Author's Notes: Hello there! Sorry about how long this one took. It was always going to take a while on account of it being a big battle chapter, but all the mandatory overtime we got at my job over the past few months didn't exactly help matters. Things look like they might finally be starting to calm down a bit, though. I can hope, anyway.

Song list for the chapter: 'Defence of Moscow' by Sabaton, 'Unyielding' from Halo 2, and 'The Only Thing I Know For Real' from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

Enjoy!

Episode Twenty-Five: The Fire of Defiance

Idly glancing at the time on his display, Heero was mildly surprised to realize that it wasn't even noon yet. So much had happened in such a short period, and the day still hadn't reached its halfway point.

I suppose we did get an early start, he mused as his gaze focused on the rapidly growing silhouettes of Terminal's battleships, but even so, it feels like it should be so much later in the day than it actually is right now.

As the Archangel and Dominion had continued moving east well after the strike team had departed, the return flight was significantly shorter than the trip out to Vienna had been. Drawing closer to his destination, Heero could once again see the Strike Rouge, the two Murasames, and the GuAIZ Werewolf flying combat air patrol over their respective home warships. A rather jarring sense of déjà vu hit him when he thought of their return from Berlin just the previous day. It hadn't been all that different from this, with one crucial exception; this time, they'd stopped the enemy before they'd been able to devastate their target. As far as Heero was concerned, that made the outcome of today's action a true victory rather than the hollow one that they'd won the day before. Even so, Heero didn't allow himself the luxury of even momentarily basking in triumph. After all, the enemy had other armies on the move, and Terminal still had work to do.

A chime sounded, and Murrue appeared on his screen a moment later. "We've got you on scanners, Heero. Good to see you're all in one piece. Radio traffic went nuts a little while ago; sounds like you made quite the entrance."

Heero nodded. "That's definitely one way to put it."

Murrue smiled. "The mission was a success, then?"

"Yes," Heero confirmed, "It was a close thing, but Vienna still stands. So do its defenders, though they took quite the beating."

"So we've heard," Murrue replied, "With the assault force destroyed, the Eurasians on that front should have some time to catch their breath and regroup. Unfortunately, the picture's not so rosy in the east."

Heero's eyes narrowed. "You got new intel while we were out?"

"From Major Gardinier… courtesy of her sources in the belly of the beast, as it were," said Murrue warily, "It's better if we keep this off the radio."

Heero understood. "We'll talk when I land."

Murrue nodded. "The Major and I will meet you down in the hangar. See you soon, Heero."

Her face disappeared from the monitor, only to be replaced by the helmeted one of Cagalli as the Strike Rouge drew near. "Heero, welcome back. Glad you're all okay."

"That makes two of us," said Heero, suspecting he knew why Cagalli was really contacting him, "Was everything quiet back here?"

"Pretty much," she answered, "From some of the radio signals we intercepted, it sounds like the Altron showed up at Vienna about the same time as you did. Was that the only machine from ZAFT that made an appearance?"

Heero let out a heavy sigh. "Wufei was actually acting on his own; he didn't come out to Vienna on ZAFT business. No other pilots were with him, Athrun included. Sorry, Cagalli. Best I can tell, he's still on the Minerva."

Even through the visor of her helmet, it wasn't difficult to see her crestfallen expression. "Oh… understood."

Heero wasn't the best at offering encouragement, but he still wanted to give her some measure of reassurance. "He'll come around, Cagalli. He helped us out during the Berlin fight, even covertly communicating with Kira in the process. He's not as lost as we once feared. Give him time."

Cagalli smiled weakly. "I will. I just hope you and Kira are right about him."

"As do I," said Heero before the connection ended.

No sooner had Cagalli faded from his screen when another chime sounded from the console, and this time it was Miriallia's face on his monitor. "Heero, the starboard side hangar entrance is opening for you now. Line up your final approach and proceed to land."

"Roger that," Heero acknowledged.

A few minutes later, he was inside the hangar and maneuvering his Gundam towards its berth. Settling Wing Zero Albion into its designated slot, Heero caught sight of the entrance at the back end of the hangar opening. Murrue and Major Gardinier stepped through the doorway, with both of them proceeding briskly towards his mobile suit.

Powering down his machine and popping the hatch, Heero was greeted by Murdoch. "Hey, Heero! Zero looks much better than the last time around. No big aces to tangle with this time?"

"None worth mentioning," Heero replied as he glanced up at the Gundam, "Munitions need to be topped off, but that should be about it this time around."

"We'll give it the usual tune-up to be on the safe side," said Murdoch, "I get the feeling that the excitement's not about to die down anytime soon."

"You're not the only one," Heero quietly remarked as he began climbing down the maintenance catwalk's ladder, "I'll leave you to it, then."

When he reached the floor of the hangar, he found that Murrue and Sibylle had already closed the remainder of the gap. There was a sense of urgency in their gazes, and Heero doubted that it boded well.

Murrue greeted him with a smile, though there was an unmistakable tension in her expression. "Welcome back, Heero. You did well out there; the whole team did. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of celebrating this victory."

"What's happened?" asked Heero.

"You and your comrades did well to destroy the main forces ravaging central Europe," Sibylle chimed in, "However, the Atlantic Federation army on the move in the east dwarfs both the Berlin and Vienna assault groups by a considerable amount. That force has been on the move since before the opening shots of the invasion, and we now know for sure what its target is; Moscow."

Heero looked back and forth between Murrue and Sibylle. "They're already moving on the Eurasian Federation's capital? How did they cover so much ground in such a short amount of time?"

"That's a matter best discussed in a place with less background noise," said the Major, almost shouting to make herself heard over the clamor of the other members of the strike team touching down in the warship's hangar, "Captain Ramius, if we might remove ourselves to a more secluded location for this conversation?"

Murrue nodded. "The pilot briefing room. This way."

The three of them proceeded quickly from the hangar, reaching their destination in short order. Murrue and Heero both sat in the front row while Sibylle activated the wall monitor. A map of Europe soon dominated the screen, and the Major adjusted it so that it was concentrated on the eastern half of the continent. A timestamp appeared on the bottom left corner of the screen, and Heero watched with keen interest as the date moved back several days.

"As I'm sure you're both aware," Sibylle began, "the shots at Berlin didn't mark the real start of the Atlantic Federation's invasion, merely the more open phase of it. For some time previously, the Atlantic Federation had been in the process of transporting large quantities of troops, armaments and supplies to the continent. The ostensible purpose of these transfers was to reinforce our own forces in the event that ZAFT attempted breakouts from Gibraltar and Diocuia."

Heero folded his arms. "Your superiors can't have seriously bought that. Apart from the seizure of Diocuia and the Suez Canal, ZAFT's overall strategic posture in this war has been one of proactive defense. Yes, they've launched offensive operations, but their territorial gains have been overall quite limited. A breakout and full-scale invasion of Europe from Diocuia or Gibraltar, while feasible in theory, would in practice bog ZAFT down in an expensive quagmire that they cannot afford. The bulk of their might is concentrated in outer space; their surface resources are quite limited when compared to the vast reserves that the Earth Alliance can call upon."

Murrue concurred. "ZAFT has shipped large amounts of their own reinforcements to the surface, but they've been overwhelming focused on shoring up their defensive positions rather than seizing new territory. Even with the considerable forces they've already amassed, their overall ability to take new ground in Europe is limited. Local Eurasian Federation reserves alone would probably suffice to stem the tide of any such hypothetical invasion, especially since your country had suffered relatively minimal overall losses in the conflict so far when compared to the Atlantic Federation, at least prior to the Americans' new offensive. You erstwhile 'ally's' offer of reinforcing your defenses should've been met with skepticism from the outset."

Sibylle sighed. "For what it's worth, French Regional Command was skeptical of it, but we're only one part of the Eurasian Federation's military apparatus, and we don't run the show. The decision to play along was made by the higher ups in Moscow… a decision I suspect they're strongly regretting right about now. Nevertheless, the decision was made, and so the Atlantic Federation began a steady military buildup within our territory. While the assembly of forces in norther Germany got the most immediate attention, what should've been given greater focus was the army that had begun massing in the east. Officially, its purpose was to assist Eurasian forces in containing ZAFT's beachhead at Diocuia, but the formations being assembled were too far from the front lines to be immediately useful in that regard. That should've been a red flag, but no one in a position of real power bothered to heed it. Now millions of innocent people are about to suffer for it."

A blinking red dot appeared on the map as the Major continued, and it was much closer to Moscow than Heero had been anticipating. "The negligence of our leaders essentially gave the Atlantic Federation's eastern army a head start. Our new enemy was able to position their force steadily further to the east, and when hostilities broke out in central and western Europe, they wasted no time in taking advantage of their position. Only now are serious defensive formations being mustered to contain the Atlantic Federation's advance… and so far, all they're really managing to do is slow them down. They're doing better than the units who were tasked with defending Vienna, but that's only relatively speaking."

"Let me guess," said Heero, "The Atlantic Federation's giant new machines are proving to be a problem."

Sibylle nodded. "Hit the nail on the head. What's worse is that there's more than one involved in this offensive; our source confirms at least two, along with their supporting land battleships. A few squadrons of the new assault mobile suits that made their debut at Berlin are operating with this force as well, while the lion's share is made up of Windams with various Striker Packs. Like in the previous offensives, waves of transport jets carrying additional units for air drops will also get involved once the main force gets close to Moscow. We don't have exact counts, but current intel suggests at least two to three hundred conventional mobile suits will be involved, quite possibly more. They'll be supported by conventional field artillery as well, with infantry moving in behind. Normally, they'd be seizing territory, but in this case the foot soldiers are most likely meant for hunting down anyone that gets missed during the mobile suit and artillery strikes."

Heero's eyes narrowed at that last bit. "How do you know all of this? Frontline reports are all well and good, but they wouldn't account for the airborne reinforcements if they haven't deployed yet."

"That's where things get interesting," Murrue chimed in, "The report that we received while you were on your way back from Vienna contained intel provided by a source within the Atlantic Federation. To be more precise, one that was embedded within their invasion force."

Heero's mind raced as the pieces fell into place. "This source… they're a member of the resistance that's supposedly operating within the Atlantic Federation, aren't they?"

"That's correct," Sibylle replied, "I know that you're wary about trusting them, and given your past experiences with the Atlantic Federation that's completely understandable. Rest assured that your sentiments have been relayed to them, and they know that they have a steep hill to climb in order to earn your faith. Consider this a first step on that path."

Heero turned to Murrue. "How do you feel about this?"

Murrue took a deep breath. "It's a gamble, but I think the effort is genuine, Heero. From what the Major's told me, some of the resistance's contacts are taking big risks here. There are some actually operating within the assault force itself, doing what they can to sabotage the Destroys. That alone could have a huge impact."

Heero raised an eyebrow. "Destroys?"

"The new giant terror weapons the Atlantic Federation is deploying against Europe's cities," Sibylle explained, "Their official designation is the GFAS-X1 Destroy Gundam."

Heero wasn't easily angered, but he could feel himself bristling at the name. "They have the nerve to call these monstrosities Gundams? They'll pay in blood for that insult alone."

"And for all the innocent blood that's been shed by them," Murrue added.

"I certainly look forward to seeing Terminal and our own forces make good on that," said Sibylle, "I don't know too much about the sabotage mission; by necessity, not much could be revealed over transmissions. However, whatever the agents are planning should at least give you some sort of advantage against the Destroys."

"We'll need all the help we can get, considering that there's more than one involved in the offensive against Moscow," Murrue pointed out, "The Atlantic Federation must surely have these things under heavy guard, so the resistance's operatives are putting themselves in great danger to carry out this work. I won't call it enough to completely earn our trust just yet, but I think it deserves due consideration and respect."

"It does," Heero conceded, "Still, we're not exactly in a position to take advantage of it at the moment. The enemy has a huge head start on us, and with the numbers we're talking about here, intervention by just our strike team isn't going to cut it this time. We can be the spearhead, but we're going to need our full might for this operation to succeed."

Murrue smiled. "Why do you think I've got the Archangel and Dominion hauling ass to the east as we speak? From what the Major's told me, the Eurasian Federation has forces harrying the enemy's advance. Not enough to stop them or do any serious damage, but it'll slow them down. If we push the battleships' engines to their limits, we can make it in time."

Heero looked at the Major. "Your country's forces are facing an army more powerful than the ones which attacked Berlin and Vienna combined. Can they hold against that kind of might until we arrive?"

Sibylle nodded. "For a time. The enemy's eastern army may have gotten a head start, and they're moving quickly, but we can still make life difficult for them. The only real problem is those Destroys. I don't know the details regarding the sabotage operation, but from what I do understand it sounds like it's not enough to completely render them combat ineffective. In other words, both will still be able to take the field and bring their strength to bear, and under that combined firepower even our most formidable defenses will be obliterated. The fact that the enemy is aiming for pure destruction rather than territorial gains makes things worse; since they're not worried about capturing infrastructure intact, it means they're not slowing their advance to consolidate a strategic possession or seize assets. Only the need to occasionally give their own troops moments of rest forces them to pause and gives our own forces a chance to regroup."

Heero turned back to Murrue. "Even moving at our best speed and with the Eurasians stalling the enemy, I'm not sure if it'll be enough. We need to make our own efforts to slow the Atlantic Federation army down."

Murrue leaned forward slightly. "You have an idea, I'm assuming?"

Heero nodded. "I do. Over the next few days, we launch harrying strikes against the rear of the Atlantic Federation army. The Wraiths and Deathscythe Omega are ideally suited for such actions. They show up in stealth, take out a couple targets of opportunity, then immediately retreat. Shemei and I can also get some hits in; the sheer speed of our Gundams makes them a good fit for such attacks."

Murrue frowned. "I get your reasoning, but that'll also telegraph to the enemy that we're coming for them. We'll be forfeiting the element of surprise that we had at Vienna."

"If I may interject," said Sibylle, "While I understand your concern, Captain Ramius, the truth of the matter is that the element of surprise likely wouldn't exist for this operation in any case. Our intel on the force heading for Moscow indicates that Colonel Nazara is with them. If his tactics during the Berlin battle are anything to go by, he is almost certainly counting on Monsieur Yuy and the rest of your pilots working to stop him."

Heero met Murrue's gaze. "She's right, Murrue. It's why Mihaly was already airborne and in a position to intercept our strike team before we even got to Berlin. Given our actions during the last war, the Atlantic Federation almost certainly assumed we'd act when they launched this assault on Europe. Mihaly was their dice throw against me during the Berlin operation, but we'd be idiots to assume he's the only card up their sleeve. Azrael's clone is surely waiting for us to make our move, so we might as well act in a manner that won't be easy for him to counter."

Murrue took a deep breath. "Well, if nothing else, hit and run attacks from his most hated of enemies will probably make him angry, and with anger comes sloppiness. I'll set up a pilot rotation with Natarle, but it won't go into effect until you've all had a chance to rest. You and the others just got back from a hectic battle, and while these little strikes of ours will be well short of a major engagement, I still want you to get some sleep before kicking this operation off."

Heero nodded. "Understood."

Murrue turned to Sibylle. "I trust that'll be acceptable to your superiors?"

"Of course," the Major answered, "Given all that your organization has already done for us over the span of just two days, we hardly have the right to be greedy. I'll have my staff forward your plan to our superiors, and we'll keep you apprised with regular updates on the tactical and strategic situation so that your warm-up raids can be planned and executed precisely."

"Thank you," said Murrue, "Any intel we can get from the Eurasian Federation here would be greatly appreciated. The same goes for your allies in the Atlantic Federation's internal resistance."

"If we can pull this off, then they'll have bought themselves some goodwill from us," Heero added, fixing the Major with a hard look, "However, if all this proves to be nothing more than a trap, we'll balance the books sooner or later. Make sure they're aware of that."

Sibylle hastily nodded. "I will. Is there anything else you require of me?"

"Can you give Heero and I a moment to confer in private?" Murrue asked, "Wait outside in the hall; I'll return to the bridge with you once we're through here."

Sibylle acquiesced and left the room. After the door closed behind the Major, Murrue put her arm around Heero and pulled him close to her.

"You were incredible today," she said as she rested her head against his own, "I know we weren't there to see the action ourselves, but we were following the radio traffic with bated breath. The Atlantic Federation signals that we were able to decrypt… well, let's just say they had some rather choice words when they realized who had come to crash their little party."

Heero allowed himself a small smile. "We actually did it this time. This wasn't us coming along and cutting their rampage short like it was yesterday. We stopped them dead in their tracks and routed them before they could hit the city itself. It was close, but we still pulled it off. I'll take that."

"So will I," Murrue replied before kissing him on the cheek, "You saved millions of lives today, Heero. I know that many more are still at risk, and we've got our work cut out for us, but that doesn't take away from what you and the others achieved today. This was a win, and no one can tell us otherwise."

"No, they can't," said Heero as he reached up to run a hand through her hair, "and thanks to you, we might be able to pull off an even bigger one at Moscow. If you hadn't picked up the Major and her staff while we were at Berlin, we wouldn't have access to the intel that she's given us. Getting her aboard was the first step towards building an alliance with the Eurasian Federation, maybe even this resistance group inside the Atlantic Federation. We'll owe that to you, Murrue."

Murrue shook her head. "Hardly. My ship was just in the right place at the right time."

"Don't sell yourself short," Heero gently admonished her, "In war, sometimes being in the right place at the right time is all you need to turn the tide."

Murrue smiled as she faced him. "Turning the tide… we actually might be on the verge of doing just that now. For so long, we've been struggling just to keep up with what's going on in the world, to make what little difference we could while the Alliance and ZAFT set the overall agenda. We've had a few big plays, but for the most part we've just been reacting to everyone else. We're still doing that here, yet it could lead to what we really need now; major allies that we can pool our resources together with in the effort to finally bring this war to an end."

Heero nodded. "The road ahead is still going to be a tough one, but we're on the cusp of a turning point. I can feel it. We just need to survive and push forward, stop the enemy in their tracks again and save another city. A battle to defend the capital of the Eurasian Federation… if that doesn't win us an alliance, then nothing will."

Murrue took a deep breath. "There's a lot riding on this. I mean, there always is, but now more than before… it almost feels overwhelming whenever I stop to really think about it all."

"Then narrow your focus to what you know you can directly impact," Heero suggested, putting his arm around her waist, "Having an eye for the big picture is all well and good, but when it all becomes too much, it helps to shift your concentration to just your own part of it. The grand scheme of things is something we'll tackle together. None of us will be shouldering that burden alone."

Murrue's eyes brightened slightly, her confidence clearly bolstered. "That's true. You always seem to have just the right bit of wisdom for whatever situation we come across."

"Only when those situations involve war," said Heero, "Anything outside of it, and I'm all but useless."

Murrue cupped his chin in her hand, raised his gaze to meet hers, and kissed him. "I don't believe that, and I don't think you really do, either. You just haven't known peace for very long. When this war ends, we'll rectify that. I think you'll be quite pleasantly surprised by what you can do when you no longer have to fight."

Heero smiled. "Even though we spent much of the two years between the wars training and building up our organization, it still offered hint enough as to what life might be like beyond the bounds of global conflict. After this war is over, if the peace we forge is truly a lasting one, then I'll need a guide to show me how to live in a world that's finally at rest."

Murrue returned his smile with a radiant one of her own. "Well, then it's a good thing you have me by your side, isn't it?"

"It very much is," Heero replied as a feeling of warmth filled him.

….

Taking a break from reviewing the dossiers for the new pilots that were being assigned to her ship, Talia had just refilled her coffee mug when Arthur's voice cam over the intercom. "Captain Gladys, we have an incoming transmission from Chairman Durandal! He's requesting to speak to you if you're available."

Talia's eyes narrowed slightly. "In person or over comm?"

"Comm," Arthur replied.

Talia wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing; she'd figure out which later. "Understood. Route the transmission to my office, Arthur."

"Aye, Captain," her XO acknowledged.

Straightening in her seat, Talia faced the monitor as Durandal appeared on it a moment later. "Ah, Talia, I hope this isn't a bad time."

Talia shook her head. "Not at all, Chairman. What can I do for you?"

If Durandal was stung by her refusal to return the familiarity that he granted her, he gave no sign of it. "I understand that Wufei returned from his sortie a little while ago. Has he been debriefed yet?"

Talia raised an eyebrow. "He apprised me of the general situation in Vienna as he observed it, but I'd hardly call that a formal debriefing. He's not part of our chain of command, so he's not obligated to suffer through one in any case."

"True enough," Durandal conceded, "I trust that whatever intel he provided will be forwarded?"

"It will before the day's end, Chairman," Talia promised.

Durandal nodded. "I look forward to reading it. If you don't mind me asking, why let him sortie to begin with? You were on your way back to Gibraltar at the time, and with the absence of the other Gundam pilots, does the Minerva not now require every powerful mobile suit and pilot it can get its hands on?"

"It does," Talia agreed, working hard to keep her tone neutral, "but, as I said before, Wufei is not part of our chain of command. He wished to launch in order to attack the Atlantic Federation forces marching on Vienna, and I saw no reason to stop him. Every foe he slays is one less we must confront in the future, after all. More to the point, given what the Atlantic Federation had already inflicted upon Berlin, he felt a moral obligation to act in the defense of another city that the Americans had in their sights. I confess to sympathizing with that sentiment, and I wished to facilitate it in whatever manner was available to me at the time."

Durandal's expression was impassive, though the barest hint of displeasure creeped into his voice. "I can understand your feelings on the matter, but in acting upon them, you skirted dangerously close to outright insubordination."

"Hardly," Talia coolly countered, "For the third time, Chairman, Wufei is not part of our chain of command. He is no more bound to your orders than he is to mine. Seeing as the choice was either let him fly or risk him cutting his way through the hull of the Minerva, I picked the least costly option. He gave his word that he would return, and unlike so many other people in the Earth Sphere, Wufei has demonstrated to be a man of honor. His prompt return upon the fighting's conclusion should be all the proof needed of the seriousness with which he takes that honor, would you not agree?"

Whether or not the Chairman noticed the barb aimed at himself, Talia couldn't say; the man's poker face was as sharp as ever. "I suppose I would. Honor is a rare trait nowadays, and while Wufei's has been amply demonstrated, I'm sure you can understand why I might be reluctant to rely upon it."

Talia nodded. "I can, Chairman. Leaving all that aside, I had the authority to let him launch, and not just as the Captain of the Minerva. My authority comes from my rank as a member of FAITH, as you well know. Was it not for the purpose of allowing independent action in the service of the greater good that prompted your elevation of me to that position in the first place?"

Durandal was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again it was with the air of a man who realized that he'd been beaten at his own game. "Yes, it was. Very well, then, Talia. I'll drop this matter, though I would ask that you carefully consider any future actions of a similar sort before making them. The war is entering a crucial new stage, and we must move judiciously."

"On that much, we agree," Talia replied, "That being said, is it 'judicious' to stay back while the Atlantic Federation ravages their former ally? One would think that, by acting to aid the Eurasian Federation in this hour of extraordinary need, ZAFT might find itself making an unexpected friend. At the very least, such actions would likely serve as an olive branch and leave us with one less adversary."

"There is that potential, certainly," Durandal conceded, "thought I would note that, as a member nation of the Earth Alliance, the Eurasian Federation is still formally in a state of war with ZAFT. Until they declare their intentions to be otherwise, they must be treated with due caution. Still, I will take your words under advisement."

Talia inclined her head. "That is all I can ask, Chairman."

Durandal's expression softened somewhat, and he looked almost remorseful. "Talia… perhaps I'm imagining things, but I feel as though I've done something to displease you recently. If I have, please tell me so that I might find some way to make amends. When I elevated you to FAITH membership, it was not just in appreciation for your skills as a commander, but because I value your insights and wish to work in partnership with you as we once did years ago. Yet recently, it seems that something has come between us, a rift of some sort that I confess to having trouble fathoming. If this is just the fevered imaginings of a weary mind, then let me know so that I can put it to rest. Otherwise, if there is real disquiet that I have earned, I would like to know why and how I can make things right between us."

Talia took a deep breath as she carefully considered her next words. "Gilbert… are we fighting this war for the right reasons?"

Durandal blinked, clearly taken aback by her line of questioning. "I would think that'd be quite simple to determine. The Earth Alliance declared war on ZAFT, and they initiated the first offensive of this new conflict. More to the point, they attempted to end the war on the day it began with a nuclear strike on our homeland. It was only the bravery of our soldiers and the marvels of our scientific advancements that allowed us to survive that harrowing first day."

"So this is a defensive war, then?" Talia pressed, "We're fighting to defend our people, yes?"

Durandal smiled. "Of course, Talia. This is the only way to secure our people's future."

The way he'd worded it set of quiet alarms in Talia's head. "Securing our people's future… I see. In that case, I have one further question, Durandal."

"You have but to ask, Talia," Durandal readily replied.

Talia's eyes narrowed and, despite her best efforts to retain composure, a cold fury crept into her voice. "How would sending off one brutalized and traumatized girl to the PLANTs for vivisection have 'secured our people's future', Durandal?"

Durandal nearly recoiled at her tone. "Talia… is that what this is all about?"

"Answer my question first, Durandal," Talia countered, refusing to back down.

Durandal let out a sigh that probably would've struck most as appropriately heavy and regretful given the subject matter, but to Talia it just felt overly theatrical. "I can understand why you might have strong feelings on the matter. After all, your ship was the first to be exposed to the horrors of the research conducted at the Lodonia labs. As the girl that your pilots captured at Cagliari was a product of the nightmarish programs being enacted at that facility, a strong argument can be made that she was far more a victim of the Atlantic Federation than she was an enemy combatant for us."

"Then why, Durandal?" Talia pressed as images of that girl's face flashed through her mind, "She was a victim first and foremost, yet your decision even in the face of that knowledge was to essentially have her tortured and murdered! If Shinn had not absconded with her, she would be dead right now, or at least wishing she was… and it wouldn't be the Americans giving her cause for that sentiment this time. It would be us. I thought we were supposed to be better than ZAFT's last generation of monsters, but you would have us become simply a different breed of them."

"That is a gross mischaracterization, Talia," Durandal protested, far too calmly for Talia's liking, "In times of war, sacrifices must be made for the greater good. The Atlantic Federation has proven that there are no depths to which it will not sink in their quest to wipe us from the face of the Earth Sphere. Their super soldier program is an expression of the fanatical hatred they feel for our kind. If we are to survive, then we must understand the weapons that our enemies are crafting to use against us. In this case, the weapon in question was simply biological as opposed to mechanical."

Talia's indignation and smoldering rage could no longer be contained, and she rose to her feet before slamming her fists against the desk. "The weapon in question? She's a human being, Durandal! All the children who suffered through that barbaric project were! She didn't deserve to suffer further torment at our hands. She needed help, Durandal! ZAFT could've proven our better angels by giving her the best possible care in the Earth Sphere, and what did we do instead? We sought to cut her open like some damn science experiment!"

Durandal took a deep breath. "Talia, for what it's worth, I understand the position that you're arguing from. Truly, I do. That girl was first and foremost a victim of the Earth Alliance, just as much so as each of our soldiers that's perished at their hands. Unfortunately, as the leader of the PLANTs, it is my obligation to look at the big picture and make sure that our forces have every means available to them in order to win this war. That includes the means by which to understand the weapons of our enemy, and the girl was just that; a means to an end. You disagree with that assessment, and I respect your opinion on the matter, but it does not change my own. My only regret in this matter is that I did not take more proactive measures to remove her from the Minerva before Heero could manipulate Shinn into spiriting her away."

Talia was still seething, but she worked to regain her composure. "Nothing could've dissuaded you from that decision?"

"No," Durandal confirmed with cold finality, "I am not Patrick Zala, Talia; I do not engage in barbarism and cruelty for something as petty as revenge. That being said, I am not above making choices that others may view as morally dubious if those choices advance the aims of the PLANTs and ZAFT. The survival of our people comes before all other considerations. War demands sacrifices. You understand this well enough."

A pit formed in Talia's stomach; although almost certainly unintentionally, Durandal had just confirmed her worst suspicions. She'd been wondering ever since Terminal's pilot had revealed the plot to assassinate the real Lacus Clyne to Lunamaria just how to approach such a topic with Durandal. While it hadn't been outside the realm of possibility that the attempt had been genuine, Talia had still wanted some means by which to confirm it for herself. Unwittingly, with his ready confession that he would make 'morally dubious' decisions to advance what he saw as the aims of their people, he had provided Talia with all she needed to settle her private doubts.

Terminal's pilot hadn't been lying; the attempted hit had been the real deal.

Which meant that Durandal was sitting on top of what could prove to be one of the most explosive political scandals in PLANT history…

…and he had no idea that Talia was aware of it.

All this went through her mind in the span of mere seconds, but Talia was determined not to let it show to Durandal; she would have to play things extremely carefully from here on out. "Every soldier understands the need for sacrifice in times of war, Chairman. The difference between us and the politicians, though, is that we experience the consequences of those sacrifices firsthand. They're not just abstract numbers or casualty figures on lists; they're actual flesh and blood people in our eyes."

Durandal nodded. "Soldiers such as yourself see the consequences of our decisions on the ground level. I respect that, Talia. I genuinely do. However, I would argue that a politician's distance from the individuals involved in those decisions allows for hard choices to be made with rationality. Given my area of responsibility, I can afford nothing less."

"Then why not remain on your lofty perch up in Aprilius One?" asked Talia, "Why come down to the surface when you lose that 'distance' you claim is so important?"

"To have a better understanding of the tides of war," Durandal replied, "so that the decisions I make upon my return to the capital are well-informed."

Talia raised an eyebrow as she sat down again. "Are you planning on returning soon?"

Durandal shrugged. "Eventually. That's neither here nor there at the moment, though. Talia, I can understand your disagreements with my decisions, and I appreciate that you come at these matters from a perspective that I lack. That being said, can I still count on you to follow orders going forward?"

Talia stiffened in her chair. "I haven't forgotten my oaths to the PLANTs or ZAFT, Chairman. FAITH operative or no, I am first and foremost a Captain in our navy. I will follow lawful orders as they are handed down by the chain of command."

Durandal didn't fail to notice her particular word choice. "And if orders come down that you deem to be unlawful?"

