AUTHOR'S NOTE: This chapter is new material, taking place roughly three months after the Germany Incident. These events were originally not slated to take place until after the Battle of Heaven's Base, but I decided to move them up the timetable for personal reasons. Enjoy!
PHASE 25: Reunion
She stood on the shore, looking out to sea. It was not the sandy beach that had so captivated her. Nor the tall, craggy cliffs upon which she had stood, so long ago. It was cold and grey, like death. It was a different place from the one she had been previously, and yet the same; grey and cold and lifeless. Even the people here seemed that way. She hated this place, and all others like it.
The ships too, were cold and grey, and dead; nothing moved. None paid her any heed as she stood at the end of the cold, dark pier, and looked out past the ships, to the sea, glimmering blue under the sun in the distance.
To the south, she knew, he waited. Would he come to her? She did not know. But somehow, she knew he was there. She heard her name and turned. She saw the woman, and she smiled.
She had never known her mother - not really. But when she thought of the word, the face she saw in her mind was that of the woman now walking towards her.
- "It's getting dark." she said. "You should head back inside." She nodded. The woman held out her hand, and she took it, and followed.
ZAFT Forces Gibraltar Base
More than two months after arriving at Gibraltar, the ship's overhaul had been completed, and the Minerva was now being resupplied, including the loading of new mobile suits - in addition to the two new Gundams and three DOM Troopers including Yzak's blue one, all of which were already on board, they were receiving seven GOUF Ignited. In order to maximize the number of mobile suits the ship could carry, the Impulse Gundams would, this time, be carried separated and launched using the central catapult. These preparations led Yzak to believe that a deployment was imminent, and he guessed that the enemy's location had been determined.
Much of the time had been spent training for all officers and crew, but especially Yzak, Shinn, and Athrun, who had spent hundreds of hours over the months since arriving in Gibraltar testing and familiarizing themselves with their new mobile suits. Yzak found that he liked the DOM Trooper. It was fast, nimble, and heavily armed and armored, equally capable in close- and long-range combat.
But the Gundams, he thought with a twinge of jealousy, were in an entirely different league - especially Shinn's Destiny Gundam. Yzak thought reflexively that only once had he seen such overwhelming superiority in a mobile suit: The Freedom. And even it paled in comparison to the Destiny and what it was been capable of. As for the Saviour, with the upgrades it had undergone from the original version it was an even deadlier machine than before, quite possibly more deadly than the mobile suit that had made Athrun famous, the Justice - which by his judgement it could outrun easily, and outgun more easily still.
Yzak was just thinking that they would need that power, especially if his suspicions proved correct, when he received a communication from Gibraltar stating that he, Arthur, and Athrun were ordered to report to the Base commander's office. Within minutes the three left the ship, heading for the base's command center, and upon their arrival, they found Chairwoman Joule - Yzak's mother - conversing with the commander.
The two turned when the three officers entered.
"Gentlemen," the base commander spoke, saluting Yzak and Athrun as he did so. The two FAITH officers returned the salute, and Arthur did likewise.
Then, Ezalia began to speak.
"We have received actionable intelligence pertaining to the current location of Teivel Jibril, Bruno Azrael, and numerous other members of Logos." She began to say. "The information came from a source inside the Alliance, and was independently verified through other channels including our own intelligence assets here on Earth."
She turned then, looking hard at her son, then his best friend and comrade. Neither man flinched, nor spoke.
"They are at Heaven's Base, in Iceland." She continued, and this time Yzak's expression became concerned. Having replaced JOSH-A as the Atlantic Federation's primary military base, the massive installation at Heaven's Base was heavily fortified and defended - the largest such base anywhere in the world, matched in size only by Carpentaria.
"This has been relayed to Vice-President Marshall in Eurasia, as well as to the homeland." Ezalia continued. "We are expecting reinforcements to arrive from Carpentaria within a few days. When they arrive, the Minerva will lead the combined fleets northwards to participate in an attack on Heaven's Base."
- "Chairwoman Joule, if I may..." Athrun started to say, glancing at the map with a concerned expression on his face. "There is one thing that concerns me."
- "Of course, Athrun." She nodded, looking over at him. "What's on your mind?"
- "The GIUK Gap." He said, referring to that great choke point in the North Atlantic, a southeast-northwest line where the ocean narrows dramatically in the waters around Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom - until recently, all territories firmly under the military control of the Atlantic Federation. The nations that now formed the Earth Alliance were known to deploy military forces in the Gap - both aerial and, more frequently, naval assets - going back to before the Reconstruction Wars. "The Alliance has traditionally had a very strong naval presence there - do we expect to run into enemy patrols?"
