?"

"Nyet," the other admitted. "I wanted answers at first; that little tussle we had on the way to the factory floor just reminded me of my own nature. I told you: fighting is how I find meaning. But Tallgeese was meant for me to escape." He traced a line down his face, over his right eye; Kira suspected the motion of being unconscious. "I break things, Kira. I can't create; I can only destroy. But this one time, I was hoping to do something else. There's… someone out there who needs me. Someone only I can help."

Kira caught Kevin's significant glance at the Strike. "I know what you're saying," he murmured, almost inaudibly. "I think I knew even before I asked. The Lieutenant said it too, didn't he?" He locked gazes with the mobile suit again. "You've got the power to make a difference for one person. You're saying… I have the power to help everyone here, aren't you?"

"I don't think I need to say that, do I?" It was Kevin's turn to place a hand on Kira's shoulder. "I'm going to do my part here. But Tallgeese is a wild horse, and one not yet ready for this kind of battle. Me? I only know how to go on the offensive. I was never trained to fight a defensive battle. My instincts are all about search and destroy, not defending a friendly."

Kira closed his eyes. He didn't like what he was hearing. Didn't like where those thoughts led. Whether he'd known the nature of Kevin's metamorphosis, he'd known what it cost him. Only found meaning on the battlefield…

It was a path he desperately wanted to avoid. A grim reality he never, ever wanted to face. Yet it seemed to be the reality staring him right in the eyes now. Something he could barely deny.

But for one thing, he might've accepted it right then. The other conundrum, the terrible trick of Fate, still remained.

"Athrun is going to be out there again," Kira said. "I don't know why he's here, but he controls one of the G-weapons. If we fight… we might have to fight him, too."

Kevin winced. "I know. Believe me, Kira, I don't like it either. And it's gonna be hard; I won't kill him, but I really don't know how to fight that way." He pulled his shades on again, concealing what the more poetic called the "windows to the soul" once more. "There's no good option here, Kira. I don't want to face Athrun…"

"…But if we don't face him, he and his comrades kill everyone on this ship," Kira finished heavily. "Including those people I brought here for 'safety'." He turned back to Kevin. "…You're with me, right?"

Kevin reached out and gripped Kira's forearm. "Every step of the way, tovarisch. Till you and the other civvies are safe, and I can do what I have to."

Kira wondered what the other's mysterious goal was, but only distantly. It didn't matter now. What mattered was the task that had fallen to them, whether they wanted it or not. To the reality that without them -without Kira- everything would be lost.

He'd taken control of the Strike once to save his friends. He'd climbed back in to do so again. Now he'd do so one more time, being the shield they could not, being the sword the Archangel could not herself provide.

As the two pilots looked to their respective machines, confident at least in their own solidarity, neither really saw the mobile suits. Just a face… a face from long ago, once a faithful friend, now perhaps a deadly foe…

Archangel, Bridge

Five hours gone, and all was still quiet. Five hours since kicking loose the decoy to lead the ZAFT pursuers in the wrong direction, and no sign yet that their deception had been penetrated. Another hour, perhaps two, and attacking Archangel would be suicide; even if the ship had difficulties identifying herself, Artemis would not tolerate ZAFT aggression within their defense zone.

The mood on the bridge was tense anyway. All the surviving officers had lived through terrible battles -Murrue through the conflicts that led to Yggdrasil's fall, Mu through Endymion and Bowman Station, Natarle through Heaven's War- and knew entirely too well how quickly a situation could go straight to hell.

"I gather you spoke to Kira earlier?" Murrue said quietly, more to fill the silence than anything else.

Mu, standing to the right of her command chair, nodded. "Yeah. Gave him and his friends a head's up on the current situation; Kira needs it, and I figured the other kids had a right to know."

She suspected Natarle took issue with that last point, but if the ensign did, she didn't deign to exit CIC to make her opinion known. "Do you think he'll do it? Pilot the Strike for us again? We've already put him through so much…"

He shrugged. "No guarantees," he admitted. "But… yeah, I think he will. I don't think he likes us very much right now, but he's a smart kid; he knows the stakes. And for somebody who hates the idea of being a soldier, he seems pretty big on protecting his friends. If there's some way he can make a difference, I don't think he'll pass it up."