Talia did not back down. "Every officer is trained to recognize the difference between what constitutes a lawful versus an unlawful order, along with the appropriate response to the latter. Should you have questions about that, I suggest you have one of your many aides or advisors study up on ZAFT military law and regulations, Chairman."

Durandal inclined his head. "I will take your suggestion to heart. Until next time, Captain Gladys."

Seems I wore out my welcome towards the end there, she thought bitterly as Durandal vanished from the monitor, I suppose that was inevitable, though. Durandal, you haven't changed a bit. Willing to entertain debate, but only to a certain extent.

She slumped down in her chair, her shoulders suddenly feeling unusually heavy. Durandal had been right about one thing; he was no Patrick Zala.

He was something much more dangerous.

A visionary.

What the vision in question might ultimately be, Talia could not say. But if it was one that could drive the man she'd once loved to attempt an assassination against a beloved icon and arrange for an already-abused and tortured young woman to be used as a lab rat, she dreaded what else he might be capable of in pursuit of his ultimate end.

….

Wufei had never been accused of having a sunny disposition, and today was hardly an exception. Yes, the enemy had been defeated, and this time without the city in their sights suffering significant damage, but his disquiet didn't stem from the battle directly. It was ZAFT's absence from the fighting that irked him, and that was a matter he sought to address posthaste.

Not even a token presence this time, he thought as he waited for the Chairman's secretary to allow him entrance, unlike with Berlin. I know events are moving quickly, but ZAFT was still able to mount at least some kind of response to the first attack. They did nothing here, and I want to know why.

He hadn't scheduled a meeting with the Chairman; he'd simply strolled straight up to the office he was using in Gibraltar after briefly resting aboard the Minerva and demanded an audience. The Chairman's various aides had been quite taken aback by his audacity and bluntness, and for a brief moment they'd seemed on the verge of summoning the guards. A brief call to the Chairman himself had resulted in Durandal slightly modifying his schedule, and Wufei now only had to bide his time. His arms were folded as he leaned against the wall, having refused the chair offered by the secretary. Outwardly, his demeanor was one of aloof calm, but his mood was distinctly foul. From the way the aides were giving him a wide berth, they'd clearly picked up on that.

After what felt like an eternity but had really only been a few minutes, the secretary called out from her desk. "Wufei? The Chairman will see you now!"

"Thank you," he said, not even sparing her a glance as he strode past her desk and into the Chairman's office.

Behind his own desk, Durandal stood and gave Wufei a welcoming smile. "Wufei, this is a pleasant surprise! Forgive me for not having refreshments available, but I was not anticipating a meeting with you today."

"You can dispense with the pleasantries, Chairman," Wufei replied as the door closed behind him, "I don't have the patience for them today."

Durandal blinked a few times, clearly thrown for a loop by Wufei's bluntness. "Very well, then. What brings you here? You've never sought me out before, if I recall correctly."

"I'm not in the habit of seeking out meetings with politicians," Wufei deadpanned, "I tend to avoid your kind as much as possible. No offense."

"None taken," said Durandal, appearing more curious than anything else, "Still, you are here now, and I cannot imagine that it's without good reason. Please, sit. My schedule is busy, but I have time for whatever concerns you have."

Wufei shook his head. "I won't be here long."

Durandal gave him an appraising look. "I understand Captain Gladys agreed to let you sortie in the defense of Vienna. From what intelligence reports have come to me since then, it seems the city still stands. I would imagine it has you to thank for that."

"I played a part," Wufei remarked, "as did Heero, the other Gundam pilots, and the organization that supports them. So did the Eurasians, though that should go without saying. Do you know who didn't play a part despite having the capacity to do so, Chairman?"

Durandal closed his eyes for a moment and let out a heavy sigh. "I believe I know what you're getting at. You feel that ZAFT should've had an official role in the city's defense, yes?"

Wufei nodded. "There was far less notice for Berlin, yet ZAFT was still able to dispatch a squadron. It was small, but it was better than nothing. Nothing was what Vienna got from ZAFT today, despite the fact that there was much more time for ZAFT to prepare a response to the Atlantic Federation's offensive."

"Perhaps, but Vienna is not a ZAFT possession," Durandal argued, "What strategic value is there in us sending a force to protect a city that belongs to a nation that is still legally at war with us?"

Wufei's anger flared, though he kept it from showing in his expression. "That distinction didn't seem to matter at Berlin. I fail to see why it should've mattered at Vienna."

"A valid point," the Chairman conceded, "Even so, you must understand that I have good reason for wariness here. The action we took to aid in the defense of Berlin was as much a spur of the moment decision on the part of Captain Gladys as it was a choice made by those above her. We were reacting to very rapidly unfolding developments, and in haste can lie catastrophe. Once we realized the full scope of what the Atlantic Federation was unleashing upon their erstwhile allies, we deemed caution to be a more suitable response. Their invasion is still less than two days old, Wufei; we need time to properly assess the forces that the enemy has brought to bear."

"Time that the civilians caught in the path of the Americans do not have," Wufei conceded, "Every hour spent dithering is an hour that the enemy continues their destructive march."

Durandal nodded. "I understand that, but you must look at the matter from mine and the Defense Council's perspective. From where we stand, this new conflict is essentially the two most powerful members of the Earth Alliance suddenly turning on each other. As the old adage goes, it would not behoove us to interrupt our foes while they're making such a calamitous mistake."

"And were it only their armies fighting each other, I'd have no issue with standing back and letting them do just that," Wufei replied, "but it's not just soldiers and machines being consumed by this new inferno. The Atlantic Federation is going out of its way to target major civilian population centers. This isn't a mere civil war within the Earth Alliance; it's a campaign of mass slaughter. Conventional tactical and strategic approaches fail to meet what this situation calls for. Do the people of the PLANTs only care about crimes against humanity when those crimes are directed against them?"

"Of course not," Durandal countered, "Wufei, I'm as appalled by the wanton slaughter being committed by the Atlantic Federation in Europe as you or anyone else. Under other circumstances, the PLANTs and ZAFT would be leading the call for intervention on humanitarian grounds. Things are not that simple, though."

Wufei folded his arms. "The Atlantic Federation has set out to butcher civilians in a campaign that would make the old Empire of Japan or the damn Nazis proud. I fail to see what's not simple about that."

"Manpower and resources, for starters," said Durandal, "Even with their forces now aimed at each other, both the Atlantic Federation and the Eurasian Federation still possess armies and reserves that well exceed any that we can have shipped down to the surface. The bulk of our military might is still devoted to defending the PLANTs, while our surface units are concentrated on holding our primary bases and what few strategic points we have secured in the conflict thus far."

"You've been shipping down reinforcements to Earth since the early stages of the war," Wufei pointed out, "and your losses have been relatively light compared with those of your enemies. Your surface forces are far more powerful than you're making them out to be. With the Earth Alliance now divided against itself, the numbers discrepancy means far less than it did at the start of the conflict."

"That is true," Durandal admitted as his eyes narrowed, "but if we make concentrated advances from our current positions, will the Earth Alliance member states continue to fight each other or reform their united front against us? The Eurasian Federation's stance on Coordinators might have evolved somewhat from where it was during the last war, but make no mistake; an army of us marching on Europe, even if it was to save the continent from the barbarism being visited upon it by the Americans, would likely make a good deal of their population uneasy. Why would I risk making a move that might reunite a now bitterly divided foe? No, Wufei; we will let them tear each other part for the time being. Every soldier the Americans and Eurasians throw into the meatgrinder against each other is one less that they will have to devote to the goal of slaughtering Coordinators, and I intend to let them bleed themselves out as much as possible."

"The cold and ruthless calculus of war," Wufei remarked with more than a hint of disdain, "Here I had thought that you might be a bit more than the typical politician."

"I very much am," Durandal replied, "though I understand if you have your doubts. In the interest of preserving our current arrangement, I am willing to compromise. It is clear that your strong sense of justice will not allow you to sit back while the Atlantic Federation marches on Europe, and I admire that even if it runs counter to the strategic decision I've made for the current disposition of my forces. You are not the only one who wishes to take some measure of action, even if it might be small in the grand scheme of things, to defend the innocents of the continent and punish the Atlantic Federation for its crimes against humanity. I believe it's safe to say that Captain Gladys shares your sentiments, otherwise she would not have allowed you to launch in the defense of Vienna."

"I didn't exactly give her a choice," Wufei pointed out, "It was either she let me launch, or I rip open the hangar from the inside out."

Durandal chuckled. "Yes, I was made aware of your threat. I understand why you made it, though in my view it was hardly necessary; Captain Gladys was looking for an excuse to get involved to some degree despite my orders, and you gave her just what she was looking for."

Wufei's estimation of the Captain went up a notch. "Sounds like she's one of ZAFT's few officers with a sense of justice strong enough to compel action, even if it's only the indirect sort. That's more than can be said of most."

Durandal nodded. "I imagine her experience from the last war played a role in that. In any case, it's clear to me that both of you will look for the first opportunity to get back into the fray, and she will skirt as dangerously close to outright insubordination as she can in doing so. While I do wish Captain Gladys would take the broader strategic picture into consideration, I believe her heart is in the right place, and the talents of her and her crew are best employed on the front lines rather than waiting in reserve. The same goes for you, of course."

"Of course," said Wufei, wondering where this was going, "What's your offer?"

"Gibraltar has already finished the transfer of new pilots and mobile suits to the Minerva," Durandal answered, "Topping off munitions and supplies should be wrapped up soon enough as well. Once that is complete, I am willing to revise my current orders and allow the Minerva to launch. Captain Gladys will be given the freedom to take her ship and intervene wherever she feels that the assets at her disposal can make the greatest difference. As you're still basing your own operations out of the Minerva, this would naturally mean that you, too, will be free to act in the manner that you see fit."

Wufei liked what he was hearing, but he was still wary. "What's the catch?"

"The Minerva will be acting alone," Durandal replied, "You and Captain Gladys can engage whatever targets you see fit, but you will be doing so without support. This is a delicate moment in the war, one in which I wish to preserve and concentrate our strategic assets. I would normally include the Minerva in this category, but seeing as both you and Captain Gladys are far too independent-minded to sit back quietly, the least I can do is allow your energies to be put to constructive use. The Minerva is free to return to Gibraltar at any time for repair and resupply, but will be acting independently out in the field. You will receive no reinforcements unless I judge the circumstances to dictate otherwise and serve our broader strategic need. Is that understood?"

Wufei nodded. "It is, though I won't speak on behalf of the Captain."

Durandal shook his head. "I would not ask you to. I'll contact her in a little bit with this offer, but I wanted to make it to you first as an olive branch of sorts."

Wufei shrugged. "Whatever you say. Are we done here?"

"Unless you have further concerns to address, I'd say that we are," Durandal answered.

Seeing as this was the best he would get out of the Chairman, Wufei knew it was time to go. "Then I won't waste your time any further."

Durandal smiled. "I'd hardly consider a conversation with you to be a waste of time, Wufei. While we have different viewpoints on this matter, I do respect your feelings and thoughts on it."

"That's good to know," said Wufei before leaving the room.

Don't take me for a fool, Durandal, thought Wufei as he hurried back to the Minerva and his Gundam, I know the real reason why you're going along with this; you can't afford to have the one Gundam pilot still fighting alongside your forces to jump ship. After all, I'm the only real countermeasure you have for when your forces end up fighting Heero again. That gives me leverage, and I'm not above using it.

It didn't take long for him to reach the Minerva, and he wasted no time in heading for the hangar. When he got there, he was mildly surprised to find Lunamaria in his path, though unintentionally; she was chatting with some of the mechanics, occasionally glancing at some of the GOUF Ignited units that had been brought aboard to make up for the departure of the other four Gundams. Wufei attempted to skirt around her, but Lunamaria's senses were too sharp for that, and she broke off from her comrades to intercept Wufei.

"Hey, what are you doing down here?" she asked, "Shouldn't you be resting? You haven't been back that long, you know?"

"I'll rest soon enough," said Wufei as he attempted to brush past her, "I have work to do."

Lunamaria grabbed his arm with surprising strength. "You're not seriously launching again already, are you? Wufei, I know you're good, but even you have your limits."

Wufei took a deep breath before allowing himself a small smile. "I appreciate your concern, but it's misplaced. I have no intention of launching again so quickly. I just need to do some checks on my machine and make sure it's ready for when I do launch."

Lunamaria let out a sigh of relief, but she still seemed wary. "Well, I guess that's okay. Mind if I tag along?"

Wufei raised an eyebrow. "Why? It's just some system diagnostics and reviews. Not exactly exciting stuff."

Lunamaria smiled somewhat sheepishly. "I know, but… I'm always seeing your Gundam from the outside, and I want to see how it works from the inside. I mean, if that's not something you're comfortable showing for security reasons, I understand…"

Wufei couldn't help but chuckle; if nothing else, her fascination with Nataku was certainly endearing. "Can't help but be curious about a powerful mobile suit, hm? I suppose you're more like us than I'd first imagined."

Lunamaria blinked. "Us? You mean like you and the other Gundam pilots?"

"Take it how you will. You coming or not?" asked Wufei as he resumed walking towards his machine.

Had any other member of this ship's crew asked, mused Wufei as they climbed up the maintenance ladder and popped the Gundam's hatch, or any other soldier of ZAFT, for that matter, I would've flat out refused. What's gotten into me?

They earned a few curious looks from some of the nearby mechanics as the two of them climbed into the cockpit, but Wufei paid them little mind. Activating the side displays, he allowed Lunamaria to stand on the hatch and lean inside to watch as he began his examinations…

…and it was at that moment his console flashed with a message.

One with a source code that Wufei immediately recognized as belonging to Wing Zero.

He froze for the briefest of moments, mindful of his guest. Heero's earlier message today had been regarding the battle at Vienna. His fellow Gundam pilot wouldn't reach out again so quickly unless the situation was similarly urgent. It would be a simple matter to send Lunamaria away so he could read it in private, but then she would undoubtedly become suspicious…

…and Wufei realized that he didn't want to send her away.

She already knew about where he was really from. She already knew why he was really fighting. She knew about his late wife, a secret that Wufei hadn't even let his fellow Gundam pilots in on.

She deserved to know where he was getting his intel from.

So, Wufei opened the message in full view of Lunamaria. What would come of this, he couldn't say, but he was willing to place his faith in her.

His eyes narrowed as he studied its contents, pointedly ignoring Lunamaria's reaction for the moment. Much like Heero's previous message, this one laid out the enemy's next move, along with how the Gundam pilots planned to respond. It was a plan that reminded Wufei of their old campaigns against the UESA and OZ; hit and run strikes to frustrate the enemy, then a decisive attack at the key moment.

A solid plan, Heero Yuy, Wufei thought, and I'm sure you've already factored in my response.

Now he looked at Lunamaria. She seemed to be a bit behind him in reading the message, but her eyes widened in shock a moment later when she finished.

"The Atlantic Federation's moving on Moscow…" she whispered, more to herself than to Wufei, "Holy shit!"

"That's certainly one way to put it," Wufei quipped.

Lunamaria looked at Wufei, and he could sense her mind racing. "This is from Heero… he's how you got the intel regarding Vienna, isn't he? It wasn't enemy radio traffic you were monitoring; that was just a cover."

Wufei nodded; the moment of truth was here. "It was. I imagine ZAFT wouldn't take too kindly to the fact that I'm still in contact with him. On the other hand, the fact that he's still sending me messages was why I was able to intervene at Vienna and help him save millions of lives… and I can now do so again with Moscow. That is, I can if you're willing to play along."

There was no need to elaborate; the look in her eyes was all Wufei needed to know Lunamaria understood what he was getting at. "I don't like this… but I also get it. Heero, your other friends… I don't like how they all jumped ship on us, but I still don't think they're our enemies. Even after the attack on Gibraltar. I mean, if they wanted to actually do serious damage to the base, they definitely could have. They didn't, though, and they acted to save lives at Berlin and Vienna. Sounds like they're planning on doing the same at Moscow. They want to protect people and bring this war to an end, just like we do."

Wufei couldn't help but smile. "They do. I've got my disagreements with them, but they have their own sense of justice, one that won't allow them to sit back and do nothing while innocents are threatened. In that, at least, we're very much the same."

"What are you going to do, then?" asked Lunamaria.

Wufei looked at her for a long moment before meeting her question with one of his own. "What are you going to do?"

She took a deep breath before giving her answer. "If you're going to help… then I want to, as well. I don't know what all I can do since my machine doesn't have the range needed for an operation like this, but if there's any way that I can support you here, then I will."

"You could always ask the Captain for a mobile suit transfer," Wufei suggested, "I'm sure she has the authority to order one of the new pilots to swap machines. Any of the GOUFs that were brought aboard would suffice for your needs."

Lunamaria shook her head. "I doubt any of the pilots would give up their machines lightly, even if ordered to by Captain Gladys. Giving up a new model in exchange for a grunt unit like mine? Come on, Wufei; a Gundam pilot, of all people, should know how that would play out."

Wufei chuckled as he conceded the point. "True enough."

She then smiled at him. "The least I can do for now is avoid mentioning where you're getting your intel from. Captain Gladys will have questions for you, so you're going to be on your own for dealing with that. If I speak up on that matter, it won't take her long to put two and two together."

Wufei smirked. "You've gotten smarter since I first met you."

She gave him a mock punch to the shoulder for his quip. "Watch it, Wufei. Not a good idea to insult someone who's keeping secrets for you."

"I was complimenting you," Wufei protested.

Lunamaria rolled her eyes. "You need to work on your compliments, then. That one sucked."

"That's fair," said Wufei, meeting her gaze and smiling, "I'll have a better one for you next time."

Lunamaria leaned forward before Wufei could react and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll hold you to that."

He saw her face flushing red, yet she still smiled as she gazed upon him. Wufei wasn't accustomed to women looking at him in such a fond manner…

…but he supposed he could get used to it, at least if the woman in question was Lunamaria.

….

Shinn knew that he should've been resting, but sleep currently eluded him. So, he'd returned to what had become a familiar role ever since leaving the Minerva; staying by Stella's bedside in the infirmary. Looking down at her gently slumbering form, Shinn couldn't help but give a small if tired smile. The chief medical officer of the Archangel had already gone to bed, but one of the on-duty nurses had informed Shinn that Sella's treatment was proceeding in a positive direction. The drugs they'd synthesized to stabilize Stella and wean her off the nasty chemical concoctions that the Atlantic Federation had been pumping into her for years were beginning to have their intended effects. Much work still remained, and Stella still unfortunately had to be sedated until the synthesized drugs had completely replaced the older ones in her system and withdrawal no longer became a concern, but things were definitely looking up compared to where they'd been for her when Shinn had first captured her.

"It's going to be okay," he said softly as he took her hand, even though he knew that he couldn't possibly wake her, "We're going to save you. I promise."

"A promise that we'll do everything in our power to help you fulfill," came a female voice from behind him.

Looking over his shoulder, Shinn saw that Cagalli had entered the infirmary. Not too long ago, the very sight of her would've set his blood to boil. Shinn still felt the residual effects of the anger he'd carried towards her over the years, but it was muted now and far easier to control. More importantly, it was no longer in the majority as far as his sentiments towards her were concerned. What Shinn felt towards Cagalli couldn't be described as forgiveness; it was too soon for that. The best words he could find for it were somewhere between acceptance and understanding. He still didn't particularly like her, but after his talk with her and Kira, he could at least come to terms with the fact that she wasn't the heartless monster his rage had made her out to be. Quite the opposite, in fact; she really did care for her people, even when they didn't feel the same towards her. Shinn simply couldn't hate someone like that.

"I hear her condition's improving," Cagalli continued as she approached him, "I know it's a long road yet, but from what I understand, it sounds like she's in a much better place now health-wise than she was before."

Shinn smiled as he looked down at Stella again. "She is. I wish she could be awake right now, but I know she's not ready for that yet. Still, she's slowly getting better. I… I owe you guys for that."

Cagalli shook her head. "You don't owe us anything, Shinn. Stella was a victim of this war long before the first shots were fired. We'll do everything we can to help her."

She pulled up a chair and sat next to him. "That's why I came here, actually. I've been brushing up on Orb's asylum laws and refugee resources for after we take back our country from the Seirans. I've also been speaking to Captain Ramius and some of our other senior leaders about what Terminal can contribute to such efforts. We're more than just a paramilitary organization, after all. We have resources that can be devoted to programs beyond mobile suits and warships."

Shinn released Stella's hand and turned to Orb's Chief Representative-in-exile. "I'm listening."

She pulled a phone from her pocket and tapped a few times on the screen. When she found what she was looking for, she then passed the device to Shinn.

"Here," she said, "Take a look at these."

Taking the phone, Shinn found himself perusing pictures of homes and apartments. All were quite nice to look at, mostly upper middle-class dwellings. He recognized the architectural styles as all being ones favored by Orb, and what glimpses he could get of the surrounding landscape only further indicated that all these homes were in the country he'd once resided in.

"What are you showing me these for?" he asked.

"These properties are all owned by Morgenroete," Cagalli explained, "The company maintains them for employees who have fallen on hard times and need housing assistance, or for family members who require similar aid until they can get back on their feet. Just say the word, and one of these can belong to you and Stella when we boot the Seirans and their cronies from power."

Shinn's eyes widened in shock. "You're kidding, right? There's no way in hell I'd ever be able to afford something like this!"

Cagalli smiled. "I never said you'd have to pay for it, Shinn. It'd be a gift, given freely. All upkeep expenses would be covered by Terminal, and Orb has refugee employment programs that can help both you and Stella find fulfilling jobs should she become well enough physically and mentally for it. Given her unique circumstances, she'd also qualify for state educational and medical aid, and Morgenroete has its own doctors on call; one can easily be made available to monitor Stella and be ready to act in a moment of crisis."

Shinn blinked several times as his mind struggled to process everything. "All this… housing, education, medical aid… and you'd ask nothing in return?"

Cagalli nodded. "That's right."

"Not even that I keep fighting for Terminal in this war?" Shinn pressed.

Cagalli shook her head. "This aid has no strings attached, Shinn. I know that we'd all like it if you continued to help us, but even if you decided to sit out the rest of the war starting tomorrow, that wouldn't change my offer in the slightest."

Shinn's mind felt like it was about to shatter from trying to comprehend it all. This woman that he'd hated for over two years now, offering to set him and Stella up for life without any preconditions… it was so jarring that his jumbled mess of feelings and thoughts could barely form anything coherent.

In the end, he could only utter one word, and even that was a struggle. "Why?"

"Because I want my country to live up to the dream that my father had for it," Cagalli replied, her smile taking on a bittersweet tinge, "Shinn, Orb failed you and your family two years ago. We couldn't save your family, and I know that nothing I offer now will ever bring them back. No number of apologies I could give would ever be enough. All I can do now is try to help you build a future. The same goes for Stella."

Shinn shook his head. "But… Stella's not even a citizen of Orb, right?"

"Not according to the files that we recovered from Lodonia," Cagalli admitted, "but that doesn't matter. My father wanted Orb to do more than simply protect its people; his dream was for our country to be a haven for all who were fleeing persecution, suffering and torture. He wanted us to use our prosperity and wealth to help those who were less fortunate than us. Stella is exactly the sort of person he believed Orb had an obligation to take in and provide for, and so do I."

She met his gaze, and her smile strengthened. "You want the 'why' for all of this, Shinn? It's because this is the right thing to do. That's the long and the short of it. Whether you believe me or not… that's up to you."

Shinn looked at Stella for a moment, then down at the phone. The screen was currently showing a small but comfortable-looking home shaded by palm trees and sitting right on the beach. In his eyes, it should've just been any other dwelling, but for a reason he could not begin to explain, the picture seemed to call to him. In a way he couldn't quite understand, it summed up what Cagalli was really offering.

A future for both him and Stella.

A second chance.

His throat tightened as it hit him, and Shinn actually found himself struggling to hold back tears. For so long, he'd been driving by fury that had ultimately stemmed from the overwhelming grief of losing his parents and little sister. Shinn had gone to the PLANTs in no small part because he didn't believe he had a future in Orb, and so he'd tried to build a new life for himself as far from his old homeland as possible. Even all the way up in L5, though, that pain had never truly gone away. He would smile for his new friends and try to throw himself into his training once he joined ZAFT, but the anguish and sorrow had always been lurking just out of sight. Carrying all of that, at some point Shinn had come to believe that he never really could move forward. His determination to protect his new friends had been fueled in large part by the overwhelming dread of experiencing the same sort of grief he'd felt at losing his family should one of them fall. In that sense, he was still looking backwards, and he'd believed he always would.

What Cagalli was offering was something he'd never truly believed possible for him.

Hope…

…and peace.

"Cagalli…" he said after a long moment, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper, "Thank you."

She reached out to put a gentle hand on his shoulder, a gesture from her that would've made him recoil less than a week ago. "I know the road ahead, for both you and Stella, will be a difficult one. Surviving this war, finding a way for her to come to terms with all the horrific traumas she suffered at the hands of the Atlantic Federation… none of it's going to be easy. If I can give you both some comfort and hope that a brighter tomorrow lies at the end of it all, I'd say it's the least I can do."

"She'll… she'll really be safe?" Shinn asked, "Both the Alliance and ZAFT are after her…"

Cagalli's gaze hardened. "She'll be under the protection of not just Orb, but Terminal as well. No one will be allowed to harm her, Shinn. If the Alliance or ZAFT think they'll be able to get their hands on her, they've got another thing coming."

Shinn took a deep breath as he tried to regain some semblance of composure. "I… I need some time to think about this. I don't really think I'm in the right head-space for it right now."

Cagalli gave him a small and understanding smile. "Of course. We won't be able to get things officially rolling until I'm restored to power in any case, so there's no need to rush this right now. Take all the time you need, Shinn. I and all of Terminal will be ready when you've made your decision."

Shinn smiled as he looked down at Stella again. "I want to talk to Stella about it first when she wakes up. After that, you'll have my decision… our decision. This would be her future just as much as mine. It's only right that we decide it together."

….

November 20th, C.E. 73

Although the Atlantic Federation's brutal offenses against cities such as Berlin and Vienna had gotten the most public attention for obvious reasons, the invasion of Europe covered a much wider swath than a few prominent population centers. Northern France had been hard hit, though Paris still stood defiant while in the southern regions the local forces had established a redoubt where they were gathering strength for a counteroffensive. Central and eastern Europe were likewise divided, with some regions having fallen quickly to the invaders while others had managed to marshal sufficient forces to repel the initial assault and hold out while reinforcements were gathered and reservists mobilized.

One of the areas that was currently under Atlantic Federation occupation was much of the land that made up northern and eastern Poland. When the Atlantic Federation had first begun shipping over troops under the guise of 'reinforcing' their ally, the region had become a staging ground. From this springboard, units were moved further inland, ostensibly to prepare for an eventual assault on ZAFT's Diocuia base on the coast of the Black Sea. What hadn't been apparent until far too late was that the Atlantic Federation forces in the region were more than strong enough now to seize that region should they wish, and the local forces had been unable to mount more than token resistance when the time came before being routed. One of the facilities that the Atlantic Federation had prioritized for capture had been an air force base outside of the town of Malbork, which had rapidly been taken and converted into a hub for transport aircraft. Many of those aircraft had been involved in the dropping of reinforcements during the attack on Vienna, but that had been a secondary mission. The bulk of the transports, as had been revealed to Terminal by the resistance movement within the Atlantic Federation through their Eurasian intermediaries, were being used to support the advance towards Moscow. With most of their forces concentrated in their offensives, rear-line security barely even qualified as a tertiary concern for the Americans. That was an egregious mistake.

One that Terminal was about to make them pay dearly for.

In the cockpit of Gundam Deathscythe Omega, Duo licked his lips as he eyed the transport jets lined up on the tarmac. Their rear ramps were down, and they were taking on both supplies and mobile suits. Upon the completion of loading, they would go to the runway and fly off to the east. At least, that was the plan of their superiors. Terminal had other ideas.

His cloak engaged since well before beginning the approach, Duo angled for the southern end of the line of transports. Adaline, Lan and Priscilla were likewise invisible and setting up for shots starting from the northern end of the line. A timer had been set prior to the final approach, and it was ticking down into its last seconds. Duo had the shaft of his Gundam's signature weapon at the ready, but he would not ignite the blade until the countdown hit zero.

Quite a lot of gear they're trying to get to the front, he thought as he observed the loading of the jets while moving into position, Windams, a few of those new assault models… I think the Eurasian Federation Major said they were called Grognards. Nasty pieces of hardware. Good thing these won't make it to the battlefield.

The timer hit zero a few seconds later, and Duo grinned. "Showtime!"

Activating his beam scythe, he made a wide swing that allowed the crescent blade to carve into two jets for his opening attack. Further down the line, eighteen Lancer Dart Missiles seemingly materialized out of the ether and rained down upon the assembled aircraft. In the span of mere seconds, what had been an orderly group of heavy aircraft had been transformed into blazing wreckage and the screams of the dying.

Knowing that the three Wraiths would expend their second salvo on the remaining aircraft, Duo began targeting the mobile suits that had yet to be loaded. A broad sweep from his beam scythe took out three Windams before their pilots knew what had hit them, and a follow-up swing destroyed two Grognards. Dropping his cloak now that the attack was fully underway, Duo began working his way down the line, ripping apart any mobile suit in his path.

The second salvo from the Wraiths flew forth a second later, destroying not only the rest of the transport aircraft but several additional mobile suits. Deactivating their Mirage Colloids, the trio of black and red machines began opening up on the remaining mobile suits with their beam rifles and railguns. Air raid sirens blared as the Atlantic Federation forces attempted to scramble a response, but Terminal's team had already destroyed their primary targets and were well into dispatching their secondary ones.

"No fair fight for you bastards today," Duo growled as he stabbed a Windam in the back before whirling around and cutting a Grognard in half, "Consider it payback for Berlin."

"Got new contacts coming in from both the north and east!" Adaline announced while picking off two Windams with her beam rifles, "It's their combat air patrol."

"I can take them," Lan replied, already shifting her fire from the ground targets.

Adaline flatly denied her. "Negative. We're not here to dogfight."

