Author's Notes: Hello there! Actually got a short chapter for you all today, or at least short by my standards. If there are more typos than usual, let me know; I just got all four of my wisdom teeth pulled a few days ago and have been high as a kite on pain meds ever since. I tried to take it slow with the editing to compensate, but I probably missed a few things. Not much else to really say right now, this chapter's really more of a brief transition period as we move into the next act of the story. No action scenes this time, but don't worry, that'll change soon enough.

Enjoy!

Episode Twenty: Reunion

This is really happening, Shinn thought as he raced through the night sky, I'm really doing this…

It felt so surreal. If someone had asked him less than a day ago if he'd consider defecting from ZAFT, Shinn would've had to restrain himself from punching them in the face. He wasn't a traitor; he was a loyal soldier of ZAFT, proud to defend his comrades and the PLANTs with his life.

Until he wasn't.

Until his world had been completely upended.

Part of Shinn's head was still spinning from his earlier conversation with Heero. He'd gone into that talk just looking for a way to save Stella's life; how had things escalated so quickly? Shinn had originally been prepared to spring Stella from the infirmary, get her to Heero and the Albion, and help them take off. Desertion had been the last thing on his mind, and yet…

…the more time he had to think about it, the more he realized that it really had been his only option.

How could he have stayed after what he'd learned? What ZAFT had been preparing to do to Stella, the assassination attempt against Lacus Clyne… how could he continue to fight for an organization that would sign off on such crimes? What else were they hiding from him? What other cruel orders had Chairman Durandal given while convincing the people of the PLANTs that their war was justified self-defense, that they were the good guys in this conflict? How long had he been playing up the notion that his administration was different than Zala's regime while privately signing off on orders for murder and live human disection?

The weight of Stella resting against his chest was enough to keep Shinn focused on his flying, but only just. It was difficult to keep his swirling thoughts at bay, especially when combined with the incandescent fury that threatened to consume him. The superiors who had elevated him in rank and made him the pilot of an advanced prototype mobile suit had condemned the innocent girl sitting in his lap to a gruesome death, and Shinn wasn't about to forget that anytime soon.

"Stella…" he whispered as his chin brushed against the sleeping girl's hair.

"How is she?" came a familiar male voice over the radio.

Shinn nearly jumped out of his seat. "Heero? Where are you?"

"Coming up from behind," he replied, "You should have me on your sensors in a second."

Checking the display, Shinn saw the Gundam Albion pop up a moment later. "Got ya. What happened back there?"

"Athrun and Heine came out for a tussle," Heero answered, "I obliged them."

Shinn felt a nervous chill go down his neck. "You didn't…"

"They're alive," said Heero, "I doubt they're happy, but they're alive, so they don't get to complain."

Shinn breathed a sigh of relief. "Good… thanks for holding them back."

"Don't mention it," said Heero, "You didn't answer my question, by the way. Your passenger; is she doing all right?"

Shinn looked down at Stella, who was still out cold. "I think so. Hasn't woken up, but her breathing looks steady."

"That's good," said Heero, "For her, this'll be the easy part. Depending on how bad the damage is, treatment could be a nightmare. Least we can do is give her a comfortable ride."

Shinn looked out at the sea below, inky black in the dead of night. "How much further do we have to go?"

"We're almost there," Heero replied, "Cut your throttle back and assume a holding pattern in about three klicks. I'll take care of the rest."

Despite the tension that had been gripping Shinn since they'd fled the Minerva, he couldn't help but smile. "Thanks, Heero. You didn't have to do this."

"If you want to repay me, you can start by exercising some restraint once we're on the Archangel," said Heero, "I know you've got bones to pick with a few of our crew members, but now's not the time for it. Keep your head focused on Stella for now, you got that?"

Shinn grimaced but nodded. "Understood."

"Good," said Heero, "In that case, get ready. We're just about at the rendezvous point."

Checking both his sensor display and the ocean ahead after a minute or so, Shinn frowned. "I don't see anything. Are you sure we're in the right place?"

"This is it," Heero answered, "Just give it a minute."

Not knowing what else to do, Shinn put the Core Splendor into a slow and broad circle. Sure enough, about a minute later he saw the sea begin to churn below, and a large contact appeared on his display. The bridge tower and raised rear fins of the Archangel soon breached the surface, and the rest of the ship steadily followed. Shinn's console chimed, and when he checked it, he saw that Heero had sent him a frequency. Adjusting his radio, Shinn waited for instructions.

A woman's voice came over the cockpit speakers a moment later. "Albion, Core Splendor, this is the Archangel. Do you read?"

"Loud and clear," Heero replied, and from the tone of his voice Shinn could almost imagine him smiling, "It's been too long, Murrue."

"Likewise," said the woman, her voice warm and welcoming, "Care to introduce me to your new friend?"

"Shinn, meet Murrue Ramius, Captain of the Archangel," said Heero, "Murrue, this is Shinn Asuka, pilot of the Impulse. He's got a very special passenger with him."

Shinn leaned forward, taking care not to push Stella up against the console. "Uhm… hello, Captain Ramius. Permission to land?"

"Granted," she said, "Take the portside entrance. Heero, the starboard one's yours. I'll meet you down in the hangar. The medical team's already there and ready for their patient."

"Copy that," said Heero, "I'll see you soon."

This is it, thought Shinn as he took the Core Splendor out a bit before turning around and lining up for landing, I guess there really is no turning back now. Please…

please let this save Stella!

….

Heero smiled as he settled Wing Zero Albion into its familiar berth. "Home at last."

Had it really only been just a few weeks ago that he'd taken off from the Archangel to link up with the Minerva? It felt like so much longer. It had certainly been a busy few weeks, so perhaps that was where some of the perceived length had come from, but Heero suspected there was more to it than that.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, he thought as he powered down his machine and opened the hatch, and I've been absent from the Archangel for far too long. In a world at war again…

this is where I belong.

Exiting his Gundam, he breathed in deeply as he took in the sights and sounds of the hangar that his machine called home. The familiar tech crews were approaching, each member smiling and waving at him. For his part, Heero gave them his customary nod, although he couldn't suppress a small smile. Each friendly face was a welcome sight, and a pleasant prelude for the main attraction.

Crossing the maintenance catwalk, he paused at the top of the ladder for a moment and scanned the hangar. It only took a second for him to lock onto his target; she was approaching his machine at a brisk walk, and Heero could tell that it was taking every ounce of her restraint to keep from breaking into a full run. A Captain had to maintain her image in front of her crew after all, although it was hardly necessary here; it wasn't like they'd kept their relationship hidden, after all.

He was down the ladder in no time at all, and not a moment too soon. Turning around, he saw that she'd already closed the remainder of the distance. Her deep brown eyes were positively aglow with light, her full lips giving him the warmest of smiles, and Heero thought he caught just a hint of sweat; she'd clearly rushed from the bridge to get here.

Neither of them bothered with decorum; they'd been apart far too long. Heero was only able to take a step forward before Murrue all but rushed him, throwing her arms over his shoulders and looping them behind his neck as she pulled him in for a fierce kiss. Heero wouldn't dream of fighting her, and instead simply melted into it, allowing her fire free reign. They broke for breath a few moments later, not caring in the least that several mechanics were watching them with the biggest shit-eating grins on their faces.

"You sure know how to keep a girl waiting," said Murrue, still holding him close.

"Sorry about that," Heero replied, "For what it's worth, I hated every second of it."

She smirked. "Is that so? I'm having a hard time believing you."

Heero leaned forward to whisper in her ear. "Give me a chance, and I'll prove it to you when we get to our room."

The grin on Murrue's face became downright predatory. "You're going to have your work cut out for you."

Heero chuckled. "Well, good thing we both know that I enjoy a challenge."

Murrue laughed before kissing him again. "Indeed, I do. Welcome back, Heero. You have no idea how much I've missed you."

"Likewise," said Heero as they released each other, "There were so many times when I just wanted to take off and come back here."

"Well, you've done that now, and in spectacular fashion," said Murrue, "You also left your fellow Gundam pilots behind. Given that you just helped a ZAFT pilot defect and kidnapped their prisoner, they're probably going to be wary of anyone associated with you. Are they going to be all right?"

"They can handle themselves," Heero answered, "We're nothing if not adaptable."

Murrue nodded. "True enough. Well, let's go give your new friend a proper welcome, shall we?"

The two of them set off towards the other side of the hangar where the Core Splendor was being guided to its new home. Just as Murrue had told them over the radio, Heero saw several of the ship's medical staff at the ready.

"Thanks for bringing them down here," he said as they approached the fighter, "I'm afraid they're going to have their work cut out for them."

Murrue's brow furrowed in concern. "That bad?"

"From what I understand, yes," Heero replied.

As they drew near, Heero gestured for one of the nurses, a woman in her mid-twenties with short-cropped blonde hair and blue eyes, to come over. "Mister Yuy, do you require medical attention?"

Heero shook his head before pointing at Wing Zero Albion. "In the bag behind the pilot's chair are samples of the various medications I found in the Lodonia lab. Get them to the chief medical officer; they may hold the key to saving your new patient."

The woman nodded. "Understood."

She ran off towards the Gundam while Heero and Murrue joined the rest of the medical team to the right of the now parked Core Splendor. The cockpit opened up a few seconds later, with Shinn carefully cradling Stella in his arms. It only took the young man a moment to find Heero in the crowd.

"Heero…" said Shinn as he nervously looked back and forth between the Gundam pilot and the assembled medical team.

"It's all right, Shinn," said Heero, "They're here to take Stella to the infirmary. You can trust them, and you're free to go with them. I'll make sure our mechanic crews take good care of the Core Splendor."

Murrue stepped forward to give the young man a reassuring smile. "None of my crew will harm Stella, Shinn. I give you my word as Captain of the Archangel. We'll care for and protect her as we would our own."

Shinn hesitantly nodded. "All right."

He cautiously brought Stella down and allowed the medical team to transfer her to the gurney. As they began to move her towards the exit, Shinn turned to Heero again.

"Go with her," said Heero, "She'll need you in the days ahead."

"I'll have quarters arranged for you," Murrue added, "but you can stay in the medical bay with Stella as long as you'd like."

"Thank you," Shinn replied before hurrying to catch up with Stella and the medics.

Murrue sighed as the young man and the medical staff left the hangar. "Poor boy… he looks exhausted."

"The past twenty-four hours or so have been difficult for him," said Heero, "and they're not going to get much easier going forward."

Murrue reluctantly nodded. "I suppose you're right. I just hope that we'll be able to save her. You don't have to be a psychologist to tell that her dying will devastate him."

"I made him no promises beyond that we would do everything in our power to help her," said Heero, "Shinn should be aware of the possibility that Stella may be beyond our aid."

Murrue closed her eyes for a moment, and to Heero it looked like she was praying. "Her fate's in the hands of our medics now… and those of whatever higher power there might be in this world. Even if we can save her life in the short-term, long-term recovery and rehabilitation could be brutal for her. The data you sent us… word's gotten around. Chilling stuff in those files."

"Seeing the aftermath up close and personal wasn't exactly fun," Heero concurred, "Lodonia… whoever signed off on that butcher shop needs to pay in blood."

Murrue put a hand on his shoulder. "Their time will come. When this war ends, we have to make sure that there's a reckoning, otherwise these monsters will inevitably continue their work."

"Maybe we'll get lucky and can take them out ourselves," said Heero, "We were able to fry some pretty big fish the last time around. We'll just need to widen our net and be patient."

"Agreed," Murrue replied before turning to the Core Splendor, "Speaking of fish, you've hauled in a nice one tonight. Chief Murdoch's going to have a field day taking this thing apart."

"I'm all for studying ZAFT's prototype, but tell him to try to keep this thing operational," said Heero, "You never know when it might come in handy."

Murrue smirked. "The heart of ZAFT's prototype mobile suit in our hangar… I'll wager the Defense Council's going to be furious when they read that report in the morning."

Heero shrugged. "They've got no one to blame for its theft but themselves… or rather, Durandal. If he hadn't given the order to have Stella shipped back to the PLANTs for vivisection, I never would've been able to talk Shinn into defecting and taking it."

Murrue's eyes narrowed. "Without it, the Impulse is completely inoperable. At a stroke, you've denied ZAFT both their prized prototype and the ace assigned to pilot it. Was that your plan from the beginning?"

Heero shook his head. "Hadn't really thought of it that way, but it's a nice little bonus. This might only be a short-term hindrance for ZAFT, though. For all we know, they could have another Core Splendor module or two tucked away for scenarios like this. Frankly, they'd be idiots to not consider such circumstances. The Impulse may only be out of action until ZAFT can ship a replacement module down to Gibraltar."

"Still, they can't have too many of those just lying around," Murrue pointed out, "It's part of a prototype, and the most advanced one of the Armory One testing units to boot. I doubt they have more than a handful of Core Splendor modules at best available."

Heero nodded. "We can certainly hope. The Saviour and the Gaiar are now the last of the Armory One units still in ZAFT hands, and that's only because the former had been shipped back to L5 for rework before the attack while the latter was only recently captured. I imagine they'll be enacting much more stringent security measures to make sure they don't meet the same fate as the craft Shinn stole tonight."

Murrue looked concerned. "Speaking of the Saviour, what's the word on the man piloting it? Any chance that Athrun might return to us soon? I know it would mean the world to Cagalli."

Heero sighed; he hadn't been looking forward to this. "Murrue… he was one of the two pilots that launched to pursue us when we fled the Minerva. I tried talking to him earlier, but he wouldn't budge. Athrun still believes that he's doing the right thing, which means that as far as we're concerned, he's compromised."

Murrue closed her eyes for a moment. "I can't believe he's really doing this. Just what kind of a hold does the Chairman have on him?"

Heero shook his head. "The Chairman's given him the vision of a ZAFT that Athrun wishes he could have served in during the last war. His actions behind the scenes show that not all is as it seems, but he's taken great care to keep ZAFT's new image polished in the public eye. Athrun's desperate to believe it's real and sees it as a chance to redeem the organization that descended into barbarism under his father's reign. The Chairman recognized that and played into it perfectly."

