AUTHOR'S NOTE: Okay, so this chapter is almost totally new stuff. Part of it parallels the first third or so of the series's Episode 40, with an additional bit drawing some bits and pieces of dialog from episode 47. The focus is divided between Shinn, Athrun and Cagalli, but it's necessary to establish certain events leading up to the next story arc.

By the way, I apologize if the title sucks.

PHASE 27: Their Respective Choices

South Atlantic Ocean
LHM-BB01 Minerva
En route to Carpentaria

With control of Heaven's Base firmly in the hands of the Eurasian Federation forces - and their allies from the breakaway British forces of the Atlantic Federation - the ZAFT fleet had withdrawn from Iceland and headed south. Of the surviving ships, roughly half had gone back to Gibraltar.

The Minerva and the remaining ships were ordered to resupply at Gibraltar, then continue on to Carpentaria, which they had done. Making an easy thirty knots, they were covering 830 miles every twenty-four hours.

It would be a long trip, but it meant that they had time to make sure, within their means, that everyone was in top shape. Ezalia Joule had left the ship at Gibraltar after receiving an urgent communication from the homeland. Yzak and Athrun, since leaving Gibraltar, had spent hours poring over maps, intelligence reports, any information they could gather, attempting to determine where the hell Jibril could have gotten to.

"We know," Yzak said, "from the interrogations of the ones we did catch, that Jibril was present until near the end of the battle when the Destroy went down."

- "And since by that time the fleet had pretty well blockaded the fjord and we had nearly-total air supremacy over the airspace, we know he did not escape in an aircraft or surface ship - we would have seen it instantly; that leaves only the possibility of a submarine, quietly creeping around the fleet by exiting from that docking facility we found just outside the fjord." Athrun supplied.

- "Right." Yzak agreed, then looked over the map, stabbing at three points with his dividers. "So where the hell'd the fucker go? He could have gone west, to Panama. Or it could have gone south, towards Africa and headed to Victoria. Hell, they might even have tried a trans-polar run to come down in the Pacific and swung towards Kaohsiung."

- "I think we can eliminate Kaohsiung." Athrun said. "A transpolar run is too dangerous, and the other routes are impossible - he can not get through Gibraltar and down into the Indian Ocean through Suez - we watch that too closely. And the San Francisco-class has nowhere near the range to make it around Africa and all the way around."

- "So that leaves Panama or Victoria; And when you think about it, it's gotta be Panama. But we'll need to make 100% sure."

Unable to progress any further, they had been forced to leave it at that; unaware of how close they were to the truth, the two men had retired to their respective quarters.

Onboard the Minerva, there were two subjects of conversation on everyone's lips. One was Jibril, the enemy, the mass murderer, who had escaped them at Heaven's Base. The second was Shinn Asuka and the new girl, Stella. After Operation Ragnarök and the role she had played in the battle, the undercurrent of wariness that had been so prevalent among the crew was all but gone, and more and more of the crew were friendlier towards her, not the least because she was soft-spoken, polite - in absolutely every conceivable aspect, the exact opposite of Shinn.

For Stella, it was such a new experience; before, her only friends had been Auel, Lukas, and Doctor Kinney. Everyone else had seemed to avoid her, or else scared her, so that she avoided them. But here, everything was different; there were so many people, she was sometimes scared, but not in the same way she had been before.

Her closest friends were Abby, who had given her her uniform, and Luna, who piloted the same mobile suit she did, but equipped differently. And she was with Shinn. For the first time in her life, she was happy.

And so was Shinn. The two were very rarely seen apart, which left Lunamaria feeling left out, even a little jealous. She had known Shinn for years, ever since he had arrived in the PLANTs alone and, within days, joined the PLANTs' Military Academy. It had been just the three of them: Her, Shinn, Rey. She missed those days, and most of all she missed Rey.

But on the other hand, she and Shinn were friends, and she recognized that being around Stella was good for him; it seemed to alleviate the burden of grief he had carried, a burden that had only gotten heavier since Rey's death. And for that, she was glad. At the very least, it made her own pain a little easier to bear.

