Murrue lost count of how many times she'd sighed. Every time she raised her eyes to chastise the four rebels, the words holed up. Mu hid his face in his palm, trying but failing miserably to hide a smile that beamed with embarrassment, pride, and humor. Natarle, on the other hand, alternatively glared holes through each of their skulls. She was probably also privately wondering what crime in a past life she committed to land herself amongst the most perturbing of individuals and situations.
The Captain demurely laid her pen down. "Mu, what have you been teaching these kids?"
Said lieutenant shook his head, having long expected that question—his own record wasn't exactly perfect. "Hey, I didn't do anything. I've said nothing, did nothing, and have diligently tried not to set a bad example. I really have been trying to act like a responsible adult."
"All four of them! All! Four! Of them!" Murrue emphasized.
"I didn't help these guys," Shinn quietly commented. "I was already—"
Kira clapped a hand over his mouth. They were in deep crap as it was. Thus there was no need to make it worse by letting Shinn run his mouth. Asuka retaliated by sticking his tongue through his fingers, making Yamato retract his hand in disgust.
"Okay, teamwork won't ever be an issue. Maybe they have a 'share victory, share defeat' philosophy… or something like that, I guess," Mu offered weakly in explanation.
Murrue raised a brow. "Are you suggesting that you go down with them? I'd be happy to oblige since you are their squad leader."
Oh, she's good… he mentally admitted. "Oh, that's okay. I don't mind abandoning ship this once."
Mu didn't need to look to know that three sets of eyes were glaring nukes at his head—Stella was likely off in her own little world, again.
"Can we please get back onto to topic!?" Natarle snapped.
Murrue sighed—how many times was that now? "Right. Well, under normal circumstances, we'd have a mock trial. However, due to the parties involved and their circumstances…" she looked at them in turn, "I'll let you off easy. But let me remind you that this could've been much uglier. To put it in perspective, Shinn would've been charged with attempted assault against an officer. Kira would've been executed for treason. And finally, Mayu and Stella would be arrested for aiding a traitor. However, because you're all civilians and the one that is a soldier is still a minor, these charges do not apply to any of you. Please consider your actions from now on. Mu, as your squad captain, will determine your punishment. Dismissed."
The teens heaved a collective sigh. All of them knew it could've gone far worse, and if the Archangel wasn't so strained for pilots that might've been the case. Murrue was giving them a mere slap on the wrist and none were going to question it.
Just as they walked out the door, they were stopped by Sai who was followed closely by Mirialli.
"Hey guys," he greeted. "How did everything go?"
"Eh, could've been worse," Shinn answered, shoving his hands in his pockets like he had no care in the world.
"Sounds like you've been to the principal's office one too many times," Mirialli noted as she moved from behind Sai's back.
Mayu rolled her eyes. "Are you kidding me? It's like a bi-weekly occurrence with this guy! You should hear how much my mom screams at him."
"Hey!" Shinn shouted indignantly, earning snickers from everyone.
"What's the punishment for you guys?" Sai asked.
"Whatever I decide," Mu interjected as he floated between the two groups. "It'll probably be worse than what you guys got. I was thinking about mobile suit cleaning duty—with a toothbrush."
This earned groans from all the pilots (except Stella) and lone mechanic.
"Still, stay out of trouble guys. I don't want my own ass on the chopping block next time." With that, the lieutenant floated away.
Natarle followed shortly behind the lieutenant, glaring harshly at each of the pilots in turn as she moved out of the captain's office. Shinn and Mayu glared back, though Kira only offered a frown. Silently, the ensign went down the hallway.
The teens watched as, strangely enough, Stella turned to follow the ensign.
"Suddenly, cleaning toilets doesn't sound so bad," Mir broke the silence with a lighthearted smile.
"Thanks for reminding me," Shinn groaned.
Mayu put her hands on her hip. "Well, Shinn and I are going to go run some programming with the Raid."
And the siblings then departed towards their own direction. The remaining teens turned to leave.
"I don't see why they're still messing with the Raid," Sai noted. "With the Eighth Fleet approaching, none of this will matter anyways."
"Eh, it never hurts to be safe than sorry, I guess," Mir offered.
They were silent for several seconds.
Sai broke the quiet with an observation that'd been bothering him for a while. "Look, Kira, Kuzzey heard you talking to that girl, Lacus."
Kira gave him a carefully-guarded stare.
"We heard the pilot of the Aegis is a friend of yours," Sai continued.
Yamato flinched, halting as the question hit several tender spots in his emotions. "I…"
Mir offered him a sad smile. "Hey, it's alright. You've been keeping us safe, even though someone you know is fighting against us. Thank you, Kira."
Sai also sadly smiled. "Yeah, I wish we could do more for you."
The coordinator didn't know how to react. They knew, but they didn't see fit to worry. Rather, they offered condolence.
Didn't they realize how sorely tempted Kira had been to accept Athrun's offers to join the PLANTs? No, they knew he could've made that decision at any time. But even with that knowledge, they kept faith that he'd continue to defend them. Yamato wished he had that kind of faith in himself.
"Thanks, guys," Kira quietly said, wishing he could fully express what he was feeling.
"No problem. Anyways, we've gotta report for our shift on the bridge. Don't work too hard," Mir said, both turning towards their intended destination.
Nobody noticed Flay as she hung back against a corridor wall, one of her fist clenching.
It was evident in Natarle's stiff posture and deep frown that she wasn't a happy camper.
Inwardly, she had wanted harsher punishments for the teens. Their stunt endangered everyone, and yet again they almost lost the Strike and Kira because of an unpredictable opponent. If she'd been the captain, Natarle would've ensured no one was spared. Still, they were civilians and the one that was a soldier didn't fully understand the ramifications of her actions. Military protocol wasn't exactly ingrained into their being.