Murrue nodded. That fit with her own observations of the young Coordinator; however much he may have protested being forced into the cockpit again, Kira had taken the initiative in assuming control of the Strike the first time. His own life had been in little danger, phase-shift armor preventing the GINN from inflicting any damage… yet the moment he noticed his friends were present, he took control of the battle.


He has talent, she mused. An incredible amount of it… I didn't think even a Coordinator could rewrite an entire operating system in so short a time. And doing so in a machine he'd never even known about just a few minutes before…

Murrue wasn't sanguine about putting a child in charge of defending the Archangel. It was a job for trained soldiers, not a college student who didn't even want to be there. But if she had to do it anyway, she was as certain about Kira's abilities as she could be.

Which reminds me…

She glanced down into CIC. "Any word on Tallgeese's status, Ensign?"

"Just a brief status report from Kevin," Natarle replied, glancing over at the console devoted to mobile weapon operations. "He indicated the OS problem has been taken care of, and that basic systems were fully operational. Mister Murdoch is just now finishing repairs to the Zero, however, so no idea when proper weapons will be ready for Tallgeese."

"So it's up to me and the kid, then," Mu mused; he didn't seem perturbed by the thought. "That's if anything happens, of course-"

"Excuse me, Captain," interrupted the crewman operating the ships various sensors; Petty Officer 2nd Class Jackie Tonomura, Mu reminded himself. "I've got a contact at three o'clock, approximately on level with us."

Murrue's gut tightened. "Type?" She hoped it was a patrol from Artemis, perhaps something that received word on Heliopolis' destruction, but under the current circumstances…

"Thermopattern consistent with Nazca-class, Ma'am," Tonomura answered, confirming her fears. "The same one that was outside Heliopolis."

"Damn," Mu muttered. "Le Creuset… I was afraid he wouldn't be fooled."

"Le Creuset had two ships," Murrue said sharply. "He wouldn't have come here just with the Nazca. Omni-directional search: find me the other ship!"

The only sound for several moments was Tonomura's fingers flying across his console, hurriedly checking over every possible signature within range of Archangel's radar and heat sensors. It was not a lengthy task.

"Heat signature directly astern, Captain," he said tightly. "Laurasia-class, just coming out of silent running."

Murrue closed her eyes. So the enemy had not only anticipated their moves, but had adapted the same tactics for their own use. If she'd doubted Mu's insistence that it was Rau Le Creuset before, she did no longer; such deviousness was entirely typical of the ZAFT commander.

Now to see if she could out-gambit him.

"All hands to Level One Battlestations," she ordered. "Lieutenant La Flaga, I need a moment of your time; I have an idea…"

Mu raised an eyebrow, leaning closer, and alarms began to sound throughout the ship.

Archangel, Enlisted Quarters

"All hands to Level One Battlestations! All hands to Level One Battlestations!"

The group of students from Heliopolis looked up as the announcement rang out over the ship's PA system. There was a flurry of activity outside the small compartment, the painfully shorthanded crew rushing to deal with the emergency.

"I guess there's another battle starting," Kuzzey murmured, knowing it was obvious but unable to think of anything else to say.

"Looks that way," Sai agreed soberly. "I guess we didn't get away as cleanly as we thought."

"No sign of Kira or Kevin, either," Tolle remarked, slumped against one of the bunks. "They're probably gonna be fighting, huh? Protecting us again…"

Silence fell. None of them liked to contemplate the reality they were in, the possibility of sudden, violent death… the fact that two of their friends were going to not merely contemplate the situation, but go out and meet it head on.

Those two were going out to fight, to take the fear ZAFT inflicted on them, and throw it back into the enemy's face.

And we're just… No. No, it's not going to be like that this time.

Miriallia abruptly stood, startling Tolle. "I'm not going to just sit here," she announced. "Kira and Kevin are going to be out there, risking their lives for our sake; they're doing something about this. I'm not going to just sit and do nothing."

Kuzzey stared at her like she'd grown cat ears and a tail. "Huh? But wait a minute! What can any of us do in a situation like this?"