She entered the rec room, where she found Abby, Vino and Yolant seated in a group on the couch. Stella was with them as well, and she looked up when Lunamaria entered, smiling.

"Hi, Luna!" she said, beaming as she looked over at her.

- "Hi." Luna replied, smiling. She had such an innocent expression and demeanor, it was almost impossible not to like Stella. At the same time, it was such a contrast with the sharp, flat tones she had heard her use in battle, it was always a bit jarring. Plus, she had saved her ass a couple of times in the last battle. She looked around, then turned to Vino and Yolant. "Hey, where's Shinn?"

- "He and Athrun went outside a moment ago." Yolant replied.

On the stern deck just outside, Shinn leaned against the balustrade, looking out at the ocean. Athrun thought that he had never seen him look so content.

"She seems to be fitting in well." He said, and Shinn nodded.

- "Yeah. And the doc said she's doing better and better." Shinn replied. After Stella had boarded the ship, her treatment had continued, using supplies and notes provided by Doctor Kinney. Only a few days earlier, at the latest check-up, he had told them that her treatment was nearly complete.

"Any news on that bastard Jibril?" Shinn suddenly asked. "Do you have any idea where he is?"

- "Don't know." Athrun replied, somewhat surprised at the abrupt change in subject. ""Yzak and I were discussing it; we think he's going to try to head into space. Which means Panama, Victoria, or Kaohsiung. He did not go south from Iceland towards Victoria, or we would've found him - which also eliminates Kaohsiung, unless they went for a trans-polar run."

"Too difficult, too dangerous." Shinn interrupted, somewhat surprising Athrun. "So that leaves Panama."

"Right; Yzak and I think that's where he went - and from there, he could've headed directly up into space, or he might have gone to Victoria, or Kaohsiung."

There were a few moments' silence, before Shinn spoke again, and there was a harsh edge to his tone. "Though there is one other possibility; He could have gone to Orb. There's the mass driver at Kaguya, and given that when we left Orb back when the war started they practically handed the Minerva to the Atlantic Federation on a silver platter, I would not put it past them to roll out the welcome mat for Jibril."

- "Cagalli would never stand for it." Athrun said firmly. "She would never allow someone like Jibril asylum in Orb - not only because of the things he's done, but it was people like him who attacked Orb in the last war. But if he snuck in, and the Seirans were backing him..."

Shinn's expression hardened as Athrun's words brought back memories of what had happened on the last war - his family's death. And he remembered the Seirans; a fat pig of a man who had introduced himself as the Prime Minister, and that asshole with the purple hair who'd been with him.

It was an open secret that the Seirans backed the Atlantic Federation, and a number of their strongest political allies in Orb and the other neutral nations had turned out to be members of Logos. Even now, they might still try to aid him.

- "I hate to say this," Athrun continued, "but I think you might be right."

- "If that's the case, then I'll take them down too." Shinn said harshly.

- "If Cagalli hasn't already beat you to it." Athrun said only half-joking. To his surprise, Shinn smiled slightly, but there was still something grim about the expression.

He hoped that they were wrong, and that Jibril had not sought sanctuary in Orb. Because if they did, it meant he would have to fight against Orb. And that was not something he was sure he was prepared to do...

At last, the fleet arrived at Carpentaria, where the Minerva was the first to dock.

"Sierra Antares One, Docking confirmed. Welcome back." The port authority officer said as the ship completed its docking procedures and stopped.

"Sierra Antares One, Roger that." Yzak replied. "Thank you."

Soon afterwards, they received orders to report to the base's command center. First to disembark were Yzak, Athrun, and Shinn. Following them were Arthur, Lunamaria, and Stella. Much to their surprise, they were met in the base commander's office by Chairman Durendal himself.

The entire group stood at attention, without moving.

