Chapter 18: The Land of Peace

Ezalia Joule’s residence, PLANTs, 23 March, C.E. 71

“Representative Joule? There’s a call coming in for you, ma’am.” The receptionist frowned. “It’s from Orb.”

Ezalia raised her eyebrows. “From Orb?” She thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Put it through.”

Her screen displayed only a pause symbol for a few seconds, then cleared, and Ezalia felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight. Her son Yzak looked out at her, and beside him were Alex Strassmeier, and his sister Andrea.

“Hi, Aunt Ezalia,” Andrea said cheerfully. “Sorry I took so long.”

“Andrea,” Ezalia whispered. “You’re… you’re really alive?”

Her niece smiled. “Yep, it’s me. Kind of a long story, but I am back. I managed to escape the Earth Forces while the Archangel was in the desert, and Lord Uzumi was kind enough to take me in. Alex was headed here anyway, so it all worked out.”

“She was kidnapped for some sort of top-secret Alliance program,” Yzak said darkly.

Andrea elbowed him. “But no one on the Archangel had anything to do with it. In fact, they defected to Orb after they heard my story. Well, mine and Admiral Halberton’s; apparently the Earth Forces were going to purge him, so he deserted, and took his flagship with him.”

“Fools,” Ezalia said. “Lewis Halberton is -or was- the best space commander they had; even among our forces, his only equal is Rau Le Creuset.” She looked at her nephew. “And where do you fit into all this?”

Alex shrugged. “As you know, we were helping the ‘legged ship’ on its journey, since one of my closest friends is the niece of its CO. Anyway, Yzak and I were about to go at it yet again when Andrea’s machine appeared out of nowhere. Things went a little crazy from there.”

“I’ll say it’s crazy!” his sister said, beaming. “He gave Mom’s necklace to the Chief Representative’s daughter!”

“You just had to blurt that out, didn’t you?” Alex grumbled, giving her a sour look.

Ezalia laughed delightedly. “You and the Princess of Orb. Well, from what I’ve heard about her, you two are a good match.”

“That’s what Lia said,” Alex agreed. “Much to my surprise, Uzumi didn’t voice any objections.” He smiled wryly. “On the contrary, he was delighted to see us together.”

“I wonder if Lord Uzumi has considered all the implications,” Ezalia murmured. Her nephew looked at her questioningly, and she shrugged. “I don’t mean to embarrass you, but you and Miss Athha will almost certainly get married eventually. With your background, that would effectively bind Orb to the PLANTs.”

All three of the youngsters suddenly looked thoughtful. “She has a point, Alex,” Yzak said. “Since Cagalli is a member of one of the Five Noble Families, if you marry her, that will bring Orb into our camp.”

“I’ll grant your point, though I think this talk of marriage is a bit premature,” Alex said, ignoring Yzak’s mocking smile. He turned back to his aunt. “It’s not as big a surprise as you might think, Aunt Ezalia. Lord Uzumi told me that his personal sympathies lie with the PLANTs; the main reason he can’t support them openly is because he shares some of my suspicions regarding Patrick Zala.”

Ezalia sighed. “Much as I would like to, I can’t really blame him, given the tone of Committee Chairman Zala’s recent speeches.”

Alex nodded. “In light of that, he secretly aided my own efforts, since I oppose Zala but at the same time have no intention of harming the PLANTs.” He shook his head as though trying to clear it. “He also knew my father and promised to look out for me if anything happened.”

Ezalia blinked in surprise. “Your father knew Lord Uzumi? He never mentioned that, though I suppose he would not have. He was always a quiet sort.”

“He was at that,” Alex agreed. “Anyway, Athrun will be officially informing the Council of this shortly, but I might as well tell you in advance. Lord Uzumi has given his personal assurance that Orb will never align itself with the Earth Forces. As has already been explained, he cannot go beyond that right now, but every little bit helps.”

“It does indeed,” Ezalia said. She cocked her head. “And how has your search been going?”