"If it's any consolation," chimed a voice from behind, startling Natarle, "your actions were strategically effective."
Turning, Badgiruel relaxed upon spotting Stella. However, the young pilot's seemingly innocent gaze held a certain soul-piercing depth to it that left the ensign mentally edgy.
Sometimes it was easy to forget that Stella Loussier was probably the most dangerous person aboard the Archangel.
"Really now?" the elder of the two sarcastically drawled. "I'm glad that somebody appreciates what I do on this ship."
She turned to leave, but when Loussier spoke Natarle's leg muscles suddenly locked. "Thank you. It was wrong, but thanks anyways. Nobody died."
Natarle didn't immediately identify the emotion that blossomed in her chest upon hearing Stella's words.
…Yeah, it'd been the wrong maneuver to take a hostage. Everyone's disdain ensured Badgiruel knew it. However, the gamble everyone hated somehow managed to keep those same people alive. Loathe it, appreciate it… Whatever anyone felt, Natarle couldn't regret a decision that most likely saved the Archangel.
"…You're welcome," she offered over her shoulder, earning a light smile from Stella. Maybe I'm being too hard on those kids…
Except for Shinn. That one deserved a swift kick in the ass.
"They recovered the Reach!?" Yzak almost shouted at the screen displaying Talia Gladys.
"That is correct," the captain confirmed.
Hovering within arm's reach of Joule was Shiho, a grimace marring her features as she analyzed the data and combat video being displayed beside Talia's image. Nicol was studying the map display and Zelman keenly watched the back and forth of the younger soldiers.
Dearka, leaning on a seat, scratched the back of his head. "So… what does that mean?"
Shiho quickly answered. "It means our opponents got a lot more dangerous."
"Well, fill us in," Elsmen urged. "What the hell does it do? You weren't exactly descriptive back at Artemis."
"That's because I only had a handful of specs back then, all of which came from the other MSs' databases," the lone lady redcoat shot him an annoyed glance from the corner of her eye. "But from what I'm seeing from the combat data here, it's range is theoretically farther reaching than we anticipated. Not only that, its targeting system is impressively advanced. It took the highest number of crippling shots during the fight. Besides that, I can't tell you much more. Likelihood is that the Reach will be perched atop the legged ship as a defense, which will make approaching either target drastically more difficult."
Nicol cut in for the first time, looking down at the map console as he spoke. "Then how are we supposed to pull off a last-minute operation like this? Ten minutes is all we've got before we enter the moon fleet's firing range. If our targets have increased strength, then what can we do?"
Talia sighed. "I was hoping someone over on the Gamow would be able to answer that. We've been drawing blanks over here since this sortie was suggested."
Yzak shrugged. "We've either got just ten minutes or a full ten minutes. It just depends on how you look at it; if we've got a window of opportunity, we should take it."
"Your eagerness is noted," Shiho interjected. "But their worries are far more justifiable. A ten minute operation at most could cripple them. But do we really want to settle for a flesh wound when we want a kill?"
Joule muttered some insults under his breath directed towards the lady redcoat, but didn't counter her.
"How's the Andoryan's squad by the way?" Zelman questioned.
Talia pursed her lips. "Only half of our contingent is still operational. Three of our GINNs were crippled in the last sortie and won't be operational in time for this battle. Another one is currently experiencing malfunctions."
"Lovely…" Yzak groused.
"Ooh, I got it!" Dearka broke in, garnering everyone's attention. "How about as we approach the legged ship, we have our squad somehow mask support fire from the Gamow and Andoryan? And then we have Nicol attack the legged ship with its invisibility. Plan enough for you, Shiho?"
Said female rolled her eyes. "No. That's about as harebrained as they come."
A light bulb suddenly went off in her head.
All ensuing conversations silenced as everyone watched a calculating smirk slowly tug at Shiho's lips. "No, that won't work…. But might I offer an alternative?"
"God, what I would've given to take a shot at Le Crueset like that," Rusty praised, floating alongside Athrun down the hallways of the Vesalius. "Unlike you, though, I would've actually tried killing him."
Athrun sighed, once again reminded of why he was on cleaning duty. "It could've been worse, I guess. They could've arrested me instead of making me clean toilets."
"My brother, you have been baptized!" Mackenzie preached like a southern pastor. "Now that you'll be cleaning toilets like me, I can officially dub you a hooligan!"
"That's a scary thought…"
"Seriously, though, we got her highness back," Rusty noted, easily sliding into a more serious persona, "and you're being a moody sonuvagun."
"I have a lot on my mind," Athrun said, earning a roll of eyes from his squad mate. "And quit referring to Lacus like that."
"Make me. Besides, she finds it—AH!" Mackenzie was smacked in the head by a fast moving, pink projectile.
"Hello! Haro!" it proclaimed.
Athrun tried holding in his laughter, but failed.
"You stupid, pink piece of—Oh, hey, princess! How are you?" He paused mid-baseball pitch with the chirping automaton bearing a sheepish grin as Lacus turned the corner.
"I'm doing well, Mr. Mackenzie!" Lacus cheerfully said. "And I see Mr. Pink got you again."
"…I just thought you should know I owe revenge on your navy-blue one too," Rusty groused as Haro chirped a "Let's play again!"
"You do seem to always get hit on the head by them," Clyne noted with humor. She then frowned. "Is everything alright? You both seem troubled."
"It's just—" Athrun started, only to be cutoff by his cohort.