First Yzak, then each of the others were in turn presented with ZAFT's Medal of Valor for their performance in the Battle of Heaven's Base. As the large, ribbon-shaped decoration was pinned to each of their lapels, it occurred to Athrun that the Medal of Valor had been presented to Shinn previously. 'That's the second one for you, Shinn. Congratulations.' he thought. However, at that moment, Chairman Durendal stepped forward and began to speak.

"I want to thank you all for your exceptional performance over the past few months, and especially in the last few operations." He said. "You have gone above the call of duty in fighting the battles that you have been in, and for that I am proud and thankful of your efforts."

Durendal then stepped back, and the base commander stepped forward again and said in terse tones "In honor of his distinguished service in Operation Ragnarök, the Battle of Heaven's Base, as well as in other engagements thus far, we hereby award the Order of the Nebula to Shinn Asuka."

Shinn almost did a double take at this announcement, that he was to be presented with the single most prestigious decoration that could be given to a ZAFT soldier. The Commander stepped forward, pinning the rather larger and more ornate medal to his lapel, and said. "Congratulations, young man."

Shinn responded with a salute, as the entire room erupted in applause.
- "Thank you, sir." Shinn said formally as he shook the commander's hand, but his voice shook with emotion.

- "In addition, this is for Shinn as well." Durendal spoke up again, and Athrun guessed immediately what was coming, as Durendal personally handed to Shinn a small, square box, made of lacquered wood.

Shinn opened the box, and saw a small, silver-and-gold pin, shaped like a bird's outstretched wing. He gasped, unable to believe what he was seeing.
- "Mr. Chairman..." he stammered.

- "This is an acknowledgement of how much we have come to reply on your strength." Durendal continued, looking at Shinn. "It is my hope that you will wear it with pride, that you will continue to use your power, and that you will not betray my faith in you."

- "I am honored, sir." Shinn replied in earnest, as he held the box in his hand. "I will do my best."
The officers in attendance applauded again, and once the applause died down, Yzak addressed the commander.

- "Excuse us, sir. We should be on our way." Yzak said stiffly.

"Very well then. Carry on." The commander replied, and Yzak turned on his heel and began to leave. Athrun followed, but stopped, looking at Shinn.

- "Congratulations, Shinn."

- "Thank you very much, sir." Shinn replied formally, to which Athrun raised an eyebrow.

- "You're "sir"ing me, now? You and I now have equal rank, you know."
Shinn smiled, then he fell into step, followed by Stella, then Lunamaria.

- "Three Orders of the Nebula and five Medals of Valor between us." Yzak reckoned as they headed down the stairs and prepared to return to the Minerva. His tone seemed to indicate that even he still didn't believe what had just happened. "On top of that, three members of FAITH. THREE of them! If Heine were still here, it would be four on the same ship. That's just fucking nuts."

Athrun could only nod his assent.
They reached the entrance of the building just as a long, low black limousine pulled up. Yzak motioned for the group to stop, and Athrun let out an audible groan, as he guessed who had to be in the car.

A tall, dark-haired young man in a conservative suit and tie stepped out of the limousine. His civilian attire contrasted sharply with his ramrod-straight bearing and the smooth efficiency of his movement - the mark of a military man, as were the hard brown eyes that peered warily out from behind a pair of wire-framed glasses. He stepped sharply around the vehicle and opened the passenger-side rear door - the clear shape of a shoulder holster momentarily visible as he did so.

The woman who stepped out wore an elegant black, long-sleeved blouse over a short skirt, thigh-high stockings, and polished, high-heeled black shoes. Her hair was long, straight, and bright pink, accessorized with a golden hairclip shaped like a star.

"Thank you." she said cheerily as she addressed the somber bodyguard, who simply nodded. Then, Meer Campbell turned to head up the steps, saw Athrun, and smiled. She climbed the steps two at a time and almost threw herself at him, stopping just short of doing so.

"Well hello, Athrun!" She said brightly, leaning in and giving Athrun a brief peck on the cheek. "I'm so glad to see you!"