Alex grinned sheepishly. “It’s finished. Kira Yamato, pilot of GAT-X105 Strike, is the Ultimate Coordinator. That much I have suspected since before we reached Earth. What I had not expected, and which took everyone by surprise, is that his sister, who underwent the ‘standard’ Coordinator treatments, is none other than Cagalli Yula Athha.”

Ezalia’s eyes widened. “The princess? Well, I suppose it makes sense; if Lord Uzumi knew your father, then he had to have known about Hibiki’s work.”

“Exactly. Haruna and Caridad Yamato adopted Kira, and Lord Uzumi took Cagalli in himself.” Alex grimaced. “Caridad was, shall we say, less than pleased when it all came out, though I’m confident she’ll get over it soon enough.”

“I see.” Ezalia nodded. “What are your plans now?”

“For now, Lord Uzumi has asked me to assist in the development of Orb’s new mobile suits,” Alex said. “Before that, though, we’re all just going to go out and relax for a while. The Zala team has been given permission to stay for a few days if they keep a low profile. Can’t have four ZAFT Elites wandering around in uniform, after all.”

“That would be counterproductive right now,” Ezalia agreed. “One more thing, Alex. I know you can’t come home yet, but I want you to introduce me to this princess sometime.”

Alex grinned. “You got it. Give Cassandra our love.”

“See you!” Andrea said with a smile.

Ezalia sat back when the image vanished. Nothing could bring her sister or brother-in-law back from the dead but seeing Andrea alive had lifted a great weight from her mind. Even the knowledge that her niece and nephew would not be returning to the PLANTs anytime soon could not dim that.

And Alex has finally found someone to love. That princess must be something special if she was able to penetrate that shell of his.

Outdoor restaurant, Orb capital

Anyone who did not know exactly whom they were looking at would have assumed it was just a group of teenagers. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Kira Yamato, Flay Allster, Tolle Koenig, Miriallia Haw, and Sai Argyle were newly minted Orb soldiers. Their friend Kuzzey Buskirk had decided not to join the Orb military, realizing that he was not cut out to be a soldier. None of them held it against him.

Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, and Athrun Zala normally wore the red uniform of ZAFT elites, but that was a bad idea in Orb, which still had a tenuous relationship with both sides.

Lia Ramius, Alex, and Andrea Strassmeier, and Cagalli Yula Athha (who did not look anything like a princess in street clothes) completed the group.

“So, Uncle Klaus went to school with Lord Uzumi, huh?” Yzak said, shaking his head in wonder. “Man, talk about weird.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Alex told him, spearing his inevitable seafood lunch with a fork. “He actually suggested arranging a match between Cagalli and me after that business with the Seirans flopped. Dad, however, warned him that it would be a bad idea.”

Flay laughed. “I sure hope so!” She remembered Alex forcefully expressing his opinion of arranged marriages just before the Eighth Fleet battle. “But it happened anyway,” she added with a sly grin.

Alex shot her a dirty look. “Sheesh, you’re starting to sound like Yzak. For your information, talk of marriage is premature, to put it mildly. We’ve only really known each other for about two months.”

“Yeah, and it’s felt like two years,” Mir put in. “Wars have that effect.”

The hawk-faced Coordinator quirked an eyebrow. “Are you saying that the fact that it’s only been two months since Heliopolis means nothing?”

Mir nodded. “Look at Kira. I know he doesn’t like being a soldier, but he’s gotten used to it.”

“If he hadn’t, he’d already be dead,” Athrun agreed. He looked at his friend. “Why’d you move there, anyway? When I left, you seemed happy in Copernicus.”

Kira sighed. “With the increasing tensions between the PLANTs and the sponsor nations, Mom and Dad decided that the Moon wasn’t safe anymore.”

“They were right about that,” Dearka said. “Commander Le Creuset told us a little about the battles on the Grimaldi Front. Sure, they were nowhere near Copernicus, but that bombing was something else.”

“Something barbaric,” Alex said darkly. He took a sip of coffee. “It was what convinced me that the Earth Forces were controlled by Blue Cosmos.”