- "We do not." Ezalia replied. "Naval patrols in the GIUK Gap have been historically deployed from Iceland, but more often from Plymouth, Clyde, or the northern Eurasian bases such as Wilhelmshaven."
- "And of those bases, "only Heaven's Base in Iceland is still held by the enemy." the base commander supplied. "The big shots at Plymouth and the handful of smaller bases in the British Isles have all fled, and the ones remaining have sided with Eurasia against Logos."
- "I see." Athrun answered, sounding relieved.
Much of ZAFT's combat strength on earth centered on the Vosgolov-class submarine or the Lesseps-class land battleship - both of which were potential targets for the Alliance's San Francisco-class fast-attack subs.
Ezalia continued to speak.
- "As the Minerva and the fleet arrive in the North Atlantic, you will link up with Allied forces mustering at Plymouth. We are also expecting additional reinforcements from the USSA." Ezalia continued. "The orders from the homeland are simple: capture the members of Logos hiding there. Or else, destroy the base. Additional orbital forces are already standing by for deployment."
"I see." Yzak replied. "Do we know what defenses they will have available?" He asked. His meaning was plain: Do we expect a repeat of JOSH-A?
- "I would assume the heaviest. It is probable that they may have heavy mobile armor defense forces in addition to mobile suits, both aerial and naval. I'm counting on the Minerva to break through."
"Yes, ma'am." Yzak replied. She dismissed them then, and all three men turned on their heels to leave.
"Oh, and Yzak?" She said, addressing him by name for the first time. He halted and turned back towards her, saw the concern in her eyes behind her impassive expression, a mother's concern for her son. "Good luck." She said, and he knew then that she was worried for him.
"Thank you." He replied, and he left.
Later that day, the base's monitoring station reported numerous approaching vessels, as the promised reinforcements from Carpentaria arrived. The following day, all preparations complete, the fleet began to set sail.
"The Furnas and Saint Augustine are under way," came the report from the Gibraltar Base port authority, "Villaria and Irazu will be setting sail in ten minutes. Fifteenth Mobile Fleet, your route is clear."
One by one, more than fifty Vosgolov-class submarines began to set sail, each carrying a full complement of six machines, typically a mix of GOUF Igniteds and ZAKU Warriors, as well as four underwater mobile suits - many of them the common mix of ZnO and GOOhNs, many others a full complement of the new ASSH. Following them was a force of Lesseps- and Petrie-class ships, including the Ruddle Team's Desmond and Bagley - their usual complement of BuCUEs and GaZuOOTs replaced with the same types of mobile suits carried by the submarines. GuAIZ-Rs and the occasional DINN were present as well, but few in number, as throughout the war they had been gradually phased out as ZAKUs and GOUFs were manufactured.
Finally, the base port authority contacted the Minerva.
"Flagship Sierra Antares One, you are clear to set sail." came the report.
- "Roger that." Yzak acknowledged. Then he turned to his crew, looking around at them. "Ladies and gentlemen, it's time. Helm, back one third. The Minerva is heading out."
- "Roger, back one third." Malik acknowledged.
The ship began slowly sliding back from the pier, as Yzak took his place on the bridge. He ordered the helm to turn, and then the ship began heading out to see.
"Set course, make your speed 40." Yzak ordered.
- "Roger, speed 40." 40 knots was slow, for the ship - in calm waters at flank speed, she could easily do more than twice that - but it was a good cruising speed both for them and for their escort ships, not many of which could top sixty knots.
- "Abby, I want you to send a fleet-wide message." Yzak ordered, and moments later, the line was open. "This is Flagship Sierra Antares One - LHM-BB01 Minerva to all vessels. This ship will be taking point - all forces, set course and follow our lead."
The ship momentarily accelerated to 45 knots, moving forward ahead of the other ships, and then slowed back down, in a position at the forefront of the massive formation.
And then, they set a course north, heading into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, the traditional hunting ground of the naval forces of the Earth Alliance Navy...
Naval Base Portsmouth
Captain Bernard McCaffrey was, all things considered, not entirely displeased with developments in recent weeks. Originally home-ported out of Portsmouth, in the British Isles, the Jones had yet to return there since the affair in Germany, although he had been keenly interested in the news that, with the commanders fleeing back to the Atlantic Federation's mainland or to Heaven's Base, much of the personnel stationed in the British Isles had rebelled, throwing their lot in with their more tolerant neighbor to the east.