"If we seem troubled, it's because your fiancé is being a raincloud," the said pilot glared at Rusty; being who he was, Mackenzie glared back. "What? Look, I've been trying to get you out of your funk for the past half-hour and have failed. So, I'll leave it to you, Lacus, to save us from your future hubby's depression. Ciao!"
The redhead floated away before Zala could chide him, quickly handing off Haro to Lacus as he passed by. With a half-hearted wave, he disappeared around a corner.
"…Sometimes I wonder if he plans everything out or makes it up as he goes," Athrun thought aloud as he stared at the empty hallway.
Lacus turned to him with a frown. "But he does make a point. Lately, you've been so negative. That's not normally how you are."
Athrun grimaced as he turned to her. "Excuse me for not being able to go to war with a smile on my face."
"No arguing you two!" Rusty's voice reverberated down the hallway. "You're not married yet!"
"God, I want to shoot him in the foot sometimes…" Athrun bemoaned, face-palming.
Though Lacus smiled, it was tinged with sadness. "I do appreciate his desire to lighten the atmosphere. Sometimes a little laughter is what we need to get through the day."
A strained smile tugged at Zala's lips. "It does help some days."
"Sir?" Rau Le Crueset found himself being pulled out of his thoughts as the door to his office opened.
"Westenfluss," Rau acknowledged. "Is there something I can help you with?"
The redcoat took a deep breath, readying for whatever this conversation might reveal or withhold. Whether his captain knew it or not, he was going to touch on several uncomfortable subjects.
"Yessir," was the curt reply. "I was just going over the battle data and video footage of every past confrontation with the legged ship and its contingent, and I've seen several… disconcerting patterns."
"Oh?" Rau felt his own curiosity spiked.
"I've watched Zala's confrontations with the Strike and listened to some logs," Heine explained. "From what I've been able to piece together, Athrun's hesitation in combat as of lately is understandable—I personally would not be able to pull the trigger either. However, during those sorties, I've noticed something else."
Rau folded his hands. "And what have you found?"
"If I didn't know any better," Westenfluss said, his voice taking a sharp edge, "I'd say you had a vendetta against the pilot of the Strike."
Vendetta? Oh, if only there was a word in the dictionary to describe what Rau had against Kira Yamato. What Heine was touching upon was merely the beginning of what Rau held against Kira, his family, and what the bastard represented.
Still, this presented a difficult situation for Rau Le Crueset. Heine was beginning to touch upon a trail he shouldn't, and several options Rau would normally utilize to shut the subordinate up weren't at his disposal—he could make an 'accident' happen, but that would require an enemy to appear out nowhere.
But what to do? Throw Heine off the trail? Give a small tidbit of truth to hide the bigger picture?
Better yet, how could Rau use this situation to come out on top?
"…An understandable worry," he began slowly, and idea forming in the back of his mind. "The truth of the matter is that I have had…negative encounters with Kira Yamato and his family."
The edge in Heine's eyes dulled. "I see… If I may, sir? Could you please keep your personal emotions out of the field? We do not need more undue tragedy."
Now to lay the bait. "Let me assure you, Westenfluss. It is not emotion that drives me to kill Yamato, but the safety of the PLANTs. If you truly understood how dangerous of an enemy he is, you'd understand why I feel a personal touch is necessary to defeat this menace."
"I do not see how the safety of an entire nation hinges upon the death of a single person." Only the slightest amount of curiosity, but it was enough for Le Crueset. "From what I've seen from the battle data, the Strike's performance has been halfhearted at best."
This was going to be a huge gamble, but the payout could be far more substantial. Even after Kira's death, Heine could prove useful. "Confidential information suggests otherwise. That it's only a matter of time before Yamato becomes a major threat, not just against us but the entirety of the PLANTs. Worse yet, the Blue Cosmos may have hand in it."
"…I'm having a hard time believing this," Heine hesitantly said.
"Yes, what I have to say isn't exactly easy to accept," Rau continued, the barest of smirks tracing his face. "But once you hear everything, though, there won't be any turning back."
The Asuka siblings were headed to the mess hall, as was typical for them after ensuring the Raid was combat capable.
"I can't believe this," Shinn groaned, hunched over in childish despair. "Cleaning the Gundams with toothbrushes? He can't be serious."
"Shut the hell up, Shinn," Mayu ordered. "If you didn't try attacking Ensign Badgirue,l I'm pretty sure they'd be less pissed at you."
The elder Asuka looked taken aback. "You've been hanging with the engineers way too much, 'cause now you're starting to sound like them."
"Mom and Dad aren't going to know, are they?" she suggested slyly.
"Yeah, yeah, I know the drill," Shinn sighed, knowing he was defeated even before it began. "I keep my mouth shut and you don't tell them about half of the crap I've done." I have the most evil little sister ever…
Mayu was related to Shinn, which meant they shared genetics. Of which included a troublemaking gene. Unlike her brother, though, she was far more tactful in her approach. It wasn't an everyday thing, but once in a mood Mayu could cause far more hell in one hour than Shinn could in a week. And as Shinn was quick to discover while growing up, it allowed for Mayu to take advantage of certain situations.
"Whatever, let's get some food," Shinn groused, floating ahead of his sister.
Once they entered, received their trays, and took their seats, both settled down to eat.
Not long after, Kira walked into the mess hall. Shinn was quick to hail him over, the older teen joining the pair once he got his own food.
"What's up?" Yamato asked as he took his seat.
"Eh, not much," Shinn shrugged. "Just wondering how everything's going. A lot's going on you know, with the whole joining up with the Eighth Fleet."
"I'm actually pretty excited about it," Kira said. "I'll be glad to be out of here. How about you?"
Shinn opened his mouth, but no words came out. Instead, he stopped to think about it.