Yzak, seeming to sense the darkening mood, turned to Kira. “By the way, Kira, I thought you’d like to know Commander Waltfeld and Aisha survived.”

Kira seemed to sag with relief. “Thank goodness for that. How did they get out?”

“DaCosta and a Junker named Lowe Guele pulled them out of the wreckage,” Yzak said. “Last I heard they were in pretty bad shape; I think they were put into some kind of suspended animation.”

“But they’ll make it, right?” Kira pressed. Yzak nodded. “Thanks.”

Alex chuckled softly, causing his cousin to glare at him. “What’s so funny?”

“You. You were so hot to make Kira pay for giving you that scar, and now you’re chatting with him like you don’t have a care in the world.”

Yzak glared a moment longer, then shook his head in resignation. “If you weren’t my cousin… Fine. I figured that if he’s your friend, he can’t be all bad.”

And is not that a mouthful of nothing, Alex thought, knowing that Yzak had taken a liking to Kira, but did not want to admit it. “So, Kira, Cagalli. How are you two holding up?”

Kira shrugged. “It came as a big shock, but it really doesn’t affect much. I mean, it is nice that I have a sister,” here he and Cagalli smiled at each other, “but when you think about it, it does not change our lives much. We are who we are, and that’s it.” He tucked an arm possessively around Flay’s shoulders. “And the people we care about still accept us.”

“You’d better believe it!” Flay said.

Athrun clapped him on the shoulder. “She’s right. You’ve always been like a brother to me; learning how you were created doesn’t change that.”

Kira smiled. “Thanks, Athrun.”

Alex looked at his girlfriend (and it still felt weird thinking of her like that). “How about you?”

“I agree with Kira. I mean, sure, I’ve had problems with my father.” She grimaced, remembering Heliopolis. “But I’ve never doubted that he loved me.”

The conversation soon turned to lighter matters. Kira and Athrun reminisced about their time in Copernicus, with Nicol listening intently. Tolle and Mir found themselves swapping stories with Yzak; the white-haired pilot had gotten curious about his cousin’s classmates.

Sai and Flay, still good friends despite their explosive breakup a month earlier, chatted with Lia Ramius. Dearka, fascinated by the younger Strassmeier, paid more attention to her than to anything else. Alex was unsure whether to wish him luck; he had nothing against the ZAFT pilot, but after the events of three years past he was wary of anyone paying such close attention to his sister.

It is her decision to make, he reminded himself firmly.

“Say, Alex,” Sai said. “How long were you working on your project? You don’t get a warship and five mobile suits overnight.”

Alex took a bite of fish as he formulated his response. “We started just after arriving at Heliopolis, so I’d say a little less than a year.” He snorted. “I actually wasn’t ready when we left, but Le Creuset forced my hand.”

“I remember you only had one mobile suit ready, and not many of the ship’s weapons,” Cagalli said.

“The ship’s weapons didn’t matter right then,” Alex reminded her. “I wasn’t inclined to use laser cannons -or worse yet, positron cannons- inside the colony.” He looked at Athrun. “I’m sorry about Miguel, Athrun. I understand he was a friend of yours.”

Athrun sighed. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “I disagree with what you’re doing, but it’s not like you had a choice right then.” A courteous nod at Cagalli. “Especially since you had her along.”

“Since I intended from the beginning to make for Orb, letting her die would have caused problems,” Alex agreed. He waved a hand. “But there’s no point in rehashing the Heliopolis raid. It happened, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”

“He’s right,” Yzak said, and grinned.

Alex felt his stomach sink. I know that look.

“So, Alex, you two have any plans?” Yzak said, confirming his suspicions.

Cagalli blushed, and Alex gave his cousin an almost-glare. “Will you give it a rest already? I have said everything there is to say on that subject, all right? Of course, we’ll be seeing each other a lot; that’s a given.”

Yzak laughed, feeling better than he had in years. “I know, I know. I’m just yanking your chain.”

“He’s one of the few who can get away with it, too,” Andrea put in.