'Germany changed everything.' He thought, smiling grimly.
So when he had received his latest orders from Portsmouth, he had been rather surprised, but not shocked. In accordance with those orders, he had set sail from Wilhelmshaven, returning to Portsmouth.
Before setting sail however, he had called all his crew to briefing.
"As you are now all aware, the Eurasian Federation is currently in a state of open warfare against the Atlantic Federation." He had said. There had been some uncomfortable shifting from some of the ship's own personnel, as there were not a few Eurasian crewmen onboard as well. "Many of you will also know that this ship's base of operations of Plymouth has declared their opposition to the Blue Cosmos-allied elements of the Alliance and their support of the actions of President Baum and Vice-President Marshall. I have decided that I intend to do likewise."
The silence that followed stretched for a number of minutes. "I understand this is a difficult situation to be in. And so, I will not order you to follow me. If any of you feel uncomfortable with this, you may leave now. I will not stop you, and you will be provided transportation back to the Atlantic Federation mainland."
Several of the pilots present had stood, most of them saluting curtly, and left the room. The others had remained firmly seated. All told, only eleven had left the ship.
And now, he stood in his ship's ready room, preparing to brief his pilots, among whom were the two aces of the 501st - the taciturn, coldly efficient Sven, and the more outspoken, cynical Mudie.
"Our intelligence services have determined that the international criminal Teivel Jibril and his accomplices have been located in Iceland, where they have taken refuge at Heaven's Base. Our orders are simple: Blockade the base, capture it, and bring him and his accomplices in, alive.
Within the next few days, we are expecting the arrival of reinforcements from Brest as well as Plymouth and Holy Loch, in addition to a fleet from the United States of South America."
He paused for a moment, then continued. "Additionally, also participating in this operation will be a ZAFT fleet led by the Minerva."
- "WHAT?" Mudie exclaimed. "The Coordinators? You expect us to..."
- "This isn't about Naturals or Coordinators." McCaffrey interrupted brusquely. "This is about apprehending a mass murderer responsible for the death of millions. Besides, you didn't seem to have a problem with them when they were helping us in Hamburg."
To that, Mudie had no reply.
For so long, she had hated the Coordinators, and perhaps not entirely wrongly - she had grown up on Earth during the April Fools Crisis, and had lost friends and relatives during those terrible months of 71. With so much of the planet dependent upon nuclear energy, the global shutdown of the vast majority of power plants on Earth had created horrifying living conditions in what had once been affluent nations - exacerbating already deteriorating economic conditions following the cessation of exports from the PLANTs to the sponsor nations.
She had never forgiven them this, and had subsequently espoused the rhetoric of her former mentor. But now...
'"The only good Coordinator is a dead one", he used to say.' she thought. And yet a Coordinator had helped to save the lives of thousands of her countrymen in Hamburg. And still countless others had sacrificed their own lives in their own attempts to do so, during the rampage of that monstrous mobile armor...
That they had failed did not diminish their sacrifice, nor that of her own late shipmates onboard the Compton.
- "Fine." She said shortly. "And if they turn on us? There's nothing stopping them from taking us out once the base falls."
- "I doubt that they will." McCaffrey said, "Jibril is not just an enemy of the Eurasian Federation or the PLANTs. He is a terrorist and a monster, and I don't doubt that should it strike his fancy, he would target any other nation just as easily. But in the very unlikely event they do, I'll be counting on you two - and on everyone here - to show them what we're made of."
McCaffrey concluded the briefing by going over their strategy once the fleets were assembled, and a few hours later the fleet of carriers, escorted by surface naval vessels and underwater attack submarines set sail, south down into the Atlantic, then swung back up northward, back towards their home port where, within the next few days, a fleet from the USSA, in addition to the combined naval power of both Gibraltar and Carpentaria, would also arrive. McCaffrey shook his head as he saw the number of ships already gathered from other bases throughout Eurasia and the British Isles, and he prayed that this would be enough to take the base.
The ZAFT fleet from Gibraltar was first to arrive, a few days later. The Minerva sailed proudly at the forefront of the enormous formation, and once contact was established with the base port authority, it was directed to dock alongside a carrier that Yzak recognized from its hull designation as the John Paul Jones. At nearly twice its size, the sleek warship dwarfed the Alliance vessel, and with its armament, could have sunk it almost instantly - they'd done it before, with other ships. But not this time.