She speared him with a look sharper than even Tolle had realized she could produce. "We're all in danger anyway," she told him firmly. "Even if we don't do anything, we're just as likely to die here. So I say we do our part, contribute something to save ourselves. What can we do? Look around, Kuzzey! More than half this ship's crew died before they could even get onboard!"

Sai slowly smiled, realizing what she was getting at. "This is a state of the art ship, undermanned… and we're all tech students."

Tolle brightened. "You're right… There is something we can do! Maybe we can't go out there and fight, but we can at least help with the ship's operations!"

Flay, silent up to this point, held back, feeling disconnected from the group dynamic she was only peripherally connected to. She had known Miriallia for a couple of years, had newfound connections with Sai, but she was not truly part of their group yet.

Maybe someday…

The other four, oblivious to Flay's uneasiness, shared a look… and after a moment, even the more reluctant Kuzzey nodded in agreement.

They were not pilots or soldiers. That didn't mean there was nothing they could do…

Archangel, Pilots' Locker Room

Mu was not altogether surprised when, in the process of donning his distinctive violet and white flight suit, Kira Yamato walked into the compartment, already wearing the mostly blue version of the same outfit, the colors intended for use by the G-weapon pilots. Still in the process of fastening the suit, Kira didn't look happy, but neither did he look as angry as Mu might've expected.

"So, you've decided?" the Lieutenant asked quietly.

Kira nodded. "You're right, Lieutenant. If I've got the power to make a difference, I can't just sit around and do nothing." Opening one of the lockers, he pulled out a helmet matching his flightsuit, and tucked it under one arm. "We're the only ones who can protect this ship, right?"

Mu looked at him sidelong. "You do realize this battle may not be the end of it?"

Another, slower nod. "I do. No more complaints from me here on out, Lieutenant. Until we reach safe territory and my friends and I can leave, I'll do my part."

Mu frowned thoughtfully. That was a more mature response than he'd really expected; he wondered now if the Coordinator had already thought, deep down, that he might have to do this, and that his protests so far had been more denial than anything else.

"And your friend?" he asked, for wont of something better to say.

"I go where he does, for now," Kevin replied, entering the locker room himself. "Till we reach Earth. After that, I've got overdo business of my own… but for now? I've got a healthy sense of self-preservation, and a dislike of my friends being shot at."

"Hm." Mu gave him an appraising glance. "Good to know… Nice suit, by the way."

Kira also glanced curiously at the soldier, and blinked at the outfit he wore. Predictably black -Kira couldn't remember seeing Kevin in any other color- but it was clearly not a borrowed Earth Alliance flight suit the way Kira's was. It reminded him slightly of those he'd seen on the ZAFT soldiers they'd encountered at Heliopolis, but bulkier, and with no insignia, though lighter patches remained, suggesting that such had been removed.

"Gear from when I was active-duty," Kevin explained with a shrug. "Made for high-G flight operations; it should help me handle Tallgeese."

Mu nodded. "Makes sense… Okay, you guys both know the plan, right? I'm going out first, then you, Kira. Walker, Murdoch is still working on modding spare weaponry, so you'll be staying here for now. I know Tallgeese already has a beam saber, but considering how much of a wild horse it is, I don't think any of us want to bet on it in close combat."


The elder pilot turned, laying a hand on Kira's shoulder. "I know this is going to be tough, Kira. Just stick with the plan, and you'll be fine. I know you can do this."

Kira swallowed, thinking about the one aspect of the coming battle the Lieutenant did not know about, the complication that his words did little to calm his nerves regarding. "I understand, Lieutenant."

"Right. Let's get moving."

Vesalius, Bridge

"Legged Ship has altered course, Captain. I think they've noticed us."

"Understood." Ades looked over at his commander. "Sir?"

Le Creuset nodded. "If we've timed this right, the only unit they'll be able to send out is the G-weapon; they shouldn't have had time to repair the Zero, much less prepare Tallgeese… Excellent. Signal the Gamow: prepare to engage, and launch the G-weapons."

"Yes, Sir." Ades turned to the communications officer, and began relaying the instructions.

The masked commander punched a button on his armrest. "Launch deck: Andrei, you're out first. Hang back and keep an eye out for surprises, particularly the possibility of the Legged Ship launching its other mobile weapons."