No one was surprised by that. Everyone save Dearka, Nicol, and Athrun knew Alex well by now, and even they could tell that taking liberties with him was a bad idea.

Mir raised her eyebrows. “And how many people are there who can say that?”

“Yzak, Aunt Ezalia, Lia, Cagalli, and me,” Andrea said. “Anybody else is playing with fire.”

“No kidding,” Tolle said. “I’ve seen how he reacts to that.”

Alex buried his face in his hands. “Are you guys done needling me?”

“For now,” Andrea said slyly.

“Whatever.” Alex sighed, then turned to Yzak. “So how long are you going to be here?”

Yzak shrugged. “A couple of days, at least. Athrun?”

“When I gave my report, I got a message direct from Chairman Clyne,” Athrun said. “We’re to provide Morgenroete with battle data from our mobile suits. Reading between the lines, I think the Chairman is trying to get Orb to see the PLANTs in a favorable light.”

“It won’t take much to do that,” Cagalli said. “Even though he’s insisted that Orb remain neutral, my father has personally favored the PLANTs ever since the Supreme Council was bombed.”

Alex snorted. “Ah, yes, the eternal divide between personal opinions and public policy. I understand he does not like the Seirans very much, either. Which reminds me, do either Unato or his son know of our…relationship?”

Cagalli grimaced. “My father told them. They were not happy, but there was not much they could do. Especially since Rondo Ghina Sahaku supported him.”

Alex frowned. “Ghina did? Mina I could understand; she’s ambitious, but she doesn’t have her brother’s oversized ego.”

“Hey, your family is the closest thing the PLANTs have to nobility,” the princess pointed out. “Besides, he doesn’t like the Seirans either.”

“So, we actually agree on something. Amazing.” Alex finished his lunch and stood. “Much as I hate to break this off, the next couple of days are going to be busy, and I need to prepare.”

“That goes for all of us, I think,” Athrun agreed. “We’re going to bring the Cousteau into the Morgenroete dock, that way no one will see us bringing our mobile suits in.”

With that, the gathering broke up, leaving in pairs and singletons. Flay and Kira went off shopping, accompanied by Andrea Strassmeier; as Alex had predicted, the two got along to an almost disturbing degree. Sai left by himself, saying something about getting his watch fixed.

Minutes later, they were gone.

Onogoro Island, 25 March, C.E. 71

A brown-haired woman in the orange and white of Morgenroete Inc. sat at a computer terminal. Recorded images of five different mobile suits flashed across it, one blue, one green and tan, one blue and white, one black and red, and one red overall.

Duel, Buster, Strike, Blitz, and Aegis, the woman thought. Who would have thought they would turn out so well? Now if only we could get that kind of performance with Natural pilots. That, of course, was the object of her current assignment.

An aide stepped in. “Chief, I have Athrun Zala of the Le Creuset team, Alex Strassmeier, and Lieutenant Kira Yamato of the Archangel here.”

The woman nodded. “Send them in.”

It was a curious trio that arrived, one in the silver-white of Orb’s forces, one in the red of a ZAFT elite, and one in a black suit of military styling.

She rose, smiling. “Welcome, all of you. I’m Erica Simmons, Chief Engineer of the M1 Astray project.” Simmons nodded at Kira. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, thanks.”

“I understand you need data from the G-weapons,” Athrun said.

Simmons nodded. “That, and a Coordinator with both a technical education and combat experience in one of those machines, which is where the Lieutenant comes in.”

“Colonel Kisaka said something about needing a new OS,” Kira said,

Another nod. “We have one pilot who doesn’t need such an OS, but that doesn’t help us much.”

Alex’s gaze sharpened. “A Coordinator?”

Simmons shook her head. “No, he’s a Natural.” She punched up an image of the youngster in question. He was on the short side, with reddish-blonde hair, blue eyes, and a pale complexion. “This is Max Labatt, younger brother of one of our test pilots. A bit of an oddball, he can pilot a mobile suit without much in the way of computer support, though we don’t have the slightest idea how he manages it.”