He detested the death and destruction wrought since he came aboard the Archangel. Heliopolis and Artemis had disappeared off the maps, and he didn't even want to think about how many lives he witnessed being lost. However, he could not say the same about flying the Raid. It had become second nature to him, almost to the point that losing his suit would be like severing a limb. Though it was a weapon of war, it gave Shinn a certain sense of freedom he had never felt before.
"I'm not sure," he answered, garnering strange looks from his sister and fellow pilot. "I hate being a soldier, but I love piloting, okay? Maybe once I'm out of here, I'll join Orb's military or something like that. I mean, they're neutral so I wouldn't have to fight, but then I'd be able to pilot all I want."
"You know, now that I think about…" Mayu began, tapping a finger against her chin as she contemplated. "Being an engineer is kinda cool. I mean, I'm already pretty good at tinkering with things. Why not continue? Besides, this dope would screw up his machine without me."
"Why do you always make it sound like my life literally depends on you?" Shinn deadpanned.
"Because it does. Remember that time on Heliopolis when—"
Kira tuned them and just watched their interactions, a humored smile tugging at his lips as they bickered and tried to one-up the other. What an interesting duo… If anyone met them outside of the Archangel, they wouldn't guess one was a pilot and the other did upkeep for said pilot's machine.
"Kira," a voice interrupted, silencing the siblings and garnering the table's attention. It was Flay.
"Oh, what's up?" Kira carefully asked, standing to meet the girl.
"I just wanted to say that I'm sorry," the redhead offered, wringing her hands. "I shouldn't have reacted that way. I said some things I shouldn't have."
The Coordinator sadly frowned. "I'm sorry I couldn't save your father, I really am."
"You fought the hardest you could," she continued. "And I…"
"It's alright. In that situation—!" Kira tried to comfort, only to be stopped.
"You were doing your best and I knew that, but I…" Alster looked on the verge of tears.
The Asuka siblings watched the back and forth between the two older teens. One thought it looked like a cheesy soap opera and the other kept giving Flay a weird look.
And then Flay's tone changed. "Wars are so unpleasant. I wish they would just end."
It was subtle, enough so that Kira and Shinn had not noticed it. Mayu, on the other hand did. A note of surprise plucked within her at the emotions laced into each syllable.
Kira sadly smiled. "I agree."
Murrue sighed as she stared out into the canvas of stars and midnight.
They were so close. In less than an hour they would rejoin the Earth Alliance. After so much hell, hopeless situations, and loss it would finally be over. And those kids who done so much for them would be free of the war.
I wish I didn't have to bring them into this, she thought sadly. But it had been their only option, whether they accepted it or not.
"Radar interference! N-Jammer levels increasing! We're under attack!" announced a member of the CIC.
"Now?!" Murrue said in disbelief.
"Dammit, why now?" Natarle muttered to herself, immediately rushing to her station as the alarms came alive.
Shinn and Kira immediately bolted for the hangar, easily forgetting their unfinished food. Mayu quickly followed after, barely keeping on their tails.
The teens were in such a hurry that Kira accidentally ran over a small girl just outside the entrance to the mess hall. Mayu skidded to a stop to offer assistance, having watched the accident.
"Are you alright?" Kira asked as he bent down to help her.
Before the younger Asuka could offer any help, Flay rushed past her. "Sorry, Kira was in a hurry," the older girl apologized, helping up the young civilian.
Her again, Mayu noted, carefully eyeing Alster.
Since Flay's conversation with Kira, Mayu had developed a suspicious regard for the older girl. There was just something about those words Alster spoke that bothered the younger Asuka, but she could not put a finger on it. The emotion behind them made Mayu bristle at the mere thought.
"We're entering another battle, but we'll be alright," Flay said—again, Mayu noted the change in her tone. "Because Kira will protect all of us."
"Really?" the little girl asked hopefully.
"Kira is gonna beat up all the bad guys for us. Right, Kira?" Flay pointedly looked at him, as if begging him to do just that. Mayu, for a brief second, wanted to kick her in the face.
Looking towards, the younger Asuka watched a myriad of emotions wash over Kira's face. He cycled through them so quickly that Mayu couldn't identify everything he felt. Anger, regret, determination… just to name a few.
"Oi, Yamato," Shinn interrupted, already standing on the elevator. "Get your ass over here! We don't have a lot of time!"
Without a word, Kira rushed over to his squad mate and both disappeared up the elevator while the three girls of varying age watched.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mayu turned her attention back onto Flay, wondering what was going through the older girl's mind. Or if she wanted to know in the first place.
"That's right," Flay's tone darkened even more, making the hairs on Mayu's neck bristle. "We must have him beat them all up."
Her grip tightened so much on the little girl's hand that she pulled out from Flay's grasp with a yelp, running off to wherever her parents might be. Mayu was mildly disturbed by the sight, wondering if her senior had mentally snapped.
How many screws are loose in her head? Mayu wondered, quickly going in her own direction before Alster registered her presence. Something's not right with her. And, whatever it is, she's focusing it on Kira.
"I'm going to enjoy this…" Yzak muttered, an excited grin tracing his lips.
He'd been looking forward to a rematch with the Legged Ship and her contingent for a while now. Even with the added danger of the Reach, Yzak's excitement wasn't dampened. The addition served only to up the challenge, and Joule was more than happy to accept. The battle at Heliopolis was a spot on his clean record he desired to clean, and to do that required he decimate his enemies here.
"Down boy," Shiho interrupted his thoughts, immediately garnering an annoyed grimace from Joule and guffaws from everyone else. "You charge in there now, the Duel will get punched full of holes. Give me a couple seconds."