"Yes, Sir!" the team's sole surviving GINN pilot responded smartly. On the one hand, being relegated to support while the younger members of the team went on the offensive rankled. On the other… Andrei Simonov remembered the single G-weapon remaining in enemy hands had defeated the Magic Bullet of Dusk twice, the second time fatally.

"Athrun," Le Creuset continued, "are you ready?"

"Yes, Commander," Athrun replied, from Aegis' cockpit. To his credit, Le Creuset only recognized the tension in the pilot's voice because he knew to listen for it.

"Remember what I said, Athrun… and good luck."

"Thank you, Commander." Through the forward viewports, Simonov's GINN could be seen hurtling out into space, and several decks below the bridge the Aegis would now be moving to take its place.

"Athrun Zala… Aegis, launching!"

Standing beside the bridge's hatch, Invictus watched the G-weapon launch with studied -and elaborately faked- calm. So it begins… Athrun, Kira, and Kevin, all in the same place, with conflicting agendas. Crud, but this is bad.

Marie Curie, Hangar

It was something of an odd fit; the X-9 Ghost had never been intended as a manned weapon, so the cockpit was, by necessity, somewhat awkward. Indeed, a full-sized cockpit would've been out of the question. There was too little room to spare for full controls and instrumentation.

The Boss did not care. Fitted into the snug pilot's couch, he gripped the armrests and looked into the displays of his featureless helmet, inhumanly still and calm. "Status, Lance?" he asked.

"It's starting," Lance replied from the bridge. "The Legged Ship is beginning to maneuver, and both Vesalius and Gamow are deploying mobile suits." He paused. "No sign yet of mobile weapon launch from the Legged Ship."

"Biding their time," the Boss murmured. "Someone on that ship has a brain; they know they can't win a straight-up fight, even if they manage to deploy all their mobile weapons… Keep watching, Lance. This battle doesn't interest me unless and until Tallgeese enters the engagement."

"Understood, Boss. I'll keep you informed."

Archangel, Hangar/Catapult Decks

Kira settled into the Strike's cockpit one more time, feeling tense yet also, oddly, liberated. He wasn't looking forward to what he was about to do. In fact, he was quite frightened by it, even leaving aside the likelihood of fighting Athrun. Holding off a single GINN was one thing; taking on all four stolen G-weapons was something else entirely.

If it all goes according to plan, you won't have to do it for long, he reminded himself, taking a deep breath. The Lieutenant's attack will give them something else to worry about, and if things go on too long, Kevin will be out there, too. I don't have to outfight all of them, just hold them off for a little while…

He wasn't looking forward to this, but at least he'd made a firm decision. Having made his choice to keep flying, Kira at least no longer had any uncertainty as to his course; now his only concern was how to make his wish reality, not what his wish was.

Keeping that firmly in mind, Kira checked his helmet seals, fastened his restraints, and began the Strike's startup sequence. It was, perhaps unfortunately, becoming an old habit already, but he supposed that was a good thing as far as his chances of survival were concerned. With a mental shrug, he finished the main activation sequence, bringing its connections with the ship live.

"Beginning launch operations," an unexpected voice said over his link with the bridge. "Möbius Zero, move to port catapult. Strike, you read?"

Kira stared in surprise at the image that appeared on one of his comm displays. "Miriallia?" he blurted, startled by the sight of her in a pink Earth Alliance uniform. "What are you…?"

She smiled. "We decided we couldn't just let you do all the work. Tolle, Sai, and Kuzzey are up here, too; we'll be supporting the Archangel's operations from here on. And I'll be supporting you directly, supervising flight control." Miriallia adjusted her headset, obviously still unused to the device's presence.

"Anyway. Standby; we'll be moving you to the starboard catapult shortly."

"…Roger that." Kira summoned a smile in response, despite his own confusion. "And… thanks." Strangely, he felt some of the weight lift off his shoulders at this show of support; after the revelation of his Coordinator status, he'd been half afraid of how his friends would react. Now he knew: they were still with him…

"All right, kid," Mu called, from the Möbius Zero. "Remember what I said: stay calm, and follow the plan. I'll see you in space… Bridge? Mu La Flaga, launching!"