“It’s inevitable that there would be at least a handful of Naturals who could pilot mobile suits,” Alex said with a shrug. “Lucky for us none appear to have joined the Earth Forces.”

“Lucky indeed,” Simmons agreed. “Commander Zala, how long until your machines are brought in?”

“They should be here in an hour or so,” Athrun said. “In the meantime, could we see these new mobile suits of yours?”

“Certainly.” Simmons stood and gestured for them to follow her. “This way.”

She led them to a control room overlooking a cavernous facility. Three mobile suits were visible through the large window. Mostly white, with black torsos and red trim, they bore an unmistakable resemblance to Kira’s X105 Strike. More streamlined than anything ZAFT had, save for the four stolen Gundams, they had a certain malevolent look to them.

“These are the first three units of our mobile suit line, the MBF-M1 Astray.” Simmons lifted a comm unit. “Asagi, Juri, Mayura, power up. Show them what you can do.”

It was soon apparent why Kira’s programming talents were needed. The girls did their best, but they were barely able to get their machines to move. Athrun winced more than once, seeing how slow and clumsy they were. Still, the M1’s design was basically sound; all it needed was an OS that Naturals could use.

“I see why you need my help,” Kira said. “This reminds me of when the Captain and I were facing Miguel Aiman at Heliopolis.”

Athrun glanced at him. “I saw some of that. You had to rewrite the OS mid-battle, right?”

“That’s what happened,” Kira confirmed. “I had to hurry, too; Miguel knocked us over at least once, and Sai, Tolle, Kuzzey, and Mir were there, so I was afraid the Strike would crush them.”

Alex grimaced. “I was injured there myself; when Miguel’s GINN exploded, a piece of shrapnel caught me in the shoulder.”

“I remember that” Cagalli said, walking in.

Kira smiled. “Hi, Cagalli.”

She gave her brother a quick hug. “Sorry I’m late.” She looked out at the Astrays. “What do you think?”

“I should be able to come up with an OS the pilots can use,” Kira said. “It’ll probably take a while, but like Kisaka pointed out when we arrived, it’s not like Orb is at war with anyone right now. There’s plenty of time to work it out.”

“That’s great.” Cagalli quirked an eyebrow at Alex. “And what about you?”

He shrugged. “I’m more likely to be involved in the training side of things. While I am no slouch at programming, obviously, this is more Kira’s area than mine.”

“A new OS is pretty much all these things need,” Athrun said. “According to the specs I’ve seen, an M1 could give even a G-weapon a nasty fight.”

“That reminds me,” Simmons said. “How did your father respond to the notion of giving Orb even this much aid?”

Athrun sighed. “He didn’t like it, but Chairman Clyne pointed out that anything bad for the Earth Forces is good for the PLANTs.” He nodded at the Astrays. “These are definitely bad for the Earth Forces.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Simmons moved closer to the window. “I apologize if I offended you, Commander.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It is natural for you to want to be certain of something like that. I don’t blame you.”

The quartet then proceeded to an elevator and went down a level, joining Murrue, Mu, Kojiro Murdoch, and Athrun’s teammates. Asagi Caldwell, Juri Wu Nien, and Mayura Labatt arrived moments later, still in-flight gear. Max Labatt promptly appeared seemingly out of nowhere, moving to stand with his sister.

Alex studied the pilots with carefully hidden interest. Except for the younger Labatt, none of them really looked like soldiers. Then again, neither did Kira Yamato and Nicol Amalfi, and they had more than proven their skill on the battlefield.

“All right,” Simmons said. “These three Coordinators will be assisting us in the M1 project. Athrun Zala, of ZAFT’s Le Creuset team, will only be here for a short while, long enough to give us some data from the Duel, Buster, Blitz, and Aegis. Lieutenant Kira Yamato, pilot of X105 Strike, will oversee programming a Natural-compatible operating system.”

She nodded at Alex. “Alex Strassmeier, the Valkyrie’s lead pilot, will be helping to train our mobile suit corps once the new OS is ready.”