- "Hello, Lacus." Athrun said, a dull flush creeping onto his cheek. Yzak smirked.

- "And you as well, Commander Joule." She looked over the group, remembering having met all of them before. Then she saw an unfamiliar face, looking at her almost warily. "I don't think we've met before, have we?" She said, addressing Stella. "I'm Lacus Clyne."

Stella looked a little wary still, but her expression relaxed.

- "I'm Stella." She said softly.

- "It's a real pleasure to meet you, Stella." Meer said kindly, and Athrun was suddenly struck by how much she sounded - not just her voice, but her tone - like his late ex-fiancée. Stella too smiled.

Athrun hesitated for a moment, unsure of whether he should do what he was planning. But he decided that she more than anyone had a right to know the truth. He took a few steps forward.

- "Lacus," Athrun stepped forward, "Commander Joule and I have to get back to the ship." He said. "Are you staying here?"

- "I am." Meer said, and she smiled sincerely. "I would be glad if we could have dinner tonight - like we did in the PLANTs, do you remember?"

Athrun glanced at Yzak, who nodded.

- "Great. I will meet you here, then." He said, and her smile grew brighter still.

- "I look forward to it." Meer said cheerfully. "I will see you then, Athrun!"
She turned on her heel, and walked into the building, followed by the bodyguard who had exited the car with her.

That evening, Athrun arrived at the building alone, wearing his uniform, having left his Medal of Valor in his quarters - with the Order of the Nebula he had been awarded during the Bloody Valentine War, four years earlier, which he had kept even after all this time.

Meer descended the steps alone, wearing an elegant, sleeveless white gown - the sort of thing, he thought, Lacus might have worn - although perhaps somewhat low-cut for his taste.
She had tied her hair, too, in a high ponytail - a style that he had seen Lacus wear on a couple of occasions, but it seemed to suit her.

"You look good." Athrun said.

- "Thank you." Meer replied. She stepped into the car, then Athrun walked around and entered the driver's seat.

- "It's no limo, just a borrowed military Jeep." He said, and she smiled.

Dinner was a pleasant enough affair, basically a repeat of their first encounter, with one difference. Early in the evening, Meer had looked at Athrun, and had asked him one question.

"Athrun, can you do me a favor?"

Somewhat taken aback, Athrun hesitated for a moment before replying.
- "What is it?" He asked.

- "Tell me about her." She said. "About what she was really like."

- "Why do you want to know?" He asked.

- "I told you in the PLANTs; I've always admired her. She's so strong, and beautiful and kind. Not like me - I'm nothing special." She said. "But I've always wanted to be like her; and people always used to say that my voice sounded just like hers. This opportunity that Chairman Durendal gave me - it's almost like a dream come true, for me. But I want to know what kind of person she really is."

She sounded so sincere when she asked, and he knew, somehow that this wasn't just something she was asking; that she really did want to know more about the woman she had been asked to impersonate, and whom she so clearly idolized.
"I know that what I am - what I'm doing. I know it's a lie." She added, a little sadly. "But what I believe, what I feel. That's real, all of it. I believe in her, and in what she says."

- "I know." Athrun answered, and he surprised himself somewhat as he said it. At that moment, the red Haro suddenly jumped up, and he caught it. "Wow. It really is identical to the ones I made." He said without thinking.

- "You made Haro?" Meer asked, surprised. "You made it for her?"

- "Made them - more than one. And yeah." He said. "Almost every color you could think of...except I don't think I made a red one." Meer smiled at that, and she listened attentively as he told her about them, and about how their fathers had arranged for their marriage, and about Lacus as he had known her.

- "Wow. She really is amazing, isn't she?" Meer said. "But where has she been all this time? Why didn't she come back?"

Athrun hesitated. He hadn't really seen Lacus all that much, and it was still painful to think of what he had learned, what Kira had told him.

- "After the war ended, she and... and a friend of mine went down to Earth. To Orb." He said.