"He certainly has," Murrue grimly concurred, "You said Athrun's compromised; do you think he's betrayed our secrets to ZAFT?"

"Not yet," Heero answered, "There's still hope for him, but the longer he remains under Durandal's influence, the more it will fade. I don't know how we're going to bring him around to our side, but we need to do it quickly… and that's a task beyond me. I took my shot at it, and I failed."

Murrue gave him a soft smile. "Don't beat yourself up over it. Ultimately, Athrun's responsible for his own actions. You did what you could, and that's all anyone can ask. You're not the only one in Terminal that wants to talk some sense into him… or smack it into him, should it come to that. I know Cagalli and Kira's conversation with him on that island didn't bear fruit, but I still believe that they can get through to him if we give them a chance."

Heero nodded. "If possible, Lacus should be part of those efforts too. Her powers of persuasion are formidable, and she's known Athrun for a long time. She could succeed where the rest of us have failed so far."

Murrue winced, giving Heero no small cause for concern. "About that… she's not going to be available to take a shot at him anytime soon."

"What's happened?" he asked.

Murrue rubbed her forehead. "I get a stress headache just thinking about her scheme… and here I thought your plans could be reckless."

Heero raised an eyebrow; clearly, he was missing something here. "What exactly has she cooked up?"

Murrue sighed. "She's got us working on a plan to transfer her and the Waltfelds to outer space… via the Gibraltar mass driver."

Heero actually did a double-take. "Excuse me?"

Murrue gave a weary laugh. "It's real doozy, I know. There's method to the madness, but… well, there's plenty of madness to go around here. Seriously, sometimes I wonder about that girl…"

"That makes two of us," Heero muttered, "I'm used to being the insanely reckless one around here. We're not seriously entertaining her on this, are we?"

Murrue smiled and raised her hands in a 'what-can-you-do?' gesture. "We're all on board. I mean, we're on the way to Gibraltar anyway since we've been tailing the Minerva and she's heading in that direction. Might as well make it a productive trip."

Heero had to chuckle at that. "I leave home for a few weeks and everyone goes crazy…"

Murrue leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "I hope you've learned your lesson; this is what happens when you're away on an extended mission and leave us to fend for ourselves."

Heero smirked. "Oh, so now I'm the adult in the room? You know Terminal is screwed if that's the case, right?"

"I think you'd be a better leader than you give yourself credit for," Murrue countered, "Our little group already considers you to be part of the senior command staff, so to speak. We've definitely missed having your input in our meetings, and when it comes to pilots… well, no one outranks you in that department."

Heero shook his head. "I'll settle for being the pilot that gets the hardest assignments. I know what I'm good at. You, Waltfeld, Bristow and Lacus can handle overall command."

Murrue looped her arm through Heero's and began pulling him towards the hangar exit. "In that case, I'm going to pull rank here. I've got an assignment for you."

Heero smiled; he could tell where this was going. "What's the mission?"

"The medics can take care of Stella, and Lieutenant Tsukino has taken over bridge duties for the rest of the night," said Murrue, "I'm off the clock now, and so are you… and we've been apart for the past few weeks. We have some lost time to make up for, don't you agree?"

The predatory look in her eyes was as clear as day, and Heero couldn't begin to describe just how much he'd missed it. "I do. Seeing as operating out of the Minerva was my idea, that means the time away was my fault."

Murrue winked. "It was, but I won't hold it against you… provided you can fulfill tonight's mission objective. Think you're up for it?"

"Do you really have to ask?" he replied as they left the hangar, their pace picking up as they headed for their quarters.

Murrue gave him a wolfish grin. "Well, when you put it that way… we'll see if you're up for the challenge soon enough."

They made it to their quarters a few minutes later. When Heero opened the door he suddenly felt Murrue grab him by the shoulders. He didn't resist as she spun him around and pulled him into a fierce kiss.

Their lips parted a few seconds later, but Murrue's face was still mere centimeters from his. "I love you."

Heero smiled again; it felt so good to actually hear those words in person rather than over a transmission. "I love you, too."

Murrue smirked. "I know. Now prove it."

With that, she shoved him inside their room, and the door closed behind them.

….

What a complete disaster, thought Talia as she popped a pill for the splitting headache she had, I don't know how I'm going to explain this to the Chairman. Yet part of me actually feels… relieved. How strange… then again, given what I would've been an accessory to, perhaps not.

She closed her eyes for a moment as she pictured the girl that she'd sentenced to death mere hours ago. Sure, she had only been relaying Durandal's orders, but Talia knew that such a distinction meant little. She didn't know where Shinn and Heero were taking her now, but she suspected it would be out of ZAFT's reach, and she was quite grateful for that. When compared to the fate that had awaited Stella if she'd been transferred back to the PLANTs, Talia was more than willing to take the heat from her superior's if it meant that the poor girl was safe.

"What does that say about me?" she muttered to herself, "I knew it was wrong, but I still relayed the damn order… what the hell is happening to me?"

Wasn't this supposed to be a new ZAFT? One that recognized the sins of the past regime and had vowed never to repeat them? After the horrors of the last war, hadn't she sworn to herself that she would fight against those who would unleash such atrocities upon the world again? Yet she had willingly passed along an order that she knew amounted to a crime against humanity. Only the intervention of Heero and Shinn had prevented it from being carried out, and that did little to assuage the guilt that now tore at her heart.

A chime came from the console by the door, followed by the voice of her XO through the speaker. "Captain, may I come in?"

"Of course, Arthur," she replied.

The door slid open, and the smell of fresh coffee accompanied her second-in-command as he entered the room with not one but two fresh cups. "I made a quick run to the mess. I know you can brew your own coffee in here, but I thought I could save you the trouble."

Talia had to smile at his consideration; he'd learned to anticipate her needs quite well. "Thank you, Arthur. I think a fresh brew is definitely in order right now."

He came forward as the door shut behind him and passed one of the cups to her while taking a sip from the other. "Careful; it's still quite hot."

"A bonus, then," said Talia as she eagerly took a sip, not minding the near-burning of her tongue, "It'll be a welcome distraction from this mess."

Arthur shook his head in confusion. "I still don't know what to make of all this. Heero Yuy I can partially understand; he was never under our official command to begin with and made it clear that he always saw our partnership as a temporary one. It would've been nice to get a little bit of warning for his departure, but that's only a minor complaint. Shinn, though? What in the world's gotten into him? Captain, what's going on?"

Talia hesitated. He'd been on the bridge with her when she'd made contact with Heero, which meant that he had heard just as well as the others the Gundam pilot calling her out for following Durandal's order regarding Stella. None of them knew the full context, and while some of her bridge crew had shot her odd looks, Arthur had not. He trusted her, respected her… what would happen if he found out the truth?

It'd be so easy to lie, she thought, or simply omit a detail or two… no. I'm not Durandal. Arthur… if he's going to lead this ship with me in the days to come, then he deserves to know the truth.

"You might want to sit down, Arthur," she said, not even trying to hide her apprehension, "This is… well, suffice to say I'm pretty sure you'll find it more than a little uncomfortable to hear."

He did as she asked, and she spent the next few minutes describing the orders she'd gotten from Durandal and her subsequent conversation with Doctor Helman in the infirmary, along with the fact that Shinn had definitely overheard her; after replaying the chain of events in her mind, Talia had become certain that the Impulse's pilot hadn't been nearly as fast asleep as he'd pretended to be. She studied her subordinate carefully, dreading what she was certain would be the look of betrayal and disgust that inevitably awaited her once she finished her tale.

Arthur certainly looked taken aback when it was all over, and it took him a moment to formulate a response. "Captain… the Chairman… this order came directly from him?"

Talia nodded. "Yes. It came through the channel reserved for FAITH, and it was addressed to me specifically by the Chairman himself. Of course, that does not excuse the part that I played in it. Truthfully, I'm glad that Heero and Shinn were able to free that girl. Wherever she is now, I hope it's far from here… far beyond our reach."

Arthur sighed, but the look he gave Talia wasn't accusatory; in fact, much to Talia's surprise, it was actually sympathetic. "To be given a direct order from the Chairman himself… I don't envy your position, Captain. Truth be told, if it had been me receiving the order… I might've done the same. After all, how often was our duty to our superiors drilled into us during training?"

This was rather introspective and thoughtful for her XO; Talia felt like she was seeing a different side of him tonight. "Even so, weren't we also taught that some orders are unlawful by nature and that it was our responsibility as officers to recognize and stand up to them? Wasn't ZAFT supposed to be reformed so that it could root out and purge those who would commit such crimes from its ranks?"

Arthur shook his head. "Perhaps, but from what I recall of the new training we received, it was within the context of our superiors ordering the same sorts of massacres that took place in the last war; the blatantly evil stuff, you know? Orders like the one you received tonight are much more… insidious. One could make an argument that in-depth study of the girl is needed in order for us to effectively counter the Alliance's Extended Program. There'd be a certain cold and ruthless logic behind it."

"At first glance, maybe," Talia conceded as her eyes narrowed, "but Arthur, you know as well as I do that we sent all the data our forces recovered from the Lodonia facility to our superiors. ZAFT's research and science divisions have plenty of information that they can use to aid us in taking down any of the Alliance's surviving augmented soldiers. Sending the girl to them to be carved up in a live autopsy wouldn't be an act of necessity, but of barbarism and retribution. Durandal can dress it up however he wants, but this wasn't about the cold calculus of war; it was to punish a poor girl who was a victim in all of this for the crime of being used against us by her torturers in the first place."

Arthur recoiled. "That seems a rather harsh read on the situation. The Chairman's never struck me as such a petty individual."

Talia closed her eyes for a moment, remembering what Lunamaria had reported to her after her failed mission to spy on Athrun's meeting with his friends from the Archangel. "I once believed the same… until recently."

Arthur looked nervous. "What do you mean?"

He's in this deep already, she thought, I might as well let him know what other shady shit our bosses have been up to.

Whatever illusions Arthur might've still held regarding the Chairman, it only took a minute to shatter them. That was how long it took Talia to explain to her second-in-command how the head of the PLANTs had created a fake Lacus Clyne while ordering the assassination of the real one. To Talia, it didn't matter that she was using testimony from people that Heero worked with rather than a PLANT or ZAFT source; in her eyes, Durandal's credibility was utterly shot, and she suspected that Arthur was coming to the same conclusion.

Her poor XO needed a good minute or two to process that particular bombshell. "Miss Clyne… the Chairman wouldn't… the people of the PLANTs idolize her!"

"Indeed, they do," Talia grimly replied, "I suspect that's no small factor into Durandal's decision to create a fake that's under his thumb while quietly attempting to eliminate the real one."

Arthur shook his head. "This intel… it can't be right!"

Talia shrugged. "It is second-hand, but I don't think the source would've had any reason to lie about something like this. I didn't want to believe that the Chairman could order something like that, but in light of what's happened tonight… well, I don't think anything is off the table for our superiors anymore."

Arthur rubbed his brow; Talia could sympathize. "If this is all true… then what are we supposed to do?"

Talia sighed. "I don't know."

It wasn't the sort of answer that a Captain was supposed to give a subordinate, but it was the truth. Just what were they supposed to do in the face of such behavior from those that would command them? Talia's sense of duty warred with the sheer revulsion at what Durandal had commanded her to do, and it felt impossible to find a middle ground. She wasn't some pilot like Shinn; she was the commanding officer of the Minerva. She had a responsibility to guide and protect her crew, not to mention defend the people of the PLANTs. The recent actions of her side's leadership were repugnant, but that did not change the fact that they were up against an enemy that wanted to exterminate them outright. It was an impossible dilemma.

"If word of this gets out," Arthur muttered, appearing to be talking as much to himself as he was to Talia, "it could lead to an uproar in both the military and the PLANTs. The Chairman conjuring an imitation Lacus while putting out a hit on the real one… it'd be one of the biggest scandals in the history of the PLANTs."

Talia nodded. "That knowledge combined with that of the cruel fate that awaited our prisoner once she was removed from our ship… it'd be a full-blown crisis. Lacus isn't just popular with civilians; you saw how our crew reacted when they learned the fake was performing at Diocuia. If news of what the Chairman's done leaked, ZAFT could have a mutiny on its hands."

She felt a pit in her stomach as she realized what it meant for them. "Arthur… I'm afraid there's no good way to put this. We… have to keep quiet."

Arthur blinked a few times, unsure if he heard her right. "Captain?"

"Make no mistake," Talia continued, "I'm not condoning the Chairman's actions. There will need to be an accounting for them when this is all over. However, the last thing our people can afford right now is division within the ranks of the military. ZAFT is the only thing standing between the PLANTs and utter annihilation; the way the Alliance opened this conflict is proof enough of that. The safety of our people is our top priority, and if ZAFT starts fighting itself then the Alliance will seize the opportunity to regroup and organize a counterattack."

Arthur reluctantly concurred. "Their forces have taken considerable losses, but they can replenish their numbers far more easily than we can. Rebuilding and coming back for another round is much easier for them than it is for us."

Talia grimly nodded. "Exactly. Right now, the Alliance is being forced to react to our moves. Our actions have put pressure on them, especially in the European theater of the war. Only a united ZAFT can keep up that pressure; if our forces fracture, the enemy will capitalize on it. As distasteful as it is, for the sake of our comrades and protecting our people, we have to keep the truth of what's transpired between ourselves."

Arthur looked rather uncomfortable with that. "Captain… I understand your reasoning, but even so… we're essentially covering up the Chairman's crimes."

Talia sighed. "Believe me, it's not as though I'm thrilled with that. Unfortunately, right now the survival of our people trumps all other concerns. An accounting for the crimes ordered by our superiors will have to wait until after the conflict."

Arthur hesitated for a moment before nodding. "Understood, Captain."

Talia closed her eyes for a second as she considered her next course of actions. "Given the recent activity, I'm sure everyone on the ship is awake right now. Arthur, I want you to summon the other four Gundam pilots to my office for an interview. Given that none of them left with Heero, I don't think it's likely that they aided him and Shinn with their escape, but if I'm going to report this incident to the Defense Council then they will expect statements from them."