“Nice to meet you,” Asagi said, speaking for all of them.

A series of impacts briefly cut off conversation. They turned to see X102 Duel, X103 Buster, and X207 Blitz marching into the hangar. Though all three were a dull gray, indicating that the PSA was off, they still radiated an air of menace.

“The Strike and the Aegis are already here, along with our machines,” Alex said, then stepped forward to greet his cousin. “Any trouble?”

Yzak shook his head. “Nothing. I heard a couple of Laurasia-class ships blew away some Earth Forces spy satellites, but that is nothing new. I don’t think the Alliance will be suspicious.”

“Good to hear.” Alex waved at Kira. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”

An hour later, Athrun found himself back in the control room. His team’s role was limited (fortunately, given the delicate political situation), so he did not have to be involved much. He had helped Kira with data extraction from the Aegis, then watched the others until he was sure things were well underway.

Athrun sighed. What he had not told anyone, even Kira, was that his father was growing increasingly extreme. He did not think his father was at the point of genocide, but at the same time it would not have surprised him if the elder Zala did cross that line.

What is going on? he thought almost despairingly. What if Alex is right, and Father does want to wipe out the Naturals? What am I supposed to do?

“I hope I’m not intruding.”

Athrun turned, eyes widening in surprise. “Captain Ramius? No, not at all.” He offered a salute, wondering just what was going on.

Murrue returned the salute, smiling. “I was curious,” she said, answering the unasked question. “About the young soldier who nearly stabbed me to death.”

He winced. “Sorry about that.”

She waved that away. “There’s nothing to apologize for. You are ZAFT, I was Earth Forces. We both had our duty.” She looked past him at the five Gundams. “After Heliopolis, I never thought I’d see all five of those in the same place again.”

“Yeah,” Athrun agreed. “I… wanted to thank you. For how you’ve treated Kira.”

“Well, I couldn’t mistreat him and expect him to pilot the Strike for us, now, could I?” Murrue moved to stand next to him. “He means a lot to you, doesn’t he?” It was not a question.

Athrun nodded. “We’ve been close, ever since we were little. He’s like a brother to me and learning the truth about his origins doesn’t change that.” He sighed. “You know, there aren’t many people I’m close to anymore. Kira, Lacus, and Nicol, really.”

“Not even your father?” Murrue said, then blushed a little. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Athrun shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s true, after all.” He sighed again. “After my mom was killed, my father became obsessed with defeating the Earth Alliance. I guess I did, too; it’s why I joined ZAFT, and why I was so shocked when I realized Kira was piloting the Strike.”

“I don’t blame you,” Murrue said, chuckling ruefully. “Alex, if anything, is even worse. If my niece was not his best friend, he might well have attacked us at Heliopolis.” She smiled, seeing the black-haired youth talking animatedly with Mu La Flaga. “He’s changed since we got here.”

Athrun shrugged. “I don’t know him very well. You’d have to ask Yzak.”

“I did. He said the same thing.” Murrue laughed softly. “I think Natarle is glad of the change; it means he’s less likely to shoot her. He almost did once.”

“Cagalli told me about that,” Athrun said.

Murrue glanced at her watch. “I’d best get going. There’s a lot that I need to get straightened out.” She departed, leaving Athrun alone again with his thoughts.

“Well, that was interesting,” Alex muttered. He glanced at the nondescript youth next to him. “What do you make of it, Kyle?”

The other shrugged. “Not my area. Far as I know, Orb is not building artillery support machines. Makes sense, really.”

“You’re a big help.” Alex’s tone did not match his words, though. As it happened, he agreed with Kyle. What Orb needed was a good general purpose mobile suit, and the M1 Astray fit that bill nicely.

“Chris is having more success than I am,” Kyle went on.

Alex grunted, but did not reply. He had always doubted Chris Madsen’s sanity.

“Hey, Alex,” Brian said, walking up. “Lord Uzumi has a little request for you.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “And that is?”