On the bridge, Yzak stood pensive, looking around at the Alliance ships. Even as his fleet was setting into place, additional vessels from the base at Holy Loch, as well as Eurasian Federation carriers from Brest. The Alliance ships outnumbered the ZAFT vessels nearly two to one, which made Yzak understandably nervous, as well as the rest of his crew.
It was Arthur who gave voice to the concerns that weighed on everyone's mind.
"Still, this is an amazing sight." Arthur, the XO, commented. "So many Alliance vessels gathered here...truth be told, it's making me nervous."
Yzak nodded curtly. 'To think that a ZAFT fleet would be here, in a major Alliance base, surrounded by Alliance military a crazy world we live in.' He thought.
"I totally agree," Malik, the helmsman, said in agreement with Arthur. "We've been trained to think of them as our enemy for so long...to be honest, I can't help but think if they were to turn on us, we'd be finished."
"Shut the hell up." Yzak snapped angrily. "Everyone's on edge as it already is without you saying stupid shit like that - try to think for a moment before you open your mouth."
"Y...Yessir!" the two officers stammered.
Deep in the bowels of the heavily armed and armored assault carrier, Lunamaria Hawke, Shinn Asuka, and Athrun Zala were gathered around a low table in the rec room, where they were discussing the situation and the upcoming operation. Not quite so large as Carpentaria or even Gibraltar, Portsmouth was all the same quite a large base, and, just like Arthur and the bridge crew, it made Luna nervous.
She glanced out the window at the base beyond, and looked around before speaking.
"Do you think we'll be allowed to disembark?" Standing next to the window, Shinn shrugged.
- "I dunno. I guess they might, but since this is an Alliance base, maybe not." he said vaguely. Lunamaria thought he sounded worried or nervous, and assumed - incorrectly - that the presence of ZAFT ships on an Atlantic Federation base and the potential risks it posed were what had him concerned, just as she herself was.
She saw him glance out the window too, then he stepped away from it and sat back down. He had recognized the hull designation of the carrier docked next to the Minerva, and in fact his apprehensions specifically had to do with that particular ship.
- "I doubt that they will." Athrun added, nodding towards Shinn. "Shinn is right, I think; since this is an Alliance base, it's likely that the Captain will want to keep us aboard to avoid any potential problems."
- "I guess that makes sense." Lunamaria replied.
Later that day however, both Athrun and Shinn were called to the Captain's quarters. There they found Yzak himself poring over a map of the North Atlantic, with Ezalia Joule, who had come aboard the Minerva at Gibraltar and accompanied them as a representative of the PLANT Supreme Council. Arthur Trine, the XO, was also present.
"Good, you're both here." Yzak said, glancing from one to the other, as both men saluted. Then Yzak addressed them both.
"I'm sure you both realize the importance of this operation. Chairwoman Joule, Arthur, and myself are heading to the base to meet with the Alliance Fleet commanders, along with Commander Ruddle, to discuss the fleet's overall strategy. You two are coming along too."
- "Yes, sir." Shinn said sharply. Athrun simply nodded.
The five of them left the ship within minutes, and were met by two armed Alliance MPs who escorted them to the base's command center, and then to the offices occupied by its commander. When they arrived, they were met by Brennan Marshall and President Baum himself, along with a half-dozen military officers among whom Shinn recognized Bernard McCaffrey, of the Jones.
The recognition was mutual.
'I seem to keep running into them, don't I?' McCaffrey thought wryly as he looked into the dark, red eyes. He seemed to discern a change, though. Something seemed different about the boy - no, not a boy anymore - a young man. But something about him felt different from before.
The other officers were the commanders of the various Alliance battle groups. The USSA fleet was expected to arrive over the next several days, and a final briefing would be conducted with the commanders of each fleet before they set sail. But this first meeting was intended to be a preliminary discussion meant to determine the overall formation and their strategy once they arrived.
The assembled officers rapidly determined that a blockade by the Alliance naval assets, reinforced by ZAFT Vosgolov-class submarines, would be put into place, blocking all access to the fjord in which Heaven's Base was situated, while the bulk of the ZAFT ships and the Alliance carriers would hang farther back, moving in only if necessary. Underwater mobile suits would be deployed immediately, with aerial assets on standby to take off when needed.
"I expect that they will not surrender without a fight." Marshall said. "We should be prepared for heavy resistance; their naval forces at Heaven's Base are limited compared to Panama, but they have heavy antiship and antiair defenses."
