Before a battle came preparation: Sumeragi knew it well. During a battle came chaos: she always had to factor that into her plans, too. But after the battle came the debris of the collision between preparation and chaos, and that always made something inside her tremble. It had for a very long time now, and no matter how else she changed, that would not change.
She curled her fingers around the edge of her chair as Mileina read off names.
"Mr. Aeon and Miss Parfacy are all healed up," she said. "Checking the battlefield now!" Her voice was still cheerful, if a little shaky. She wasn't certain yet how to deal with the news about Tieria. "Mr. Haptism is alive, but injured. Mr. Stratos is alive, but injured. Mr. Erde is intact inside Veda. Isn't he? No sign of Mr. Seiei!"
"Setsuna," Feldt whispered.
"Thank you, Mileina," Sumeragi said, smiling at her. Next to her, Billy picked up too well on the sadness in that smile and awkwardly patted her hand. Then he pulled his own hand away. He really was going to learn to respect her boundaries as much as he'd always pretended to, Sumeragi realized. A small spark of gratitude welled up in her at that.
"Feldt," Sumeragi said. "Who's closest?"
"Arios is damaged, but nearby," Feldt said.
Selfish relief flooded Sumeragi. If Allelujah was back, it would all be all right. The rest would follow. It was an irrational feeling, but she let herself feel it. They'd won. There had been sacrifice, but surely in the end, everyone would be okay.
Allelujah opened his eyes. Disorientation threatened to overwhelm him; he was no longer in the cockpit of Arios. The last time he'd woken up from a fight outside the cockpit of his Gundam, it had been the start of a very long nightmare. He tensed up--
Idiot. Look at where you are.
Allelujah blinked a few times, and then he looked. The corridors of the Ptolemy stretched out around him. He was being dragged along them, but not by enemy hands, and he was not restrained. Lasse had an arm around his shoulders and was pulling him along. On the other side, Ian helped steady him.
And I'm back. Don't forget that.
"Hallelujah," he whispered.
Lasse turned to look at him. "Are you going to make it all right, Allelujah?" he asked.
"Yes," Allelujah said. "I'll be fine from here." He didn't know if he would. But whether or not he was ready, he would walk forward on his own two feet, to show that old voice in his head that he was in control now.
You're wrong. We're both in control. And then there's her, too.
Allelujah stumbled forward. Hallelujah kept him standing even though his body was battered. Carefully, he accepted the help.
A new hand rested on his arm. He looked down to see the one face he needed to see most. "Marie?" he said. "Or Soma?"
"I think it's both of us," she said. "But I can be Marie for now."
"Then I can be Allelujah for now," he said. "So long as you're with me."
She held his hand, and they walked onwards, to return to the rest of Celestial Being. They had their own journey to take, and they both knew it without saying a word. But they were still a part of Celestial Being, and for a little while longer, they belonged here.
The door to the bridge opened, and Saji stared into all the eyes that turned to face him. They were scared and hopeful in most cases (and a little bit puzzled, for the man who stood next to Sumeragi). "Sorry," he said. "It's just me."
Mileina bounced on her heels. "Is that your girlfriend?"
"Ah!" Saji clutched harder at Louise's shoulders where he held her. "I'm not sure this is the time for questions like that..."
"It's all right," Louise said. "Yes. I'm his girlfriend. I'm sorry I'll be taking him away from you."
"Then you're leaving," Feldt said.
"Not yet," Saji said. "I want to know that everyone is all right first."
Louise giggled. It was a rusty, hollow sound. "That's the Saji I know!" Her voice came out a little strangely, as if she wasn't used to making exclamations any longer.
He held her more tightly. She didn't protest.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked.
"We're bringing the Ptolemy into position to pick up Cherudim now," Sumeragi said. "You can help adjust the docking systems."
"If there's anything I can do..." Louise looked around her. Saji still hadn't let go of her. Her eyes were wide and empty. "I'll do it. To protect Saji. To help the ones he served with."
"He didn't serve with us, exactly," Mileina said. "Celestial Being isn't like that. He was part of our family for a little while. I'll be sad to see him go," she added.
"You've already done something," Feldt said suddenly. "You gave him the strength to fight." As abruptly as if she hadn't spoken to Louise, she turned back to the screen before her. "Ready to bring the Cherudim on board."
"Do it," Sumeragi said. She pushed out of her chair. "Let's go make sure Lockon's all right, shall we?"
Mileina and the man at her side followed her out of the room--although the latter hesitated in the hallway, and started to fall behind as the doors closed.
"Aren't you going to go, Feldt?" Saji said.
"I'm looking for Setsuna," she said.
When Lyle closed his eyes, all he could see was Anew's face before him. If I'm joining you now, that's all right, he thought. I've fought my best. I've finally earned the right to this name. Lockon Stratos.
He didn't open them for a while. Even when he realized he wasn't dead, he didn't open them. He could feel someone above him wiping blood from his face and bandaging his head. He ached, and he wondered where he was.