Arthur appeared a bit nervous. "Should I have a security contingent ready in case they're not feeling cooperative?"

Talia shook her head. "No. If there's any hint of coercion, then they may make a break for it. Remember, Heero stormed the Dominion with only two comrades backing him up in the final battle of the last war. It would be prudent to assume that four Gundam pilots would be able and willing to try their luck against our security forces and escape this ship should they put their minds to it. I'd rather avoid the potential damage that such a confrontation would bring."

Arthur stood up and nodded. "Understood. Anything else?"

Talia gave him a weary smile. "You might want to prep another pot of coffee. I suspect it's going to be a long night for both of us."

….

"That was interesting," said Quatre as he and his fellow three Gundam pilots left Talia's office.

Duo chuckled. "That's one way to put it. Seriously, what the hell is Heero up to now?"

"Whatever happened must've been a rapid development," Trowa speculated, "Otherwise, I believe he would've taken the time to bring the rest of us into the loop."

Wufei shook his head. "I wouldn't go looking for deeper reasoning here. Heero's been letting his emotions guide him ever since he came here. He's not the Gundam pilot that he used to be."

Quatre raised an eyebrow. "Where's this coming from, Wufei?"

Wufei sighed. "Forget it. I'm going back to sleep."

Duo tried and failed to stifle a yawn as the L5 native peeled off from the group. "I think I'm with Wufei on this one. Let's pick this up in the morning after we've had some shuteye; I'm too damn tired to think right now. Later."

Trowa turned to Quatre as Duo headed off to his quarters. "What do you want to do? Coming at this with a good night's sleep behind us might not be a bad idea."

Quatre smiled at his friend. "You can head off to bed if you want. I'm going down to the hangar; there's something I want to check out. We can meet up again in the morning."

Trowa looked curious, but he didn't press the issue. "All right, then. See you tomorrow."

For Heero to pull something like this without bringing the rest of us in on it isn't normal, thought Quatre as he made his way through the ship's corridors at a brisk pace, I don't believe he acted without considering the position that would leave the rest of us in. There has to be more to this than what we were told by the Captain.

It had been quite the surprise when Arthur had requested that they come to the Captain's office. They'd instantly realized something was up when Heero wasn't among them, and it hadn't taken long for them to find out why. Of course, the Captain had only told them that Heero and Shinn had kidnapped Stella and fled in the Albion and Core Splendor; the rest of the meeting had been an interrogation in all but name. It wasn't bad as such affairs went, and to Quatre the Captain had appeared to be more exasperated and tired rather than actually angry at what had transpired. Quatre wasn't sure if she had believed him and his friends when they'd told her that they'd had no involvement in Heero and Shinn's stunt, but ultimately she'd let them go without summoning a security contingent, so he would take that as a sign that at least she wasn't willing to go after them without hard evidence.

Of course, the elephant in the room was that she really couldn't afford to come after them at all. The Gundam pilots and their machines were by far the most formidable weapons in the arsenal of the Minerva; ZAFT's most recent victories would not have been possible without them. There was also the fact that if one Gundam pilot could leave the ship at will without any trouble from the vessel's security contingent, four would almost certainly have no problem making an escape even if the guards were alert. The Captain couldn't afford the potential damage that such a fight would cause to her ship and crew, so she wasn't about to pick one unless she had no other choice.

We still have some room to maneuver, Quatre mused as he entered the hangar, but we're definitely on thin ice now. At the rate things are going, our partnership with ZAFT may be rapidly approaching its expiration date. The fact that we're currently on course towards their most heavily fortified surface stronghold doesn't exactly help our situation. Heero, I know you would've been aware of all that!

He had a hunch that his fellow Gundam pilot hadn't left them completely out in the cold, but he had to confirm it. That was why he made a beeline for Sandrock Saladin; if his suspicions were right, the answers he was hoping for would be there. The scattered mechanics gave him wary looks as he headed for his machine, and given what had just happened earlier this evening Quatre found it hard to blame them. Entering his mobile suit, he closed the hatch and powered up the main console.

Sure enough, there was a message waiting for him. It was text rather than audio, but Quatre would happily take what he could get right now.

"Quatre, by the time you read this, I won't be on the Minerva anymore. Things have escalated; ZAFT intends to transfer Stella to their research division upon arriving at Gibraltar and transport her back to the PLANTs for experimentation culminating in vivisection. I'm taking her back to the Archangel for proper treatment and, hopefully, rehabilitation. I don't expect it to be an easy process, but it's better than what ZAFT has in store for her."

Quatre felt his stomach churn. He'd figured that Captain Gladys had omitted some key information when she'd spoken to them earlier, but this was far more grisly than he'd anticipated.

"I managed to talk Shinn into helping out with this little scheme, so ZAFT's going to be down a prized research subject, a promising pilot, and the heart of the Impulse. They're not going to be happy about any of that, obviously, and I'm sure they'll become much more watchful with regards to the rest of you as a result of my actions. Sorry that I couldn't bring you guys into my plan ahead of time, but events were moving too quickly."

"Figured as much," Quatre muttered under his breath, "Doesn't make things any easier going forward, though."

"I won't presume to give orders to you or the others; you know as well as I do how we all value our independence. What you decide to do from here on out is up to you. That being said, I would strongly advise preparing an escape plan. When Chairman Durandal learns of what has transpired, he'll likely take my actions as another shot fired in our cold war with him. Things are probably going to heat up sooner rather than later. You know how to reach me, and I can guide you and the others to the Archangel and Dominion."

The mention of the Dominion brought to mind a certain young woman that had made Quatre's time in the Cosmic Era much more pleasurable than he had anticipated. He was surprised to realize just how much he missed Lan Zhao, along with the subsequent temptation to just take off right then and there so he could see her on Terminal's black battleship.

Something to look forward to when we inevitably leave the Minerva, I suppose, he mused, I hope she's doing well.

"If you intend to remain aboard the Minerva for the time being, then be wary, and not just of ZAFT. Athrun is compromised. He's not an outright traitor to Terminal at this point, but Durandal has him ensnared in the illusion of his 'new' ZAFT. If you have to escape, it's possible he might engage you as part of a pursuit force. Don't underestimate him."

Quatre had suspected as much. Granted, he didn't know Athrun nearly as well as Heero did, but it hadn't been hard to tell that the young Coordinator had fallen quite comfortably into the role as a ZAFT pilot. While he hoped that Athrun wasn't too far gone, Quatre was reasonably sure that he wasn't going to be the one to bring him back to Terminal's side. That task would belong to people who knew Athrun far better than Quatre did.

"One last thing; watch out for Wufei. I know your mission was to come to this world to find me, but I'm certain now that Wufei never saw it as such for him. He came here to find himself, and he believes he can do so through combat. ZAFT's war effort gives him a sense of purpose that the peace in our old world deprived him of, and he will cling to that fiercely. When our confrontation with ZAFT inevitably comes, we cannot count on Wufei joining our efforts. We must be prepared for the worst. Whatever plans you make going forward, I would advise taking counsel only with Duo and Trowa. Take care, my friend. Hopefully we'll see each other again soon enough."

Quatre leaned back in his chair and sighed as he took it all in. He'd have to find an opportunity to speak to Duo and Trowa privately… and Wufei would certainly notice that he was being left out. Ever since the attack on Home One, Quatre had known that a confrontation with ZAFT would come sooner or later, but he'd been operating under the impression that the Gundam pilots would be facing that threat with a united front. If Heero was right in his assessment of Altron Custom's pilot, then that assumption had to be thrown out the window.

Not an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination, but Quatre was a Gundam pilot, and he would do what they did best; adapt and survive.

Powering down the console, he exited his Gundam and closed the hatch behind them. Now he had to find a way to fill in Duo and Trowa without arousing suspicion from ZAFT… or Wufei for that matter.

"Never a dull day in the life of a Gundam pilot," he muttered under his breath.

….

November 14th, C.E. 73

Leaning back in his chair, Durandal closed his eyes for a moment as he pondered the latest reports he'd just finished reading. His temporary office aboard the Vosgulov-class submarine/carrier Kirchhoff lacked the art pieces of his primary workplace in Aprilius One that he'd found so conducive to productive contemplation, but Durandal had learned to make do without them quite some time ago. The fact that it was the extremely early hours of the morning and he hadn't slept yet wasn't helping matters, yet the material he'd just gone through demanded at least a preliminary consideration before he allowed himself some much-needed rest.

Between Heine's report regarding the conversation that the FAITH operative had overheard between Heero and Wufei, the data from the initial medical examinations of the captured Alliance pilot, and the subsequent news of the prisoner's abduction by none other than Heero and Shinn, Durandal certainly did not lack for material to contemplate. Any day in a global conflict was a busy one, but yesterday had hit him with one surprising development after another in rapid succession.

Discord amongst the Gundam pilots, even if it was from just one of their number, presented an invaluable opportunity. Heine's latest report wasn't the first indication Durandal had received that Chang Wufei might be amenable to throwing his lot in with ZAFT, but it was the one that gave the Chairman the most confidence in the idea that the young man could be swayed to his side. It was an endeavor that Durandal fully intended to pursue once the Kirchhoff and the Minerva arrived at Gibraltar, although it would require great care.

Come on too strongly, and your intentions will be both transparent and off-putting, he thought, but at the same time, you must strike while the iron is hot. A chance like this will not likely show itself more than once. The perfect balance of charm, precision, and sympathy will be required. A tight line to toe, but with the potential reward being one of the finest pilots in the Earth Sphere… perhaps one of the few capable of matching Heero Yuy in single combat. Oh, yes, I will not let this opportunity slip through my fingers.

The possibility of bringing one of the fearsome Gundam pilots over to his side wasn't the only bit of intriguing news he had to ponder. The medical evaluation of the Gaia's captured pilot had been most interesting, even if it was just a preliminary report. It wasn't typical for a Supreme Council Chairman to invest serious time and effort into such matters, but Durandal's previous background in the genetics field meant that he had a certain interest in the work that the Alliance had been doing at Lodonia, as ghastly as it might've been. He was also grimly aware that their Extended Project bore more than a few superficial similarities to one of his own top secret programs in this war, although Durandal could pride ZAFT's research and development division on having come up with a much more efficient and elegant means of enhancing its pilots, at least if the results that had been shown in simulator exercises were any indication. Field trials would begin soon enough, and Durandal was hoping that they would vindicate the project's bloody toll.

Unfortunately, ZAFT would have nothing more than the preliminary data on the captured pilot and whatever information was retrieved from Lodonia to work with. The possibility of live specimen study had been stolen from them by Heero Yuy and a most shocking accomplice. Of all the crewmembers aboard the Minerva that could've turned traitor, Shinn Asuka was one of the last that Durandal would've suspected. He'd taken a close interest in the boy's progress and psychological profile, and all indicators up to this point had suggested that the ZAFT Red was fiercely devoted to his friends, comrades, and the protection of the PLANTs. The Impulse had been in the hands of a loyal and talented pilot, or so Durandal had believed. Clearly, he had missed something when reviewing the boy's file, although what it was Durandal did not know at this time.

How vexing, he mused, I love a good mystery as much as the next man, but not when I'm given so few clues to work with. The fact that this particular mystery has also thrown a considerable wrench into my plans for the Minerva certainly doesn't help matters.

The defection of Asuka and the loss of the captured Alliance Extended pilot would've been troubling enough, but what pushed the situation from a simple nuisance into a serious problem was the theft of the Core Splendor. As the central module of the Impulse, its loss meant that the most sophisticated and versatile of the Armory One prototypes remaining in ZAFT's arsenal was now functionally nothing more than an oversized and very expensive paperweight. The possibility that the Core Splendor could somehow be lost or damaged beyond repair had been considered in the unit's development, and a reserve module had been in the works alongside the main one, but the Minerva had been forced to launch prematurely during the attack on Armory One and the backup module had still been undergoing adjustment and fine-tuning in one of the colony's hangars at the time. In the aftermath of the raid, the reserve Core Splendor had been transferred to L5 for final work and flight testing, with the ultimate goal of shipping it to the surface and building a few more to keep in storage just in case they were needed, but the outbreak of war had meant that organizing a secure cargo flight to move it down to one of ZAFT's bases on Earth had become a much more complicated and time-consuming process.

As soon as word had reached him about the theft of the Core Splendor, Durandal had made sure the wheels were in motion to bring the reserve module to the front lines. That would take time, though, and time was not a luxury that ZAFT had. Events on the surface were moving quickly, and Durandal could sense that the next stage of the conflict was about to begin. ZAFT's various intelligence services had noted with considerable alarm the waves of reinforcements that were being brought to Europe by the Atlantic Federation. Conventional wisdom held that these new troops were meant to unite with the Eurasian Federation armies before mounting a push to dislodge ZAFT from its two bases on the continent, but Durandal suspected that there was more to it than that. The Americans could sense that their Eurasian allies were wavering, and they were eager to shore up their partnership…

...or, failing that, threaten them into submission.

They would make their intentions clear soon enough; Durandal was quite certain of that. With the exception of the Cyclops trap at Alaska during the last war, subtlety had never been the Atlantic Federation's strong suit. The civil unrest in the Eurasian Federation was growing rapidly, with the domestic forces appearing rather reluctant to crack down with any serious force. To the casual outside observer, it might seem unusual that a single defeat had prompted such searing public anger and massive demonstrations, but Durandal knew that there was much more to it than that. Anti-Coordinator sentiment just didn't permeate the Eurasian Federation to the same extent that it did their erstwhile ally across the pond. Sure, Europe had its hardliners just like anywhere else, with the religiously devout in particular holding quite negative views when it came to Coordinators and thus being much more inclined to support the warmongering Americans, but they were a distinct minority of the population. War support within the broader Eurasian Federation had always been tenuous at best; the destruction of the fleet at Cagliari had simply proven to be the proverbial straw needed to break the camel's back. Rather than seek revenge, the people of Europe simply wanted out of what they saw as a pointless war that they'd been pulled into by a bully of an ally.