- "I agree." McCaffrey, the most senior Alliance officer present, replied. "I think our surface ships should be focused on long-range bombardment and anti-air defense, and the submarines should focus on anti-ship defenses."
- "One problem with that; the enemy is likely to concentrate their land- and sea-based resources on those ships capable of long-range bombardment." Yzak countered. "I do agree that once the mobile suits are away, the submarines' primary duty should be anti-ship and anti-sub combat; that said, here is what I propose: A first line of defense, consisting of the bulk of our Vosgolov-class and your San Francisco-class fast-attack subs, tasked for anti-ship and underwater defense, along with the Fraser-class ships, plus all the underwater mobile suits. Behind them, we have the rest of our Vosgolovs, which are armed with heavy land-attack ordnance. With them, our Lesseps- and Petrie-class ships, plus the larger Alliance vessels, also armed for long-range bombardment. And behind that, the flagships and carriers, ready to deploy their mobile suits at the first sign of attack. And since most of the vessels have anti-air capability, that takes care of that as well."
- "A good strategy." McCaffrey complimented, keeping in check his disgruntlement at the fact that a stripling like Yzak, who was barely twenty, could have outthought him where naval strategy was concerned.
- "Thank you, sir." Yzak said, and behind him Ezalia allowed herself a small smile.
- "That said, I would propose one small change: Our San Francisco-class is also capable of limited long-range land bombardment using Sub-launched Land Attack Missiles: I propose one third of those submarines be so armed, and hang back with the flagships. Their torpedoes mean they still pack a heavy anti-ship punch, and allow them to serve a dual purpose, since their SLAMs can be fired from P.D."
- "An excellent point, Captain." Brennan Marshall acquiesced, and even Yzak nodded his agreement.
The meeting went on for several more hours, during which the fleet commanders continued to work on the battle plan for the attack, attempting to estimate what they would face and how to handle it. As the only mobile suit pilots present, Yzak and Athrun's insights, and even Shinn's occasional contributions, were carefully evaluated and incorporated or discarded depending on their probable relevance to the coming battle. At Marshall's urging, the formation was altered to account for the possible presence of a Cyclops System, as well. Eventually, their battle plan was ready, and when Baum said he had to return to Hamburg, the meeting adjourned.
It was late, and by now the sun was setting. The group left the building and each went their separate ways. President Baum left, while Marshall and the Alliance officers started to head towards their quarters. McCaffrey would return to the Jones, while Yzak, Ezalia, and Athrun likewise headed back towards the Minerva.
Shinn followed a few steps behind, mulling over what he had heard that afternoon and thinking of the upcoming battle. He glanced off to his left, looking out sea as the sun slowly sank below the western horizon.
And that's when he saw her. She stood motionless at the end of the pier, looking out at the sea. She wore the same dress she had worn the first time he had ever seen her.
"Stella." He said, too low for her to have heard. He was about to repeat her name more loudly when, moved by a sudden impulse she turned and their eyes met. She smiled, radiant, and called his name. She began running towards him, and then he held her in his arms. His heart was racing, and without so much as a thought, oblivious to the fact that there were other people around to see, he kissed her.
After a moment that seemed to last forever, they drew apart, and for the first time since he had seen her he was conscious that the two of them were not alone, and he turned around.
Yzak and Arthur both looked like they'd been slapped in the face, while Athrun wore a peculiar sort of smile, and the gruff McCaffrey looked uncertain as to what had just happened.
"I see you've found him," said a voice from somewhere behind Stella, and Shinn looking around recognized Dr. Kinney.
Stella too knew the voice, and she was still beaming as she turned around and nodded.
- "Doctor." Shinn said a little stiffly, but he was so glad to see Stella again that he could not prevent it from showing in his voice and his expression.
- "In this case, I can say it is good to see you again, young man." Kinney replied.
Athrun intimated to Yzak that they should go, and called out to Shinn to catch up to them when he could, and the two ZAFT officers, as well as Ezalia Joule, still escorted by two MPs, returned to the ship. McCaffrey likewise addressed Kinney, asking her to bring Stella back to the ship when she could, and stalked off with an oddly pensive expression.
Shinn held Stella's hand in his own, as the two walked together towards the dock, looking out at the sun as it sank towards the horizon.
Behind them, Kinney watched the two. She saw the way she looked at him, the way he looked at her. She knew what she was seeing. And she knew that her next words would quite possibly change the lives of both of them.