"Primary targets and a good chunk of the secondaries have been eliminated," Priscilla pointed out as she bagged a Grognard with her railguns, "Our mission's already accomplished."

Duo nodded, already engaging his thrusters and gaining altitude. "We're not here for actual battle. Hit and run's the name of the game. We made our hit, and now it's time to run."

Ascending to join the three Wraiths as the enemy took frantic shots at them, Duo angled for the west and hit the throttle. With the girls hot on his heels, the four mobile suits vanished almost as quickly as they'd first appeared, leaving behind a tarmac strewn with fire and death.

….

November 21st, C.E. 73

While the mammoth Hannibal-class land battleships and their colossal Destroy units spearheaded the charge towards Moscow, the Atlantic Federation's second-line units were of a much more conventional sort. Windams dominated their ranks, split between units with the Jet Striker Pack providing air support while others sporting the Doppelhorn Striker Pack gave the ground forces formidable backup as artillery. Amongst the latter were interspersed squads of Dagger-Ls as escorts on the off chance that the Eurasian Federation diverted forces from stalling the Destroys to attack around the flanks of the army. More traditional formations of field artillery followed behind them, periodically stopping to fire off mass salvoes that would soften up foes ahead, although that almost seemed superfluous in light of the carnage that the land battleships and their monstrous Destroys could unleash.

Unlike the force that had attempted to march on Vienna, though, this army gave greater concern for security beyond the spearhead. Mobile anti-air artillery units kept careful watch over the skies, supported by high-altitude AWACS aircraft escorted by their own dedicated Jet Windams and even traditional fighter squadrons. Flying in long, gentle loops, these jets and their escorts gave the front line a wide berth, and thus far the Windams had been able to fend off all attempts by the Eurasians to shoot down their charges. The failures of the Eurasians certainly hadn't been for lack of trying; the combined mobile suit and fighter squadrons that the Motherland had thrown at the Atlantic Federation had been determined and fierce, and there had been some close calls. Nevertheless, the AWACS remained intact, as did their defenders.

At least until a river of golden-yellow hellfire utterly annihilated one of the lumbering aircraft along with four of its escorting Jet Windams.

That was the only warning they'd gotten before Terminal's two top pilots fell upon them with a vicious vengeance. Wing Zero Albion and Epyon Revenant were barely more than streaks of blue and red light, respectively, and their blinding speed was an edge that the Atlantic Federation pilots couldn't hope to match. As Heero sighted in on the second AWACS, Shemei focused her attention on the escorts. Two Jet Windams were torn apart by a single lash from her Heat Rod, and a hapless fighter jet soon found itself impaled upon her beam sword.

Doesn't really feel fair using Epyon Revenant against conventional aircraft, Shemei thought as she shredded a second fighter with her Heat Rod before slicing a Windam in half with her emerald blade, but given what these guys likely have in store for Moscow, fair play is the last thing they deserve.

Another flash of golden light flared as Heero dispatched the second AWACS. Checking her sensors, Shemei saw the number of enemy contacts rapidly increasing as more Jet Windams and fighters rushed in to join the fray. The enemy's response time to Terminal's raids was improving, but it hadn't been enough to keep the Perfect Soldier and the Valkyrie from eliminating their primary targets.

"Time to pack it in?" asked Shemei as she impaled a Jet Windam with her beam sword.

"Affirmative," Heero replied while shredding a fighter with his machine cannons, "Our primary targets have been destroyed, and the enemy's early warning capacity in this sector has been crippled. Kira's team will handle the remaining AWACS."

Shemei nodded while shredding another Jet Windam with her Heat Rod. "In and out, nice and quick. Let's get moving, then."

Gunning her engines, she disengaged while Heero fired off one last blast with the Twin Buster Rifle, sweeping his weapon across the sky and taking out several mobile suits and fighters. With pursuit momentarily discouraged, Heero opened up the throttle, and soon both Gundams were racing away from the engagement zone. Each trip out to their targets and the subsequent flight back to their respective warships had grown progressively shorter; Murrue and Natarle were running their battleships' engines as hard as they possibly could in order to catch up to the Atlantic Federation army. The warships would need some serious maintenance work soon, and Shemei hoped that Terminal's efforts in Europe would win them enough good will for the Eurasian Federation to allow them to stop in their territory long enough to effect repairs.

That's something for the Captains to work out, Shemei told herself as she and Heero retreated west, I just need to worry about the next raid.

Not to mention the big battle these raids are leading up to.

….

A dogfight was raging overhead, but Wufei paid it no mind. Swooping in low, he let twin streams of fire rip forth from Nataku's flamethrowers. A column of self-propelled multi-rack rocket launchers that were following the advance of the main Atlantic Federation army went up like a string of firecrackers, and the L5 native was only just getting started. His double-ended beam trident spun rapidly as he cut down two of the Dagger-Ls that had been assigned to escort the artillery, with both machines falling before they could even ignite their beam sabers.

In the sky above, tracer rounds and missiles filled the air as Heavyarms Arsenal blasted a squadron of Jet Windams to pieces. Any unit that got too close found itself facing the twin curved blades of Sandrock Saladin, which quickly reduced the offending machines to finely sliced pieces. Rounding out the ensemble was a blue and white fighter jet; the Skygrasper, this time sporting the Aile Pack, zipping in and out of the fray while picking off targets of opportunity.

Wufei hadn't meant to make his strike while Quatre, Trowa and Shinn were in the midst of their own; that had simply been a happy accident. However, he had been on the lookout for familiar faces since Heero's message had indicated they'd be making repeated raids over the course of the next few days, so it wasn't too surprising to see some of the old gang here.

His sensors were lighting up as additional contacts came in. Wufei had to give the Atlantic Federation credit; their response times were definitely improving. No doubt being subject to near constant strikes, whether it be from him, Terminal's pilots or whatever the Eurasians could scrape together in a hurry, had forced them to keep their guard up. Cutting down two more Dagger-Ls before unleashing another inferno with his flamethrowers and torching a formation of self-propelled guns, Wufei knew that he would have to call it a day soon. As much as he enjoyed a good fight, he wasn't here for that today. His goal was the same as that of Heero and his friends; chip away at the Atlantic Federation's army in preparation for the main showdown that would come as soon as the Archangel and Dominion could catch up.

At the rate things are going, that'll be on Moscow's doorstep, Wufei mused as he gained altitude and weaved through volleys of particle beam fire, Heero, you're cutting it awfully close here. I hope you know what you're doing.

Crushing two Jet Windams with his Dragon Fangs, he could see that his latest victims were just the tip of the spear. The enemy had marshalled substantial reinforcements in short order, and Wufei could see Trowa, Quatre and Shinn already starting to pull back. A final salvo of missiles from Heavyarms Arsenal served as a covering barrage while the two Gundams and the Skygrasper commenced their withdrawal, and Wufei begrudgingly accepted the fact that he needed to start his retreat as well. The fact that a familiar black and red machine was amongst the enemy reinforcements made that fact particularly galling, but as much as Wufei wanted to put Rodrigues down once and for all, it couldn't be here. If he tried to engage the mercenary in a duel, the surrounding Atlantic Federation forces would feel no obligation to honor it. He could only take on Rodrigues in such a contest if others were distracting the main enemy force, and his allies were already leaving the field.

"No choice," Wufei muttered under his breath as he impaled a Jet Windam, "Time to cut and run."

Letting fly with his Dragon Fangs to force the next two closest units to evade, Wufei began angling for the west. The Ronin was making a beeline for him, and while it certainly was fast, it couldn't match Nataku for pure speed; Wufei would be leaving the dog of war in the dust shortly.

The mercenary seemed to realize it as well, for the Ronin was already reducing speed. Wufei expected a taunt from Rodrigues, but nothing came over the radio. Perhaps the dog of war knew that Wufei was in no mood for friendly banter anymore. Gone were the days of them simply enjoying the thrill of a fierce duel. Wufei still respected the mercenary for his skills, but the man had shown that his principles were lacking.

Your masters unleashed Hell on Earth upon this continent, Wufei thought as he gave the Ronin one final glare, and you have aided and abetted them without question, Rodrigues. We'll settle the account before the gates of Moscow.

The devil will have his due.

….

November 22nd, C.E. 73

Gnashing his teeth in fury, Nazara could only glare daggers at the retreating forms of Wing Zero and the crimson devil that had accompanied it. "Stand and fight, you cowards!"

Of course, they had fought, but by the time he'd gotten the Nosferatu airborne they'd already commenced their withdrawal. Just like the previous days, this was yet another hit-and-run strike. In this case, Heero Yuy and Shemei Rehema had moved in from the northwest, angling for what Nazara presumed were the cargo transports that had been assigned to shadow and airdrop supplies as the advancing Atlantic Federation army required. The Colonel had made sure to beef up the force's standing combat air patrol with each passing day in response to the raids, and his vigilance had paid off in that the two attackers had only been able to take out a few of the lumbering transports before squadrons of Jet Windams had been able to successfully screen the rest of the heavy aircraft. The two intruders had tangled with the escorts for a bit before pulling back, once again leaving the Atlantic Federation forces in the dust.

Each strike had been brief, but their cumulative effects were already beginning to show. Morale amongst the troops assigned to the march on Moscow had dipped considerably. The grunts were strung out and jumpy, constantly on watch for the next strike and praying that they weren't the unlucky sons of bitches who would bite the dust this time. While the army still had the bulk of its fighting strength including the land battleships, their Destroys, and most of the frontline mobile suits, those hadn't been the targets of the enemy here. The raids had overwhelmingly been aimed at the supporting forces, and Nazara would begrudgingly admit that his foes' strategy was having its intended result. Between the raw speed of units like Wing Zero and the stealth systems of the Wraiths and the Grim Reaper Gundam, Heero Yuy and his allies had everything they needed to make for a potent guerilla force.

The Gundams weren't the only ones striking at the Atlantic Federation army in such a manner. The Eurasians were hardly blind, and while the Destroys and land battleships were still more than enough to decimate whatever forces the enemy put up to halt the advance of the Atlantic Federation, they still had the presence of mind to send out flanking units to harass the Colonel's supply lines and second-line troops. Their strikes weren't as potent as those unleashed by the Gundams, but they were much more frequent and equally contributing to the growing sense of weariness amongst the army.

We just need to take Moscow, Nazara told himself, and our problems will be solved. Our reinforcements have taken hits, but we still have plenty of reserves in play for this operation. The enemy is simply delaying the inevitable with these pesky raids, and the futility of their efforts will be put on display for all the world to see soon enough. Eurasian resistance will collapse with the fall of their capital.

The whole rotten structure will come tumbling down!

….

White-knuckling the yoke as he zigzagged through enemy fire, Shinn swore rapidly and repeatedly under his breath. Popping off a quick volley with both the Skygrasper's beam turret and the beam rifle of the Aile Striker Pack, he managed to destroy one of the Jet Windams attacking him, but the other blocked his shots on its shield. Shinn immediately pulled up, and as the surviving machine tried to take another shot at him it was destroyed courtesy of a particle beam through the cockpit. Looking around, Shinn saw that his savior was a swift blue and white machine that was zipping in and out amongst the enemy's combat air patrol, picking off targets with snapshots without giving the Jet Windams so much as a chance to draw a bead on him.

"Watch yourself, kid," the Hawk of Endymion gently chided, "Don't get too predictable; that's how they get you!"

Shinn nodded as he swung his fighter around and looked for his next target. "Right. Thanks."

"We shouldn't stick around too much longer," Dearka remarked as he blew apart another Jet Windam with his Heavy Beam Cannon, "The combat air patrol's much more on-the-ball today, and they've already got reinforcements inbound."

"That was quick," Yzak noted as he destroyed a fighter with his rifle before stabbing a Jet Windam through the cockpit with his beam saber, "I guess they're really starting to get tired of our harassment."

"We're probably pushing our luck as it is," said Shinn as he ripped apart his next target with a combination of particle beam fire and quick bursts from the Skygrasper's machine cannons, "The next time we launch one of these raids, they might have enough guys in the right spot at the right time to mount an effective intercept."

"There won't be another raid after this," Dearka replied as a stream of energy disintegrated a Jet Windam, "Our orders once we're done here are to return to the ship and rest until tomorrow's big fight."

"Hope we softened them up enough," said Yzak as he picked off another mobile suit with a shot from his beam rifle, "Time to pack it in?"

"Affirmative," Dearka answered as he laid down one last blast from his main weapon to discourage pursuit, "One way or another, we'll settle this before the gates of Moscow. We'll find out tomorrow if the damage we've given the enemy over the past few days has been enough."

No kidding, thought Shinn as he nailed one last target of his own before angling the Skygrasper west with his companions racing to catch up, I know we've been laying the hurt on these guys over the past few days, but their army's still no joke. Tomorrow's fight is going to be ugly…

…but it's one we can't shy away from.

….

The biting winds of the Russian late fall whipped through Heero's hair as he stood on the rear observation deck of the Archangel. He'd been trained to operate in just about every environment imaginable, but with how fast the white battleship was moving Heero still needed one of the vessel's thick winter coats to be outside, and this was on the back deck with the tall neck of the bridge blocking the worst of the wind. He had asked no one else to join him out here; he wasn't about to punish his closest friends with this chill. Snowflakes whipped about wildly, yet these were mere flurries compared to the punishing curtains of white that Heero knew full well this land would experience when winter's fury came in earnest.

The old adage is to never invade Russian in the winter, he mused as he looked out at the last crimson rays of the setting sun behind the Archangel fading over the western horizon, but technology has marched on since the days of Napoleonic France and the Third Reich. The enemy's land battleships are far slower than our vessels, but they had one hell of a head start on us. We'll be coming down to the wire when we engage them tomorrow.

He wouldn't linger out here for too much longer. Rest was needed before the big fight, and he knew that Murrue would personally come out to drag his ass inside if she needed to. That mental image coerced a small smile from the Gundam pilot's lips, a bit of comfort to warm his heart against both the Russian chill and the daunting challenge that awaited Terminal tomorrow. Their eastward journey had been an almost non-stop cycle of sorties and rest periods while the warships had continued to press on, but those hit-and-run strikes were mere preludes to the battle ahead. The enemy, even after the losses they'd taken over the past several days, remained a formidable fighting force. This army would not be so quickly defeated as the one that had marched on Vienna.

At this point, the members of Terminal were hardly strangers to difficult battles, but Heero knew that the coming fight would be far more important than their recent engagements. Yes, cutting the Atlantic Federation assault on Berlin short and thwarting the attack on Vienna had hardly been small feats, but the stakes would be much higher here. Heero's intuition was telling him that the battle for Moscow would be more than just a fight to save another Eurasian Federation city from destruction; it was a potential pivot point on which the rest of the war could well turn.

Play our cards right, thought Heero, and we could come out the other end of tomorrow's firestorm with a powerful new ally and backer. The very balance of power in the Earth Sphere could be altered, and we'd potentially have the resources of an entire nation behind us and our cause of bringing this war to an end. If we fail, though…

…then all that we have fought for may very well be lost.

….

November 23rd, C.E. 73

The first rays of sunlight were only just peeking over the eastern horizon, but Murrue and the crew of the Archangel were wide awake and hastily preparing for battle. Major Gardinier had received news mere moments ago that the Atlantic Federation army was nearing the outlying suburbs and subdivisions that formed the periphery of Moscow's greater metropolitan area, and fierce fighting was already underway. It was sooner than Terminal had anticipated, and it had necessitated a change in plans. The mobile suits of both the Archangel and Dominion were undergoing final pre-flight checks now, with the long-range units set to launch momentarily while the shorter-range ones would remain with the battleships until they had drawn near to the enemy.

A much earlier launch than I would've preferred, Murrue thought bitterly as her bridge crew bustled about, checking over the warship's various systems and weapons one last time, but it cannot be helped now. The moment is upon us, and we must rise to the occasion.

She turned to the ship's mobile suit coordinator. "Miriallia, status report."

"Wing Zero Albion and the Freedom are first in queue," the young woman replied, "They'll be in launch position momentarily. The others will follow shortly."

Murrue nodded. "Good. Proceed as normal, then."

She then turned to her personal monitor and tapped a few keys. Heero appeared on the small screen a moment later, and even through the visor of his black helmet Murrue could see the firm resolve in his eyes.

"Ready to launch on your command, Murrue," said Heero.

"You'll have clearance in a few seconds," Murrue replied, forcing a confident smile, "I know we originally intended to attack together, but our hand's been forced. We'll follow and catch up as quickly as we can. Watch yourself out there."

Heero nodded. "Roger that. Move swiftly, but be careful. Don't get reckless."

Murrue arched an eyebrow. "This coming from you of all people? I thought you were more self-aware than that, Heero."

The young man smirked, and Murrue felt her tension ease ever so slightly. "Fair enough. I'll look for you on the horizon, Murrue."

"And I for you," said Murrue, "Good luck."

"Same to you," said Heero.

His face faded from her screen a moment later, and Murrue turned her attention to the forward viewport. A few seconds later she heard Miriallia give launch clearance, and Wing Zero Albion flew out of the starboard hangar exit. The Freedom came out of the portside hatch a split-second later, and both units were swiftly followed by the rest of the warship's long-range mobile suits along with the Skygrasper. Off to the starboard side of the Archangel, Murrue saw the Dominion sending off her units as well. The strike team quickly formed up, and soon they were mere pinpricks of thruster-fire on the horizon before disappearing entirely.

Our days of skirmishing are over.

The Battle of Moscow begins now.

….

Credit where it's due, thought Rodrigues as he cut a Eurasian Federation Dagger-L in half, they're actually making a fight of it this time. Well, I suppose it is their capital on the line now…

Whatever the reason, it was still good to be pitted against a foe that was both determined and properly organized as opposed to desperate defenders caught completely off guard. Even if the attack on Berlin hadn't been primarily aimed at reducing a major population center to rubble and butchering its inhabitants, that battle would've still left a bad taste in the mercenary's mouth simply by virtue of how easily the city's protectors had been dealt with. Berlin had all but descended into a state of civil war before the Atlantic Federation had fired its opening salvo, and as a result the armed forces had been decimated and reduced to a handful of holdouts almost disgustingly quickly.

That wasn't the case here. Moscow, like Vienna, had been graced with enough warning to actually set up a proper defense. True, the sheer destructive power of the Destroys and land battleships had allowed the Atlantic Federation army to practically bulldoze the previous defensive lines with little difficulty, but with the capital city at their backs the Eurasian Federation forces could no longer retreat and regroup. They had to make their stand here, and they were making a damn good showing of it so far.

Particle beams, shells, rockets and missiles flew back and forth as both sides relentlessly pummeled each other. The battle had begun just a little while ago, and already the surrounding area was a hellscape of blast craters, charred machines and partially demolished buildings. This wasn't Moscow proper, merely one of the capital's peripheral municipalities, yet the Eurasians were defending it as fiercely as if they were fighting at the doorstep of the Kremlin itself.

The Atlantic Federation had pulled out all the stops for this assault, and the Eurasians had responded in kind. The sky was dominated by squadrons of mobile suits and fighter jets duking it out. Jet Windams, Jet Dagger-Ls and fighters from both sides mixed it up with incredible ferocity, trading beams, missiles and bullets as if the munitions were cheaper than fast food. Atlantic Federation F-7D Spearheads and Eurasian Federation SU-63Es spiraled and weaved amongst the clouds, chasing each other's tails or engaging in daring head-to-head passes against each other; obsolete compared to mobile suits the fighter jets might have been, but both sides still had surpluses from the last war, and they seemed determined to expend them here.

The fighting was just as ferocious on the ground, and infinitely more destructive. While the Eurasian Federation was mostly relying upon older Dagger-Ls for its surface mobile suits, they were putting up a fearsome fight, making the Windams and Grognards work for every meter of ground gained. The enemy wasn't solely relying on older models, though; Rodrigues had spotted a pair of significantly more advanced units in the fray, machines that he'd immediately recognized as CAT1-X Hyperions. Based on the seamlessness of their cooperation and the considerable kill-count they'd already racked up against the Atlantic Federation so far, it was clear to him that these were the units of the Espada Team.

I had no idea that Alberto and Marcela had made their way out here, Rodrigues mused as he thrust his blade through a Dagger-L's cockpit, I lost track of them after Cagliari… I figured they returned to Spain and would defend that region once the invasion got underway. Seems I was mistaken.

Normally, he would've been making his way over towards them; they were amongst the few pilots currently on the field that could give the mercenary a decent challenge. However, Rodrigues had contented himself with engaging the grunts of the Eurasian Federation army for the moment. It wasn't because he found any particular satisfaction in the task, though he would readily admit that the rank and file here were putting up a much better fight than what he'd seen in the past. No, it was because he didn't want to be stuck in a duel with them at the moment the foe that he really wanted to fight finally made his appearance on this battlefield.

Wufei had yet to show up; none of the Gundam pilots had, for that matter. Yet Rodrigues knew it was only a matter of time. All five of them had taken part in the needling strikes that had harried the Atlantic Federation army over the past several days, and they certainly knew where said army was heading. They would not miss the fight for Moscow itself. It was simply a question of when they would enter the fray and from what direction.

I wonder, thought Rodrigues as he cut down another Eurasian Federation mobile suit, if your justice will win the day this time, Chang Wufei… or if it will fall short and let this dog of war slip free once again?

Wufei had not sought Rodrigues out during any of the preceding raids, instead focusing his attention strictly on causing damage to the Atlantic Federation army before beating a hasty retreat. The mercenary could only imagine how it must've galled the Gundam pilot to turn tail and run when he'd seen the Ronin entering the field rather than engaging in another duel. No, Wufei would surely not be letting the dog of war get away this time. A sense of fatal destiny took hold of Rodrigues as he waded deeper into the fighting, a grim truth settling in his gut.

One way or another, he suspected that his inevitable clash with Wufei today would be their last.

Perhaps it was better that way.

….

"Pushy bastards," Marcella Vasquez growled as she perforated a Jet Windam with a burst of emerald bolts from her Hyperion's Beam Submachinegun, "They just can't take 'no' for an answer. The worst kind of men…"

Over their shared channel, she heard Alberto chuckle while impaling a mobile suit with the Beam Knife held in his Hyperion's left hand. "You're in high demand, Espada Two! I would've thought you'd be flattered."

Normally she lived for her lover's banter, but Marcella wasn't in the mood for it today. "This isn't a festival in Madrid, Espada One. These filthy hyenas want to feast upon the city we're defending!"

"I know," Alberto replied, his tone becoming grave, "and they will have no innocent blood today if we have anything to say about it."

Those were fine words, but Marcella privately had her doubts as to whether or not she and her partner could back them up today. Strictly speaking, they'd probably already failed to live up to them; with the massed firepower the Atlantic Federation was throwing at Moscow's defenders, in all likelihood some shells or rockets had already fallen behind the Eurasians' lines. Marcella could only hope that the civilian casualties weren't too bad right now… and dread how they'd skyrocket should the enemy break through.

Espada Team had been summoned to the capital as part of the defensive effort to make sure that the city held, and while the two aces were putting in more than their share of work, Marcella held no illusions as to the severity of the situation. She and Alberto were making the Atlantic Federation grunts pay in blood for their advance, but the enemy was advancing nonetheless. For all their skill, they were only two pilots; they couldn't be everywhere at once.

The wing pair were currently helping anchor the defenses at roughly the center of the Eurasian Federation line. This was where the hammer stroke would fall hardest, for the Atlantic Federation had always unleashed its Destroys right at the middle of the previous defensive lines to punch through while the land battleships and more conventional units provided supporting fire. The massive machines had yet to make their appearance here yet, but Marcella knew that it was only a matter of time. For all their firepower, the behemoths were lumbering machines, plodding across the battlefield at speeds that even tracked vehicles could outmatch with little difficulty. Were this a battle out on the plains, the Eurasians could've used such a drawback from the enemy's heaviest machines to their advantage, but the fighting before the capital now allowed no room for open maneuver warfare. This was a brute-force slugging match, and here the Atlantic Federation had the edge.

"Any sign of them?" she asked as she blew apart a Windam with a volley of emerald bolts, "Those giant beasts, I mean."

"Not yet," Alberto replied as he claimed another kill of his own, "but it can't be much longer now. They've had plenty of time to deploy, and the enemy's already put in plenty of work to soften us up. It's just a question of when and where."

Alarms rang out in her cockpit, and Marcella saw the horizon filled with incoming rockets from the Atlantic Federation's latest massed salvo. "Shields!"

Her lover hardly needed the warning. A green energy barrier had already materialized in front of Espada One's Hyperion, and Marcella followed suit. While she was able to pick off a handful of warheads with her CIWS, there were simply too many of them for her to completely destroy. Fortunately, impacts and detonations from most physical ordinance didn't put too much strain on the Hyperion's Lightwave shields, and both machines weathered the storm without damage. Units to the left and right of them weren't so fortunate, though, with several succumbing to the barrage. Things were even worse for the apartments and local shops in the area where Espada Team and their comrades were fighting, as many buildings were ravaged by the subsequent explosions.

Most of this area's already been evacuated, she reminded herself, so the civilian casualties should remain light… for now.

There was an exception; the local hospital. Sure, civilian patients had been transferred to facilities further away from the rapidly approaching front quite some time ago, but the building's staff and equipment had remained and been hastily absorbed into the Eurasian Federation Army's Medical Division. The structure had been serving as a field hospital, and while Marcella had heard of plans to transfer the military patients as well, the front lines of the conflict had advanced so quickly that the people in charge of carrying out said transfer had been caught completely flat-footed. To make matters worse, the hospital wasn't all that far from where the Espada Team was currently engaged, which put all the more pressure on Alberto and Marcella to hold their ground.

Unfortunately for the two aces, holding their ground most likely would become untenable soon enough. The American assault had already been brutal, and it was only intensifying. Hundreds of hostile mobile suits were already on the field, and while they weren't enough to overwhelm the defenders just yet, that would undoubtedly change once the Atlantic Federation's new mechanical monsters caught up to the vanguard. Even without the Destroys, the situation was grim. Regular salvos of rockets and shells from second-line artillery continued to hammer Moscow's outer defenses, and those were supplemented by air strikes. The enemy didn't have complete air superiority, and in fact the brawl raging in the skies above was quite fierce, but the Eurasian Federation aerial units had already suffered sufficient casualties as to allow some of the Atlantic Federation attackers to get through. Alberto and Marcella would've both preferred to help out in the aerial engagement, but the ground clash was a special hell all of its own, especially with squadrons of the Atlantic Federation's new model Grognard assault mobile suits leading the charge. With their brute force backed up by supporting fire from Doppelhorn Windams while Aile Windams attempted to encircle from the flanks, it was all the aces could do to simply keep the local Eurasian forces from collapsing under the onslaught.

Three Grognards along with several Aile Windams were closing in on Espada Team at the moment, and the Spanish pilots were forced to split their efforts. Alberto went straight for the assault units, activating his Lightwave shield to block fire from their autocannons and Heavy Claymores while rushing in to Beam Knife range. For her part, Marcella sprayed out emerald bolts at the Windams, destroying one and damaging the Striker Pack of another as she fought to buy her lover time.

"Hurry up, One!" she called out as she blocked particle beam fire on her Lightwave shields, "I can only keep them off your back for so long!"

"I know," Alberto replied as he drove his Beam Knife through the cockpit of his first target before hitting his thrusters to rapidly climb above the other two before they could pincer him, "I'll have these bastards dealt with shortly!"

Using the Beam Knife in her mobile suit's left hand to parry a saber strike from another Aile Windam, Marcella destroyed a second unit with her submachinegun. Rounding on her original attacker, she blocked a second strike before stabbing the machine's torso, quickly pulling the Beam Knife out as the Aile Windam exploded. The rest had fanned out in an effort to surround her, but sudden volleys of particle beams cut their number in half and drew the attention of the others. Glancing in the direction of the beams, Marcella saw a squad of Dagger-Ls heading towards them.

"Espada Team, this is Kop'ye Team," a male voice grumbled over the tactical channel, "We're here to back you up!"

They weren't the only ones; Marcela could see multiple new friendly contacts on her sensors. While the bulk of the reinforcing units were squadrons comprised of older Dagger-Ls, the discipline of their pilots and overlapping fields of fire were just as lethal as they would've been from newer machines. Between volleys from her comrades and Marcella's own shots, they were able to deal with the remaining Aile Windams while Alberto destroyed the other two Grognards.

"Thanks for the assistance, Kop'ye Team," said Marcella when they had a bit of breathing room.

"Andrei, is that you?" Alberto chimed in, "I thought they had you on the northern flank."

"My team was diverted to aid you," the gruff voice of Captain Andrei Sidorov answered, "Looks like we arrived at just the right time."

"I can't fault your timing," said Marcella, "but what about your previous position? Isn't Command worried about the flank collapsing?"

"It'll hold for now," Andrei replied as his team took up defensive positions amongst the rubble in preparation for the next wave, "More of our eastern reserves are shoring it up as we speak."

Alberto chuckled. "Took Command long enough to get them into the fight. I was afraid they'd mobilized too late to make a difference."

"Some of them are arriving now and taking up position," Andrei reassured him, "and many more are inbound. The enemy will have to work harder than this to take Moscow."

Normally, Marcella would appreciate the boast, but not here. Everyone knew that the Atlantic Federation's heavy hitters were still waiting in the wings…

…and Marcella could only hope that her comrade hadn't inadvertently summoned them with his words.

….

The once-bustling streets of the Eurasian Federation's capital were all but deserted, with denizens either sheltering in place or already evacuated into the east. One of the Earth Sphere's grandest metropolises, home as of the prior year's census to no less than twenty million souls, the city would've now seemed like a giant ghost town were it not for the presence of the army. Almost every street was barricaded in one form or another, entire facades' worth of windows were boarded up, anti-air emplacements dominated roofs and roads alike while machinegun nests and howitzers were aimed down the thoroughfares in the direction that the enemy's advance was expected to come. Every available mobile suit was either at the front or on the way there, leaving the interior of the city patrolled by more traditional armored fighting vehicles. The thunder of battle roared in the distance, but the inner city itself was almost as quiet as the grave.