- "I see," Meer said, "and you went to Orb too, didn't you? That's where you were before you came back to the PLANTs." Athrun nodded. "I would love to meet her some day." She said.

Athrun hesitated again. He had hoped things wouldn't come to this, but he had supposed it might. And she deserved to know what had happened.
- "I'm afraid...I'm afraid that's not possible." Athrun said, and his voice cracked as he spoke.

- "Why?" Meer asked, suddenly puzzled. Athrun bit his lip.

- "Because...Meer, Lacus...she's gone." He said bitterly. "She's dead."

- "NO! She...she can't be!" Meer said, a look of horrified disbelief on her face. "How...? Who could?..."

- "I don't know." Athrun said, bitterly. "It was shortly before the war started - I had just left for the PLANTs at the time; It was a small team, who infiltrated Orb at night. I know Lady Cagalli is investigating, but I haven't heard back. But I know they were Coordinators, with military training. And they had ZAFT mobile suits."

- " can't just can't..." She stammered. All her life, Meer had idolized Lacus Clyne. She had known that Lacus was alive, and somewhere on Earth, or so the rumors said. And Chairman Durendal, whom she knew had known Siegel Clyne, Lacus's father, had seemed to genuinely believe in what she stood for.

She had dearly hoped to meet her one day, but learn that the rumors had been true, and at the same time that Lacus Clyne, a woman who epitomized kindness and compassion and ideals of peace that Meer genuinely, in her heart believed, to have been killed. Struck at the news of her role model's death, she began to weep in earnest.

- "Chairman Durendal wouldn't do that." She said thickly through her tears, as much trying to convince herself as anything else.

Athrun wrapped an arm around Meer, and he drew her to him as she wept, and he tried to comfort her.
- "I'm sorry." He said, "I know how much it meant to you. I didn't..."

- "No," she protested, sniffling. "I'm glad you told me. But..."

- "I know; honestly, I don't really think Chairman Durendal had anything to do with this either; later on, when we were in Bandirma, he asked me if I knew where she was. I didn't at the time, and I told him so - I didn't learn about what happened until later." But even as he spoke, he had a sudden doubt. Could he really be certain? He had told Kira as much, but now there was just a shadow of a doubt. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and gave it to Meer to dry her tears.

- "Thank you." she said. "For everything." And she hugged him. Not because he and "Lacus" were engaged. But because she genuinely liked him, and she was grateful to him.

And though she knew now that he did not return her feelings, he respected her nonetheless. He drove her back to the building where she was staying, and bade her good-night. He watched her climb the stairway, and once the door had closed, he left, returning to the ship.

Aprilius One, PLANTs
Supreme Council Headquarters
National Defense Committee Office

Ezalia Joule had returned to the PLANTs from Gibraltar after disembarking from the Minerva after the partial success of Operation Ragnarök. The reason she had done so was a report that had come in on one of several issues that she was attempting to resolve sub rosa, without involving the rest of the Supreme Council, at least not yet.

With Durendal on Earth for Operation Fury, she was one of the two or three most senior members of the Supreme Council currently in the PLANTs, and had essentially sole command of ZAFT's space forces, which were currently on standby, either here in the homeland or in orbit with the Gondwana. But as most of the day-to-day operations were handled by the Diplomatic Committee, she had little to do beyond relay the latest reports from their forces on Earth.

The report in front of her was a peculiar one, to say the least; it concerned the loss in some kind of accident of almost an entire team of ZAFT mobile suits, several months earlier - around the time of the outbreak of the war.

"This is certainly a peculiar report..." she muttered, "But I..."

She flipped the page of the report, and her heart skipped a beat. She instantly opened a locked drawer of her desk and withdrew a second report, this one penned in the firm hand of Commander Yzak Joule, her own son and one of the foremost of ZAFT's team leaders and commanding officers. She read this document again, including a complete transcript of the conversation it reported.

Then she summoned the officer who had delivered the first document she had been reading, who had remained outside the office per her orders.

"This report," she asked sharply, "is the intelligence it contains verified?"