Finally, he opened both eyes--blood no longer poured down over one of them. He was lying in a bed, and he realized with some small surprise that the place it was in had become familiar to him. Not just like a hallway you've walked many times becomes familiar, but like a house you've lived in for a year becomes familiar. It was the sickbay of the Ptolemy.
He blinked a few times to clear his vision more. No matter how many times he blinked, though, the crowd in front of him remained the same. Allelujah and Marie. Sumeragi and Mileina. Ian and Lasse. Celestial Being was gathered and waiting for him.
"Lockon's awake! Lockon's awake!" chirped Haro. Lyle found himself oddly relieved that Haro hadn't taken damage--or at least, not enough to quiet it.
"I see," Sumeragi said, smiling. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I just fought a battle," Lyle said. "Personally."
"I'm sorry we couldn't do more to back you up," she said, her smile growing rueful.
Movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned slightly, and there at the back of the small crowd that had gathered to see him wake up alive was a flash of pale skin and lavender hair. Anew smiled at him, then held out her arms to encompass the others. Then she turned away and vanished.
"Hey, I said 'personally,'" Lyle said. "Not alone." He looked around. "Allelujah, you're all right," he said. "I was worried after Ribbons got that hit in." He hesitated, then plunged ahead. "How's Setsuna?"
"We don't know yet," Allelujah said. "We haven't found him."
"Aren't we going to fix that?" Lyle asked.
"We're trying, Mr. Stratos," said Mileina.
"I know you are," he said. "I wouldn't expect anything less." He paused. "I really wouldn't."
For the first time, he looked at the crew surrounding him, and he spoke from the heart. "I'm glad to be back."
He'd been wrong, earlier. It wouldn't have been all right if he died. He still had things to fight for and people to fight with. It'll be a while before I can join you, Anew, he thought. So just watch over us for now. Neil, you too. There was no answer, but he didn't expect one. He would face the past, present, and future to find his own answer now, and he would do it as part of Celestial Being.
The ship's intercom interrupted his thoughts. Feldt's voice came on over it. "I've found something! It's on the moon, and it's Exia. It's Setsuna. It has to be Setsuna!"
"Well," Lyle said, "you guys can't sit around here worrying about me now, can you? Let's go bring Setsuna back."
He'd destroyed Ribbons Almark. Was that what mattered?
As consciousness slipped from him, Setsuna thought that no, that wasn't what mattered. He could see the flower he'd been given back on the Ptolemy slipping away from him, floating off into space. That was what mattered. Protecting that one living thing and all the feelings it represented. But he couldn't do it anymore.
He closed his eyes, and he faded away.
Setsuna did not feel the hands firmly but gently pulling him from Exia's ruined cockpit. He did not see the small crowd that surrounded him as he was hurried to sickbay. Instead, when he woke, all he felt was pain, and all he saw was light.
After a long while, he opened his mouth, and words came out. "Why am I here?"
"You're asking a stupid question," came a voice from nearby. Lockon. Lyle Dylandy.
"I hope you didn't think we'd let you die out there on the moon," came another voice. Ian Vashti.
Something blocked the light. Setsuna blinked and refocused. Feldt's face rose above him. "Setsuna," she said very softly. Her eyes were bright, but there were no more tears in them. "I don't know if it's okay. Please...tell me whether..."
"Feldt Grace," he said. "I lost the flower. I apologize."
Somewhere in the background, Mileina sighed. "You're being silly! She doesn't care about the flower!"
"Be quiet," Sumeragi said, but Setsuna could hear her smiling. It was strange, how he had grown more able to perceive the emotions of others. It was strange, how much he cared about the emotions of this group of people around him. "Go on, Feldt," Sumeragi continued. "Ask him."
Setsuna looked up at Feldt. "I thought you were asking about the flower," he said.
She shook her head. "Is it all right if I hug you?"
He thought about it for a moment, then he nodded. "It is all right." Once, he would have objected. But now was a new era. He was a new being.
As Feldt threw her arms around him, he realized that he was still Setsuna F. Seiei, and everyone in Celestial Being still mattered to him. They were the ones he'd wanted to protect, in the end.
"Aren't you going to thank him, Saji?" It was Louise, stage-whispering in the background. She was all right, and she was with Saji.
"I will," Saji said. "When he's ready for it."
Feldt let go of him. "I don't mean to keep him to myself!"
"It's okay if you do," Mileina said, suddenly looking devious.
"What?" Setsuna and Feldt said at the same time.
Sumeragi laughed. The sound was what they all needed to hear. Lasse joined in first, then Ian, and then the rest of them tumbled after, even if they didn't understand the joke. They were simply laughing because they were home.
This is a message from Veda to the Ptolemaios. You may receive it whenever you are ready.
I will have more data to send to you later. For now, I wish you to know that I am glad you are all safe. Please continue to be safe with each other, and never forget how much it means to me that I was able to protect you.
Setsuna...at this time, I will ask only one thing of you. Let your feelings for your comrades continue to grow. I know now that you can do that, and you will.
To all of you: it isn't over yet. You still have far to go.