That quiet did not hold in the command bunker, though. Buried beneath the government district, the nerve center of the Eurasian Federation Army was alive with activity. Aides scurried about frantically, often nearly tripping over each other in their haste to carry out whatever tasks they'd been assigned. Officers barked out orders while enlisted grunts and civil functionaries alike poured in and out of the armory; if the enemy breached the city and moved on the bunker, everyone from security guard to secretary would be armed and prepared to fight to the death. The Americans had shown Berlin no mercy, after all, and they'd clearly intended to mete out the same cruelty at Vienna. It was only logical to assume that such brutality would be visited upon the capital as well.

Standing in the middle of the chaotic command center, Marshall Stepan Baranov by contrast appeared to be the serene eye of a roiling storm. Despite being in his early seventies, the head of the Eurasian Federation Army retained both a commanding presence and formidable build, his old body still quite fit thanks to a rigorous exercise regimen. Age had not dulled his keen blue eyes in the least, and his silver hair and short beard were trimmed with precision. An officer with a reputation for being both fair and firm, he had overseen his country's ground forces for the better part of the past decade now, and he knew that today would be his greatest test.

On a massive screen that dominated the command center's western wall was a tactical display of the battle's current progress. Atlantic Federation forces were colored red, and they dominated the left half of the screen for as far as the eye could see. Eurasian Federation units were blue, and while their lines were still holding strong Stepan knew his troop had been badly battered over the past several days. The speed of the enemy's advance across what was known colloquially as 'Old Russia' had been nothing less than astonishing, and Marshall Baranov knew that he bore a good deal of responsibility for it.

We were utter fools to allow the Americans to position troops so far inland, he silently fumed, I should've objected more fiercely to their movements within our territory, especially since they were so far from either of ZAFT's two bases on the continent. The entire setup was fishy from the start, and yet we still let it unfold in the belief that our forces would unite and then march together on Diocuia and Gibraltar. Now calamity is upon us.

In all fairness, there was plenty of blame to go around. While Marshall Baranov and other senior officers in the military could've voiced stronger objections and taken precautions against ulterior motives on the part of the Americans, the Eurasian Federation's political leadership also had a hand in this catastrophe. Caught between a public that was wary of the war at best and inimical at worst on the one hand and the most powerful member state of the Earth Alliance wanting to escalate both the conflict itself and the Eurasian Federation's involvement in it, the Prime Minister and Parliament had tried to have it both ways. When addressing the concerns of the people, they had framed the Eurasian Federation's part in the war as simply defending its interests, and thus had dedicated only enough resources to the conflict so as to keep their erstwhile allies in the Atlantic Federation off their back. The politicians' desire to walk the middle path in this war had always been a dangerous one, and Marshall Baranov had feared that it would ultimately blow up in their faces.

Well, the blow up was here, but even he had failed to appreciate just how cataclysmic it would be. In hindsight, of course, it should've been obvious. The Atlantic Federation's slide into extremism under the shadowy rule of Blue Cosmos and LOGOS had infected North America's body politic with a volatile fanaticism that was openly disdainful of any form of compromise. Half-hearted commitments to the war on the part of the Eurasian Federation would never have satisfied those howling for the blood of every last Coordinator man, woman and child, and those monsters unfortunately held sway over the Atlantic Federation.

As the old saying goes, the fish rots from the head, Marshall Baranov mused grimly, and the Earth Alliance is a rather large fish… and its rot runs deep. The Atlantic Federation is thoroughly corrupted, and it was simply a matter of time before they sought to infect their allies with that corruption. They succeeded for a time during the last war; it was no small miracle that the Chistaya Partiya Krovi were ousted after that conflict, and their Blue Cosmos allies across the pond have never forgiven those of us who pushed out their ideological kin. Since they could no longer sway us through contagion, they now resort to brute force. I wonder what the Republic of East Asia thinks as they look on? Surely there must be some within its government and military who realize that if we fall, they are the next domino in line.

When the Atlantic Federation's invasion had gone from covert to overt, the Eurasian Federation had reached out to the Republic of East Asia, but so far, the response had been silence. Their game was easy enough to comprehend; they were waiting to see if the Americans successfully steamrolled Europe or if Moscow was able to throw the invaders back. They would not commit to one side or the other until they knew for sure which way the wind was blowing and what state they could gain the most from for backing. It was pragmatic politics to be sure, but it also reeked of cowardice, and it made Marshall Baranov want to puke. If the Eurasian Federation was able to survive this crisis and launch a successful counteroffensive, he would welcome whatever belated help the Republic of East Asia might offer out of simple duty and professionalism, but he would not forget their rank opportunism anytime soon.

He banished thoughts of their eastern neighbors from his mind; they were not his primary concern at the moment. His gaze on the main tactical display, Marshal Baranov's brow furrowed in concern. The front was holding, and reserves that had been transferred from the Eurasian Federation's eastern military districts were shoring up the defenses, but not enough reinforcements had arrived yet to swing the overall balance of power in Moscow's favor. While both sides had plenty of mobile suits in their respective arsenals, Marshal Baranov knew that the numbers didn't tell the whole story.

When compared to the Atlantic Federation and ZAFT, the Eurasian Federation's native mobile suit design and production infrastructure unfortunately came off as second-rate. Yes, the Eurasians had come up with some impressive prototypes, with the Hyperion series and the Wyvern foremost among them, but those advanced models were extremely limited in number and didn't translate to superiority on the front line. The vast majority of mass production mobile suits in the Eurasian Federation's arsenal were still the older model Dagger-Ls along with even older GAT-01A1 Daggers and GAT-01 Strike Daggers, with only limited numbers of the newer Windams available. By contrast, not only did the Atlantic Federation have considerably greater quantities of the more advanced models, but their own research and development initiatives allowed them to field new designs in force quite quickly. The Grognard assault mobile suits were a case in point, as were the much rarer but infinitely more powerful Destroys. The Eurasians had nothing close to comparable units available, with their current design and manufacturing programs mostly focused on getting more Windams out of the factories and to the front as quickly as possible.

We let the Atlantic Federation take the lead in mobile suit design and production, thought Marshal Baranov bitterly, despite us having both the human intellectual capital and manufacturing infrastructure needed to rival the Americans and ZAFT. Yet we allowed ourselves to lag, for the most part content with simply producing Atlantic Federation designs under license while our own research and development initiatives remained limited in scope. Now we reap the whirlwind…

The defenses would hold for now, but once the Destroys and their supporting land battleships came forward, Mashal Baranov was under no illusions as to what would happen. Their raw firepower would make his force's numbers meaningless; they'd already proven that multiple times over the course of their advance through Old Russia. The only way to stop them would be to concentrate practically everything he had against them, and that would mean drawing units away from other parts of the battle, opening up incredibly obvious gaps and exposures on the flanks that even the dumbest of Atlantic Federation field commanders would be able to recognize and exploit. Reserves coming in from the east could potentially fill in those gaps, but they still needed time to arrive and deploy, and time was most certainly not on Moscow's side right now.

Fighting in the outer suburbs was intensifying by the minute. Mobile suits clashed amidst bombed-out apartments and stores, while debris continued to rain down from the furious brawl unfolding in the skies. Artillery from both sides spat out salvos of rockets, shells and missiles, with much of the landscape already reduced to blast craters and piles of rubble. No fancy strategies or maneuvers here; this was a slugging match between the two titans of the Earth Alliance, nothing more.

As dire as the current situation was, Marshall Baranov could take some small comfort in the fact that the Atlantic Federation hadn't been able to bring the full might of its army to bear here. While he would've liked to credit his own forces with whittling away at the flanks and rear of the enemy army as they'd advanced eastward over the past several days, Marshall Baranov knew that most of the work had been done by Terminal, with an intelligence assist from this nebulous 'resistance' movement operating behind the scenes in North America itself.

When he'd first heard of this covert rebellion brewing within the Atlantic Federation from Brigadier General Neuville, Marshall Baranov had been tempted to brush it aside as hopeful delusions brought on by the stress of having to combat the enemy's sudden and brutal onslaught. The French officer had always been known for keeping a cool head, though, no matter how bad the tactical or strategic situation became. He'd claimed to have a contact with them, and the intel furnished thus far had backed that claim. Marshall Baranov wasn't all-in on working with these dissident Americans just yet, but he was wise enough to keep his options open.

The party he was much more inclined to work with for the moment was Terminal. They had, after all, actually fought directly to save Berlin and Vienna, which was a huge point in their favor as far as Baranov was concerned. The fact that Brigadier General Neuville had gotten one of his subordinates and her support staff onto the Archangel was one of the rare bits of good news the Marshall had received over the past week. Other officers were still rankled over the part that the Gundams had played in decimating the Eurasian Federation Navy at Cagliari, but Baranov found it easier to take the long view. At the moment of that attack, the Eurasians had still been an ally of the Atlantic Federation, reluctant or otherwise, in their genocidal war against Coordinators. He could hardly blame Terminal for allowing their pilots to work with ZAFT in an effort to cripple the Earth Alliance's naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea. It had been a completely logical move given the strategic situation of the time, and now that strategic situation had changed. Ruffled feathers amongst High Command would still need to be soothed, but Marshall Baranov suspected that if Moscow survived the day, and Terminal played a part in that survival, then his fellow officers would be inclined to play ball.

The hit-and-run strikes of Terminal's pilots over the past few days were certainly a promising sign, but there needed to be more than that. According to the last report from Major Gardinier, Terminal had quite the show stopper planned for the Atlantic Federation army that now laid siege to Moscow.

Baranov just hoped that they'd act before the attackers broke through.

….

Start "Defence of Moscow"

Bastards just keep coming, Captain Andrei Sidorov thought as he took out an Aile Windam with a well-placed particle beam to the cockpit, but that's to be expected. All loss is acceptable loss to Blue Cosmos if it brings them closer to their 'blue and pure world'. Now that fanaticism is turned against us… and I suppose it's karmic.

That last bit was a sentiment that the thirty-four year-old man would never publicly utter, of course, but that didn't change his belief that it was the truth. The Eurasian Federation might not have been gung-ho in its support for the Atlantic Federation's genocidal campaign against the Coordinators, but it had also done nothing to stop them. Half-hearted aid for men who were reborn Nazis in all but name was still aid given to the fascist pigs that lorded over North America, and Andrei had been privately disgusted with how his own country was willing to reduce itself to being an accessory for a campaign of mass slaughter. The popular demonstrations that had resulted in this crackdown should've come much sooner in his opinion, but he would happily accept and defend the people putting their lives on the line for them if it meant finally getting his country to stand up and do what was right in a world that had gone utterly mad.

Despite only being in his early thirties, his dark brown hair already had streaks of grey in it, and his green eyes had a world-weary feel to them. He'd barely survived the First Bloody Valentine War, and Andrei had dreaded another conflict. Now, here he was, on the front lines again, and even if he was finally fighting the enemy that he believed needed to be fought it didn't make the task any easier. Plenty of blood had already been spilled today, and the day was still young. How much more would run in the streets of Moscow before the enemy was defeated? Andrei wasn't sure he wanted an answer to that question…

…especially when whether or not the enemy would be defeated was still up in the air.

Although he was a hardened combat veteran, Andrei was still relatively new to fighting in a mobile suit. He'd actually been a tank commander during the last war, and while the transition over to mobile suits had been inevitable, Andrei had only completed his training on the Dagger-L mere months before the outbreak of the Second Bloody Valentine War. It was still somewhat jarring to be wielding such a large machine entirely by himself rather than being part of a crew, though Andrei had worked hard to overcome the instincts from his old role. Apparently, he'd done it a bit too well, because he'd been put into a command position well before he'd actually become comfortable with his new fighting machine.

While Kop'ye Team had been drilled relentlessly under Andrei's command, the clash at Moscow was their trial by fire. All of his subordinates were, like him, combat veterans in one form or another, but also like him they were new to mobile suits. Fortunately, one didn't have to be an experience mobile suit pilot to understand concepts such as unit cohesion and overlapping fields of fire. Using both rubble and the shields of their Dagger-Ls for cover, they focused their M703K Beam Carbines on the most immediate threats, typically either the Grognard assault mobile suits or the closest Aile Windams. Working together with Espada Team along with the other units that had joined Andrei and his subordinates in reinforcing this sector of the front, they were able to keep the enemy at bay with concerted particle beam volleys while watching each other's backs. It was textbook squad tactics, nothing fancy, but Andrei would be more than happy to settle for that as long as it kept him and his comrades alive.

"Company inbound!" one of his teammates called out, "I've got eyes on a Grognard team coming up on our position from the southeast!"

"More Aile Windams with them," another subordinate added, "They're trying to box us in!"

Picking off another target, Andrei's mind raced as he tried to figure out the best response. "Concentrate fire on the Grognards. Espada Team, can you take the Windams?"

"Already on it!" Alberto replied as he and Marcella moved in.

Taking point while the rest of his squad fanned out behind him, Andrei focused his fire on the lead Grognard. With one of his subordinates focusing down the same target while the others aimed at the supporting units, he was able to drop the Grognard in short order. As formidable as the Atlantic Federation's new assault models could be, they were vulnerable at longer ranges, and that was a weakness the Dagger-L's Beam Carbine could easily exploit.

Still, Andrei's kill didn't go without retaliation. Bursts of autocannon rounds came from the other Grognards as they closed in, forcing Andrei to take cover behind his unit's shield. His subordinates took some of the heat off of him by destroying another Grognard and forcing the others to take shelter behind the blackened carcass of a bombed-out office building. While the Grognards were stalled, though, the Aile Windams were still moving in. They'd be flanking Kop'ye Team in short order if something wasn't done to stop them.

Fortunately for Andrei and his squad, Espada Team was on the ball. Alberto and Marcella charged in, activating their Lightwave Shields to block beam fire from the Windams as they closed the distance. Then they were among the Atlantic Federation units, Beam Knives drawn and striking with deadly precision. The enemy formations were forced to scatter as their lead units succumbed to the aces, and the two Spaniards were just getting started.

Bursts of emerald bolts flew forth from the Hyperions' Beam Submachineguns, destroying additional targets while the survivors frantically tried to counterattack. They tried to surround Alberto and Marcella, but Espada Team simply took their machines airborne and rained down fire upon their foes. Occasionally they would block fire on their Lightwave Shields, but mostly they relied upon the maneuverability of their mobile suits and their own piloting skills to avoid damage.

Confident that the more agile units were occupied, Andrei focused his attention on the remaining Grognards. Their numbers had been reduced significantly already, but the survivors were managing to close the distance between themselves and the Eurasians, which meant that their weapons were now having a much greater effect. Giant ball-bearings flew forth from the Heavy Claymores mounted on their shoulders, ripping through the buildings that Kop'ye Team was using as cover. Andrei winced as he saw one of the Dagger-Ls take a metal sphere to the torso, crushing the cockpit and crumpling the machine over. Another one was hit in the head, remaining operational only by dint of the lower-quality backup cameras mounted elsewhere on the mobile suit's frame.

"Keep them back!" Andrei barked as he picked off another target, "If they get any closer, we're done for!"

Particle beam fire from the remaining Dagger-Ls intensified, and more hostile units began to fall. A few did manage to get closer just the same, though, and Andrei knew that the carbine would no longer cut it. Putting the gun away, he ignited his Dagger-L's violet beam saber.

"Cover me!" he ordered before charging in.

Keeping his shield up front to tank autocannon bursts and the occasional ball-bearing, he closed with the nearest Grognard. He bashed the unit's torso with his shield, knocking the Grognard off balance before plunging his energy sword into the mobile suit's cockpit. A second Grognard came at him from the left as he was destroying the first, but before it could open fire on him a volley of particle beams from his subordinates blew it apart. A third came from the right, determined to avenge both of its comrades, yet Andrei had just enough time to reorient his machine so that he could take the shells it fired at him on his shield. The Grognard charged forward, and Andrei saw the revolver-like weapon in its right arm begin to heat up. Knowing that the plasma stake would be the death of him if it connected, Andrei desperately threw his beam saber like a javelin. His aim was true, and the charging Grognard fell to the pavement with a superheated hole in its chest.

"That was too close," Andrei muttered as he pulled back, drawing his beam carbine again, "but at least we've got a bit of breathing room now."

That was when fresh alarms blared in his cockpit, and two large contacts appeared on his sensors, escorted by a host of smaller units. Cursing under his breath, Andrei turned his mobile suit to get a visual on them, already knowing just what he'd see. Sure enough, there they were, in all their horrific and titanic splendor. Two hulking behemoths ready to unleash utter devastation and render the valiant efforts of Andrei and all his comrades completely meaningless.

The Destroys had finally taken the field.

….

Floating over the raging ground battle and picking off the occasional Eurasian Federation aerial mobile suits that attempted to challenge him, Colonel Nazara admired his handiwork with malevolent satisfaction. True, the battle was not yet won by any stretch of the imagination, but what this stage of the fighting represented was nothing less than the cusp of conquest. The Eurasians were still fighting, and quite fiercely at that, but they had already been driven back to their capital after a campaign that had lasted mere days.

I have already surpassed the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, Azrael's clone thought with barely concealed glee, for neither of them could've ever dreamed of such a speedy advance against the Russian colossus. Soon I will render them both little more than historical footnotes by vanquishing the Eurasians once and for all! Then the vast resources of the Eurasian Federation will be at my command, and the world will be next.

Strictly speaking, the work would not be complete even after the city of Moscow was torched and its people put to the sword. In central and western Europe, the enemy still held out and were far from capitulation. Old France and Germany were particularly troublesome spots, especially with the forces assigned to level Berlin and Vienna being annihilated. Subjugating them and the rest of the continent would take time, but the destruction of the Eurasian Federation's capital would serve as a body blow against the entity, one from which it would never recover.

And it would not just be Moscow that fell today. The overwhelming army Nazara and Djibril had assembled was not just for dealing with the Eurasians, thought they were admittedly proving to be more of a handful then both men had anticipated. It had been brought into being to both annihilate Moscow and those who would try to save it. Those would-be saviors had yet to make their entrance, but it was simply a matter of time now.

You and your allies were quite irksome in your hit-and-run strikes, Heero Yuy, Nazara mused, but you ultimately achieved little apart from nibbling away at the margins of our combined force. I still possess more than sufficient military might to bring the Eurasians to their knees and contend with your irritable band of renegades.

The two Destroys now moving towards the enemy lines were not the only ones attached to the Atlantic Federation arm. A third was waiting in the wings, accompanied by not only its supporting land battleship but a force of elite Phantom Pain pilots in both air and ground mobile suits, handpicked by Nazara in preparation for this operation. Holding them in reserve was somewhat difficult given the notably bloodthirsty nature of these particular pilots, and only the promise of a prize as great as taking down the Gundams themselves was enough to keep them in line. They were a pack of the Colonel's private dogs of war in all but name, and he was looking forward to unleashing them.

That was for later, though. Right now, he had two different animals to manage. He didn't have just any old Extended piloting these two Destroys. These were third generation Extended, truly equipment now in nearly every sense of the word. Not only were the bio-augments and chemical enhancers more cutting edge and comprehensive than the prior incarnations, but their piloting suits were quite literally wired into their respective machines. Connecting to a series of direct human interface nodes that relayed signals from the brains of the pilots to their mobile suits, they had shown in simulations remarkable synchronicity with their titanic machines. The lumbering Destroys demonstrated much greater fine-control in their hands, and while the behemoths still wouldn't be winning any prizes for finesse and precision, they were much deadlier in the hands of their newest operators.

To top it all off, these new Extended had been conditioned to remove any of the personal eccentricities that had come with the previous generation. The traditional block words were still required, but these simply triggered their combat capabilities, essentially priming them for battle. It wasn't all that dissimilar from turning on an artificial intelligence and giving it some updated programing, except of course it was being done to flesh-and-blood human beings. Still, what difference was there when those humans in question no longer had any sort of personality to mark them as distinct individuals?

Tapping a few keys on his console while idly shooting down two Jet Dagger-Ls with the Nosferatu's drones, Nazara called up both machines. The pilots appeared in two small boxes on his screen. One was boy in his mid to late teens, his only remarkable features being bright purple hair and gleaming but simultaneously glazed over blue eyes, a reflection of his conditioning. The other was a girl with glaring yellow hair and blood-red eyes, similarly glazed over like those of her comrade. Neither had names, or at least not anymore; the boy was known simply as EX3-07619, and the girl was EX3-07821. For simplicity's sake, in combat they went by '19' and '21', respectively.

"Report," Nazara ordered as he weaved through the furious anti-air fire being unleashed by the city's defender, "Are your units fully functional?"

"Completely," 19 answered first.

"No problems, Colonel," said 21.

Not with the machines or the pilots, Nazara thought with satisfaction, I suppose I owe their caretakers a raise. For once they didn't over-promise and under-deliver.

"Good," the Colonel replied with a sadistic smile, "then commence your attack. Blast through the defenders and turn their precious capital into a charnel house!"

….

"Are we really doing this?" asked Marcella as Espada Team moved to engage the oncoming titans.

Alberto gritted his teeth, fully sympathizing with his lover's underlying unease. "We knew this moment would come sooner or later. Orders are orders, and these things cannot be allowed to advance."

The command had come from Marshall Baranov himself; Espada Teams was to stall the Destroys for as long as possible. The fact that the order had not included destruction of the units if possible might have come as a backhanded insult to other aces, but to Alberto it was simply an acknowledgement of the fact that the Hyperion, for all its technological sophistication, was outmatched by the mechanical monstrosities that it was now being directed to fight. Espada One knew that the plan was for the Eurasian Federation's aces to delay the walking arsenals while massed batteries of artillery had their aim redirected towards the Destroys, with the goal of overwhelming them through a truly insane weight of fire. Whether or not that would actually work was something Alberto had his doubts on, but his place was not to question the strategy formulated by his superiors.

Alberto could take some comfort in the fact that he and Marcella weren't acting alone in this endeavor. Some of the few Jet Windam squadrons in the possession of the defending forces were backing them up, fanned out and ready to provide supporting fire. What they'd be able to accomplish was up in the air; having seen recordings of the massive machines blocking entire salvos of particle beams, rockets and missiles without taking so much as a scratch thanks to their shields had Alberto feeling less than confident, to put it mildly. Still, he'd take whatever help he can get.

"We'll split up," he ordered as he sighted in on one of the Destroys, "I'll harass the unit on the right. Espada Two, you take the one on the left. Don't try anything too reckless. We just need to annoy them and keep their aim on us, nothing more."

"As if that very task didn't qualify as reckless," Marcella deadpanned, "If we both get through this alive, you owe me a bottle of the most expensive vodka to be found in Moscow."

Alberto couldn't help but smirk. "Deal."

The massive units were currently in their assault configuration, with the disk folded down allowing their heaviest guns clear lines of fire on Moscow. Alberto accelerated, knowing that the only way to limit the devastation that these things could inflict on the city behind him was to force them to shift into their mobile suit form. Yes, they'd still have a formidable array of weaponry at their disposal in that configuration, but at least their biggest guns would be out of the equation.

Of course, Espada Team's targets and their escorts weren't going to make things easy for them. The front rim of Alberto's target glowed with green light before a series of emerald beams flew forth, accompanied by a salvo of missiles fired off by the topside launchers. Alberto already had his Lightwave shields activated, and that was what saved him from eating several beams to the face. Bursts of shells from his CIWS detonated the missiles that he couldn't evade outright, but they weren't what concerned Alberto at the moment. Instead, his gaze was locked on the Destroy's heavy cannons, the barrels of which were already glowing with scarlet light.

He broke sharply to the left right before the unit's topside guns opened up, barely avoiding a river of crimson energy. Alberto swore as he saw the blast obliterate several Dagger-Ls before cutting a swath through the city outskirts, melting residential blocks like they were nothing. If he and his comrades wanted to prevent a repeat of that, then they needed to get in close with their foe immediately.

"I'll take it head-on," he called out to his supporting squadron, "Keep its friends off my back!"

Accelerating, he brought the Hyperion's right Forfanterie Beam Cannon to bear on the target and opened fire. As he'd expected, the blast of emerald light splashed harmlessly against his foe's positron reflector shield. Just because the attack had caused no damage, though, didn't mean it was useless. Briefly able to see the shield, Alberto could ascertain the limits of its coverage and adjust his attack vector appropriately.

I know your machine doesn't like it when the enemy comes in low, he thought as he shifted the heavier weapon back to its standby mode before readying his Beam Submachinegun and Knife, especially not when it's in that configuration.

Zigzagging to avoid fresh salvoes from the guns along the rim, he returned fire with his submachinegun. The bolts of green energy pockmarked the unit's legs, and only a massed volley of missiles concentrated solely on him forced Alberto to break off his run. There was a pause in fire from the rim guns, and Espada One could see the unit begin to change forms; he'd clearly spooked the pilot.

Alberto would've normally attacked during the transformation, but he didn't have the opening. While his comrades were doing their best to keep the enemy air units at bay, a few Jet Windams had broken through and were moving to engage him. Bursts of fire from his submachine gun took down one and damaged another, while a third unit moved in to engage with its beam saber. Blocking his foe's sword with his knife, Alberto retaliated by kneeing the Jet Windam in the cockpit. The blow threw the enemy pilot off balance, and he took advantage of that opening by driving his knife into the machine's torso.

With supporting fire from his backup driving off the rest of the enemy air units for the moment, Alberto took this moment to check up on Marcella. True to form, Espada Two had moved aggressively, closing the distance with her target and peppering it with fire from her various weapons. Unfortunately, apart from some scorches and minor impacts to the machine's legs, her assault had done no damage to the Destroy. To make matters worse, at present she was being forced to contend with multiple Jet Windams as her target began its transformation, just like Alberto was with his own. She appeared to be in no immediate danger, but she was hard pressed, and Alberto didn't like entrusting his lover's life to backup pilots that he hadn't met before today.

There wasn't much choice in the matter, though. The two of them had their orders, and Alberto was determined to carry them out. Unfortunately, with both Destroys completing their transformations while the Eurasian pilots were busy contending with their aerial escorts, that task had become much more difficult. True, the machines were still bulky and cumbersome regardless of what form they took, but their mobile suit forms were much better suited to contending with smaller targets. The detachable arms and various beam cannons mounted upon them were particularly troublesome, as they could put out a considerable volume of fire from multiple angles. Indeed, Alberto was already finding himself in the sights of his target's two floating arms, and only the Hyperion's Lightwave shield saved him from annihilation.

Fresh alarms rang in his cockpit, but they weren't caused by the Destroy targeting him. As he weaved through a storm of beams, Alberto saw a violet mobile suit closing with him. Sensor readings confirmed his worst fears; it was the nuclear-powered machine that, if recent rumors and a few intercepted signals in Berlin and over the course of the Atlantic Federation's advance into Old Russia were to be believed, was piloted by some twisted clone of none other than the late Muruta Azrael.

Whether the rumors had any basis in fact, Alberto couldn't say, and he didn't particularly care either way. What concerned him was the firepower of the suit now coming for him. It might not have been able to match the raw destructive might of the Destroy, but it didn't have to. Between its six drones, the rifle, beam saber and shoulder cannon, it had more than enough weaponry to pose a threat. Worse, unlike the Hyperion, it didn't have to worry about depleting its energy reserves in the middle of combat.

Trading fire with the oncoming purple menace, Alberto then heard a voice over his cockpit speakers that he could only assume belonged to his new adversary. "Espada One, I presume?"

"Colonel Nazara," Alberto replied through gritted teeth as he closed with his foe, beam knife meeting saber in a clash of green and violet, "or would you prefer 'Butcher of Berlin'?"

A light chuckle was the Colonel's answer as the two machines broke off, with the purple mobile suit attempting to swarm Alberto with its gun-drones and forcing the Spaniard onto the defensive. "Ah, so that's what you Eurasians are calling me now. Well, I suppose it's accurate if nothing else. A pity that the punishment of Berlin was incomplete, but there'll be time enough later to rectify that."

"Not if I have anything to say about it!" Alberto growled in simmering fury as he fired off a series of bursts with his submachine gun.

The voice of one of his backup pilots came over the tactical channel. "Espada One, should we break off from the main target?"

Alberto normally would've responded in the affirmative and requested that their support be lent against his current foe, but he knew that to leave the Destroy unattended was to invite catastrophe. "Negative! Keep that beast away from Moscow at all costs!"

"Understood, sir," the pilot acknowledged.

As Alberto bobbed and weaved through the web of emerald beams created by the Nosferatu's gun-drones while dodging a curved crimson lance of plasma from the purple machine's shoulder cannon, he saw the Eurasian Federation Jet Windams surrounding the Destroy. Most engaged the target with their beam rifles, while the remainder worked to keep the Atlantic Federation aerial units escorting the behemoth at bay. The pilots were reasonably skilled and their shots were accurate, but the titan they were up against did not care about precision or talent. Particle beams from the Eurasians were blocked by the Destroy's positron reflectors as if they were nothing more than raindrops meeting a windshield, while the mechanical monstrosity's return fire was anything but harmless. A storm of beams ripped forth from the finger guns in its detached arm drones, and several of the Eurasian machines were blown out of the sky.

Chancing a brief glance at Marcella as he closed with the Nosferatu again, Alberto saw that things were going little better on her end. Despite constant harassing fire from Espada Two and the squadrons backing her up, their own target was advancing towards Moscow. Having completed its transformation, the second Destroy likewise had its arm drones detached, and the beams fired from their fingers were already reaping a fearsome toll on Marcella's supporting squadrons. Precious Eurasian Federation Jet Windams were dropping like flies despite frantic evasive maneuvers from their pilots, and their losses were only exacerbated by Atlantic Federation units taking potshots at them from the flanks.

"It's fitting that I get to be the one that disposes of you," Nazara remarked as the energy blades of the Hyperion and Nosferatu clashed again, "Your team failed the task I gave you at the Dardanelles, and you failed again when the enemy came to you at Cagliari. Espada Team proved itself to be nothing more than a pair of overrated pilots!"

Alberto smirked as he fired off a burst with his submachinegun, not connecting but still forcing his foe to back off a bit. "Maybe… but what's that say about you, Colonel? If Espada Two and I really are just a pair of 'overrated pilots', then why haven't your forces been able to kill either of us yet?"