The Atlantic Federation might've believed that sending their armies into the core territory of the Eurasian Federation would keep their ally in their camp, but Durandal knew better. Europe was a tinderbox, and the sparks were already flying. He was quite content to sit back and watch for the time being; as the old saying went, Durandal knew better than to interrupt his enemy while they were making a mistake.

Unfortunately for him, the Earth Alliance was not the only enemy that he needed to contend with. Talia and the crew of the Minerva might be struggling to comprehend the recent actions of a certain Gundam pilot, but that was because they lacked vital context. While Durandal could only guess at Shinn's motivations in this affair, those of Heero Yuy were quite clear; it was a salvo in their private cold war. Retaliation for the strike on his faction's secret base in the Orb Union at the very least, and likely more.

He waited quite some time before this reprisal, Durandal thought, Heero Yuy… you are a patient foe.

That makes you all the more dangerous.

His temporary alliance with the Demon Lord of Avalon had come to an end, but the situation with the Minerva remained precarious. There were still four Gundam pilots remaining aboard the battleship, and while one could potentially be swayed to join his cause, Durandal did not believe that the other three would be so amenable. They were a threat, yet making a move against them would be tricky. As far as the crew of the Minerva was concerned, the boys had done nothing wrong. More than that; the Gundam pilots had proven to be vital to their past battles, and without their aid the Minerva would almost certainly have been destroyed several times over. Given the recent reports regarding Earth Alliance troop movements, the power and skill of the Gundam pilots was still needed. Even without the mightiest of their number, they remained formidable, and Durandal had no doubt that the Minerva would need their strength in the battles to come.

"The reckoning will have to wait," he said softly, "for a little while longer, at least."

But it will come eventually.

The second act of this conflict is about to begin.

….

His eyes fluttering open, Shinn was startled to realize that he'd actually fallen asleep in the chair next to Stella's bed. For a moment he thought that they were back on the Minerva, but he quickly realized that this was a different infirmary. They were on the Archangel

...which meant that the events of last night hadn't been a dream.

Whether or not that was a good or bad thing, Shinn had yet to determine. His whole life had been thrown upside down ever since he and Heine had captured Stella during the Cagliari raid. The simple early days of the war were long gone… although, the more Shinn thought about it, the more he realized that they hadn't been so simple after all; he'd merely been blind to what was playing out in the background.

They've been playing this twisted game behind the scenes all along, Shinn thought, furious at himself for his failure to see the bigger picture, LOGOS and the Earth Alliance, the Chairman and ZAFT… it's like everyone else is just pawns in their demented chess match!

What was really going on with this damn war? The Earth Alliance's goals were painfully obvious; an attempted nuclear strike on L5 as the opening move of the conflict wasn't exactly subtle on their part. The people of the PLANTs were engaged with a foe that sought to utterly exterminate them. That had been the portrayal given to them by ZAFT, and nothing Shinn had seen so far indicated otherwise. At least on that front, the claim this was a war of self-defense did hold up.

However, Shinn now knew that there were many things that both the civilian population and most of ZAFT had not been told. The creation of a fake Lacus Clyne, the attempted assassination of the real one, the plan to ship a victim of the Alliance's human experimentation program to the PLANTs for an autopsy while she was still alive… what else was being hidden from them? Nothing seemed off the table at this point, and Shinn had no idea what to make of it all.

It feels like the whole world's gone insane, he thought wearily as he looked at Stella, and the two of us are caught right in the middle of it.

He could at least take comfort in knowing that Stella was safe for the moment. Bringing her to the Archangel might not have been an easy decision, but there was something about the ship's medical staff that helped him relax, if only a little bit. Shinn was still scared out of his mind for Stella's life, but the doctors and nurses had surprised him with just how prepared they'd been for a patient as unique as her. He'd quickly learned that Heero had been sending information back to the Archangel about what had been discovered in the Lodonia lab and had even stolen samples of the drugs that had been used in the Extended Program, providing them to the medical staff almost as soon as he'd landed without Shinn ever being the wiser. Stella was still restrained as a precaution, but the straps that tied her arms to the bed had soft lining so as not to injure her if she thrashed about like she'd done on the Minerva. There was one security guard present, but they were quite friendly and seemed genuinely concerned for Stella's well-being rather than seeing her as a threat.

Her circumstances had certainly improved since leaving the Minerva, but Shinn knew that Stella wasn't out of the woods yet. That had been made quite clear when she'd woken up in the middle of the night, gripped by a combination of a nightmare and the vicious withdrawal from whatever chemical cocktail the Atlantic Federation had been forcing into her. The nurses had quickly sedated her, an action that Shinn had protested until he learned the real reason for it; it was to buy time so the chief medical officer could synthesize a less harmful compound that could stabilize her and begin weaning her off of the drugs that her former masters had given her. If her withdrawal was allowed to proceed naturally, she would die a slow and agonizing death over the course of the next few days.

So, here she was, sound asleep as doctors and nurses frantically worked in the next room over to create a less-deadly version of the compound that had put her in such bad shape to begin with. And here Shinn was, sitting by her side, feeling like the most useless human being in the world. Flying in battle was less stressful than this; at least in combat he felt like he had some measure of control over the situation. Right now, all Shinn could do was wait and hope that he hadn't made some colossal mistake.

He was so caught up in his concerns for the girl lying in the bed next to him that Shinn completely missed the sound of the infirmary door opening, and thus damn near jumped out of his own shoes when he heard a familiar female voice. "How is she?"

Looking up, his eyes widened when he saw just who had come to visit. Sure, his brain had already identified her based on just her voice, but given that he'd only just recently learned that the one he'd seen at Diocuia was a fake, it took Shinn's mind a moment to process that the genuine article was standing before him now.

"You…" he murmured, still struggling to believe what he was seeing, "You're…"

The pink-haired songstress smiled. "I'm Lacus Clyne. It's a pleasure to meet you, Shinn Asuka… although, I suppose this isn't actually the first time we've met, is it?"

Shinn thought for a moment that she was referring to the imposter, but then an odd image flashed through his mind. It was from during the shore leave he'd been given in Orb following Operation Redemption…

...and the strangers he'd met in the memorial park.

"Wait…" he said as the realization hit him, "Back then… before the war… the park… that was you?"

Lacus nodded. "Yes. I apologize for not truthfully introducing myself back then, but I was trying to keep a low profile. Given all that has transpired since then, I'm sure you can understand."

Shinn had a feeling he knew what she was referring to. "The Chairman… he tried to have you killed."

Lacus closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them again the haunted look in her gaze was hard to miss. "Yes… he did. My friends protected me, putting themselves in considerable danger while doing so. Chairman Durandal has much to answer for."

Looking at her now, Shinn wanted to kick himself for having ever fallen for Durandal's doppelganger scheme in the first place. Even in purely superficial terms, the differences weren't that hard to spot Wardrobe choice alone mattered; the simple black and purple dress, pink sash and white overcoat she wore now were far more conservative than the skin-tight attire that the imposter used for her stage appearances. Her build struck Shinn as more lithe and slim than the noticeably curvy figure of Meer, and the immitator's outfits had always seemed to put emphasis on those curves, unlike that of the genuine article.

It was more than just shallow appearances that mattered, though. Being in her presence, the real Lacus simply felt different to Shinn when compared to the imposter. There was a natural grace about her that no doppelganger could ever hope to emulate, a gentle elegance that came from within rather than any sort of stage mannerism.

I was such an idiot, he thought, I can't believe how easily they tricked us…

He found himself looking down, ashamed to have once been under the command of the man that had ordered the hit on her. "I… I'm sorry."

She stepped forward and knelt before him so her gaze could meet his. "You have nothing to apologize for, Mister Asuka. I know that you had no part to play in the attempt on my life. The fact that you are here now rather than still with ZAFT after what you have learned speaks volumes for who you are. I'm sure that your companion here would agree."

Shinn couldn't help but blush at her smile. "Uhm… thanks. By the way… you can call me Shinn."

"Very well, then," she said as she stood up again, "Speaking of your companion, you never did answer my question, Shinn. How is she? I understand that she's had a rather trying time as of late… and that is not even considering the horrors she must've suffered while she was with the Alliance."

Shinn sighed as he looked at Stella. "I… I don't know. She's alive, of course, but the doctors said that they have to keep her sedated while they work on a cure if she's to survive. I understand why, but still… it doesn't feel right."

He watched as she moved towards the edge of the bed and laid her hand over Stella's. "I understand your feelings. Poor girl… she must be so full of life… what brightness she could bring to those around her. You care for her a great deal, don't you?"

Shinn found himself blushing again, and he wasn't sure why. "I do, although… it's weird. I barely know her, and she's tried to kill me several times in the past. I mean, I know that's not her fault and all, it's just… I don't know. This whole situation is just so strange and messed up."

Lacus sighed. "Yes, it certainly is. I doubt things will get any easier going forward… but there is one thing that I am quite sure of."

"What's that?" asked Shinn.

Lacus smiled. "That you did the right thing, both in bringing her here and continuing to stay by her side. For the time being, the best thing for you to do is to remain with her and help her through her recovery. You have done enough fighting for now, Shinn. Your place now is here, watching over your friend and giving her strength in the days to come."

Shinn wasn't so sure. "What about the war? You guys are still fighting the Alliance, and it sounds like you'll probably be fighting ZAFT soon too, right? I'm a pilot; I can help. I'd be much more useful in the sky than sitting around here."

"Perhaps," Lacus conceded, "but when we eventually engage ZAFT, it is highly likely that we will clash with the Minerva. I saw friends fight friends during the last war, Shinn. That is a special brand of hell that I would not wish upon anyone. Before you volunteer to aid us in combat, I would advise thinking carefully on just what that could potentially mean for you. There can be no hesitation in battle. If you are to fight for us, then we must know that we can trust you to act decisively."

Shinn's eyes narrowed. "I betrayed ZAFT by abducting Stella, stealing the Core Splendor and coming here? How is that not decisive?"

Lacus shook her head. "Do not mistake my meaning, Shinn. The actions you took last night were bold and brave, but there is a distinct difference between leaving your friends to do what you believe is right versus facing them in combat."

The thought of going up against Lunamaria, Rey, and everyone on the Minerva was one that Shinn had been trying to avoid. Now that Lacus was forcing the issue, he realized that he truly didn't know if he had the stomach to face them. Once again, Heero's words echoed in his head.

"How far would you go to save her?"

Shinn thought he'd answered that question by fleeing the Minerva with Stella and defecting.

Only now was he starting to realize just what the Gundam pilot had really been hinting at.

"I wish I could stay to chat longer," said Lacus, snapping Shinn from his grim musings, "but I'm afraid that I have other matters to attend to. Please give what I said appropriate consideration, and continue to watch over Stella. No one here will force you to fight, Shinn. If you wish to dedicate yourself fully to Stella's recovery, we will support you. You need not fight against your friends."

"But you guys will… won't you?" asked Shinn.

The look in the eyes of the songstress was firm and resolute. "If we must, then yes. I bear your friends aboard the Minerva no ill will, but if they continue to serve Chairman Durandal when the time for our confrontation comes, then my friends will do what they must. You've fought alongside at least one of them for some time now, so I'm sure you understand what that means."

Images of Heero's Gundam raining death and destruction upon the forces of the Earth Alliance flashed through Shinn's mind. He'd been given a front row seat to such carnage enough times that it was all too easy now to imagine such lethal power being turned against ZAFT. What was even more disturbing in Shinn's eyes, though, was that if such action was required to protect Stella…

… he might actually be willing to accept it.

The angelic smile that appeared on the songstress's face was a sharp contrast to the determined look she'd given him earlier. "Take care of Stella, Shinn, and take care of yourself as well. As much as Stella may need you by her side, do not forget to tend to your own needs as well. You will both need all of your strength in the days to come."

….

Coming to a stop just outside the door to the officer's lounge, Heero took a deep breath. What lay beyond the door was a confrontation that he'd known would be inevitable, and he was all for getting right to it. Still, now that the moment was actually upon him, he couldn't help but feels more than a little apprehensive.

This was never going to be easy, he told himself, and you know that it shouldn't be. Even if you stand by your actions, that doesn't change the fact that you killed her countrymen in the process.

Knowing that it was better to settle things before they had to go into battle again, Heero steeled himself and opened the door. The lounge was empty, save for the person that he was meeting here today; Cagalli. She was sitting at a table along the wall, staring off into space. She looked quite preoccupied, and all things considered, Heero found it hard to blame her. The door hissed shut behind him as he approached her, the sound grabbing her attention. She stood up as he drew near, the tension in her frame impossible to miss.

"Hey," she said, "Got your message. Lacus isn't with you? I thought she would be mediating."

Heero shook his head. "I'd originally considered that, but after talking with her, we decided it'd be best if you and I hashed this out ourselves."

Cagalli nodded. "I suppose you're right."

Heero gestured to the table. "Shall we?"

"Wait," said Cagalli.

She moved towards him, and Heero genuinely could not tell what she intended. He got his answer a moment later when she embraced him. She was stiff, but there was still affection in the gesture.

"I'm glad you're back," she said, "and I mean that. No matter what else happens, I really am happy that you made it back here safely. I know everyone else is, too."

"Thanks," Heero replied as she released him.

Cagalli smiled before sitting down again. "Of course. We've got a lot of work ahead of us, and having you back with Terminal is going to make a huge difference. I want us to be able to keep working together like we have in the past… so it's better that we get through this now rather than put it off."

Heero nodded as he sat down across from her. "Agreed."

Cagalli took a deep breath, her smile fading as she kicked things off. "That being said… Heero… why? At the Dardanelles, the Orb First Fleet… you all but wiped them out! I know they were operating under Yuna's orders, and that they were fighting alongside the Alliance attacking both ZAFT and us, but even so…"

Heero's eyes narrowed. "Did you really expect me to hold back? They were your countrymen, yes, but they were engaging us in combat. I'm not Kira, Cagalli; when the bullets are flying, I don't shoot to wound."

Cagalli sighed. "I know that. I always knew that if it came down to a confrontation… things would get bloody. Even so… did you have to go so far? I can understand taking out the flagship, but you destroyed so much more than that! So many of my own people dead… was that necessary?"