"We don't have that time!" Dearka also sounded like an attack dog getting his chain yanked back. "Our operation only has ten minutes. If you take more than a minute—"
"I don't care if this takes five minutes, you better damn well give me the time I ask!" Shiho interrupted with a bite that made her cohorts recoil. "The Lachrymose system is untested. Not only that, I have to ensure our own communications and weapon systems aren't jammed too. Anyone else wanna argue with me?"
"That's what I thought."
They hadn't moved away from the Gamow yet, for fear of kicking the hornet's nest too early. The margin of error here was far too narrow for a single mistake. One minute too late, they'd be within firing range of the Moon Fleet. Too early, and Shiho's plan would be endangered. Then there was the chance the Siege's systems were a bust to begin with. Although the added benefit of half a squad of GINNs would help, their greatest enemy was time.
But still, Yzak was with Dearka here. He wanted to even the scores.
'What's taking so damn—'Yzak started, only for the radio to come to life.
"Alright," Shiho said, garnering everyone's attention. "The system is initialized. Just don't change your radio channel."
As she said it, Yzak watched the Siege's systems activate. The vents on the hip plates lit up with an eerie violet while the wings split down the middle to reveal more actinic-glowing vents. And then violet, glowing particles streamed outward from the Siege in an aurora-like movement, blown from the skirt and the split wings.
Then Yzak's systems interrupted into static, cameras and everything. The outside view was flaky but still visible. However, his radar, communications, and guidance systems were near useless, meaning he'd have to manually aim his guns without the aid of a targeting device.
"What the hell?!" he almost screamed in frustration.
"Come on! You said this was going to work!" Dearka joined.
"Will you all relax?" the lone lady redcoat countered coolly. "Give your systems a minute. As long as we stay on the same communication channel, the Siege will transmit a data package that will allow our mobile suits to adjust to the heavy electromagnetic interference. But if anyone turns to another channel, the data will stop and leave your systems to fail like the enemies."
As if to punctuate her claim, the screens reconfigured and the weapon guidance systems recalibrated.
"But what happens if the Earth Forces find the same frequency?" Nicol questioned.
"I simply change it, but that's an off chance to begin with," Shiho reassured. "Now then… five-hundred and thirty-three seconds until they meet the Moon Fleet. Make it count, people! Follow the plan, Dearka!"
"Woohoo! Heartbreak Squadron, with me! The ship's ours!" the Buster sped off with the GINNs trailing after, like a pack of wolves charging prey.
"Nicol, start running interference," Shiho ordered.
"Yes, ma'am!" the Blitz also ran forward, disappearing seconds later.
With the party getting started, Yzak didn't want to feel left out. "What about me?"
"You're going to guard me."
"What?!" Of all the stupidest positions—
"Look, you're one of the strongest here," Shiho explained. "And I'm a priority target. Once the legged ship and its suits find out what I'm doing, they're going to come after me. To make things worse, the Siege is offensively the worst suit of the set. So, don't worry; you'll get your fight. Just make sure I don't die in the process."
Suddenly, Yzak really liked where he was. "That makes sense."
Oh, was he chomping at the bit for a fight. But he could live with this. It just became a matter of patience.
"Kira, listen," Mir began. "We've got ten minutes before we hit the Moon Fleet. So, according to the captain's orders, we're going to hit hard."
"So, we're using the Launcher Striker this time?" Yamato questioned, adjusting his helmet as he did.
"Not this time."
The panels opened, revealing a pair of solid switchblades that were being mounted on the wrists of the Strike, pulled back until they were needed. From behind, a pack lowered with two large wings that almost reached the Strike's feet. They had extra engines installed at the wings' bases, engines glowing as if in anticipation.
"The Glint Striker? They actually finished it already?" Kira asked, astounded.
"A couple days ago, actually," Mir explained. "They couldn't extend its operation time, but that won't matter in this fight. Just keep safe, alright?"
Yamato felt a smile tug at his lips. "Nobody dies. I promise." With that, he steeled his face. "Kira Yamato, Strike launching!"
Into the great abyss the Strike flew, the large wings extending from the pack and the thrusters flaring to life. With near unmatched speed, the Strike soared towards the enemy.
After the Strike, the Reach was the first to touch the catapult, followed closely by the Estoc in mobile armor form.
"Mu La Flaga, Reach launching!" announced the lieutenant.
Once he cleared the catapult, Mu quickly perched himself on his favorite spot atop the Archangel. Pulling the sniper rifle off the mobile suit's shoulder, he followed the Estoc and Raid's paths as they flew to meet the squad of GINNs and the Buster.
Frowning, he immediately began scouting for the Blitz, Duel, and Siege. The Blitz wasn't to be seen (a worrying notion), but he was able to spy the Duel and Siege hanging in the back, the latter of the two was emitting some kind of violet, aurora-like cloud that was quickly spreading across the battlefield like a light fog.
Curious, he spoke into the radio. "Hey, can someone tell me what the Siege is doing?"
Murrue spoke back. "What's wrong?"
"It has some kind of… cloud coming off of it."
"Oh, God…" the sudden panic in Murrue's voice made Mu's heart race.
"Hey, what's wrong?" La Flaga asked.
"Everyone, get back—" At that moment, tendrils of the actinic cloud touched them. Suddenly, static.
"Guys?" Mu asked, receiving only a hiss from the radio. "Guys?! Don't leave me hanging out here by myself!"
Only more silence.
"Oh shit…" he dreadfully thought aloud.
"Everyone, get back here now!" Murrue nearly screamed into the radio.
"Short-range communications are down!" Mir announced, fear tainting her voice. "We can't get into contact with our pilots!"