The Nosferatu charged forward with all guns blazing, reflecting the fury of its pilot. "Impudent cur! Enjoy what last laughs you can find today, for you and your lover will never return to your precious homeland. You will fall here, and the Russian snow will forever hide you from the glorious Spanish sun. Who knows? Maybe I'll have a force torch Madrid once we're done here! The city you love will follow you into Hell!"

End "Defence of Moscow"

….

He might have been a failure against the Gundams, thought Nazara as he opened up on Espada One with everything he had, but I suppose he's not completely without skill. If nothing else, he's proving to be a most irritating target.

On paper, it should've been no contest. Nazara could simply outlast and overwhelm his foes, firing practically all day and not having to worry about depleting his energy reserves thanks to the Nosferatu's nuclear reactor. The Hyperion, for all its innovations and sophistications, remained limited by its power source of more traditional batteries. Yet that disadvantage was not stopping Alberto from making a real fight of this engagement. He employed the unit's Lightwave barriers only when he absolutely could not evade fire from Nazara's various weapons, and the Spaniard was relentless in his attempts to keep the clash a close-quarters engagement rather than let himself get pinned down from afar by the Nosferatu. His skillful use of both the Hyperion's submachinegun and energy knife seemed more than sufficient to make up for the firepower gap, and Nazara would begrudgingly admit that, if his foe had possessed a nuclear-powered machine, the contest could very well have already been tipped in Espada One's favor.

Still, the Spaniard's skill was only enough to keep him in the game. Keeping his gun-drones spread out to maximize potential firing vectors, Nazara was having little trouble keeping Alberto away from the Destroy. Matters were similarly well in hand when it came to Marcella, for although Espada Two was making the Atlantic Federation Jet Windams pay dearly for their attempts to waylay her, they were still succeeding in keeping her from halting the advance of her own target. Both titans were marching on Moscow, and Nazara already had their first target in mind.

As a multitude of beams flew forth from the Destroys and ravaged the squads of mobile suits defending the city, a veritable swarm of rockets was unleashed by artillery positions further back in the metropolitan area. The heavy barrage was, of course, focused purely on the Destroys, and while the sheer weight of fire was impressive Nazara was not concerned in the least. It would take far more than conventional massed fire tactics to bring down the Atlantic Federation's titans.

Both Destroys raised their detached arm drones, each opening up with the assorted beam cannons and activating their positron reflector shields. The results were predictable; while some rockets were destroyed, the rest simply detonated harmlessly against the barriers. Apart from the smoke momentarily obscuring the vision of the pilots, the barrage had accomplished absolutely nothing.

As the Eurasians frantically and futilely aimed everything they had at the behemoths, Nazara gave the command. "Target the closest hospital. Show them the true meaning of despair."

19 was closer to the target than 21, and it was his guns that trained upon the hospital. Only the most severely wounded of patients would likely still be present at this point, but numbers didn't concern Nazara as much as simply spreading terror. He smirked as he saw 19 aim the Destroy's arm drones at the hospital, eagerly anticipating the destruction of the building and all its inhabitants…

…only for nothing to happen.

When not a single shot came forth from 19's unit, Nazara's smirk turned into a scowl. "19, what are you doing? Your target is right there. Take it out already!"

"I've pulled the trigger three times now, Colonel," 19 replied, "None of the guns will fire."

A chill went down Nazara's spine. "What do you mean, they won't fire?"

"Just that, Colonel," 19 answered, "Wait… something's happening with the unit's systems. It's acquiring a new target."

Nazara watched in gradually increasing horror as 19's Destroy turned away from the hospital…

…and towards 21's Destroy.

Realization clicked just a second too late for the Colonel as the guns of 19's Destroy opened fire on 21. 21 had at least reacted quickly enough so that her own arm drones had moved to intercept position, and 19's barrage was successfully blocked by her positron reflectors. The Colonel didn't bother asking what 19 was doing now; his mind had already leapt to the only logical conclusion.

Sabotage.

Mere seconds ago, the two behemoths were marching on Moscow's outskirts and ready to begin turning the metropolitan region into a sea of fire and death. Now, though, both Destroys were trading fire with each other while units from both sides scrambled for cover. Only the positron reflectors were keeping 19 and 21 from destroying each other outright, and Nazara didn't want to push their luck.

"Cease fire, both of you!" the Colonel shouted.

Over the cockpit speakers, he heard Alberto laughing. "Well now, talk about a reversal of fortune! What's the matter, Colonel? Lose control of your precious toys?"

"Shut up!" Nazara snarled as he cut loose with every gun the Nosferatu had, determined to swat the Spanish ace from the sky once and for all.

Skillful evasion combined with the Lightwave shield allowed Alberto to survive the onslaught, and a burst of return fire from his submachinegun actually took out one of the Nosferatu's two smaller hip-mounted gun-drones. That did nothing to help Nazara's blazing fury, nor did the fact that 19 and 21 were still opening up on each other.

"I told you both to cease fire!" Nazara screamed as he closed in with Alberto, his saber meeting the Spaniard's knife in a clash of light and sparks.

"But sir, 19 is clearly a threat," 21 replied with robotic stiffness, "He initiated this fight."

"My targeting systems list 21 as a priority target," 19 chimed in casually, as if he was discussing an unexpected and mildly irritating downpour, "My directive is to eliminate all targets."

"And I am overriding your directive!" Nazara roared as he and Espada One continued to trade blows, "Stand down at once, by order of your superior officer!"

Finally, the two titans stopped shooting at each other. It was the first demonstration in the field of one of the major flaws inherent in the Third Generation Extended; in seeking to turn them into little more than equipment, all initiative had been stripped away from them. Regular soldiers would've recognized something was wrong and stopped shooting at each other without a command from their superior officer. That was a bug that most certainly needed to be addressed, but a much more pressing concern at the moment was figuring out just how the targeting systems of 19's Destroy had been subverted in the first place.

The hangar crews and technicians were the obvious suspects, but that wasn't as narrow a pool as one might initially think. Units as large and complex as the Destroys required a small army of specially trained personnel to maintain and repair, with many of them having overlapping skillsets and responsibilities to cover for their teammates in the event of unforeseen incapacitation or worse. If it wasn't one of the obvious suspects, then the task of determining the culprit would be even more challenging.

That was a task that the Colonel would have to devote himself to later, though; a raging battlefield was not the best place to conduct a treason investigation, after all. Besides, there was still Espada One to contend with, and Alberto was not letting up in the slightest. As Nazara tried to pin him down with his gun-drones, the impudent Spaniard countered by destroying the second of the two smaller drones that had been fitted to the Nosferatu in place of the old linear guns. Gnashing his teeth in frustration, Nazara charged in, hammering away furiously with his beam saber, but Alberto was able to block every blow.

Espada One's insufferable laugh came over the radio. "Sloppy, Colonel! I could be completely shitfaced and still fend off these attacks."

Nazara ignored the man's taunts. "19, 21, initiate targeting systems diagnostics! Can you still acquire enemy units?"

"Testing now," 19 replied, and Nazara saw his Destroy take aim at a squad of Dagger-Ls that were trading fire with a trio of Grognards, "System is confirming target acquisition."

"Same here," 21 added, with her arm drones tracking a group of Jet Dagger-Ls, "No problems sighting in on hostile combat units."

Then the sabotage had only a very narrow focus, Nazara thought as he traded fire with Alberto, I suppose that's actually rather clever; a general rigging of the targeting systems would've been picked up much sooner. Subverting the program so it would only act up when being aimed at a specific target like a hospital is a much subtler approach, and one that could be buried in the system for a much longer period of time before being detected. Whoever our resident saboteur is, he's clearly no amateur. Still, the limited scope of his scheme cuts both ways.

"Then engage at will," Nazara ordered as his and Alberto's energy blades clashed once again, "Avoid targeting hospitals or any other large civilian structures as a precaution; focus your fire strictly on military units. The land battleships and second-line artillery will handle urban destruction."

"Understood," said 19.

"Copy that," 21 acknowledged.

Satisfied that the two Destroys would soon recommence their butchering of the Eurasian Federation military, Nazara almost missed the slight shimmering of the air down by the feet of 19's unit. His second glimpse came too late, for a crescent of emerald energy had appeared, and before the Colonel could warn 19, the Destroy's legs were cleaved at the knees. The massive machine fell on its side before tipping onto its back, perfectly exposing its cockpit for a swift follow-up strike from its invisible attacker. As the green energy blade sank into the Destroy's chest and 19's vitals blinked out on Nazara's screen, the Colonel's face paled as a familiar mechanical Grim Reaper appeared. There had been no warning from any of the scouts, but given the nature of this particular foe, that shouldn't have been surprising. Even so, Nazara could not suppress the shiver of dread that went down his spine.

The God of Death had arrived.

Which meant that the other Gundams were almost certainly already here as well…

…and he had no idea where they were about to strike.

….

That was way too damn close, thought Duo as he took to the sky, frantically zigzagging to evade enemy fire, I really lucked out there. If the Destroys hadn't started shooting at each other, there's no way I could've intervened before they began torching the city. Looks like this North American 'resistance' movement actually came in clutch…

As he cut down two Jet Windams with a wide swing, Duo glanced at the second Destroy. Sure enough, it was turning its guns on him, but before the machine could open fire a trio of violet beam sabers pierced its torso from the front, behind and above. As the energy blades withdrew and gouts of smoke and flame belched from the massive unit, the sources of the sabers revealed themselves in the form of the three Wraiths. Adaline, Lan and Priscilla had actually been given a tougher job than Duo; Deathscythe Omega's cloaking system could be utilized without compromising the Gundam's protection, but the three Wraiths were vulnerable while utilizing their Mirage Colloids. Thankfully, the shock at seeing both Destroys go up in flames mere seconds apart gave the girls the opportunity they needed to shift over from stealth to combat mode and activate their Phase Shift Armor.

Maneuvering into position for their opening strike while maintaining stealth had been quite tricky, especially in the middle of an active battlefield. The task had taken longer than Duo and the Valkyrie's subordinates initially anticipated, and it had been tempting to break cover and engage, if only to provide a diversion and take some of the heat off of Moscow. Heero's orders had been explicit, though; the two Destroys at the head of the assault were top priority targets and needed to be eliminated while maintaining the element of surprise for maximum effectiveness.

That objective had been accomplished, which meant that Duo and the girls were now engaged in their second task; wreak havoc and stay alive while the others got into position for their own strikes. For all four of them, that entailed tearing into whatever Atlantic Federation units were closest while working with the Eurasians to avoid being overwhelmed by the enemy's sheer numbers. Major Gardinier had passed along a series of Eurasian Federation military frequencies to aid in that endeavor, and it was one of those that Duo was keying up now.

I hope this works, he thought while slicing another Jet Windam in half, because if it doesn't, we're going to be taking fire from both sides.

Praying that Terminal's new Eurasian liaison hadn't screwed them over, Duo rolled the dice. "This is Duo in Gundam Deathscythe Omega to Eurasian Federation Moscow Command. Marshall Baranov, I trust I have your attention?"

There was a long moment of silence, punctuated by a series of nearby explosions as the trio of Wraiths put their beam rifles and railguns to good use, before a gruff male voice finally answered. "You do. Don't take this the wrong way, but I was expecting another to contact me."

Duo smirked as he deflected a beam saber strike from one of his foes before impaling their machine on his crescent blade. "Oh, don't worry; the one you really want is going to be making his entrance any moment now. I'm passing along our IFF signatures now, and I'm hoping you'll be so kind as to tag them as friendly for your forces. My friends and I would appreciate it if your soldiers kept shooting at the Atlantic Federation and didn't accidentally train their guns on us."

Marshall Baranov chuckled. "Given that you and your companions have already more than proven your worth by taking out the two most dangerous enemy units on the field, avoiding friendly fire is the least we can do."

"Much obliged," said Duo while evading enemy fire, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch, though. The enemy's pulled out all the stops for this one, and I wouldn't be surprised if they've got more of those big bastards waiting in the wings."

"A fair point," Marshall Baranov conceded, "We'll inform you if we spot any. I trust you'll extend us the same courtesy?"

Duo grinned as he ripped apart his next target. "Of course!"

"Then good hunting, Duo," the old Russian replied before dropping off the line.

"Not a bad start," Duo murmured before switching back to the tactical channel, "How are you fine ladies holding up?"

"Just getting warmed up!" Lan cheered as she blew apart two Jet Windams with one of her Wraith's beam rifles and railguns.

"Plenty of the bastards to go around," Adaline growled while letting fly with a volley of Lancer Dart Missiles which tore apart a squad of mobile suits, "Bloodthirsty sons of bitches…"

"The two land battleships we saw earlier are moving up!" Priscilla called out in between slicing up foes with her beam saber, "They'll have the suburbs within firing range soon."

"Don't worry about them," said Duo as he cut down another Jet Windam, "They're already spoken for."

"If the others are still on schedule," Adaline remarked as she popped off a salvo with her railguns and picked off another target, "In all this chaos, I'm surprised we were able to hit the Destroys on time."

"We nearly didn't," Lan reminded her while igniting both of her beam sabers and going to town on a group of mobile suits that had dared to close the range with her.

"We got lucky," Priscilla chimed in as she destroyed another machine with a well-placed particle beam, "Our new friends bought us the time we needed."

Duo nodded as he caught sight of a familiar black and red mobile suit moving towards him. "That they did. Now, if you'll excuse me, it looks like I've got a new dance partner!"

The Ronin's beam katana was already raised for a strike, and Duo swept his scythe around to meet the blow halfway and disrupt his new foe's momentum. Pushing the pole of his weapon forward, he bashed the Ronin's torso and sent the machine back just far enough so that he could reposition his blade.

"Rodrigues, I presume?" Duo called out to the mercenary, "Wufei's not with us right now, so I'm afraid you'll have to settle for me!"

A low chuckle came over the cockpit speakers. "He'll show up sooner or later. I think you and I both know that. A clash of this scale will draw him in like a moth to the flame. Your presence here is proof enough of that."

Duo shrugged as he made a wide horizontal swing, only for Rodrigues to gracefully deflect the blow. "Yeah, I'll give you that one. You know us well. I'll step aside when Wufei comes to claim your head, assuming you can last that long!"

The contract fighter laughed before charging in. "En garde!"

….

Alberto smirked as he weaved through a web of emerald particle beams. "You're getting sloppy, Colonel! What's the matter? Did your precious battle plan go off script again?"

There was no answer from his opponent beyond another salvo of beams, but it told Espada One all he needed to know. He didn't have to use his Lightwave shield to protect himself here; he easily slipped in between the beams without the slightest concern. His foe was angry, which meant that the Spaniard had an opening.

Alberto swiftly seized it. Gunning his engines, he thrust his beam knife forward. The Colonel was able to block the blow with his saber, but it was only that; a block, not a smooth deflection or fluid parry that would transition into a riposte. Alberto was able to follow up with several more stabs and slashes before his opponent finally counterattacked, and that consisted of just another volley of beams that were simple enough to evade. Even so, Nazara remained sharp enough to at least be able to protect himself, and Alberto could not land a serious blow.

Diving to avoid a curving scarlet lance of energy before returning fire with his beam submachinegun, Alberto reached out to Marcella. "Espada Two, you still in the fight?"

Laughter was her reply. "Do you really have to ask, mi amor?"

Stealing a quick glance her way, Alberto saw that she did indeed have things well in hand. No longer having to contend with the Destroy thanks to the Wraiths' surprise attack, she was tangling with the Jet Windams once again. Taking the brunt of their attention while her remaining backup provided supporting fire, she all but danced through the air. Bursts of emerald bolts flew forth from her beam submachinegun, clipping wings and wrecking the weapons of the Jet Windams that she didn't outright destroy, and she was no slouch with her knife either.

Clashing energy blades with Nazara again, Alberto heard his console chime. Briefly looking at his sensors, he saw that the God of Death and the three Wraiths were now showing up as green on the display; Moscow Command had designated them as friendlies. It was a small gesture, but one that filled Alberto with newfound determination. The reinforcements from the conventional Eurasian Federation military would still take time to properly deploy, but backup was coming in unexpected forms today. Alberto had seen the Gundams in action enough times by now to know that a single unit was equal to an entire wing of mobile suit squadrons, and he eagerly anticipated the arrival of the others.

Then a male voice came over the Eurasian Federation tactical channel. "All air units defending Moscow; drop altitude now."

A shiver went down Alberto's spine as he immediately followed the command; he'd never met the man that the voice belonged to, but he knew who it was. As his sensors pinged with fresh contacts, the sky lit up with brilliant golden-yellow light. Two rivers of energy blazed forth from the west, annihilating no less than two full squadrons of Atlantic Federation Jet Windams that had been caught completely by surprise.

Alberto grinned as he caught a glimpse of the mobile suit that had fired those shots in the distance, along with several others accompanying it. "It took you long enough…"

"… Heero Yuy!"

….

Start "Unyielding"

As Heero rejoined the two halves of the Twin Buster Rifle, another blast of yellow energy ripped across the sky. This time, the shot was from Dearka, and although it was only one beam rather than two the effect was still spectacular. Several more Atlantic Federation air units were wiped clean from the sky, and they were just getting warmed up.

"Break and engage," Heero ordered, "Shemei, link up with the Wraiths and help them shore up the defenses. Everyone else, focus on securing air superiority."

A chorus of acknowledgements came over the radio, and Terminal's lead strike force wasted no time in getting down to business. With the Atlantic Federation army's scouting and surveillance units, particularly the AWACS, suffering severe losses during the hit-and-run attacks that had taken place over the preceding days, the enemy's ability to detect incoming threats had been dramatically reduced. That was what had allowed Heero and the others to get the jump on the Atlantic Federation's formidable assault force despite the fact that the enemy had doubtlessly been expecting them to show up at some point in the fight. Indeed, Jet Windam squadrons were already redeploying to meet the strike force, and they were much more organized than the foes that Terminal had faced at Vienna. Even so, they were clearly scrambling, with much of their attention having previously been drawn towards Deathscythe Omega and the Wraiths making their presence known in spectacular fashion.

"I've got eyes on two land battleships," Kira reported as he took out the weapons and head sensors of four Jet Windams with a precise volley from the Freedom's artillery, "Marking them now!"

Sure enough, the two lumbering craft were highlighted on Heero's display a moment later, and he adjusted his course accordingly. "I'll take them out. Mind thinning out their defenders?"

"Already on it!" Yzak announced as he swooped in, felling two foes in rapid succession with his beam saber.

The former ZAFT Red was being supported by Trowa and Quatre, and they were already cutting a bloody swath across the sky. Trowa's opening volley of missiles alone decimated an entire squadron's worth of Jet Windams, and bursts of fire from his gatling guns along with salvos from Heavyarms Arsenal's Double Assault Beam cannon only added to the carnage. While the L3 native rained hell upon the enemy, Quatre closed the distance and attacked the survivors of Trowa's initially barrage. The Desert Prince carved into them mercilessly, with his twin Heat Shotels striking down two mobile suits before they even knew what had hit them while a third lost one of the wings on its Jet Striker Pack and began spinning towards the ground.

Igniting his beam saber after shifting the reunited Twin Buster Rifle to his Gundam's left hand, Heero accelerated straight into a horde of Jet Windams. The Atlantic Federation machines unloaded on him with everything they had, and the sky filled with particle beams. Weaving through the barrage and blocking what shots he couldn't dodge on his wing shields, Heero returned fire with his railguns and machine cannons. Slugs and shells tore into the enemy with lethal precision, and soon enough he was adding his beam saber to the mix. Parrying a slash from one machine before cutting it in half, he then whirled around and stabbed a second unit straight through the cockpit. A scarlet beam blew apart a unit that had been attempting to flank him, and a quick glance showed Heero the source; Shinn Asuka's Skygrasper, fitted out with the Launcher Pack and providing supporting fire from above.

"Good shooting," said Heero as he sliced up another foe.

"Thanks," Shinn replied, "You want me to stay up here?"

Heero shook his head while shredding a Jet Windam with his machine cannons. "Make your way towards the city and give supporting fire to the Valkyrie Team. Provide overwatch for them and engage targets of opportunity."

"Got it," Shinn acknowledged, "Watch your back."

"Same to you," said Heero.

As the Skygrasper raced towards Moscow from on high, Heero saw a streak of scarlet light doing the same at a lower altitude. Shemei was rushing to link up with her subordinates, and the Atlantic Federation units in her way swiftly found themselves on the wrong end of Epyon Revenant's Beam Sword and Heat Rod. Multiple machines fell to the demonic Gundam in rapid succession, and she was just getting warmed up.

Between her and the Wraiths, they should be able to buy the city's defenders some breathing room, Heero thought while picking off another target with his railguns, I hope Murrue and the battleships catch up soon, though. Major Gardinier's intel about the enemy's numbers wasn't an exaggeration. If anything, it was probably an undercount, though not a severe one.

As he drove his beam saber into the torso of another machine, Heero heard La Flaga's voice come over the radio. "Heero, I think we've got trouble!"

"What's up?" he asked as he checked his sensors for the Hawk of Endymion's position.

"Got eyes on an enemy formation coming up from the southwest," La Flaga replied as the Tallgeese Kai darted amongst the enemy air units, picking off one after another with lethal speed and precision, "One land battleship in the middle, and a Destroy's just deployed from it!"

It only took Heero a moment to find it on his sensors. "I see it. The forward two land battleships are almost close enough to commence bombardment of the urban areas; they need to be dealt with first. La Flaga, can you stall the third battleship's formation?"

"I can," La Flaga confirmed while stabbing a mobile suit in the back with his beam saber, "though it'll be a bit tricky to do with the Destroy in the mix as well. Can I get a bit of backup?"

"You can," said Heero as he shot down another target with his railguns, "Kira, divert towards La Flaga's position and give him some support. Do what you can to stall for time. If you can defang the battleship or the Destroy, so much the better."

"Copy that!" Kira acknowledged.

Heero would've asked Duo to join them, but he could see the God of Death still contending with the Ronin. Though he understood the value of keeping a pilot as skilled as Rodrigues contained, Deathscythe Omega's capabilities were wasted on dueling. There was a pilot much better suited to tangling with a foe like Jetstream Sam, and Heero was wondering when they would take the field.

I know he got my invitation for this party, Heero thought while turning a Jet Windam into Swiss cheese with his machine cannons, just like he got the message for the last one. Where is he?

He got his answer a few seconds later as a chime rang from his sensors. A new contact was on the field, and a cluster of Atlantic Federation artillery had just gone up in flames, quite literally. Although it was some distance away, Heero's altitude allowed him to spot two streams of orange and red fire, along with the secondary explosions triggered by them as rockets and missiles waiting to be fired at Moscow were instead detonated within their launchers. Two pinpricks of emerald light, quite close to each other, were also visible.

Heero grunted in approval while cutting down a new target with his beam saber. "Glad you could join us…"

"…Wufei."

….

His double-ended beam trident whirling like a tornado, Wufei plowed headlong into the Atlantic Federation army. Having begun his assault at one of the enemy's bombardment formations, he tore into a group of Doppelhorn Windams that had been shelling the defenders of Moscow. Righteous fury blazing in his soul, he cut down three machines before their compatriots could even attempt to turn their guns on him, and he wasn't about to stop there.

Unlike Heero and the others from Terminal, Wufei was operating without support. Moscow was beyond the effective range of almost any other mobile suit aboard the Minerva, and that was even after Talia had rushed the ship out of Gibraltar and moved as far east across the Mediterranean as she could over the past few days. Wufei didn't begrudge Talia the lack of backup; she'd made her frustration with the situation abundantly clear, and she'd at least attempted to compensate by directing Rey and the new squadron of GOUF Igniteds operating under his and Heine's leadership to launch air strikes of their own against other Atlantic Federation positions within Europe. They were hitting supply depots and forward bases that had been established in central and near-eastern Europe, making what efforts they could to hamper the enemy's logistical capabilities within the continent. Meanwhile, Athrun had been ordered to make his own series of hit and run strikes against the Atlantic Federation forces operating in northern France; the Saviour was ideally suited for such work, and it would keep the enemy guessing as to what ZAFT's next move might be. It wasn't much, but it was a damn sight more than what Durandal had authorized the rest of ZAFT to do, so Wufei would take what he could get.

All that meant Wufei had to make up for the lack of ZAFT backup with his own abilities and ferocity, and he was more than up to the challenge. A group of Aile Windams moved in to halt his savaging of their Doppelhorn equipped brethren, and Wufei met them with the kind of viciousness that only a fellow Gundam pilot could've withstood. His Dragon Fangs flew forward, crushing two of the machines as Wufei easily evaded the particle beams they shot at him. The other units ignited their beam sabers, but close-quarters-combat was firmly Wufei's domain, and he made them pay for their bravery with their lives. The double-ended beam trident gave him a considerable advantage in reach, one that Wufei exploited ruthlessly.

A quick jab caught one Aile Windam in the torso, and as that unit exploded Wufei whirled the weapon around to cut down a second machine that had been attempting to flank him from the left. Sweeping the weapon to the right as his previous victim erupted into a fireball, Wufei caught the beam saber strike of a third machine between the prongs of the trident. He then twirled the weapon around, dislodging the beam sword and brining the trident on the back end forward to drive into his victim's cockpit.

"Where do you think you're going?" he growled as he saw the surviving Doppelhorn Windams making a break for it.

Wufei wouldn't normally chase down retreating foes, but these machines had the potential to reposition and begin bombarding Moscow again, and he refused to give them that opportunity. Gunning his thrusters, he fell upon them like a vengeful demon. The beam trident whirled once again, while what few shells the enemy was able to snap off at him either flew wide or simply glanced clean off Nataku's Gundanium alloy frame. One after another fell before his onslaught, and he left no survivors.

With one formation decimated, Wufei advanced again. His plan was as straightforward as ever; carve a path of carnage and death right up to the front of the enemy army, wreaking utter havoc in the process. With any luck, not only would it force the Atlantic Federation to divert forces away from attacking Moscow in order to contain him, but it would also draw the attention of a certain dog of war.

One that Wufei intended to put down once and for.

Ripping through the Atlantic Federation grunts like an emerald buzzsaw, Wufei scanned the battlefield for his real target. It didn't take long to find him. Sure enough, there he was, at the head of the Atlantic Federation army and taking the fight to none other than Deathscythe Omega. As much as he had come to despise the man's amorality, Wufei would give credit where it was due; the mercenary was at least taking on a foe that could fight back rather than attempt to drag civilians into the carnage.

That's your only grace, Wufei thought as he plowed across the battlefield, mowing down any enemy unlucky enough to be in his path, and it won't be enough to save you today…

…Rodrigues.

End 'Unyielding'

….

Large battles had quickly become a common occurrence for Shinn ever since the surprise attack on Armory One, but the clash unfolding on Moscow's doorstep felt like it was on a whole new level. Here he was, taking the Skygrasper through a wild series of evasive maneuvers as two armies clashed below and his new comrades wrought bloody chaos with their arrival. Despite the shakeup caused by the arrival of Terminal's forward strike group, the Atlantic Federation and Eurasian Federation forces continued to slug it out with unrelenting ferocity. Massed salvoes of rockets and shells flew back and forth, anti-air tracer rounds and missiles filled the air, and there were so many contacts on Shinn's scopes he was honestly amazed that the Skygrasper's modest sensors hadn't overloaded from trying to track them all. This felt less like an engagement from the Second Bloody Valentine War and more like one of the titanic clashes that had taken place on the Eastern Front of the Second World War way back when Earth had used the old A.D. calendar system.

I guess it's fitting, Shinn mused as he let fly with a blast from the Launcher Pack's Agni and blew apart a Doppelhorn Windam, since it's taking place at the same city that the Nazis tried to conquer back then. I just hope that we're able to repeat history here today and drive their reincarnations back.

Even with Terminal's lead strike team now in the fray, the battle was still anyone's game. Moscow's defenders had been given some invaluable breathing room, and the Eurasians even appeared to have gained their second wind, but the Atlantic Federation army continued to press hard. Mobile suits traded volleys both in the sky and on the ground while obsolete fighter jets twisted and twirled in a crazy dance while trying to line up missile locks or go at it old-school with their guns. Shinn could even spot traditional tanks shoring up the Eurasian Federation's perimeter, blasting away with determination and zeal matching that of any mobile suit.

In the midst of this blazing man-made storm, it was difficult for Shinn to figure out just where he could put his aircraft and talents to the best use. Yes, Heero had told him to support the Valkyrie Team, but they didn't really look like they needed his help at the moment. Having linked up with her subordinates, Shemei was tearing into the Atlantic Federation front line with her customary daredevil speed and ferocity. With Adaline, Lan and Priscilla backing her up, the former ZAFT ace and her comrades were wreaking bloody havoc, practically surrounding themselves with fire and death. While Shinn was sure that they'd welcome his support, it was hard to see how he could enhance their already lethally-effective counteroffensive.

Well, Heero did say to provide overwatch for them, he reminded himself as he scanned the battlefield, so let's see if I can find a threat that they've missed.

Maintaining evasive maneuvers to throw off any opportunistic target locks, Shinn spent the next minute or so sweeping back and forth while occasionally picking off an enemy mobile suit or fighter. As he did so, he began to notice a disturbing development. While the Valkyrie Team were doing more than enough to prevent enemy units from getting directly past them and taking shots at the city, Epyon Revenant and the three Wraiths could only cover so much ground. Shinn's eyes widened in alarm as he spotted formations of Aile and Doppelhorn Windams working their way around from the north, with a group of the new Grognard assault mobile suits forming a potent spearhead. They were already clashing with Moscow's defenders, and they weren't pulling any punches.

Angling the Skygrasper in that direction, Shinn made adjustments to his radio in an attempt to tune into the Eurasian's frequencies; the enhanced reflexes and mental acuity that came with being a Coordinator were great for multitasking in an environment as chaotic as a raging battlefield. He fixed his gaze upon a group of Eurasian Federation Dagger-Ls, supported by tanks and artillery, engaged in a frantic effort to prevent a breakthrough.

With some effort, he was able to isolate the Eurasian formation's tactical frequency, and a male voice lathered in a thick Russian accent came over the cockpit speakers. "This is Captain Alexei Kutuzov of Oplot Team to any nearby friendly units requesting immediate support! We've got an enemy mobile suit formation bearing down on our position. Reinforcements desperately needed; we won't be able to hold them back!"