"They were trying to kill us," Heero reminded her, "Not just myself or my fellow Gundam pilots or the crew of the Minerva; they turned their guns on Terminal, Cagalli. They were ordered to kill you, and they did their best to obey those orders."

"They were forced into that situation by Yuna and the Atlantic Federation!" Cagalli protested, "They didn't want to fight us!"

"They still pulled the trigger," Heero countered, "They had a choice, Cagalli. They could've defected like so many others did in the last war. They could've decided against following orders to open fire on the woman they knew to be their rightful ruler and the people that had fought for them in the prior conflict… but they did not. The moment they opened fire, they signaled the choice they made."

Cagalli folded her arms. "So, you decided to show them the consequences of their actions? Your role became judge, jury and executioner?"

"I responded as I would in any engagement where the enemy opens fire on us," Heero firmly replied, "I identified a threat and the best way to eliminate it, and I acted. Your countrymen knew who they were up against, Cagalli; they knew what the consequences of their actions would be if they pulled the trigger."

Cagalli's eyes narrowed. "The consequences of attacking me and Terminal… or the consequences of putting Murrue in danger? I know how you think, Heero; the moment they threatened the Archangel, their lives were forfeit in your eyes."

Heero would not deny it. "Yes."

Cagalli sighed. "So, if they hadn't taken aim at the Archangel, you would've let them go?"

Heero shook his head. "No, because it wasn't just the Archangel they took aim at that day. Yuna had demonstrated for all to see that he was a willing tool of the Atlantic Federation and their war against Coordinators. By following his orders, the soldiers under his command were aiding and abetting a campaign that has the end goal of genocide. They might have been your countrymen, Cagalli, but in obeying Yuna they weren't upholding your vision for the Orb Union. Tell me, if we hadn't been there, what do you think would've happened to the crew of the Minerva? Say that they recognized the odds they were up against were insurmountable; do you really think that surrender would've been an option?"

The way Cagalli recoiled was all Heero needed to know that she understood where he was going with this. "No… my people would've accepted a surrender!"

"It wasn't just 'your' people on that battlefield," Heero reminded her, "The Atlantic Federation had a fleet there, too. We both know that the Alliance forces don't accept surrenders from Coordinators; they prefer to massacre them. Do you really think that the Orb First Fleet would've offered the Minerva a chance to surrender while American warships were operating with them? Yuna had already proven he lacked the stomach to stand up to the Atlantic Federation. I think you and I both know exactly what would've happened."

Cagalli shook her head. "I don't know that… not for certain."

"No, I don't," Heero conceded, "but the same can be said for you; you don't know that they would've adhered to your ideals or those of basic human decency. Given that they'd already demonstrated the willingness to follow Yuna's orders and open fire on you, their own legitimate leader, do you really think they would've defied him if he'd ordered them to kill enemies that had surrendered?"

Cagalli gave a dejected sigh. "Does it even matter at this point? We'll never definitively know the answer. You made sure of that."

"Yes," Heero replied, "and I'd do it again if I felt it was necessary. I'm not sorry for what I did, Cagalli, but I am sorry that I had to do it."

Cagalli closed her eyes for a moment. "So, if we face my countrymen in battle again… you'll turn your sights on them."

"If they pose a threat to us, yes," Heero answered, "However, if you're able to convince them to stand down, then that won't be necessary. I would have preferred not to destroy the Orb Union First Fleet at the Dardanelles, but if it's any sort of consolation, its fate may serve to have a deterrent effect. Orb's military has seen what results come from following the Seirans and turning their guns on you. Yuna is dead, and your uncle does not strike me as the type of man who possesses the nerve to lead troops in the field himself. They might still nominally be in the Earth Alliance's camp, but I'm willing to bet that Unato will think long and hard before ordering his remaining forces to take the field again. Our chances of having to face your countrymen in battle out here have likely been greatly reduced. At this point, any such future confrontation will probably come only when we return to Orb and overthrow your uncle's regime… and when that day comes, I suspect that Unato's support within the military will be shaky at best."

Cagalli's eyes narrowed. "If we do encounter Orb forces in battle again... I want your word that you'll give me a chance to talk them down."

"And you'll have it," said Heero, "I'll even give them a warning myself. You and I each have reputations that precede us, and they can serve as an effective carrot and stick."

Cagalli shook her head. "To think that I'd have to play 'good cop, bad cop' with my own people…"

"At least you'd get to be the good cop," Heero pointed out, "You're their true leader; it's imperative that they see you as looking out for them. I'm a Gundam pilot; my job is to be their worst nightmare should they even think about crossing us. As long as it serves our ultimate goals, I don't mind playing the bad cop."

Cagalli sighed. "No… I suppose you've never hesitated to get your hands dirty. Maybe that's why I couldn't keep the Sieran's in check… I was too busy trying to live up to my family's ideals rather than doing what was necessary to curb their influence. If I'd been more ruthless, isolated them and their supporters, maybe I could've avoided all this."

Heero shook his head. "For what it's worth, I think you're being too hard on yourself. Your people love you in no small part because you're idealistic. The world has more than enough cutthroat operators and ruthless pragmatists. What it needs are more leaders who can still dream of a better tomorrow and devote themselves to bringing it about. You have that in a way that very few others do. You're a bright light for your people, one that they're going to need more than ever in this war. The Seirans believed that your idealism was a weakness, but they couldn't have been more wrong. Continue to fight for what you believe in, Cagalli, and Terminal will always have your back."

Cagalli smiled. "Thanks… that means a lot, coming from you. Even so, I know that idealism alone won't be enough to save my people or bring this war to an end. If I'm Orb's light… then I suppose that makes you its knife in the dark. I'll guide us forward, and you'll cut down those who would drag us into the abyss."

"Does this mean we're good?" asked Heero.

Cagalli slowly nodded. "Yeah… I think it does. I still wish things could've worked out differently at the Dardanelles, but I don't hold what happened there against you. It was a tragedy of war, and all we can do going forward is bring this conflict to a close as quickly as possible."

"We've got our work cut out for us," Heero pointed out as they stood up, "It's not like the Alliance and ZAFT are going to lay down their arms if we ask nicely."

Cagalli. "I know. What's that saying of yours? Easy missions aren't for Gundam pilots?"

Heero chuckled. "Close enough."

Cagalli held out her hand. "Thanks, Heero. You didn't have to do this."

Heero shook her hand. "I know we have our disagreements, but I do respect your commitment to helping your people. I'll still stand by my actions, but that doesn't mean I don't understand your feelings about what happened."

Cagalli nodded. "Mutual understanding… I can't ask for more than that."

….

Duo shook his head as Quatre finished explaining the real situation to him and Trowa. "Damn… and just when I thought things couldn't get anymore complicated. I figured Heero had his reasons for taking off like that, but even so, the guy didn't exactly do us any favors here."

Duo had been just as surprised as his fellow Gundam pilots when Heero had flown the coop the night before. He'd always known that they'd be leaving the Minerva eventually, but Duo had expected all five of them to jump ship together rather than make separate departures. The fact that not only had Heero left without telling them but had somehow roped in Shinn and had taken Stella as well was more than enough to tell him that something was up, and the interrogation session with Captain Gladys had done nothing to ease those suspicions. Now, here they were in the room that had been given to Quatre after sweeping it for potential bugs, and they had some answers.

That Quatre had waited until Wufei was up top running through his exercises before summoning Duo and Trowa had been another red flag. It hadn't escaped his notice that something had been up with the L5 native for a while now; there was a slowly-growing divide between him and the rest of the Gundam pilots. Now Duo had an answer to that as well, and while it was nice to know what was going on it didn't make their present situation any less complicated.

"So, what's our move?" asked Trowa, "ZAFT hasn't tried to arrest us or anything, but you can bet they'll be watching us much more closely from here on out. Word of this incident must have gotten to Durandal by now, and he knows far better than the crew of this ship the true nature of our temporary alliance."

Quatre nodded. "Our present course has us on a wide berth to avoid potential Eurasian Federation air patrols until the last possible moment, so at our current rate of travel the Minerva likely won't reach Gibraltar until either tonight or early tomorrow morning. Whatever scrutiny we're under now will only grow once we're there."

Duo scratched his chin. "Maybe we should get while the getting's good. Even if the crew's stepping up security, it wouldn't be hard to bust our way out of here."

"Perhaps, but our current position still has value, even with these rising tensions," Trowa argued, "We can still monitor ZAFT's movements to a degree, and they still need our firepower. It might be worth the risk to stick around a bit longer. It would've been one thing if just Heero had left, but he managed to not only talk Shinn into leaving, but taking the Core Splendor as well. That means ZAFT is deprived of the Impulse until they can ship a replacement module to the surface. Until that happens, the striking power of the Minerva and her mobile suits has been significantly reduced. From a tactical perspective, Captain Gladys needs us now more than ever."

"But is her need great enough to outweigh what she has to see as a major security risk?" Quatre pointed out, "I'm not sure she'd see it that way."

Duo shrugged. "Leave or stay, both options have trade-offs. The longer we stick around, the greater our chances are that we'll be here when Durandal turns our cold war into a hot one and makes a move on us. If we bolt, we lose out on potential intelligence that we could've gained by staying. I know we're going to have to cut bait and run whether we like it or not eventually, but timing's the key here."

"And there's still Wufei to consider," Trowa added, "If Heero's right about him, then he might be uniquely vulnerable to the Chairman's manipulation."

"Don't tell him that," Duo quipped, "Guy's still got way too much of a stick up his ass. I don't think he'd listen to us if we brought it up with him. Sounds like Heero's already tried and thrown in the towel."

Quatre sighed. "Wufei wasn't the only one that Heero was worried about. It sounds like Athrun's just as vulnerable, if not more so."

"Should we try to talk to him?" asked Trowa.

Duo shook his head. "Not sure how much good it would do at this point. We've already confronted him about Durandal's attempt on Lacus's life, and it doesn't look like he's budging. He might be too far gone."

Quatre nodded. "Possibly. Heero's already tried talking to him, or at least that's the impression I got from his message. He knows him better than the three of us do, so if Heero couldn't get through to him then I don't think we'd do much better."

"What's our play, then?" said Trowa, "Stay or go?"

"I'm down with whatever you guys want to do," Duo added.

Duo watched Quatre mull it over for a few long moments. "I think we should stick around, at least for a little while longer. They have no direct evidence linking us to the events of last night, and I believe their need for our firepower is still greater than the security risk we pose to them. There's still quite a bit we can learn if we stay, especially once we get to Gibraltar. It's risky, but I think the rewards make it worth the danger."

Duo chuckled. "We're Gundam pilots; don't we always go for the riskiest option?"

"It does seem to be our tendency," Trowa conceded, "Still, if we're going to do this, then we need to take care. We'll have to be ready to bail at a moment's notice."

Quatre nodded. "Agreed. I know we all packed light, but even so, make sure that anything important is already in your Gundams. When we do make a run for it, we can't afford to leave anything behind that ZAFT could use against us."

Duo grinned. "So, we're hanging out in the belly of the beast for a bit longer, eh? As long as we get to give it a bad case of indigestion on the way out, I'm game!"

"I suggest we all go down to our Gundams at different times today and make a bit of a show over reminding the tech crews that we'll blow them sky high if ZAFT so much as looks at them the wrong way," said Trowa, "A little hint at mutually assured destruction can go a long way towards prolonging a stalemate."

Quatre smiled. "Sounds good. Just try not to be too obvious about it. An implied threat can often be more effective than a blatant one.'

Duo chuckled. "Inspiring quiet dread in our soon-to-be enemies… I knew there was a reason why I liked hanging out with you guys!"

….

I still can't believe it, thought Lunamaria as she entered the mess hall, I mean, of all people… Shinn? Why would he run away like that, and with Heero Yuy, for crying out loud? I thought those two hated each other!

She shook her head as she went to dish up. Nothing made any sense these days, and she really should've known better than to try and wrap her mind around it. She was just a combat pilot; she should leave the big picture stuff to those who were paid to think about that. If she tried to figure it all out on her own, she was just going to give herself a huge headache.

Catching sight of Wufei at a table by himself, she approached him. "Room for one more?"

The Gundam pilot looked up from his lunch and nodded. "Sure. You doing okay?"

Lunamaria was a bit taken aback by the question; was her distress really that obvious? "I… I'm not sure. No… I guess not, really. Still trying to figure out what the hell happened last night."

"You mean with Heero and Shinn?" he replied as she sat across from him, "I don't think it's really that complicated."

Lunamaria raised an eyebrow; did Wufei know something she didn't? "What makes you say that?"

Wufei shrugged in between bites. "Heero was never going to stick around here forever. He doesn't like ZAFT, and especially not your Chairman. Him leaving was inevitable, and the way he did so sent a message to the Chairman; their little cold war's about to go hot."

Lunamaria surreptitiously looked around the room to make sure no one was listening in before leaning forward. "You mean whatever's been going on since the attempt on Lacus's life? How the hell did Shinn get dragged into that?"

"He was worried about the girl he captured at Cagliari, right?" Wufei pointed out, "I heard that he wouldn't leave the infirmary while she was here. That was a weakness, and Heero exploited it."

Lunamaria's eyes narrowed. "I don't buy that. I don't know what was up with Shinn and that girl, but he clearly cared about her. It's not a weakness to be worried about someone, Wufei. Shinn's got some issues, but he has a heart."

"Which Heero took advantage of," Wufei argued, "He played his hand well. Now he's not only deprived ZAFT of a precious prisoner, but also an ace pilot and the Core Splendor. The Impulse is useless until the Minerva receives a replacement module, and shipping one from L5 or Armory One to Gibraltar won't be easy. I imagine the Alliance is watching ZAFT's supply lines and raiding them whenever they can. Even if their space forces took massive casualties early in the war, they can still launch effective attacks on shipping with their remaining orbital assets."

"It does put us in a rough spot," Lunamaria conceded, "Still… why take her in the first place? Heero leaving is one thing, and if he and the Chairman do have some secret war going on between them then I understand how convincing Shinn to defect would be in his interests, but what about the girl? Was she really just a way for him to manipulate Shinn?"