“Since it turns out your girlfriend,” Brian grinned at the other’s pained expression, “is a Coordinator, she doesn’t need a Natural-compatible OS. Bearing that in mind, Uzumi wants you to teach her to pilot a mobile suit.”

Alex nodded. “I was thinking of making the offer anyway. If Lord Uzumi did not mind Cagalli flying a fighter in combat, I figured he’d be fine with her learning to pilot something more lethal and better defended.”

“That’s about right,” Brian agreed.

Alex gazed up at the Stormbird, mulling over the events that had brought him to Orb. It had all started with the abduction of his sister by Atlantic Federation soldiers. Three years later had come the Bloody Valentine, which had sparked him into almost joining ZAFT, only to be stopped by Kyle.

The news of Zala’s evil plans had sent Alex, along with Kyle, Brian, Chris, Hiro, and Lia, to the neutral resource satellite Heliopolis, where they had secretly built five mobile suits and a special warship to carry them. Originally, their purpose was as much against the Earth Forces as against Patrick Zala, but the Le Creuset team’s attack had changed that.

During the events that followed, Alex and his friends had fought alongside the Earth Forces warship Archangel, commanded by Lia’s aunt, and briefly with the Eighth Fleet. On a personal level, Alex had forged friendships with Murrue Ramius and Mu La Flaga, and near the end of their journey, had managed to fall in love with a princess.

Of course, she hates it when anyone calls her a princess, let alone me.


He started. “Huh? Oh, sorry. I guess I drifted off for a minute there.”

Brian waved that away. “Don’t worry about it. I need to go anyway; the Scorpion needs some tweaking.” He looked past Alex’s shoulder. “And I think you have other matters to attend to yourself.”

Kyle rose. “He’s right. See you.”

Alex frowned, wondering what they were talking about, then turned, hearing someone approaching. After his friends’ abrupt departure, he was not surprised to see who it was. “Hi, Cagalli. What brings you here?”

She gave him a quick hug-and-kiss greeting. “I was thinking you’d be pushing yourself too hard, and it looks like I was right.”

“This has to get done-“

Cagalli snorted. “But not all at once. Come on, Alex, there’s plenty of time, and it won’t get done at all if you burn out.” She nodded at the main entrance. Kira was leaving, Flay on his arm. “Look, even Kira’s calling it a day, and you know how he is when he gets into a good bit of programming.”

Alex sighed, then managed a smile. “Okay, you win. Where to?”

“Anywhere but here,” she said firmly. “Someplace you can relax.”

“All right, all right.” He shook his head. You knew what you were getting yourself into. “Would the lounge here at Morgenroete be good enough? The Valkyrie is being overhauled, and I really do need to be available if something goes wrong.”

“Fine, as long as you promise not to do anything with mobile suits unless it’s an emergency.” Not waiting for a response, Cagalli tugged him toward the door.

Workers’ lounge, Morgenroete

Kira was not having any trouble putting work out of his mind. He was done for the day, and besides, he had promised Flay that he would introduce her to his parents. Since, like his friend Alex, he could not actually leave the facility just then, they had come to see him there.

Caridad came forward to hug her son. “Kira, we came as soon as we could.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Kira hugged her back, then drew Flay over. “I wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend. Mom, Dad, this is Flay Allster.”

Haruna smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Flay. We’re both grateful for how you’ve stood by Kira through everything that’s happened.”

Flay smiled back, though she was a little nervous. “I was afraid of him at first,” she said, looking away briefly. “I didn’t know much about Coordinators, and I thought they were monsters. It wasn’t until I really got to know him that I realized how wrong I was.”

“However, it happened, I’m glad,” Caridad said. “Even though he no longer must fight Athrun, this is still hard on him. He hasn’t said much, but it’s clear that he would have given in to despair without you.” She laid a hand on Flay’s shoulder. “And I’m glad learning the truth about his origins hasn’t pushed you away.”

“I don’t care how he was created,” Flay said firmly. “Kira is Kira, and I love him. The fact that he’s the product of an experiment doesn’t change that.” She jerked her head at the other end of the lounge, where Alex sat with Kira’s sister. “Besides, Alex was a byproduct of that, too, and I don’t hate him. He scares me sometimes,” she admitted, “but I’ve never hated him.”