Taking one last look at the Valkyrie Team to make sure that they didn't require his immediate aid, Shinn poured on the thrust and raced towards them. He sighted in on the lead Grognard, and he saw that the Atlantic Federation units were all focused on hammering the Eurasians; none of them had even bothered to turn his way. Shinn would at least be able to pop off the first shot unopposed, and he had to make it count.

When he got within range, he opened up. A lance of crimson energy flew forth from the Launcher Pack's main weapon, and the shot was on target. The lead Grognard's top half practically melted away as it took a direct hit from the beam, and the rest of the unit crumpled to the ground. Immediately altering his approach angle, Shinn followed up his opening shot with volleys of bullets and missiles from the Combo Weapons Pod's Vulcan and gun launchers, tearing into another Grognard and one of the Aile Windams. He was forced to break off as a hail of particle beams flew at him, but Shinn took comfort in knowing that he'd momentarily taken some of the pressure off of the Eurasians.

Engaging in a series of frantic twists and turns to evade incoming fire while lining up for another attack run, Shinn reached out to the Eurasians. "Oplot Team, this is Shinn. Afraid you'll have to make do with just me as backup for now."

"We'll take whatever help we can get," Alexei replied, "Nice shooting. Can you give us some more of that?"

"Working on it," Shinn grunted as a particularly sharp bank to the right damn near knocked the wind out of him, "but you'll have to pull your weight, too."

The Russian actually chuckled at that. "Don't worry. It's not like we can retreat."

Initiating his next run, Shinn once again opened fire with the Agni. At the same time as his shot plastered an Aile Windam, the Eurasians unleashed a hail of particle beams and shells. Shinn caught sight of a particularly ballsy Dagger-L at the head of Oplot Team, closing to point-blank-range with one of the Grognards while tanking rounds from the enemy unit's autocannons on its shields. The Dagger-L then lunged forward, bashing the Grognard with its shield before following up with a beam saber strike that cut the black and gold machine in half.

"Captain, you need to pull back!" came another male voice over the radio, "You're about to get flanked!"

Shinn saw the threat; two Aile Windams were moving in on the Dagger-L from the left. Rolling the Skygrasper and drawing a bead on them, Shinn opened up with the fighter's beam turret and medium caliber cannons. His shots took out one of the Aile Windams while causing the other to break off. A volley of particle beams from two Eurasian Dagger-Ls took out the other unit while Alexei pulled back, firing as he went.

"Thanks for the save, Mister Shinn," the Russian called out.

Shinn smiled. "Don't mention it. Maybe hang back with the rest of your team and engage from cover? Can't guarantee I'll be able to save your ass twice in a row."

"Fine," Alexei grunted as he popped off another volley of particle beams, "Got plenty of shelled buildings here to make use of anyway."

Tilting his fighter while making a broad arc, Shinn let fly with the Vulcan and gun launchers again. His shots weren't aimed at any specific target, but were instead intended to break up the enemy formation further and hinder their advance. From the way the mobile suits below scattered and frantically returned fire, it was definitely doing the trick. More importantly, it gave the Eurasians an opening to cut loose with a concentrated barrage of particle beams and shells, blasting the enemy mobile suits to pieces and grinding their assault to a halt.

I used to think that I was above this sort of support work, Shinn mused, I always charged right into the thick of the action with the Impulse. Maybe that's why Heero wanted me to fly the Skygrasper; to help open my eyes to the bigger picture on the battlefield, to understand that winning a fight involves more than just destroying as many enemy units as possible.

For the moment, it was what he was best equipped to do, and he wasn't about to let up now.

….

Having grown used to dueling Wufei, Rodrigues found going up against Duo to be a rather unique challenge. Deathscythe Omega might not have been designed for fast paced one-on-one duels, but the pilot at its controls wasn't letting that stop him from putting on one hell of a show. The Gundam's signature weapon definitely beat the Ronin's beam katana when it came to reach, and even when Rodrigues got close enough to where his sword should've been the better weapon his adversary still found ways to beat him back before going on the offensive again. Broad sweeps and lunging swings characterized the bulk of Duo's offensive moves, while whenever Rodrigues moved in, he would either slam his thrusters in reverse to keep the range or use the back end of his scythe to batter the Ronin and throw the mercenary off balance while the Gundam pilot repositioned himself.

Gaining altitude, Rodrigues attempted to shake things up by coming at his opponent from above, but Duo simply move to meet him halfway. Disrupting the mercenary's downward strike with an upward swing that caught his sword and redirected the blow, Duo then swung the handle of the scythe around and smacked the Ronin in the right side. The impact knocked Rodrigues off course, and only skillful manipulation of the Ronin's maneuvering thrusters allowed him to right his machine in time to block the follow-up strike from Deathscythe Omega's signature weapon.

"You know, I can see why Wufei always goes for you," the Gundam pilot's voice remarked over the Ronin's cockpit speakers, "You might be a tool, but you've at least got the moves."

Rodrigues ruefully chuckled as he pulled back to avoid a broad swing, with the emerald crescent of Duo's blade actually grazing his chest plating and leaving a shallow furrow along the Ronin's torso, disrupting the Phase Shift Armor on that part of the unit in the process. "How flattering."

"It's the only compliment you'll get today," Duo replied as he smoothly spun the scythe around and made a follow-up swing going the opposite direction as the previous strike, one that Rodrigues was only barely able to deflect, "Still taking payment from the bastards trying to torch half of Europe? Not a good look in our eyes."

The mercenary smirked as he lunged forward to counterattack, only for the Gundam pilot to evade to the right before making another wide swing that forced Rodrigues back onto the defensive. "I'd be worried if it was."

As the contract fighter blocked Duo's next strike, his sensors beeped. Glancing at the display, he saw that a familiar contact was closing in fast, and the Atlantic Federation blips between it and Rodrigues were winking out at a rapid rate.

Right on cue, Duo backed off. "He's all yours, Wufei."

"Appreciated," the voice that Rodrigues had been hoping to hear since the start of this battle growled over the radio.

While Deathscythe Omega raced off to begin tearing into the nearest Jet Windam squadron, Rodrigues reoriented himself to meet the oncoming warrior. Raising his beam katana, he grinned a devilish grin.

"Show me a good time, Chang Wufei!" he called out.

He charged forward to meet Altron Custom's advance, and the duel he'd been waiting for finally kicked off.

….

While Wufei was slightly irked that Duo had scored first blood on the Ronin, the damage to the black and red mobile suit was by and large superficial. The machine was still very much firing on all cylinders, as was aptly demonstrated by the swiftness with which Rodrigues met Wufei's charge. The Ronin still possessed its signature weapon and the full range of motion required to wield it effectively, and Wufei knew that his foe only required that.

You debase yourself by serving the likes of the Atlantic Federation, Rodrigues, Wufei thought as beam trident and katana clashed amidst whirling flurries of snow kicked up by the action, but you've at least got the talent worthy of a warrior. Too bad that you've fallen from grace. First Berlin, now Moscow… still going along with your masters' insatiable bloodlust.

It ends today.

He went on the offensive, driving Rodrigues back with a series of wide slashes punctuated by sudden thrusts. The mercenary's defenses were as tight as ever, though, with none of Wufei's attacks slipping by Jetstream Sam's seamless blocks and deflections. Soon enough, the contract fighter began countering, parrying Wufei's attacks before responding with strikes that switched between high and low in an effort to put the Gundam pilot off balance. Fortunately for Wufei, the double-ended beam trident was the perfect weapon for defending against that kind of an offensive, with the L5 native only having to make minor adjustments to the polearm's angle in order to fend off his opponent's strikes.

After a few minutes of back and forth, Wufei decided to change things up. Catching the beam katana between the prongs of his trident, he then twisted the weapon in an attempt to disarm Rodrigues. The wily dog of war didn't play along, though, and instead quickly withdrew his sword before the force of Wufei's move became too great. Then Rodrigues lunged forward, putting Wufei firmly on the defensive and going at the Gundam pilot with a fearsome barrage of blows.

"A fitting stage, don't you think?" came the mercenary's voice over the radio amidst a flurry of slashes and stabs.

"As good of one as any," Wufei grunted, not feeling particularly in the mood for witty banter today.

Rodrigues wouldn't let him off so easy, though. "Come, now; is that all you have to say? I thought this little rivalry of ours merited a bit more spirit."

"I'll let my actions do the talking," Wufei replied as he whirled his weapon, deflecting a horizontal slash from the mercenary before countering by letting fly with Nataku's left Dragon Fang.

"Fine by me," said Rodrigues as he smoothly evaded to the right before charging in for another round, sword flashing through the air, "We both know where we stand by now in any case."

That much was certainly true. Wufei knew why Rodrigues was fighting, and the dog of war knew the same for him. Further words would simply be a waste of air.

Only their skills and weapons mattered now.

….

"Any bright ideas, Kira?" asked La Flaga as he blocked particle beam fire on the Tallgeese Kai's Planet Defensors.

"I'm working on it!" Kira tersely replied while evading a veritable storm of energy unleashed by the Destroy.

He opened fire a moment later, though not at the Destroy. Instead, the Freedom's formidable array of artillery unleashed hell on the Jet Windams providing aerial overwatch for the land battleship, destroying their beam rifles and knocking out the engines of their Striker Packs. The mobile fortress and the hulking monstrosity that had deployed from it would be marginally easier to contend with if the small fries could be removed from the equation first.

As Kira focused on clearing the skies, he saw the Hawk of Endymion take the fight to both the land battleship and the Destroy. Peppering the latter with beam rifle fire just to keep its focus on him rather than Moscow, he made multiple passes over the latter as he attempted to whittle down its defenses with his saber. The Hannibal-class's design actually aided La Flaga's efforts, for the four raised dual beam cannons on their high mountings presented easy targets. One pass allowed him to sheer off the front starboard cannon while anti-air tracer rounds futilely chased him, while a simple flip allowed him to reorient his mobile suit and immediately initiate a second attack run that resulted in his violet blade slicing through the front portside weapon and likewise silencing it.

About to lock in on another series of targets, Kira was forced to break off when he saw the Destroy's two arm-drones take aim at him. Even with the Freedom's impressive speed and maneuverability he wasn't able to completely evade the web of emerald beams unleashed by the drones and had to tank some of the shots on his shield. Although La Flaga had started sniping at the Destroy again, the machine's pilot had clearly decided that Kira was the greater threat and was focusing its efforts against him.

That, Kira realized, was just what they needed. "La Flaga, I'll draw the Destroy's fire! Take out the arm drones when you get an opening."

"You got it!" La Flaga acknowledged as he gained altitude and picked off a Jet Windam.

Taking the Destroy head-on, Kira opened up with every gun the Freedom had. As expected, the shots were all blocked by the positron reflector mounted on the left arm drone, and both drones returned fire accordingly. The particle beams were supplemented by a barrage of crimson energy from the machine's chest cannons, and Kira was practically white-knuckling the Freedom's controls as he frantically weaved through the barrage. Some of the nearby Jet Windams joined in, encircling Kira and making life quite difficult for him.

"Hurry up, Mu," Kira muttered under his breath as he zigzagged through the sky, "I'm running out of breathing room here."

As if Kira's words had summoned him, the Hawk of Endymion picked that exact moment to dive into the fray. Gunning the Tallgeese Kai's engines, he swooped down and impaled the Destroy's left arm drone from above before immediately regaining altitude. Several of the Jet Windams gave chase, but in doing so they exposed themselves to Kira, and he immediately snapped off a salvo that blew out the engines of their Striker Packs and sent them spiraling towards the ground.

The Destroy's pilot apparently took exception to their allies being so easily taken down, for they opened up on Kira with everything they had. Missiles from the launcher on the disk-shaped 'backpack' joined the particle beams and crimson energy lances that flew at Kira, with the young Coordinator eliminating as many of the warheads as he could with both the Freedom's CIWS and its more powerful weapons while desperately evading the rest of the barrage. The Destroy was joined in its efforts by the land battleship, whose two remaining dual beam cannons were doing their best to track an agile target that the heavy weapons had not been designed to engage. Despite their cumbersome traverse and relatively slow rate of fire, they still represented a significant threat; they only had to get in one lucky shot to either severely damage or outright destroy the Freedom, after all.

Firing off a diversionary salvo at the Destroy, Kira then raced towards the land battleship. Beam saber ignited, he drove the violet blade into the portside rear turret of the behemoth. Gouts of fire and smoke belched from gash in the weapon's emplacement, and as Kira pulled back the turret attempted to fire off a parting shot. The damage inflicted upon the emplacement was too great, though, and the turret burst open like overripe fruit.

Returning his focus to the Destroy, Kira peppered them with scattered shots that were more meant to keep the enemy pilot on the defensive rather than cause meaningful damage. They had their intended effect, with the titan focusing on keeping its remaining arm drone between it and the Freedom, its positron reflector tanking everything Kira threw at it. That, of course, left it exposed to attacks from other angles, and the Tallgeese Kai charged in from the left to strike the drone down with its beam saber a moment later.

They really shouldn't be using these things as solo combatants, Kira mused as he popped off a salvo at a group of incoming Jet Windams, taking out their beam rifles and cranial sensors, Even with all their different weapons, they're still vulnerable to flanking attacks from more agile units. Operating in pairs like the two at the head of the assault makes them much more dangerous.

While the land battleship behind it attempted to provide what supporting fire it could with its anti-air guns and remaining beam turret, Kira and La Flaga concentrated on putting down the Destroy for good. With both of its arm drones destroyed, the machine's pilot had clearly decided that its mobile suit form now offered only limited utility, and the mechanical monstrosity was already shifting back to its assault form. Had it been operating with another of its kind, it would've been granted the covering fire required to make the transformation in relative safety, but it had no such luxury here. True, the multitude of cannons rimming the backpack were opening up, but their arcs of fire were quite predictable despite how many of the individual weapons there were. Coming in from the front while La Flaga charged the machine's rear, Kira and his friend wasted no time in administering the coup de grace. The Freedom's beam saber cut into the titan's legs above the knees, while the Tallgeese Kai sank its own energy blade into the rear of the unit's torso. A final salvo of beams flew forth from the cannons rimming the disk, but they proved to be little more than a slightly hazardous lightshow as Kira and La Flaga swiftly disengaged and the Destroy was torn apart by a series of explosions.

Some distance off, the sky was briefly illuminated by a brilliant yellow light, which was followed by a thunderous detonation that came so closely following the destruction of the Destroy that Kira momentarily thought it was merely an echo. A quick glance at his sensors told him otherwise; one of the two land battleships that the lead pair of Destroys had deployed from had just disappeared from the display, and Wing Zero Albion had fired the killing shot. Confident that the second land battleship would fall soon, Kira turned his attention to the third, which was still firing with every gun it had left in a desperate effort to take either the Freedom or Tallgeese Kai down before it was inevitably destroyed.

As La Flaga renewed his focus on clearing out local enemy air units, Kira decided to complete the defanging of the land battleship. Starting with the sole remaining beam turret, a swift attack run and slash with his saber proved more than sufficient to neutralize the hulking craft's last bit of heavy artillery. From there, Kira turned his focus to the craft's various anti-air guns. A shot from his rifle took out the large dual cannon mounted atop the bridge tower, and follow-up barrages from his railguns and plasma cannons destroyed several of the smaller machine cannons that dotted the land battleship. It was only then that thick streams of dark grey clouds began to spew forth from various points of the craft; the land battleship's captain had finally decided to activate its smoke dispensers.

A grimy haze started to envelop the vessel, and it slowly began to turn away from Moscow. It still had a few of its smaller anti-air guns left, but in Kira's eyes the land battleship no longer posed a serious threat. Turning his attention to the Jet Windams La Flaga was tangling with, Kira added his own fire to the mix, knocking out weapons and sensors with pinpoint accuracy. The Battle of Moscow was still far from over, but they'd managed to repel one of the major threats to the city, and Kira would take what wins he could get.

….

With the land battleship and Destroy he'd been keeping back as an ace in the hole now thoroughly wrecked by the Freedom and Tallgeese Kai, Colonel Nazara had to consider his options. That wasn't exactly easy to do given that he was in the process of taking on both members of Espada Team now. While Alberto continued to attack Nazara from head on, Marcella had become a considerable thorn in the Colonel's side, constantly taking potshots from the flanks. With both Spaniards determined to keep him occupied, Nazara couldn't put the Nosferatu to use against Heero Yuy or any of his allies, which had been part of his plan for this battle.

That certainly wasn't happening now. Espada One and Two were putting everything they had into keeping him out of the equation, no matter how much he tried to break off. The Colonel could call for support, but right now the Atlantic Federation army needed every spare mobile suit at its disposal to deal with the new arrivals, not to mention the Eurasian Federation reinforcements making their way to the front line.

As if the situation hadn't deteriorated badly enough, Nazara saw another flash of yellow light in the distance. The second of the two leading land battleships in his force vanished from the display, and the culprit was the same damnable machine as had taken out its compatriot; Wing Zero. Nazara drew little comfort from the fact that Heero Yuy was now being swarmed by a hornet's nest worth of Jet Windams in retaliation for his latest kill. He'd already dealt a heavy blow to the assault force, and he most certainly wasn't done yet.

No choice, he thought as he evaded fire from the two Hyperions before spraying them with shots from the Nosferatu's remaining gun drones, I have to call in the reserves.

Thanks to the raids of the past few days, said reserves were no longer at full strength, but they still might just be enough to swing the tide of battle back in his favor. He wasted no time in sending out the pre-designated signal before crossing energy blades with Espada One yet again.

This battle was still anyone's game.

….

"How are we looking?" asked Quatre as he sliced a Jet Windam in half.

"You really have to ask?" Trowa remarked while obliterating an incoming squadron with a hail of shells and missiles.

Quatre chuckled before whirling around to cut down another foe. "No, I guess not."

The answer, though Trowa hadn't said as much, was simple; same as always. For a Gundam pilot, that meant up to their necks in enemies and having not a damn clue whether or not they were actually winning.

Could be better, could be worse, Quatre mused as he saw Dearka blast apart an enemy formation while Yzak protected him from incoming fire with the Mercurius Kai's Planet Defensors, I guess that's the story of our lives when you get right down to it.

Massive battles were nothing new for him or any of his comrades, but it had been a while since Quatre had thrown himself into the middle of a pitched fight between two large armies like this. For all the damage that Terminal's strike group had wrought in such a short amount of time, the overall situation had devolved into a bloody deadlock. The Atlantic and Eurasian Federation forces were beating each other to a damn pulp at the edge of Moscow, an ugly slugging match without so much as a hint of cleverness or subtlety. Mobile suits, artillery and even tanks in the case of the Eurasians continued to let fly with everything they had, as much out of spite as determination at this point in the battle.

For their part, Quatre and Trowa had teamed up with Yzak and Dearka to carve out a pocket within the ranks of the Atlantic Federation army, and they were ripping apart any enemy that strayed within range. It was actually an ideal setup; Sandrock Saladin and Mercurius Kai handled any units that tried to close in for melee combat, while Heavyarms Arsenal and Vayeate Kai continued to lay down heavy suppressing fire. True, there were ammo concerns on Trowa's part, and Quatre had noticed that the L3 native was starting to rely more on Heavyarms Arsenal's Double Assault Beam Cannon the longer the fighting went on, but his friend hadn't voiced any hints of concern just yet. Yellow blasts ripped forth from Dearka's main weapon at regular intervals, carving swaths of destruction through the Atlantic Federation formations with each shot. Of the two close-combat fighters, Yzak was playing a more defensive role, utilizing his machine's shield drones to cover Dearka and Trowa when necessary while darting out for quite strikes with his saber before pulling back to resume his vigil. That left Quatre as the point man, a position that suited Sandrock Saladin well.

His twin Heat Shotels were definitely earning their keep today, cutting down target after target with unrelenting brutality. The enemy was showing no signs of backing down despite their already considerable losses, and Quatre knew that only upping the body count to the point that casualties bordered on catastrophic would be the only way to force a retreat. That the Atlantic Federation was continuing its assault in the face of such fierce resistance spoke to the nature of the troops that had been marshalled for this offensive. These weren't your average grunts; they were dedicated to the campaign of annihilation that had been unleashed upon Europe.

Probably a good chunk of Blue Cosmos diehards among them, Quatre thought as he sliced one Jet Windam in half before impaling another right through the cockpit, or at least a bunch of major sympathizers. If nothing else, the losses we inflict upon them today should help cut out some of the rot that's infected the Atlantic Federation.

Some, perhaps, but Quatre knew it wouldn't be enough to bring an end to the war. It was hard to say what could at this point. Then again, it wasn't a good idea to get caught up in the big-picture stuff at the moment. Distracting himself with that would be a good way to end up dead, and Quatre wasn't ready to plant his gravestone in Russia.

"I think we've got trouble on the horizon," said Dearka after a blast that practically melted a trio of mobile suits, "I've got heavy transport jets on my scopes coming in from the northwest."

"Shit!" hissed Yzak as he cut down another Jet Windam with his saber, "I thought our raids had dealt with the enemy's reserves for this operation!"

"We took out what we could," Trowa replied as he shredded a target with his gatlings, "but with the size of the force that the enemy was assembling for this operation, we were never going to be able to take out all the reserve formations."

"Our allies' intel might've been incomplete," Quatre remarked while slicing the wings off of a Jet Windam before finishing it off with a slash through the torso, "or the enemy rushed over some additional formations that got missed in all the chaos overtaking Europe. We won't know more until the debriefing."

"Assuming we last that long," Dearka muttered as another shot from the Vayeate Kai's heavy main weapon obliterated two more machines, "What's our play?"

It was a good question, and one that Quatre didn't have a ready answer for. While the four of them had managed to keep the enemy air squadrons occupied long enough for Heero to take out both land battleships from which the two lead Destroys had deployed from, the new units that would soon be dropping from the transport jets likely had the numbers to undo all that hard work. It wasn't as though any of Terminal's assets could rapidly redeploy, either; everyone had their own problems to deal with.

Casting a glance towards the city's perimeter, Quatre caught sight of the Valkyrie Team, along with Duo, practically up to their necks in the enemy's foremost assault units. With the Eurasians providing supporting fire, the Epyon Revenant and trio of Wraiths were holding their own for the time being, but they had also become pretty much the anchor of that portion of Moscow's defensive line. Shemei and Duo were on point, of course, carving into enemy ground and air units alike with unmatched ferocity. The Valkyrie's beam sword and Heat Rod lashed out repeatedly, eviscerating mobile suits like they made of little more than tissue paper. As for Duo, he was on a roll of his own, cutting down entire fireteams worth of mobile suits with each broad swing of Deathscythe Omega's signature weapon. Protecting their flanks, the three Wraiths were pouring out particle beams and railgun slugs so rapidly that Quatre feared they might actually exhaust their ammo for the latter and overheat the former. He trusted that the girls all knew what they were doing, but he couldn't keep himself from worrying, especially about Lan.

Trust her to take care of herself, Quatre silently admonished himself as he blocked a beam saber strike from another foe before retaliating by cutting the offending mobile suit in half, Lan's got her friends backing her up, and she's got another world war already under her belt, just like you. She knows what she's doing.

He recalled that Shinn was supposed to be backing up the Valkyrie Team, but Quatre didn't immediately see him. The Gundam pilot had to look around a bit to find the ZAFT defector. After a few seconds, he spotted the blue and white Skygrasper providing supporting fire to a separate section of Moscow's defensive line. His position wasn't too far from the Valkyrie Team, so Quatre supposed that he wasn't in violation of the orders Heero had given him, and from where he was, he could easily shift focus to backing up Shemei and the others should the need arise. Occasional blasts of crimson energy would spew forth from the Agni Hyper Impulse Cannon slung beneath the fighter jet's left wing, though he seemed to be relying more upon the Combo Weapons Pod and the Skygrasper's own weapons. Despite the handicap that came with using a more traditional aircraft in a battle filled with mobile suits, Shinn was more than making himself useful. The regular strafing runs he made against oncoming Atlantic Federation mobile suit teams below helped break up the repeated assaults and gave the Eurasians he was backing up the openings they needed to hit the enemy with the concentrated fire that was needed to consistently drive them back. Quatre had to give the young man credit; he was acquitting himself well despite his lack of a mobile suit.

Even with all the skill Shinn was demonstrating in wielding the Skygrasper, though, the boy would likely find it difficult to disengage from his current task. Quatre hoped that perhaps Heero could do so instead, and it did seem like the L1 native was trying to do just that. A massive torrent of golden-yellow hellfire ripped forth from Wing Zero Albion's Twin Buster Rifle, destroying seven Jet Windams as Heero attempted to blast a path through the enemy air squadrons and towards the incoming transports. However, the Atlantic Federation had learned from the previous battles, and they were throwing whatever units they could spare into Heero's path for the purpose of slowing his progress. So many mobile suits were opening fire on Wing Zero Albion that the Gundam was spending more time undertaking dizzying evasive maneuvers than it was actually taking the fight to the enemy. Heero had yet to call for assistance, but it was clear to Quatre that his friend wasn't going to be able to intercept the enemy's reinforcements before they started deploying.

There was only one hope that Quatre could see; Kira and La Flaga. The Freedom and Tallgeese Kai were quite some distance away from the incoming transport jets, yes, but they were both more than fast enough to make up for that. More importantly, the enemy wasn't treating them as nearly a dire threat as they were Heero. Yes, the two of them had plenty of enemy units to deal with in their current part of the battlefield, but the forces arrayed against them weren't nearly as concentrated or determined in their efforts to bring down the two Terminal pilots as they were against the Demon Lord of Avalon.

So, as Quatre continued the bloody business of ripping apart every Atlantic Federation mobile suit he could sink his Heat Shotels into, he contacted the two pilots. "Kira, La Flaga; you need to redeploy to the northwest. We've got enemy reinforcements inbound, and they'll be making air drops any moment now!"

"I see them," Kira acknowledged as the Freedom cut the head off of one mobile suit while destroying the weapons of another with precise fire from its own formidable arsenal, "We'll do what we can to slow them down. La Flaga!"

"Already on it, kid!" the Hawk of Endymion replied, the Tallgeese Kai's engines flaring with blue-white fire as the ex-Alliance ace slammed down the throttle.

Quatre searched frantically for Wufei, hoping that the L5 native might be able to join them; the powerful boosters installed on Altron Custom by Howard made the Gundam an ideal high-speed interception unit. His hopes fell when he found Wufei once again locked in a duel with a familiar foe; Jetstream Sam's Ronin. The warrior and the mercenary were duking it out practically on Moscow's doorstep, whirling double-ended beam trident and swift beam katana rapidly and repeatedly meeting each other in a series of blows that by rights should've been too fast for any mobile suit to pull off.

Wufei's really going all out here, Quatre thought as he saw one of the Dragon Fangs crash against the Ronin's chest and throw the mobile suit backwards, only for the black and red machine to fling itself right back into the fray without a moment's hesitation, and so is Rodrigues by the look of things. I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Quatre wished his friend well, though he lamented that Wufei keeping Rodrigues tied up meant that the L5 native couldn't lend his support against the incoming aerial reinforcements. Ripping apart two more Atlantic Federation mobile suits with his Heat Shotels, Quatre silently wished Kira and La Flaga good luck.

They were going to need it.

….

Even as he and Kira raced towards the transport jets, blasting any hostile mobile suit that got in their way, La Flaga knew the truth; the air drops would begin well before the Tallgeese Kai and the Freedom could get into position for interception. The best that La Flaga and Kira could do here would be to attack the mobile suits as they came down, disrupting their formations and nailing as many as they could before they got properly organized.

Still can't believe they can mass this many transports and suits for their reserves, he thought while cutting a Jet Windam in half with his beam saber, even after our raids… they really want Moscow torched.

The idea that he'd once served the nation that now sought to inflict such carnage upon its former ally sickened him. La Flaga was glad that he'd jumped ship when he had; he couldn't imagine just how much the Atlantic Federation armed forces had devolved from the inside over the course of the past two years. Did all the troops taking part in this operation truly believe in what they were being ordered to do, or were they just going along out of fear of what might happen to them or their loved ones if they refused?

Such thoughts could wait for later; there was no room for humanizing the enemy here. Fighting through the aerial squadrons between them and the reinforcements, Kira and La Flaga opened up with everything they had. The Tallgeese Kai's beam rifle constantly spat out volleys of emerald bolts, while the Freedom's array of artillery was blasting away with abandon. La Flaga's Planet Defensors were getting just as much of a workout as his rifle, with the Hawk of Endymion constantly shifting them around his mobile suit to block incoming fire. In the midst of such a large battle, multitasking to that degree was beginning to wear on the former Earth Alliance ace, but he knew that to let up now would be fatal.

Destroying another target with a slash from his beam saber, La Flaga saw the hatches of the transport ahead open. Jet Windams began dropping from the lead aircraft, the wings of their Striker Packs unfolding as soon as they were clear. Meanwhile, the planes further back were dropping a mix of Aile and Doppelhorn Windams, their descent slowed by pairs of massive parachutes.

Smart move, he thought as he picked off a hostile with his rifle, Drop the Jet Windams up front so they can deploy as escorts, while the units incapable of sustained airborne combat are given cover for their descent. They're not going to make this easy for us.

"What do we go for?" asked Kira as he disabled a quartet of Jet Windams with the Freedom's various guns, "The air units or the ground ones?"

"Not much of a choice," La Flaga replied as he saw the first of the newly deployed Jet Windams already racing towards them, "We'll never get through the escort screen before the other machines hit the ground. Let's focus on thinning out their air power. The others will have to find a way to deal with the new arrivals on the ground."

"Got it," Kira acknowledged, "I'll take point. Back me up!"

La Flaga nodded. "Let's do this!"

The Freedom's opening salvo alone took out the rifles and head sensors of three machines, but the Atlantic Federation squadrons had learned from past mistakes. They were deploying in much looser formations, prioritizing maneuvering room over concentrated firepower. As a result, Kira's trademark precision salvos would only be able to disable a few units at a time, and La Flaga knew he would have his hands full in watching Kira's back.

"They definitely didn't pick the rookies for this operation," La Flaga grumbled as his beam rifle spat out a fresh volley, "We've got our work cut out for us here."

….