Wufei shrugged. "You'd have to ask Heero. Maybe he'll be nice enough to answer when we meet him in battle."

A chill went down Lunamaria's spine. "You don't really think we're going to have to fight him, do you? He may have left the Minerva, and I'm sure the Captain's not happy with him, but it's not like he attacked any of the crew or hurt anyone. He tranquilized some people, sure, but he could've done much worse. Besides, he's been fighting the Alliance so far in this war, and they're still a threat. He wouldn't take on both them and ZAFT at the same time."

Wufei raised an eyebrow. "Were you paying attention at all during the First Bloody Valentine War? He did end up fighting both sides at once eventually, and he won. Taking on two global superpowers is just another day at work for a Gundam pilot. He'll wait for the right moment, and then he'll strike. When he does, I'll be ready."

Lunamaria didn't like where this was going. "You… you're actually hoping for a chance to fight him, aren't you?"

"I won't pass on the opportunity should it arise," Wufei casually replied.

Lunamaria remembered the sword fight between him and Heero that she'd spied on. That had been intense enough, but the two of them going head-to-head in their Gundams was on a whole different level. She couldn't even begin to imagine how a clash like that would go…

...and she really didn't want to.

….

"Ninety-eight…" Lan hissed under her breath as she wrapped up her pushups, "Ninety-nine… one hundred!"

To her left, she saw Adaline give her a thumbs up. "Third set, nice! Did yours in less time than mine, too."

"You're going at it pretty hard today," said Priscilla as she passed Lan a water bottle, "Something bothering you?"

Lan shook her head before taking a swig. "Nah, I'm good."

"Liar," Adaline accused.

Priscilla smiled. "She's right, Lan. Come on, how long have we known each other now? Do you really think you can hide when you're edge from us?"

"You've been a bit twitchy ever since you heard Heero was back on the Archangel," Adaline pointed out, a knowing smirk on her face, "Let me guess; you were hoping that a certain Desert Prince would be following in his wake and touching down on the Dominion?"

Lan tried but failed to suppress a blush. "That's not… well…"

Priscilla giggled. "Don't deny it, Lan! She's got you, and you know it."

Recognizing a losing battle, Lan threw up her hands in defeat. "All right, fine. Yeah, I was looking forward to seeing Quatre again. There, happy?"

"Not quite," said Adaline, "Join us for gossip in the lounge, and then we'll be happy."

Lan couldn't help but smile. "Sounds good. It's a bit too noisy down here for some good girl-talk, after all."

'Here' in this case was the hangar of the Dominion. The girls usually preferred to exercise on the ship's upper deck, but since the vessel was currently underwater that wasn't a viable option. They'd come down here enough times that the mechanic crews knew better than to intrude on the little workout corner that they'd set up, and it was one of the few spaces in the ship with enough room to work up a decent sweat.

It only took the three of them a few minutes to make their way to the officer's lounge. They had the place to themselves, so they plopped down on the couch along the back wall and stretched out. Lan was hoping for another moment or so to collect herself, but her friends smelled blood and wanted to strike while the iron's hot.

"Have another dream about your cute blond Gundam pilot?" Adaline teased.

"You know, that could technically be referring to me," Priscilla pointed out, although her knowing smirk indicated otherwise.

Lan smiled. "Sorry, Pris, but I don't swing that way. If I did, though, you'd probably be at the front of the line."

Adalin put her hands on her hips in faux-indignation. "Hey, what about me? What, are us red-heads not good enough for you? Only the golden-haired master race meets your standards?"

Lan rolled her eyes as her friends laughed. "God, what is with you two today? Here I thought I was the one getting hot under the collar."

"Yeah, but usually you're the one that gets to do the teasing," Priscilla pointed out, "The shoe's on the other foot for once, so we're going to make the most of it."

"I think Lacus and Kira would approve, considering how you used to 'hint' that they should 'pick things up a notch' in their relationship," Adaline added.

Lan grinned. "Oh, come on, you saw how shy those two were together at first! How was I supposed to resist that? Besides, how long were they supposed to go before they got freaky under the covers? I was just helping nature take its course."

Priscilla groaned. "I don't think Lacus would appreciate the word 'freaky' being used in the context of her relationship with Kira."

Adaline giggled. "Probably not!"

"Doesn't change the fact that I was right," Lan argued, "You two saw the bounce in her step after they finally did the deed! I did them a favor."

"Maybe," Priscilla conceded, "Still, if she were on this ship with us, I think Lacus would agree that turnabout is fair play."

Lan folded her arms. "I don't know what you're talking about. I've already taken my handsome pilot for a role in the hay! I got right down to business instead of dancing around it like those two did."

"Yeah, but we expect that of you," Adaline countered, "What we typically don't expect is for the loverboy in question to keep you preoccupied, and Quatre's certainly done that. Don't even try to deny it."

"Admit it, Lan," Priscilla pressed, "He's more than just a cute face and a good lay to you, isn't he?"

Lan felt the heat rush to her face. "That's… something I'm still trying to figure out."

It'd be a lot easier to do that if I could see him face-to-face again, she thought, I mean, did he really have to stay on the Minerva when Heero jumped ship? Quatre…

There was no denying it; she missed him. Whether it was simply his cute face, his gentle way with words or relaxing presence, it felt like life was just a bit lacking without him around. It wasn't supposed to be like this; she hadn't known him for very long, after all. Yet here she was, slowly going crazy because a young man who had come from literally another world was out in the field and not with her.

This wasn't like her. Lan was many things, but she'd never considered herself to be a romantic. What had changed? The answer, as it turned out, was rather obvious.

He was there for me when I needed him, she mused wistfully, Quatre… I know you didn't plan on coming into my life on the anniversary of my mother's death, and you didn't have to comfort me… but you did. You took the time to visit her grave with me, listen to my little sob story… and I needed that more than I'd realized. You're a genuinely good guy… and I like you.

Really like you.

And her friends clearly knew that. They'd been around each other for too long; they understood their feelings so well the connection was almost psychic at this point.

"I don't see what you need to 'figure out' about it," said Adaline, "He's a sweetheart, easy on the eyes, a badass in a mobile suit, and an all-around decent human being. You've already been on a date with him, not to mention gotten him into your bed, and you spent plenty of time with him while we were back at Home One."

"You've got feelings for him, Lan," Priscilla added, "More than just the usual 'want to jump his bones' feelings, too. It's not exactly complicated."

Lan sighed. "Maybe not that part, but… well, aren't we ignoring the elephant in the room? He's from a completely different world, and he's got family and friends back there. Quatre's here now, but he's only going to stick around until the war's over. Once he's helped us get our shit back together… he'll be heading home."

"Heero stayed in the Cosmic Era," Adaline pointed out, "He had the same friends as Quatre back in his old world, but he decided to remain here."

Lan shook her head. "Apples and oranges, Adaline. Quatre's connections to those he left behind are stronger than Heero's. He's head of his family, runs a huge business, has a ton of other responsibilities back there. I know he was willing to put all that on hold to come find Heero, but he's not going to completely walk away from it… and I'm not going to ask him to do that. This thing we have right now… it's just a bit of fun. A little distraction while the war's at war. No one's committing to anything long-term here, because there is no long-term for us."

Adaline and Priscilla shared an odd look, and Lan didn't like it. "What? You can't tell me I'm wrong about any of that."

Adaline shook her head. "Not quite. It's true that Quatre and the others are going to return to their world once this is all over; Heero's the exception, not the rule."

"Ironic when you consider that the reason they came out here in the first place was to find him and bring him back to their world," Priscilla muttered.

Adaline nodded. "Right. That being said, regarding whether or not there's a 'long-term' for you and Quatre, Lan… I don't think it's as clear-cut as you seem to believe."

Lan raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Neither of us have ever seen you act this way when it comes to a guy before," Priscilla argued, "Maybe in your head you know that he's going to leave the Cosmic Era, that you two will have to go your separate ways… but is your heart ready to accept that?"

"It'll have to," said Lan, a hint of melancholy creeping into her voice, "It's going to hurt, I know, but there's no getting around it. Quatre and I... we'll enjoy what little time we get together… make some fond memories together. A little wartime fling… one that can't grow into anything more."

She'd known all of that going into this, and she was sure that Quatre did too. The two of them had come together by twist of fate, and they both knew that fate would eventually force them to part ways. They would have their fun, and when the time came for farewells, there would be no hard feelings.

And yet…

...was that really what she wanted out of this?

She'd only known him for a short amount of time, and yet he'd manage to light a spark in her heart…

...one that she'd believed had died with her mother.

When Quatre eventually left the Cosmic Era, would that spark leave with him? Could Lan go back to living without it? Was she really as prepared to let go as she kept telling herself and her friends that she was?

If she were pressed to answer truthfully, Lan honestly didn't know.

And her friends had clearly realized that.

Adaline put her hand on Lan's shoulder. "If that's really how you want to handle this, then we'll support you. Quatre seems like the kind of guy who would understand it, so I'm sure he won't cause any trouble when the time comes."

"Just be sure it's what you want, Lan," Priscilla added, "because if it's not, then you might regret letting him go forever. We wouldn't want that for you. We want you to be happy… and you were definitely happy during the brief time you spent with Quatre. Even someone who's blind would've been able to see that."

Lan sighed. "Thanks. This was supposed to be some harmless fun… when did it wind up getting complicated?"

"He's a Gundam pilot, remember?" Adaline pointed out, "Nothing's ever easy when it comes to them."

Lan couldn't argue with that.

….

"Are we sure about this?" asked Heero, "There are a lot of ways that this could blow up in our faces."

He was sitting in the Archangel's briefing room with Murrue, Andrew and Aisha Waltfeld, and Lacus. While Murrue had already given him a brief rundown of Lacus's scheme to smuggle herself, the Desert Tiger and his wife into outer space, they'd still insisted on bringing him in for a more thorough briefing. Heero was still having trouble believing that this was a plan that Lacus, of all people, had come up with.

She has the audacity of a Gundam pilot, he thought, I can't imagine the utter terror she'd be in a mobile suit if she had our kind of training.

The Desert Tiger chuckled. "You're actually worried about a plan going sideways? Now I know that this is a crazy idea!"

Aisha smiled. "Look on the bright side; if we think it's nuts, then the likes of ZAFT wouldn't even dream of someone trying to pull it off. They lack the insanity required to imagine an operation like this!"

"I prefer to think of it as an inspired operation rather than a crazy one," Lacus chimed in.

"Now you see what I've had to deal with while you've been away," Murrue whispered in his ear.

"My sympathies," Heero muttered.

"You can't deny the benefits, Heero," said Lacus, "or the necessity. It's true that most of the recent action has been on the surface, but eventually the orbital theater of the war is going to heat up again. We need to take proactive measures to prepare for that, and it will also help us to better coordinate our intelligence and political outreach efforts with regards to the PLANTs."

Heero shook his head. "I'm not disputing the pros of the operation, but the cons are considerable. If we're really going to do this, then we need to do everything possible to maximize our chances of success. Your capture would be a devastating blow to Terminal; we need to take all possible measures to prevent that outcome."

Lacus smiled. "I appreciate your concern for my safety, Heero, but this is a risk that I believe must be taken."

"I'm going to assume you're worried about us as well," said Andrew, "Thanks for that, by the way."

Aisha nodded. "Always nice to be appreciated."

Murrue sighed. "As much as I'd still like to talk you out of this, I know that concerns for personal safety will never be enough to deter any of you. At this point, our dilemma comes down to timing. We're currently still tailing the Minerva, and they're taking the long way to Gibraltar, skirting along the coast of North Africa. This lets them either keep out of range completely from air strikes coming from Europe or at least puts them in a position where friendly patrols will likely pick up enemy formations on radar and relay the reports well before the attackers get within range of the ship. Since the Minerva is traveling on the surface, their danger is much greater than ours. We could alter course and actually beat them to Gibraltar, but if we launch our operation before they arrive then we'll forfeit the chance to achieve our secondary objective of capturing the Gaia."

"Is that really an objective that we want to pursue?" asked Heero, "I agree that swiping that machine would be a coup for us, but it also complicates an already-dicey operation. Security at Gibraltar is going to be tight, and that's only going to increase if the reports of Durandal heading there personally are accurate."

"I agree that it does make things a bit trickier," Andrew conceded, "but opportunities like this don't come along every day. Even if we have the Core Splendor now, capturing the Gaia will lend further insights into the lines of evolution ZAFT is pursuing with their mobile suit research and development."

"And it won't hurt to bring another advanced mobile suit into our arsenal," Aisha added.

"Mister Bristow has the necessary contacts within Gibraltar's administrative staff to aid us in pulling off such a heist," Lacus pointed out, "and a cargo shuttle is, in certain ways, actually easier for us to steal than a craft geared towards moving large numbers of people instead. I know it's not essential, but I do believe that stealing the Gaia in addition to getting me, Mister and Missus Waltfeld into space would be immensely helpful to our cause."

"If nothing else, it would humiliate Durandal," said Murrue, "It's almost worth the risk just to imagine the look on his face once he realizes we've taken two of ZAFT's precious prototypes from him. Almost worth it."

Heero looked at Lacus. "This operation is ultimately your brainchild. What objectives we pursue, what we want to accomplish from it, are your call to make. If this is really what you want to do, then I'll back you. I just want to make sure we've weighed all the risks before taking the plunge."

Lacus nodded, determination clear in her gaze. "I'm willing to take the risk, and I believe this mission's success will benefit Terminal. Preparations for this mission are already underway, and I will not stop them now. The operation will be going ahead."

Heero had expected that answer. "In that case, I have an idea as to how I can help you pull it off."

The Desert Tiger smirked. "This should be good."

"Or it could give me a heart attack," said Murrue as she looked nervously at Heero, "Either way… let's hear it."

"In order to maximize the odds for success, we need to give Gibraltar's security forces a reason to have their attention focused somewhere other than your point of insertion and the mass driver," said Heero, "Thanks to my recent actions with regards to the Minerva, I think it's safe to say that I've moved from ally to enemy in ZAFT's eyes. Therefore, we have a chance to distract them from your infiltration with a high-profile target… and with my involvement in Shinn's defection and Stella's kidnapping, we can assume that Durandal's probably designated me as such by now."