Natarle gave more bad news, not bothering to mask how flustered she was. "Our targeting systems have been disrupted! We have to manually aim our guns! Not only that, we can't fire any missiles since their automatic targeting systems are useless!"
"Radar's completely out!" Sai added.
"Our cameras are also showing mild interference!" another crew member announced.
"I-Is this N-Jammer interference?" Arnold asked.
"No, not even N-Jammers can pull this off," Murrue noted with growl, her hands white knuckling her seat. "The most an N-Jammer does is disrupt radar and long-range communications. No, this is the work of the Siege. That said… Prepare for a long and dirty battle."
"Another one?" Dearka noted, watching as the Strike charged headlong at them bearing a new Striker unit. "Hey, everyone watch out. The Strike's got another new toy."
He received various confirmations from everyone.
Everyone slowed and pulled out their weapons, several beams arcing towards the Strike, but just as it seemed they were going to hit, one of the Strike's wings shifted, creating an abrupt movement that allowed it to completely dodge all of the attacks and even get around the group.
"Dammit!" Dearka cursed. "Heartbreak Seven, turn around! We're gonna—"
"Don't bother," Yzak cockily said. "Keep going. I'm defending Shiho for a reason. The ships are also nearby for extra cover, though I don't know if it's even needed."
Elsemen hesitated. "Are you sure? The Strike seems to have higher maneuverability than normal."
"Oh, yeah," Dearka could hear the grin in Yzak's voice.
Having noted the actinic snow and the malfunctioning systems, Kira surmised it could only be the product of a mobile suit with some kind of defensive equipment. And the only MS yet to reveal any special weaponry or equipment was the Siege.
Coming to such a conclusion, Kira pushed the Glint Striker as hard as he could and bypassed the GINNs and the Buster to hit the primary threat. If they didn't get communications, guidance, or aiming systems back online, they wouldn't live to meet the Moon Fleet. Thankfully, close-range combat systems didn't overly suffer. Otherwise, they would be up the creek without a paddle.
The Siege was within sights. Pointing one of his retracted swords at the enemy, he unleashed a rain of bullets from the machine guns hidden in the swords' hilts at the wrist. As planned, the Siege moved out of the way; Kira quickly shifted the wings and thrusters, easily meeting the slower suit in the position he predicted.
"It's over!" he proclaimed as an Exora sword locked into place, the weaponized PS armor coming alight and giving the weapon a white iridescent sheen.
At the moment the Duel entered the arena, quickly meeting the attack with a saber, making sparks fly between the weapons.
Kira adjusted the thrusters, trying to evade the Duel, but the white suit pulled out its rifle and kept the Strike from pursuing the retreating Siege.
"You're in my way!" Yamato shouted in frustration.
"Guys? Guys?" When he received no reply, Shinn slowed. "Seriously, this isn't funny!"
He looked towards his crackling camera, watching as the fuzzy image of the Estoc slowed and transformed into mobile suit form, the head looking about in confusion. So, Stella was having issues as well…
Shinn then noted the violet dust scattering across the battlefield like a blizzard.
It's gotta be—Alarms screamed into his ears before he could fully analyze the sight.
Shinn barely rolled past a beam that divided the Raid and the Estoc, creating a gap that the Buster and several GINNs screamed through. Just as Stella and he reacted, they turned into the sight of the Blitz appearing out of thin air mid charge, firing its pikes at the Estoc while swinging its beam saber at the Raid.
"Shit!" Shinn barely reacted in time, bearing a glowing heat sword against the condensed photons. Before he could even counter, the Blitz kicked him away, disappearing again just as Stella fired a hail of bullets, all of them either hitting empty space or going wide.
"Shit," Asuka muttered, "Shitshitshitshit…"
No communications, no targeting systems for firearms, cameras on the fritz, and an invisible enemy… Looking back on this moment, Shinn would always say it was easily the scariest ten minutes of his life.
His head swiveled to each of his cameras as he sought a glimpse of their elusive opponent. Finally, he found the Blitz, but the sight of where it appeared caused his heart to leap into his throat. From beside Stella it struck, coming into view with an ignited saber poised for the cockpit.
"Stella!" Shinn screamed, despite no one being able to hear it.
In a split second, the pilot of the Estoc seemed to have caught sight of the Raid's line of sight. Stella was barely able to dodge out of the way, getting away at the cost of an arm.
With a roar, Shinn activated every thruster on the Raid, sword pulled back for a wide swing. But the Blitz drew back and disappeared again.
H-How are we going to get out of this alive? Shinn thought in despair as he apprehensively looked at every camera.
"When normal people have bad days…" A lance of light separated the enemy mobile suits swarming towards the Archangel. "It's usually because the dog shits on the carpet or the baby pukes on a shirt."
Another ray of photons reached into the void, forcing the Buster to stop firing and evade.
"When I have a bad day…" Another arc, but no target to be had. "…it's because I can't hit the broadside of a barn with a mobile suit that's supposed to be able to shoot a penny from space!"
Three more spears of light in rapid succession, and the GINNs merely danced around them. They were beginning to realize just how useless the Reach was without the systems that made it dangerous.
"For the love of God," Mu continued to bellyache childishly. "Somebody kill the Siege so I can get my targeting system back."
Switching tactics, he traded out the Dynames rifle for both of his Ahura Mazda, getting more success with the faster firing rate and wider spray. Still, none of the enemy pilots were deterred, merely approaching with a higher degree of caution.
The bridge shook as they took fire, several GINNs squeezing past Mu's weak protection to score several light hits. Murrue nearly fell out of her seat from the last attack, as did several others.
"Damage report!" Ramius ordered as she corrected herself.
"We're getting our asses kicked! We've lost several turrets, and the starboard Valient was destroyed!" Natarle bellowed. "Is anyone targeting the Siege at all!?"
