Actions

Work Header

Gundam SEED: FAITH's Edge

Chapter Text

 

Previously, on Gundam SEED: Sunder

 

A faint smile quirked up the edges of Kira's lips as he glanced over at the sunflower, rose, and lilies again. Before he could briefly sink into a reverie, the sudden wail of a siren pierced the peaceful silence. At once, a shot of dread crawled through his spine and sunk into his stomach – he had not heard that siren wail in fourteen years; the last time being when the previous leader of Orb had been assassinated.

“That siren,” Athrun began, horror etched on his face that was swiftly turned into anger. “On this very day--”

“They wouldn't sound it, unless...” Lacus began, looking extremely worried. The wailing of the siren was a call to arms for guardsmen to keep what remained of their leaders safe. It was never used in drill or anything else--

“Unless Chief Representative Seiran has been assassinated,” Kira grimly concluded.

~~~

Chapter 1: Blood on the Scales

C.E. 97, Orb, Earth...

 

It was foolish, absurd, and Athrun knew damn well that driving towards the capitol buildings where the heart of Orb's government ruled at this very moment in time was not the smartest thing to do. It was jammed packed with people attempting to do the same thing he, Kira, and Lacus were trying to do: get to one of the spurs that would take them away from center of the island. They could have stayed there, stayed at the relatively peaceful graveyard, waiting for the confusion to die down, but they didn't. With the siren still wailing, military personnel were already swarming the skies in skygraspers and other aerial vehicles.

The radio stations were not broadcasting anything, due to the jammer that had been deployed as soon as the siren had sounded. It was full communications blackout, with only the military and guardsmen knowing the frequencies to use to communicate orders over secured radios. Long ago, Athrun had been a part of that detail, as had Kira and Lacus, but no longer. That chapter of their lives had been abruptly closed when Cagalli had been assassinated.

Athrun tightened his hands around the steering wheel of his car as he took a quick glance at his rear view mirror to see Kira and Lacus in their rented car looking worried. They were all troubled as to what the implications of the siren meant. All around him, he could see grim concern in other drivers and passengers' faces. This was the second time in recent history that Orb's leader had been assassinated.

While it was common for the leader of Orb to rule for upwards of a couple of decades before falling from popular favor or deciding to retire, outright assassination was not common. The security, island geography of the country, and locale of their seat of government made it extremely difficult for someone with ill intent to get in and successfully complete the contract. The most viable way that some entity could take out the seat of power would be to send a missile, and even then, the air defense of Orb was quite robust. Orb was not a superpower in world affairs for nothing, even if they kept mostly to themselves and remained neutral during conflicts.

It was macabre for him to even think that the way Cagalli had been killed was one of the more 'elegant' solutions that an assassin would use. However, the analytical side of him had to admit that smuggling a nearly untraceable, radioactive poison into a country which sat on the site of old, ancient nuclear tests was smart. As for Chief Representative Seiran at the present and his possible death at the present, Athrun didn't know what to think.

He blinked as he looked up ahead to see that there was a checkpoint set up by the deployed ground troops. Further beyond, the road was completely blocked, with other personnel directing traffic to the spur that ran off the main road. He was slightly heartened to see that at least the military was allowing people to get to the spurs in their cars instead of making them walk. He had heard that the last time the sirens sounded, because of where Cagalli had died, they had to close off several of the spurs, including the main road. People were not even allowed to drive close to the hospital or to the government center – they had to walk to evacuate the area.

As the cars ahead of him slowly whittled down until he finally pulled up to the heavily armed guards. Handing over his identification as he pulled his shades off, he saw the guard who had taken his ID card blink in surprise for a moment before hastily composing himself again. “Uh... Commander Zala, sir,” the guard stated, nearly stuttering his words.

He saw a few of the other guards that stood near the main area of the checkpoint also widen their eyes in surprise as they took quick glances at him. One or two were leaning towards each other, whispering something, but Athrun was used to such actions. In his days as Cagalli's bodyguard, it was Cagalli's unexpected presence at random places in Orb that caused reactions such as the ones he was seeing from the guards. It also made them easy to read to see if there was any ill intent.

“I'm no longer an active member of ZAFT, soldier,” he quietly stated.

As soon as the dust had settled, he had tried to hand the FAITH pin back to Canaver. However, while she had accepted the ZAFT active status resignation publicly, she had private refused to accept his resignation from FAITH. She had stated to him that while she did not expect him to perform any duties, clandestine or otherwise, pertaining to FAITH, the pin was his to keep. It was a symbol and reminder of who he was in the past, and that the future was his to forge whichever way he wanted it to.

“Sir, please accept my apologies,” the guard said, handing him his ID back. “I'm going to have to ask you to pull over there. We received some intelligence that also pertains to you, sir.” The guard gestured towards a cordoned off area within the blocked off section of the road where there were a few tents and the like set up. It looked like it was the beginnings of a military staging area as well.

As surprised as Athrun was about what had just been stated, he kept his expression as neutral as possible. The siren, the particular date today, and the possibility of Seiran's death was too coincidental, too convenient. Now there was also intelligence? That made him suspicious – and there was nothing suspicious that caught his attention during the slow crawl through traffic to this checkpoint. Even the guards, as surprised as they looked and acted, were not doing anything to raise his suspicions. Just what the hell was going on today?

He gave a curt nod towards the guard but did not move his car just yet, asking, “Has there also been any intelligence reports pertaining to Kira Yamato and Lacus Clyne?”

“Y-yes, sir,” the guard stated, nodding.

“Then we expect to be briefed by your commanding officer, soldier,” he answered, nodding. “Allow the car behind me to follow me in.”

“Yes, sir.”

Athrun then pulled away from the checkpoint and was directed towards the area where the officer had indicated. However, even after pulling in and shutting off his car, he didn't get out just yet. Quickly reaching below the driver's seat, he pulled out a small cartridge that held sixteen bullets. It was designed to go with the concealed, semi-automatic handgun that was smaller than his hand, and was already holstered under his jacket. Unlike the standard, military-issued nine millimeter that he used to keep in the glove box during his days as Cagalli's bodyguard, this particular one was privately purchased recently... through an anonymous entity he had set up long ago.

His rolled up windows were tinted enough that he was sure that no one saw him slip a second cartridge into the cartridge holster. Ever since he had revealed himself, he had been wearing the shoulder holster and gun under his clothes whenever he was on Earth – which was not often nowadays. Now though, with his suspicions high, he was not taking any chances. The sixteen bullets that were already in the tiny gun were probably more than enough to neutralize several threats, but he'd rather have an additional sixteen with him than not.

His timing in opening his car door coincided with the shutting of the car that Kira and Lacus had rented for their brief visit to Orb. The two got out of their cars and he caught both of their puzzled look. Shrugging slightly in response, he shut his car door just as a non-commissioned officer approached them and said, “Sirs, ma'am, if you would please follow me, Major Kleinmann will brief you on what is happening.”

They followed the NCO past a couple of more sandbagged barricades until they got to the main staging area, which was a canvas tent. Entering, Athrun recognized Kleinmann – she was the daughter of Joseph Kleinmann, who had been one of Cagalli's secretaries.

He hadn't kept in touch or paid attention to the lives of Cagalli's staff, or most of the guardsmen who had served during her rulership after she had died. However, Joseph's daughter, Heather, had always left an impression on him – mostly because he and the secretary talked a lot about raising their daughters. Joseph had given him some good advice on how to raise Cari – before she had ran away and taken on the alias of Lenore Yula to protect her own life.

He was surprise to see that Kleinmann had joined Orb's military, but he supposed that he should not be. Many of the children that grew up after the war, hearing tales of those who fought to preserve Orb's neutrality during the war, were inspired by the tales – and thus signed up. A few became guardsmen, but most served in the regular army, navy, air force, or marines.

There were two others in the tent with Kleinmann as well: young guardsman Daneel Barton, and Archangel crew member Patricia Ling – a former guardsman. With all things considered, he was slightly surprised to see that an active guardsman such as Daneel, was present. What exactly was going on?

“Ma'am,” the NCO stated, giving his commanding officer a crisp salute. “We found Mr. Zala, Mr. Yamato, and Ms. Clyne. Should I have them cancel the ATL?”

“Thank you Sergeant, for bringing them here. Have everyone maintain radio silence,” Kleinmann stated, looking up from the reports she was pouring through. She drew herself up to her full height, which was just a half-head taller than either he or Kira. Neither the young Barton or Ling moved from where they were for the moment, though both of them looked to be sporting relieved expressions. “You are dismissed.”

Athrun waited until the NCO left the tent and immediately asked, “Attempt to Locate?”

“Chief Representative Seiran, along with his appointed immediate successor, and several members of his closest advisers were assassinated at oh-eight-fourty-six this morning,” Kleinmann stated.

Shock coursed through him and the others as they stared at Kleinmann. However, the officer was not done yet as she continued to say, “The assassin is still at large. We were given intelligence pertaining to a threat against the Chief Representative's life two days ago--”

“Wait,” Kira interrupted before Athrun could. “Did you say 'assassin'? Not assassins? Only one?!”

“Yes,” she answered, nodding in affirmation. “One. We suspect that the assassin is a Coordinator with extremely sharp and fast rifling skills to have killed the Chief Representative and those surrounding him as they were exiting the main courthouse. Many guardsmen were on duty and snipers were perched on rooftops, but it was not enough to stop this assassin. We were only able to locate the general area in which he or she struck from before the assassin slipped the net.”

“Your people said that there's intelligence on us,” Athrun spoke up in the pause. “What is it?”

In response, Kleinmann gestured to young Barton, stating, “I believe all of you, Mr. Barton, and Ms. Ling are acquainted?”

“We receive the intelligence from the Eurasian Federation – specifically from the Janissary codenamed Iseult,” Barton stated. Athrun frowned – Iseult was known only to a few people, including the young man briefing them, as former ZAFT black operative Yelena Korsakoff. Last he heard of the woman, she had returned to the folds of the Eurasian Federation and took up some unknown position within the Federation's government.

“It was initially dismissed by senior officials,” the young guardsman continued, “as an attempt to rile up Orb's discontented. However, analysis came in yesterday from those who had been working the data. The timing, delivery, and current political climate lent some credence to the threat – hence the perimeter set. It was only this morning, a half-hour before the Chief Representative was killed, that we received further analysis that pointed to an even greater threat than just the Chief Representative's life. The three of you, along with your families, were also targeted.”

“The analysts thought but could not wholly confirm, that this particular date was chosen because of the close association that all of you have with former Chief Representative Attha,” Ling spoke up. “They believed that this is an attempt by a disaffected citizens of Orb to instigate a civil war within the country, and blame it on the Eurasian Federation.”

“Is that why your suspicions about the assassin have lent a bias towards a Coordinator carrying out the actions against Chief Representative Seiran?” Lacus asked.

“Ma'am,” Barton spoke up. “I mean no disrespect towards all of you, but I saw the assassination happen with my own eyes as I was carrying the data to the Archangel. I have never seen sniper bullets from a single point of attack move that fast into an area so big. Even our best marksmen could not pinpoint and take down the assassin.”

“Then if I may surmise that the reason why a radio silence is being maintained, and the 'attempt to locate' is still in effect is because there are some who believe that these disaffected people and this assassin are searching for their other targets? Or that the protocol for communication is broken in this instance because the assassin may be listening in?” Lacus asked. Both Ling and Barton nodded in affirmation to Lacus's question.

“We believe that it may possibly be a guardsman,” Kleinmann stated. “One who knows the protocols for such an event.”

“Then how can you be sure what you received as intelligence and the assessment from the analysts are true?” Athrun asked, frowning.

The rigorous testing, training, and mental fitness to become a guardsman was tougher than what even Orb military personnel had to go through. One did not lightly apply to such a position unless they were ready to dedicate their entire lives to serving in such a force. Very few were even allowed to retire or take other positions within Orb, such as Ling and her transfer to the Archangel. They were expected to serve until they were killed in the line of duty or crippled from old age. To have one assassin take down nearly the entire inner government of Orb required exceptional skills and knowledge of just how Orb operated – and the ability to pass a daily polygraph test.

As Cagalli's personal bodyguard, he had managed to skip all of that. He had been well aware that his sudden appearance as a personal bodyguard all those years ago had caused some discontent, but that had disappeared when he had 'proven' himself in the first attempt on Cagalli's life. In the years he had served as his love's bodyguard, he had witnessed just how difficult it was to pass the exams before being admitted into the guardsmen ranks. As difficult as it was, becoming a guardsman was a point of pride within Orb's population – it was a celebrated position.

“We don't,” Kleinmann said, folding her hands together for a moment before unfolding them and gesturing to Ling and the young guardsmen. “Now you know what we and all other guardsmen and military officials were told. Here's what we suspect: knowing what the day signified to all of you, I managed to secure this particular checkpoint as soon as the sirens started. While I don't doubt the authenticity of the sirens, I doubt the loyalty of the majority of the guardsmen. That's why this checkpoint is staffed with people I personally picked, whom I know are loyal to me. It's a coup d'etat out there, Mr. Zala, Ms. Clyne, and Mr. Yamato. By whom, even I don't know.”

She paused for a moment before saying, “Our goal is to get the three of you, and your families if possible, to safety. To the Archangel and on to Heliopolis II.”

“But--” Lacus began, horror gracing her face that nearly matched the look on Kira's face.

“You won't be able to calm the people, Lacus,” Athrun said, shaking his head slightly, knowing and understanding exactly what Kleinmann was saying.

Though it pained him to say it, he knew that Kira and Lacus, as politically influential as they were, did not live in the same world – per se – as ordinary citizens of Orb. In another life, perhaps they would have – had they stayed on Earth, but Athrun and his children had lived in the reality of terrestrial Orb, after Cagalli had been killed.

Tensions between Coordinators and Naturals within Orb had never been higher as they had been just before the technopaths had launched their attack on the Junius 7 Memorial. The facade that Orb was a neutral country that welcomed both Naturals and Coordinators within their borders was still true, but the tolerance between the two had grown jagged since Seiran had taken power all those years ago.

It didn't help that they were only six months removed from the end of the technopath war, and still recovering from the pandemic virus that had been inflicted by the technopaths. Athrun had surmised that it was only a matter of time before some skirmish would blow up into a political situation within Orb. But never in his life did he dream that the assassination of Chief Representative Seiran would be the catalyst.

“This has been growing for a long time,” he continued. He hated to say what he was about to be said, but he had to. He had to make Kira and Lacus understand that the idealism they lived in, on Heliopolis II, was only a dream. They had all fallen off the edge of that cliff, and climbing back up would be almost impossible now. “I'm sorry, but both of you have been away for far too long. Orb isn't what it used to be. It hasn't been for a while.”

“Respectfully, that doesn't mean we still can't make it the way it was meant to be, sir,” Barton quietly spoke up.

“You're right,” Kira stated, nodding as Athrun caught a strange glint within his friend's eyes. “If Orb falls, then war between Coordinators and Naturals will truly begin again, virus not withstanding. But we can't all go to Heliopolis II—”

“Mr. Yamato, you can't be thinking--” Kleinmann began, protesting.

“Kira, you and Lacus should go--” Athrun began, realizing what exactly Kira was planning to do, as it was the same thing that had popped into his mind at probably the same time. As much as they were two peas in a pod, Athrun considered himself a little more skilled in dealing with an assassination threat against his life. Kira – while he was a very talented mobile suit pilot; Kira was no soldier.

“No--” Kira started, but did not get to finish his statement as not a second later, a whistling sound pierced the air. The world around them was suddenly enveloped in explosive, heat-searing flames.

* * *

On the Junk Guild-Morgenroete Space Station...

 

“Hey, kid.”

Nicolai looked up from the diagnostics report on the latest upgrades Vanguard had been given and demonstrated in its first deployment with the Junk Guild's mobile suits. Lowe Guele, pilot of the old Red Frame Astray, had stopped in front of him, floating a decimeter or so off the walkway. A sudden squeal of happiness down on the main hangar bay of the station briefly diverted the old veteran's attention and words as he saw Guele glance over to his right.

He too followed the pilot's gaze to see Inga leaping out of the hatch from the shuttle docked to one of the station's port. Her weightless leap into the arms of her boyfriend, Yuki, sent both of them floating across the vast bay. Fortunately, neither of them looked to be careening into mechanics or the various mobile suits, mobile armors, and automatons littered in the bay.

“Why she chose to visit him here instead of him visiting her on Earth is beyond me,” he heard Guele murmur, before focusing his attention back on him. Nicolai lowered his data pad as Guele asked, “You doing okay?”

He silently nodded. While Guele was nominal commander of the joint station, the pilot wasn't often present. Guele normally went out with the salvage teams, preferring to help direct and gather whatever they were trying to haul for the days or week. Command of the station then fell to whoever was the more senior person from Morgenroete at that time – which was usually Erica Simmons or Athrun, his father.

With his father down on Earth because of this particular day, it was busy, but quiet. He was grateful that his father had not pressured him to accompany him down to Earth today. He had his own way of mourning the loss of his mother, as did Yuki for his aunt – though in all honesty, Nicolai was glad that Inga was here. There was at least another person both he and Yuki could talk to about their harrowing journey to C.E. 73 last year – and for the memories that came with it. Nicolai had found that talking about his mother to Yuki, especially his impressions from C.E. 73 seemed to ease the ache.

“If you need to talk, kid--” Guele began, but did not get to finish his statement when both Yuki and Inga suddenly rocketed up to the walkway Nicolai and Guele were at.

“Seiran has been assassinated!” Yuki blurted out.

“What?!” Guele stated as Nicolai felt his blood drain from his face. It seemed that Yuki's words had also been heard by those in the vicinity, including Erica Simmons, who immediately floated over.

“Here, sir, ma'am,” Inga said, holding out the tiny, heavily encrypted communication device that was strapped to the underside of her right wrist. It was similar to a device that Nicolai remembered seeing on several Eurasian Federation members, during the conflict with the technopaths. He had not been aware that Inga had such a device, and wondered if she had slipped into the folds of the secretive government as her mother and father had been in.

There was one sentence scrolling along the screen: [Seiran assassinated, threat not neutralized, get Y/N to safe haven H2.]

“This is from my mother,” Inga stated without any prompting.

“Safe haven H2? Y/N?” Guele questioned, looking as if he wanted to press for details on why exactly he should believe Inga and the message, but decided not to. Instead, there was a grim look on Guele's face, and the settling for trusting Inga's words – after all, she was also known as the pilot of OMNI's lauded Silverbird. Simmons had done the same, though she looked a lot more concerned than Guele did – Morgenroete still had a stake in terrestrial Orb politics.

Had Nicolai not known who exactly was Inga's mother and the role she played during the war and after it, he too, would have been questioning the authenticity of the message. However, he knew all too well what exactly Inga's mother was: a Janissary in the service of the Eurasian Federation.

Janissaries were an elite soldier group, much like the PLANTs' FAITH members. He knew that it was only because his father, Kira, Lacus, along with various members of the Janissaries had independently monitored various areas in the years of peace after the Bloody Valentine War, that they had managed to win the war against the technopaths. But only after so much had been sacrificed and destroyed.

“Heliopolis II?” he guessed, frowning. “Does your mother mean Y/N as in me and Yuki?”

It was the most logical thing he could come up with, even though it sounded absolutely arrogant and self-absorbed. His father, along with Kira and Lacus, had shielded him, Lenore, and Yuki from many threats against their lives when they had been growing up. Nicolai had not realized the extent of such shielding that the three had done after Cagalli had been killed, until he and the others had gone back to C.E. 73.

He knew that back when Seiran had attempted to claim him by blood four years ago, he had lashed out at his father for not revealing who he really was. It was an incredibly idiotic thing to do in hindsight, for he now knew just how dangerous life had been and still was for his father, uncle, and aunt. At the thought of Seiran though, his mind sobered slightly – he had an intense hatred for the Chief Representative, but the man certainly did not deserve to die.

“Yuki, Nicolai,” Simmons suddenly spoke up, startling him out of his brief thoughts. “Take Vanguard and load it into Transport Three now. It's not safe for either of you here. Go with them Lieutenant Aurelia, and get them to Heliopolis II.”

“Ma'am?” he questioned, blinking in surprise.

“I'll get a mobile suit guard detail together, Erica,” Guele said at the same time.

“But, sir--” he began, openly frowning.

“But nothing, Attha!” the old veteran said, nearly shouting his words. “Do it, and go! Don't make me have to tell either of your fathers that I let someone assassinate either of you, because of the Junk Guild's incompetence in protecting one of their own!”

“Yes, sir,” he heard Yuki say before silently nodding at Simmons. He felt his cousin tug at his sleeve a moment later.

Reluctantly, he left with Yuki and Inga, even though he did not want to obey Simmons or Guele's orders. Was this what it had been like for his mother every single time there had been an attempt on her life? He knew that he would never receive an answer, but he knew one thing – he hated it. All he wanted to do was live a quiet and peaceful life. He never wanted to be born into these circumstances.

* * *

C.E. 83, Orb, Earth – February 8th...

 

Cagalli couldn't help but laugh a little as the children automatically arranged themselves from eldest to youngest in a row as her son, Nicolai, attempted to do something of the sort to have them standing in front of her. At seven years of age, he was starting to become a little bossy, especially when there were other children besides Cari, around. Whether it was for a small performance of sorts, she didn't know, for the next moment, Cari harrumphed and immediately sat down onto the carpet.

The young boy next to her, three-year-old Daneel Barton, blinked in confusion, looking over towards Nicolai before deciding to follow Cari's lead. She saw Nicolai's face fall in annoyance as he stepped out of the line and attempted to get both Cari and Daneel to stand up.

Even though she knew that there was more to discuss between herself, Yuuna, and one of her secretaries, Leslie, the father of little Daneel, the sight of the children attempting to put on a small show of sorts for them was adorable. There was also a hint of a smile on Yuuna's face, something that she had never seen her husband express whenever her children were present. It gave her hope that perhaps after all of these years, he was finally starting to accept the circumstances that governed her and the family that she and Athrun had created.

It was rare, for her to be relatively alone with her son and daughter – even rarer that she had chosen to take the day off, feeling a little under the weather. She had no fever, but after spending the morning sleeping and resting, she now felt stronger to join Yuuna and Leslie in their discussion. The discussion was about what was to happen on the newly completed Junius 7 Memorial Station on the anniversary of the Bloody Valentine. Athrun was currently on the Memorial Station, going over security details with other Orb guardsmen, hence his absence by her side.

Before she reluctantly shooed the children and their attempt to showcase whatever they were going to do, so that they could get back to work, there was a knock on the door to the sunroom of her mansion. “Enter!” she said, as all of their attention, including the children were briefly diverted.

She smiled as she saw one of her most talented and trusted guardsmen, Hikaru, enter, though it looked like there was a child following him. Hikaru was the other father of young Daneel, though she did not recognize the child that her guardsman had brought with him. The child had a mop of dark hair and eerily pale blue eyes, and looked to be about the same age as Lenore.

“Ah, so this is Andrew?” Leslie asked as Hikaru stood just off to the side with the young boy looking around the room with wide eyes. The three children had also stopped their antics and were curiously looking at the newest potential addition to their play group.

“Ma'am, sirs,” her guardsman said after a moment, inclining his head slightly in affirmation to Leslie's question. “If I may present my other son, Andrew Barton. His mother currently lives in the PLANTs and is busy with work. She asked me to take care of him for the week.” Hikaru then turned slightly towards the young boy, saying, “Andrew, this is Chief Representative Attha. That man sitting across from her is Representative Seiran. The man sitting in between them is Leslie.”

“Hello,” the boy shyly greeted.

“Hello,” Cagalli answered, smiling as she saw Cari huff and stand up from where she had been sitting and approach them. The boy noticed that her attention had strayed to behind him and turned.

“Come on,” Cari said, reaching out with a pudgy hand and grasping onto Andrew's right hand. “Let's go play hide-and-seek!”

The boy immediately brightened as all traces of uncertainty and shyness seemed to melt. As soon as the boy's father let go of his hand, Cari tugged at Andrew's hand and together the two of them ran off. Tottering after them was little Daneel, and with a defeated look about him, Cagalli saw her son also run off after the others.

“I'll go make sure that they're not going to run into trouble,” her guardsman stated with an amused look on his face and twinkle in his eyes.

“Thank you,” she answered, and a moment later, Hikaru left.

While there was plenty she, along with Yuuna and Leslie still had to discuss, she was grateful for the distraction, however short it was. Such distractions, even the ones she cherished from Athrun, were far too few and in between. Perhaps it was time to consider a less hectic life for both her and Athrun, along with their children. Maybe... just maybe she was ready to give up her titles and power so that she could live in the peaceful world that was finally settling.

* * *

C.E. 97, PLANT Colony: Aprilius 4...

 

Lenore breathed in deeply, inhaling the delicate scent of the lightly blossoming cherry trees and its heavy earthen smell of its bark. It was mixed in with the familiar scent of the man who had his head currently pillowed on her lap. While she sat upright with her legs stretched out before her, watching those out in the walking area of the park with some interest, Andrew had his eyes closed. He was lying not quite perpendicular to her outstretched legs, his head resting on her lap.

Feeling slightly mischievous, she reached out and ruffled his dark hair, causing his pale blue eyes to open as she saw the edges of his lips quirk up in amusement. Long before they had become teammates within the Joule Team, they had been classmates in training to become ZAFT soldiers. It was during that training that they had become close – even closer when Andrew had saved her from an assassination attempt.

A year ago, she would have perhaps used 'somewhat tender' to describe their relationship, since neither of them had verbally admitted their affection for each other. Their duties and the fact that they were serving in the same team prevented anything closer other than being there to support each other through the good times and bad.

However, since the end of the technopath war, there seemed to be a change in the air between them. Subtle glances at each other if they were alone in the corridors, even the occasional hand holding whenever they could get away with it – small things that rebelled in what Lenore had once considered improper while in uniform.

Today's off duty day for both of them had brought them here, into one of the more populous parks on Aprilius 4. Neither of them had said 'I love you' yet to each other, but Lenore didn't think it was really necessary. They were already lovers – and had been since they had met in training. The only problem was – would their parents approve of it?

That was the crux of it – the only reason why neither of them had gone as far to propose and get married, even though both of them were past the age of majority. Though Caridad Lenore Attha was technically 'dead', Lenore was well aware of the politics that governed her heritage as a noble of Orb. It was safe for her to say that since the revelation of her father still being alive, it would not take a genius to put two-and-two together to figure out that she was still alive as well. She had expected threats against her father's life to escalate after the end of the technopath's attempt to destabilize the peace.

She expected threats against her and her brother's life as well, and she did not want to burden Andrew with protective duties. It was already enough that she remembered just how enraged and desperate her father had looked back in C.E. 73, when her then not-yet-mother had nearly been killed by halon suppressant. She did not want Andrew to keep constantly looking towards their backs, in the same the way she had been doing since the assassination attempt on her life when she was sixteen.

The two, nearly three years that she had lived under the name of 'Lenore Yula' had given her some peace of mind, and a distantly affectionate relationship with Andrew, but now, she had to contend with reality. She didn't know if she could continue to live this half-life of a formerly dead woman, and allow Andrew to follow her down this path. She loved him, but she had a feeling that this was something similar to what her mother had to grapple with at the end of the Bloody Valentine War.

Her mother had been killed, leaving her father a half-broken man. All she remembered that day on her mother's funeral processional was her father slipping away into the crowds. She didn't see him for two years after that day, and when she did finally see him again, even her seven-year-old self had sensed that something fundamental had changed within him. She couldn't do that to Andrew if the inevitable came to pass. The Attha and Zala names she carried were too much of a burden; the legacies too fraught with enemies who would rise up at anytime.

Lenore's musings and Andrew's moment of rest were both interrupted with an insistent beep from the data pad that Andrew carried on his waist belt. She saw him blink wide awake in an instant and fished out the data pad. The angle he was holding it at didn't allow her to read the message sent, but his sudden sitting up a moment later alarmed her.

“We have to go now,” he stated, shoving the data pad back into its holster before taking her by the hands and half-hauling her up, as he hurriedly looked around. She knew that look – it was the same look she had seen countless of times during the time she had been hiding after the attempt on her life. He was looking for threats – her choice or not, it seemed that he had slipped into the duties of a bodyguard.

“What happened?” she questioned as the both hurried from the shade of the cherry tree and into the crowds.

Now was not the time to argue or protest, as she too was looking around – her instincts honed by battle and training alerting her to any immediate threats. The cheerful looks of civilians all around them were jarring to the roiling thoughts going through her mind. Nevertheless, neither of them shoved their way through the crowds and merely calmly but quickly made a beeline towards the nearest park exit.

“My mother sent a message,” she heard Andrew murmur in a low tone. “Seiran's been assassinated, and there's credible intelligence that the assassin or assassins are also after your family – including your uncle, aunt, and cousin.”

“Can't be coincidence with what today is,” she stated, pushing aside her worry and focused her thoughts on the immediate threat. The PLANTs were not safe for her or her father anymore – not if Andrew's mother, a Janissary of the Eurasian Federation, had deliberately sent that message. Her father, her uncle, and even her aunt were survivors – and even though they were currently on Earth, she would have to trust that they knew how to get to safety.

As soon as the two of them emerged from the park, Lenore immediately turned left and felt Andrew tug on her hand, having gone to the right. “Forget going to Canaver's office, Andrew,” she hissed, drawing him close as she continued to scan the rooftops of distant buildings and of the crowds around her. “I'm a big fucking target and I'm not going to get her killed as well!”

“You can't be serious, Lenore,” he answered, looking down at her. “The public shuttles are an even worse place to be in. Even if you managed to rent a private one, they'll have your name down on the ledger.” She saw him look back up and look around for a brief moment before saying, “I have a better idea. Let's litmus test Aprilius 4's security.”

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Lenore could not help but bark in laughter before impulsively kissing him. Pulling back, she shook her head, saying, “Honestly, you're taking a little too much from the book of my father's tricks of the trade, Andrew. But you're right. I'd rather be armed with mobile suits. Let's go.”

“Your father is alive, Lenore,” she heard him reassuringly say a few minutes later as they hurried to where the Hemingray was currently docked. “They're all still alive.”

As much as she tried to push the worry from her mind, she hoped that his words were true. Haumea help whomever killed what was left of her family – she was not going to show any mercy.

* * *

Orb, Earth...

 

The first thing Athrun felt as he clawed his way to consciousness was the heat – the familiar searing heat that accompanied any explosion and its resultant destruction of stuff around the point of impact. His ears were ringing, but he continue to make his way to full consciousness that culminated in him opening his eyes to see smoke and flames surrounding him. He could hear the distinct crackle of stuff popping and creaking from the fires. His eyes immediately watered with just how much smoke surrounded him, but with the breeze carrying it this way and that, he could at least see something in front of him.

Rolling over, pain lanced up and down his body, but as he slowly brought his hands in front of him, he could see a multitude of cuts on them. There was the trickle and sting of cuts on his face, and as he blinked away the tears from the smoke, he looked down at himself. Though his body hurt like hell, he could see nothing sticking out of him. His eyes blurred again as more smoke blew into the area.

Blearily looking elsewhere, he tried to reach out to see if Kira or Lacus was nearby, before painfully rolling up to his feet. He saw Kira lying a half-meter away from him, face down but starting to stir, and next to him was Lacus. Hurrying over to the two, Athrun reached out and gently turned Kira over as he blinked away the involuntary tears in his eyes as the smoke thickened again. He could see no visibly grievous wounds on his friend except for several shallow cuts that Kira had sustained.

“Kira,” he called out, his voice hoarse as he saw Kira blink and become aware of his surroundings.

Seeing that he was out of immediate danger, Athrun made his way over to Lacus, just as she too started to stir. Looking around, he saw Kleinmann beneath what was left of the table that she had been standing in front of, along with the young guardsman lying unconscious a meter away from her. Ling was near the guardsman, also unconscious.

As Kira came over, stumbling slightly, and helped him with Lacus, Athrun looked around again as another breeze thinned out the smoke enough for him to see a few meters all around them. Fires were ablaze all around them, and there were many dead members of the military around them. Wherever the point of impact had been from the missile that had landed in the area, he had to count his blessings that those in the tent were in the peripheral impact zone.

However, that breeze that had swept some of the smoke away also heralded the forward march of several shadows – five people. As soon as they appeared, bearing rifles that were pointed at him, Kira, and the stirring Lacus, Athrun knew that Kleinmann's intelligence assessment about the guardsmen were correct.

It was a rebellion – and the guardsmen were participating in it.

While he would have automatically gone for the gun that was still secured in his shoulder holster, he knew that he was still stunned and sluggish from the force of the explosion. There were five guardsmen, and while he was somewhat confident that he could take at least two of the guardsmen out, it was the other three who would kill them. He still had to try something—

Before he could move or even blink, three of the five guardsmen suddenly jerked to the side, toppling over as tiny spurts of blood seemed to emerge from the left side of their heads. The remaining two turned towards their right, just as a dark blur burst in from a densely smoke-filled area, leaping over some burning wreckage. Athrun saw the person immediately strike at the guardsmen, faster than he had seen anyone move before. All he saw was the glint of a knife and the spray of blood from both of the remaining guardsmen's necks being sliced, before the guardsmen flopped over dead.

The person stopped where he was, and during that moment of killing, Athrun had withdrawn his gun. He had also stepped in front of Kira and Lacus, shielding the two with his body as he sighted down and pointed his weapon at the new threat. Was this the assassin who had been sighted by many to have moved abnormally fast? If it was, then there was no doubt in Athrun's mind that the assassin was indeed a Coordinator.

Before he could fire his gun though, the Coordinator stated, “Put the fucking gun down, Zala. Didn't think you had hit your head on ground that hard to not be able to differentiate between ally and foe.”

“Canard?!” he heard Kira exclaim, but then heard him cough as the smoke briefly overwhelmed him.

As another breeze cleared the smoke patch that had built up for a moment, and also revealed the identity of the the one who had killed the five guardsmen. Athrun had never seen Canard Pars's face before, for the man had been constantly hiding under a polarized helmet during the conflict with the technopaths. Though considering that the man was Kira's older brother, he did expect Pars to look similar to Kira. What he didn't expect was that at the moment, the man was not wearing a mask or facial covering of sorts.

Pars did look similar to Kira, but only because the two had the same ethereal violet colored eyes. The pilot of Hyperion had jet-black hair that was almost as long as he was tall, tied back into a queue. Athrun lowered his gun, but did not holster it as he glanced back for a moment to see that Lacus was looking a little more awake and alert, but slightly out of it. He could only assume that she was suffering from a bad concussion.

“What are you doing here, Canard?” he heard Kira ask as he stepped back and took one side of Lacus, while Kira took the other and helped her up.

“Well, it certainly wasn't to save all of your asses,” Pars answered, as Athrun saw him sheathe the bloody knife before slinging rifle he had around him forward again. The man casually twirled the rifle for a moment – which Athrun took as a somewhat comforting sign that there was no significant threats nearby. He was, however, just a little annoyed that Pars was not helping Kleinmann, Ling, or Barton up. Giving Kira a wordless glance, he saw him shift his weight and a moment later, Athrun let Lacus go.

“Eurasia hired me to track down a particular assassin in Orb. Apparently, they failed to tell me that there's more than one though, and that the fucking Orb guardsmen are allied with the one I was hired to track and kill,” the man continued to say, as Athrun crouched down to slide the table off of Kleinmann. He also saw that both Ling and the young guardsman were stirring.

“Seiran's dead,” he bluntly stated before Kira could get a word in, briefly looking up before looking back down and gingerly touching the side of Kleinmann's neck. There was still a pulse – strong and steady one, but it looked as if she was concussed and wouldn't be waking up anytime soon. “Was Seiran's assassin the one you were hired to kill?” he asked, standing back up.

“No,” Pars answered. “It's the orchestrator behind this entire shitshow that I've been hired to kill. He's still somewhere in Orb, making sure this chaos lasts.”

“He?” Athrun questioned, narrowing his eyes slightly. He didn't like the look that the man was giving him – as if assessing if he was threat or trustworthy.

“Your father, Zala,” the man stated. “Or more specifically, the clone of your father.”

“What?” he hissed.

“You really didn't fucking think that even after L4 was destroyed, that this entire clone thing went away, did you?” Pars asked in a caustic, sarcastic tone. “Korsakoff told me about what the FAITH team found on Nyabrius 13 – access to the genetic profiles of the former Chairpersons and Council members who sat in session during the war. She's the one who first found intelligence and evidence that the clone of Patrick Zala was alive and active.”

“The Eurasian Federation's shared intelligence,” he muttered, his free hand balling into a fist as ice-cold anger filled him. His memories of his father had been both good and bad, but he understood all to well that the world thought of his father as a complete monster. It was what Patrick Zala had died as – the one who fired Genesis three times, with the third nearly destroying Earth. “Do you have a tracker on him or a way to find him on the island – assuming that he hasn't even jumped to the other islands yet?”

“No,” Pars stated. “I'm just going where the chaos is thickest. There's a kill order on your heads, and I've assumed that he's already wanting to personally kill the three of you – you especially, Zala. I thought he'd be here already, but he sent five guardsmen instead.”

He could sense that Pars was not exactly telling him everything, but he ignored it for now. Before he could propose the idea of him and Pars working together to take down at least one threat against his, Kira's, and Lacus's lives, the sound of rotors and of jet engines hovering high above in the air pierced the noise of crackling fires. Looking up he saw two skygraspers and a heavily armored helicopter hovering near where they were. Though they bore the insignia of Orb's military, their color schemes were anything but standard Orb colors – they were from the Archangel.

The evacuation helicopter landed, as Athrun could only assume that Captain Ramius had been in touch with Ling and knew of the situation. Using the missile impact, Ramius probably figured out where they were – which meant that someone else in the checkpoint had told those trying to kill them where they were there as well. There was a traitor in Kleinmann's ranks – and he didn't know if that traitor was alive or dead.

A few of Archangel's crew members, hurried into their area, while a few more spread out, trying to see if there were other survivors at the checkpoint. Athrun stepped back as the crew members gingerly loaded Kleinmann onto a stretcher. Waving away one of them who was trying to urge him towards the evacuation point, he holstered his gun and snatched up a rifle that was lying near the remnants of a half-broken jeep that had killed at least two soldiers.

Stepping up next to Pars, he briefly checked the magazine within the rifle, saying, “You're going to need bait to lure that man out, Pars.”

The man gave him a mirthless smile, but Athrun took some comfort in the fact that Pars said nothing in response and was most likely of the same mindset as he was. He was not going to run away – not when he was able to still fight. Slamming the cartridge back up into the rifle, he saw a couple of more personnel help the concussed, addled, and injured Ling and Barton to the helicopter.

Two more of Archangel's personnel appeared from the far side, carrying a stretcher in between them with a civilian woman and young girl lying on it. He saw one of personnel was shaking her head vigorously, indicating that they could not find anymore immediate survivors. Athrun tightened his grip on the rifle – just how many civilians had been killed, along with soldiers, in that one missile strike? How many lives had been lost in a madman's attempt to kill them for whatever reason he could not fathom yet?

During the latter half of war he knew that his father had developed an intense hatred for Naturals, but this... killing Seiran and causing wanton destruction – this was not what he knew of his father at all. There had been a precision and decisiveness to his father's decision, even when firing Genesis.

This clone of his father – was twisted, much like the clone of his mother had been, even if she had 'rebelled' against what Hadrian and the others had been doing and gave them the cure to the virus. Rebellion or not, he knew that killing the clone would not bring immediate peace. Regardless of what they did, the tension between Coordinators and Naturals in Orb had reached a melting point. The clone of his father had already won in a sense.

Now, he needed to stop the clone from furthering the chaos.

Snapping out of his thoughts, Athrun saw Kira urge Lacus to get into helicopter before unexpectedly slamming the door close. He saw a flash of despair cross Lacus's expression as she peered out of the window, realizing that both of them were not going with her. Before she could attempt to get out of armored helicopter though, Kira thumped the side of it twice to indicate to the pilot that it should leave.

“I'm coming with the two of you,” Kira stated his words barely heard by either him or Pars, as the helicopter lifted off to join its skygrasper escorts.

As much as he was greatly concerned about Kira's safety, Athrun knew that it was better this way, and did not attempt to dissuade his friend. Neither it seemed, did Pars, though he did notice the older man giving Kira a shrewd look before shrugging and turning away. It was now up to him and Kira to make sure that Lacus and the others making their way to the Archangel got off of the planet. Heliopolis II had now became the last haven for those who wanted nothing to do with the civil war that had exploded in Orb.

“Let's go,” he heard Pars curtly state a moment later.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 2: The Waning Light

C.E. 73, Debris Belt – November 13th...

 

“... Freedom is under the control of the Three Ship Alliance...”

Canard tuned out the carefully and deliberately worded excuse that the Pink Princess was delivering to the media. Not that he didn't respect Lacus Clyne – he really had no opinion about her, other than she was as whip-smart and silver-tongued as the rumors had stated. Instead, he concentrated on observing every other person standing around Clyne. They seemed far more interesting than the Pink Princess, who looked to be inheriting the mantel of a respected negotiator from Reverend Malchio.

The young man standing next to Clyne, with brown hair and unusually colored eyes of violet that looked a tad too wide to portray the supposed innocence he was trying to project – Canard knew who he was. It was only a few years ago that he looked almost the same, albeit that his hair was much darker than his 'younger brother'.

Two years ago, he would have given everything to have fought the pilot of Freedom – to defeat Kira Yamato and finally claim the title of 'Ultimate Coordinator'. But that was two years ago; two years of a horrendous war that had left millions dead by his and many others' hands – including those standing in front of the press at the moment, trying to explain their actions.

Now, he really had no sympathy for his 'brother', standing next to Clyne, trying to explain to the world media why the hell Freedom was rebuilt. The initial story behind the unexpected appearance of the infamous mobile suit in the skies of Orb had piqued his interest. At the moment though, he was a little annoyed that the current crop of correspondents chose not to press upon who had attacked and tried to kill both Orb's leader and the Pink Princess. That particular incident in the overall happenings in Orb was far more interesting than a rebuilt, nuclear-powered mobile suit.

'You know you can always hack into their databases, just like you've always done, Canard. If I remember correctly, the last time you took a peek into the East Asian Republic, you found a few interesting information.'

“Still don't approve of my methods?” he asked, grinning as he briefly looked away from the television to see Prayer enter, carrying a small tray that had two mugs with some piping fresh coffee in them.

The latest shipment that Lowe Guele had bartered with, with various countries, had yielded a rather nice trade for several pounds of freshly harvested and roasted coffee beans – among other things. If there was only one thing that Canard was glad of that happened in the damn war – it was the fact that South America finally won their freedom. Trade prices for coffee beans and other exports from the continent had dropped from the iron-fisted pricing scheme that the Atlantic Federation had imposed. It made acquiring coffee – the lifeblood of the entire Junk Guild – so much easier.

However, knowing that Prayer was still mentally connected to his mind, preferring to speak this way to him whenever they were alone, he waited until the mugs were set down before gently retorting, 'If I remember correctly, you were rather physically appreciative about some of the things I discovered as a result of the hack.'

Prayer's cheeks colored slightly as he took a seat next to him, though the intimate mood between them was depressed as Canard saw him withdraw a bottle containing blue-white pills and place it on the coffee table. He felt the mental brush of apology from him and accepted it – neither of them needed to remind each other on just how difficult it was to find and create a cure for a clone such as Prayer.

It had also been two years since Canard had returned from combing through Mendel. Yet even after he had extracted every drop of information, he had not gotten anywhere close to creating a cure for the rapid aging of Prayer with the data Dr. Hibiki had left behind.

Returning his attention to the news conference for a brief moment as he picked up his mug and sipped it, he focused his attention on the young leader of Orb standing slightly behind and to the other side of the Pink Princess and the pilot of Freedom. Cagalli Yula Attha – adopted daughter of Uzumi Nara Attha, Lion of Orb. Though Canard knew that she too was technically a product of Hibiki's demonic Mendel Project, he was quite sure that his 'brother' never told her about it. He personally wouldn't have – she was a Natural, and thus did not need to concern herself with the title of Ultimate Coordinator.

At the moment though, he found her stance on the entire thing quite interesting – she was holding herself much like some of the nobles he remembered seeing in the Eurasian Federation. Well... before they were being shot at by ZAFT. There was a strength he saw around her, bolstered by the fact that her closest friends were Kira Yamato and Lacus Clyne. Yet leaders were almost always bolstered by a pillar of three, not just two. A triangle that made sure the pyramid point they raised had a stable base. He briefly wondered if the personal bodyguard that Attha kept close to her – heavily rumored to be her lover as well – made that third pillar.

Mentally shrugging at that thought, he placed his mug back down and reached over to drag the laptop that had been sitting on the side of the table over. Activating it, he opened a few terminals and began typing. Roaming around the specific network that he had slipped into, he peeked into a few corners, until he found a digital tunnel that suited him perfectly. The edges of his lips quirked up slightly as he dove in.

He had to be incredibly careful when it came to poking around Orb's networks – this was the only country on Earth who had an adequate population of Coordinators able to detect his intrusion and stop him. The last time he had gotten through and into the secured areas, he had almost been caught – not having enough time to divert his intrusion through and onto the Atlantic Federation networks. However, at this moment, there was a certain Representative who was looking through some sensitive details, which would give him the cover to go poke and explore using a copy of the Representative's IP address.

Making his way into the areas that this Representative had access to, the quirk of his lips suddenly drooped as he read through the report that Colonel Ledonil Kisaka had submitted to Attha. ZAFT and OMNI had built new mobile suits, yet the OMNI pilot of that new suit had attacked and tried to abduct the Pink Princess... not the leader of Orb. Attha was a far more valuable target to abduct, since Clyne had virtually no affiliation with the PLANTs anymore, and was only known as the one who instigated the Three Ship Alliance.

Why had the OMNI pilot gone after a virtually useless target? Was OMNI actually trying to restart the war, or was this done by a rogue faction – possibly Blue Cosmos? Either way, targeting Clyne was idiotic if the faction was trying to restart the war. The PLANTs had washed their hands of her and the crew of the Eternal.