"Your name is Shinn, isn't it?" She asked. Shinn turned towards her, still holding Stella's hand, and he nodded.
"Well Shinn, I thought I should tell you that Stella has been in my care since we last spoke, and you may be pleased to know that she has just about fully recovered."
- "Do you mean...?" Shinn asked, and Kinney nodded.
- "Yes." She said, "Her treatment is still ongoing, but she is basically in perfect health."
For a moment Shinn was silent, mentally grappling with the meaning of what he had just heard, and then he spoke, and when he did his voice shook with emotion. "Thank you.
He could not put into words how much the news meant to him, how grateful he was for everything she had done. But the older woman understood.
Night had fallen when Shinn returned to the Minerva alone, more than two hours later. Athrun was waiting at the top of the gangway.
"Well?" Athrun asked. Then he saw the expression in Shinn's eyes, and he had his answer. "Well, get some sleep."
The two headed for their quarters, and Shinn slipped into the room he had once shared with Rey. The bunk opposite his had remained unoccupied since his best friend's death, and it still was. Shinn changed out of his uniform, slipped into his bunk, and soon slept.
Several days went by, as the already massive numbers of ships were reinforced by a small fleet from the USSA - four carriers, some thirty-six surface escorts, and another three San Francisco-class attack submarines - that arrived at Portsmouth. They had also sent a large replenishment ship with an enormous stockpile of fuel, spare parts, and ammunition, as had the Eurasian Federation, from Brest. All the ships were refueled, resupplied, and made ready; every mobile suit was checked over at least twice.
Shinn dedicated himself to the preparations with a determination that even those that had known him for years, such as Luna, found surprising.
At the same time though, he was fearful of the upcoming deployment, when he knew he must be separated once again from his beloved Stella. And so he spent much of the time off the ship, with her - as often as he could get away with without shirking his own duties.
Athrun and Yzak were both aware of this. Lunamaria, too preoccupied with her own preparations, did wonder where Shinn would disappear to, but they had not sat down to speak since the first day they had arrived, and so she kept telling herself that she would ask him when she got the chance.
That chance would come eventually, but not in the way that she would have guessed.
The preparations for deployment were nearing completion, and the fleet was to depart within a few days. Onboard the Minerva, basically the entire crew was on alert, and Shinn had been informed in no uncertain terms by Athrun that he was no longer authorized to leave the ship.
So he stood at his customary place on the deck, looking out at the sea swarming with naval vessels, the majority of which belonged to the Alliance. He was humming under his breath a slow melody, when suddenly he heard behind him a voice singing, slow and melancholy, to the same tune.
He turned around, and found Stella standing on the deck, leaning against the railing, and looking at him.
"S...Stella?" He stammered. "How did you...What...?"
- "I wanted to see you," she said. Then with a troubled expression, she asked him the question he had feared she eventually would. "You're going to leave, aren't you?"
He stepped forward, and he took her in his arms, holding her tight before replying.
- "I don't want to," he said, "but yes. I have to go. We have to go."
He released her and took a step back. "But it's not for long, and then we'll be back again, I promise."
- "No." Stella said, suddenly sounding fearful, "You can't. I won't let you leave me again."
- "Shinn?" Stella suddenly recoiled as she heard a voice she didn't know from the ship's doorway, and turned. "I heard...who is that?"
Shinn turned around, and standing in the doorway, looking at them, was Lunamaria Hawke, a suspicious expression on her face.
Luna looked from Shinn to the girl. She was, Luna thought peevishly, very pretty. Blonde, violet eyes, slender and fair-skinned, wearing a rather stylish two-tone blue dress. More to the point, she looked familiar, but at first Luna couldn't quite figure out why or from where.
"Luna!" Shinn said, stepping forward. "That's...that's Stella." He said, then turned. "Stella, this is Lunamaria. She's a very good friend of mine."
Stella relaxed somewhat, and Shinn turned to face Lunamaria.
- "Well, what is she doing here?" Luna asked sharply, and there was an edge in her voice Shinn had not heard before. "How did she even get here?"
- "I don't know. She must've snuck onboard the ship." Shinn replied
- "Yeah, well we're going to be leaving soon, so she has to get off." Lunamaria replied waspishly.
- "NO!" Stella yelled, glaring over Shinn's shoulder at Lunamaria. "I'm not leaving him, and you can't make me!"
Athrun and Yzak, who had been discussing their strategy in the upcoming battle, overheard the commotion as they walked past the door, and it caught their attention.