"Hold on, I'll visually confirm what's going on!" Sai announced, only to curse. "The Raid and Estoc are fighting the Blitz while it's invisible. With their systems malfunctioning, they won't be able to effectively fight back."
"Natarle," Murrue began, "do Helldarts require a targeting system?"
"No, they shouldn't," was the reply.
"Then make the Blitz reveal itself!"
"You heard her! Fire!" Natarle relayed.
Of the lot, Stella knew she was the worse off. Everyone had close range weaponry to fall back on, but the Estoc had nothing. Worse yet, all of her weapons relied heavily on targeting systems.
And she couldn't blind-fire. Not with Shinn so close. Though the Gathus submachine guns didn't cause heavy damage, all it would take was one bad shot to harm her squad mate. The Ruda cannons were simply out of the equation.
Then the Blitz took an arm, putting Stella into a borderline panic attack.
"…Help… Somebody…" she muttered as she frantically searched through her cameras. "…I don't wanna die…"
As if granting the request, the Archangel unleashed a salvo that broke apart into thousands of tiny projectiles. Seconds later, the Blitz revealed itself, shielding its face as the projectiles impacted.
Though their PS armor protected the three mobile suits from damage, the Helldarts accomplished one important goal: unveiling the Blitz.
Stella was quick to capitalize with a roar, a lead followed closely by Shinn. The Estoc's wings folded over the shoulders, unleashing several beams of green/blue energy that put the Blitz on the run. Just as it started becoming invisible, Shinn came crashing down with his Beowulf swords, once again revealing the enemy machine as it parried, barely preventing the heat swords from damaging its Trikeros.
"Keep Helldarts on the Blitz," Murrue ordered. "Make sure it we can see it at all times. We just need to survive for five more minutes!"
The bridge jarred again, this time from the Buster punching a hole into one of the Archangel's legs. Mu turned his full attention on the tan suit and green suit, raining laser bullets to deter the Gundam from trying another attack.
"What else is going on?" the captain continued once she recovered.
Sai replied. "The Strike is trying to get at the Siege, but the Duel is covering it. Wait…The enemy ships are targeting Kira!"
"What the hell did they give the Strike?" Yzak growled out past clenched teeth, a bead of sweat floating off his face.
Before chaos erupted, Joule was sure he'd be able to match any opponent that charged forth. But now he had to reevaluate his opinion.
The Duel was struggling to keep up. Missing a half a leg and sporting several close calls, Yzak had to wonder where legged ship hid such a weapon unit, and why they hadn't used it until now.
He parried a wide sword slash, and then dodged as the Strike followed up with a wave of bullets from the retracted sword. Just as the blue and white suit tried to take advantage of the opening to get past the Duel, several broad beams forced it to evade.
"It's called the Glint Striker," Shiho answered, firing several more shots from the Siege's rifles. "I thought it was incomplete, but it seems they finished it."
"What in God's name does it do?" the ivory-haired teen demanded.
"Weaponizes Phase-Shift technology," Hahnenfuss curtly explained. "It's powerful, but has a ten-minute operational time. Which is, unfortunately, not a problem for the legged ship during this sortie."
Out of the corner of his eye, Yzak watched as the Andoryan and Gamow approached, their cannon turrets circling about to take aim.
"Joule," Talia said. "We're going to provide cover fire. Clear the area."
For once, Yzak allowed himself to appreciate the back-up.
Following orders without question, Yzak maneuvered backwards. The Strike moved to pursue, but the Gamow's cannons forced it into evasion. The Andoryan was quick to mimic, but the Glint-equipped Strike proved to be an elusive opponent, swerving between the attacks and countering with shoulder-mounted Saluax cannons that silenced one of the Andoryan's turrets with a potshot.
After getting several seconds to breathe, the Duel was ready to reenter the ring. Igniting a beam saber and readying a rifle, Joule charged forward.
"You're not going to get away from this," Yzak growled out.
"Dearka, I need a hand," Nicol said. "As long as they're firing those shrapnel rounds, I can't go invisible."
"Alright, give me a second," Dearka confirmed.
Flying outside the range of the Archangel and the wild shots of the Reach, the Buster combined its guns into sniper rifle mode. With one well-placed shot, Elsmen silenced the launchers, returning the battle's advantage to them.
"Thanks," Amalfi said.
Switching out for the anti-artillery shotgun, the Buster followed up by scrapping an array of turrets.
"The Naturals came up with some weird systems," Dearka observed. "But damn if they aren't effective. I'd hate to imagine that Lach-something system being used against us."
The rain of Helldarts vanished, and both parties knew what that meant.
"No way in hell I'm going to let you get away!" Shinn was the first to react, firing both rocket anchors.
The Gleipnir met one of the rocket anchors, knocking it off trajectory; the other was countered with the Trikeros shield. Before Nicol could apply the mirage colloid, Stella followed up with a rain of blasts from her Ruda cannons, forcing the Blitz to maneuver out of the attack.
When the Estoc's attack let up, Nicol instinctively ignited his beam saber and met the Raid in a sword clash. Instead following with another strike, as typical of Shinn's style, he launched a rocket anchor, hoping to insure the Blitz stayed in view.
"Got you!" Shinn victoriously said, only to nearly bite his tongue as he entered into an uncontrolled roll, courtesy of a GINN body checking the Raid to free up the Blitz.
Righting himself, Shinn watched as the newcomer pulled a solid sword, as if challenging him. Angered, Asuka turned his swords as hot as possible and charged with a roar.
Only to be stopped by the Blitz appearing out of nowhere, allowing the GINN to rejoin the main flock. Before Shinn could counter, the Blitz disappeared again.