Withdrawing his presence after finding no other concrete or useful information, he fired up another terminal. As the cursor blinked, he hesitated in typing the certain commands that he could execute. It would easily bring him into a Eurasian Federation database that had been a treasure trove when he had last used it, but he had not touched this particular database or the commands to execute it since before the end of the war. He knew that there was a good chance that he would not be detected if he attempted to infiltrate the database, but...

'Perhaps you should consider the idiom: to let sleeping dogs lie, Canard,' he heard the gentle voice of Prayer in his mind, just as Prayer's comforting hand landed on his right hand. 'Your warning to them after you returned from Mendel should suffice. Let the peacekeepers do their job. If they need you, they'll call you.'

Silently nodding, he closed the terminal and looked back up at the news conference. As tempted as he was to tunnel into the intelligence databases of his former employers within the Eurasian Federation, he really did not want to get suckered back into the elements of a cold war that seemed to be brewing. That life on the battlefield was over – had been over for two years. He had made his peace with his own demons, and he had a new life to live and explore with the one whom he loved and had saved him.

Still, he could not help but take one last look at those on the screen and as his eyes focused on Kira Yamato, he muttered, “If Freedom was rebuilt, then Justice probably will be, even if its former pilot is dead. Why did someone go only after you, Clyne? Why not Attha and Yamato as well?”

* * *

C.E. 97, Orb, Earth...

 

Kira ducked into cover, just as a hail of bullets peppered the top of the thick concrete and steel structure where he had taken shelter. The structure had formerly belonged to a modern art statue that he could only imagine what it was supposed to depict. Someone had either lobbed grenades at it to topple it, or shot an RPG at the base of, but either way, it provided some temporary cover.

It was chaotic in the center of the city, where the grandiose structures, modeled after a mix of tall spires and of ancient termed Corinth designs, sat. The heart of Orb's government had turned into a war zone; debris, fire, and downed structures everywhere. Thick black smoke filled the skies, and so many were dead – including civilians unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire between guardsmen versus guardsmen, and members of the military. He had never thought things were this bad in Orb for there to even be a coup.

Even as despair sunk its way into his heart, it was his anger at the senseless attack that kept him going. These people, these clones knew no bounds, and he was determined to stop them once and for all. Stopping the Junius 7 Memorial attack, Heliopolis II invasion, and L4 didn't seem to deter them at all. He didn't know what it would take to make them stop fighting and trying to cause a war between Naturals and Coordinators to start again, but he was willing to do whatever was necessary.

This was where the chaos was thickest, and even though both he and Athrun had inadvertently began drawing fire towards their area from rebel forces while trying to get civilians out, neither of them or Canard had seen any sign of Patrick Zala. Of course, most of Kira's memories of Athrun's father was of an older man, but he could only assume that the clone of Patrick Zala, at around his mid-twenties, didn't look too different from what he remembered the man to look like.

“Admit it, Kira. You miss this sort of shit. That little tiny thrill in the back of your mind at just how close you are to the edge and sends your brain into overdrive. It makes everything around you clearer, more acute, and pulse-pounding. Instinct.”

Kira frowned, as a lull in the firefight answered Canard's words, kicking him out of his brief hopeless thoughts. Though it lasted only a second, it was still enough that he had to admit that there was the tiniest of the truth in his brother's words. It was difficult to describe what that feeling was, but the adrenaline rushing through him at just how close he was to the edge of life and death at the moment felt... refreshing... for the lack of a better word.

“I'd be lying if I said that it didn't affect me,” he finally admitted as he waited for another brief pause to pop out of cover and fire off two shots.

Two rebel soldiers who had been manning one of the larger artillery pieces stationed at the top of the steps to the main courthouse fell over, wounded. He knew that he could have done a kill shot, a precise one that would have made sure the rebels would not recover. Yet even with his anger at what was happening to his homeland, he knew that the rebels were being manipulated. He wanted to shout, wanted to say that all the rebels were being influenced by outside forces, but Athrun's stinging words to him and Lacus about being unable to calm the populace echoed in his thoughts again.

One side had to win, and the other to lose in order for the fighting to stop. There would be no catastrophic blow against either side this time, no Genesis, nuclear weapons, or asteroid drop. It was Natural versus Natural, and Coordinator versus Coordinator. This civil war had no sides in the genetics of things; just pure political chaos borne of a coup, because of just how tightly integrated Orb had become for Coordinators and Naturals.

There was a roaring rally from a section of the ruined capitol, as Kira looked over to see a surge of soldiers, along with a few mobile suits stomping in. At the forefront of the mobile suits was an old Astray model, and it immediately pointed its beam rifle at those holed up in front of the courthouse. Those soldiers immediately scattered, trying to get as far away as they could from the Astray.

However, time seemed to slow down for him as he saw the Astray suddenly pull its weapon back and point it down, right at its allies on the ground, and fired. The sounds of the battle came rushing back across his ears as the rallying cheers suddenly became screams of horror.

“That has to be him!” he heard Canard shout, though without warning the betraying Astray suddenly exploded into a fiery ball of molten parts that flew everywhere. People around the Astray, and even some of its former allied mobile suits were caught in the conflagration that had engulfed the area.

Kira rolled out of the way, just as he saw a mass of stuff covered in flames coming right at where he had been temporarily hiding. Fortunately, he had caught a glimpse of Canard already in the midst of getting up and dodging the heat-searing debris. Before he even completed his roll, he was already scrambling up, with Athrun having grabbed his arm to help haul him to his feet.

Following Canard and Athrun, it didn't matter now that they were in the open – almost everyone in the area who had been out in the open had been flattened to the ground, stunned or killed by the force of the Astray's self-destruction. Kira wanted to stop, wanted to help those on the ground back up and to try to get them to safety, but he couldn't – he dared not to. He had told his brother that he was going to help, and that meant not falling behind.

His despairing thoughts were quickly dashed as in the warped air being altered by just how hot everything around them were, he thought he saw a shadow of a figure through the thick, acrid smoke jump to the ground and begin running. “He's mine!” he heard Athrun growl and saw him put on a burst of speed, heedless of any danger or of the debris around them.

Kira's lungs burned – the air he was breathing was chokingly thick with smoke – as he too, tried to run faster. While he knew that Athrun had always been able to beat him whenever they had been competitively running in school, he had always been able to keep pace behind him. Somehow, at this very moment, Athrun was pulling away from both him and Canard – but only so – as they chased down the figure whom he hoped was the clone of Patrick Zala.

Dashing clear of the debris and of the chaotic flames a few minutes later, he could clearly see that their quarry was a man, but somehow, that man was running faster than any of them. He saw the man glance back for just a moment, as if assessing the three of them and the threat they posed, before suddenly leaping into an abandoned car on the side of one of the roads. Kira didn't need to be close to confirm that the man was indeed a clone of Patrick Zala – there were distinct features that he remembered Athrun's father to have, even at a distance's assessment.

Ahead, Athrun had immediately jumped into an abandoned convertible, dumping his rifle into the back. Just as Canard slid into the front seat, Kira leapt and slid from the boot of the car and into the back seat. He saw Athrun jam a combat knife into the ignition switch of car and force it to start with a turn of his wrist. The car that the clone had commandeered peeled away, just as Athrun wrenched the sports car out from where it had been left in the middle of the road.

There was no gradual acceleration, as Kira was used to the racing style that Athrun drove at for fun – the acceleration was sudden and roaring. He saw Canard lean out of the side and bring his rifle to bear. He wasn't sure if it was just pure luck, or something else, but their quarry up ahead suddenly swerved, just as Canard fired a burst.

The shot missed. As Canard tried to shoot and shatter the windows of the car, hoping that a stray bullet would be able to make it in there and kill the clone, the clone's car swerved yet again.

He heard Canard curse, but something out of the corner of his eyes caught Kira's attention. He turned and brought his rifle up to bear, just as he saw and heard the squeals of multiple tyres being dragged against their will. Several military jeeps appeared from the side streets as they barreled up the ramp and onto the freeway.

“We've got company!” he shouted as he aimed as best as he could, towards the closest of the jeeps full of guardsmen with their rifles pointed at them.

Squeezing the trigger, he sent several bursts of bullets forth, trying to target the radiator grille and engine of the nearest jeeps. He knew that he was no where near Canard or Athrun's skills in rifling when it came to wildly moving targets, hence his targeting of the engine. Tracking the weaving of one of the jeeps as best as he could with the air whistling past him, along with the sudden jerking movements of Athrun's driving, he fired again and managed to get the closest jeep's engine to explode.

That was not enough as the ping of bullets and the staccato of gunfire caused him to duck, just as Athrun swerved again to make it more difficult for their pursuers to hit their exposed position. It was not enough, as bullet holes riddled a portion of the front windshield. Kira immediately popped out of cover again and fired at the grille of a couple of more jeeps.

His aim struck true, and just as their engines exploded, he heard the closer firing of a gun. Turning ever so slightly to see that Athrun had withdrawn then small gun he had holstered within his jacket, and fired several bullets into the front windshield. It was enough to shatter more of the glass, as Canard roughly kicked the entire thing out of its housing and began to fire once again at the vehicle they were pursuing.

A sudden acceleration of one of their pursuers in an attempt to pull up along side them, made Kira return his attention to the task at hand. His eyes immediately sought out the large front right wheel wells of the jeep, and before the jeep could fully pull up, he fired several bursts right at the area. The jeep's tyre exploded into shreds, sending that vehicle careening into others. A brief moment of regret gripped at his heart as he saw the three vehicles that the jeep had taken out explode and flip end-over-end behind them.

It was, however, enough to form a road block on the freeway as he saw the rest of their pursuers halt before they could crash into the pile of molten car parts strewn about. Their visages faded to specks in the distance as he took a look around, trying to make sure that no other vehicle, aerial or otherwise, were going to ambush them at the moment. He turned back to the front, but impossibly, the clone was already pulling away. He could see that Athrun was already pushing the car into the red, in sixth gear, but the clone's car was still steadily pulling away from them.

“Chip?” he asked, glancing towards their back to keep an eye out again. It was the only explanation he could come up with as to why they were falling behind. The clone of Patrick Zala must have been embedded with a neural chip as well, and could have manipulated something on the electronics of their car or his own.

“I hope you have backup, Pars,” he heard Athrun growl. “He's headed for Lockwell Technologies' facilities. That man is most likely after their newest mobile suit – Akatsuki.”

Without answering either his spoken or Athrun's unstated questions, he saw Canard pull out a device and said into it, “Meriol, I need you to prepare to destroy Orb's mass driver.”

“What?!” Kira's exclamation echoed at the same time he heard a tinny, female voice shout the same.

“Don't question it, just prepare to do it on my order,” he heard his brother state in a cold tone, directed at both the person he was talking to over the com device and to Kira. “The target is after a mobile suit. Pars, out.”

Before Canard could say anything to either of them, Athrun suddenly jerked the car to the left, taking a familiar-looking spur road towards a certain facility. “Morgenroete?” Kira asked. He was still in disbelief that someone, even a clone, would create so much chaos just to steal one mobile suit. Yet he sobered at that thought – ZAFT and OMNI had done exactly the same to Heliopolis and her citizens during the war.

“There are still two mobile suits left there,” he heard Athrun state. “We'll hold Akatsuki off as long as possible to let the civilians evacuate into space.”

“How are you sure that these mobile suits are still there?” Canard asked, just as they pulled off the spur and sped onto the main road that would lead them to the old defense contractor's facilities. With it virtually empty, it didn't take them long to get there.

“The overwatch skygrasper is on the far side, Pars,” Athrun stated as he halted the car in front of the old platform elevator that would take them down. Kira scrambled out, just as Athrun exited the vehicle and Canard took over the driver's seat. “Hangar number four. Code to get in is five-two-six-one-eight. It's ancient, but try to get as much data as you can on Akatsuki using the package in the OS. Kira and I will be right out with the mobile suits.”

Kira thought he saw his brother's hands tighten ever so slightly on the wheel, but he wasn't sure if it was a figment of his imagination. He could only imagine that with just how independently Canard operated, especially since this had been his op to carry out, someone else giving him orders was not appreciated. He could not fault his brother for that momentary resentment though – even when Athrun had already formulated a plan to stop the clone from escaping to space.

Canard's wordless acknowledgment of the order was to drive off in a squeal of tyres and deep revving of the engine. Kira glanced over at Athrun and without a word to each other, both of them hurried to the elevator. While it had been originally designed to bring a mobile suit slowly down to not jar or damage it, Athrun ripped open the panel near the stand and rewired a few things. Kira wisely gripped the sides of the wide elevator as not a moment later, he saw Athrun do the same before hitting the button on the top of the panel.

The elevator dropped like a stone, causing Kira's stomach to flip-flop with the sensation of free-falling. However, it didn't crash to the bottom as he had feared, but the stop was not gentle either. Still, he shook out the jarring sensation that came with such an abrupt landing and followed Athrun out.

Corridor after empty corridors they ran through the connected underground facility that was Morgenroete. Biometric sensors and keycard swipes that once worked to keep prying eyes out were no longer present, having been replaced by simply locked doors. Morgenroete was truly far removed from its heydays as the primary defense contractor in Orb.

Both he and Athrun shot at the locks whenever they needed to, until they finally got to a hangar bay door that was secured by keypad. It was the only place in this expansive underground facility that he could assume had power flowing through it. He saw Athrun quickly punch in an alpha-numeric code into the keypad. The sound of things grinding between the frame and door told Kira that this place had definitely been unused for quite a while. The massive hangar doors slid partially open, shaking dust and dirt down, before grinding to a halt and would not open any further.

As Kira stepped in, side-by-side with Athrun, the lights in the bay weakly flickered on. However, he halted in his steps forward as he saw exactly what mobile suits had been stored here. “Athrun... what the hell...” he began, but found himself at a complete loss of words.

Standing like silent sentinels in the night, were two mobile suits of the same exactly design and paint scheme – right down to the tiny dings that he remembered seeing on one particular mobile suit. He had thought that Orb had destroyed – no he had seen Orb destroy the mobile suit days after Cagalli had died. Strike Rouge had been her mobile suit, the one she had taken into combat countless of times, regardless of the danger posed to her and her position as leader of Orb. It was only fitting in memory of the Lioness of Orb's actions that her mobile suit be decommissioned and destroyed, never to rise again.

Strike Rouge One and Strike Rouge Two,” Athrun softly stated. “Piloted by Hikaru Barton and I, whenever Cagalli took Strike Rouge with her. If she ever went into combat, we made sure that the enemy never knew which of the three was her. After what happened with that asteroid in the Debris Belt all those years ago, it was the only way we could ensure that she was protected during battles.”

Kira blinked and gaped at the mobile suits, but it was Athrun's next words that snapped him out of his surprise as he heard him say, “I'll take SR One and you take SR Two. Access password to the OS is: Gemini.”

Squaring his mind and pushing his thoughts to the side, he knew that he could not linger on anymore questions or expect any answers. There was too much at stake and every second they remained underground was a step closer to more chaos being spread. “All right,” he stated.

* * *

Meanwhile, In LEO Space...

 

“This is for you, Ms. Clyne.”

Lacus looked over from where she was staring at the blue-white marble that was Earth to see mobile armor pilot, Hikaru Barton, holding out a headset. She gratefully took it, giving the pilot her thanks, and put it on. The chatter of many voices filled her ears as she realized that Archangel was not only in communication with the other ships that had made it out into space and to the rendezvous point from Orb, but also with Orb launch control.

Even though she knew that it was wishful thinking on her part, she wished that Kira and Athrun were on one of the evacuation ships that was about to launch. However, she knew that it was not to be – both of them were warriors dedicated to keeping the peace, whatever it took.

Despite the gentle nature of Kira, she knew that he could not stand the sight of needless fighting and bloodshed, and knew that it was one of the many reasons why he had remained in Orb. Athrun, ever the winter soldier even though he had publicly resigned from ZAFT, would do everything in his power to stop the chaos.

The two were birds of a feather, and she loved them both.

It was hard for her to not worry about either of them, but she drew on the strength of knowing that they would make sure to keep each other alive. She continued to listen to the pleas of the launch control personnel on the ground trying to broadcast a neutrality signal to stop both sides from trying to assault the mass driver. Occasionally, she glanced over to see Murrue's expression alternate between worried and grim.

The fleet that was amassing at this point was not enormous, but it would temporarily put a small strain on Heliopolis II's resources. However, most of those on the evacuation ships were children, elderly, and those who could not get to the outlier islands. A few underground shelters had been opened once the fighting had begun, but even the Archangel herself was carrying a lot more civilians than it had during the war. All of this had been borne out of an evacuation protocol that Chief Representative Seiran had drawn up a few years ago on the 20th anniversary of the Bloody Valentine.

“Haumea, what is that?!” one of the launch control personnel suddenly cried.

“I don't know,” another answered at the same time. “A new mobile suit?! One of our own?!”

“Hell no, our people are shooting at it! Where the hell did it come from?”

“Kaguya Base, this is Captain Ramius, report!” she heard Ramius bark.

“Ma'am,” another voice came over the channel a few seconds later, static in nature. “There's an enormous, golden-colored mobile suit approaching the mass driver... and we don't think it's one of ours—”

“Five Lancer-class mobile suits coming from the west! They don't look friendly!” another launch controller interrupted.

“We're not going to be able to get the rest of these ships launched—holy shit!” the first voice that began to describe the unusual-colored mobile suit stated, but didn't finish as her statement ended in an expletive.

Strike Rouge?!” someone else in the launch facility stated. “Two of them?!”

Strike Rouge One and Strike Rouge Two,” she heard Hikaru softly exclaim from beside her. She looked up at him to see that the stunned look on his face was slowly melting into a grimly confident one. She knew not the pilots, nor the reason why there were supposedly two Strike Rouges when she remembered Cagalli's mobile suit being destroyed, but she could guess as to who the two pilots were.

Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes, but she didn't know if they were for happiness or sadness. All she knew was that Kira and Athrun would defend the Kaguya Mass Driver to the best of their abilities. They would make sure that all of the evacuation shuttles launched.

* * *

Kaguya Mass Driver, Orb, Earth...

 

“Overwatch, do you copy?” Athrun stated into the com line that was keyed directly to the unique skygrasper that he hoped Pars had commandeered, and Kira's mobile suit. “This is SR One.”

Long ago, the overwatch skygrasper had been piloted by guardsman Patricia Ling, who fed both him and guardsman Hikaru Barton data on enemy forces. Now that he thought about the function of the skygrasper, who hung high in the sky, far and away from battle, it was most definitely a prototype to Vanguard's wide-field IFF system. The only difference was that it had been geared towards finding out enemy mobile suits and mobile armors' weaknesses.

“Copy,” the voice of Pars crackled through. “Reading both you and SR Two clearly over IFF. Akatsuki is making its way to the mass driver facility from the east. Can't get a clear reading on it yet – its phase-shift armor is a fucking reflective gold color. Suggest ambush tactics and beam weaponry. There's five Lancers headed towards the mass driver as well from the west, and they're not friendlies.”

SR Two, take care of the Lancers. Overwatch, tell launch control to send what they have equipped with rockets to space now, and evacuate everyone else to the peripheral islands. Then go help SR Two. We're going to have a lot more casualties if the civilians remain here and continue to use the mass driver,” he ordered.

Shunting more power into his mobile suit's engines, he put on a burst of speed in the Aile package that was attached to both Strike Rouge copies. Though the Lancer-class mobile suits were built by Windham Corporation after Morgenroete had lost out on the mobile suit defense contract rebid, they were essentially upgraded versions of the Astrays.

However, with five against the older Strike Rouge, he knew that they would have been difficult to defeat, if not for Overwatch's data feed. He wanted to go help Kira, but he also knew that with Pars unable to gather data on Akatsuki, the only way to get that data was to see what it was made of.

Acknowledgments from the other two crackled over the com line, though he left the line open as he flew in a wide arc around the skies. Even with the waning sun setting on the horizon, Pars was right, as he spotted Akatsuki. It was much larger than the usual size of a mobile suit – two or three times larger than the wingspan of Strike Freedom, as it lumbered across the eastern portion of the main island. It certainly was also an easily spotted target, with its brilliantly bright skin in phase-shift mode. It was also seemingly oblivious to the buildings it was crushing, and the missiles that were being fired at it from ground forces.

Pushing the throttles of his mobile suit to the fullest, he shot right in, and at the last second, withdrew and activated his beam sabre. Striking from right to left, he dragged his sabre across Akatsuki. Expecting a counter strike, he immediately spun away and faced the enormous mobile suit again. Far be it that he expected some carbon scoring to appear on the enemy mobile suit, he at least expected a visceral reaction. Yet Akatsuki didn't even seem to register his presence and continued to menacingly make its way towards the mass driver.

Worry and unease crawled up his stomach – there was only one reason that a mobile suit would ignore an attack, even though his attack probably seemed more gnat-like than anything else. Sheathing his beam sabre, he pulled out the beam rifle and squeezed the trigger. Five shots from his beam rifle didn't bounce off the reflective phase-shift armor as he had initially feared, but they were instead, absorbed into armor, with nothing changing at all – not even its forward momentum in the resultant explosions upon it. That unease in his stomach turned into pure dread.

“We have a problem,” he stated over the com channel to the other two, interrupting the data that Pars was feeding to SR Two. He pulled back as fast as he could, firing at one of the two Lancers left, blowing its left arm off at one of its weak spots – the shoulder joint. “Akatsuki is powered by a nuclear core. It may also have the same type of armor that protected Genesis.”

Silence answered his declaration, until it was Pars who broke that a few moments later with a highly appropriate expletive that coincided with the destruction of the two remaining Lancers. “There are three ships remaining on the launch platform, Athrun,” Kira quietly stated over the channel.

“Fifteen minutes until the Electra is in firing range,” he heard Pars state.

“Then that's how long the facility has to launch what they have and get clear,” he answered.

He didn't know exactly what the Electra was, but he could only assume that it was a ship of sorts that had borne Pars to Orb. Given that it probably carried the necessary armaments to destroy something as enormous and robust as a mass driver, he could only assume it was a destroyer-type of vessel. None of them had the alpha numeric code or activation keys that would trigger the charges set along the rails of the mass driver.

A squeal briefly tore over the channel as Pars keyed into another one connected to the launch facility and repeated what was just discussed. He could only imagine the disbelief that the launch crew had – fifteen minutes was definitely not enough. Not to mention that it was very dangerous to launch three vehicles one after the other without some time to make sure the greatly disturbed air cleared between launches. Athrun gritted his teeth – they had to buy those escaping more time while keeping themselves alive.

As his left thumb briefly hovered over the button that would eject the keypad to enable him to transform into something that was certainly not built into the original Strike Rouge, he knew that he could not press that button yet. SR One and SR Two may have been outwardly built to match the original, but each concealed tricks up their sleeves that made them completely different than their namesake.

What he unleashed upon inputting in the code into the keypad would reveal the ace up his sleeve, and possibly destroy more of Orb than he was willing to. He was also too close to the mass driver that the residual effects of the weapon would mess up critical launch systems. He needed to be in open water or miles of empty land to unleash the weapon hidden in SR One, but right now, ships bearing people surrounded the main island of Orb.

Keying a general frequency, he also set it to external speaker mode, stating, “Akatsuki, this is Athrun Zala. Stop where you are and approach no further.”

Even though he knew that he had just painted an enormous target on his own back, the response to his open declaration to the golden mobile suit was quicker than he had expected. Years of tightly honed reaction times saved him from being skewered by an unusually sickly-yellow beam that lanced out from Akatsuki. He stomped on the pedals and reversed the throttles, yanking his mobile suit far and away to the right of the mass driver.

The water behind where he had been hovering in front of gushed upwards from the unusual beam weaponry, but there was no time to pause and wonder. A staccato hail of the same yellow beams that looked almost like physical spikes, followed his every move as he maneuvered SR One this way and that. It took every ounce of concentration from him to move the mobile suit in the skies, knowing that it was definitely less maneuverable than modern mobile suits, and to keep himself from being blown into pieces.

He couldn't even put away his beam rifle or fire back at Akatsuki. Even as he soared high in the skies over the main island, rolling and dodging the lances, the seemingly anti-aircraft pattern that the enemy mobile suit unleashed kept him from approaching any closer. It didn't matter though – he had the mobile suit's attention.

It also looked like Kira also had Akatsuki's attention as well, as he saw the small speck of SR Two fly in as fast as it could and seemingly try to destroy the nuclear core of it. All mobile suits had one weakness point – the area where the battery or nuclear core was stored. Since they had no information on Akatsuki, Athrun knew that it was natural that Kira would use what he knew of his previous two nuclear-powered mobile suits to assume where the enemy mobile suit's core was.

A concentrated, extended purple beam suddenly lanced out from Akatsuki, causing Kira to break off his attack as Athrun heard him yelp over the com. While not a beam sabre, per se, it seemed more like the Meteor system's uninterrupted laser being swung wildly around, following Kira's dodging flight pattern. Coupled with the fact that he was still dodging the yellow spikes, the simultaneous attack on both him and Kira served to confirm that the mobile suit was operated by a neural-linked, enhanced Coordinator.

No Coordinator, not even the best of them, had the ability or attention span to follow, much less keep a frighteningly accurate firing solution on two different mobile suit vectors. Akatsuki was most definitely not a mobile suit, not in the traditional sense of the word and description – it was a mobile fortress. And it was being controlled by the clone of his father.

“Transports are clear. Personnel evacuated to underground shelters,” he heard Pars state over their linked frequency before tying into another one. “Electra, fire at will.”

“Copy, launching Torrington missiles. SR One, get the hell out of the way,” he heard a woman answer the order.

A flurry of missiles, lit up by the small flecks of metal reflected by the waning sunlight, headed straight towards where Athrun was currently hovering. He jammed the throttle to maximum, dragging the bead of golden lances from Akatsuki with him, as he saw the missiles sail over him. A few moments later, the tell-tale booms crackled across the skyscape that was swiftly followed by an even larger and deeper boom, signaling the collapse and destruction of the mass driver.

Akatsuki immediately stopped firing at both him and Kira as Athrun saw the mass driver partially collapse into the bay, sending waves rippling across and crashing onto the shore. While it was not fully destroyed, it was ruined enough that nothing launched at the moment would be able to reach orbital velocity. In another time, he would have dove in and attacked the mobile suit – nuclear powered or not – but considering that they had just encountered the most unusual of weaponry from the mobile suit, he stayed his hand.

Nevertheless, more opportunistic mobile armors and some ground forces seemingly allied on their side charged in. Their ineffectual fire at the enormous mobile suit seemed so insignificant, but a moment later, an even deeper, rumbling sound shattered the air. “Get clear!” he shouted into the general open frequency, just as he saw the engines on the back of Akatsuki begin to glow red.

Not a second later, the mobile suit's engines belched out plumes of smoke and fire as it rose from the ground. It was generating so much smoke and steam heat that Athrun couldn't see it – even when he switched to infrared sensors. Neither could Kira, as he heard him voice his frustration over the channel connected to him, Pars, and the support ship Electra. While they could potentially take their mobile suits into the steam heat and try to down Akatsuki, they themselves would not be able to see where an attack was coming from.

“I have eyes on it, SR One, SR Two. It looks like its trying to escape by ship,” he heard Pars crisply state over the other frequency a few minutes later.

Electra is on her way for an intercept,” the woman over the com stated.

“Negative on that, Meriol,” Pars answered. “It's already getting onto one and heading west.”

“Fucking hell, it's probably headed for Victoria Base!” the woman stated.

“Initiate pursuit – we'll catch up to you,” Pars said before a hiss over the channel indicated that the link between the three of them and the support ship was closed for the time being.

“It has engines, it has a nuclear core,” Athrun said as he saw a way point marker drop from Overwatch onto a place in the middle of the ocean. He could only assume that that was where the three of them would be flying to, to meet up with the Electra. “Why the hell isn't it powering itself across the ocean?”

“Shitty incomplete engineering?” Pars guessed, though there was a slight edge to his tone. “I know that Lockwell has built shit mobile suits before, but nothing like this.”

“I think those engines are rated for space, not for extended ground usage,” Kira spoke up as they cleared the steam clouds in the area and flew out into the bay. “They looked too small to sustain the weight of the mobile suit, and looked like they could gimbal a lot more than the usual main mobile suit engines. Akatsuki would be quite formidable in space.”

“Victoria Base is not going to believe that they're under a threat of a mobile fortress, especially not one from Orb,” Athrun stated as they saw a speck of a ship on the horizon, lowering the hulk of something into its belly. He could only presume that the hulk was Akatsuki, since the other ship just a few klicks ahead of where they were flying towards, was speeding in the same direction.

He could only presume the ship that hung above their way point marker was the Electra, as he heard Pars say, “Believe me, I know that. The channel hissed again as he saw the skygrasper begin to descend, while Pars said, “Meriol, get the Prime Minister on the horn.”

“What?!” the woman answered, spluttering. “I thought you said this was a merc op, Pars! We're getting fucking paid in cash by EF, not paying EF with military service again!”

“It's a merc op that turned military, Meriol,” Pars stated in a cold tone. “We don't have the firepower to match it, even with Hyperion. There's a fucking mobile fortress, powered by a nuclear reactor, and being piloted by a madman out there. You rather it fall into Africa's hands or God-fucking forbid, the Atlantic Federation?!”

“Canard!” Kira jumped in, angrily admonishing the man's vitriolically rude words.

Silence answered the harsh question, but a moment later, in a much calmer tone, Athrun heard Pars repeat, “Contact Stephanopolos, Meriol. Use the keyword 'Myrdin'. We're incoming for landing and will shortly be there to brief him.”

* * *

Western Eurasian Steppe, Eurasian Federation...

 

“Hmm,” Lenore hummed over the private channel she had open to Andrew, “it looks like they're finally sending out the welcome wagon.”

All non-essential functions had been shut down except for the private channel between them, and a IFF broadcast since their landing in the western area of the beautiful and vast Eurasian Steppe. Both she and Andrew had managed to take their respective mobile suits out from the Hemingray without protest from the mechanics – though that was mostly because of the excuse they had concocted.

As soon as they had cleared the PLANTs, Lenore had latched onto Andrew's mobile suit and flew them to the rebuilt Jachin Due fortress. There, the two of them had hijacked a mobile suit atmospheric lander and plowed their way to Earth in it.

“Two hours,” she heard Andrew murmur. “Not bad for a response time.”

“Looks like your mother got your sub-space message in the IFF broadcast as well,” she said, powering up just enough to allow her to zoom in on the lead vehicle that was headed towards them. There was a woman with jet black hair in the vehicle, and the same sharp eyes and facial features that Andrew also had, except not as angular as Andrew.

“Guess it's time to show ourselves,” she heard him state, and completely powered down her mobile suit.

Popping the hatch open, she stepped out and glanced over to see Andrew do the same. Both of them held their hands up in surrender, even though Lenore doubted that Andrew's mother, Yelena Korsakoff, would shoot them. It was more for the benefit of the others with Korsakoff that she and Andrew made sure that their non-aggression was true.

The vehicle and several others accompanying it stopped a few meters away from the feet of their mobile suits, as she saw Kosakoff raise a bullhorn and speak into it. “ZAFT pilots, please step away from your mobile suits and onto the ground.”

Both of them complied, and when they reached the ground, Korsakoff approached, though Lenore saw her wave some of the military forces that had accompanied her back. “What the hell are you doing here?” the woman asked in a no-nonsense tone, looking back and forth at both of them. “Not to mention, why the hell did you decide to come in ZAFT mobile suits?”

“Chief Representative Seiran was assassinated,” Lenore spoke up before Andrew could. She didn't want him making up an excuse, not when it felt like the truth was better in this case. “You sent that message to Andrew. I'm not going to sit on my butt while there's a threat against mine and my family's lives. Where is the threat originating from?”

Those piercing eyes of Korsakoff stared at her, but she did not flinch from the harshness of it. “Christ,” the woman said a moment later, sighing in exasperation, “you're almost as reckless as your father, Lieutenant Yula.” Lenore saw her shift her eyes from her to Andrew, as Korsakoff asked, “What's your excuse, Andrew? Are you and she really throwing away your careers in ZAFT for this madness? This is going to get back to the PLANTs--”

“You did the same, mother,” Andrew interrupted. “That's how you ended up with the Janissaries. You were dropped into this region, and allied yourself with factions. Inga told me what you did during the war. We're doing the same, because any type of intelligence that comes from Coordinator-intolerant EF and then passed onto Coordinator-tolerant Orb is very concerning. For the sake of the Alliance, ZAFT and the PLANTs do have a stake in this.”

“That message I sent was supposed to have you go find safe haven for the Lieutenant here, not run and drag her into danger,” Korsakoff answered. Lenore gave a start as she immediately balled her hands into fists, feeling greatly insulted. However, before either she or Andrew could say a word of protest, the woman continued, saying, “But I suppose that there is no turning back. Not since I know just how capable both of you are with mobile suits.”

Korsakoff paused for a moment before turning her full attention on Lenore, bowing slightly and said, “I apologize for the implied insult, Princess. Please accept the fact that I meant no slight on your abilities as a soldier and mobile suit pilot.”

“I'm not a Princess,” she answered, frowning slightly as Korsakoff righted herself. “My mother may have held that title, but it was a nickname, an honorary title in name only, nothing more. But I accept the apology.”

“Both of you may stay for now, but we will eventually have to confirm with the Chairwoman and Captain Joule that you have been authorized to land on Earth,” the woman stated after a few moments of silence. “Unfortunately, it seems that our ground stations are still undergoing repairs. For now, we'll consider that you have permission to land and join us in an operation that we will be launching soon.”

It took all of Lenore's effort to not snort in slight bitterness as she saw a sly smile work its way up Korsakoff's lips. She glanced over to see the barest hints of a smirk on Andrew's expression. All that pomp and circumstances in Korsakoff's introductory berating was probably just for show – to ease the nervousness from those who had accompanied her. “How unfortunate,” Lenore answered in kind, the barest hints of sarcasm lacing her tone.

“Details?” Andrew asked a moment later.

“I'll brief you when we get to the capitol, but word has it that Myrdin needs help,” the woman stated.

“Myrdin?” she questioned, “the Janissary who was at L4 with my Uncle Kira?”

“The one and the same,” Korsakoff said, nodding once. “He had been dispatched to Orb and reported in a half-hour ago on the Prime Minister's emergency frequency. There's a new mobile suit out there, stolen from Orb during the assassination on Seiran.”

“So the target wasn't Seiran then? He was just 'collateral' damage?” Andrew asked.

“No, that part of the intelligence is true, but it was also the perfect cover to steal this mobile suit.”

“What's so special about the mobile suit?” she asked, not wanting to beat around the bush any longer.

“It's nuclear-powered, and it has been stolen by the clone of Patrick Zala.”

Lenore gaped and blinked, staring at Korsakoff. She didn't really know the woman at all, but considering that her father had placed a great deal of trust in her, especially with the Nyabrius 13 mission, she knew that Korsakoff would not lie about such things. Lenore's father barely talked about or even mentioned his father at all, even after revealing himself to be alive. All she knew about Patrick Zala was what history wrote him to be: a tyrannical dictator so bent on destroying Naturals and Earth, that he even had his own son arrested for treason.

However, it was Andrew's quiet, “What are you not telling us, mother?”, that snapped her out of her brief fugue.

“We, the Eurasian Federation, had the clone of Patrick Zala in custody,” Korsakoff stated in an eerily calm tone, “He was captured on Earth by the Janissaries one month after the L4 colonies were destroyed, but he escaped custody three days ago. His last known heading had been towards Orb, and out of desperation, we sent Myrdin to kill him. It seems that our gamble has failed.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 3: The Chains of Duty

C.E. 97, Space, Enroute to Heliopolis II...

 

Lacus watched from the main walkway that spanned the width of the Archangel's hangar bay, as Vanguard made its way into an open berthing area. The Junk Guild escorts were already on their way back, and with them also went Inga Aurelia. Because she was active duty OMNI, and this crisis was exclusive to Orb, OMNI were technically not allowed to interfere. Thus Inga had to return with the Junk Guild. Lacus was certain though, that the clever young woman would eventually find some way to reunite with Yuki and them through other means.

Across from where Vanguard was being housed were the two mobile suits that Archangel exclusively berthed – the rebuilt Strike, and the captured Savior. She had initially been surprised that ZAFT had not laid claim to Savior, considering that it was their right to. She didn't know the politics behind it, but she was glad that the bright fire-engine red mobile suit was house here. It seemed to complement Strike and what the rebuilt mobile suit meant to the crew.

The hatch to Vanguard hissed open as she returned her attention to it and saw her son and her nephew both climb out. Their attention was briefly diverted to Strike and Savior, but then they turned their heads up towards where she was. She raised a hand towards them in greeting, not missing the worried looks that eclipsed both of their expressions. Floating up to her, she silently embraced her son, tightly holding him longer than she usually did. What had happened in Orb had shaken her more than she would ever admit.

Even when the Alliance had been fighting against the technopaths, there had always been a sense of hope, of purpose, and of the stakes at hand. With the chaos in Orb that had spread like wildfire, she felt like she had been reliving the more harrowing and frightening times of the Bloody Valentine War. She had thought she had never had to see those memories come to life again – to see Naturals and Coordinators fighting against each other. Nor did she expect to see the one nation on Earth who had the power and will to bind them all together, fall apart so easily.

“It's going to be all right, Mom,” she heard her son whisper to her. “Dad... Uncle Athrun... they're survivors. They'll come home safe and we will all find a way to stop this.”

While the words were not what Kira had said to her all those years ago when they had finally reunited at Mendel after her, Athrun, and the crew of the Eternal's escape from the PLANTs, the sentiment was the same. Tears sprang into her eyes of their own accord – she prayed with all of her might that her son's words were true.

* * *

Many Kilometers Away From Orb Territorial Waters, Earth...

 

“Given the weight of Akatsuki, if we take this route, sou-by-sou-west--” Kira heard and saw the captain of the Eurasian Federation's Agamemnon-class ship, Electra, point to their current location and drag a finger in a shallow arc towards the remnants of the island known as Madagascar “--the currents here are stronger and faster than that ship's current heading.”

Though the Electra was registered with the Eurasian Federation, it was more for purposes of berthing that she was registered with them. Though Kira had heard Canard say several times about being 'paid', he had thought that his brother was just being his usual sarcastic self. That was, until he and Athrun had landed on the Electra and found out that Canard was not joking about being a mercenary. He didn't know the story behind it, and he suspected that his brother would never tell him why or how, but the crew and Canard had been contracted by the Eurasian Federation for the operation to kill the clone of Patrick Zala.

While he had seen some similarities between how Canard and Captain Meriol Pistis interacted that reminded him of the days where he had served on the Archangel, it seemed that the two's relationship was on a more equal footing than that of commanding officer and operative. There was a closeness between Canard and the captain that Kira couldn't quite tell what exactly it was. Pistis' actions towards Canard seemed to harbor no resentment or anger for what Canard had ordered her to do to Orb's mass driver.

Nevertheless, he had seen the shrewd look that had briefly appeared on the captain's expression when Canard had begun to brief Prime Minister Stephanopolos on what had happened. It seemed that Canard's status as one of Eurasia's Janissary was not known to Pistis or the crew he worked with. Kira was not about to spill the beans on his brother either.

“That should give us two extra days to round Madagascar and set up an ambush line,” Canard stated, “providing that the Middle-Eastern Coalition can be counted on as allies.”

“Firepower?” Athrun asked.

“Cannibalize what we have on the ship, and 'salvage' what we can from the African Union near there,” Canard stated. At both his and Athrun's frown, for both of them knew that Canard had used 'salvage' in place of 'steal', Canard gave both of them a mild look. “You can try to trade,” he heard his brother say, shrugging carelessly, “but hell if I know what you're going to trade to get weapons.”

“We'll figure that out when the time comes,” he answered in as neutral of a tone as possible.

He knew that his brother was right – they would have to take apart and graft more weaponry onto the mobile suits they had; Hyperion, SR One, and SR Two, in order to even have a chance at trying to stop Akatsuki. The irony was not lost on him as to the fact that this was what those who fought against him and Athrun when they had nuclear-powered mobile suits in the past, felt – frustration as to how to defeat something seemingly invincible.

Silence fell upon the four of them as the ambient sounds of those on the bridge filled that silence. Kira stared at the projected map and of the heading they were going to take once they cleared the Australian continent. The old ZAFT base, Carpentaria, was still there, but it had been long abandoned by ZAFT since they had been ousted from Earth shortly before the end of the war. OMNI and other military forces didn't bother reusing the base and had stripped it of everything useful, leaving only the ruined buildings of a long ago war to stand as a silent monument. They wouldn't find anything useful there.

“You should get some rest, Canard,” Pistis spoke up after a few minutes. She then nodded at both him and Athrun, “the two of you as well. We're not going to hear back from Stephanopolos about the Coalition or Africa for a while. I'll have the techs begin to see what they can do about weapons.”

“Meriol--” Canard began, looking as if he was going to protest, especially with someone potentially upgrading Hyperion without his being there. Kira sympathized, but only so much. His brother did, after all, upgrade Strike with an arsenal of various weapons before they had infiltrated the L4 cluster all those months ago. Canard hadn't sought his permission to touch Strike.

“I know,” the captain answered. “Hyperion and the other mobile suits won't be touched. I'll make sure the techs know, though I highly doubt any of them can get past any Coordinator's encrypted OS. We'll just see what weapons, missiles, and the like might work best against the data we have for Akatsuki. Go get some rest while you still can.”

* * *

C.E. 79, Orb, Earth...

 

“Witnesses, please sign the documents,” Athrun heard one of the two the lawyers state as he stepped back to let the two guardsmen, Patricia Ling and Hikaru Barton, step forward to sign the documents.

The two were the ones bearing witness to the declaration and signatures of him and Cagalli giving Kira and Lacus guardianship of their children in the event of their deaths before the children came of age. The two guardsmen were also witnesses to Cagalli's declaration that Yuuna Roma Seiran was to be confirmed as immediate successor in the event that Cagalli died while in office. It was a morbid thing to think about, but Athrun felt a lot better, knowing that no one would be fighting over the custody of his son and daughter.

Neither Nicolai or Cari would be officially adopted by Kira and Lacus, lest they lose their nobility titles, and it was at the insistence of Cagalli that he did not argue the subject. He knew why Cagalli wanted the children to keep the titles. It gave them protection, and if need be, the power necessary to wrench themselves away from the possible uncovering of his true role in the war.

Seiran and the guardsmen only knew him as Alex Dino, and he hoped that it would remain that way forever. It was already bad enough that Kira had to reveal that he was Cagalli's brother to Seiran, the two witnesses, and the lawyers. Seeing Seiran's surprised look that was followed by the briefest of a narrowed, shrewd look made Athrun slightly nervous. But considering that Kira had been and still was extremely tight-lipped about just how he and Cagalli were twins, he was sure that Seiran would never uncover the truth. Athrun didn't know, and didn't care about the circumstances behind how Kira and Cagalli were siblings, anyways.

Adjusting his daughter in his arms for a brief moment, he saw the guardsmen step back after they had signed the various documents. The two lawyers then gathered up the documents into their respective folders. He caught Kira's glance over at him for a moment and gave him a grateful smile. No matter what happened in the future, he knew that his family would be in good hands. It was all he could ask for.

* * *

C.E. 97, Space, Enroute to Heliopolis II...

 

“Breaking news from Orb,” Nicolai heard the news reporter on the Global News Network feed suddenly state. He stood up as several other people in the mess did as well, and approached the crowd gathering around the screen. Someone upped the volume as he heard the reporter continue to say, “Yesterday, oh-eight-fourty-six, Orb Union Time, Chief Representative Yuuna Roma Seiran was killed via sniper fire by an unknown assassin. Several other fatal casualties were also reported during this attack, including Representative Mikhail Petrov of Orb's Commerce Committee, Representative Lee Portia, Representative Kai-wen Wong, Representative Dominic Rodriguez, and Representative Louisa Mendoza.”

There was a burst of concerned murmurs among the civilians, but that was quickly silenced as the reporter continued to say, “The assassin has not been apprehended or killed yet. I repeat, the assassin is still at large. Little is known about the assassin other than what eye witness reports point to a possible Coordinator instigating the attack. We are being told that Orb's guardsmen and military have the situation contained, but are asking all vessels to stay away from the coasts of the country.”

“Bullshit!” Nicolai heard a man yell at the screen from somewhere at the front and to the right. “What about guardsmen and mobile suits attacking civilians?!”

His eyes widened ever so slightly as he looked to see that Yuki was sporting the same look – disbelief. Lacus certainly didn't tell either of them about Orb's elite guardsmen attacking civilians when she and the others had been evacuating. Before either of them could say a word to each other or ask those around them for details, a quiet voice spoke up on his left, saying, “Mr. Attha and Mr. Yamato, if you would please follow me? There is a matter of great importance that I must discuss with both of you, Captain Ramius, and a few others.”

Nicolai glanced over to his left – he did not recognize the classically handsome man at all, though there was something about the man that looked familiar. Given how the man was dressed in a well-tailored suit that had some patches of burnt and frayed areas, the man must have been some important person. Yet a moment later, out of the corner of his eyes, he saw a familiar person enter the mess hall, shouting, “Dad!”

Daneel Barton, one of Orb's guardsmen, was out of uniform and in civilian clothes. With what had just been stated on the news, and the general anger towards what had happened to the civilians, Nicolai thought that the young guardsman was quite smart to not be in uniform at the moment. The identity of the unknown yet somewhat familiar man who had asked Yuki and him to come talk with Captain Ramius, was also revealed when he saw Barton stop next to the man. Side-by-side, it was clear now that this man was the young guardsman's father.

He remembered hearing from Daneel a few months ago, about how both of Daneel's fathers worked for his, Nicolai's, mother as secretary and guardsman. Hikaru Barton, a former guardsman, was currently a mobile armor pilot on board the Archangel, so it was safe to assume that this man was Leslie. He internally frowned – his mother's secretary had also been continued to be secretary to Seiran as well. While Nicolai wanted nothing more to do with Seiran or any persons of his administration, he couldn't help but wonder just what Leslie Barton wanted to discuss with him, Yuki, and Captain Ramius.

He decided to give the secretary the benefit of the doubt, for Daneel's sake, since he found the young man to be completely opposite of his assumptions about what guardsmen were like; Hikaru Barton and Patricia Ling being the only former guardsmen he had been exposed to. Rather than being stiffly professional, Daneel had been quite friendly and personable towards him during the L4 war. Between Yuki's overly dramatic countenance and Daneel's relaxed but alert air, the two of them gave him mental reminders during the war that there was life after being surrounded by military folks.

“Lead the way, sir.”