They're not letting up, Heero thought as his Gundam's machine cannons spat out a burst of shells that tore apart an oncoming mobile suit, I should've expected as much. All this, just to keep me at bay…

It was understandable, of course; Heero had always known that his actions both in the prior war and this one made him a top priority target for the enemy. He imagined that the Atlantic Federation army would've preferred to send Colonel Nazara after him, but Azrael's clone was still stuck trading shots with Espada Team. Heero made a mental note to seek out the two Eurasian aces after the battle, assuming there was time for it; they were making his job much easier by keeping the Atlantic Federation army's sole nuclear-powered mobile suit tied up.

Unfortunately for Heero, the efforts of the two Spanish aces weren't going to help him all that much in punching through the veritable horde of Jet Windams that the enemy was now throwing at him. The Atlantic Federation pilots weren't half bad, and they'd most certainly drilled to fight a foe just like him. That much was evident in their maneuvers and formations, favoring loose and spread-out attacks meant to both keep him constantly on the evasive while at the same time minimizing just how many machines Heero could take out with Wing Zero Albion's signature weapon.

A blast from the Twin Buster Rifle only served to emphasize the point; the torrent of golden-yellow hellfire only took out three machines, and there were more than enough left to plug whatever gaps Heero managed to temporarily punch into their ranks. As a result, his beam saber, railguns and machine cannons were getting a real workout, as was the Gundam's DSX-1 Shakō-tai energy shield system. The air around him was filled with particle beams coming from seemingly every angle, and those were often supplemented by Würger air-to-air missiles fired from the pods slung beneath the wings of the Jet Windams' Striker Packs.

On another occasion, Heero might've appreciated the challenge; he was essentially stuck in an ace pilot's Valhalla, one giant raging dogfight. His mission, though, wasn't to simply rack up the kills. He had a city to defend, and the enemy was in the midst of sending new troops and mobile suits into the fray to shore up the assault on it. Heero wanted to help Kira and La Flaga stem the tide, but he just wasn't making enough headway.

Despite the furious volleys unleashed by both the Freedom and Tallgeese Kai, the first wave of the air drops was reaching the ground. Aile Windams took point as the airborne troops assembled on the surface, moving up while the Doppelhorn Windams followed in their wake, the twin recoilless cannons of the latter already thrown shells at both the Eurasian Federation armed forces and the city they were defending. Some of the Jet Windams were stalled thanks to Kira and La Flaga, but others were moving around the dogfight and angling to join the attack on the city. Additional transport aircraft further back had yet to make their drops, but that would change quite soon.

"They're going to regain momentum if this keeps up," Heero murmured as he picked off a target with his railguns, "We can't let that happen…"

A chime rang out, and Heero saw several new contacts appear to the rear of the Atlantic Federation army. More specifically, two large contacts surrounded by several smaller ones. Heero smiled as he recognized the IFF signals, and he knew what was coming.

Sure enough, a salvo of long-range anti-air missiles flew forth from the west. With many of the Atlantic Federation reinforcements still in the middle of their descents, unless they were Jet Windams, they could not enact evasive maneuvers. As a result, the swarm of warheads tore into the falling mobile suits, ripping apart entire squadrons in the blink of an eye. A few missiles went past the descending mobile suits and instead slammed into the transport aircraft, turning the lumbering jets into spectacular fireballs.

As fiery debris rained down, Heero's gaze went to the source of the missiles. On the horizon, two familiar silhouettes were in view, and they were growing larger by the second.

The Archangel and the Dominion had arrived.

….

"Firing solutions locked in for the Gottfrieds and Valiants, Captain!" Lieutenant Tsukino announced.

Murrue nodded, her gaze fixed on the battle unfolding beyond the forward bridge viewport. "Engage at will, Lieutenant. Follow up with a Sledgehammer volley. Concentrate all fire on the enemy's artillery formations."

"Aye, Captain!" her XO acknowledged.

Murrue watched in satisfaction as the battleship's main guns opened up, spitting out heavy particle beams and railgun slugs. As the Gottfrieds and Valiants had originally been designed for taking on enemy warships, their level of firepower represented a positively ludicrous degree of overkill when it came to dealing with ground vehicles. The Atlantic Federation's self-propelled guns and mobile multi-rack rocket launchers targeted by the opening salvo weren't so much blown apart as they were utterly erased from existence. To make matters worse for the Atlantic Federation, the Archangel wasn't the only battleship shooting at them. Similar salvoes flew forth from the Dominion, with Natarle's gunners eager to prove that they were just as accurate and efficient as Murrue's.

She's always had a bit of a competitive streak, Murrue mused as she glanced at the representation of the Dominion on the tactical display, I can't say I share it, but I suppose a bit of friendly rivalry doesn't hurt if it drives the crews of both ships involved to excel in their duties.

Between the barrages from the main guns and the subsequent Sledgehammer missiles raining down upon them, the Atlantic Federation's indirect fire units were utterly devastated. They were spread out enough that just one volley from the two battleships wouldn't be enough to take out all of them, but Murrue knew that they didn't have to. Now, the Atlantic Federation's surviving artillery would be forced to split their fire between Moscow's defenders and the new arrival, giving the Eurasians a much-needed reprieve while allowing her subordinates to make pinpoint counterbattery strikes on the units that dared try to take on her warship.

It wasn't just the battleships striking, either. The Strike Rouge and the two Murasames were airborne, as was the GuAIZ Werewolf. Granted, they were still largely intended to keep defending the Archangel and Dominion, but Murrue and Natarle had conferred beforehand and agreed that having their remaining pilots be just static protectors of the two battleships was counterproductive to their goal of a sudden attack disrupting the Atlantic Federation army's operations. As a result, the four mobile suits had moved up and were engaging the closest machines that they could find.

And they weren't alone.

As the Archangel and Dominion had rushed east following the strike team's launch, they'd encountered scattered Eurasian Federation units that had been swept aside during the Atlantic Federation's advance. With Major Gardinier acting in her capacity as liaison, Terminal had convinced the various fighter and mobile suit squadrons along with number battered but determined ground units to tag along in the name of saving Moscow. Sukhoi birds and Dagger-Ls equipped with Jet Striker Packs were already moving in, letting fly with everything that they had. Armored fighting vehicles were further back; they couldn't match the pace set by the battleships, and so Murrue had requested that they work their way around the flanks and strike once they were in suitable positions. It would take a bit more time before that could happen, and until they showed up it would be Murrue and Natarle's responsibility to keep the Atlantic Federation ground units busy.

Murrue watched with equal parts trepidation and pride as Cagalli took the lead, with the Strike Rouge's beam rifle picking off surprised aerial targets with pinpoint fire. Kira's sister, like Eric Bristow and the Murasame pilots, had orders to engage while being mindful of enemy units potentially getting past them and making a run on the battleships. If that were to happen, their instructions were to pull back and return to their capacity as escorts. Murrue's fear didn't come from the fact that the battleships were temporarily exposed; they'd been built damn tough and could defend themselves from mobile suits for a time before assistance would be needed. Instead, it was born from her worries of ill fortune befalling Cagalli.

I really would prefer to keep her just in an escort capacity, she thought, or, better still, keep her aboard the ship and have someone else pilot her machine. Her position as Orb's rightful leader in exile is important for our own efforts, and losing her would be devastating. Even so… I know it'd be impossible to convince her to stand down. At least we can put her piloting talents to good use here, and the others will cover her should she need to pull back.

Murrue could at least take comfort in knowing that Ingrid and Dante were keeping an eye on her. While the two Murasame pilots were definitely taking the fight to the enemy, Murrue had given them a second set of orders; to act as escorts for Cagalli. If the young woman would not be deterred from fighting on the front lines, Murrue would make sure she had backup… and a rearguard should the worst come to pass. Murrue had kept those orders a secret from Cagalli, knowing full well how she would react should she learn that she was still being protected despite her wishes. Ingrid and Dante were performing their role well, picking off targets of opportunity with their beam while making sure that they didn't stray too far from Cagalli.

As he was unburdened by secret escort duties, Eric Bristow was going full-tilt, mauling every Atlantic Federation contact that got in his way. He wasn't usually this aggressive, normally maintaining his position as dedicated combat air patrol and protector of the Dominion, but given the stakes of this fight Terminal couldn't afford to hold back a seasoned veteran like him. The GuAIZ Werewolf's beam claws were getting quite the workout; the former ZAFT Field Marshal and Wolf of the Far East had already ripped apart three machines with them and was moving in on a hapless fourth. Occasionally, he would add bursts of fire from his two Hydra Gatling Beam Cannons to the mix, though those were more intended to break up enemy formations so that the individual units composing them would be easier targets.

"Second volley of long-range anti-air missiles ready, Captain," Lieutenant Tsukino announced, "Same targets as before?"

Murrue nodded. "Keep hitting the enemy's reinforcement squadrons as they drop. We can't take out all of them, but we can at least thin out their ranks. Gottfrieds, Valiants and Sledgehammer missiles are to continue hammering the artillery."

"Understood," Tsukino acknowledged.

We can't use the Lohengrins or Buster Cannon without threatening our allies or Moscow itself, she told herself, so more conventional weapons will have to suffice here. I just hope it's enough.

Though the Archangel could not use the crown jewel of its upgraded arsenal under these circumstances, Murrue still saw the sky flash yellow as the unit which held the inspiration and direct predecessor of the Buster Cannon open fire and blast another swath of destruction through the enemy air units. Adjusting her personal monitor, Murrue zeroed in on Heero and found him taking on what looked like half the enemy's entire air force. Wing Zero Albion was little more than a blue and white blur as it darted across the sky, evading an unholy storm of particle beams while returning fire with either a snapshot blast from the Twin Buster Rifle or pinpoint fire from his railguns. It seemed like the Atlantic Federation was throwing every spare air unit it had at Heero, and while Murrue knew that her boyfriend would signal for assistance if things truly got dire, she still wanted to give him a bit of breathing room.

"Major Gardinier," she said, "have the fighter squadrons gain altitude. I want them to get above the fray and then make a pass from above. Order them to make a concentrated missile volley against the Jet Windams around Heero. If they can help thin out the enemy, he'll be able to break through and start tearing into the reinforcements."

The Eurasian Federation officer nodded from her position next to the main communications suite. "Understood, Captain Ramius."

Murrue briefly watched as Sybille worked together with Flay to relay her instructions. She'd been a bit worried earlier about how Flay might react to having to coordinate both communications for the Archangel along with those of the Eurasian Federation units that had joined them on the way to the battlefield, but the young woman was balancing those responsibilities like a pro.

Hang on, Heero, she thought as she returned her gaze to Wing Zero Albion's ferocious dogfight, I've got some help on the way. Once they've helped clear out some space, you'll be able to do what you do best.

….

Cutting down a Jet Windam with his beam saber before whirling around to pick off another with his railguns, Heero was rapidly running out of room to maneuver. The arrival of the Archangel and Dominion, along with the Eurasian Federation units that the two battleships had picked up along the way, still hadn't impacted his immediate situation. Yes, the Atlantic Federation army was frantically redeploying units to counter this new threat, but the pilots assigned to stall him apparently weren't among them. They were throwing themselves at Heero with what he could only describe as suicidal fanaticism, trading their lives for the slightest chance to possibly damage his machine or even just to keep him from making any forward progress.

Pilots with that sort of devotion are the worst kind of foe to fight, he thought grimly as he shredded another target with his machine cannons, I can't count on fear or self-preservation kicking in at any point; they're determined to take me down or die trying. How many more of them does the Atlantic Federation have in its ranks?

It was a question that would have to be pondered at another time, preferably when he wasn't being shot at. Heero's moves at this point were barely more than a constant series of sharp banks, steep climbs and dives, and just about any other maneuver he could think of that would let him stay one step ahead of the particle beams and missiles coming his way. Even the mighty Twin Buster Rifle couldn't get him out of this; whenever he managed to get off a shot with it, the enemy's loose formations allowed them to scatter and therefore take minimal losses.

Diving towards the ground, Heero then spun his Gundam around and let fly with both the railguns and machine cannons. The barrage of slugs and shells tore apart two hostiles, but two more machines quickly flew in to take their place. Zigzagging amidst a rain of particle beams, Heero was becoming increasingly boxed in. He still wanted to take out the enemy reinforcements before they could join the main assault on the city, but at this rate he might be forced to pull back and regroup with some of his fellow Gundam pilots. That would give the enemy a chance to rally, even with Kira and La Flaga thinning the numbers of the air dropped mobile suits while Terminal's two battleships threw their anti-air missiles into the mix.

And that was when Heero saw a series of contacts moving in from above. Realizing what was about to happen, he slammed down the throttle and pulled his Gundam back towards the city. The move came not a moment too soon, for a hailstorm of air-to-air missiles came down from the squadrons of Eurasian Federation SU-63Es that had positioned themselves for a perfect diving attack while the enemy's mobile suits were distracted. Several Jet Windams were blown apart by the warheads, while others lost the wings or engines of their Striker Packs and began plummeting towards the ground.

With his enemies momentarily dazed, Heero made his move. Putting away his beam saber, he quickly split the Twin Buster Rifle, charged the two halves of the weapon, and cut loose. The pair of blasts ripped through the disoriented Jet Windams, this time taking down nearly a squadron's worth of machines. Reuniting the Twin Buster Rifle and drawing his beam saber, Heero charged forward. Thanks to the Eurasians, he now had an opening to join his comrades on taking the fight to the Atlantic Federation's reinforcements.

He wasn't about to waste it.

….

Start "The Only Thing I Know For Real"

On the doorstep of Moscow, two mobile suits were all but heedless of the wider battle raging around them. Emerald and violet light clashed time and time again in an infinite loop of strike and counterattack, with neither side showing the slightest hint of tiring. One had the edge in reach and speed; the other, the agility and flexibility that came with having a smaller weapon. Particle beams, shells, missiles and rockets pounded the ground around them, but those were all misses that had been aimed at other targets rather than shots fired with the intent of taking down the two gladiators. By and large, the armies of the Atlantic Federation and Eurasian Federation were giving the duelists space, though less out of respect for the combatant's now long-standing rivalry and more out of acknowledgement of the fact that few among them had the skill required to enter such a fearsome contest.

And Jetstream Sam was living for it.

Wufei was coming at him full-tilt, and it was just the sort of contest that the mercenary had been hoping for. Broad sweeps and thrusts from the young warrior's double-ended beam trident were punctuated by lunging strikes from the green Gundams two Dragon Fangs, with occasional jets of fire from the machine's flamethrowers added in for good measure. Against this, Rodrigues had only his sword, just like all the other duels the two men had fought, and he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Colonel Nazara and other officers in the Atlantic Federation army yelled at him over the radio, demanding he break off his clash with Wufei and assist them in their own engagements. Rodrigues ignored them all; he had the foe that he wanted to fight, and that was more important in his eyes than the wishes of his erstwhile masters. Besides, after all this time keeping him on retainer, his employers really should've known better by now. Yes, his official contract only stipulated what monetary compensation they owed him, but the unofficial agreement had always been that he could engage whatever foes he so pleased as long as said foe was hostile to the Atlantic Federation. Wufei met that criterion easily enough, and Rodrigues had made it abundantly clear to Colonel Nazara that he would engage him at the first opportunity and never look back. If Azrael's clone was going to pick now to whine about it, well, that was just too bad for him.

You knew what you were getting yourself into when you decided to employ me in this campaign, Colonel, Rodrigues thought with a smug smirk as he fended off a cyclone of blows from his adversary, I fight the foes I deem worthy of my talents, or at least the ones that are capable of fighting back. Find someone else to torch Moscow for you.

A brilliant flash of yellow light illuminated the western horizon, and a host of friendly contacts vanished from the grid. Only able to spare the briefest of glances in that direction while deflecting strikes from Wufei, Rodrigues saw that the airborne reinforcements had found themselves on the wrong end of Heero Yuy's Twin Buster Rifle. Nazara's fanatical goons had failed to contain Wing Zero, and now the legendary Gundam was tearing into the fresh troops that the Atlantic Federation had been counting on to swing the battle back in their favor should the tide turn against them. In the grand scheme of things, the mercenary's duel with Wufei didn't mean much. The writing was already on the wall.

Not that Rodrigues cared. Unlike the vast majority of his compatriots, he had honestly never been particularly invested in actually winning the Second Bloody Valentine War. His contract was simply to fight, and it was his desire to test himself against the finest warriors a conflict had to offer. He had quickly found his desired foe in Wufei, and that technically been before the official declaration of war. Once he'd found his dream opponent, and one that could go multiple rounds with him to boot, the big picture had taken a back seat. The end result of the war simply didn't matter to him. It was the combat itself, the adrenaline of risking one's life in the ultimate contest, the rush of getting as close to a modern Valhalla as was possible in the Cosmic Era, that Rodrigues cared for.

That was why he had the biggest shit-eating grin on his face as he sideslipped one of the Dragon Fangs before charging in to cross blades yet again with Wufei. In the modern world, those who possessed the warrior's spirit were few and far between, and their numbers were dwindling with each passing year. Though Rodrigues would readily admit that Wufei had far nobler intentions for diving into combat than him, at the end of the day, they were both creatures that stood apart from the rest of the world in that they only truly felt alive when they were walking the razor's edge between life and death.

As he unleashed a sequence of vicious slashes that drove his opponent back, Rodrigues gave silent thanks that his path had led him here. He knew that his foe despised him for allowing himself to be a pawn in the Atlantic Federation's gruesome game, but the mercenary had long ago accepted that he deserved such scorn. He knew exactly what he was; an incorrigible dog of war. There was only one end that his kind deserved when they let their talents for death and destruction to be used in service to those who sought the annihilation of an entire people for simply the manner in which they were born.

And as he pressed his assault, his swings as swift as they were powerful, Rodrigues knew that Wufei had what it took to give it to him.

….

His double-ended beam trident whirled before him as Wufei intercepted the mercenary's strikes, and his forward viewscreen was almost constantly shaded in a blurred green as his Gundam's optical sensors struggled to compensate for the glare of the weapon that was constantly flashing in front of them. When was the last time that an adversary had offered him such a fierce contest? Apart from his clash with Heero during the 'attack' on Gibraltar, the closest Wufei could think of was his final duel with Treize at the Libra.

He probably would've liked this guy, Wufei mused as he caught Jetstream Sam's beam katana between the prongs of his trident, and he definitely would've hired him. Probably a good thing that the two of them will never meet.

Wufei twisted his polearm in an effort to rob Rodrigues of his weapon, but the wily dog of war was wise to that trick and already pulling the beam katana back. Attempting to shake things up, Wufei hit his thrusters, taking Nataku up just high enough so that he could launch an attack from above with his left Dragon Fang. Rodrigues took his mobile suit sharply to the left, and the mechanical serpent did little more than glance off the black and red machine's shoulder. Wufei was then forced to pull back as Rodrigues counterattacked, with the Ronin suddenly shooting up into the air and thrusting its weapon at Nataku's cockpit. Only a last-minute block with the trident saved Wufei, and while he was no stranger to close calls, this one got his blood pumping.

Spinning the weapon, he brought the other end of the beam trident around in a slash. Rodrigues had already slammed his thrusters into reverse, though, and that combined with swift bladework proved sufficient to protect the mercenary from Wufei's counterattack. The L5 native didn't let up, though. He gunned his mobile suit's engines and charged forward, unleashing a vicious sequence of broad sweeps with thrusts at varying heights thrown in to keep his foe off balance. Rodrigues fell back under the offensive, and for a moment Wufei thought he'd be able to corner his adversary and finish him off.

Jetstream Sam wouldn't let himself be taken down that easily, though. As Wufei lunged forward and attempted to spear the Ronin through the cockpit, the black and red mobile suit dodged to the left. The contract fighter the swiftly counterattacked with an upward slash, and this time Wufei couldn't block with the beam trident; he'd overextended. A last-ditch turn allowed him to take the strike on the head of his right Dragon Fang, and the attack left a blackened furrow on the weapon's face. Letting fly with the left Dragon Fang forced Rodrigues to break off, giving Wufei a valuable moment to catch his breath and prepare for the next exchange.

That exchange came quickly and fiercely, with Rodrigues laying into him with a barrage of hammering strikes. The mercenary was relentless, unleashing a rapid string of downward blows that Wufei could only block; his opponent was leaving him no room to counter. Despite the withering offensive his enemy was hitting him with, Wufei found himself smiling. His adversary really was going all out here, and whatever Wufei's thoughts about the man's morals might've been, he appreciated that Rodrigues consistently gave him nothing less than his best in their duels.

I guess that seals it, he thought as he fell back under the onslaught, I detest the man's employers and his willingness to let himself be used in these barbaric sackings, but I can't hate him. Not when he approaches combat with the same drive to test himself against powerful foes as I. Not when he lays it all on the table like this…

Knowing that he had to change things up before his enemy found an opening in his defenses, Wufei took his Gundam sharply to the right before letting fly with his flamethrowers. The inferno he unleashed wouldn't be enough to destroy a machine protected by Phase Shift Armor, but that wasn't the point here. His intent was to disrupt his foe's offensive, and in that, Wufei had succeeded. The sheer heat from the weapons was enough to get through the Ronin's hull and make his foe sweat profusely, regardless of whatever internal protection his machine or flight suit offered.

Coming in hard from the right, Wufei commenced a ferocious assault. His beam trident flashes through the air in a series of slashes and thrusts that were almost constantly swapping between one end of the weapon and the other to keep Rodrigues off balance. Alternating between high and low strikes, Wufei's goal was to force the mercenary to continuously shift his guard in the hopes of eventually forcing an opening.

To his credit, Rodrigues didn't make it easy for him. The contract fighter had been on this battlefield for longer than Wufei, which should've worn him down, but his defenses remained top-notch. Keeping the beam katana close, Rodrigues protected himself from the onslaught with commendable discipline, always making sure to quickly return his sword to a middle guard so that he could quickly shift it either low or high as Wufei's strikes dictated. Getting him to overextend would be challenging, which meant that Wufei had to get creative.

Feinting high with his polearm, Wufei then took aim at the Ronin's legs and let fly with one of his Dragon Fangs. The black and red mobile suit's Phase Shift Armor prevented any actual damage, but the impact served to momentarily disrupt his opponent's balance. Capitalizing on the opportunity, Wufei swung his beam trident around so that the prongs on the back end swept upwards. Rodrigues managed to pull his mobile suit back, but not quite quickly enough, for one of the prongs cut across the right side of the Ronin's face and took out one of the optical sensors. It wasn't a crippling blow by any means, but it was progress.

Progress came with a price, though. Rodrigues recovered fiendishly quickly and immediately thrust his sword forward. Wufei attempted to deflect the blow, and while he succeeded in preventing any major damage, the mercenary's blade left a shallow cut in the Gundam's torso plating. The L5 native's heart raced in equal parts excitement and fear; just a bit further, and the blade could've pierced the cockpit.

With his adrenaline surging, Wufei charged forward, forgoing the beam trident in favor of a more brute force approach. Using the left Dragon Fang as an oversized fist, he punched the Ronin in the chest. The blow staggered the mercenary, though not before he made another thrust with his beam katana. This time, the blade scraped along Nataku's armored skirt, not penetrating but leaving yet another battle scar. Wufei swiftly pulled back, bringing the beam trident back into a guard position while his foe likewise regrouped.

His breathing was hard, but Wufei still smiled as he and Rodrigues faced off. This was why he'd come to the Cosmic Era. The mix of anticipation and primal fear surging through his body, the thrill of going full-tilt against an adversary that could match him blow for blow; he couldn't find that in his old world, but he had found it here.

He genuinely didn't want it to end.

But, of course, all good things must draw to a close at some point, and this duel was no exception. The strikes and counters from both combatants were reaching a fever pitch, and Wufei could sense the climax approaching. He was certain that Rodrigues could feel it, too.

As if the mercenary could read Wufei's mind, his voice came over the radio a moment later. "It's been a fun ride, wouldn't you say?"

Wufei nodded. "It has. No matter which way this goes, I have no regrets."

A chuckle echoed over the cockpit speaker. "Likewise. Now, let's end this."

The two mobile suits charged each other in unison, and the final exchange commenced. Rodrigues struck first, aiming high with a diagonal slash aimed to sink the blade right into Nataku's torso. Pulling in his beam trident, Wufei caught the beam katana in-between the weapon's prongs at the last possible moment. Just like before, Rodrigues was able to pull his blade out. Unlike before, however, Wufei had been counting on just that move. As the mercenary's blade receded, Wufei flipped his weapon around so that the prongs on the other end swung forward. Rodrigues tried to position his sword for a block, but Wufei had timed his move perfectly. The mercenary's blade was just barely too far out courtesy of the earlier slash, and Wufei's strike slipped through the gap in his foe's defense. In an upward swing, the prongs of the trident's back end cut first into the Ronin's right leg above the knee before continuing upward…

…and slicing clean through the mobile suit's cockpit.

The black and red mobile suit's destruction was immediate, going up in a fireball as Wufei's weapon continued to carve through the machine. As he completed his strike and pulled the polearm back, Wufei inclined his head in a brief prayer for his fallen adversary. It was all he could offer at the moment; the Battle of Moscow was still raging around him, after all.

And without further delay, Wufei threw himself into the thick of it.

End "The Only Thing I know For Real"

….

As Heero blew apart a group of descending Doppelhorn Windams with the Twin Buster Rifle, La Flaga's voice came over the radio. "Hey, look who finally decided to join us! You sure took your sweet time, Heero."

Heero simply shrugged, more than used to the Hawk of Endymion's cavalier demeanor. "Sorry for the wait. I seem to be a bit too popular for my own good out here."

"No kidding," said La Flaga as he picked off a target with his beam rifle, "I was starting wonder if Kira and I would have to come bail you out."

As his beam saber pierced a Jet Windam's torso, Heero cast a brief glance towards the Eurasian fighters that had helped him earlier. They had already circled around and dived for another pass, with missiles flying from the hardpoints beneath their fuselages in short order. A few of the aircraft paid for their attack runs with their lives, but most managed to successfully complete their strikes and pull up again, their payloads smashing into Atlantic Federation mobile suits that were preoccupied with other targets.

"Someone beat you to the punch," Heero eventually replied before snapping off a salvo with his railguns that blew apart a dropping Aile Windam just as its parachutes deployed.

Further ahead, he saw a brilliant barrage of particle beams, railgun slugs and lances of plasma puncture a formation of Windams and rob the mobile suits of their weapons. The source, of course, was the Freedom. Kira might not have possessed any singular gun as powerful as Heero's Twin Buster Rifle, but the array of weapons at the Freedom's disposal were more than capable of rivaling Wing Zero Albion when it came to putting on a show. The stolen ZAFT prototype was doing a quite credible impression of a mobile anti-air battery, one that also happened to be airborne and very fast.

While Heero, Kira and La Flaga bludgeoned the Atlantic Federation's airborne reinforcements from the front, Terminal's late arrivals hammered them from behind. Fresh salvos of long and mid-range anti-air missiles flew forth from the Archangel and Dominion, ripping apart enemy mobile suits with brutal efficiency. A few of the lumbering transport aircraft struggling to make their escape after dropping their deadly cargo were also caught by the warheads, with their blazing hulks falling from the sky and crashing onto the battlefield, occasionally landing upon hapless hostile ground units. Meanwhile, the new Xiphias rail cannon turrets that had been mounted on the ends of the wings of the two battleships as part of their interwar upgrades sent slugs into the sky, picking off confused and isolated mobile suits with the precision of snipers. To make matters worse for the Atlantic Federation army, both battleships had more than sufficient weaponry to tackle multiple aspects of the battle, which meant that just because the two warships were helping rip into the enemy's aerial reinforcements didn't mean that forces on the ground would be exempt from punishment. Heavy slugs flew forth from the Valiants, accompanied by powerful particle beams from the Gottfrieds, continuing to work over the Atlantic Federation's remaining artillery formations. What return fire the enemy could muster was nowhere near sufficient to actually threaten the Archangel or the Dominion, with the shells and missiles that did hit the warships doing little more than either glancing off the armor outright or leaving superficial scorch marks with their detonations.

It wasn't just the battleships getting in on the fun, either. As he shredded a Jet Windam with his machine cannons, Heero caught sight of another such machine meeting a similar fate further ahead. Instead of being riddled with bullets, though, this one was perforated by a hail of emerald bolts courtesy of the GuAIZ Werewolf's Hydra Gatling Beam Cannons. A particle beam from the Strike Rouge took out the prior unit's unfortunate wingman, while supporting fire from the two Murasames kept survivors of the formation off balance and therefore prime targets for Eurasian Federation mobile suits and fighters swooping in from the flanks.

Classic hammer and anvil, Heero thought with approval as his gaze lingered upon the Archangel, with us as the former and our reinforcements as the latter. Your timing was perfect, Murrue.

While the Eurasians Federation units accompanying the Archangel and Dominion couldn't hope to compete with the sheer firepower of the two battleships, they still made their contributions known. The fighter squadrons that had helped Heero earlier were simply one small element of the aerial contingent, with multiple wings of SU-63Es swooping in for attack runs on the Atlantic Federation rear. Air-to-air missiles rushed forth to pick off Jet Windams and the occasional F-7D Spearhead fighter, while other fighters let fly with their machine cannons in strafing runs against ground targets. Meanwhile, larger and slower SU-56 ground attack aircraft were unleashing a rain of hell from the rocket pods slung beneath their thick wings, with the heavy machineguns in their stubby noses blazing away for good measure. Dagger-Ls equipped with various Striker Packs threw in what firepower they could, while the much slower tanks and field artillery had finally moved into suitable firing positions on the northwestern and southwestern flanks. Coordinated salvoes of shells flew forth from what the world considered to be outdated weapons, but the conventional vehicles long deemed obsolete thanks to the rise of mobile suits were still more than capable of dishing out death and destruction, and they proved it here. The Atlantic Federation mobile suits in their sights, already distracted by both the Eurasian forces ahead of them along with Terminal's elite pilots, were caught completely unprepared by the barrage and suffered heavily for it.