"Dammit…" Shinn quietly cursed, once again going on the defensive.
"No…" Yamato muttered, panic welling up like a hungry beast.
Kira watched as the Raid and Estoc fought a losing battle against the Blitz, barely keeping the invisible suit from making a critical strike. He watched as the remaining GINNs and the Buster carefully picked apart the Archangel, Mu barely able to keep them at bay with the Reach and its wild potshots. Away from it all, the Siege watched, like a vulture looking upon a dying animal.
And himself… the Duel viciously attacked with aid from the enemy ships, restricting movement and preventing any hope of reaching the Siege to lift the electromagnetic curse that befell his comrades.
The Strike shook as the Duel continued to press its new advantage, going in for several quick strikes, pull back and allow the ships fire a salvo or two while firing its own rifle, and then repeat like clockwork. Simple, yet it was effectively keeping Kira at bay.
They're really trying to defend the Siege, Kira noted. No doubt, the black and violet Gundam was the cornerstone of their plans this time. And it was being very effective in its role.
And out of the fading light of another cannon attack, the Duel appeared, beam saber poised for a finishing blow. Kira reacted a half-second too late, barely able to bring an Exora to defend against the oncoming blade.
How could they turn this around? Could everyone be saved?
"And what about you? Everyone here is your friend, right? Then that means you have to defend them, or am I wrong?"
"It's your fault! It's your entire fault!"
No, he couldn't fail here again.
"That reality makes this so sad."
"If you had a way to change this war, would you take it?"
"Kira is going to beat all the bad guys up. Right, Kira?"
It couldn't end like this…
"Nobody dies, I promise."
In the back of Kira's mind, a violet jewel bounced and shattered.
"It's over!" Yzak roared, savoring every microsecond it took for the sword of condensed light to cleave his opponent asunder.
Finally, it was going to end here. Every embarrassment, every failure since starting this mission was going to cleansed away by the blood of his enemy. And he wanted nothing more than to rub it in Athrun's face.
Suddenly, everything changed.
As the saber came crashing down, the Strike suddenly activated a stray thruster, maneuvering past the weapon by mere feet. With trailing light following the phase-shift sword from the sheer speed of the movement, the Duel's attacking arm was bisected. Just as the second sword followed, Yzak blocked with his other saber.
Yzak's heart skipped a beat at the unexpected change. H-How?! Everything was…?!
With every thruster flaring to life, the Duel was pushed back with the Glint Striker's superior engines. It wasn't until the heard Shiho's scream Joule realized something very wrong. "YZAK, GET HIM AWAY FROM ME!"
The bastard was driving him towards the Siege! And the ships couldn't fire, not without harming the Duel!
"Hold on!" the white-haired teen gritted out.
He poured every ounce of power he could into the engines, but the Strike wouldn't give. Just as Yzak changed tactics, the enemy pilot pulled back and delivered swift kick into the Duel's torso, following with a blast of white energy from a pair of cannons mounted on the shoulders, flash-melting the remaining arm and part of the torso.
Effectively, Yzak was eliminated from the fight. And he could only watch in horror as the Strike raced towards the Siege.
Shiho was desperately shooting at the Strike, but the machine swerved, twirled, and dodged with the grace only an elite pilot with an equally powerful machine could perform. Without a doubt, the driver in the Strike's seat was pushing the machine to limits unknown.
The Andoryan and Gamow fired beam after beam towards the Strike once it cleared the Duel, but with inhuman precision, the Strike pegged each of the offending turrets with from its PS cannons, even with the disruption of the Lachrymose system.
For a split second, Shiho wondered if the pilot of the Strike was even human.
"I'm coming!" Nicol vainly tried to assure, but Hahnenfuss knew it was a useless endeavor.
She discarded her gun for a saber. But just as she slashed at the approaching machine with a roar, it smoothly slid past the wide arc. The Siege couldn't retreat fast enough as its split wings were clipped off, followed by a slash that cut through the bottom half of her machine, effectively silencing the Lachrymose system.
The systems overloaded from the damage, the screens erupting and cutting into Shiho's helmet. She screamed, blood dripping between fingers held to her face.
All of her electronics destroyed, she couldn't hear everyone crying out her name. It didn't even register when her machine jerked, signaling that the others were taking her away from Death's door.
There was just… so much… pain…
Flay remained silent as she watched Strike perch itself atop the Archangel next to the Reach, a dark smile tugging at her lips. From her position outside the bridge, she could hear everyone's awed reactions to Kira's inhuman performance.
"Holy crap," Mu finally breathed out. "I've never seen piloting like that."
"Dude, you've got to teach me how to do that," Shinn added in wonder.
Flay could almost hear Kira's gentle smile. "It was nothing. Really."
"Nothing, my ass!" Shinn countered.
Finally, as it sunk in that they survived the seemingly hopeless ordeal, cheers and relieved sighs erupted from the bridge from another near-death escape.
"That's right," Flay told herself as she strolled to her quarters. "You'll beat all of them up for me, won't you, Kira?"
Author's Note: The longest SaBS chapter yet! The first half of this chapter was actually kind of difficult to write; I had to watch the episode this chapter encompasses several times before I felt comfortable with the scenes I wrote.
So let's review. Flay's mental breakdown continues, Mayu is beginning to see something's going on with her, Rusty is his usual self, and Rau begins manipulating Heine. Then it's topped with a climatic, desperate battle in which the ZAFT actually uses strategy!
Several things were like canon, but that's okay; we're really going to branch off in the next couple chapters. How? Well, that'd be spoilers.
Kudos to anyone who sees the references. I'll give anyone an E-cookie if anyone can point them out.