~~~

Lacus did not normally wring her fingers together or twist the simple wedding band she wore. Yet given the formality that the former secretary of both Cagalli and Yuuna Roma Seiran, Leslie Barton, had asked for the meeting, it made her a little more nervous than usual. With the confirmed announcement that the Global News Network reporter had stated a few minutes ago about the death of Chief Representative Seiran, along with several others, the world now knew that Orb's leadership was changing yet again. For better or for worse, she didn't know. She just hoped that whomever had been Seiran's successor would put a fast stop to the madness.

There was a muted news feed being projected on the table's inlaid screen, with close-captioning allowing them to see what the reporter was saying. While she was sad to see the confirmation of Seiran's death, knowing that despite the cool relations her family and friends had with the Chief Representative, she did not shed any tears. Athrun's words to her and Kira at the checkpoint had stung, but they were the truth.

Heliopolis II was a haven, just like its predecessor, for those who wanted to just live their lives in relative peace and not be caught up in the politics of Orb. Especially since those politics had turned a little more vicious as of a few years ago. The colony was a utopia that its terrestrial motherland tried so hard to maintain.

Breathing out, she managed to untangle her fingers from underneath the table as she kept the calm expression on her face as still as possible – trying not to betray how she felt at the moment. It was only her, Murrue, and Ling and Barton – both of whom seemed to stick to her side like burrs – sitting in this room, waiting for Leslie and whomever else the secretary was gathering.

There was a knock on the door and at Murrue's crisp, “Enter!”, the door to the briefing room slid open. Lacus was not surprised to see her son and Nicolai enter. She had already assumed that this meeting with the secretary of two former Chief Representatives was about the threat against their lives. There was a grim look on both of their faces, and unsurprisingly, young guardsman, Daneel Barton, followed them in. Last to appear was young Daneel's father, Leslie, whom the young guardsman bore quite a resemblance to.

“Hey, Mom,” Yuki quietly greeted her as he took the seat next to her, while Nicolai sat next to Yuki on his other side.

As Daneel took a seat next to Nicolai, Leslie immediately took position at the control panel of the table and sent the muted news broadcast to a corner of the projection. Bringing up several diagrams, secured documents, and footage, it was the first footage that the secretary began to play. The camera work was shaky, and they heard the commentary from the person taking the footage explaining to someone else on how Orb's political system was different than the nation they were from – which meant that the footage was from a tourist.

Lacus could see the specks of armed guardsmen whenever the woman panned the camera a little up and away from the courthouse that Seiran and the other Representatives were emerging from. She frowned after a few moment as she thought she saw the a familiar-looking person walking among the Representatives and Seiran.

She had never spoken to Rondo Mina Sahaku, but she had seen her face a couple of times before, due to the fact the Sahaku family were the only Coordinators in Orb's nobility. She also didn't think she had ever heard about the Sahaku family setting foot on terrestrial Orb before. As far as she knew, the Sahaku family had always been content to live and represent their constituents from their LEO colony in space.