- "Yes, ma'am. From an internal source." The younger man replied. "We are working on obtaining additional corroboration."

- "And this source itself is reliable?" Ezalia asked.

- "The intel we've gotten from them has always been impeccable." he answered.

- "Then don't worry about it. I am taking this matter in hand personally." Ezalia ordered, and the young officer nodded. "Thank you. And incidentally, I am ordering you to forget this conversation took place and its subject."

- "What conversation, ma'am?" The young man replied rhetorically as he left. Ezalia briefly smiled, then slipped both reports into a slender briefcase, then stood and left her office after a brief phone call.

It was, she decided, time for her to call upon her old sparring partner in the Diplomatic Committee - a conversation that she was not looking forward to. But it had to be done.

Orb Union
Onogoro Island
Military Hospital

Cagalli Yula Athha, after having spent almost the entire day in communications with the Eurasian Federation, the Equatorial Union, and Eileen Canaver in the PLANTs, attempting to determine what was going on, had decided to blow off work for the rest of the day.

Leaving her office in the more-than-capable hands of a secretary with orders to relay any information of note to Mina, she changed out of the maroon-and-white outfit she habitually wore and put on slacks, a red t-shirt, and a light tan jacket, and slipped out, followed from afar, as ever, by the watchful Kisaka.

She had headed to the hospital, where even after all this time some of the most severely wounded of the Archangel's crew were still recovering. Juri, wearing jeans, a yellow t-shirt, and the near-ubiquitous red-and-black Morgenröte vest, ran up to her as she was approaching.

- "Hey, Juri. How are you doing?" Cagalli asked casually.

- "Not bad. What about you, Lady Cagalli?"

- "What have I told you about calling me that?" Cagalli growled half-angry, half-joking. Juri smiled.
The two girls were friends, and had been for years now. But Juri's occasional insistence on formality with her was annoying.

- "Sorry. But really..." Juri asked again, this time sounding genuinely worried.

- "I don't know yet." Cagalli said, and she sounded worried too. There weren't may of the Archangel's crew still here. But a few of them were, and one in particular worried her. She met the doctor who was in charge, an elderly man who had known Cagalli all her life and who could be trusted.

"Doctor Minashiro." Cagalli greeted him.

- "Ah, Miss Cagalli. And how are you doing today?" The old doctor asked.

- "Could be better." She said.

- "I take it you're inquiring about...?" He asked, then nodded when she acquiesced. "I see. Well, he's stable. He awoke this morning, actually, and a couple of people have come by to see him."

- "Good." Cagalli let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "And how is he. I mean, will he be okay?"

- "Well, yes and no." Doctor Minashiro replied hesitantly. "He very nearly died, you know, but the risk of that is past. However...I'm afraid the spinal injury was too severe. There was nothing we could do."

Cagalli looked at him, horrified.
- "You mean he..." The doctor gave a sad nod.

- "I'm afraid so, Cagalli." he said, and he sounded genuinely sorry that he had to say it. "I'm deeply sorry to have to tell you this, but he will never walk again."

She spent more than an hour at the hospital, before returning to her room, changing into the blue-and-white military-style uniform she sometimes wore in lieu of the more somber maroon garb of a member of the Council of Emirs, and was just setting down to work when Rondo Mina Sahaku strode in, looking concerned.

"You have news?" Cagalli asked.

- "Yes, and I am afraid it is not good." Mina replied. "The intelligence I have confirms that a San Francisco-class submarine docked at Porta Panama roughly one week ago, some two and a half weeks after the fall of Heaven's Base, and a single man in civilian attire disembarked along with the ship's commanding officer. I also know that the same individual left Panama by aircraft, heading east. I also have here a report from our own military of a transient airborne contact, only three sweeps, off the western coast of Orb approximately four days ago."

- "You mean..." Cagalli started, growing horrified. "Jibril..."

- "I have people investigating as we speak, milady. But there is a very strong chance that he is here in Orb. I believe he is being sheltered by the Seirans."