- "What the f...the hell is she doing here?" Yzak growled, as Athrun looked up, asking himself the same question as he recognized the blonde who stood next to Shinn.
Both men stepped out onto the deck, and Shinn snapped a salute, as did Luna.
"The hell's going on, here?" Yzak demanded, glaring from Shinn to Stella, who recoiled, slipping behind Shinn, glaring back at him.
- "I don't know, sir." Shinn said, "I was out here on the deck when she came up to me. I believe she slipped aboard the ship."
- "Well she's not allowed to be aboard the ship, so get her the hell off!" Yzak retorted, his voice rising.
- "Yzak, calm down." Athrun said, laying a hand on his friend's shoulder, then stepping forward, he faced Stella and addressed her directly.
"Your name is Stella?" He asked her. She nodded, looking warily at him. "Stella, I'm not sure how you got onboard, but this is a ZAFT ship, and you're not allowed onboard. I need you to disembark."
Stella looked at him, eyes narrowed, and shook her head. "No." She said firmly.
Shinn stepped forward, and he took Stella's hand in his.
- "Stella, please." He said softly, looking at her directly as he spoke. "I'll come with you, if you want. But for now, you have to go." Stella hesitated for a moment. Then she nodded reluctantly.
Lunamaria looked at Shinn, at a complete loss for words. She had never heard him speak that way, to anyone.
But suddenly she realized who this was, and where she had seen her before: In the Minerva's medical bay. And she vaguely remembered a conversation between herself and Heine Westenfluss at the time.
"That girl's an Alliance pilot, right? So why is he so concerned about her? I've known Shinn for a long time; He hates the Alliance. And yet...It just doesn't make sense. I've never seen him act like this before."
-"Well, perhaps there is something there that wasn't there before."
At the time, the cryptic statement had confused her, and she hadn't known what he meant. But now, she knew.
Hand in hand, Shinn and Stella followed Athrun off the Minerva, with Yzak bringing up the rear, grumbling under his breath. Lunamaria had stayed behind. The little group headed towards the base commander's office.
On the way there, they were intercepted by Captain McCaffrey and Dr. Kinney, and Athrun explained the situation.
"Stella," Kinney exclaimed, "I was so worried..."
- "Seems we've got a bit of a problem, don't we, Doc?" McCaffrey said. "Evidently it's going to be tough separating them, especially given that Stella clearly doesn't want to."
- "Forget tough, Captain. It's going to be impossible." Kinney said, with an amused sort of half-smile. "The last time someone tried to make her do something she didn't want, she kicked him in the face so hard she dislocated his jaw."
Athrun stared, dumbfounded, at the slim blonde, still hovering just behind Shinn. He suspected she would have been trained in combat, but to do that much damage...he knew Coordinators who couldn't hit that hard.
He shook his head ruefully, but before he could say anything, Yzak spoke.
- "So then, how do we solve this?" he asked, sounding frustrated. "She's not..."
- "I know how." McCaffrey said gruffly. "Officially, she's not personnel, she's hardware."
Shinn turned, glaring at the officer, but the disdain and disgust he saw in the man's expression made it clear what he thought of this viewpoint, and his expression relaxed. An equally ugly expression on her face, Kinney nodded.
- "To the Atlantic Federation, the so-called "Biological CPUs" created at Lodonia are not even human, they're just parts that are needed to pilot mobile suits." She said contemptuously, recalling the despicable callousness of men like the late Dr. Rice. "So..."
- "So since that's the case," Athrun said, picking up on her train of thought, "We can use that to our advantage."
McCaffrey nodded. "Report she was offloaded from the Jones, and as far as we're concerned, she disappears. Nobody's going to care - as far as those bastards know, she's dead anyway." The scarred veteran replied, showing as ever his contempt for men like O'Donnell and his masters.
- "And then we can bring her onto the Minerva as a volunteer recruit." Shinn said, his expression brightening. Stella, as she began to understand what they were talking about, suddenly was beaming.
- "But what about her?" Athrun said, "What about any health concerns?"
Yzak and Shinn both knew what he meant; the last time she had been onboard the Minerva, she had nearly died. But everything was different now.
- "They would be minimal." Dr. Kinney replied, for the question had of course been directed at her. "Anything that might still be needed can be brought onboard your ship as medical supplies, and I can provide notes your medical officers can use. And eventually, even that will cease to be necessary."
- "So I can stay with Shinn?" Stella said expectantly, looking at McCaffrey and Kinney. The former glanced at Yzak, who nodded irritably.