When the time stamp on the video struck 08:46, the Representatives, along with Seiran were immediately struck by bullets. Lacus didn't see Sahaku fall, due in part to the footage immediately skewing towards the ground as the woman who had been filming it fled in terror. Leslie immediately stopped it and expanded several other ones so that they were all sitting side by side on the projection table, but did not play them.

“The other footages here show the assassination from different angles. All were the sent to news networks all over the globe, including GNN. None of those show the seventh victim in the attack, Rondo Mina Sahaku, except for that one,” the secretary stated.

“So it is true, that one Coordinator assassinated all seven of them?” Murrue asked, looking worried. “And because everyone assumes that it is a Coordinator, they're hesitant to show or state the fact that Sahaku was killed as well?”

“Yes,” Leslie answered, before bringing up a packet onto the screen, but did not open the document folder to show them the contents. “This packet was given to me by one of the Junior Representatives in the Intelligence Committee just before she was evacuated. It has all data that was pulled in the hours leading to and after the attack, before the signal blackouts began.”

The man tapped the table for a moment before saying, “However, that is not what I am here to discuss at the moment. Information such as that packet is for the eyes and ears of the new Chief Representative. Unfortunately, the immediate successor to Chief Representative Seiran was also killed during the assassination. That, along with the death of the other Representatives in that attack, and many more missing, means that the line of succession is all but gone.”

“Wait...” Hikaru spoke up, frowning, “you're not saying that Sahaku was Seiran's immediate successor?”

“She was,” the secretary confirmed, surprising Lacus and the others in the room. “The Chief Representative changed it about four years ago.”

“Before or after he tried to claim me as his son?” Nicolai suddenly spoke up, his tone incredibly bitter, as Lacus saw the young man knit his fingers together while resting his elbows on the table. There was a pensive look on his face.

“After,” Leslie answered with absolutely no emotional inflection in his tone. It was quite interesting to see and hear him so impersonal and professional in the face of such tragedy and revelations. Lacus was so used to reaching out to people through passionate speeches and invocations of untapped feelings that this briefing felt like a calming hand that they all needed.

“Junior Representatives cannot be included in the line of succession,” Ling began, tapping a finger on the table for a moment. “So after those Representatives were killed, who is in line? Will we have to wait a few days for the dust to settle, that is if the reporters have it correct that the military and guardsmen are in control, to see which Representatives survived?”

“If that is your prerogative after arriving at Heliopolis II, yes,” Leslie answered, “but we know that the media on Earth is inherently biased towards Naturals. Given that there are strong rumors that a portion of the guardsmen and military are also involved in the assassinations, this crisis in Orb could very well erupt into another war between Naturals and Coordinators. Do you want to wait that long?”

“You have someone in mind--” Ling began, then stopped as Lacus saw her shrewd gaze slide over to Nicolai.

“Oh hell no,” the young man answered, the pensive look on his face immediately dropping to an appalled one. Lacus saw him glance back and forth between the rest of them around the table and Leslie, saying, “No. I refuse. I don't want--”

“Interim, Mr. Attha,” Leslie interrupted as Nicolai fell silent. “Temporarily. If only to give the people some knowledge that there is control in their government. To allay theirs and the world's fears that another war is about to engulf them. To put down the rumors of a military coup instigated by Orb's own forces.”

Even with those statements that were meant to be convincing, Lacus saw that her nephew still looked miserable. “Why?” Nicolai asked after a few moments of silence. “Why me? Why not my aunt?”

“If I may?” she spoke up, catching the secretary's eyes. With his silent nod of assent, she turned her attention to Nicolai, saying, “Because despite my renouncing as a citizen of the PLANTs, my living on Heliopolis II and on Orb for all of these years, my reputation and what I had done in the war still follows me. Orb is neutral, as are you. You also carry your mother and your grandfather's name, and thus in part, their reputations.”

“What about the fact that the news is accusing that a Coordinator assassinated Seiran?” she heard him hesitatingly ask. “Won't it just look like a power grab and an attempt at deflection? I know that the politics between Naturals and Coordinators haven't been good lately. With our escaping to Heliopolis II, it would feel like any leader of Orb was abandoning them, terrestrially.”

Lacus blinked as she caught the ghost of a surprised look on the secretary's expression. She knew that Nicolai was quite intelligent and smart, even by Coordinators' standards, but politically, she never expected him to be quite as savvy as she had just heard him state.

“It seems that I underestimated you, Mr. Attha,” Leslie admitted. “And you are correct on that assessment. Optics wise, some would see that and consider it tantamount to abandonment of Orb's territory. It would invite wolves to our homeland's doors, but even if their leader is in space, Orb's surviving Representatives would never surrender the lands. It was part of Chief Representative Seiran's contingency plan, should anything ever happen to force his immediate successor into space again, that certain Representatives remain on Earth, while others evacuate into space.”

Leslie paused for a moment and slid another folder from the projection forward, but tapped it open. A document with the entire roster of the most current Representatives serving Orb was shown. Junior and Senior Representatives were all listed, as the man stated, “I do not know exactly who has survived, but I have confirmed that a few Representatives on this list are in the fleet. Contingent on you agreeing to become the interim Chief Representative, Mr. Attha, I will present your case to them. If they agree that it is the best course of action to take, then you will be sworn in with emergency powers, much like your mother had been following the end of the war.”

Silence answered the secretary's statement before Lacus heard Nicolai quietly sigh and say, “Lacus answered and hers make sense, but you haven't Mr. Barton. Why me?”

She saw him flick up his eyes from staring at the various things being projected onto the table surface. It was a familiar gesture that she remembered seeing Athrun perform numerous times, one that she knew sent unease down a few peoples' spines. It was a piercing sort of look, of the calm control over a storm that was raging outside.

Whether Nicolai was conscious of that particular action or not, she didn't think she should ask. Her nephew truly was the scion of his parentage, and at the moment, it was showing quite strongly, whether or not he wanted it to. Cagalli's time-tempered, measured actions, and Athrun's decisiveness and commanding presence were hallmarks in the way the young man held himself at the moment. Even if Nicolai was vehemently against taking the 'throne' of Orb, Lacus could see that he would have made quite a formidable leader. If given time and guidance, her nephew could possibly the charisma and force of personality that both of his grandfathers possessed.

Except, that she could also clearly see that he had absolutely no interest in politics. And she knew that that was precisely why Leslie Barton had approached him to take the mantle. Nicolai was too well aware of what politics and war had done to his family, and her heart ached in sympathy.

“Because Orb needs to remain neutral, even if she is bleeding internally, and you are the only person among the nobility and Senior Representatives who can keep her neutral. She may not be a superpower after this civil war has ended, but I wish to keep her integrity safe,” Leslie answered in a quiet, morose tone, a far cry from the business-like tone he had been using.

“These Representatives you say are within the fleet. They will become my interim advisers?” Nicolai asked after a moment.

“Yes,” the secretary answered, his countenance and tone returning to the brisk, business-like one.

“And you?” Lacus heard the slight edge in his nephew's tone.

Leslie's expression closed up for a moment before he calmly stated, “I will remain at my post if you order it, Mr. Attha. I am not a 'power behind the throne' if you are worried about that. My duties are to aid in the transition of the leadership, as I had done after your mother had been assassinated. I had been ready to retire after Chief Representative Seiran settled into his duties, but certain conditional circumstances ordered by the Chief Representative necessitated my stay.”

Nicolai was silent for a few long minutes, but no one else spoke up at the table. Everyone was waiting to hear what the young man would say next or ask. Though it felt like the young man had essentially agreed to become Orb's interim leader, it had not been verbally stated yet.

“I will become Orb's interim leader, Mr. Barton,” Nicolai began, but held up a finger, “though only on one condition. Because this circumstance is not like the one that my mother faced when she took power, you will be designated as my immediate successor, should I be killed before the civil war can be quelled.”

There was a clear frown on Leslie's face, and Lacus wasn't entirely sure that she had seen a hint of anger in the secretary's eyes. However, the two former guardsmen, along with Daneel, Yuki, and Murrue all carried surprised expressions that mirrored her own. Never did she think that her nephew would state something as bold and restrictive as that.

However, that frown quickly disappeared as the secretary stated with the faintest of smiles on his lips, “You truly are your mother's son, Mr. Attha. I will do my best to convince the others of your request and of your candidacy. Hopefully, it will galvanize them to end the fighting on the ground as swiftly as possible.”

* * *

A few days later, somewhere on the Indian Ocean, Earth...

 

Kira wiped the sweat trickling down his forehead as he removed his welder's mask and placed it on the raised platform. He had not tinkered with a mobile suit in a while, and had all but forgotten just how physically intensive it was on Earth, even with help from the crew members of the Electra. When Canard had modified Strike all those months ago, both of them had been working in null gravity. Thus had the luxury of moving enormous weapons around with ease.

“Hey Pars, Yamato, and Zala!” one of the mechanics on the ground suddenly shouted above the din of the noise in the ship's hangar bay. “You guys better come and see this! Looks like someone is going to be sworn in as Orb's leader, and the fighting in Orb might stop soon.”

Putting down his tools, he swung himself over the rails of the ladder and slid down onto the ground. Jogging over to where there was a tiny television screen set up with antennae sticking whichever way out of it to receive signals, he peered over one of the mechanics' shoulders. Athrun joined him on his left side a few moments later, while he saw Canard standing a little ways away from him and Athrun, arms folded across his chest.

The feed that the ship was capturing on the television was from the African Union, which the closest land mass, and was a few days away from them. There had been no sign of the ship that bore Akatsuki thus far. However, considering their heading and the currents they were taking to race towards the shores of the African Union, Kira didn't expect they would see the mobile suit until the trap was triggered.

On the screen at the moment, was what looked like the familiar-looking interior of a ship. As the person holding the camera focused past the civilians, crew members of the Archangel, a few Representatives who had managed to evacuate, and panned to the right, Kira found his breath being caught in his lungs. Standing in the center of those gathered were Captain Ramius, a senior Orb Representative, and Lacus holding a modern copy of the holy text dedicated to the official religion of Orb, the worship of Haumea. The fourth person standing in the center had his right hand raised and left hand placed on the text.

He was none other than Nicolai.

As he heard the young man begin to utter the all-too-familiar words that were a part of the swearing into office ceremony, Kira glanced over to see Athrun with an utter look of shock and disbelief on his face. Athrun's hands were also curled into fists, and worried, Kira silently reached out to place his left hand on Athrun's right forearm. That small action was enough to cause Athrun to snap out of his fugue as Kira saw him loosen his balled hands and blink to school his expression back into a neutral one.

Before he could retract his hand on his friend's forearm, though, he saw Athrun silently and slowly shake his head at the television screen. He also saw him mouth the words that he never expected to ever see him say: Lacus, why didn't you stop him? You know he's too much like his grandfather.

Kira blinked at those silent words, quickly taking a look around to see that no one else had paid attention to Athrun's silent admission. He was about to get his friend's attention again, but then the realization of just what Athrun had stated hit him. He frowned, gravelly concerned; it was not Uzumi Nara Attha whom Athrun had compared Nicolai to, but to Patrick Zala.

~~~

PLANT Colony: Aprilius 4...

 

Eileen frowned into her hands that were knitted together and pressed against the bottom hand of her face. Her elbows were propped on her desk, and though it was hardly the best presentation that a leader of the PLANTs could show, there was only one other person in her office, and she really could not care what he thought of her current stance. Instead, she was focused on the screen before her, broadcasting the live feed from a room within the infamous Archangel. It was currently docked with Heliopolis II. While a small part of her had cheered at the fact that the old ship had survived the chaos that had unexpectedly engulfed Orb, she never spoke of it to anyone else.

“Nicolai Uzumi Attha,” she murmured, placing her folded hands down as the swearing in ceremony was completed. “You are the scion of two leaders who influenced the war and its aftermath more than any of us can ever hope to achieve. You are also the grandson of two leaders who philosophically opposed each other in every aspect of their lives. Which of those will you choose to lead your people, and stop your war in your homeland?”

“He was a competent analyst in the times that I have fought with him, ma'am,” Yzak Joule stated, muting the broadcast and putting the close-captioning on. “I had never seen him pilot Vanguard, but given what Lieutenant Yula has told me of her brother, his piloting skills are untrained.”

“Untrained, or just a feint to disguise himself?” she asked, flicking her eyes towards the interim Chief Representative of Orb, who was still on the screen and preparing to give his first speech to the world.

“Ma'am?” Joule questioned, looking puzzled.

“Have you ever read his thesis about the mobile suit, Strike, if it had fallen into ZAFT hands during the war?”

“No, ma'am,” Joule admitted. “Several academic journals, including the R&D one of ZAFT, dismissed it as drivel written by an idealist who had no concept of what the mobile suits were capable of.”

“I know,” she answered, faintly smiling. She knew that even though that a subset of Coordinators chose to live on Earth, many in the PLANTs considered Earth-bred and born Coordinators to be inferior to them. “I recently read the thesis after hearing from Lieutenant Barton that the Archangel had rebuilt Strike using that thesis as a basis. Nicolai Uzumi Attha wrote that thesis using only unclassified materials. Many of the concepts he touched upon are extremely close to the battle data that our researchers extrapolated from the other four.”

“What?” she heard the man whisper in disbelief. “That's impossible.”

“And yet this young man seems to be content working as a simple mobile suit engineer for Morgenroete,” she continued, unfolding her hands and gesturing with her right one towards the screen. “There is a genius hidden beneath all of that, and I want to know who exactly we may be dealing with in the near future.”

“Ma'am, you know that we cannot directly interfere in another nation's problems,” she heard Joule begin.

“Yes,” she answered, flicking her eyes over at him. “Had you not let your lieutenants go to Earth on 'leave', then I would have requested Barton to infiltrate. Fortunately, last I heard, Dearka Elsmann has been doing some contracted work with Serpent's Tail. They are near Heliopolis II. Contact him and have him infiltrate the colony. I'm sure that with the chaos going on in Orb, Heliopolis II would gladly pay for some protection, even from a mercenary group.”

She saw Joule thin his lips for a moment in anger before stating, “As you wish Chairwoman.”

He walked to the door of her office, but paused for a moment before turning around, asking, “And what if your fear of the interim Chief Representative is unfounded, Chairwoman? What then?”

“Then we watch and wait to see what path Orb will take to peace,” she stated.

She knew that answer was not satisfactory to her FAITH agent, and knew that it was not her place to assuage him of his unease. However, just this once, and strictly because he had been through the same hell that she had been through under her predecessor to the office, she decided to elaborate.

Standing up, she clasped her hands behind her and said, “You may not have known Patrick Zala during his early days as a Council member, but I did. I saw what he had grown into, and I see that same potential within Nicolai Uzumi Attha. That is my fear...”

“That because of the chaos in Orb, the interim Chief Representative may become as extreme as his grandfather?” Joule asked, his frown quite pronounced. “Ms. Clyne and various like-minded people will most likely be advising him.”

“We of the Council had also hoped that that would be the same for the friendship between Siegel Clyne and Patrick Zala, but look at what happened, Captain Joule,” she answered. “I hope that my fears may be completely unfounded, but you and I know that it is only because of Orb that we have this peace between Coordinators and Naturals. If these rumors of a Coordinator assassinating Chief Representative Seiran are true, along with the coup within Orb being a possible cover by extremists to steal a Natural-built mobile suit, we have to prepare for the possibility of an all out war.”

Joule stared at her with an indecipherable look before nodding. However, when he turned back to walk out, she heard him say, “I hope you're wrong, Chairwoman. Because if you aren't, you better have a damn good excuse to tell Zala why you gave the order to assassinate his son.”

The FAITH agent took two steps closer to her office door before saying, “One last thing. Allow me to give you this warning, Chairwoman Canaver: I believe that interim Chief Representative Attha may be the only person who can save the Coordinators on Earth and on the PLANTs. Thus, I will not carry out any order from you to assassinate him.”

* * *

On the Archangel, Heliopolis II...

 

“I think I'm going to be sick, Auntie Lacus.”

Lacus looked up from where she was pouring three cups of freshly steeped tea in the tiny kitchenette that had been built into the room. As soon as Nicolai had been confirmed by the various surviving Representatives that he would become Orb's interim leader, he had been given this particular room. It was one of the higher ranking officers' room, though she knew that he was not fond of being moved from where he had been sleeping – the NCO crew quarters.

Accessibility and security wise, it was easier, and since the no-nobility rule was still in effect on Heliopolis II – the L4 conflict not withstanding and the only time the rule had been lifted – her nephew remained on the Archangel. Though Murrue had indicated that she did not mind the interim Chief Representative's presence on her ship, Lacus had to wonder if the crew was in complete agreement. The threat of assassinations had not died with the announcement, and most likely had been heightened. Essentially, the crew had unwittingly become the new guardsmen of Orb who served to protect the Representatives in space and their interim Chief Representative.

Bringing two of the cups over, she handed one to her nephew, who had looked up from his hunched position on the edge of his bed. Murmuring his thanks, he accepted the cup of tea and silently sipped at it. The third cup brewed was for Yuki when he returned with the trays of food from the mess.

Though the civilians the Archangel had been carrying had disembarked, some of the fleet ships had a great amount remaining until Heliopolis II could decide how to distribute the refugees without straining too much of their resources. Only the Archangel had been given permission to let all civilians off, strictly because she was also a warship. Soon, she and Yuki would leave as well, but for now they remained with Murrue's blessing, to support Nicolai through the first couple of days of his leadership.

“What you did today, Nicolai,” she gently began, “takes courage. Very few are ever in your position to state the truth about the power that they have been gifted with. Your mother and father would be extremely proud of you for what you have done.”

“And my grandfather?” he asked, looking up from his tea. “Not Uzumi Nara Attha, but I'm asking about Patrick Zala. Isn't that what he said as well, before--”

There was an odd fizzle and crackling sound that pierced through the relative silence before both of them heard a hissing sound. Lacus stood up as she saw the telltale flicker of an image com channel being opened at the small station. Stopping before it, both she and Nicolai peered at the channel, covered in a screen of static snow. Before she had time to wonder who was calling and why the usual chime had not been sounded, the image resolved into the head shot image of a man wearing a white mask that covered the top half of his head.

She was reminded of her long ago memories of Rau LeCreuset and the half-mask that he had also worn. She was jolted out of that memory as the man stated, “You should have left the situation in Orb well alone, Chief Representative Attha and Lacus Clyne. I was not initially inclined to kill both of you until later, especially you, Ms. Clyne, but you have forced my hand.”

The man suddenly lifted his mask off of his face, and stunned by what she saw, Lacus stared at the screen. She was barely aware that the tea cup had slipped from her fingers and shattered on the floor. It had to be someone's sick joke, had to be impossible, yet something in the back of her mind told her it was not so – not after what she had learned of what had happened to Nyabrius 13 before it had been destroyed.

“P-Patrick... Zala,” she whispered in horror. Far be it that she had expected the clone of Athrun's father to look youthful, considering that he was a clone and only twenty-six years had passed since the end of the war. Instead, the man in the image before them looked almost as he did during the latter half of the war, except a little older and more grey in hair color.

“Consider this a courtesy, Ms. Clyne and Chief Representative Attha. You can't stop me. Neither can those people you sent from Orb to pursue my ship after they destroyed Orb's mass driver. I will make it into space, and I will make sure that all Coordinators are freed from their Natural slave masters. You have two options Chief Representative: join me, or die. I await your answer in seventy-two hours.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Father's Shadow

C.E. 97, Somewhere on the Indian Ocean, Earth...

 

Though there was an inner turmoil roiling inside of him, Athrun was careful to keep his expression as closed as possible. He still couldn't believe that his son, of all people, had been convinced to become Orb's interim leader. While he didn't doubt the intelligence of Nicolai, he did doubt the abilities of his son to rule effectively through this transition. He knew that Nicolai had the will and means to lead, having caught glimpses of it when the boy had been growing up, but it was the method as to how he would rule that worried him.

Nicolai was stubborn to a fault, much like Cagalli, but even with advisers by his side, Athrun was afraid that the lines between just and good would blur for him. He had see that same line within his father slowly fade away until anything just and good had become pure hatred. Patrick Zala had gone to war for the Council and eventually against the Council, using words that were turned into atrocious actions.

If anything, the brief speech that Nicolai had given after his swearing in was a little too similar to Athrun's memories of what his own father had said upon his swearing in as a Council member of the Defense Committee. Brief and to the point, it was a rally call for Orb to unite and stand against such a despicable attack.

This attack on Orb and the civil war that he was sure was still going on in Orb – it was chaotic. The only way he knew that would possibly stop the infighting would be to reveal who the instigator was. However, if word ever got out, he didn't know what Nicolai would do; what his son would order Orb forces to do – what he himself would do if given orders he did not agree with.

At the moment, Athrun was silently not in agreement with the general assessment of the Eurasian Federation to capture the clone. He wanted to kill the clone. To kill his father's hated legacy and not allow the shadow of it to continue to fall across him and his family--

“Oh! Mr. Yamato!”

Athrun snapped out of his troubling thoughts upon hearing the boisterous greeting. It had blasted across the com channels that connected the Electra to a briefing room of sorts somewhere within the Middle-Eastern Coalition, and to a group that the Eurasian Federation was sending down to aid the Electra and her mercenaries. On the screen projected onto the table before them, were two imaged channels – one containing four people from the MEC, and the other containing four familiar faces from the Eurasian Federation: Yelena Korsakoff, William Aurelia, ZAFT pilot Andrew Barton, and finally, Lenore – wearing a wig, no less.

He was not happy to see that his daughter was among the Federation's forces coming to aid them, but he knew that there was nothing he could have done to dissuade her. She was an adult and had her own career within ZAFT, even if she was almost as impulsive as Cagalli had been. She, along with Barton were also not dressed in the usual red uniform of the elite pilots, and were garbed in a non-rank indicated uniform of the Federation. That could only mean that the two pilots had 'snuck' onto Earth. ZAFT and certainly Canaver did not authorize their being here.

Of those on the Electra, it was him, the captain of the ship Meriol Pistis, along with Kira, and Pars, who stood around the table. However, due to the limitations and just how old the Electra was, their connection was voice-only to the MEC and Eurasian forces. They could see their allies, but their allies couldn't see them.

Pars was standing a little ways away from all of them, seemingly content on just listening to the planning and briefing. Athrun had some ideas of his own, but he wasn't familiar with the strength of MEC's forces. Thus he would not contribute until he knew a little more with what they had for combined strength.

On the other hand, the Federation knew of the MEC's forces. Considering that they needed the MEC to put pressure on the African Union, Eurasia had proposed this alliance. The Coalition was not part of the Alliance, but they had some friendly relations with both Eurasia and Africa. They would be the middle man, the negotiator, between Africa and Eurasia. The Federation and Union had historically and even now, had not gotten along. To stop Akatsuki, they needed the African Union to be ready to stop the mobile suit from approaching Victoria Base – if the MEC-Orb-Eurasian Federation forces could not.

“It's been a while, hasn't it, Mr. Malik,” he heard Kira warmly greet the oldest of those in the MEC image feed. “I'm glad to see you're doing well, though it is regrettable that we had to meet again under these circumstances. I also apologize for the lack of image feed on our end.” Athrun did not miss the slight rolling of Pars' eyes at the apology.

“Nonsense,” the old man stated, shaking his head slightly. “After what you and the Archangel did for us, we have patiently waited to repay that debt. You have given us the opportunity to. Now come, tell us what this joint alliance you have with the Eurasian Federation requires.”

Athrun did not let the realization show upon his face upon hearing the Archangel mentioned by the MEC. It was clear now that ZAFT's Desert Tiger, or Andrew Bartfeld, had been defeated by the combined force of various tribes that made up the MEC during the war, the Archangel, and Strike. It was also surprising that people of the MEC, especially this leader named Malik, remembered such an alliance, especially when petty politics usually got in the way of various nations helping out each other.

He saw Kira gesture towards Pistis to take over. She nodded and stepped up, while Kira muted his line to give her the platform. “This is Meriol Pistis speaking. In three days,” Pistis began, “we will be close enough to Madagascar to begin deploying our forces. A perimeter must be set...”

* * *

On the Archangel, Heliopolis II...

 

“Are you sure that it was truly him?”

If it were any other person who had asked that question, Lacus would have been mildly offended at the person, though she would have never shown such expression on her face. However, she knew that Murrue was trying to process her shock at the fact that a clone of Patrick Zala had been created and had survived the L4 war. She, like all of them, had thought that none of the technopaths and various clones had survived after the destruction of L4, and subsequent chase-down by the combined Alliance forces.

“Yes,” she answered, nodding. “He was older-looking though. He did not look to be possibly suffering from the same symptoms that were similar to the clone Athrun and Ms. Korsakoff captured a few months ago.”

“Not trying to be callous here, but if we leave him alone, he'll just die, right? Just like that other clone?” Yuki asked.

She shook her head, “No. The inflection of his threat was much too precise. His eyes...” She paused for a moment before continuing to say, “His eyes were clear. They were not like the other clone at all... or consumed with the same madness that Chairman Zala had been consumed with towards the end of the war.”

Silence greeted her words and she could see the concern and pensive looks that settled on everyone gathered here. Finally, it was Hikaru who broke the silence, saying, “He's telling us that there are assassins either on the ship or on Heliopolis II, ready with orders to kill once the hours given for your reprieve are up. The assassination of Chief Representative Seiran was not just done to cause chaos, but to also allow him to manipulate Orb's government and steal that mobile suit.”

The former guardsman paused before gesturing to her, Yuki, and Nicolai “If the three of you go back to Earth, he most likely has assassins waiting somewhere there as well.”

“We can't stay in space indefinitely without a port to resupply,” she heard Patricia Ling, the other former guardsman who had initially briefed them at the checkpoint, speak up.

“Sweep the ship,” Murrue stated. “We need to secure at least the ship for now. I'll put it under lock down--”

“Ma'am, pardon the interruption, but we need to allow normal operations to be carried out,” Patricia interrupted. “Standard operating procedures is to be as discreet as possible when canvassing a perimeter. The fact that we can easily keep it to the ship and limit access is a bonus.” Lacus saw her glance towards Hikaru and Daneel, both of whom nodded in agreement. “We'll just have to delay Ms. Clyne and Mr. Yamato's departure from the ship until we can assess that the threat has passed.”

She saw Murrue reluctantly agree to the plan, knowing that the two former guardsmen were the foremost experts in protecting people. Though it heartened her to see Patricia and Hikaru taking the threat for what it was and could become, it also pained her to see them return to habits that were once was. They had retired from guardsmen service, and she had not wanted to pull them back into that service. She had hoped that at least Daneel would have an idea how to carry out and coordinate with the crew of the Archangel.

Yet she also had not wanted to put the crew of the Archangel in the same danger that she, her son, and Nicolai faced. The Archangel and her crew were not under her command, or had pledged loyalty like the Eternal so long ago. The former crew of the Eternal had pledged their loyalty to the cause she had implored during the war – and to her by extension. She had not asked for it, yet she was touched by their loyalty. Last she heard, Bartfeld and the others were in the midst of acquiring a new ship, and thus she did not know where to contact them.

“What about the mobile suit that this clone stole?” Nicolai asked. “Are there any information we have on it to better prepare for an attack against it? I mean, if the clone is serious about carrying out the last will and testament of his namesake, then our allies need to be warned. Are there anything we can give the ship pursuing it?”

Lacus bit the inside of her lower lip as she looked around the table to see various people shaking their heads and shrug. What footage they had from a couple of chase aircrafts who had been ordered out of the area during the Kaguya mass driver attack had captured shaky, unclear footage of the battle. Though she, Hikaru, along with the rest of the crew on the command deck had heard the callsigns of SR One and SR Two being broadcasted, they knew little else.

Kira and Athrun had been piloting the two Strike Rouge mobile suits, and she could only assume that the other voice in the loop down to the mass driver launch facility was most likely Canard Pars. She could also assume that the three were currently pursuing the mobile suit to the nearest mass driver, which was in Africa. There was little else they could derive from what they had been given.

“Given that it was the Eurasian Federation who gave us the initial information, I could try to contact Ms. Korsakoff to see if she has any other information, sir,” Hikaru stated, directing it at Nicolai.

“It would also be best to present what information we have to the other Representatives, sir,” Leslie quietly spoke up, with a hint of anger in his eyes. “If Orb leans too heavily on its allies, it opens the door to her independence being threatened.”

Lacus watched her nephew consider the options for a moment before nodding. She had not told anyone else that an agent of the Eurasian Federation had already been sent into Orb, specifically to kill the clone of Patrick Zala. Given that Canard, Kira, and Athrun were most likely in pursuit of the clone, it didn't seem wholly relevant anymore. Orb's problems were already spilling into the international stage. With little information coming from the terrestrial homeland, she knew that eventually, they would have to go back to Earth.

“Contact the Eurasian Federation, but only to clarify and expand on what information they have, and how this threat originated,” Nicolai stated. “I'll brief the Representatives on what we know thus far. They will remain on Heliopolis II for the time being while the Archangel detaches from the station. I will not put the fleet or colony in danger.”

He paused for a moment, seemingly looking far older and wearier than she had ever seen him before. Not even a full week into his interim leadership of Orb, and Lacus could see the sheer amount of stress eating away at him. Her heart ached for him, but she knew that other than supporting him to the fullest, there was nothing else she could do for him. The burden of leadership always weighed heavily upon a person. Even after all these years, she was still carrying the consequences of what she had done during the war.

“If those pursuing the mobile suit and clone cannot stop him on Earth,” Nicolai continued to say after a moment, “and he does launch into space, Chairwoman Canaver will have to be warned about the threat he poses. If this clone is anything like his namesake, then he will involve the PLANTs.”

~~~

In Space, Near Heliopolis II...

 

“Sir, we're receiving Buster's signal,” one of the officers at the com station stated. “Check in code matches current list.”

“Put it through,” Yzak stated, picking up the headset and placing it over his ears. As much as he disliked sneaking around, especially hiding in a cloaked ship just a few hundred kilometers away from the colony of Heliopolis II, this was not his first time carrying out such a mission.

In the early days of his service as a FAITH agent, he had taken Canaver's initial reasoning for his joining to heart. He had infiltrated, listening in, and collected as much information as he could about extremists who espoused Patrick Zala's words and ways. There had been several times where he had nearly been caught, but thanks to his training, he had narrowly escaped being discovered or captured.

However, after the ZAFT Training Incident in C.E. 94, he had been reassigned to be the ship commander for four newly minted, visible FAITH agents. Now, he was back into his original role. Even though he was now a known FAITH agent, he was determined to carry out his duties not only to protect the PLANTs. He also wanted to prove to Canaver that she had nothing to fear from Orb's interim Chief Representative.

“Duel,” the slightly tinny voice of Dearka, using the agreed-upon callsigns, greeted. “There's apparently a law within Orb and Heliopolis II for those of their nobility class. Their Chief Representative and other nobles can't set foot on Heliopolis II.”

“What?” he questioned, frowning. “But didn't Seiran and Attha set foot on the colony last year?”

“Special provision and permission because of the circumstances. Heliopolis II is considered a territory to Orb, but not directly ruled by them,” Dearka stated. “Attha is on the Archangel and I can't infiltrate that ship. They'll recognize me instantly.”

“Shit,” he muttered under his breath, as he thought of what else they could do. Canaver's unease about Attha not withstanding, there was still the ongoing chaos down in terrestrial Orb. While the PLANTs and ZAFT were allied with Orb, the fact that no one really knew what had happened made him apprehensive. It was because of the rumor that circulated which said that the assassination on Seiran and other Representatives had only been a front to steal a mobile suit. They needed to find out everything they could.

“Send all reports about opinions from the populace. We'll compile it and forward it for now. Concentrate on finding any intelligence on what this rumored mobile suit that was stolen, is,” he stated.

“All right,” Dearka answered. “But one other thing: what about those two pilots of yours? Sentinel and Meridian?”