Impaling a target on his beam saber, Heero then gained altitude so he could take a moment to assess the overall situation. His gaze first found the Terminal pilots who had earlier helped clear the skies over the two lead Atlantic Federation land battleships before those lumbering behemoths had met their fiery ends. He was relieved to see that his friends were still in one piece, though undoubtedly the enemy did not share such sentiments. Having repulsed an earlier push, they were now on the offensive, with Quatre and Yzak leading the charge. Sandrock Saladin and Mercurius Kai were not to be trifled with in close-quarters-combat, with the twin curved blades of the former and the blazing yellow beam saber of the latter cutting down foes left and right. Supporting fire from Heavyarms Arsenal and the Vayeate Kai only enhanced the carnage as shells, missiles and beams pounded the opposition into charred metallic husks.

Zigzagging to avoid scattered particle beams before blowing apart a trio of descending Aile Windams with the Twin Buster Rifle, Heero shifted his attention further up the field. He caught sight of a crimson lance of plasma streaking down from a blue and white fighter jet circling overhead, piercing one of the few remaining black and gold assault mobile suits and reducing it to molten slag. Shinn was further away from the Valkyrie Team than Heero would've liked, but there was no denying that the air support provided by the ZAFT defector to the Eurasian ground forces in that sector of Moscow's defensive line was more than proving its worth. Beneath the Skygrasper, a determined formation of Dagger-Ls along with multiple armored vehicles, all showing varying degrees of damage, were righting tooth and nail to repulse repeated Atlantic Federation attempts to break their line. What Heero assumed had once been a formidable group of Windams and Grognards was now a ragged cluster of mobile suits with missing limbs and weapons with chunks blown off of them. The battered and demoralized Atlantic Federation grunts were still attempting to advance, but concentrated fire from the Eurasians combined with Shinn's support from above made any thought of a breakthrough now laughable at best.

Meanwhile, the units that Shinn had initially been assigned to support hardly looked like they needed such help. Having helped the Eurasians beat back the brunt of the Atlantic Federation's forward thrust, the Valkyrie Team was taking the battle to the enemy with the swift ferocity that had earned them their fame. Shemei was on point, of course, and the Epyon Revenant's beam sword and Heat Rod were racking up a considerable butcher's bill. In the span of mere seconds, Heero saw the scarlet devil slice two Aile Windams in half with its blazing emerald blade before shredding a Doppelhorn Windam with its searing whip. Backing their leader up, the three Wraiths poured forth a constant barrage from their beam rifles and railguns, their overlapping fields of fire proving devastating to all in their sights. Supporting the fearsome quartet was Duo, once again showing the Atlantic Federation grunts that while his title of God of Death might have been self-proclaimed it was still a very apt one. Deathscythe Omega's signature weapon swung back and forth in a series of wide sweeps, reaping a grim harvest as it cut down the Atlantic Federation rank and file with unrelenting fury. Fire from the Eurasian Federation units defending Moscow itself only added to the carnage, with particle beams, missiles and shells raining down with an intensity that had only redoubled now that the Atlantic Federation army was on the back foot.

Banking to the right to evade a particle beam before picking off the offending Jet Windam with his railguns, Heero searched for the battle's true wild card. It didn't take him long to find it; Wufei was many things, but subtle wasn't one of them. The L5 native might have finally taken down the mercenary he had clashed with so many times since the commencement of the Second Bloody Valentine War, but he wasn't resting on his laurels. Altron Custom had taken to the skies, and Heero was mildly amused to find that Wufei was now in the position that he had been in earlier, drawing the attention of much of the Atlantic Federation's aerial contingent as he attempted to join the attack on the enemy's reinforcements. In doing so, he was utterly butchering any pilot foolish or unlucky enough to go up against him, with his double-ended beam trident becoming nothing less than a raging tornado that tore Jet Windams to shreds and spat their parts upon the ground below.

Diving to throw off the enemy's aim before raising the Twin Buster Rifle and letting fly with a blast that took out two descending Doppelhorn Windams along with the aircraft that had dropped them, Heero searched for the one hostile contact that he was really worried about. He found it a moment later, and he breathed a sigh of relief; Colonel Nazara's machine was still engaged with the two Hyperion units. Espada One and Two had Azrael's clone locked in a deadly dance, with the two Spaniards seamlessly swapping between offensive and defensive roles as the situation called for it. Only sparingly did they use their units' Lightwave shields, and that judicious application of the energy-guzzling barrier system was no doubt a big part of why they were still in the fight and holding their own against a nuclear-powered machine. Bursts of fire from their beam submachineguns was interspersed with sudden lunges and thrusts with their knives, and together it was clearly enough to keep Nazara on his toes.

Weaving through a hail of particle beams before impaling a descending Aile Windam with his beam saber, Heero's gaze was soon drawn to a massive tide of contacts that was slowly filling up the eastern edge of his sensors. His eyes narrowed as he studied the signatures, and Heero realized just what he was looking at. At long last, the Eurasians' hastily summoned eastern divisions were deploying in force.

The Russian colossus had awakened.

….

It started as little more than background noise.

When he first heard it, Nazara hadn't paid much attention to it. He couldn't afford to pay attention to much of anything outside his confrontation with Espada Team. Splitting the fire of his four main drones between the two Hyperions, it was all the Colonel could do to simply keep Alberto and Marcella from coming together to ensnare him in a pincer attack, and he knew that they were angling for just that kind of strike to take him down. Nevertheless, as he continued to evade bursts of emerald bolts from both Spaniards' beam submachineguns and parry knife strikes with his saber, he kept hearing the same rhythmic static in his speakers. It gradually grew louder, and when he finally isolated the frequency Nazara saw that it was coming over an open channel. His eyes narrowed as he sought to clarify what it was, and when he got his answer, his blood froze.

Over the radio came a single word, one that had presaged the defeats of every would-be conqueror of Russia before him.

"Ura!"

It was only then that Nazara checked his sensors…

…and just about shat a brick.

Practically blanketing the eastern edge of the display was a sea of Eurasian Federation contacts. A minority, though a sizable one, were mobile suits. These were predominantly of the Dagger-L type, with some older GAT-01A1 Daggers and even older GAT-01 Strike Daggers thrown into the mix along with a handful of newer Windams. The majority of the new contacts were made up of more traditional combat units, with fighters and ground attack aircraft filling the sky while tanks, self-propelled guns and infantry fighting vehicles dominating the ground.

Such a force normally wouldn't have concerned Colonel Nazara; the Atlantic Federation had launched its invasion fully prepared to pulverize the Eurasian Federation's divisions. They had been secure in the knowledge that the Eurasians had been slow to transition fully over to mobile suits and still retained large quantities of older combat vehicles, and the three Destroys alone would've been more than enough to stomp the entire force now closing in from the east into oblivions. Of course, those three Destroys had been eliminated thanks to the interference of the renegades from the last war, and the Atlantic Federation army had taken a considerable beating.

Across the front line, those reinforcements shored up Moscow's defensive line before moving forward to attack. Armored personnel carriers began rolling up in droves, discharging heavy infantry outfitted with RPGs and shoulder-fired anti-air missile launchers. SU-56 ground attack aircraft let fly with rockets and bombs, while SU-63Es launched coordinated missile salvos at the remaining Atlantic Federation Jet Windams. Self-propelled guns opened up as soon as they were in position, raining high explosive shells down upon the ragged survivors of the assault force. Tanks and armored fighting vehicles unloaded their cannons, their mass fire more than making up for their individual inferiority to mobile suits. Mil-Mi-84s, the modern successors to the venerable Mil-Mi-24 helicopter gunships of Soviet and Russian Federation fame, swooped in low and unleashed hell from the rocket pods and air-to-surface missiles mounted beneath their stubby wings.

Nazara's vision became an ocean of fire and death as he surveyed the carnage. The army that had been amassed for the assault on Moscow, the veritable cream of the Atlantic Federation and Phantom Pain crop, was being annihilated before his very eyes. The Colonel was confronted with the undeniable truth; what was meant to be the capstone of LOGOS's grand invasion of Europe and the subjugation of the dissidents within the Earth Alliance had become an outright catastrophe.

With rage smoldering in his heart, he issued the only command he could. "To all surviving forces, this is Colonel Nazara. Our situation is untenable. Retreat."

….

A slight shudder went through the Archangel as it was peppered by a barrage of rockets, thought it didn't last long. Murrue didn't have to give any orders for a response; Lieutenant Tsukino had already been given free reign with the battleship's weaponry, and retaliation was swift in coming. A salvo from the Gottfrieds silenced the artillery battery that had made the desperate attack in short order.

Murrue turned to one of her subordinates. "Any damage?"

The officer studied his screen for a moment before shaking his head. "Nothing major. One of the CIWS on the portside got knocked out, but getting it back into working order after the battle shouldn't take long."

"Captain, the enemy's beginning to break off!" the sensor officer announced.

Leaning forward slightly in her seat and fixing her gaze on the tactical display, Murrue could indeed see that the Atlantic Federation army was in the midst of a rather shambolic retreat. What survivors there were of the original assault force were starting to run southwest, racing to catch up with the sole remaining and badly damaged land battleship lumbering in that direction. Dark grey clouds continued to billow from the massive machine's smoke dispensers, but that screen couldn't hide it from radar. Meanwhile, the airborne reinforcements still left standing or flying were attempting to flee northwest, though only the Jet Windams and the surviving transport aircraft really stood a chance of making a successful withdrawal in that direction. Murrue immediately realized she had a choice to make; allow the tattered remains of the enemy army to withdraw and concentrate solely on securing Moscow, attack both retreating formations to inflict further losses but at the cost of allowing at least a portion of said formations to ultimately escape, or focus her group's efforts on a single formation in the hopes of completely destroying it at the cost of allowing the other one to flee.

For Murrue, the decision was a simple one. "Signal the Dominion, our mobile suitsand all forces allied with us; concentrate all fire on the force fleeing southwest. The remaining land battleship is the top priority."

We'll run them down, she thought with grim resolve, and make the bastards pay for the carnage they attempted to inflict upon Moscow.

….

Cutting a Jet Windam in half with his beam saber before shooting down another with his railguns, Heero raced to reach the formation designated by Murrue as the main target. Although part of him didn't like the fact that they were allowing the enemy's reinforcements to slip away, he understood Murrue's choice; the last land battleship alone represented a larger investment on the part of the Atlantic Federation than every aircraft and mobile suit in their backup force combined, and that was even before one considered all the mobile suits and vehicles that were attempted to flee with that lumbering behemoth. The Eurasian Federation had clearly come to the same conclusion, for the fighter and mobile suit squadrons from their newly arrived eastern divisions were already in hot pursuit, the former already fighting their way through an ad hoc batch of escorts in an effort to line up attack runs on the rolling fortress. The smoke dispensers did the titanic vessel little good, and in fact the layer of grey clouds was beginning to weaken as lucky shots from aircraft and artillery struck the vital equipment responsible for generating that concealment.

Less smoke meant more shots could find their marks, and they were already doing so. Rockets and missiles peppered the fleeing land battleship and the forces surrounding it, but the Eurasians simply didn't have the firepower required to put such a beast down for good. Fortunately, Terminal did, and they weren't shy about using it. Heero made that abundantly clear with a blast from the Twin Buster Rifle, though this shot wasn't actually aimed at the land battleship itself. Instead, it ripped through a pair of Jet Windams before impacting a formation of Aile Windams that were attempting to catch up to and board the bulky machine. Fire from La Flaga's rifle and Kira's array of weapons further broke up the land battleship's ragged escorts, creating fresh lanes of attack for their comrades.

Another lance of yellow energy flashed through the sky, though this one wasn't from Heero. Instead, the shot had come from the Vayeate Kai and blew apart two enemy air units before slamming into the ground and obliterating a mixed formation of Doppelhorn Windams and the few Grognards left from the original assault force. A rain of bullets and missiles followed as Trowa sought to sow further devastation, with some of his shots hitting the land battleship while most were focused on savaging the units fleeing alongside it. Quatre and Yzak didn't take long to swoop in, falling upon the rear of the Atlantic Federation formation and hacking into the stragglers with their blades.

They were quickly joined in that endeavor by Duo and the Valkyrie Team. Deathscythe Omega linked up with Sandrock Saladin, cutting down a desperate formation of Dagger-Ls with ruthless efficiency. Sensing that the hastily marshalled rearguard was close to collapse, Shemei and her subordinates moved in to admonish the deathblow. As ever, Epyon Revenant led the way, with the crimson mechanical devil straight up butchering any mobile suit that it could sink its beam sword and Heat Rod into. Coming in behind Shemei in a loose inverted triangle formation, the three Wraiths swept over the survivors with their beam rifles and railguns, gunning down foes left and right. A scarlet beam lanced down from overhead, taking out one of the Windams that had attempted to hold them back; Shinn had returned to his original role of providing overwatch and supporting fire for the Valkyrie Team, and he clearly still had plenty of fight left within him.

While the enemy formation's rear along with what little air cover they had left was being savaged by Terminal, the sole Gundam pilot that didn't count himself among their ranks fell upon the Atlantic Federation assault force from the right. Heero hadn't even seen Wufei break off from his earlier engagement since he'd been focusing on his own targets, but Altron Custom's pilot had clearly recognized the shifting tactical priorities and reacted accordingly. Judging from the sheer ferocity of Wufei's attacks, with both Dragon Fangs flying and crushing hostile contacts left and right before the double-ended beam trident was put to similarly lethal use, the L5 native was obviously determined to exact a blood toll of his own from those who had sought to repeat the barbarism that had played out in Berlin at the start of the invasion.

The metaphorical walls were closing in on the Atlantic Federation's sole surviving land battleship and its much-smaller compatriots, and the final nails in the coffin were hammered home in short order. Heero found it deliciously ironic that the first death blows to the hulking machine came from two warships that had once belonged to the same nation. Despite being considerably further back than all the other units charging in to stomp the land battleship into the grave, both the Archangel and Dominion had the leviathan well within firing range, and they made that fact known with a bang. Murrue and Natarle led their respective attacks with salvos from their ships' Gottfrieds and Valiants, and the heavy particle beams and linear cannon slugs pummeled the land battleship's starboard side mercilessly. Volleys of Sledgehammer missiles quickly followed, and when combined with follow-up shots from the beam turrets and linear cannons proved sufficient to pierce the armor covering the starboard tracks. The cumbersome beast immediately plowed into the ground, gouging into the earth as the portside tracks continued running and causing the machine to fling up giant clods of snow-covered dirt and rock.

If the land battleship's command crew were ever going to surrender, now was the time. Yet as he annihilated three Jet Windams with a shot from the Twin Buster Rifle, Heero was amazed to see that what few anti-air guns remained functional aboard the vessel were firing defiantly. Even more stunning was the fact that, rather than flee, the land battleship's surviving escorts were instead sticking with their flagship. Some Windams landed atop the hull and took up firing positions, while others tried to use the stricken hulk as cover against incoming fire. It wouldn't do them much good; the Eurasian Federation forces would soon have them completely encircled.

"Are they seriously still putting up a fight?" La Flaga asked incredulously as he picked off a Jet Windam.

"They're out of their minds!" Kira remarked while bombarding a cluster of ground targets with the Freedom's array of guns.

Heero knew the grim truth. "It's a last stand. These guys are true believers. They came here to put all of Moscow to the sword; they were going to give no quarter, and they're asking for none in return."

He took his Gundam into a steep climb while contacting the Archangel. "Murrue, I want you to relay the data I'm sending you to all allied forces."

Murrue's face appeared on the display a moment later, her eyes narrowing as she studied the information. "You want them to stand off and establish a perimeter?"

"It'll limit further friendly casualties," Heero replied, "from enemy fire… and from me."

Murrue instantly grasped what he had in mind. "I'll get the word out at once. Just give us a bit of time."

"You'll have it," Heero confirmed.

Taking up position on high, he waited for Murrue and her subordinates to complete their task. The results were not long in coming; both Terminal's pilots and the Eurasians quickly began pulling back, still trading fire with the enemy but focusing more on withdrawing to what Heero had designated a safe distance. They were careful to maintain a broad encirclement, ensuring that there would be no escape for the Atlantic Federation forces.

As he lined up a shot with the Twin Buster Rifle, Heero carefully scanned the battlefield. He bit back a curse when he saw that the violet gun-barrel mobile suit of Azrael's clone was not among the encircled troops. A quick glance at his sensors found the Colonel; the bastard had slunk away to the northwest. Pursuit was theoretically possible, but the enemy already had a substantial lead and Heero wanted to make sure the largest remaining concentration of Atlantic Federation troops on the field was dealt with one way or another.

Another time, Heero thought, on another battlefield.

He switched over to an open channel. "To all surviving Atlantic Federation soldiers, this is Heero Yuy. I will offer you one chance; surrender or die."

A male voice answered a moment later, their tone a snarl of zealous defiance. "Never! We'll take you all down with us. For the preservation of our blue and pure world!"

Checking the source of the response, Heero saw that it had come from the land battleship. The speaker hadn't identified themselves, but he assumed that whoever was in command of the survivors now that Colonel Nazara had fled the field likely was aboard the vessel. He waited a few more seconds to see if anyone would challenge the speaker, but none did.

"Have it your way, then," said Heero, already priming his weapon for fire, "That offer was far better than you deserve in any case."

He reached maximum charge a few moments later and unleashed hell.

….

Murrue was all too familiar with just how deadly the Twin Buster Rifle could be, but despite that knowledge, she still couldn't suppress the awe she felt upon seeing Heero cut loose with everything that Wing Zero Albion's signature weapon had to offer. The crippled land battleship and much of the ragged force surrounding it were consumed in a flash of light and the ensuing massive explosion, with chunks of charred debris being flung high into the sky. Murrue's bridge crew went completely silent at the sight, and she could hardly blame them.

The only exception was Major Gardinier, and even she spoke so softly that Murrue almost didn't catch her words. "Cher Dieu…"

Turning to look at the Eurasian officer, Murrue saw that the woman's face had paled considerably. "A rather sobering sight, isn't it?"

Sibylle nodded, though her gaze remained fixed upon the gradually fading light from the blast. "I've seen recordings from the last war, of course. Alaska, the Avalon battle station, GENESIS… those were impressive, to say the least. That being said… they don't really compare to seeing it firsthand, I suppose."

The French woman finally tore her eyes from the forward viewport and looked at Murrue. "Terminal commands a truly frightening level of firepower for so small an organization. My superiors will want guarantees that said firepower will not be turned upon them. Our forces have already suffered considerably from it."

"Only because they were fighting in partnership with the Atlantic Federation," Murrue reminded her, "Given the Atlantic Federation's actions over the past week, would it be safe to assume that said partnership is null and void?"

Sibylle slowly nodded. "It would."

Murrue smiled before turning her focus back to the battle. "Then your superiors have nothing to fear."

As the glare from Wing Zero Albion's attack receded, Murrue was astonished to see that what few Atlantic Federation survivors remained were still putting up a fight. Scattered particle beams, shells and missiles flew forth from a few badly mauled clusters of mobile suits that ringed the crater formed by Heero's shot. The level of determination and fanaticism on display here was chilling, and Murrue feared it was an omen of the horrors that this terrible war still had waiting in the wings.

Lieutenant Tsukino looked downright sick at what she was seeing. "After all that, they're still trying to claim more lives before their own are expended..."

Murrue understood her XO's feelings and knew what needed to be done. "Let's minimize how many more they can claim, Lieutenant. I want the Gottfrieds, Valiants and missiles all focused on the survivors. If they're not going to see reason now, they never will. Put them out of their misery."

Lieutenant Tsukino nodded, forcing herself to regain her composure. "Aye, Captain."

Murrue turned to her communications officer. "Flay, pass that along to Natarle. We're ending this fight now."

Flay quickly acknowledged the command. "Yes, Captain."

The Gottfrieds and Valiants of the Archangel were already opening fire, with a volley of Sledgehammer missiles immediately following. Natarle's warship began opening up a few seconds later, and together the two vessels mercilessly pounded the enemy formation's survivors into oblivion. The Eurasians and Terminal's pilots took shots of their own, but the final destruction of the main Atlantic Federation assault force was accomplished with ultimately little effort. After how fierce the battle had been, this felt like no more than a bit of cleanup.

Rather anticlimactic, Murrue thought, all things considered. Still, the job is done. The reinforcements that got away will be a problem, but not nearly as big a one as letting the remnant of the main body escape would've been.

"Captain, I've got an incoming transmission from Moscow!" Flay announced, "The speaker claims to be a Mashal Baranov."

Murrue turned to Major Gardinier for confirmation. "The head of the city's defense, yes?"

Sibylle nodded. "And of the Eurasian Federation Army as a whole."

"In other words, exactly who we want to talk to," Murrue noted before turning back to Flay, "Put him through."

Murrue's gaze then went to the main monitor, where the image of an old but surprisingly robust officer appeared just a moment later. "This is Marshall Stepan Baranov, commander of the Eurasian Federation Army. I am speaking to Terminal, yes?"

Murrue nodded. "You are, Marshall. I'm Captain Murrue Ramius of the Archangel, and I'm the commander of Terminal's forces on the field here. It's an honor to make your acquaintance."

Baranov smiled. "Likewise, Captain. Rather amusing that we would be saved by a force under your command given the past… episode between our respective sides at Artemis during the last war. Though I wasn't involved, I would still like to extend an apology for what occurred back then. The attempted theft of your ship and confinement of your crew was a dreadful affair, one that I imagine soured your impression of us Eurasians considerably. The fact that you still came to our aid today despite that past indiscretion on our part speaks volumes as to your character."

Murrue returned his smile; she'd long put that incident from the First Bloody Valentine War behind her. "Your apology is appreciated and accepted, Marshall. That being said, it's water under the bridge. I think we both have far more immediate and important concerns on our respective plates, wouldn't you agree?"

Baranov nodded. "I would. It will be some time before a proper conference between our respective parties can be organized, though. Although we have crushed the enemy army and driven their reinforcements from the field thanks to your help, the outskirts of Moscow have suffered damage that needs to be attended to. We must also take steps to establish a more thorough defense so that we can fend off any future attacks without having to rely upon outside help. I'm sure you can understand."

"Of course," Murrue confirmed, "Do what you must to make sure your people are protected, Marshall. That being said, there is much that we need to discuss, and I hope that a meeting can be convened in due time."

"That makes two of us," said Baranov, "In the meantime, I would not have the aid that your organization has rendered to us go unrewarded. I've been following the intelligence reports; you have been involved in almost constant fighting. I would imagine that your crew would welcome a chance to rest, and that you have supply stores and munitions that could do with replenishing."

"We stocked up for a prolonged campaign," Murrue replied, "but I certainly wouldn't mind the chance to fill in any gaps in our inventory that our recent actions have caused. If you would be so kind, I'd also like to use this opportunity to perform maintenance on both the Archangel and the Dominion with the aid of the Eurasian Federation military. As you might imagine, we drove our ships hard to get here in a timely manner. We'd be greatly appreciative of any resources you can supply that would assist in our maintenance and repairs."

"Compile a list of your needs and present them to Major Gardinier," said Baranov, "She can forward them to us, and I will personally ensure that you get what you require. It's the very least that we owe you."

Murrue's smile grew. "Thank you, Marshall. We're honored by your generosity."

Baranov inclined his head. "Think nothing of it, Captain Ramius. I would be remiss, though, if I did not offer more to those who fought so valiantly to aid us in defending our home. All under Terminal's banner shall be treated as honored guests during your stay in our country. If you wish to arrange some well-deserved shore leave for your subordinates, we would be more than happy to accommodate you."

"I believe we'll take you up on that, Marshall," said Murrue, "Of course, we don't wish to get in the way of recovery efforts. We'll allow enough time to pass so that search and rescue in the areas most affected by the fighting can be handled first. After that and our principle repair and resupply needs have been met, we can make the appropriate arrangements for rest and recreation."

"Very well, then," said Baranov, "Should there be any future need for you to contact me, Major Gardinier will assist you. Is she present on the bridge with you, by any chance? I have updated orders for her."

"She is," Murrue confirmed before gesturing for Sibylle to come into the camera's field of view.

The Major obliged and saluted Baranov immediately. "Marshall, Major Gardinier here."

"What's your status, Major?" Baranov asked.

"In one piece, along with my staff," Sibylle replied, "Captain Ramius has graciously allowed us to set up shop aboard her ship, as it were. She's been most accommodating."

Baranov smiled. "Brigadier General Neuville will be pleased to learn that you are well. I know this was originally envisioned as a temporary liaison assignment, but the situation has evolved considerably since your original orders were given. Major Gardinier, your new orders are as follows; you and your staff are to remain aboard the Archangel in order to assist in coordinating future actions between us and Terminal. Cooperation between Terminal and the Eurasian Federation has been deemed essential to the wider cause of countering the Atlantic Federation's aggression and bringing this war to an end. Captain Ramius, do you have any objections to Major Gardinier and her subordinates staying on with you?"

Murrue shook her head. "None whatsoever."

Baranov nodded. "Thank you. Major Gardinier, are you prepared to accept the assignment?"

Sibylle smiled. "I am, Marshall. My staff and I may have only been here for a short time so far, but we've already grown well-accustomed to cooperating with Captain Ramius and her crew. Further collaboration between us can only be a boon for our cause."

"Well spoken," said Baranov, "If you have need of any new equipment to facilitate your mission, forward the requisition orders directly to me. I will ensure that they are processed with the highest priority."

Sibylle nodded. "Understood, Marshall. Is there anything else?"

"When we convene our conference, I would like you to be in attendance," Baranov answered, "Captain Ramius, will you be able to accommodate us here?"

Murrue nodded. "Of course. Whether the conference is aboard the Archangel herself or within Moscow, we'll have no difficulty including Major Gardinier."

"Excellent," said Baranov, "I look forward to speaking with you again soon."

As the Marshall disappeared from the screen, Murrue turned to Miriallia. "Recall our mobile suits and have the hangar crews prepped for repairs and maintenance as soon as they're all in. I want all our units ready to launch again as soon as possible just in case that wasn't the only army that the enemy decided to send this way."

"Understood, Captain," Miriallia acknowledged, wasting no time in carrying out Murrue's instructions.

"Flay, pass that along to Natarle," Murrue ordered, "We'll reorganize our combat air patrols once our pilots have had a chance to rest up a bit. The Eurasians have enough units on the field to cover scouting for the time being."

"Aye, Captain," Flay replied.

"I doubt the enemy has any further forces that they can immediately deploy," Major Gardinier pointed out, "The resistance's intel seems to have been mostly solid on this front, though they do appear to have had incomplete information on the full scale of the enemy's available reinforcements. Given the losses we inflicted upon the Atlantic Federation today, I doubt they'll be up for another go at Moscow so soon."

"You're probably right," Murrue conceded, "Even so, I want us to be ready just in case."

Sibylle nodded. "Of course, Captain."

"Ma'am, I've got Heero on the line!" Flay called out.

"Put him through," said Murrue.

Heero's face appeared on the main bridge monitor a moment later. "Seems that's it for today. My sensors are clear, at least. Yours?"

"No further contacts," Murrue answered with a confident smile, "I think it's safe to say that we won this round decisively."

"Agreed," said Heero, "I'm inbound now, and the others are following suit."

"Does that include Wufei?" asked Murrue with a note of hope in her voice.

Heero glanced off to the side for a moment, no doubt checking his sensors. "No, he's retreating to the west. It's safe to assume he's heading back to the Minerva."

Murrue sighed. "That's a shame, but it can't be helped. At least he didn't come here to pick a fight with you. Given how fiercely you two went at it over Gibraltar, he's been remarkably cooperative during these past few engagements."

"He's hotheaded, but he can still recognize a greater threat when he sees one," Heero remarked, "At least, he can when it comes to the Atlantic Federation. ZAFT is another matter entirely. I fear it may be some time yet before we're able to pry him out from under Chairman Durandal, and success is hardly guaranteed."

"We'll find a way to bring him around," Murrue reassured him, "We're not about to give up on him, Heero."

Heero nodded. "You're right. In any case, that's a challenge for another day. Are we set with the locals?"

Murrue smiled. "I just got off the line with the head of the Eurasian Federation Army. It's safe to say that our recent actions have won us plenty of goodwill. We have leave to stay here to effect repairs and resupply, and I suspect our stay will bear greater fruit with time. I think we've gained a powerful new ally."

"As we'd hoped going into this," said Heero, "It'll be interesting to see how things play out from here."

"It will, indeed," Murrue concurred, "Let's worry about that once you've had a chance to rest, though. Come on home, Heero."

Heero gave her a small smile. "Roger that."

Preview for next time!

The Battle of Moscow has ended in a decisive joint Terminal and Eurasian Federation victory. With the Atlantic Federation's broader European invasion stalled and the Eurasian Federation regrouping for a counterattack, the fortunes of war seem to have swung in Terminal's favor. Taking the opportunity presented by their triumph, Murrue secures the crews of both the Archangel and the Dominion a chance for some well-earned rest and recreation in the Eurasian Federation capital. The work of diplomacy also begins in earnest as Terminal works to forge an alliance with the Eurasian Federation, the consequences of which will forever alter the balance of power within the Earth Sphere. Meanwhile, up in outer space, Lacus Clyne and Andrew Waltfeld reestablish ties with the members of the old Clyne Faction that remained behind in the PLANTs following the end of the First Bloody Valentine War. In addition to the quiet work of solidifying an anti-Durandal bloc within L5 itself, their gaze turns to the ruins of Mendel as Terminal dispatches a covert team to investigate the Chairman's mysterious ties to the abandoned colony. Slowly but surely, they begin to assemble pieces of the broader puzzle behind Durandal's actions in the Second Bloody Valentine War. Next time, on "Destiny's Call", Episode Twenty-Six: Diplomacy and Investigation.

In times of war, ambassadors and spies are just as important as soldiers.

Author's Notes: In keeping with the offer that I presented to you all a few chapters ago, this chapter did have another reader-provided OC cameo: Alexei Kutuzov, courtesy of FleetingSpectre. The Second Bloody Valentine War still has plenty of runtime left, so if any of you have OCs you want to make a quick cameo somewhere along the line, you know where to find me!

Seeing as the past three chapters have all been combat ones, I'd say we're due for a bit of a breather. The next chapter's going to be much quieter, no real action to speak of. Don't worry, there are plenty of battles yet to come, and we'll get to them in due time.

Hope you all enjoyed the chapter. Feel free to review, stay safe, and see you all next time!