- "Do the PLANTs know this?" Cagalli asked.

- "I do not know, milady. But I am afraid it is only a matter of time."

Rondo Mina Sahaku's words proved true. Less than forty-eight hours later, even as her own assets confirmed that Jibril was indeed being sheltered by the Seirans, the same information reached Carpentaria.

The following morning, Yzak Joule, Athrun Zala, and Shinn Asuka were summoned to report to Chairman Durendal.
"Gentlemen," Durendal said, sounding grave. "I have summoned the three of you here because we have now learned where Teivel Jibril is hiding."

- " know where he is, sir?" Shinn asked. Yzak glared at him, but Durendal simply nodded.

- "We do; I have here a report from Carpentaria's Information Section, stating that one of their assets has confirmed his location." He slid the report across the desk. Yzak stepped forward and picked it up, quickly reading it. Athrun and Shinn glanced at the document, and Athrun's expression of shock was mirrored in Shinn's own expression as they saw the photograph of the man they sought, Teivel Jibril, standing in the company of Unato Ema Seiran and Yuna Roma Seiran.

- "He is in Orb." Durendal said. "For them to give him, a man guilty of horrendous crimes against humanity, sanctuary is simply unacceptable. I am ordering the Minerva to lead a fleet to Orb to capture Jibril by any means necessary."

- "Yes, sir!" Yzak replied, snapping a salute. Shinn did likewise. After a moment's hesitation, so did Athrun.

- "I do not want to attack Orb unless it is absolutely necessary." Durendal said. "But Jibril must be handed over to us, or else we must capture him. I'm counting on you all."

Within twelve hours, a massive fleet of Vosgolov-class submarines and Lesseps-class land battleships was assembled. Their submarine force had sustained severe losses at Heaven's Base, but there were still more than thirty submarines at operational readiness with full mobile suit complements, and supporting them was more than twenty Type-I Lesseps-class land battleships.
At the forefront, the Minerva, which would be the first vessel to launch, and the flagship of the fleet.

"Sierra Antares One, now launching." Yzak, from the bridge, ordered. "Helm, ahead one-third."

- "Roger, ahead one-third." Malik, at the helm, acknowledged, as the ship set sail.

Athrun stood on the stern deck, and as he looked back at the shoreline he saw Meer, standing alone on the pier, wearing the same black blouse and skirt. And she waved to him as the ship left. He waved back, then turned and headed into the ship, and as he did, he had a feeling that this was the last time he would see her.

He shook his head, then headed up to the bridge.
"If you want to sit this one out," Yzak said by way of greeting, "Feel free to do so."

- "Thanks." Athrun said flatly, looking up at the screen that showed the ships beginning to launch and the formations became organized. He wasn't sure what he would do, still. But he appreciated his old friend's suggestion. It meant a lot to him.

- "Orb, huh." Yzak muttered. "Of all the possible places for us to go, this has to be one of the worst. I dunno about you, but I for one am not looking forward to this."

Athrun nodded.
- "Neither am I, Yzak." He said apprehensively. "Neither am I."

There was one other onboard who was perhaps just as apprehensive as Athrun about their destination. And as Shinn Asuka stood on the starboard bow deck, looking ahead, he thought back to his own words, all those months ago.

If you become our enemy, I will destroy this country...with my own hands.

And now, the time had come where he might well have to do just that. The cruel irony of this was not lost on him, and he sighed, shaking his head.

"Maybe it won't come to that... "I hope." he said. He wanted to believe Athrun, that Cagalli would not allow Jibril to remain in Orb. But he doubted it.
"How many more have to die before this ends?" He asked aloud, addressing nobody in particular. He shook his head.

Stella walked out onto the deck, looking for him.
- " Shinn going to have to fight again?" She asked. He nodded, and then he felt her hand, small and warm, in his. "Stella will fight too. To protect you."

Shinn nodded, a sad smile on his pale young face.
- "So will I." He answered.

They didn't have a choice, unfortunately.