“They're on leave,” he curtly stated, knowing that his friend was referring to his Lieutenants, Yula and Barton. They had technically gone AWOL, but until otherwise pressured to, he had continued to list their status as 'On Leave'. He could reasonably assume why Yula and Barton had raced to Earth, with their mobile suits no less, and knew that he could not do anything to help them. They were on their own.

He heard Dearka snort in laughter over the line; quite unprofessional of him. But then again, Dearka was not ZAFT anymore, and thus did not adhere to the discipline of a soldier he, Yzak, still maintained. “You've changed, Duel,” Dearka stated.

Yzak bristled slightly at the comment, but not a moment later, the line was disconnected from Dearka's end, with him having shut it off. Removing the headset, he set it down on the table and stared at the data that had been delivered to the ship during their conversation.

“No,” he whispered to himself. “I haven't. I just haven't been ordered to hunt those FAITH agents down yet.”

~~~

Eurasian Federation, Earth...

 

Lenore scratched the top of her head, trying to alleviate the annoying itchiness of the wig that was glued to her head. However annoying the itch was, she didn't try to scratch it often though, mainly because she didn't want to accidentally skew the wig or keep on drawing attention to herself. Not that the outfit she had been given to wear so that she would not be easily identified as a ZAFT pilot was flashy, it was anything but. It was the military uniform of the Eurasian Federation, forest-green in color. The Federation's uniforms were all the same for their land, air, sea, and space forces – only lapel pins, service area badges, and rank indicators told people where they served.

It was their height and looks that both she and Andrew had been born with, that attracted attention towards them. It didn't help that they were walking behind Andrew's mother, Yelena Korsakoff, towards their destination. In her opinion, Korsakoff was a gorgeous-looking woman, which contributed to the stares. There was also the fact that despite the uniforms, the three of them stood out as Coordinators among the sea of Naturals within the Eurasian Federation. It was a very odd feeling – to be among a disliked minority, when she was used to the homogeneous Coordinators, or the mixed populace of Orb.

The military train that they were currently on, rocked slightly again, as she saw Korsakoff stop in front of the biometrically locked door that would lead them into the planning and control train cars. She saw her swipe a card before placing a palm on the reader and leaned in for the eye scanner to scan her eyes. A couple of seconds later, there was a beep before the lights on the door flashed green. Passing through the doors that separated the cars, they entered into a darkened room that was only lit by the console screens. Lenore was greatly reminded of the last time she was in such a darkened room – the planning room in Chairwoman Canaver's office to infiltrate Nyabrius 13.

“Sir,” Korsakoff respectfully stated, as Lenore saw that Prime Minister Stephanopolos was present. She was surprised that the leader of the Eurasian Federation was coming along with the operation. She thought that he would have remained in Petersburg to take care of whatever other affairs of state his nation had, besides the rectification of a mistake in letting their prisoner clone escape.

“Home has indicated that the Archangel is hailing us,” she heard Korsakoff's former husband, and father of Inga, William Aurelia – or as he was known as the Janissary Tristram – state. “They're just about done calibrating the satellite and ground station to connect.”

The three of them approached the planning table, just as a holographic screen popped up. Lenore couldn't help but smile slightly as she saw that her aunt, Lacus, was among the three who had called down from the Archangel. The last time she had seen her aunt was during the broadcast of Nicolai's highly unexpected swearing-in ceremony as the interim Chief Representative of Orb.

Since receiving word of her and her family being targets of an assassination attempt, she had not even spoken to any of her family. This was the first time since flying from the PLANTs that she was able to hear her aunt's voice through a com channel – even if it was for official business. The worried knot in her stomach seemed to ease a little as she saw the same relief reflected in her aunt's eyes upon seeing her.

“Captain Ramius,” she heard Aurelia greet the three on the screen: Murrue Ramius, Lacus, and surprisingly Andrew's father, Hikaru. “It's good to see that the Archangel made it out into space before the mass driver was destroyed. How may we address your concerns?”

“The intelligence that your government forwarded to Orb two days prior to the assassination of Chief Representative Seiran,” she heard Ramius begin. “Where exactly did it originate from? How did you discover it?”

There was a moment's pause before Lenore saw Korsakoff tilt her head slightly, saying, “Chief Representative Attha received a direct threat, didn't he?”

It was the three on the screen's turn to pause, though to their credit, none of them showed any signs of surprise. “The threat was directed at both myself and the Chief Representative,” Lacus spoke up, “by the clone of Patrick Zala. It is set to be carried out in less than seventy-two hours.”

She saw both Korsakoff and Aurelia look towards the back of the train car, where Stephanopolos was standing and listening in, but deigning to let anyone on the Archangel know that he was present. She saw the Prime Minister nod, and Korsakoff then said, “The clone of Patrick Zala had been captured by Janissaries one month after the L4 colonies were destroyed. We found him in an escape pod of sorts in the West Siberian Plains near Old Novosibirsk. He somehow escaped our custody three days prior to the assassination of Chief Representative Seiran, with his last known heading being Orb. We sent Myrdin to kill him.”

“How did he escape custody?” she heard Barton ask.

“All the Janissaries who were on duty when he escaped do not remember,” Aurelia answered. “Initially, the clone had a chip embedded in the nape of his neck. Therefore, we assumed he was a technopath and isolated him accordingly. With his escape, we suspect but cannot prove, that perhaps this particular clone has hyper-spatial awareness abilities that were similar to enemy forces we encountered during our L4 infiltration. The more logical explanation is that those technopaths had a contingency plan in the works, and had been planning this for as long as they had planned and executed in the gathering of their military forces and genetic virus.”

“A plan 'C'?” Barton asked, though it sounded more like a statement than a question asked out of disbelief.

“Considering the deception that Chairman Zala engaged in during the war,” Lacus quietly spoke up, “it is not difficult to consider that possibility.”

“Operation Spit-Break,” Lenore heard Korsakoff murmur in agreement.

Lenore knew what the former ZAFT operative was talking about. That particular operation had been covered in both her general history education in Orb while growing up, and also during her training in ZAFT. The deception of both ZAFT and OMNI forces by the highest commanders on either side had killed tens of thousands of soldiers, and many more civilians. It had also given Chairman Zala the necessary excuse to consolidate power, be granted emergency ones to silence the moderates on the PLANT Council, and begin building Genesis.

The uncomfortable silence that rang through the room and across to the Archangel was broken when Aurelia spoke up, “As you may have already seen in the news, there are forces in pursuit of the clone and the mobile suit it has stolen, including two mobile suits from Orb.”

Strike Rouge One and Strike Rouge Two,” Barton spoke up, nodding as Lenore saw the former guardsman glance over towards Ramius for a moment before returning his attention on them. “Is it safe for us to assume that Athrun Zala and Kira Yamato are the pilots?”

“Yes,” Aurelia answered, “Our forces will be supporting the Electra, the ship whom Myrdin contracted with to bear him to Orb. Your nation's mobile suits are confirmed to be on the ship, but we have very little data on the mobile suit that the clone stole. We only know its name, Akatsuki, and that it is a nuclear-powered mobile suit.”

This time, there was no hiding their surprise as Lenore saw their eyes widen. She herself had nearly the same expression when they had been briefed by Captain Meriol Pistis of the Electra earlier, as to the limited data they had on Akatsuki. It seemed almost absurd that Chief Representative Seiran had authorized the building of a nuclear-powered mobile suit. It was completely hypocritical of Seiran when he himself had arrested Kira, Lacus, and her father after she and the others had returned from C.E. 73. Granted that the charges brought up against her aunt, uncle, and father were more than just the building of nuclear-powered mobile suits, but still...

“We shall see if any of the surviving Representatives have information on Akatsuki,” Ramius stated a few seconds later, managing to snap out of her disbelief.

“We would welcome any information you can provide, Captain,” Aurelia stated. “It is our hope that perhaps if the clone is busy engaging in us, whomever he has tasked to assassinate Chief Representative Attha and you, Ms. Clyne, will not carry out those orders. Next we speak, we shall have Captain Pistis of the Electra connected in conference as well.”

“Mr. Aurelia, Ms. Korsakoff, and Lieutenants. On behalf of Orb and her people, thank you. Godspeed and good hunting,” Lenore heard Lacus say, just before the line was disconnected.

In the ambient silence that filled the train car, Lenore had not realized that she had curled her hands into fists. Slowly uncurling them, she let her arms hang as loosely as she could by her sides, as she stared at the area where the projection of her aunt and the other two used to be. The words that her aunt had spoken were encouraging, but she wished that she felt as confident and reassured as those words were meant to be.

* * *

Electra CIC, somewhere on the Indian Ocean, Earth...

 

“Meriol, incoming sat signal from Rail One,” one of the crew members at the com station spoke up, as Canard glanced up from the latest intelligence reports that the Eurasian Federation's regional forces had forwarded to them. He saw her put on the headset and tap a couple of buttons on the tactical console.

He knew that he should have also picked up the nearest headset and listen in to what his fellow Janissaries, Iseult and Tristram, were going to say, but he didn't. Ever since he had woken up an hour ago – three hours before his shift was supposed to start – a disquieting feeling had settled within his stomach. He had wandered around, trying to pinpoint the origin of the feeling, but nothing seemed out of ordinary on the ship. His wanderings had brought him to the CIC, and he had arrived just in time for the latest batch of reports to come in.

“Sir,” he heard Meriol curtly greet over the voice-only line after authenticating. The Electra was old enough to not have the latest and greatest com equipment installed. Not that Meriol was stingy or anything, he knew that she preferred to keep the hull and armaments of the ship more up-to-date. Having an analog system also made it easier to prevent com hacking, and allowed the crew of mercenaries to be picky on who exactly they answered for jobs.

He saw her frown for a moment before clamping a hand over the microphone, saying to him, “Canard, go wake Yamato and Zala up. Archangel is connected on the line and has information about Akatsuki.”

As miffed as he was about being ordered to play concierge to the two, he settled for glaring at Meriol before turning and walking away. It was only because of what she had stated about data on Akatsuki that he did as he was told. He had initially hired Meriol and her crew to help him, but considering what they were going up against, there were a little more pressing concerns than arguing about the chain of command.

~~~

At the same time, in the crew quarters of the Electra...

 

Athrun blinked awake as he rolled over, wondering why he had suddenly awoken from a dreamless sleep. He looked around the dark bunk room, with Kira's steady breathing from the bunk above him piercing the relative ambiance of the room. He could see no other bodies on the other bunks, and a glance up towards the bunk on the right side of the door showed that Pars was not present either. He could only assume that Pars and the other three bunkmates in this room had gone on shift.

Turning to his side again, he closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep, but a disquieting feeling had settled in his stomach. Sighing, he flung the wool blanket off of himself, and quietly and carefully swung himself up and off the bed. There was the slight creak of the frame of the bunk bed that pierced the relative silence, but Kira's breathing remained even and asleep as Athrun stood up. Glancing over, he couldn't help but smile slightly in amusement as he shook his head. Even after all of these years, Kira still liked to sleep on his stomach.

Stretching for a moment, he glanced at the analog clock hung above the frame of the door to the room. There was still two hours before his, Kira, and Pars' shift was supposed to start, but he brushed the thought of where Kira's older brother was, away. Pars was not only a difficult person to read, but to also get along with. Athrun had no intentions of befriending Pars, but neither could he convince Kira to stop at what Athrun thought was futile attempts, to befriend Pars. Kira, no matter what happened, was going to be Kira – always trying to find some commonality and friendship with allies.

Quietly sighing, he opened the door and stepped out—only to suddenly have his instincts scream at him in warning – just as he heard and felt someone ambush him from his right. His hands shot up in the nick of time to prevent the piano wire from cutting straight into his neck.

~~~

Canard rubbed the back of his neck, not that the knot in his shoulders was bothering him too much. Now that everyone was going to be on the same page in terms of intelligence, enemy capabilities, along with the battle plan, he had thought that the disquieting feeling would die. It still had not, and if anything, he felt more uneasy than he had been an hour ago--

“Kira!”

Canard's eyes widened for a fraction of a second. That was Zala's shout, half-muffled, that was immediately followed by two loud, pinging thumps down the adjacent corridor ahead. There was also the sounds of someone struggling. He raced down the corridor and as soon as he turned the corner, he saw a dark figure dressed in coveralls and a balaclava dash into the bunk room he shared with the two and three other crew members.

In the hall, facing away from him was another person dressed similarly to the first one. The person was struggling with something, but from the way his arms was pulled taut, it looked like he was choking someone. Canard didn't waste another second as he sprinted down the hall.

With his footsteps pounding on the metal flooring, he saw the assassin turn his balaclava-covered head slightly, his eyes widening in pure surprise. That was all Canard allowed him to feel and see, as he launched himself at the assassin, wrapped his hands around the assassin's head, and forcibly wrenched the man's neck with a pop! As the assassin fell to the floor, dead, letting the piano wire he had been garroting around Zala's hands that had been protecting the neck, go, Canard was already in the midst of drawing out his pistol.

Zala crashed to the floor onto his knees, just as Canard stepped over the dead assassin's body, and whipped up and sighted down his pistol. It was dark in the room, but with the light from the corridor spilling in, he could see the outline of his brother being pinned on the ground by the second assassin. Kira was desperately trying to keep the combat knife that the other assassin had, from being stabbed into his left eye.

Canard fired nearly point blank into the assassin's head. At such close quarters, the gunshot was deafening as blood and brain matter splattered over both him and his brother. But it was also close enough to allow the force of the gunshot to rocket the body off and back from Kira. He could hear the ringing in his ears, but the sound subsided a few seconds later as he heard a strange coughing sound coming from Zala.

He turned just in time to see the beginnings of foam gathering at the edges of the former ZAFT pilot's lips. Just as he glanced down at Zala's hands, noticing that though the piano wire had cut into Zala's hands, the copper-smelling blood flowing out was tinged with something else. Not a moment later, Zala collapsed, his breaths becoming labored.

Canard immediately hit the emergency com switch right outside of the room, shouting, “Medical team to Deck Five, Section Twelve! Medical team to Deck Five, Section Twelve! This is an emergency!”

The assassins were dead, but he should have known that they would have had contingencies in place. The wire had been laced with poison. For all of his extensive knowledge as a survivor of the Mendel Project, and soldier of the Eurasian Federation on how to kill people, Canard could not identify what Zala had been poisoned with.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: The Freedom to Choose

C.E. 70, PLANT Colony: Nyabrius 13 – February 9th...

 

Athrun buttoned up the last of the buttons on his jacket and smoothed out the front of his clothes. He looked at himself within the small mirror, making sure that his face was no longer flushed and that everything about him looked as normal as possible, before leaving the private room he had been given. He was glad that the genetic profiling was done, and that he never had to return to here to get another sequencing done. It wasn't that he did not understand why such an intense sequencing of his biological makeup had to be done, it was just... uncomfortable.

The doctor who had guided him through the series of profiling tests and samples acquired from the tests was impersonal to the point that he had thought the doctor was a robot. But, as the samples acquired became more specific, he realized that the doctor's detachment from the patient was a blessing in disguise. There was no one else in the examination room except for himself and the robot-like doctor, to be embarrassed about. He was alone with his thoughts, with the results acquired from the samples; with everything about himself.

Walking down the hall and towards the directed exit, he emerged into the enormous park that surrounded the profiling facility. He saw his mother sitting on one of the many benches next to a willow tree, reading something on a data pad. He made his way towards her and gave her a smile and wave of his hand as she looked up. He tucked everything uncomfortable he had felt about the profiling to the back of his mind, not wanting to worry her before she was due to leave for Junius 7 later today.

She gestured for him to take a seat next to her, and he did. Athrun breathed in deeply as the soft rustle of the willow branches skirted against each other with the breeze filled his ears. His anxiety and feeling of listlessness that had occupied his mind even before the profile tests had been done seemed to briefly melt away. Opening his eyes, he looked over to see his mother looking at him with a gentle smile upon her face. She wordlessly passed over the data pad and he took it from her.

While he had been in the facility, his mother had been reading through the genetic profile of Lacus Clyne. He knew that most marriages between Coordinators were arranged through profile compatibility tests. He was glad that his parents, along with Lacus's father had allowed the two of them to get to know each other. She was as smart as she was fair in beauty. She was also completely different from the public image she presented as an Idol. He could sense that there was a hidden strength to her that would anchor whomever she would eventually marry.

Politically, she was what he had heard his father say 'the perfect match'; a pretty and popular young woman, and with the added bonus of being the daughter of the current Chairman of the PLANTs. Athrun had no interest in following his father's footsteps at the moment, but he knew that it was the future he should be thinking of, not the present. Their inevitable engagement was looking more likely with each passing month since their first meeting late last year.

He liked Lacus, but...

“Mother,” he began, placing the data pad down and to the side, “I... I want to enroll in Heliopolis' Industrial College.” Silence answered his declaration, and even though there was nothing on his mother's face that could tell him what she was thinking, he hastily added, “I want to continue to study, to work on--”

“You want to see Kira again, don't you, Athrun?” she gently interrupted him. “If I remember correctly, he did say that he was thinking of enrolling there after graduation. He wanted to study software engineering.”

Athrun felt himself flush red in embarrassment – trust his mother to be acutely aware of what his true motives were for everything he did. The last time Kira had visited his home was when they had been living on Luna; about three months before he, Athrun, had been pulled out of classes at the Preparatory Academy due to his father's new position. He mutely nodded in agreement to his mother's words, knowing that the path in life he had chosen would greatly disappoint or worse yet, anger his father.

“And what do you want to study there?” she asked, her tone still calm and kind.

Athrun could feel his hopes brighten by the fact that he could not hear any sort of admonishment in his mother's voice. Perhaps she would be able to convince his father to put the family's political ambitions aside and allow him this one chance at freedom; this one chance to follow something, or rather, someone he realized he had grown interested in.

He liked Lacus, but...

“I'm not entirely sure yet,” he answered, “but I like building things, especially Torii. I'm thinking robotics design and engineering.”

“And how will you present this to Lacus?”

Athrun bit his lip as he frowned slightly. “I don't know,” he admitted.

He had mentioned Kira not by name to Lacus before, but mainly in context of what he had done while attending the Lunar Preparatory Academy. He had not wanted to accidentally cause any sort of jealous feelings within Lacus, but that had been before he realized just how enormous of a heart she had. Still... he was well aware that there was a mutual attraction between the two of them.

Yet his intimate thoughts were not always about Lacus. He knew that he had to tell her the truth – she deserved that much – but also knew that she would possibly be heartbroken.

“I know Father--” he began, unable to come up with an adequate excuse at the moment.

“This is not about your father, Athrun,” his mother gently admonished. “This is your decision, Athrun. Not your father's decision. Lacus is a lovely young woman, and she has taken a deep interest in you. No formal engagement has been announced yet, but I know that you are aware of the rumors surrounding both you and she. The press will be expecting some sort of announcement possibly on Valentine's Day. Your father and Chairman Clyne are prepared to weather the storm, and their careers and friendship will not be affected. Are you prepared for that scrutiny?”

“So you're not...?” he hesitatingly asked.

“I cannot dictate your heart, and neither can your father,” she answered, inclining her head slightly while giving him a reassuring smile. “I will remind him of that when I return from Junius 7, Athrun.”

“Thank you, Mother,” he said, smiling as the restless feeling that had been weighing on him since he had returned to the PLANTs finally taking flight. “And yes, I am prepared for the scrutiny.” On impulse, even though he knew that someone of his age should really not show such childish inclinations, he leaned over and gratefully hugged his mother.

“I look forward to your return from Junius 7,” he said, closing his eyes for just a moment in happiness.

* * *

C.E. 97, Archangel, Heliopolis II...

 

“Medical team to Deck Five, Section Twelve! Medical team to Deck Five, Section Twelve! This is an emergency!”

Lacus felt her breath hitch for a moment as a feeling of dread crawled all over her body. The call for medical personnel from the com line connected to the Electra was clearly heard by all of them, but it could have been attributed to anything currently happening on the ship. However, she knew and recognized that voice – Canard had called in the emergency alert. Where Kira's older brother was, was usually where Kira and Athrun were as well, and that message made her extremely worried.

“Pardon me for a moment, sirs and madams,” she heard the captain of the Electra state over the voice-only connection, before a squeal tore through the channel. Whatever Captain Pistis was being briefed on, none of them connected through the Archangel or to the Eurasian Federation could hear it – the connection that the Electra had with them was muted.

~~~

On the Electra, Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, Earth...

 

“Athrun--”

Canard clamped a tight hand down on Kira's shoulder, holding him back as the corpsmen hurried down the cramped hall with the stretcher bearing Zala on it. Dr. Tsang, a former Middle-Eastern Coalition doctor who had joined the crew of the Electra a few years ago, was already working on stabilizing Zala. He knew that Zala was in good hands and that there was nothing he or his brother could do at the moment. Poison required precision and deftness in knowing what exactly it was doing to the body, in order to cure it. Tsang was an expert in such things – having long ago, saved Canard himself before from accidental poisoning.

The dead bodies of the two assassins had not been removed yet, but the coverings they had been wearing had been ripped off. Though in the case of the one who had been trying to stab Kira in the eye, the assassin's head covering had managed to keep some of his face in tact for identification purposes.

It angered and worried him that both assassins were not crew members of the ship, though he would have never voiced that worry. His curt report to Meriol had put the entire ship on lockdown, which meant that only she had access to unlock all doors. Only Dr. Tsang and the corpsmen with him had been allowed through, and Canard trusted the doctor enough to know that Tsang would not betray his Hippocratic oath.

“He's in good hands, Kira,” he stated.

He really did not want to stand there and try to reassure his brother that Zala was going to pull through when even he did not know what the former ZAFT soldier had been poisoned with. It annoyed him that he had to say that as well, wishing that his brother had more of a spine and focus to see the bigger picture than just the immediate concern. There was no helping it though; his brother was most definitely a bleeding heart, and was someone who wore their emotions on their sleeve.

It was a miracle that no one had taken that heart and stomped all over it until there was nothing left. But that was only because Canard could reasonably assume with a high percentage of accuracy that a certain person being carried away on a stretcher at the moment, was Kira's shield. Kira really didn't know how good of a life he had--

“Here,” he said, quashing the sudden feeling of jealousy down into the depths.

He stalked into the bunk room and ripped his mattress on the top of the right side bunk off. It bounced to the floor, with its underside facing up, displaying the various guns he kept strapped under it. While he had his own locker bin on the ship, old habits kept him storing armaments under his mattress.

Taking two pistols that were similar to the ones he had armed his brother with a few months ago on L4, he shoved both and their holsters into Kira's hands. “We're sweeping the ship,” he stated. “If you want to make sure that no one attempts to kills either you or Zala again, you need to help me.”

He needed to focus Kira on something to do at the moment, knowing that there was nothing else they could do for Zala. It was up to the former ZAFT soldier to pull through the poisoning by himself once Dr. Tsang begun whatever treatment was necessary. Taking a backup earpiece, he dialed into the frequency he had connected to Meriol, and handed that to his brother as well. Much to his relief, Kira's forlorn look started to melt away, as he saw a slight hint of anger take its place.

Good – his brother had been provoked. Now, Canard was going to be able to focus that anger into something productive. Tapping his earpiece, he said, “Meriol, Strike and Hyperion are ready.”

He could have settled for different call signs over the encrypted channel, but it was quicker to just settle for the mobile suit names they had piloted. He was never going to refer to his brother as Freedom – that was as stupid and idiotic as names would come.

“Copy and good hunting,” came the crisp answer.

~~~

Archangel, Heliopolis II...

 

In the tense and silent minutes that passed, Lacus tried to push aside her worry and study the expressions of those connected through the Eurasian Federation. Out of the four on the screen before them, she the barely perceptible narrowing of Yelena Korsakoff's eyes. The other three: William Aurelia, Lenore, and Andrew, had poker faces. Those gathered in the briefing room on the Archangel consisted of her, Murrue, Nicolai, and Representative Quinn who had some limited knowledge on Akatsuki.

Lacus would have liked to have Yuki present as well, in the event that the clone actually made it up into space. However, considering that Yuki was still an active Morgenroete engineer, Representative Quinn was not comfortable having a rival mobile suit contractor present at the moment.

Another squeal whined through the channel and Pistis's voice came back, sounding a little further away and more tinny than she had been. “Electra's CIC is under lockdown,” Pistis said without preamble. “I apologize for the connection and further encryption, but it is necessary. An attempt on the lives of Kira Yamato and Athrun Zala was made a few minutes ago. The assassins were not originally of the crew and are suspected to have stowed away during the chaos in Orb. They have been killed, but I am having a trusted security team do a thorough sweep of the ship. The information you give me will not be released until I personally hear from the leader of the team.”

“Kira--” Lacus blurted out, unable to keep the grave concern she felt from spilling through the mental dams she had erected in her mind.

“Mr. Yamato is uninjured, Ms. Clyne,” Pistis stated.

“And my father?” she heard Nicolai demand before Lenore could jump in from the Eurasian side of the feed.

“He was poisoned. The doctor is attempting to save his life. I will have an update for you, Chief Representative Attha, whenever the doctor gives me an update,” Pistis curtly stated, her tone booking no argument.

Lacus could see worry briefly flash across Nicolai's eyes, but he kept everything he was feeling off of his face. He was learning too quickly, what it meant to be a world leader, and just how close one had to keep his or her emotions in check. It was the same painful lesson she had to learn when she had found out that her father had been mercilessly killed by Patrick Zala's forces. All she could do at the moment was stand by him and by virtual extension, Lenore as well.

“Then let us continue with the briefing,” Nicolai stated after a few moments, with absolutely no emotional inflection in his tone.

~~~

Heliopolis II...

 

“So,” Yuki drawled the word out as he looked around before settling his attention on Daneel, who had been shadowing him since he had stepped off the Archangel a half-hour ago. The ship was not due to detach from the colony for another few hours, given that Nicolai had someone quickly fetch one of the few remaining Representatives that Orb had, from the colony for a secretive briefing.

“So?” the young guardsman answered, as Yuki stopped and turned around to fully face him. Fresh-faced, handsome, and with intelligent eyes that had looked so eager last year when he had first met the young man, that eagerness was completely gone. He knew that it was mostly due to the fact that Orb's guardsmen had been seen and accused of aiding the assassin or assassins – Yuki was still in the belief that it was multiple assassins – in killing Chief Representative Seiran and other Representatives.

Everything that Daneel believed in, devoted his life to, had been shattered with that one incident, and Yuki sympathized with him. He could only imagine what it felt like, but he was glad that the young man had not fallen into a stupor, and had found some invigoration of his duties once again by pledging to be Nicolai's personal bodyguard. That pledge had been openly declared after they had been briefed on the threat that Nicolai and Yuki's mother had received from the clone of Patrick Zala.

“Did Nicolai send you with me to scout out peoples' opinions on the colony?” he asked.

While he knew that his question was a little rude, it did puzzle him as to why his usual shadow, former guardsman and current mobile armor pilot of the Archangel, Patricia Ling, had not accompanied him. While everyone else on the ship seemed to be extremely busy, he felt a little useless at the moment. With a general threat directed at him, Patricia had taken it upon herself to shadow him whenever he wasn't working on tweaking Vanguard's systems or sitting down for a meal with his mother or Nicolai.

He found it a little annoying, but didn't complain. He had a little more freedom to move around than Nicolai at the moment. There was also the fact that at least Captain Ramius had allowed him to step off the ship for a few hours.

“No, my father, Leslie, did,” the young man answered, looking not offended at all with his question.

“Huh,” he answered “Well, would you just please stop walking two paces or so behind me? It looks weird and makes me feel weird. You're a friend, possibly soon-to-be cousin-in-law or something like that if Lenore and your brother get hitched.”

Daneel snorted in laughter, but did cover the distance between them in two long strides. “You've noticed it too, then?”

Yuki barked in laughter and shook his head as he continued to walk, this time with the young man next to him, instead of not following him like a lost puppy or shadow. He didn't understand why both Lenore and Andrew tried so hard to hide their affection for each other. It wasn't like anyone was forbidding the two to love each other or be together – at least he hadn't heard anything of that sort. Hell, he had even caught a glimpse of his mother with a small smile blossoming on her face, when she had noticed the two quietly conversing with each other during the aftermath of the L4 battle last year.

“Hmm,” he murmured mostly to himself as an idea struck him, “maybe she's terrified that her father won't approve? Uncle Athrun can be intense at times...”

He glanced over to see a mild look on Daneel's expression, but the young man didn't say a word to his comment. Deciding to change the topic, he asked, “So, are you going to be okay... with all of this?”

“Yeah,” the young man answered, his expression closing up.

“Sorry,” he immediately apologized. “It's just--”

“No,” Daneel interrupted, shaking his head slightly. “No, it's me who should be apologizing. Inga told me that it's never good to keep troubling thoughts to one's self.”

“She told me that as well,” he said, as a brief, wistful smile turned up the corner of his lips. He was sad that her visit had been cut extremely short, but due to this being primarily an Orb problem, as an active-duty OMNI soldier, she had no right or jurisdiction to intervene. He could imagine her at the moment, trying to argue with her superiors about possibly joining the Eurasian Federation in whatever they were going to do.

He heard the young man nosily sigh before saying, “I didn't volunteer as Nicol—erm, the Chief Representative's personal bodyguard purely out of a sense of duty. It was mainly out of selfishness and the need to prove to the world that not all of Orb's guardsmen were corrupted or traitors.”

In a quieter tone that was almost a whisper, Yuki heard him say, “It was also because I couldn't stand to see my parents arguing... again.”

“I'm... I'm sorry,” he said after a few moments, feeling that his apology was lame. He stopped in front of a bench at the park that their feet had carried them to and gestured for the young man to sit at the bench and sat down next to him.

Daneel sat just as he did, hunched over and looking every bit of his seventeen years of age. Even though the age of majority in Orb was sixteen, Yuki thought that very few people at that age were ready for adult life. He considered himself lucky that he had been transported back in time to C.E. 73 with Lenore, Nicolai, and Inga to learn just how fast everyone near that age had grown up.

“You know when my father, Leslie, stated that some circumstance caused him to continue to serve as secretary to Chief Representative Seiran?” the young man quietly asked. Yuki silently nodded, remembering the tense briefing quite well, since Nicolai's acquiescence to become interim leader of Orb had greatly surprised not only him, but others. “That circumstance was his negotiation with Seiran to allow Patricia and Dad to retire from being guardsmen.”

“I take it Hikaru had not been happy with that arrangement?”

A mirthless smile briefly appeared on Daneel's face before he said, “Both Dad and Father are as apolitical as you can get. But yeah, he wasn't happy with the justification behind it, even though he did want to retire. Now, Nicolai ordering Father to be his immediate successor contingent on him taking the position also did not go over well. Considering the breadth of knowledge that Father has about both your aunt and Seiran's administrations, Dad and I were surprised that he was forcing Nicolai to become Chief Representative. It's obvious from anyone looking at him that Nicolai doesn't want to be the leader or Orb, interim or not.”

“So you're wondering why Leslie didn't just throw his hat into the ring and convince the surviving Representatives that he should be Chief Representative?” Yuki asked.

He believed the young man about the apolitical nature of his family – one was not chosen to be a guardsman of Orb without a thorough background check. Guardsmen had to be as apolitical as possible, or else there was the question of integrity in carrying out their duties from one administration to another. He thought most of them were, until the assassination of Seiran had happened.

“I mean,” he continued, “it would break the tradition of a noble taking up the mantel, but its only an interim position. Hell, I agree that it would have been easier for the transition to be facilitated by someone who had worked in both administrations, knew the surviving Representatives, and had knowledge of the details that lead to the assassination. Throwing Nicolai into the forefront just seems cruel.”

“Feels like a runaround, doesn't it?” Daneel bitterly stated.

“Yeah, now that you put it that way, it does,” he agreed. “Is that what your parents have been arguing about?” The young man silently nodded. Yuki gave him a sympathetic smile before patting him on the back. “Well, whenever you're off duty or something, you're always welcome to hang out with me in the hangar bay, Daneel. And if Nicolai is being a pain in the ass, come tell me. I'll set him straight. I didn't grow up with him to not know how to push his buttons to make him less uptight.”