A faint vibration heralded the massive acceleration the catapult imparted to the mobile armor, and on his monitors Kira could see the Zero rocket out into open space, heading out on its own part of the mission. They were still outside optimal sensor range -they hoped- of the enemy Nazca…

Taking a few more deep breaths to steady himself, Kira closed his eyes, waiting for his own launch; as he did, though, something nagged at the edge of his mind, as if there was something he'd forgotten. Something he was supposed to do, or say.

A flash of golden hair went past his mind's eye, prompting recall and Kira's activation of his link with the Archangel's other remaining mobile weapon. "Hey, Kevin?"

"Right here, tovarisch," Kevin replied; his response was slightly distracted, and Kira could see he was making some last-minute adjustments to Tallgeese's OS, while Murdoch's people labored around it.

"Something up?"

Kira nodded. "You remember that girl we met on Heliopolis? The one we followed into the factory?"

"…Kind of hard to forget," the other allowed, a shadow crossing his face. "What with the way she talked about me. What about her?"

"Just as she was going down into the shelter, she asked me to tell you something." Kira paused. "She said, 'Tell Kevin that I'm Cagalli,'. I'm assuming that was her name… Does it mean anything to you?"

There was a long pause from the other machine. Kevin's eyes were closed, mind working furiously, struggling against the haze that still obscured portions of his memory. That name… I know I've heard it somewhere, but who…?

"There's something else," Kira said, interrupted the reverie as another scrap of memory drifted to mind. "She was wearing a ring that looked just like yours."

Kevin's breath hitched, and a flash of memory was accompanied by a moment of blinding pain in his head… and then it was gone again. Gone, but leaving a little more behind than had been there a minute before…

"…I think I know her," he said at length. "I just… can't remember…" Kevin shook himself. "No time for that now. Once we're through this battle, I'll think about it. It's probably important, but this comes first."

Kira was about to reply in agreement, but Miriallia's voice beat him to it. "All right, Kira. It's time. Moving to starboard catapult."

With a muted thump and a rumble, the mobile suit was carried smoothly forward, out of the hangar and into one of the Archangel's powerful catapults. With another thump, the hangar machinery released it, the catapult mechanisms taking it in turn.

"Connected to catapult," Miriallia announced. "APU activated. Connecting Aile Striker pack."

Hatches in the bulkheads and overhead plating of the catapult opened, permitting armatures to connect the massive Aile thruster unit to the Strike's back, and place beam rifle and shield in hand. Going from basic to equipped with greater mobility, a rifle and shield, and beam sabers, Kira suspected this loadout would prove more versatile than those he'd used before.

"Systems, all green. You're clear, Strike." Miriallia paused. "Good luck out there, Kira."

"Thanks, Miriallia." Kira swallowed, tightened his grip on the controls, and stared resolutely out his displays. "Kira Yamato… launching!"

GAT-X105 Strike hurtled forward, gripped by electromagnetic force to be hurled into the void of space… and the coming maelstrom of combat.

Author's note:

The student has taken the first step on the road to being a protector, and to finding his destiny. The knight seeks understanding, and reconciliation. The soldier sees the first glimmerings of his own hidden past, and perhaps of his future… And far away, a shadow seeks her own objective, her Fate yet to be revealed…

Well. So much for my hope of getting this ready as quickly as the last one; this isn't quite as bad as the delay for Chapter II, but almost… In my defense, this has been a very stressful year for me, making inspiration rare and hard to grasp. And, as I've noted in previous chapters, this part of the series always gives me trouble.

I can say for certain this time that there's going to be a delay before the next chapter, so I thought I'd give everybody a head's up for once. I'm going to be moving in the near future, so I'm going to be a bit busy… Also, I can't promise that my next update will be for this story. I've had a Persona fic in the works for almost a year now, and I want to finally make some progress with that; fact is, I've done nothing but Gundam SEED fics for a good five years now, so I think I could use a little variety.

Not to say I'm abandoning this or anything, obviously. Current circumstances and other projects aside, I don't intend to leave this hanging for another six months. It's just going to be a bit of a juggle, that's all.

Anyway. Think that's everything, so let me know just how much this was -or, probably, wasn't- worth the wait. -Solid