- "Yes, you can." McCaffrey said.
Doctor Kinney stepped forward, looking a little sad. Stella too stepped forward, moving away from Shinn for the first time since the conversation began, and Kinney hugged her young charge.
- "I'm going to miss you, sweetie." She said to the girl, whom she had come to cherish even as she did her own daughter. "You take care, okay?"
Stella nodded, thanking her, and when they stepped away again, Shinn saw that tears glistened in the woman's eyes. She wiped her eyes with a checkered handkerchief, which Shinn recognized. "You don't mind if I keep this, do you?" she asked him wryly. Shinn shook his head. "Thanks. You take good care of her, you hear?" She said.
- "I will." Shinn said firmly. "I swear it."
The group began heading back towards the ship.
- "So, where are we going to put her?" Yzak asked, the question directed at Athrun.
- "What about Rey's old bunk?" Athrun asked uneasily, unsure of how Yzak would react.
- "Stick her with Shinn? It works." Yzak replied with a shrug. "He's the one who got us into this mess, let him deal with it." Despite the irritated tone of Yzak's voice, Athrun, who knew him well, could tell he was trying hard not to smile.
And he guessed Shinn would be over the moon about it. He was right.
Meanwhile, a small number of crates were delivered to medical with the promised supplies and documentation. These were delivered by Dr. Kinney herself, who spent several hours onboard the ship, going over all the information with the ship's doctor. Also included were her own research notes, as well as what little paperwork had been available at Lodonia itself for Stella, which Shinn, Yzak, and Athrun were able to use to fill out the necessary forms, so that Stella formally became a soldier of ZAFT and a member of the Minerva's crew.
Following this, Stella was introduced to the rest of the crew, who were simply told that she was a new recruit who would be joining the ship.
There was some uneasy muttering, as there were a handful of people who recognized Stella, but nobody said anything. Then, Abigail Windsor stepped forward and introduced herself.
The two young women were approximately the same height and similar in build, and Abby held out her own spare uniform.
"Here you go. Since you're one of us now, you're going to need this." She said. Surprised at this unexpected act of kindness, Stella blushed a little as she thanked Abby, and Shinn likewise thanked her.
"Well, that was certainly a strange story." Yzak mused later that evening. "But now we need to figure out what to do with her; maybe put her in one of the DOMs or the GOUFs, assuming lover boy doesn't disagree."
Athrun nodded, fighting the urge to laugh at Yzak's choice of phrase.
- "Oh, I think we'll figure something out." He said simply. "Some of the crew aren't too happy about it though. And to be honest, I can kind of see their point."
Yzak nodded. He too had noticed the tension that seemed to have arisen from the arrival of the girl.
- "Well, nothing's happened yet - and with Operation Ragnarök coming up, hopefully nothing will." He said irritably.
- "I don't think anything will - nobody wants to pick a fight with Shinn." Athrun replied. "Plus, not all of them feel that way - look at Abby, for instance."
- "Good." Yzak said sharply. "This op's way too important; I want everybody on top of their game."
Yzak's fears would turn out to be in vain. Stella basically never left Shinn's side, and by the end of the following day Stella, who now wore the ZAFT uniform given to her by Abby, which fitted her rather well - was basically integrated into the crew. Those few who still harbored doubts largely kept it to themselves. Lunamaria, despite her own initial jealousy, soon realized how much she meant to Shinn. She wasn't sure why she felt so hostile; She and Shinn had never really been anything more than friends, and being around her was good for him. And that was enough, she felt. Though she sometimes wished Rey had been here to see it. She wondered how he would have taken something like this.
At long last, the fleet was ready, and the preparations for launch began, every man aboard each vessel knowing full well they were about to set sail for what could be the most important battle of their lives.
The hope of many, Shinn included, was that with this last battle, Logos would fall, and then the war could end.
He and Stella stood hand in hand on the deck as the ships set sail, both in uniform. The Jones was with them, sailing right on the ship's starboard quarter.
"The last battle...at least, I hope so." Shinn said.
Standing on the docks, Doctor Kinney watched the ships go, and Stella and Shinn both saw her. They waved to her in farewell, and she waved to her young daughter - for so she thought of her - and to the dark young man to whom her heart was given.
She was happy for her; Stella was free now, she would never be used the way she had been all her life.
But she could not help but think, as she said good-bye, that she probably would never see either of them again.
And so she stood on the deck, watching, until the fleet disappeared over the horizon. And then she turned and left, heading home.