An amused smile graced the young man's face before Yuki saw a slight hesitation appear, along with the faint coloring of his cheeks. Yuki mentally laughed, the irony of yet another personal bodyguard of a Chief Representative crushing on his or her charge was not lost on him. He was not going to discourage Daneel, if he was reading the unspoken signs correctly – in fact, he was going to encourage him.

“You like him, don't you?” he cautiously ventured.

“Of course I do,” the young man answered. “Everyone does, especially since his taking of the interim position has given everyone hope that this civil war will pass by quickly.”

“Erm, no,” Yuki said, shaking his head slightly. “You like him.”

The color in Daneel's cheeks flushed red again as he spluttered for a moment before sensing complete defeat within himself and said, “Was it that obvious?”

“No,” he admitted. “You were really good at hiding it, until recently.”

“I thought it was a passing phase,” the young man stated after a moment, looking briefly down at his lap before looking up again. “That it was a puberty-laden crush, whenever I saw him pop by from the university to go visit some of the professors at the academy. I'm half-afraid that it will interfere in my duty to protect him, if he ever found out how I feel about him.”

“Just be... just be yourself, whenever you're around him, Daneel,” he gently advised. “I know you said you declared to be his personal bodyguard out of a combined sense of duty and selfishness, but what he really needs right now is someone to talk to. Someone he can confide in if he needs to. My mother and I can't always be there to listen to him, but you will be.”

He had already determined that Daneel would be good for Nicolai's personal life as well. He knew that Nicolai had been hurt in the brief relationship he had had while in school. That person had ended up boasting about 'sexually conquering' a noble – namely Nicolai and the Attha name he carried. Yuki had been unable to get revenge on that person for hurting Nicolai. In talking to Daneel at this very moment, there seemed to be nothing but pure intentions within the young guardsman.

“I'm also going to advise that you lay it all out right now, to him,” he said, patting the young man on the back. “He needs to know about your feelings. I can't say that it's not going to affect your relationship to him. But if I know anything about personal bodyguards, it's that I've seen Uncle Athrun still carry out his duties, no matter what happened between him and Aunt Cagalli.”

“Yeah, I will,” the young man stated after a few moments, nodding slightly. “My parents told me when I joined the guardsmen that I had to separate my heart from my duties in order to effectively carry out my duties. I didn't fully understand what they meant until now. An oath is an oath, and on my honor, I will keep it.”

Feeling that Daneel needed some levity to counter the weighty conversation they had just had, he clapped him on the back after a few moments, saying, “Look, if you need me to scram or something so you can have some alone time with Nicolai--”

“Um... perhaps....”

Whatever else the young guardsman was going to say was cut off as Yuki saw him narrow his eyes slightly, staring out at something in the park. Following his gaze, Yuki frowned as he stared out into the knot of people enjoying their relatively peaceful lives in the face of a civil war going down on their terrestrial homeland. He couldn't tell-- oh.

“What is Mr. Elsmann doing here?” he asked, as he saw the flash of a familiar upswept blond hair that was half-hidden under a fedora. Most of Dearka Elsmann's face was also hidden by the popped up collar of the beige trench coat he was wearing. If it were not for the fact that Yuki had a good memory of peoples faces and names, it would not have picked the former ZAFT soldier out from the crowd he blended in with.

“That's what I'm going to find out,” he heard Daneel growl before getting up. “Stay here,” the guardsman ordered.

“Uh, no,” he said, standing up as well. “You're not my personal bodyguard, Daneel.” Before he could get a face full of a surprisingly withering glare from Daneel, he continued saying, “Besides, there's probably a good reason why ZAFT is sneaking around. I don't think they're wanting to blow a colony up again.”

The young guardsman was definitely not amused by his darkly humorous joke, but didn't say anything else or attempt to tell him to stay where he was again. Sensing that it was fine to follow, he kept a step or two behind Daneel, giving the young man a sense of satisfaction. He didn't like the fact that he needed someone to guard him, especially now. Still, he knew that it was something that he could not argue with – short of running away to somewhere unknown.

“Yo!” he called out towards Elsmann, “I hope that you're not here to request some assistance from the Junk Guild to fix your mobile suit.”

“Ah, shit,” the pilot of Buster said, as Yuki saw him stop and turn and face them. The pilot gestured for them to go to a more quiet and less public area within the park, and both he and the young guardsman obliged him. “I guess the gig is up,” Elsmann said after a few moments.

“Yep,” he said, folding his arms over his chest as he leaned over to elbow Daneel into looking a little less hostile.

“Hold on,” Elsmann said, folding his coat's collar down before wincing slightly and taking out the hidden earpiece that he had been wearing. “Yzak is yelling at me,” the pilot offered up.

“So, what's up?” he casually asked.

“Rumor has it that there's some civil war going on down on Earth. There's just some concerned citizens within the PLANTs wondering what that bodes for our future relations with Orb and this Alliance,” the pilot stated.

“You didn't hear the rousing speech that our new Chief Representative gave after he was sworn in?” Yuki asked, unable to keep the tinge of sarcasm out of his tone.

“Oh we all heard it,” Elsmann said, casually waving a seemingly careless hand in the air. “But its not everyday that you hear about Coordinators killing Naturals or vice versa. It's starting to feel a lot like events are repeating themselves from twenty-six years ago, though in a more warped version.”

“We can take care of our own problems, Mr. Elsmann,” Daneel testily answered. “I'm sure that you should have already learned that after you spent time as a consultant on the Archangel.”

“Woah, hey,” the pilot said, holding up his hands in a placating manner. “Look, I'm telling the truth. Canaver is concerned, greatly concerned about those rumors that Coordinators killed Chief Representative Seiran and others. Yzak and I as well – as are many other Coordinators on the PLANTs. No one is denying or confirming those rumors.

“I'm going to bet you that you've learned what led up to the Bloody Valentine War between Earth and the PLANTs. Junius 7 was just the last straw that broke the camel's back, kid. This thing happening with Orb or whatever it is, is a throwback to the past. None of us want to go through another Bloody Valentine again.”

“It won't happen--”

“All right,” Yuki said, interrupting whatever else Daneel was about to say. “Follow us. I'll fetch someone who can tell you what is going on. Your Chairwoman wants information? Why not get it straight from the horse's mouth?”

“Yuki!” Daneel protested, reaching out and attempted to grab him before he could stalk off.

Yuki evaded the young man's grasp, saying, “Look, I'm sick of hiding and feeling helpless. I'm also sick of people saying that there's all of this doom and gloom. Whatever is happening down there and possibly up here – we need to unite and stop it. We can't remain fractured like we currently are.”

He turned and glared at both the young guardsman and Elsmann. “United we stand, divided we fall,” he stated before turning back and began to walk towards the docks.

This time, neither stopped him, and after a few minutes, he glanced back to see Elsmann following him. Daneel was closely following the former ZAFT soldier, as if keeping an eye on him, but there was a clearly unhappy look on his face. Still, Yuki knew that his words were right. Orb's problem was already being swallowed by the international politics of the world. Even though he didn't understand a lot of it, he knew that they could not remain standing by themselves. Hell, the Eurasian Federation was already sticking their noses into their business...

When they got to the dock where the Archangel was currently berthed, Yuki walked onto the gangplank, while Daneel stopped Elsmann from entering. Entering the ship on his own, Yuki made his way down the ship's corridors to the room where he knew his cousin was currently in for a briefing. That, and both Hikaru and Patricia were standing on either side of the door, having fallen back into their old roles as guardsmen.

Both of them gave him slightly surprised looks, but didn't say a word as he stopped before them and asked, “Are they still busy?”

“I think the briefing ended a few minutes ago,” Patricia answered. “Don't hear or feel a humming feeling in my teeth anymore. Representative Quinn is still in there though.”

“Eh,” he said, shrugging. “Whatever. Nicolai and my mom need to hear this anyways.”

Hikaru obliged his unstated request and waved the door open. As soon it opened, he heard the remnants of Nicolai's order, “...send Kusanagi to Earth with as many mobile suits as we can spare. They will depart--”

“May we help you?” the Representative stiffly asked as all eyes turned onto him.

Yuki nearly shrank back, not because he was suddenly afraid of the attention that was on him, but it was because of the intensity in all of those gathered, eyes. “Yeah,” he said, swallowing his nervousness. “Buster's at the door, wanting to come in.”

Four pairs of eyes blinked at him in confusion before three of the four pairs suddenly realized what he was talking about. Yuki felt a little proud of himself for managing to come up with such a wording that Representative Quinn was the only one to not understand what the hell he was talking about. He didn't want the Representative to know about this anyways, since even he knew that Chairwoman Canaver's concern was a delicate matter.

“Please escort Buster to briefing room two, Yuki,” he heard Nicolai say. “Captain Ramius, your mother, and I will be there shortly. Please also find Leslie and let him know to meet us in the briefing room.”

“Will do,” he said.

Though it was still a little strange for him to get used to the fact that Nicolai could now just command him at will, he was used to his cousin being bossy. It was how they grew up together, though there were many times when he had pushed back on his cousin's assertiveness. Now, he would obey, but only because he did not want to have to eat his own words that he had declared to Elsmann and Daneel.

As soon as he got to the entrance of the ship, he saw the former ZAFT pilot and Daneel talking with another person – Daneel's father, Leslie. Shrugging slightly to himself, he was glad that he didn't have to scour the entire ship to look for the secretary. His footsteps down the gangplank alerted the three to his presence, and he gestured towards them, saying, “The Chief Representative wants to brief you, Mr. Elsmann. He also wants you to be present, Mr. Barton.”

The three of them followed him back onto the ship. He led them to the room that Nicolai had requested him to bring the former pilot to. While he, along with Elsmann, and the secretary waited in the room, Daneel stood outside on guard. Yuki didn't really think it was necessary for the young guardsman to do such a thing, but he knew not to trample on such actions. Daneel had lost enough as is, and the young man did not need to lose his pride even further.

The wait wasn't long, and when his mother, Nicolai, and Captain Ramius arrived, Elsmann was finishing establishing a image com connection to what Yuki could only presume was the ship that the former pilot had arrived on. A few moments later, Yuki saw Yzak Joule appear on the screen, looking more than a little annoyed, especially when his eyes focused on Elsmann.

Yuki yielded his position within the room to Elsmann and went to go stand next to Daneel, who had been shoved into the room by his father, Hikaru. He didn't know why the mobile armor pilot had insisted that his son be present in the briefing, but he didn't want to get too involved in whatever else was going on within the Barton family. His own family and the problems they faced were enough for him to try to puzzle out at the moment.

“I'll be succinct, Captain Joule,” Nicolai stated without preamble, showing none of the misery that Yuki had seen in private. Day by day, hour by hour, he could see the calm and controlled mask that his cousin wore take further hold, giving the perception around everyone that everything about their new Chief Representative was fine. It was only when Nicolai was in his room, alone with him or with Lacus present, that Yuki saw that mask completely disappear.

“Chairwoman Canaver's attempt to bluff her way into influencing Orb is in poor taste,” Nicolai stated, surprising Yuki with his words. The words and the tone of it was incredibly harsh. He glanced over to see surprise eclipse Elsmann's face. What on Earth was his cousin talking about? Elsmann had stated that Canaver knew little to nothing about what was happening.

“Two ZAFT pilots have already been integrated into a joint operation we are carrying out with the aid of the Eurasian Federation and Middle-Eastern Coalition,” Nicolai stated.

Joule narrowed his eyes slightly before answering, “If you are referring to two of my pilots who are currently listed as on leave, you are mistaken, Chief Representative. They have gone AWOL and until otherwise ordered, I have no inclination to hunt Lieutenants Yula and Barton down.”

“Then may I strongly suggest that you inform Chairwoman Canaver of their current whereabouts, in the hopes that she will send additional forces to aid them. They, and the Alliance will be facing an enemy who controls a nuclear-powered mobile fortress that was stolen from Orb,” Yuki heard his cousin continue to calmly state. It was a little eerie to watch and hear absolutely no emotional inflection in the facts that Nicolai was laying out.

If anything, Joule was the only one reacting quite viscerally, and even then, it was only a twitch of an eyebrow. Nevertheless, Nicolai was relentless with his words as he continued to press on, saying, “If the Chairwoman requires more incentive, please do tell her that the mobile fortress is piloted by the clone of Patrick Zala.”

It was not Joule who swore, but rather Elsmann who filled that silence with a precise and short curse. Yuki took a quick glance over towards Nicolai, managing to keep his whistle of surprise inside of him. Never had he thought that his cousin had the guts to openly accuse ZAFT and the PLANTs of spying, and then deftly turn it into a request for aid. Orb was forcing the PLANTs to take action, since N-Jammer technology had been rendered completely useless with the building of Freedom and Justice.

However, his admiration for his cousin's actions was tempered when he caught a glimpse of his mother nervously twisting her wedding ring. He had never seen her do such a thing before, even though her hands were hidden from the projection view to Joule. Either the operation that was happening was worrying her, or worse yet... something about Nicolai and what he just did made her uneasy. He wanted to think that it was the operation, but his gut was telling him that it was not.

He looked back at his cousin, but was brought out of his trouble thoughts when Joule stated, “I will inform the Chairwoman of the situation. If you are sending additional forces from Heliopolis, please take Dearka and his mobile suit with you.”

“The Kusanagi will leave port in six hours. Ensure that your pilot and his mobile suit are on it before it leaves, Captain.”

* * *

C.E. 79, Orb, Earth...

 

“I hope you won't find this rude, Cagalli, but I don't want to hurt Athrun by asking him this. He looks so peaceful at the moment as well, that I also don't have the heart to wake him up.”

“Hm? What is it?” Cagalli questioned, placing her cup of tea down as she glanced over from where she and Lacus were sitting out in the sunroom, towards the living room.

Adorably enough, Athrun was fast asleep on the couch, stretched across the length of it. He had been awake when Lacus had first arrived, but sometime during the course of her butler serving tea and him trying to wrangle the children, he had fallen asleep. Curled up in the crook of his right arm was their son, Nicolai, also asleep. Curled on his chest with a small blanket over her sleeping form and his left arm wrapped protectively around her, was little Cari. Lacus was right in saying that Athrun looked incredibly peaceful at the moment – enough that Cagalli wished that that moment would last forever.

“Your son, Nicolai,” Lacus began, as Cagalli returned her attention to her, seeing her sip her tea before placing the cup down on the saucer. “Was he named after one of Athrun's friends?”

“Nicol Amalfi, yes,” she nodded.

“Ah,” was all her friend said as she saw her briefly tend to Yuki, who was sipping something out of the sippy cup he had in his hands. The child fussed a little before settling down again, and Cagalli couldn't help but smile at just how much Lacus and Kira's son physically resembled Kira himself.

Kira was currently at L3 again, helping the construction crews piece together the last of the external hull of Heliopolis II before he and his team would begin to work on the inside of the colony. It would be a few more years before the colony would be ready for intrepid people to settle and live in, but Cagalli was glad that interest had not waned for the rebuild.

As for the other project she had in mind, she was glad that Lacus had acquiesced to the visit, even though she wished the visit was more for pleasure than for business. She had not seen Lacus, Kira, or their son since little Yuki had been born. Still, with her busy schedule, this combined visit of business and pleasure was a welcomed change to her everyday duties.

“I was wondering,” she said, knowing that she had to get down to business before time got away from her, “that after Kira is back from L3, if you would accompany me to the PLANTs? I have a proposal that I want to put forth to Chairwoman Canaver and was hoping that I could possibly count on your support for it.”

“Oh?” Lacus answered, looking curiously interested. Cagalli knew that to keep the perceptions clean, she had to present the image of not having Lacus standing by her side in a constant manner. Lacus was the equivalent of a trump card in many political matters, and there were still people on Earth who trusted her to be a neutral party.

“I was hoping to propose a joint project with the PLANTs and build a permanent memorial station near the remnants of Junius 7,” she stated, steepling her fingers around her tea cup. “We will soon have generations growing up with the war and how it began only as a distant memory or read in historical textbooks. I don't want that knowledge lost.”

“I believe that is a wonderful idea, Cagalli,” Lacus answered, a bright smile appearing on her face. “I would be honored to accompany you to the PLANTs when you are ready to present it.”

“Thank you,” she said, feeling relieved as she glanced over to see Athrun and their two children still obliviously sleeping the afternoon away.

“Have you told Athrun yet?” Lacus asked.

“No,” she answered, shaking her head slightly. “I know that he'll be nervous about me going to the PLANTs, and I don't want him to worry about me – not when he's already worried about the children. I can't ask him to come with me, even if we didn't have Nicolai or Cari--”

“Then let us both not worry him any further for now,” her friend said, as she felt her gentle hand upon one of her own. Looking back at Lacus, she saw her give her a reassuring smile, saying, “Let us keep this quiet until you are ready to tell both him and the world.”

Cagalli gratefully nodded. As much as Athrun protected her, she did the same for him. She hoped by doing this, it would also give her the opportunity to find out from Canaver if a pardon, even 'posthumously' could be secured for him. Because Canaver had reactivated Athrun as a member of FAITH, she was the only one on the PLANTs to know that he was alive. That was an advantage that Cagalli was choosing to selfishly exploit, in the hopes of a better future for her family.

* * *

C.E. 97, Archangel, Detached from Heliopolis II...

 

Lacus sat at the station that was just a small portion of the table carved specifically out for her. She was not commanding anything, but there was a headset over her head as she looked at the data that was being displayed on the table. On the screen in the front of the room were live image com channels connected to the Eurasian Federation ground forces at their command site, along with the Kusanagi, the PLANTs' Strategic and Tactical Action Room where Chairwoman Canaver currently was, and where the Middle-Eastern Coalition had also set up a temporary ground station.

Kusanagi's feed was fizzling in and out, due to the fact that the ship was about to enter atmosphere and plow directly down to where their combined forces were gathered to confront and stop Akatsuki. There would be a few minutes of complete blackout in com between Archangel and Kusanagi, before the vast array of Eurasian ground stations would recapture the signal and broadcast it to bounce off of satellites.

All around the room where their own strategic and tactical center had been set up, she could hear the rapid typing of her son, trying to kill as much of the latency between where the Archangel was, and where Earth was. Vanguard's systems were integrated into the tactical board on the table, as they used the mobile suit's unique function to try to analyze and find weaknesses in Akatsuki in real-time to give to their allied forces.

As much as everyone was worried about Akatsuki and the threat it and the cloned pilot posed to all of them, no one had forgotten the threat that Patrick Zala had stated to her and Nicolai. Seventy-two hours was nearly upon them, and security was incredibly tight on the ship.

After hearing what had happened to Athrun and Kira on the Electra, a thorough sweep had been done to the Archangel before Murrue had detached the ship from the colony. Nothing had been found, but Lacus knew that Murrue was on the bridge, listening into the battle com chatter, while keeping an eye on any potential external threats that may come after the Archangel and those she carried.

She glanced over to see Nicolai look up from where he was staring at the tactical map being projected from Vanguard, as an officer on the Archangel handed him a datapad. While she wouldn't fault the rather underhanded way that Nicolai had convinced Yzak Joule to send Orb aid without compromising the integrity of the country, it was his tone and words that made her incredibly uneasy. She had initially thought of him as being as noble and steadfast as Cagalli. What he had done to Joule greatly reminded her of the same tone, words, and deft manipulation that Patrick Zala had used to win the snap election for Chairperson.

Somewhere in the young man was his other legacy – that of Athrun's father and of the atrocities the man had committed. She shook her head slightly. She could not think about such thoughts at the moment – not when so much else was at stake.

Refocusing herself, she looked around, noticing that Nicolai's personal bodyguard, young Daneel Barton, was standing near him, but had his eyes focused around the room. As much as she feared for the safety of Yuki and Nicolai, it was a great relief to her and others to hear that Athrun was alive and recovering from nearly being killed by poison.

That news had been given to them only six hours before, and thus, Lacus knew that their combined forces would be down one mobile suit pilot. While she knew that Athrun would not be happy about being sidelined, she hoped that Kira was able to convince him otherwise. As selfish as she knew Cagalli had been in the past about protecting both Kira and Athrun, Lacus knew that she was the same – neither of them could bear to see the men they loved, die.

~~~~

Electra, Off the Coast of Africa, Earth...

 

“It's your lucky day, Zala.”

Athrun looked up from the latest Eurasian Federation reports, and information from the Archangel about Akatsuki. He saw Pars step into the tiny infirmary and toss an olive-green flight suit and helmet onto the end of his bed. It was the same kind of flight suit the man was wearing. The flight suit was not a space-rated flight suit, but one that helicopter pilots and the like wore. He could only assume that the parachute that usually went with this type of flight suit was elsewhere and would be picked up by him later.

“All hands on deck for the op,” Pars stated, crossing his arms over his chest, giving him a leveled look. “We've finally caught up with those bastards. You can pick up your parachute before going into the launch bay.”

“Where exactly are we?” he asked.

“About two hundred nautical miles off the coast of Madagascar,” Pars stated quite bluntly.

“I'm ready to fight,” Athrun stated, nodding, as he placed the data pad to the side.

“Well, no shit,” the man answered. “You looked ready nine hours earlier, but Kira convinced old Doc Tsang to keep you under observation for a little longer.”

Athrun frowned, not because of what Kira had done – he was grateful for the additional rest – but he couldn't fathom why Pars had such a derisive tone when he had said that. It felt like almost every single time the man addressed Kira, his tone seemed to be dripping with contempt. Not to mention far more cursing than what was really necessary.

Curiosity got the better of him, and he asked, “Aside from the fact that both of you are survivors of that Project, what is your problem with Kira?”

Pars snorted, giving him a withering smile before shaking his head. “Everything,” the man answered, “but mostly you.”

Athrun was sorely confused, but the man was not given any more time to say whatever else he was going to say when the infirmary door opened. Kira entered, wearing a similarly colored flight suit like the one that was lying on the bed. “Canard!” he heard Kira exclaim in dismay. “What the hell are you doing? What--”

“I'm okay, Kira,” he interrupted before Kira could continue to protest, glaring at Pars for a moment.

He didn't know or understand Pars's rationale for doing such a thing, but he had seen that kind of deft emotional manipulation of one person against another done before. Whatever issues Pars had against him or Kira, he wasn't going to let it get to him – after all, the man had let them tag along to draw the chaos away from Orb. Kira's older brother merely shrugged and left without another word, closing the door behind him.

“Athrun...” Kira began, looking worried.

“I'm feeling much better, Kira,” he said, shoving the starchy medical sheets off of himself before standing up. He didn't even wobble as he took the couple of steps to reach over and grab the flight suit. Beginning to put it on over the shorts and t-shirt he had been garbed with during his recovery, he paused as he heard Kira take a couple of steps forward.

He couldn't help but smile in reassurance as he saw that even with his actions thus far, Kira still wouldn't let his concern go. He was briefly reminded of the first time they had met all those years ago, but surprise filled him for a moment as he found himself wrapped in his friend's warm embrace. “I'm sorry,” he heard Kira say, his words half-muffled.

A feeling of regret filled him as he reached up and returned the embrace. Those words were enough to convey everything he knew that stood between them for so long. They were going into battle that he knew that none of them knew if they could win. They had to, but what would be the cost of victory for them?

“I'm sorry as well,” he answered, a bittersweet smile turning up the edges of his lips. “And I forgive you, Kira.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: The Edge

C.E. 97, Archangel, Space...

 

Hyperion, launching!”

Buster, launching!”

Astray Alpha, taking off!”

Strike Rouge Two, launching!”

Meridian, taking off!”

Lancer One, launching!”

Astray Bravo, taking off!”

Sentinel, taking off!”

Lacus stared at the tactical screen on the table as the IFF from Vanguard populated with the various mobile suits, mobile armors, and ships of the combined forces. As call signs and launch indicators were continuing to fill the battle com, she could see them beginning to array themselves into a battle array. Because of the latency and lag, the Eurasian Forces had tactical command over the battle that was about to commence. Strategic input would be given to them via Archangel, Canaver, and others who monitored the battle.

She knew that most of them in the Archangel wished that they were present at the battlefield to aid their friends and comrades. But because of the still ongoing chaos and uncertainty on Earth, Archangel had to remain in space for the time being. She was the only ship and crew currently capable of protecting their interim Chief Representative, and the citizens on Heliopolis II. No one else could be trusted until the threat of Akatsuki and its clone pilot were gone.

Lancer Nine, launching!”

Strike Rouge One, launching!”

“Athrun?” Lacus whispered in surprise, blinking as she looked up to see that others around the table had the same looks that mirrored her own.

“Good to see that you've finally woke up from your princely nap, Zala,” Dearka Elsmann's drawl carried over the battle com. “Hope you had sweet dreams.”

“Really?” she heard Athrun quip over the channel, “You really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for that, didn't you, Dearka? I'm disappointed.”

“Can the chatter you two,” Joule's voice broke into the two's banter.

Because of just how long it had taken Joule's ship to get back to the PLANTs, they had only been able to initially scramble a small force of BuCUEs. Those panther-like mobile armors were under the unofficial command of Elsmann, even though the man was not ZAFT. Joule was currently on another ship bearing him and additional ZAFT forces to Earth, but was tuned into and monitoring the battle.

“Oy,” Elsmann said, his tone indicating that he was clearly annoyed. At precisely whom, no one knew.

“Geez,” she thought she heard Kira mutter over the open channel. Oddly enough, Lacus heard Athrun bark in laughter, but then realized that in a way, the banter between the three former teammates was a way for them to ease the heightened stress that came before the battle began.

“Head's up,” Nicolai interrupted all of them. “Akatsuki is entering the edge of Vanguard's FOV.” Lacus saw him glance up and look towards Yuki who curtly nodded before hitting a few buttons. “Beginning data capture and dissemination,” her nephew continued to say a moment later. “Good hunting, pilots and crews.”

~~~

Off the Coast of Africa, Earth...

 

Kira took a deep breath and slowly let it go as he adjusted his grip on the throttles of his mobile suit. He was nervous, and despite the reassuring presence of Athrun in his mobile suit flying next to him, he couldn't shake the bad feeling in his stomach. Akatsuki's lumbering form on the ship it had stolen out of Orb could barely be seen on the horizon. Each second it got closer, sent reminders to him that what he and Athrun had thrown at it had not even scored the reflective gold phase-shifted armor on it. That mobile suit had pinned both of them down.

Still, he could not let his fear master him, and instead, needed to master his fear. They had firepower and forces on their side – with more on their way. It was the only way he knew how to take down a nuclear-powered mobile suit. The information that Archangel had given them told them that the mobile suit was built with at least two beam plasma cannons – similar to the ones carried by Infinite Justice.

It was very little in terms of information, but it was still better than nothing. He knew that he and Athrun had been very lucky to not have the cannons fired at them back in Orb. He could only chalk it up to the fact that perhaps the clone of Athrun's father had not even known that there were such weapons in it until now.

“Radiological spike!” he heard the pilot of Meridian shout over the channel. “Scatter!”

Kira yanked on the throttles, stomping on the pedals to bring SR Two out of the line of fire, just as twin plasma beams burned through the air, forcing all of them to dodge. He heard Prime Minister Stephanopolos order, “Kusanagi and Electra, destroy the transport. All ground forces, shield the coast. Flight mobile suits and armors, drive that fortress north!”

Momentarily regrouping, acknowledgments rang across the board as Kira pushed his mobile suit, flying in a semi attack formation with the others who had flight-equipped units on their backs or feet. He had never done strafing runs with a mobile suit before, since the battles he had participated in were mostly mobile suit against mobile suit. However, against this behemoth of a mobile suit, old conventions had to be tossed out.

An enormous sand trap, much like the ones used against Bartfeld so long ago, had been buried in the Sahara Desert. There were also additional traps set all along the coast of the Red Sea. Those in flight had the primary duty of forcing the enemy mobile suit towards the Red Sea – northwards. There, they would be able to deploy the various traps in an effort to contain the mobile suit. The ground forces, including Buster, MEC forces, and the BuCUEs of ZAFT, had the duties of protecting the African coast – to be the wall, should the mobile suit break through the flight screen.

“Hyperion Squad, beginning attack run,” he heard the calm, cool voice of his brother state over the channel. At once, he saw his brother's mobile suit, along with three others – two Lancers and Sentinel – flanking him, put on a burst of speed.

Just as the transport beneath Akatsuki exploded from the flurry of missiles launched from Kusanagi and Electra, the enemy mobile belched out a great amount of smoke that quickly dissipated with the high winds. With the wind whipping away the smoke screen, Kira saw Hyperion activate its Artemis shield, just as the steady purple stream of beam weaponry fired from the enemy mobile suit.

The impact of the beam against the Artemis shield was bright, but then Sentinel and the Lancers dove in. He saw Sentinel score a direct hit on Akatsuki, but the beam sabres she had struck with did nothing. Neither did the missiles and beam rifle fire from the Lancers. It did, however, catch the attention of the mobile suit as he saw it deploy the same golden lances/homing missiles that Athrun had been trapped by, back in Orb.

That was the rest of the flight group's cue, as another two pulses of plasma beams from Akatsuki temporarily forced them to scatter. But they regrouped and charged. As Kira fired his beam rifle, the concentrated amount of missiles and beam weaponry on the enemy mobile suit was beginning to have an effect on the trajectory of it. Slowly, but surely, it was moving towards the north. Pressing forward, he dodged and rolled as Akatsuki released defensive countermeasures in the form of machine gun fire from various small ports and Wombat missiles.

Akatsuki has DRAGOON pods!”

Just as the warning from Archangel tore through the channel, Kira reversed his throttles and snapped his mobile suit to the left. Several narrow-shaped pods, oblong in nature with the same golden reflective armor as their mothership, suddenly detached from Akatsuki. He narrowly dodged and swiped at one with his beam sabre, managing to chop the barrel that had emerged from the retracted portion of the pod. It exploded, but the skies were already swarming with multiple pods.

Several of the Lancers who had been following him and Meridian exploded with the darkening of the skies. Bolts of red beams from the pods rained down on them, but Kira continued to press on. Weaving and firing at the pods whenever he could, he dove as close as he dared to the enemy mobile suit. If the pilot truly was a technopath-enhanced clone, then the pods would have to be precise in destroying mobile suits. The closer he was to Akatsuki, the less likely chance he had of being hit by a pod. He was, however, well aware that it also raised his chances for something unknown to strike him from Akatsuki.

“Raise the curtain!” he heard the pilot of Buster's voice break through the harried chatter over the channel.

That was their cue to scatter higher into the skies for a moment as the bottom half of the mobile fortress was blanketed in missiles from the land-based forces. The pods followed the flight forces, and Kira did not stop to see where the enemy fortress was at the moment. It was clear that even with the unexpected DRAGOON pod weapons being deployed against them, Akatsuki was still headed north. They just needed to keep it occupied.

~~~

Archangel, Space...

 

Murrue tightened her right fist that was resting on the arm of her chair. The others on the bridge could not listen into the battle com channel that Lacus and the others were connected to, but she could. However as soon as a louder incoming alert tone sounded from the radar officer's station, she cut off the battle feed from the headset she wore and tore the device off.

“Unknown ship silhouette and fifteen mobile armors approaching!” her radar officer declared. “She's not acknowledging our hails! Her gun ports are open!”

On the screen, there appeared a strange-looking ship. It looked like nothing she knew of OMNI, ZAFT, Eurasia, or even Orb ships. It was boxy, blocky, and looked more like a flying brick with long antennae-like specks for gunports than anything else. Whatever it was, it was clear that the ship meant to attack them, completely unprovoked. “Set condition one!” she briskly ordered, “Launch squadron and prepare for combat!”

~~~

Lacus briefly looked up from the tactical display on the table as the lights in the room were suddenly replaced by the red warning lights of the ship going into active combat stations. The blare of the alarm and the declaration to set the ship to combat condition one briefly sounded, as she looked back down to see Nicolai's hands curling into fists. Still, her nephew's expression didn't change, and neither did the rapid-fire typing of Yuki near him slow down.