Murrue sighed. "Why did I see this coming? Heero… really?"

"I'm sorry, Murrue," Heero replied, "The last thing I want to do is make you worry, especially seeing as I've only just returned to the Archangel. However, we need to give Lacus, Andrew and Aisha every edge that they can get, and a juicy diversion fits the bill nicely. So, we'll put on a show that ZAFT won't be able to take their eyes off of…"

"...Wing Zero Albion buzzing their perimeter."

….

"I swear, I'm going to have gray hair before this war is over," Murrue muttered as she and Heero made their way towards the infirmary.

"For what it's worth, brown or silver, your hair will still be beautiful," Heero replied.

Murrue couldn't help but smile; even when she was frustrated with him, she knew he meant well and that the last thing he ever wanted was to upset her. "I appreciate that, but I'd like to keep the brown for as long as I can. You're not exactly helping with that."

"If it's not this operation, there'll be another risky one in the future," Heero pointed out, "Given our line of work and the odds we're up against, it's pretty much inevitable."

Murrue groaned. "Don't remind me. I should've known you'd find a way to make a crazy mission even crazier, and I know it won't be the last time you do that. I love your boldness, Heero, but sometimes I also hate it."

Heero nodded. "Well, at least this time I'll only be playing the role of diversion. All I'll really have to do is keep ahead of the enemy, and with the Wing Zero Albion's speed, that won't be a problem."

"Right, except for the particular course you laid out back there," Murrue countered, "You're probably going to have both ZAFT and the Alliance shooting at you, and given the length of their defensive lines in that region they will have opportunities to intercept you."

"I'll just have to keep on my toes," Heero replied, "Besides, if we're lucky, ZAFT and the Alliance will start shooting at each other. A little bit of chaos should go a long way towards ensuring the success of our operation."

Murrue sighed as they approached the infirmary door. "How I wish that I didn't agree with you."

The two of them entered the room a moment later. This was the first time Murrue had actually visited the medical bay since Stella had been brought to the Archangel. The poor girl was still sedated, and while Murrue would've preferred otherwise the chief medical officer had made clear that there was little choice in the matter if her life was to be saved. Shinn was sitting next to her bed, shadows under his eyes; the young man looked like he'd barely gotten any sleep since he'd arrived.

"Hello, Shinn," said Murrue as she and Heero approached.

Shinn's eyes widened in surprise; he probably hadn't even heard her and Heero enter the room. "Captain Ramius, Heero… what are you two doing here?"

"Checking in," Heero answered as he glanced at Stella, "How's she doing?"

Shinn gave a weary sigh. "The nurses say that they're making progress on synthesizing a substitute for the drugs that the Alliance had her on. They need to keep her sedated while they continue the work, otherwise she'd be in constant agony from withdrawal. I know they're doing it to save her, but still… keeping her asleep like this… it doesn't feel right."

Murrue stepped forward and put a hand on Shinn's shoulder. "This ship's medical staff are amongst the best in their profession, Shinn. Everything they're doing is with Stella's health first and foremost in mind. They'll give their all to save her; you can count on that."

She knew that she couldn't completely allay his fears, but the small smile that appeared on his face was hopefully a sign that her efforts to reassure him weren't in vain. "Thank you, Captain Ramius."

"You really should lie down for a while," Heero suggested, "I know you're worried sick about her, but you're not going to do Stella any favors if you collapse from exhaustion."

"I bet you're pretty hungry, too," Murrue ventured, "We can have something brought here from the cafeteria for you if you'd like."

Shinn nodded. "I'd appreciate that."

Murrue moved closer to the bed. Looking down at Stella, she felt pity and fury warring within her; the former for the girl, the latter for those who were responsible for her condition. The thought that she had once fought for the nation that had made the atrocities of the Extended Program possible was absolutely galling, and being able to save only a single victim served only to twist the knife in her gut.

She glanced at Heero, who was also focusing on the girl. To a casual observer he might look the same as ever, but Murrue knew better. The slight tension in his jaw, the subtle furrowing of his brow, the dark undercurrent of intensity in his eyes; Heero's minimalistic means of expressing himself spoke to her loud and clear.

We can't let them slip away into the shadows like they did last time, Murrue thought, Blue Cosmos, LOGOS, or whatever name they choose to go by; we'll root them out and bring them to justice one way or another.

She briefly looked at Heero and nodded before the two of them stepped back and turned to Shinn. "If you think of something else that you might need, let us know, all right? You're here as our guest and Stella's companion; we'll help you in any way that we can."

"All right," Shinn replied, although his gaze was on Stella rather than her.

"I'll swing by the cafeteria and grab a meal for you," said Heero, "After you've eaten, try to get some sleep for a bit, all right? I can't make you rest, but you really should try to do so for Stella's sake, not just yours."

"I'll try," Shinn answered.

The two of them gave Shinn and Stella one last look before leaving the infirmary. Murrue let out a deep sigh once the door closed behind them; she hadn't realized until now just how tense she'd been while in there despite her best efforts.

Heero took her hand in his. "You all right?"

"I will be," she said, closing her eyes for a moment, "Seeing her like that, along with how desperate he is for us to save her… it gives this conflict a much more personal feel, I guess. I wish I could promise him that she'll be all right, but…"

"Even if we can save her life, that'll only be the start of a long road to recovery," Heero finished for her, "The psychological trauma alone must be immense… Dr. Monroe's going to have her work cut out for her."

Murrue concurred. "She certainly will. I suppose all you and I can do now is keep her safe. You did your part in rescuing her and convincing Shinn to help. My role is to command the ship that's harboring them and keep it in one piece while the medical professionals do their work."

"And mine is to protect the ship and them," said Heero, "And you, of course."

Murrue smiled. "You really are this ship's guardian angel… an archangel for the Archangel, as it were. Thanks to the upgrades, your Gundam even looks the part."

Heero nodded. "Wing Zero was designed as a weapon of mass destruction, but I infinitely prefer using it as a protector. I think Zero shares that sentiment."

"I'd like to think so, too," Murrue replied.

An angel of death to our enemies, she thought, but one of hope and protection for us and our allies. Heero's well accustomed to being both, and I suppose the Archangel's taken on that role as well. Now, we've taken Shinn and Stella beneath our wings to shield from the cruel architects of this war…

...and we will not fail them!

….

Staring intently at his computer as he reviewed the latest reports from his informant network, Eric Bristow didn't even hear his wife enter the room until she was standing next to him and thrusting a hot mug of coffee in his face. "Care for a refuel? You look like you could use it."

Eric blinked and rubbed his eyes before smiling at Shemei. "That obvious, huh?"

"You've been here for the past three hours," Shemei answered as she pushed the cup into his hand before sitting sideways in his lap, "I know you, Eric. You get so caught up in what you're reading that you forget about taking care of yourself. You're lucky that you've got me to watch your back, you know?"

"That I am," he said softly as he kissed her, "Has it really been three hours already? Could've sworn I'd just sat down a few minutes ago…"

"Thanks for proving my point," she replied, "Now, you're not allowed to do any further work until you drink that."

Eric smirked. "Is that an order? Don't I outrank you?"

Shemei gave him the mischievous grin that he'd long ago fallen in love with. "You did when we were with ZAFT. Nowadays? Not so much."

Eric had to chuckle as he took a sip. "Gotta love our organizational structure… or lack thereof. Some days, I'm surprised that we make this work."

"It helps that we stole all the best talent from both sides in the war," Shemei pointed out, "The most skilled pilots, the most intelligent commanders, and generally a bunch of people with the capacity for independent thinking. When you look at it that way, is it really a surprise that our enemies come across as more doctrinaire and rigid than us?"

Eric nodded. "Good point. A looser and more flexible chain of command works well for smaller and more adaptable forces, and we certainly fit the bill. Unfortunately, an independent paramilitary group like ours is at a severe disadvantage in several key fields. Intelligence assets are one of them, and right now it's a real problem."

"What's going on?" she asked as she glanced at the laptop, "Something got you worried?"

Eric sighed as he leaned back and took another sip of coffee. "It's the Earth Alliance. Since we don't have any real connections with them, the only way for us to track their movements is through our contacts in ZAFT and the Orb Union."

"Isn't Orb pretty much an Alliance member state in all but name now?" Shemei countered.

"Pretty much," Eric conceded, "but they're very much a junior partner, and it shows; the Atlantic Federation doesn't share much with them when it comes to intelligence, or at least not enough for our people inside Orb to make use of. We're mostly stuck relying on ZAFT recon reports, and what they're seeing has me very concerned."

Shemei's eyes narrowed. "The Alliance making a play?"

"A big one, although they're trying to keep it low-key," Eric confirmed, "Remember those reports that got brought up at the meeting? The ones about Atlantic Federation troops being brought across the pond to reinforce the Eurasian Federation's forces in Europe? ZAFT's naturally been keeping a close eye on that development, and from what my contacts have been able to piece together, this is definitely more than one ally backing up another."

"Then what are they up to?" asked Shemei.

"If I'm reading things right," Eric answered, "then this is less of a reinforcing army than it is an occupying one."

Shemei did a double take at that. "Hold on… are you saying that the Atlantic Federation is invading Europe?"

Eric nodded. "Pretty much. The amount of troops they're moving in, the supporting vehicles and equipment that's been spotted so far… they're dressing it up as defending their ally, but everything I'm seeing points to them planning to stick around. I can understand wanting to attack both Gibraltar and Diocuia with overwhelming force, but this goes well beyond that. Numbers like these are beyond overkill even for bases with their levels of fortifications. This army… it's not meant for ZAFT, or at least not primarily. Its mission is to keep the Eurasians in line. To remind them of their obligations to the Earth Alliance… and enforce those obligations with extreme prejudice."

"And the Eurasians are just letting this happen?" Shemei asked incredulously.

"It's not quite that simple," Eric replied, "The Americans are trying to be subtle about this and framing the whole thing as military aid. I'm sure that there are members of the Eurasian Federation government that suspect the truth, but right now I don't think they're really able to do anything about it. They've concentrated a significant portion of their ground forces on containing ZAFT at Gibraltar and Diocuia, while other units are on standby in case the growing civil unrest reaches a tipping point. Between the enemy on their doorstep and the internal strife, I doubt the Eurasians could prevent the Atlantic Federation from landing these troops even if they wanted to."

Shemei shook her head. "Unbelievable… does the Atlantic Federation actually have the resources required to pull this off?"

Eric sighed. "Hard to say. Like I said earlier, one of our big problems here is the lack of connections within the Atlantic Federations that would give us a better idea as to what they're planning. We're on the outside looking in. The members of Terminal that were once part of the Atlantic Federation military didn't have time to build up the same kind of contact network that we did within the PLANTs and ZAFT."

"That's true," Shemei conceded, "Murrue and her crew were all frontline soldiers before they defected; they weren't close to the inner circles of power like you and Lacus were. Same goes for Natarle and the rest of the defectors from the Dominion. I know we picked up recruits from other Atlantic Federation units too, but they were pretty much in the same situation; none of them were high enough up the chain to have access to the sort of people who could provide us with the intelligence that we need. Damn it, this sucks!"

Eric chuckled ruefully. "Now you feel my pain as this group's spymaster. Honestly, sometimes I actually prefer the occasions where I get to pilot my mobile suit as opposed to this sort of work; combat's easier than intelligence work by a longshot."

"No kidding," Shemei grumbled, "Is there anything we can do to stop this? I know we've got our hands full at the moment, but even so… can't we at least warn the Eurasians that their so-called 'allies' might be about to pull an Order 66 on them?"

"Given that they see us as hostile, I doubt they'd listen," Eric replied, "At this point, it's beyond our power to stop. If the Atlantic Federation overplays its hand, then we might be able to reach out to the Eurasians and convince them to work with us, but with Heero and his friends having destroyed a good chunk of their navy it'll probably be a while before they're willing to play ball. Even then, I doubt they'll be happy about it."

Shemei sighed. "Damn it. Does Andrew know about this?"

"I've been sending him regular updates with my analysis and conclusions," Eric answered, "I'll fire off another one to him shortly, but I suspect his mind's probably already reached the same point as mine. Besides, he's got his hands full with the crazy little scheme our songstress has cooked up… and from what I understand, it sounds like Heero found a way to make it even crazier."

Shemei smirked. "Why am I not surprised? He's been back for a day and is already throwing himself headlong into the madness. I swear, when those two work together, you never know what's going to come of it."

Eric nodded. "No argument there. At the rate she's going, the Minerva will probably pull into Gibraltar sometime around midnight tonight. My contact in the logistics hub reported that they've already set aside a cargo shuttle for the Gaia, so they'll probably make the transfer as soon as the ship arrives. If we want to get Lacus, Andrew and Aisha into space and snag the Gaia in the bargain, then all of our focus needs to be on this operation right now."

"The rest of the war isn't going anywhere," Shemei concurred as she leaned down to kiss him, "If this operation is going to require so much attention, then you need to take a break. Coffee alone's not going to cut it. Let's go grab a bite. You look like you could use it."

Eric nodded as he closed the laptop. "Sounds good. Best to eat and rest up while we can, because we've got a long night ahead of us."

….

"You shouldn't be out here," said Mihaly as Marius returned to their table with two glasses of red wine, "This close to the front… what the hell are you thinking?"

The lead designer of the Wyvern sat down across from him and raised his glass. "Did you really think I'd trust the locals with maintenance on your machine? You're lucky I'm here; I only needed five minutes down in the hangar to find at least three calibration errors, and I'm sure there are more screwups just waiting to be uncovered."

Mihaly shook his head before taking a sip from his glass. "I know the mechanics send diagnostic reports directly to you; you can simply reply with what they're messing up and how to fix it. It's not something you need to be out here in person for, and we both know it."

'Here' in this case was the Orange-Caritat Air Base in southeastern France. In the aftermath of the surprise attack on Cagliari to the south, this Eurasian Federation facility was undergoing a rapid transformation from simply playing host to patrol and air defense squadrons to a full front-line base. It was a sign of just how panicked the top brass were over the raid in Sardinia, and Mihaly was sure that a similar process was underway at any Eurasian Federation facility that was anywhere remotely close to southern Europe.