She did, however, see some of the others sitting around the table and disseminating and analyzing the data being dragged from Vanguard, shift a little in their seats. The young guardsman, Daneel, stepped away from where he was and double checked the door that led into the room before standing right by it. It was unstated, but Lacus didn't need it to be – at combat conditions, and with what was going on down on Earth, this would be the perfect time for someone to strike.

As unsettled as she felt, she tried to push it away to the back of her mind. She could not worry about her own or her son and nephew's safety at the moment. Not when it was clear that the battle on Earth was not turning towards the favor of Kira and the others. Returning her attention to the battle on the blue-white orb, she heard the calm, strong and steady voice of Athrun ordering several of the Astrays to follow him. They were going to try to free Hyperion from its stationary prison of being the sole mobile suit capable of repelling the strange violet laser beams.

Glancing at the map, she could see that they were still herding Akatsuki north, and were finally beginning to enter the mouth of the Red Sea. They were slowly leading it towards more favorable grounds. Though considering how long the Alliance had been fighting, she was beginning to become concerned that the battery levels on several of the mobile suits were going to expire soon.

Meridian's pilot, along with Kira and several of the Lancers were still pinned down by the DRAGOON pods. Sentinel was being harried and chased by the golden homing missiles, but had managed to evade most of them thus far. Buster and the ground forces were slowly closing in, but with each wave of missiles and beams that were being launched from them, their own resources were dwindling as well. Captain Joule and his reinforcements were just beginning to enter the atmosphere, but was fifteen minutes away from helping them. Ten of those minutes would have the forces disconnected from the main battle, due to their atmospheric drop.

Fifteen minutes was a long time – long enough that Lacus hoped that the Alliance would be able to hold on.

~~~

“Captain! IFF labels them as Serpent's Tail!”

“What?” Murrue hissed, narrowing her eyes slightly. “Confirm, Officer Song!”

“Confirm, ma'am,” the signal officer stated.

“Helm take us thirty port, load Helldarts bays ten through twenty, and ready Valiants to fire on my command,” she ordered. “Squadron, if it is really Serpent's Tail, let them fire first.”

She knew that signal scrambling was possible, especially with the advent of the technopaths. There was a possible chance that the IFF being broadcasted to them at this very moment was only a distraction and lure for complacency. However, if the attackers were truly Serpent's Tail, then she would make sure that when the Archangel and her people were finished with this battle, Earth and the PLANTs knew of the group's broken vow of neutrality.

“Copy, ma'am,” the armament officers acknowledged, as did the mobile armor squadron's commander. She knew that the squadron was outnumbered by three, but those who served on her ship were not ace pilots for nothing. All but one of her pilots had survived the battles at Heliopolis II and L4 last year, and she had full confidence in their abilities to survive this one.

At ten kilometers, the ship and its fifteen mobile armors attacked. “Fire Helldarts and Valiants!” Murrue ordered.

~~~

PLANT Colony: Aprilius 4...

 

“Exploit found, sending data now!”

Eileen Canaver watched as a few moments later, the exploit found by her people in the Strategic and Tactical Action Room was distributed to not only to Archangel and the powerful and unique IFF tunneling it carried, but also down to the Eurasian command station. Less than a few seconds later, acknowledgments rang across the board as she saw several mobile suits including SR One, dive in and successfully destroy the array that powered the beam weaponry that had kept Hyperion pinned down.

Immediately, several more dots popped upon the screen as it seemed that the enormous mobile suit had kept some DRAGOON pods in reserve. She heard several cries of pilots and ground forces scream as their IFFs winked out on her board.

Eileen clenched her jaw for a moment, but dared not to show any other sign of the anger she felt. She had seen the recording that Joule had made of the discussion between him, Elsmann, and Orb's Chief Representative. The way that Orb's new leader had requested aid was infuriating and humiliating. It was also exactly the thing she feared about Nicolai Uzumi Attha – the young man's inaugural speech, coupled with his actions, was too closely mirrored to the same actions and words of Patrick Zala.

They had had enough to deal with, with a clone of the former Chairman. Coupled with his grandson at the helm of a nation that had preached peace between Coordinators and Naturals, but now was fractured, war seemed inevitable.

However, she had heard the words of her agents – she knew their stance on Attha, and she paid attention to their opinions. Elsmann and Joule wanted peace, wanted to continue to give young Attha a chance. So she obliged them, hoping that both of them were right – perhaps she was just chasing ghosts of the past that should have stayed long dead.

She wished she could have sent more with Elsmann, but with what the PLANTs had just been through, they were incredibly stretched for resources. Joule's forces were only a small fraction of what military resources the PLANTs had left – and she knew that Joule was well aware of it. None of her FAITH agents were here – they were all headed or already on Earth. She had made her people vulnerable, and she hoped that her gamble was worth it.

~~~

The Red Sea, Earth...

 

Athrun knew what fear felt like, having tasted it countless of times during the war and its aftermath. However, he had never let that fear hamper him, and instead, had used it to fuel his senses and hone his reaction time. It gave him an edge during fights, to know that at any time, one false move and he would be killed. Even now, against this behemoth of a mobile suit, the trickle of fear, of apprehension, of the icy pit in his stomach that would not go away until the battle was done, drove him.

But it was not enough.

Stomping on his mobile suit's pedals while yanking his right throttle to reverse, and his left one to full power, he dodged the laser beams that tried to pepper his position. Never had it ever crossed his mind that he would be fighting against both the DRAGOON system that Strike Freedom had, and the dual plasma cannons that Infinite Justice had. Never mind that even just trying to pepper the main engine area of the massive mobile suit was all but impossible.

Akatsuki's DRAGOON system was incredibly effective at keeping all of them away, and when it didn't, it proved to be an effective shield against any of them hitting the weak spots that Archangel had identified. But they were keeping it where it was, keeping it stationary and floating above the Red Sea. Since the battle had started, the massive mobile suit had not even moved towards Victoria Base, and Athrun took some comfort in that.

Glancing at his mobile suit's battery levels as he continued to evade the DRAGOON pods and fired off a few shots, he saw that he was getting close to the fifty-percent marker. He knew that if he hit that mark or less, he would not be able to utilize the hidden weapon that had been built into this particular version of Strike Rouge. Still, the combined forces had been fighting for a while now, with little to no effect. They could not keep this up, whereas it was the damn nuclear power that Akatsuki had, that would outlast them in battle.

As helpless and hopeless as he wanted to feel, he pushed that from his thoughts and drew upon the spark of fear that continued to course through him. The tables were turned on them, but he knew that there were always ways to defeat a seemingly impossible enemy – whether it be an actual one or himself. He had made sure that he knew every single aspect of the nuclear-powered mobile suits that both he and Kira had piloted before. To know which parts were the weakest meant that they would be able to protect for it and emerge victorious.

“Kira,” he stated into the battle com channel. “Input into your keypad code three-three-seven. It will give you more speed, but watch your battery levels.”

“Copy,” he heard him crisply answer before seeing SR Two suddenly transform into a delta-wing mobile armor with legs. He briefly saw Kira dart around the pods that had tried to surround him before flying straight towards Lenore in Sentinel. Sentinel had been trapped by a steady stream of golden explosive lances following her around, preventing her from blitzing in and around the pods to destroy them.

Just as he saw Hyperion, Meridian, and the various Astrays and Lancers, crisscross flight paths to bring Akatsuki's pods closer together, SR Two had freed Sentinel from her prison. The two zipped out from where they had been and immediately begun firing at the gathered pods, with help from the ground forces. In those few precious seconds of pressure alleviated from the defensive lattice that Akatsuki had deployed, Athrun saw the perfect opportunity.

Kusanagi,” he stated after he keyed a separated channel over to the ship.

“I see it,” Kisaka answered almost before Athrun had finished stating the ship's name. The old General had seen the same thing he had and was going to take advantage of it before the massive mobile fortress could retaliate.

Just as he saw the speck of light emitting from the twin Lohengrin guns of the ship, he activated his own keypad and typed in his own three-digit code. The transformation of SR One was fast, as he saw a warning about his battery power pop up on the lower corner of his screen. He was on the threshold of fifty percent, but it didn't matter. He needed to take the shot now, knowing that they would most likely not have another opportunity.

Aegis?!” he heard someone exclaim in disbelief over the battle channel. Ignoring the exclamation, he fired the sole beam cannon built into SR One – a Lohengrin that had been designed and integrated in a similar fashion to the Scylla cannon in Aegis.

Three beams of crackling red energy surrounded by a storm of blue electric arcs lanced out and straight into the back of Akatsuki. The resultant explosion was further accompanied by a flurry of missiles homing in on the same area from the Electra, as Buster added its firepower to the storm from its beam cannon. Athrun had to close his eyes as the blinding light briefly overwhelmed his vision, even as he heard the faint warning whoops of alarms blaring across his cockpit, telling him that he was draining his battery levels to critical.

~~~

Kira looked away for a brief moment as the combined Lohengrins and missiles from the Kusanagi, SR One, Buster, and Electra nearly blinded him. The light quickly died though, and with it, he couldn't help but give a whooping cheer as he saw thick black smoke billow out from the main engine area of the massive mobile suit. Not a moment later, Akatsuki seemingly rocked forward before falling towards the Red Sea. It's main engines had been destroyed, and it was dead in the literal water.

He saw SR One transform back into mobile suit mode before phase-shifting to grey – its own batteries nearly drained. Nevertheless, what happened in the next few moments would haunt him for the rest of his life:

“Scatter!” he heard Meridian's pilot shout over the battle com, just as several golden, whip-like energy cords shot out from the black smoke.

Faster than any of them could react, the tendrils struck the Electra from bow to stern, causing the ship to be bisected in half. Explosions ripped up and down the ship, as he heard several screams of denial over the com – the most prominent coming from Canard. Before his brother could counterattack in revenge, several more electrified tendrils burst out from Akatsuki, forcing Canard and several of the other mobile suits to dodge.

Some were not fast enough as the thick cords wrapped around portions of the Kusanagi, dragging it down from the skies, wrenching and cutting into the ship. Tendrils had also lanced through SR One, who had been trying to make its way back to Kusanagi to berth, decapitating its head and dismembering two of its limbs. Other mobile suits were similarly struck and fell from the sky, slamming into the ground with a crushing amount of force.

“Athrun!” he shouted as Athrun's yelp over the emergency com line snapped him out of his shock. Fury enveloped that fear as he pushed his thrusters to maximum, heedless of the battery power warning that had popped up on the corner of his screen.

Weaving, dodging, and rolling his way around the remaining pods, along with more of those tendrils that had suddenly appeared from the inert mobile fortress, he raced towards Athrun. Sentinel and Hyperion were hot on his heels, as he saw out of the corner of his eyes, Buster fired its beam cannon again to try to break several of another wave of the tendrils. The ground-based Gundam had not been fast enough to dodge them and had been struck and pinned it to the ground as if it were a bug.

“Dearka! Get out!” Meridian's pilot shouted over the com system. Kira quickly glanced over towards his left, just in time to see Buster being ripped apart by the tendrils.

“Shit!” someone cursed over com, as he bit down on the bitter sorrow of the loss and focused his attention back on making sure that Akatsuki did not do the same to SR One. Secondary explosions from the downed Kusanagi peppered his mobile armor, but he was so close--

“No!” he yelled, just as several more tendrils suddenly lanced out from another area of the thick smoke and wrapped themselves around SR One.

Firing the beam rifle that was attached to his mobile armor as fast as he could, he tried to snap and break the tendrils, but his weapon was ineffective and useless. Akatsuki dragged SR One down from the sky. Just as Kira was almost able to fire point-blank into one of the tendrils that had wrapped itself around the torso of SR One, a wall of white slammed up between him and his quarry.

Kira scraped the legs of SR Two along the shimmering wall, going full vertical in his mobile armor. The friction force sheared off the legs, but he didn't care as he flipped SR Two over, only to see that a shield system that looked incredibly like the Artemis shield system was draped over Akatsuki.

“Give him back!” he heard Lenore's scream of rage over the com, just as a flurry of missiles and beam weaponry from Sentinel peppered the enormous shimmering shield. It did little to bring down the shield as to Kira's horror, he and the others could see more cords emerge from within the mobile fortress and continue to tightly wrap themselves around SR One. Akatsuki was slowly crushing SR One and Athrun to death.

“Fuck!” Canard's expletive over the com, along with the rapid movement of Hyperion out of the corner of his eyes, snapped Kira out of his fugue. He saw Hyperion, with its own Artemis shield system active, barrel into the shield of Akatsuki.

It didn't work.

The shields were on different enough frequencies that both could repel beam weaponry and missiles, but would also repel anything with enough force. Kira desperately wanted to latch onto Hyperion to give his brother the necessary speed to hopefully barrel through the shield, but with out the legs of his mobile armor, he was unable to grasp. Sentinel had also phase-shifted to grey just as Canard had attempted to plow into Akatsuki.

“No,” he desperately said, looking and hoping to find something – anything around him – to free Athrun. His breath caught in his lungs as at that very moment, an enormous explosion enveloped a part of the golden mobile fortress. SR One had self-detonated, its energy cloud bulging out with enough force to strain Akatsuki's Artemis shield, causing it to flicker as it phased in and out uncontrollably.

“ATHRUN!” he screamed.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Interludes and Examinations

C.E. 79, PLANT Colony: Memorial Colony...

 

Cagalli remained silent as she glanced out towards the endless fields of flowers and grass that zipped by her and the others in the car. Were the entire colony's rolling hills and fields not such a sober reminder of the enormous amount of people that had been lost in the war, it would have been a more beautiful sight to her. Instead, the neatly curated and clean rows of small stone placards stating the name and years that the graves were dedicated to, only served to cement her resolve to ensure that the peace between Naturals and Coordinators lasted.

“Please stop here, Mr. Barton,” she heard Lacus say. The Orb guardsman obliged Lacus' request and pulled the car over to the side, ensuring that the vehicle was not taking up the entire narrow road that wound around the cemetery colony.

Though there were no one who looked threatening as far as Cagalli could see, her two guardsmen who had accompanied both her and Lacus on this historic trip to the PLANTs, were nevertheless cautious. Patricia Ling, who had been sitting in the rear right hand side of the car, got out at the same time Hikaru Barton, who had been driving, did. Lacus remained in the front passenger seat, while fifth and final person who had accompanied them also exited the car.

Her secretary, Leslie Winters – no, Cagalli mentally shook her head as she remembered that Leslie and Hikaru had married only two weeks prior to this trip – Leslie Barton, exited the car as well. It was only a few moments later that both she and Lacus received the all-clear signal. Cagalli scooted herself over towards the left side of the car – the closest to the beginning of the gravestones.

Gratefully accepting her secretary's offer of help, she got out and murmured her thanks to him. While the other Representatives and even Yuuna had urged her to travel with more than two guardsmen and a secretary for this historic trip, she had refused to.

The trip was about peace and unity, of furthering alliances through a joint project, not to assert Orb's dominance in politics. She had only wanted it to be just her, Lacus, her secretary, and one of her guardsmen. Yet, with Athrun's advice, she had brought two guardsmen with her.

As she followed Lacus down the path towards wherever the pink-haired woman was going, she couldn't help but glance up into the sky for a moment, wondering what Athrun had thought of all this. She had announced the trip quite suddenly and had not told him about its purpose – only that she, Lacus, and her secretary were headed to the PLANTs for negotiations. Only the three of them had known the true purpose of the trip, until they had presented it to Canaver.

Now, with Canaver sequestered away to review and discuss the details of the proposed joint project with her advisers, that had given Cagalli and her little delegation some time to visit other places in the PLANTs. Canaver had graciously offered a couple of her aides to give her and her delegation of a tour, but it had been Lacus who had stated that she wanted to visit the memorial colony first. That was how the five of them had ended up on this particular PLANT colony sans PLANT escort.

Canaver had refrained from insisting that they bring an escort with them to the colony. Though Cagalli didn't fully understand the reasoning behind it she could only reasonably assume that it had to do with privacy. She was glad for the trust that Canaver had placed in them, and returned her attention to the forefront as Lacus stopped at the first grave site.

Cagalli remained a respectful distance away from Lacus, as did her guardsmen and Leslie, giving her as much privacy as possible after she had caught a glimpse of the names on the gravestones. She watched as her friend, part time confidante, and sister-in-law knelt down in front of the graves of her father and mother, closing her eyes and clasping her hands together. She never knew Lacus to be religious, but she didn't see her lips move at all and could only assume that a silent prayer for the her parents was being said.

Lacus stood up a few minutes later, looking over at them and giving all of them a thankful smile. However, rather than returning to where they were, Cagalli saw her continue down the row, gesturing for her to follow. She approached as Lacus paused at another gravestone before looking over towards her and indicated that she should approach.

Curious, Cagalli did, but did so gingerly. It was not that she was superstitious about stepping within a graveyard, it was the fact that she didn't feel it was appropriate for her to visit any of the graves in this memorial colony. However, that feeling left her as she stopped next to Lacus and looked towards the gravestones lying three in a row in front of both her and Lacus.

“Athrun,” she couldn't help but whisper as she stared at the gravestone that bore her love's name.

“Lenore is his mother,” Lacus said, gesturing to her left – the stone next to the one that had Athrun's name on it. “Patrick... well...”

“I thought--” Cagalli began, frowning slightly as she saw that the name that Patrick Zala had been 'buried' under in this memorial was not 'Patrick Zala'.

“Many of the families that live in the PLANTs are matriarchal,” Lacus explained. “Some aren't, but the majority of them are. It was borne out of a majority of the sponsor nations' societies, and was considered to be something of a lucky charm for the Coordinator women who carried the next generation. Athrun's family was one of the 'old blood' matriarchal lines who had been among the preeminent military families on Earth, before a branch of the family moved to the PLANTs. Hence, when Athrun's father married into the Zala family, he changed his surname.”

In a quieter tone, Lacus stated, “Chairwoman Canaver told me that he had been 'buried' under his unmarried name, since grave desecration was extremely likely had he been buried under his married name. Most don't remember him before he had made his name in PLANT politics.”

“Ah,” she said, blinking in surprise, and feeling grateful that Lacus had taken the time to explain it to her.

“Lenore was a kind woman with a strong sense of honor and justice, much like Athrun,” Lacus said, smiling as she knelt down in front of the woman's grave and brushed a hand across her etched name. “I didn't know her that well, but Athrun said that she was also quite strict with him when he had been growing up.”

“Kira told me that both he and Athrun used to get in a lot of trouble at their school,” she said as Lacus stood back up. “The only time they feared punishment was when Athrun's mother had become quite angry at them for something they had done.”

“I can imagine,” she said, nodding in agreement before gesturing for her to follow once again.

They stepped back onto another path that led them elsewhere. Peripherally, Cagalli was aware that her secretary and guardsmen were standing a ways away. They were far away enough that she was sure that none of them had heard the conversation between her and Lacus with regards to the Zala family or about Athrun. It was not that anything they had discussed would lead any eavesdropper to conclude that Athrun was still alive, but that Patrick Zala's gravestone was in this particular area.

She did not want to protect the man, especially after what he had done. However, for the sake of keeping the peace, and for Athrun's sake, she had never voiced her opinion about Patrick Zala to Athrun. It was already enough that she had heard his dying words to Athrun – the order to fire Genesis. Athrun did not need the reminder of what the man had done, in his life anymore.

As they entered another row, it was near the middle of the row that Lacus finally stopped and knelt down. Cagalli looked at the name on the gravestone: Nicol Amalfi. Athrun had spoken very little about Nicol, but it had been clear to her that the pilot had been a close friend of his during the war. She knew that Nicol's death at the hands of Kira had been the shatter point between Kira and Athrun's friendship.

She waited for Lacus to say her silent prayers. She would have performed the same actions as Lacus had done at both this and her father's grave site, but knew that she had to maintain a proper perception. It was something she never felt comfortable with, but knew that it was safer for her to not show any overt sympathy or acquiescing towards those closest to Lacus. Eyes were always upon her, and in the PLANTs, even with the peace, she knew of the whispers of plots from Coordinators and Naturals alike.

A few moments were all Lacus needed as she opened her eyes, unclasping her hands as she stood back up.

“The war took too many from us,” Cagalli couldn't help but murmur.

Lacus was silent, but Cagalli saw her nod in agreement. Together, the two of them made their way back to the others.

It was only after they had returned to the car and settled themselves into the seats that Hikaru surprisingly spoke up, asking, “Ma'am, would it be all right if we briefly stop at another site within this memorial?”

“Yes, please do,” she answered, realizing that she had been remiss to think that only Lacus had family and friends resting here in the memorial. “I'm sorry, I should have asked all of you earlier if there were any here you wanted to pay your respects to.”

“It's just me, Ma'am,” the guardsman answered, as he drove the car towards another area within the memorial, “and thank you.”

Cagalli was curious as to whom her guardsman knew resting here, but she was much too polite to inquire. It was personal, and Hikaru had not inquired about Lacus' or her graveside visits. She was just glad for the opportunity to get to know a little bit more about at least one of her two favorite guardsmen.

Both Patricia and Hikaru were quite professional around her, but she didn't blame them for their strict delineation between work and their private lives. Haumea only knew that almost everything personal in her own life was known by the two, and those in her personal staff. Her political marriage to Yuuna, her intimate relationship with her personal bodyguard, even her children were subject to scrutiny.

It didn't take them long to arrive at the area, though it was Hikaru's surprising request, “I think the person I'm visiting today would be honored and delighted to see the architects of the peace that we now have, Ma'am and Ms. Clyne.”

Speechless at such an invitation, Lacus answered for her momentary silence, saying, “The honor would be ours.”

The same security pattern was performed by her two guardsmen and secretary, before her secretary helped her out of the car, while Patricia had helped Lacus out again. Both she and Lacus followed Hikaru down a row, though the walk was not as far as Lacus had gone for both her father, the Zala family, or for Nicol Amalfi.

They stopped before a gravestone marked with the name: Daisuke Barton. The date of the young man's death was 14 February C.E. 70, and he had only been a day removed from seventeen at the date of his death.

“Daisuke was my twin brother,” Hikaru began. “When we both came of age, we took slightly different career paths. I joined the guardsmen, he decided to go get an agricultural degree at the technical college. When the PLANTs announced the re-raising of ZAFT, he jumped at the chance to serve.”

The guardsman paused for a moment, a chuckle escaping his lips as the edges of his lips quirked up in a slight smile for a brief moment. “He managed to stowaway on a shuttle carrying a diplomatic entourage from the PLANTs to get to the colonies. Due to the embargo, I didn't hear anything from him until near the end of his training, when he managed to send me a message about meeting and falling in love with a girl – Yelena – he had met while in training. They were also engaged to be married. He was going to try to get special permission to allow me to travel to the PLANTs to be his best man at the wedding.”

Hikaru fell silent for a moment as Cagalli saw him kneel down onto a knee, brushing his right hand fingertips over the etched name. “I heard from his fiancee after the war. Immediately after graduating from training, Daisuke's group had been assigned to Junius 7, under the command of a former ZAFT test pilot. They were there to make sure that the farming operations for the colony were not going to be sabotaged by anyone.”

“I'm sorry for your loss,” Cagalli said as soon as the guardsman fell silent, reaching out and placing a comforting hand on his shoulder for a moment.

“I am as well,” Lacus followed up, kneeling down and looking over towards him. “Would you like me to say a prayer?”

Hikaru silently shook his head and slowly stood back up, offering an arm to help Lacus up. “Thank you for the offer Ms. Clyne, but I think he's always been watching down from wherever he is, and is happy with what we've achieved. I just wanted to introduce both of you to him, to let him know that everything is all right in the world.”

Cagalli nodded, and a few moments later, they silently made their way back to the car. As the began to make their way back to the shuttles that would return them to Aprilius 4, the PLANT government's seat of power, she couldn't help but wonder just how many other Orb citizens had had relatives or friends memorialized here. Though she had not specified anything with regards to the dead and how they were to be memorialized in the proposed Junius 7 Memorial Station, perhaps when they returned to Canaver's office, she could ask for at least a list of non-PLANT citizens who had been killed.

At least she hoped that there was a sort of list compiled.

She only knew that the embargo imposed on the PLANTs before the war had made traveling to and from there quite difficult. She hoped that with the list, she could give other families, such as Hikaru, a sense of peace, and of a place they could go to, to give their prayers and hopes. She didn't know how many of the bodies had been recovered from the debris of Junius 7, but if bodies could continue to be recovered at the site, then perhaps matching them with DNA identification could be done.

The shuttle hop from the memorial colony to Aprilius 4 was quiet, as was the car ride from the shuttle station to Canaver's office. However, as they approached the park that was nearest to the governmental buildings, she felt the car slow down. The lights on the main road was green, but there were barriers set up in the distance across the main thoroughfare.

The ratcheting of a gun from the front where Hikaru and Patricia were sitting startled her for a brief moment. She saw Patricia discreetly passed her sidearm to Leslie, who was sitting in the back and on her left.

“Wig and mask,” was all Hikaru stated as he paused at two intersections before the barricades, with the light thankfully having turned red for the moment.

She saw her secretary open up the briefcase that he kept with him at all times after tucking the gun to the side for the moment. He dug into the main pocket within the briefcase and handed a satchel over.

As soon as Patricia took the satchel, a transparent divider between the front and the rear was activated. Her secretary had closed his briefcase, but he had also taken out something else – a small round object – and placed it in a discreet area on the transparent divider.

As much as Cagalli wanted to demand what was happening, time and the fact that her two bodyguards were taking action, told her that a threat of sorts had been perceived. She had faced countless of threats against her life before, most of them with Athrun at her side. This was one of the very few times that he was not here to protect her. Even though she knew just how competent her two guardsmen were, it was because of where she currently was that she wished Athrun was present.

Just as the car started forward again on the turning of the green light, she saw Patricia put on a pink wig and some sort of mask that shimmered slightly. While she couldn't see her clearly, she could only assume that Patricia had put on a hasty disguise to look similar to Lacus. It certainly would explain why Patricia had been dressed similarly to Lacus during the entire trip thus far.

Cagalli glanced over to her right to see Lacus sitting calmly. She only had to remember that Lacus had survived numerous attempts on her own life during the war when she had been hunted by Chairman Zala. Still, she reached out and grasped Lacus's left hand with her right, squeezing it gently as she gave her a nod of encouragement. Whatever happened, they would make it through, and make it home to Athrun and Kira. Neither of them had fought hard for peace only to have their lives end here.

“Is it working, Hikaru?” Leslie's quiet question shook Cagalli out of her bleak thoughts as she saw that her secretary had taken up Patricia's sidearm, but had placed his briefcase on top to mask it.

“For now,” came the curt answer as he pulled the car up to the barricade checkpoint and rolled down the driver's side window.

“I'm sorry, sir, but we have to ask you to turn back--”

“Ara, what has happened?” she heard Patricia ask in a near-perfect imitation of Lacus' voice and tone of innocence, as she saw her lean over slightly, as the barricade guard leaned a little forward to peer into the car.

“Ms. Clyne!” the guard exclaimed. “Chief Representative Attha! Please, forgive my manners!”

“Stay calm,” she heard her secretary whisper. “There's a projection mask carrying across the windows and barrier.”

Cagalli tried not to show her surprise, but whatever else she thought of the unique technology that must have come from the tiny disc that her secretary had attached to the pane was dashed a moment later. “There's been an assassination attempt on Chairwoman Canaver, Ms. Clyne. The assassin has been apprehended and the Chairwoman unhurt, but the building all around are under lock down until a confirmed clear sweep,” the guard explained. “We can escort you to a safe house a few blocks down until the all clear is given.”

“Where's the safe house, sir?” Hikaru asked. “It would be faster and safer if I drove Ms. Clyne and the Chief Representative there.”

“Uh, right,” the guard stated before Cagalli saw some movement coming beyond the driver-side window, with some peering as best as they could into the car to catch a glimpse of either her or 'Lacus' sitting in the front passenger seat. “Down this road, take a left, then a right, then down the road past the first intersection. The safe house is on the corner of the second intersection on the right. Looks like an abandoned brownstone bank, but it is what it is.”

“All right,” she heard him answer without the usual crispness in his tone.

In fact, the more Cagalli thought about it, the more she realized that Hikaru had carried the entire conversation without the usual curtness or professionalism that she heard countless of times before. Just what was going on?

Still she didn't dare ask, even after her guardsman had begun to drive down the indicated directions to the safe house. It was only after the shadow of a tall building blocked the rear view of the main thoroughfare that Patricia spoke up saying, “Trap?”

“Definitely,” Hikaru answered, the curt, business-like tone in his voice again. “Anything?”

“The assassination attempt is definitely real,” Patricia stated, “but your contact states that the barricades are up from Fifth to Seventh, not where we encountered them. I took the liberty of giving your contact the supposed location of the safe house.”

This time, Cagalli could no longer hold her tongue as she demanded, “What is going on?”

“The guards we passed at the checkpoint may have forwarded our location to whomever is waiting at that 'safe house', ma'am,” Patricia stated. “We need to evacuate you and Ms. Clyne to somewhere safer, before we can draw them off with the disguises.”

“Then drop us off here,” Lacus spoke up, her tone containing none of the usual softness Cagalli was used to hearing. “There's a building here that I had used during the time I was on the run. I believe it to be safe enough as a temporary solution to the problem at hand.”

“Ms. Clyne, no offense, but—” Patricia began, as Cagalli caught her and Hikaru's glance towards each other, both looking unsure.

Cagalli knew that they had every right to not be comfortable with the suggestion of dropping the two of them off in the middle of what could be a potential pincer. Yet, if they tried to escape via car after encountering the false checkpoint, then there was also the potential to unleash more devastating consequences. Those consequences would not just be on her or Lacus, but also to residents living in the area.

“Do it,” Cagalli ordered. “Drop us off, draw them off, and come back alive, you two.”

She saw Hikaru's hands tighten on the wheel for a moment before he nodded, saying in a curt and crisp tone, “Yes, ma'am.”

Lacus guided them to an extremely sketchy-looking alleyway that had one lone door along the right-most building. As soon as the car stopped, Leslie was the first to get out, taking the sidearm and his briefcase with him. Cagalli followed, and then Lacus. There seemed to be an unusually eerie silence enveloping the area, along with a chill that didn't want to go away.

It was only after the murmured, “Point and shoot, just like I taught you,” advice from Hikaru to his husband, who looked more than a little nervous and worried, that the two bodyguards drove away.

Lacus didn't even wait for the car to disappear around the corner and back to the streets that would take it to the purported 'safe house', to approach the lone door. Cagalli saw her draw something small from a pocket before approaching what looked to be an electric breaker next to the door.

The hatch was popped open, and Lacus typed in a sequence of numbers on the keypad. There was a faint buzzing sound coming from the door, which caused Leslie to yank it partially open, blocking the way in until he had cleared the initial entrance of any threats.

Stepping in after her secretary, she couldn't help but glance over at Lacus, slightly concerned. It was not just for the fact that there was a potential threat looming over them, but the action that her secretary had taken in clearing the entrance. She had seen Athrun and her guardsmen clear rooms and other areas with the same kind of stance, efficiency, and careful sweep of their eyes.

The door closed after them, but Cagalli only got to take a few steps into the dim hall before Leslie turned and handed her the gun, butt first. “Please take this, ma'am. I'd rather you'd be armed than not, since you know how to use a pistol.”

Surprised, Cagalli didn't immediately take the offered weapon. “What will you arm yourself with? What your husband said to you as we got off indicated that you've had firearms training from him,” she asked, keeping her tone as even and concerned as possible.

It wasn't that she suspected her secretary, but the fact that that single sweeping and clearing of the immediate surrounding was too precise, too professional. Murmured words of encouragement aside from her guardsman to her secretary aside, she wondered if her secretary had received more training than just how to handle a sidearm. As far as she knew during drills – the guardsmen always told both of her secretaries, Leslie and Joseph, to get to cover if an attacker attacked.

It was implicitly stated that the two would hinder guardsmen response, rather than help. It was also because her two secretaries were Naturals, and civilians with little exposure to martial aspects of life. They did not have the reaction times that the guardsmen – at least half of them Coordinators – had in taking down threats.

“Inside of this is another weapon that I managed to smuggle in, ma'am,” her secretary admitted. There was no sheepish look on his face though as he shook the end of the gun at her.

Cagalli took the weapon, and continued to be surprised by the next set of actions Leslie took. She saw him turn around and crouch next to the entrance, setting the briefcase aside. Methodically, she saw him pull something thin out of the side of the briefcase and attach it to the other side of the entrance's frame.

It took her a moment to realize that it was a tripwire.

By then, Leslie had opened a small compartment that had been sealed within the other side of the briefcase so well that she hadn't even seen the seam. She saw him reach into the compartment and pull out a sidearm – thinner and definitely odder looking than the standard 9-millimeters.

Closing the compartment, Leslie then stood, holding the sidearm at his side in a casual fashion for a moment as he stood back up. As much as Cagalli wanted to ask, it was strangely Lacus placing a hand on her arm and shaking her head no that prevented her from demanding as to just who her secretary really was.

She knew Lacus was right – now was not the time and place to go around demanding answers. The threat against their lives was much too close, and there was only two of her guardsmen to divert the threat away. If Hikaru and Patricia failed, then it would be up to the three of them stuck here to save themselves.

Silently following her secretary, he broke the tense silence a moment later, asking, “How many rooms are in this hall, Ms. Clyne?”

“Fifteen,” Lacus answered. “We used the third one from the end of the hall as the radio room.”

“We'll take the eighth room,” Leslie murmured. “Standard ZAFT tac-team sweep is to send a team to the end to sweep back, while the front group sweeps forward. It prevents people from trying to escape out the front or back. The middle room should give us time to assess how many soldiers there are, and prepare ourselves.”

Cagalli kept silent and curtly nodded. There were so many questions roiling through her mind, but only one was still on her lips. It was clear to her now that her secretary had more than just simple firearms training from Hikaru. Where her secretary got military-like training was puzzling, as she would have heard about it – the guardsmen were always proud of informing her how their new recruits and trainees were coming along.

Entering the eighth room out of the fifteen, she saw Leslie gesture for her and Lacus to take the closest right corner to the entrance. He took the opposite corner, his strange gun held up at the ready against anyone who would enter the room. Together the three of the waited in silence.

“Patricia and Hikaru have lured at least twenty-five percent of the ambushers away,” Leslie suddenly spoke up, breaking the silence. “Haumea, protect them please.”

“How?” Lacus asked, before Cagalli could.

“The rest are sweeping the buildings. Estimated five minutes before they enter this one and discover us,” her secretary continued to state. “Joule Team is on their way.”

“Joule?” Lacus questioned. “Yzak Joule?”

“Yes,” Leslie stated, nodding. “Dispatched by Canaver. He's a possible FAITH agent under her command, considering his public loyalties. He's not going to make it before we're attacked.”

Her secretary fell silent, and it did not escape Cagalli's notice that Leslie never answered Lacus' initial question as to how he was able to tell them what seemed like real-time updates of what was going on outside. Yet, she shoved the doubts to the side for now. If the information was correct they were about to be beset upon.

The five minutes of tense silence passed with little noise – that was, until the back door to the building was kicked open, setting off the explosive. Whatever was in that briefcase was enough to shake loose some plaster and dust from the ceiling, as Cagalli stumbled slightly before hugging the wall.

Footsteps rapidly advanced, and she unconsciously held her breath for a moment as those footsteps, shouts to sweep, and orders to kill filled the air. The Coordinators hunting for them pounded past them outside, and Cagalli tightened her grip on her gun. She reached back and placed and arm across Lacus, determined to shield her as best as possible as she readied the gun in her left hand—

The attackers stormed the room with explosive force, sending shards of wood, plaster, and acrid smoke and dust into the air. Cagalli's view was partially obscured, but not so much that she saw her secretary react.

Faster than she could follow, the first attacker was already down and on the ground, dead. She hadn't even heard the crack and impact of whatever Leslie had used against the attacker before she saw a streak of a green, laser-like weapon burn across and into two more attackers.

The fourth one was slammed into the far wall, the Coordinator's impact creating a concentric ringed dent that spidered all the way to the ceiling. Three more were downed in a flurry of green bolts. The eighth, ninth, and tenth attackers were dispatched with painful cracks and wrenching of a neck, a single shot to the heart, and another shot to the forehead, respectively.

It was brutal, the way all ten men of the team sent into this building had been killed. Brutal, but frighteningly efficient. Athrun did not kill in such a manner; his style slightly flashier and designed to distract so he could gain the upper hand. Nevertheless, Cagalli couldn't help but stare at the bodies that laid out into the room and piled into the hall.

She didn't even realize her hand with the gun was shaking until Lacus wrapped her hands around her own, saying, “It is over, Cagalli.”

“Joule Team is in the area. They're taking care of the rest.”

Cagalli's eyes snapped up at her secretary's words. Dust and smoke still lingered in the air, but she could have sworn that Leslie did not looked even remotely ruffled by what he had just done. Instead, he was giving both of them a plain look, before reaching forward and taking the handgun from her.

She didn't resist, but she also didn't flinch as he took a couple of steps in and around the body, putting bullet holes in the appropriate areas to make it look like the attackers were shot with the bulleted sidearm. The strange thin gun was no longer visible on him as he returned to them and handed the gun back over to her.

“I am already violating the tenants of my organization by having assisted you in this capacity – beyond my duties as secretary. But, I could not just stand by and let the light of hope for permanent peace between Coordinators and Naturals die,” Leslie quietly stated.

Cagalli reached out to take it, but he held onto the barrel end of it for a moment longer, conflict clear in his eyes, before letting go. He seemed to be wrestling with something for a moment, before taking another step back.

“I only ask that you do not tell Alex Dino, nor do you tell my husband, or anyone else of this. This is something that both of you must carry to your graves. Will you abide by that agreement?” he asked.

Cagalli glanced over at Lacus and saw her nod without hesitation, while verbally stating her assent. She briefly wondered how her friend was able to do such a thing and not have such an enormous burden weigh her down. However, that thought was dashed, as she realized that Lacus accepted people for who they really were, which was why people trusted her so much to be a negotiator and keeper of peace.

She glanced back at her secretary – the dissonance between his classically handsome visage of an extremely competent secretary, and the way he held himself after fighting and killing their attackers, clashed greatly. There was truth in his eyes; whatever this organization he claimed to be a part of, he truly was violating whatever rules they had.

Yet, had he not been there, not set up the briefcase tripwire explosives, not had that strange gun, and not moved so fast to take down their attackers... It was plain and simple: she and Lacus would have been killed. She owed it to her secretary – whatever he truly was, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“I will,” she stated, but held up a hand to prevent him from immediately speaking. “But if you do not want to tell us, Leslie, you don't have to. Whatever...whomever you serve, it doesn't matter. I just want to thank you, for saving our lives, even if it means that you cannot do so again at a later date.”

“I serve Orb, ma'am,” her secretary stated, nodding as Cagalli saw relief bloom across his eyes. “And I thank you for your generosity and mercy, Chief Representative.”

* * *

Orb, Earth...

 

“Athrun, I think you should come and see this.”

Athrun looked up from where he had been washing the dishes, and shut the water off at the sound of Kira's voice floating from the living room. Kira had invited him and his children to spend the week here at Reverend Malchio's island, rather than remain on the main island of Orb until Cagalli and Lacus returned from their trip to the PLANTs.

It had been a welcomed change in sight and sounds, and Nicolai had immediately taken to the place like a duck to water. It had taken Cari some time to adjust to her new surroundings, but strangely enough, her fussiness calmed down whenever she was being held by Kira.

Taking a dish towel up, he dried his hands on it as he walked the short distance between the kitchen and past the threshold into the living room. There had been no panic of sorts in Kira's tone, but there was a seriousness in his friend's voice that he hadn't heard in a long time.

Taking a quick look around, he noticed that Nicolai and Yuki were still happily playing the simple game of Chutes and Ladders on the floor, while Kira was sitting in the recliner. Cari was fast sleep, clutched against Kira's shirt, as if it were her safety blanket. The television was on and tuned into a news channel, but the volume was low as to not disturb the peaceful ambiance within the house.

Athrun leaned slightly against the side of the recliner as he saw Kira glance up at him for a moment before returning his attention to what was being presented on the screen. He too, turned his attention to the screen as he saw news of an assassination attempt on Chairwoman Canaver's life just a few hours ago, along wit the confirmation of her safety. Nothing was mentioned about Cagalli or Lacus, which worried him slightly.

Now, it seemed that a press conference was about to be held; and not a moment later, the Chairwoman of the PLANTs walked in. Surprisingly, both Lacus and Cagalli followed her in – and it seemed that the PLANTs' press corps did not expect the two either.

Silence fell upon those gathered as Athrun heard Canaver being, saying, “Six hours ago, an attempt on not only on my life, but that also of Chief Representative Attha and Ms. Clyne was made. Thanks to the efforts of Chief Representative Attha's guardsmen, along with ZAFT operatives, all of the perpetrators have been apprehended or killed.

“What should have been a message by terrorists seeking to destroy the peace and unity we have between Earth and the PLANTs has only unified the resolves of myself and others. Regardless if there had been an attempt today or any other day, I have readily agreed to the proposal that Chief Representative Attha and Ms. Clyne have put forth.”

Canaver then stepped to the side, allowing Lacus to take the podium. Cagalli remained on the other side, but seemed fine to let Lacus to the speaking. “We must not forget the causes of war, nor of those we have lost,” Lacus began. “With the blessing and agreement of the Alliance, a permanent memorial will be constructed in the remnants of Junius 7. All future generations – be they from Earth or from the PLANTs – will be able to continue to learn, remember those who had died, and not let history repeat itself...”

Though Lacus was still talking, Athrun didn't really hear her anymore; as he saw the memories of the Junius 7 attack in his mind's eye again. He remembered the horror and anguish in trying to find survivors. Their bodies had flash-frozen to death—

Then came the memory of white-hot anger coursing through him in the days after the attack – which had driven him to give it his all during his training in ZAFT. He remembered what he had done during the war, and how many lives he had taken, up until he had self-detonated—

A warm hand briefly enveloped his slightly cold right hand, startling him out of his reverie. He glanced over as he felt and saw Kira pat his hand before saying, “It will never happen again, Athrun. Lacus, Cagalli, you, and I – we won't let it happen ever again.”

Silently nodding, Athrun returned his attention to the screen. Relief swept through him, but that quickly gave way to a renewed resolve. Junius 7 – no – a war between Coordinators and Naturals, would never happen again; even if he had to give his life for it to remain true.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: The Sound of Silence

C.E. 97, Archangel, Space...

 

“Kira—”

Lacus could say no more as grief overwhelmed her, as she wrapped her hands around her mouth, trying not to let the sob she wanted to cry out carry over the com. The solid tone of a signal losses between those monitoring the battle on Earth had been briefly drowned out by Kira's anguished cry. It was no longer the case as data and information were still being sent – there was still a battle raging on.

Four of their heaviest weapons and ships: Buster, Kusanagi, Electra, and SR One had been brought down and destroyed in a matter of seconds. But those who were still alive, still had power were still fighting—

“I see him!”

Kira's determined growl over the com startled Lacus from her fugue as she blinked the tears from her eyes. She looked towards the IFF map displayed in the center of the table to see SR Two zipping straight towards Akatsuki.

“No! Kira, don't—” she heard Canard shout over came an instant too late as Lacus saw the edge of the dot that delineated her husband, touch the edge of the sphere that was Akatsuki.

Three harrowing seconds passed before she heard Kira shout, “I have him!”

At the same time, she could hear Canard issuing orders to those who remained to concentrate their firepower on the north quadrant. Based on the data and visualization that she was seeing from the interpretation of the data, Lacus could only surmise that it was to force Akatsuki’s failing shields to thin out on the south side.

SR Two’s IFF was barely legible on the battle map, but a second later Lacus saw it appear outside of the sphere. Her elation at Kira getting free was short lived as a split second later, the IFF beacon tagged SR Two with an emergency signal. Kira had lost all battery power and was running on his emergency beacon.

Akatsuki loomed over SR Two, before she saw the IFF of Hyperion swoop in, and Canard grunt, “Got you—”

“Eurasia and other forces, fall back, we got you covered,” the crisp voice of an unknown female suddenly interrupted the com chatter.

“OMNI,” Lacus heard her son exclaim in surprise.

“And ZAFT,” came the quiet declaration from Nicolai. As Yzak Joule’s scream of rage blasted over the com, Lacus could only look at both her son and nephew. Despite how sheet-white both looked, they were still stoically pushing and pulling data, adding OMNI and ZAFT forces into the stream.

“Eurasia-Orb-MEC, copies,” Stephanopolos acknowledged. “MEC and Orb, fall back. Eurasia, provide retreating covering fire and get as many injured as you can, out.”

The second wave of the battle had begun. The overwhelming tide of grief still threatened to overtake her, but Lacus clasped her hands together under the table. As she wrung her hands this way and that, she knew that she could not falter – not when everyone down in that battle still needed their help.

~~~

Archangel shuddered with the explosions peppering all around her, but Murrue remained calm. She and her veteran crew had faced worse – much worse – than this ambush by elements of Serpent’s Tail.

Without warning, proximity alarms began to blast out of the speakers. “Ma’am!” her radar officer shouted over the din, while sending her screen up to the main screen.

Murrue narrowed her eyes slightly as an intricate lattice-like structure gathering at the peripherals of the radar screen. It was unlike the straight-away lattice structure that the technopaths had carried out at the Battle of Heliopolis II, but more circular in nature.

“No radiation signature...” the technician was saying. “Structure—” the radar screen was zoomed in closer, but could not resolve the geometric structure with great clarity or detail “—is disc-like? It’s beginning to expand—”

“It’s pulsing out some kind of beacon. The frequency… it’s all over the place—” her communications officer began.

“Serpent’s Tail,” another officer began. “They’re retreating—”

“Black it out,” Murrue immediately ordered. “Shut down and jam every comm line—”

“Ma’am?” several of the crew questioned.

“Do it now—” she barked. The crew immediately complied, just as she continued to order, “Send up the emergency retreat beacon, and power engines to full. Follow Serpent’s Tail—”

“Too late!” another officer cried out, just as the projected radar screen bloomed red.

~~~

PLANT Colony: Aprilius 4...

 

The tonal noise for a signal loss was something that Eileen could never get used to. Every single time she heard it, she flinched. However, over the years, she had learned to master her reaction and not show it at all. Yet, this particular signal loss by an ally of theirs was something that she could not contain.

“Ma’am—” one of her officers began.

“Re-establish communications via another satellite,” she immediately ordered, praying and hoping that what she saw on screen [SIGNAL LOST] over the image of Archangel was not true.

It took her officers a few seconds to reconnect and establish another link to another satellite within range, but then came the even more worried, “Ma’am—”

“Keep pinging,” she barked. “Task every available satellite in range of where the Archangel is—”

“Ma’am, we’ve tried—

She glared at the officer who stated that, trying to hold back her worry. Archangel and her passengers – Orb’s interim Chief Representative, and the Songstress of Peace – were the symbols of hope. If they fell to the clone’s forces…

“Keep at it, and get me a status update on Joule and the others,” she ordered.

~~~

Archangel, Space...

 

“What the hell?”

Lacus was not the only one to have briefly looked around with the Archangel crew members who had echoed that sentiment as the strained noise of the battle chatter suddenly fell silent. Not a few seconds after that, the ship shuddered to a halt – also falling completely silent.

Air was still flowing, but against the relatively soft noise of the machines and lack of battle data, chatter, and everything else, it sounded eerie. Red flood lights still indicated that the ship was in battle conditions. It was the ratcheting of a single pistol by Daneel, who stood away from the door that shattered the silence. The young guardsman was holding his pistol steady and aimed directly at the door.

That single action was followed by a brief cascade of the same noise by several others in the tactical room. Lacus’ view was immediately blocked by the crew members who protectively stood before her. At the same time, both Nicolai and Yuki had been ushered out of their seats and pushed to where she was.

Shock from what had happened in that first wave of the battle was still playing across her nephew’s face, as well as her son. She could see fear swimming in the depths of Yuki’s eyes. In the depths of Nicolai’s eyes there was however, a glint of something that briefly made her uneasy.

That momentary strangeness passed when she blinked and saw instead, the depths of grief in her nephew’s eyes. Lacus reached out and grasped both of their hands, knowing that they needed strength to get through whatever this latest and real threat was—

Knock-knock. Knock-knock-knock. Knock. Knock-knock.

Startled by the noise that sounded so loud against the unusual relative silence of the ship, Lacus’ eyes were riveted to the door—

“It’s Captain Ramius. Requesting permission to enter the manual unlock and enter. Passphrase, seigi to jiyuu.”

Lacus saw Nicolai visibly flinch with the passphrase stated, but it seemed that those were the correct words to say. She saw Daneel safe his pistol and holster it. The other crew members followed suit, as the young guardsman opened the door.

Murrue stepped in and without preamble, stated, “We’re surrounded by a lattice-like cloud structure of acoustic mines. I’ve ordered all communications to cease and be jammed. Anything going out might set off the mines, and every combatant that we can reach via signal flare or through light code is being recalled.”

Lacus saw her pause and clasp her hands together, directing her attention to Nicolai. “After we’ve recovered everyone and tended to those injured, I will prepare a briefing for you, Chief Representative,” Murrue continued. “I do not know exactly how we’re going to get out of this, but I am open to ideas. Nevertheless, as of this moment, we are effectively unable to support, coordinate, or communicate with anyone outside of the ship.”

~~~

The Red Sea, Earth...

 

It was only through sheer willpower that Canard pushed and stretched his batteries to the limit in trying to get away from the battlefield. He was completely unused to retreating, but for what he dragged in the hands of his mobile suit, he obeyed Stephanopolos’ orders.

Meriol and the crew of the Electra were dead in the instant that Akatsuki’s whip-like weapon bisected the ship. As much as he thought he wasn’t affected, there seemed to be a strange small ache in his chest that anchored the roiling rage within him.

Even more strange was the remnants of the mobile suit he held onto. Briefly glancing down at the screen, Canard saw they grey and depowered SR Two, trailing limply – torn apart from torso on down by Akatsuki. Half of SR Two’s head was missing, and another arm was completely ripped off.

Yet, the remaining arm and hand of SR Two was curled protectively around the cockpit. Sand and dust were being whipped up by the Artemis shield still active and draped around Hyperion. It was difficult to see what exactly SR Two was holding in its hands, but Canard could see the barest tuft of dark-blue hair in SR Two’s hands.

Kira had managed to dart in and grab Zala, as Zala fell out of the shattered SR One. Yet, from what Canard could see, there was no sign of movement or life from Zala. All Kira was bringing back was the body of a dea—

“The hell?” he muttered as his attention was drawn away to the comm switches on his cockpit.

The chatter and data that had been flowing from Archangel and Vanguard suddenly stopped. There was a noticeable drop in noise, before clamors of questions sounded over the battle channel. However, Canard did not add to the rather inane chatter, and instead, switched frequencies to a private one.

It was not a line he was ever supposed to use, much less know about. But, Eurasia was not the best at detecting hacking attempts – especially by a Coordinator with his skill set. He only had to wait two pings across the frequency before it was answered.

“I don’t want to know how you got this frequency, Myrdin,” Stephanopolos gruffly stated. “But, what can you give me on this sudden outage?”

“Re-task what you can for ground based telescopes and radar stations, and point them at the general location of Heliopolis and Archangel,” he stated. “Barter with Atlantic if you have to. I don’t know if it’s something new up Akatsuki’s sleeve, but I wouldn’t put it past the clone of Patrick Zala to have a plan within a plan.”

“Operation Spit Break?” Stephanopolos questioned rhetorically.

Canard didn’t answer him, knowing that the leader of Eurasia was only referencing the battle and plan within plan designed by Patrick Zala. It had cost the Eurasian Federation most, if not all of their best troops.

Canard had only managed to avoid being trapped in the jaws of Spit Break by sheer luck. Now… now, with Archangel and Vanguard abruptly silenced, the Alliance as a whole might have fallen into something worse than Spit Break.

* * *

Archangel, Space...

 

It had been a few hours before things calmed down enough for Murrue to give them a briefing. Lacus had taken that time to help out as best as she could in the infirmary. Several of the pilots had returned severely injured – among them both Hikaru Barton and Patricia Ling.

She had not been attending to Hikaru, but had seen Hikaru’s husband, Leslie, helping the doctor try to save the former guardsman’s life. Both Hikaru and Patricia’s lives had been saved, but last she had heard, they were still not yet out of danger.

Lacus had never known Serpent’s Tail to be such brutal fighters, even during the war. Their reputation as scrappy-like fighters, similar to the Junk Guild’s mobile suit pilots, preceded them. The damage they had inflicted on both Archangel and her defenders was unprecedented, and it made Lacus worried.

“They weren’t Serpent’s Tail,” Nicolai’s declaration startled her. The door to the mess hall had slid close, encompassing everyone who could make it to the briefing.

“Go on,” Murrue nodded, yielding the floor to Nicolai. At the moment, both she and Nicolai were equals – mainly because she was the ship’s captain, and he was the Chief Representative – a passenger on her vessel.

“Yuki and I analyzed and pulled apart the data to find this frequency—” a display with the sinusoidal wave was displayed on the large screen “—twisted and embedded around the common IFF tag that Serpent’s Tail uses.”

A second wave was brought up, before Nicolai continued to say, “It matches the frequency that the technopaths used at L4.”

“Um, there’s more,” Yuki spoke up before the clamor could rise up, questioning the fact that they all thought that all technopaths – except for the clone of Patrick Zala – had been destroyed at L4 months ago.

“More.”

Leslie had been the one to bluntly state that comment. Lacus could see that he wanted to be by his husband’s side and not here. Yet, it seemed that his duty to help and assist Nicolai in running the interim government had won out.

The two’s son, Daneel, was not present. Nicolai had issued the order himself to the young guardsman to remain by Hikaru’s side. The compassion that Nicolai had shown gave Lacus some hope that perhaps her worries about her nephew acting too similar to how the real Patrick Zala governed the PLANTs, were unfounded.

“Using optical analyses, data that was peripherally caught in Vanguard’s systems, and the damages inflicted on the Archangel and her mobile armors,” Yuki began. “Nicol—erm, the Chief Representative and I concluded with eighty-percent accuracy that the mobile suits were not piloted by anyone. They were most likely controlled remotely.”

If the clamor at the announcement of the frequency used was anything, this was even louder. Lacus could see that Murrue wasn’t going to calm the people down immediately. However, as soon as Yuki began to play a small video file explaining the conclusion using diagrams, those in the mess hall quieted down.

By the end, Lacus could see anger, worry, and some fear in some eyes. “So they weren’t all destroyed,” Murrue stated.

“No,” Nicolai agreed. “But we traced the relay route of the frequency to here—”

Gasps were heard around the hall. Where Nicolai had the marker was directly above Orb. The trace through the satellites that bounced the signal were the ones that Lacus remembered being used prior to the battle at L4.

Those were either the exact same, or if not a part of the cluster used to relay Canard’s signal at L4 and to the PLANTs to draw away the technopaths from Nyabrius 13. Worse yet, Lacus knew now that the clone of Patrick Zala had help in carrying out the assassination of Chief Representative Seiran, and sowing chaos in Orb.

“Which brings us to the acoustic mines, Captain Ramius,” Nicolai stated, stepping back to yield the floor to Murrue.

“It was an Atlantic Federation weapon designed in CE 69, prior to the Federation approaching Orb and Morgenroete for help. The database that contained the blueprints for it was destroyed in CE 70 by an unknown operative,” Murrue began. “It should exist—”

“It does because of Morgenroete’s request to have a copy of all weapons database in exchange for help,” Leslie surprisingly spoke up. “I apologize, Captain, but it was Murata Azrael who authorized the transfer. A copy of the database, with that particular weapon, existed in Orb. Morgenroete just never reminded the Federation that they had a copy.”

“Blue Cosmos’ leader?!” a few whispers of exclamation echoed around the hall.

“How did you—” Murrue question, looking slightly concerned, before shaking her head. “Never mind. Then that would answer the question and connect this technopath operative in Orb to the manipulation of IFF to look like Serpent’s Tail, and the creation and deployment of the acoustic mine lattice.”

Lacus saw her pause for a moment before returning to the more pressing matter at hand, saying, “The primary concern is that each of the mines can be programmed with individual frequencies for detonation. While we can try to extract one from the lattice and attempt to figure out the frequency and deactivate it, it would have to be done outside of the ship. Anything within the ship, even people talking, could potentially set the mine off.”

“Yuki and I will go,” Nicolai immediately volunteered. “Vanguard is built for this sort of job.”

“Sir, I have to respectfully object—” Murrue began, as several others voiced their disbelief.

“You’re the Chief Representative of our people, Nicolai,” Simmons spoke up.

“And I am as trapped on this ship as the rest of you,” Nicolai countered. “Yuki and I have the most experience piloting and working the Vanguard. We’ll analyze and deactivate one of the mines, and bring it back in so the rest of you can figure out if we’re working with multiple frequencies or just one.”

The reasoning was sound, and Lacus could not see any fault in her nephew’s argument. Even Yuki was nodding to the words. Yet, as she saw others begin to reluctantly agree with Nicolai, it was Leslie’s expression that made her curious and worried at the same time.

Vanguard has the ability to project and wrap a null field around objects, doesn’t it, sir?” Leslie suddenly asked.

“Yes—” Nicolai began.

“Oh, hell yes!” Yuki suddenly crowed, eyes going wide with realization. “You’re a genius, sir!”

“That technopath is watching us from Orb, so you’ll have to make Vanguard project the same frequency to bring in the mine,” Leslie stated. “It will still be active, but within the null field—”

“We can safely analyze an active mine without setting it off, or letting that technopath know what we’re doing!” Yuki stated, excited.

As soon as the excited murmurs from the others gathered died, it was Nicolai who asked, “Are there still any objections to my piloting Vanguard with Yuki, Mr. Barton or Captain Ramius?”

Lacus didn’t know why Leslie glanced over at her, but she shook her head. The secretary returned his attention onto Murrue and shook his head negative as well. “You have a go. Good hunting, sir,” Murrue stated.

Despite the dangers, Lacus knew that her nephew and son needed this distraction. It was the only way they could keep their thoughts off of what had happened to Athrun. She didn’t have that luxury, as all she could do at the moment was watch, wait, and hope for a miracle that Athrun was somehow alive.

Without Athrun, Kira was lost as well – and Lacus didn’t know if she could withstand the heartbreak.

* * *

The Red Sea, Earth...

 

The solid, monotone alarm was something that Canard thought he had gotten used to hearing. The first time he had heard it had been at that damnable colony, watching Hibiki and the other scientists gather and take notes around a failing pod. His ignorance at what that sound indicated had been extremely short-lived.

Then came the battlefields of Eurasia.

Racing through field hospitals and triage set up in the middle of a firefight should have blocked out that steady tone of death on a cold, hard table. It hadn’t, and it was a constant that filled the silence between gunfire and explosions.

Frantic calls for various help from doctors, nurses, and even civilians dragged into assist usually overwhelmed the alarm. At the moment, it was no different – except that this was the fifteenth time that Canard turned away from the noise.

The doctors that Stephanopolos and the MEC had on hand were still working frantically to save the life of a certain blue-haired, jade-green eyed former ZAFT soldier on the operating table. Had it been up to Canard, he knew that he would have ordered them to stop after the second time Zala crashed – died, really – on the table.

Zala’s daughter – Yula – had been taken away by Korsakoff’s Coordinator son – Barton – after the third time Zala had died, inconsolable. He didn’t know where she was at the moment, and frankly did not care. She had been absolutely hysterical with rage and grief – to the point where he had considered knocking her out – just so Kira could stop reacting and adding to the grief-fueled atmosphere.

Yula and her hysterics had been removed, but in the place of tears and weeping like a crybaby, Canard had seen something overtake Kira. It had started with the fourth time Zala had died on the table, and had cemented itself by the ninth time. He had seen it before in countless soldiers’ eyes; the dead, lifeless look—

“Myrdin.”

Canard looked away from the operating room, watching the doctors in their frenzy, and saw Yelena Korsakoff approach. Kira was still standing as he had been since arriving here, staring through the window and into the room; Canard walked away without another glance at him.

“Iseult,” he stated, reaching out to accept the data pad she had in her hands and was offering it to him.

As hot, sticky, and uncomfortable as he was in his flight suit with his helmet still on, Canard left it as is. Too many people knowing about his identity and ties to Eurasia would only be detrimental in this war. It would also cause many others to question his similar appearance with Kira, which he had no intention of confirming or explaining anything about L4.

“Ground telescopes can still see Heliopolis II,” Korsakoff began as Canard flipped through the data and images. “Of the Archangel, she’s too small to confirm on the visual spectrum. Comm signals via satellites still can’t get through to the colony, no matter how much we enhance the signal. Canaver’s people have also confirmed the lack of signal reception or transmission from the PLANTs’ bounce across their satellites to Heliopolis II. However, via radar—”

“Fuck,” Canard let the expletive slip from his lips as he stopped at a particular set of data.

He didn’t need to reread the data or peruse anything after what he saw on the screen. “Tell everyone to stop trying to ping Heliopolis II and the last known location of the Archangel,” he stated, looking up. “The clone and his stealing of Akatsuki, it was a fucking brilliant distraction. I’ll give that fucker only that.”

Canard flipped the data pad around and jabbed his finger on the extremely fuzzy-looking radar image that showed the colony. “That is an Atlantic Federation weapon that should have been destroyed in C.E. 70.”

“What is it?” Korsakoff demanded.

“Acoustic mines,” he stated. “In short, a cloud-like lattice structure that is designed to silence an area until they surrender. No one goes in, no one gets out. Any type of sound at the frequency range it was programmed with, results in detonation. It’s similar to the nuclear mines Yamato and I seeded at L4. I had Yamato program the detonation at a specific frequency that the bastards used for their comm channel.”

To her credit, she didn’t say anything inane in response, except to nod and take the data pad from him. She quickly tapped a few things on the data pad, before tucking it under her arm. She glanced at him, eyes coolly tracing his helmet.

“Your first mission as Myrdin?” she questioned.

“I was there to steal blueprints to a certain mobile suit,” he stated, not at all intimidated by her. “Destroying OMNI’s entire weapons database and the prototypes they were going to put into production was necessary.”

“Forcing them to go to Orb and Morgenroete for help,” she stated, pausing for a second. “We need to get to space.”

Canard had noticed that her eyes had strayed to beyond him, and that she was staring at Kira when she had stated the need to get to space. The brief victory that turned into a draw, followed shortly by their utter decimation against Akatsuki and the clone, had shaken most of their forces. There was no time to linger on that though – not with the even more present danger at hand.

However he felt about Orb, Heliopolis II, or the Archangel and her crew – especially the Pink Princess – Canard knew that that nation and her people were a beacon of hope. With their silence, that hope for peace would quickly die. Within a matter of days or weeks, war against the Coordinators and Naturals would erupt again.

They might have physically halted Akatsuki and the clone of Patrick Zala, but the bastard would win if both the Archangel and Heliopolis II blew themselves up while trapped within the acoustic mine clouds. It was an extremely clever ruse to lure the strongest fighting forces down to Earth – ground them in a battle and shred them apart.

“We need to get into space now,” he growled. “Send everyone either to Victoria or to the rebuilt Cosmodrome.”

“Agreed,” Korsakoff stated, her piercing eyes focusing on him again before flicking back to the figure behind him.

“Not Yamato,” Canard stated, brushing past Korsakoff, as he stalked away. He heard the monotone alarm of Zala dying on the table again, for the sixteenth time. “He’s done. I won’t have a broken soldier following us.”

 

~*~*~*~