Marius shrugged. "All right, you've got me. I've got another flight suit for you to try on. It should do a better job at protecting you from the Wyvern's acceleration. Won't be perfect, but it's still a step up. You can't tell me that you don't need it after your last two fights.'

Mihaly's aching ribs wouldn't let him argue. "I suppose I can try it out while you're here. Still, you could've just shipped that out with instructions. Something else brought you here."

Marius sighed. "You're not going to like it. I certainly don't, but I'm not being given a choice in the matter."

"What is it?" asked Mihaly.

"I received a message from one Rear Admiral Dorana Xen," Marius answered, "She's practically the only remaining female officer in the Atlantic Federation after their purge, and she's the head of the Alliance's Special Projects Task Force. She wants the Wyvern's combat data."

Mihaly's eyes narrowed and his already gravelly voice dropped into a guttural growl. "You're not seriously going to give it to her, are you?"

"I'm afraid the 'request' had teeth behind it," Marius reluctantly confirmed, "Our superiors signed off on it and ordered me to come out here to facilitate the transfer."

Mihaly wanted to spit out his wine, but it was poor manners to waste a good vintage. "They just rolled over for the Americans? Did they lose their spines along with their minds when they threw in with the Atlantic Federation's warmongering?"

"You haven't been paying much attention to the domestic situation, have you?" Marius surmised.

"It's not what I'm paid to do," Mihaly deadpanned.

"I know you disdain politics in general," said Marius, "Most of the time, I'd agree with you. However, I'm afraid it impacts us this time, and not in a good way. The civil unrest that flared up after the Cagliari raid isn't dying down. On the contrary, it's getting worse. The war was never popular to begin with in the Eurasian Federation; the carnage at Cagliari seems to be merely the straw that broke the camel's back."

"What do demonstrations and riots have to do with the Wyvern's combat data?" asked Mihaly.

"The Atlantic Federation has offered their… support in dealing with the recent civil unrest," Marius replied, "They've made it known that the reinforcements that have been shipped over from North America are ready to assist with pacification efforts at a moment's notice. Of course, since this is the Atlantic Federation, I don't think I need to spell out to you what 'pacification' would entail."

Mihaly sighed. "No, you don't. So, this is what it's come down to… damn it all."

"I'm sure our superiors see it as a cheap price to pay in order to avert a bloodbath," said Marius, "Short-sighted fools. The Atlantic Federation's military presence in Europe grows with each passing day. Soon the deals they'll be offering will be much more one-sided than this one."

Mihaly shrugged as he took another sip of wine. "Well, it's not like you and I can do anything about it. We're bit players in this drama, nothing more. You supply the machine and technical knowledge, and I wield that machine against the people our superiors designate as enemies. That's a soldier's lot in life. I learned that long ago."

Marius's eyes narrowed. "And there's only one enemy that you're currently interested in fighting. You've survived two fights with him so far, and I'm sure the third will be soon enough. How far do you intend to take this?"

"As far as I can," Mihaly answered firmly, "One way or another, he'll be my final opponent before I lose my wings."

"Is that really all that matters?" asked Marius.

"It's the only thing that I have control over," Mihaly countered, "This war is too big for people like you and me to have any real impact on it. Besides, we both know that time isn't on my side. Your new flight suit will help, but with or without it, this war's my last ride. I'm fortunate that the man our superiors want me to fight is worth the devil's bargain we've made. Victory or defeat, as long as I get that final decisive fight with him, that's the only thing that matters to me."

….

Standing on the upper deck of the Minerva with the evening breeze blowing in his hair, Rey was so caught up in his own thoughts that he wasn't aware that he'd been joined until he heard Heine's voice coming from behind him. "Betrayal stings, doesn't it?"

Rey closed his eyes; was the FAITH operative a mind reader? Then again, he didn't have to be to know what Rey was feeling. While he always tried to keep his feelings to himself, the fact of the matter was that his efforts to maintain his mask had slipped given the events of the past day. Lunamaria had approached him earlier to talk about what their friend had done, but he'd coldly brushed her off. The same went for Meyrin, and while Rey hadn't meant to hurt either of them, the two sisters weren't really the kind of people who could truly understand him, and so it was better to keep them at arm's length.

Especially when he was in this state. Cold on the outside, seething with silent fury on the inside… abandoned by one of the few people that he'd truly considered a friend.

"I know you're not the most expressive of people," Heine continued as he joined him at the railing, "but you don't need to hide your feelings on this matter from me. We both serve the same master, after all. It's a pity, really; I had recommended both you and Shinn for elevation into the ranks of FAITH. Of all the pilots that could've turned traitor, he was one of the last that I could've expected."

Rey agreed. "It doesn't make any sense. He was devoted to ZAFT and the PLANTs, loathed both the Earth Alliance and the Orb Union, and he butted heads with Heero Yuy from the moment that they met… quite literally. I know he was concerned about the girl, but if he really wanted to help her then he would've trusted our medics to care for her. His motivations here… I do not understand them at all."

Heine nodded. "It is quite the puzzle. I'm sure the inevitable investigation commissioned by the Defense Council will provide answers at some point, but for now we are left only with speculation. Still, it behooves us to at least attempt to discern his reasons, if only so that we can be on the lookout for any future defections. Did you perhaps notice anything odd about his behavior over the past few days?"

Rey's eyes narrowed. "Is this an interrogation?"

Heine shook his head. "Not officially, but you must remember my position. As an agent of the Chairman, it's my responsibility to anticipate what he would want me to do in situations like this and act accordingly. I simply wish to be proactive in my duties."

Rey sighed. Official interrogation or not, what did it matter at this point? Shinn had betrayed them, abandoned him; Rey owed him nothing now. His friend was now an enemy, and Rey had an obligation to help bring him to justice in any way that he could.

"The girl," he said after a moment, "I don't know what was up between them, but he knew her. He was obsessed over helping her and wouldn't leave her side while she was here. You were on the mission with him when she was captured, so you probably saw him acting strange then too."

Heine nodded. "I'll admit, his adamant insistence on taking her alive and unharmed did strike me as odd, especially given how many times she's wielded the Gaia against us in the past. Capturing both her and the mobile suit were positive outcomes, though, so I didn't give it too much thought once the mission was complete. It would seem that was a mistake on my part. What would drive him to go to such lengths to save someone who's been trying to kill us?"

Rey scratched his chin as an odd thought hit him. "Perhaps… family."

Heine raised an eyebrow. "Family? From what I understand, Shinn's family perished during the Alliance's attack on Orb's Elysium colony during the last war. They've been dead for two years; what bearing would they have on the current situation?"

"He had a younger sister," Rey elaborated, "Shinn didn't talk about her too much; I think it was her loss that hit him the hardest. This is pure speculation, but perhaps something about the Gaia's pilot brought back memories of the sibling that he lost two years ago."

Heine's brow furrowed as he considered it. "An interesting angle… perhaps there's something to it. I'll mention it in my next report to the Chairman. I'm sure he'll appreciate your insight on the matter. It certainly won't hurt your chances for promotion!"

Rey had more important things on his mind than career advancement at the moment. "If we encounter Shinn in the future and capture him, what will be his fate?"

Heine gave a reluctant sigh. "You really have to ask, Rey? Regardless of his motives in this affair, the fact remains that he not only freed an enemy combatant from our custody but stole ZAFT military hardware from a vessel in the middle of an active theater of war. Desertion, theft of ZAFT property… those charges alone would be severe, and that's before we even start on treason."

"That last one might not technically apply," Rey argued, "He went with Heero Yuy, and while I distrust the man I highly doubt that he took both Shinn and the girl to the Earth Alliance. They must be with his organization aboard the Archangel by now, and we are not at war against them. Shinn is not directly aiding our enemies, so while his offenses may be grave, I don't think it necessarily rises to ZAFT's legal definition of treason."

Heine folded his arms. "He may not be aiding the foes that we've officially declared war on, but make no mistake; the organization that Heero serves is very much an enemy of ZAFT. They might have helped us in battles against the Earth Alliance in this conflict, but Heero himself was quite blunt about the temporary nature of our partnership. Besides, he has already engaged in hostile actions against ZAFT soldiers, and I am not referring to his tranquilizing members of this ship's crew in his helping Shinn and the girl make their escape."

"Then what are you referring to?" asked Rey.

"There is another conflict being waged in the shadows of this one," Heine replied, "I'm sure you're already aware of some of the details; the rest will be made clear to you once the Chairman sees fit to elevate you into the ranks of FAITH. Suffice to say that this is more than just a war for the survival of Coordinators. The very path of humanity itself, our future as a species, will be decided by this conflict."

"And what path is ZAFT and the Chairman fighting for?" inquired Rey.

Heine smiled. "One where wars like this will be a thing of the past. One where humanity will not only know peace, but also order and direction. There is a revolution brewing, Rey, one that is only possible through the vision of our Chairman and the support of soldiers like us. Humanity will finally receive the guidance it's so desperately needed throughout its history, and ZAFT will be the ones to pioneer its new trail."

Rey's eyes narrowed. "And Heero's faction opposes this revolution of ours?"

Heine sighed. "They do not recognize its full scope, but once they do, the Chairman firmly believes that they will align against it. They are stuck in the past, defined by antiquated notions that will have no place in the new order that is necessary for humanity's long-term survival and prosperity. It is unfortunate; the Chairman would very much have preferred to walk this path hand-in-hand with them. Alas, they have already chosen their role as the opposition, and a confrontation is inevitable. In order for us to triumph in that confrontation and guide humanity to the new tomorrow that awaits it, we will need pilots that are both skilled and loyal. The Chairman had hoped that Shinn could be one of them, but while his talents and potential were great, it seems that his dedication to ZAFT was not what it should have been. We are hoping that you will be what he could not."

"The Chairman should already know that he can count on me," Rey firmly replied, "I've served him loyally since he gave me a place in ZAFT, and I will never betray him."

Heine turned to leave, but not before looking over his shoulder at Rey. "You will have the chance to prove that soon. I look forward to seeing you rise to the occasion."

….

Sitting in the cockpit of Wing Zero Albion, Heero ran through his pre-flight checks. Engines, weapons, sensors, hydraulics, and all the rest were showing green across the board, and he'd never doubted that they would. It felt good to have the care of his machine back in the hands of Chief Murdoch's crew; they knew his Gundam almost as well as he did by now.

To think I once threatened to blow up my Gundam and the ship along with it if any of them so much as looked at it the wrong way, he mused, I really have come a long way since then...

A chime came from his console, and Murrue's face appeared in the bottom right corner of the main monitor a moment later. "Are you ready?"

Heero nodded. "Everything looks good here. Are the Wraiths airborne?"

"Yes, and they've got their packages," Murrue replied, "They'll wait for you to start your first pass before making their insertion. We'll have our fastest units on standby in case you need us to cover your withdrawal. Just say the word, and they'll come running."

Heero gave her a reassuring smile. "It shouldn't come to that, but thanks."

Murrue sighed before returning his smile. "I hope you're right. Be careful, Heero. Get in there, make some noise and grab their attention for a bit, and then get out. Nothing fancy, at least not by your standards, you got that?"

"Loud and clear," Heero answered, "I'll come back, Murrue. I promise."

Murrue nodded. "I'm holding you to that. Good luck out there, Heero."

She vanished from the display, her face being replaced by that of Miriallia a moment later. "Opening the starboard hatch now. Stand by for launch clearance, Heero."

The giant metal door up ahead slid open, revealing the cloudy night sky beyond. Heero's grip tightened on the controls as he waited for permission to take off. After all the sorties he'd flown from the Minerva over the past few weeks, launching for a mission from the Archangel again just felt right.

Miriallia's voice echoed over the cockpit speakers again a moment later. "Heero, you're cleared for launch. Be careful out there."

"Roger that," said Heero, "Wing Zero Albion, launching!"

The Gundam blasted out of the hangar and into the night sky. Off the port side of the Archangel, Heero could see the Dominion already halfway through the process of submerging again, and he knew that her white sister ship would follow shortly. The Wraiths carrying Andrew, Aisha and Lacus had already cloaked; as far as any outside observers would be concerned, the sky belonged to Heero alone.

Operation Passport had begun.

Preview for next time!

The Minerva arrives at Gibraltar, but any hopes from her crew for a chance to rest are dashed when air raid sirens ring out in the night. ZAFT scrambles its forces to intercept none other than Heero Yuy, unaware that they're playing right into his hands. As nearby Earth Alliance forces enter the fray and a skirmish breaks out along Gibraltar's northern defensive line, the three Wraiths quietly drop off their passengers near the base's spaceport. With ZAFT and the Alliance determined to shoot down Wing Zero Albion, neither side is aware of the true prize passing right under their noses. Next time, on "Destiny's Call", Episode Twenty-One: Operation Passport.

Always keep both eyes on the ball…

Author's Notes: Got this one done much faster than I thought I would, which is actually impressive considering I've been using a backup computer for writing the past month and a half. My main laptop is in for repairs, and the place I use has a considerable backlog, so I bought another one in order to keep writing. The problem is that the backup is much smaller than my main laptop, and getting used to writing on it has been a bit challenging. Still, at least I've got one that I can use. Have to take what you can get this year, it seems.

Seeing as quarantine has us all desperate for entertainment, I've got a couple of fics that I thought I'd recommend to you guys. One's by JawsOnYou67, a Gundam and Mass Effect crossover called "A Metal Guardian". It's quite ambitious, and I have to give the author props for thoroughness on all the different characters, series, mobile suits and ships that they're bringing into this one. If giant sci-fi crossovers are your thing and you're looking for something new, definitely give it a shot!

The other one I'm giving a shoutout to is by Titanic X. It's called "Gundam Wing: The Phoenix Rising", and it's actually a tie-in to my Wing/SEED series! I never thought when I started this series that it'd gain enough of a following for there to be spin-off fics, so I'm quite flattered that this one got up and running. Thanks Titanic X!

Hope you enjoyed the new chapter. Please review, stay safe, and I'll see you next time!