“That’s good to hear,” Haruna said. “Please stay close to Kira.”

Flay smiled. “You got it.”

Across the lounge, Alex smiled slightly. “I was wondering when they’d meet. Mrs. Yamato is right, too. Kira would likely have lost it without Flay.”

Cagalli nodded. She had noticed that, too. “She fits right in.” She chuckled softly. “How do you think it’ll be before Kira proposes?”

“I give it two to three months,” Alex said. “You know, this could shake things up in Orb.”

“What do you mean?”

He waved at Kira. “Regardless of his upbringing, the fact that he’s your brother makes Kira a de facto member of one of the Five Noble Families, and I don’t think the secret can be kept forever.”

“You’ve got a point there,” Cagalli admitted. It had somehow never occurred to her that such a match would make Flay her sister-in-law. She put it down to not being used to having a sibling.

“Aunt Ezalia made a similar point about us that I hadn’t considered,” Alex went on. “I still say talk of marriage is premature, but if it were to happen, it would bind Orb to the PLANTs. You are, after all, a princess, even if you do not like to think about it. And I, of course, am the nephew of a Supreme Council member.”

She froze. That had not occurred to her either. “I wonder if this could be partly politics,” she murmured. Alex looked at her questioningly. “I know the main reason my father is encouraging our relationship is because he wants me to be happy, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he saw an opportunity as well.”

Alex lifted an eyebrow. “An opportunity?”

“The only reason I was ever engaged to Yuna Seiran in the first place was politics,” Cagalli explained. “I’m thinking that he sees our being together as a way to bring Orb closer to the PLANTs that even Unato Ema Seiran couldn’t object to.”

He nodded. “You have a point.” He looked at the other group again and sighed.

Cagalli looked up at him, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

Alex sighed again. “Look at them. Kira, Flay, and Kira’s parents. All chatting together, not a care in the world. I… I wish I could take you to meet my parents, but it will never be possible. I guess I envy them. Maybe it is stupid, but…”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “It’s not stupid, Alex. You miss your parents, that’s only natural.” She chuckled briefly at the notion of applying the word “natural” to a Coordinator in any context. “And remember you still have family. There’s Andrea, and that lunatic Yzak.”

Alex smiled, not taking offense at the way she referred to his cousin as a lunatic. “Thanks,” he said, tucking an arm around her waist.

She is right, he thought. Life goes on. Mom and Dad are gone, but there’s still Andrea, Yzak, Cassandra, Aunt Ezalia; my family is still there. And there are others. Cagalli, Lia, Kira, Flay, Mu, plenty of others. It is not like I am all alone.

Flay, who had been talking with Kira’s mother, paused, and looked back. She could not help smiling at what she saw. Cagalli sat next to Alex, her head resting against his shoulder. Alex looked more at peace than Flay had ever seen him.

It is like a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Ever since the Mandelbrot Incident, he has not been able to relax, even when he slept.

“You were right, Flay,” Kira murmured. “Those two belong together.”

Flay nodded. “Alex needs someone to keep him going, and Cagalli needs someone who’ll treat her like a normal person.” She smiled at her boyfriend. “Well, there’s you; you are her brother, after all.”

“Yeah.” Kira shook his head ruefully. “We started to feel like siblings, and then we found out we are siblings. I can’t be with her all the time, though.”

“You should still spend some time with her, to make up for the years you spent apart,” Flay said.

Kira blinked. “You won’t complain that I’m not spending time with you?”

She punched his shoulder. “Kira, you just found out you had a sister and didn’t know it. Why should I complain about that? Besides, sometimes I will be there, too.”

He smiled. “You’re right.”

After another few minutes of conversation, the Yamatos departed, leaving just the four youngsters. Sitting next to Flay, Kira found himself reflecting on how, even deep in a facility meant for the development and testing of weapons, it was easy to tell why Orb was known as the Land of Peace. He sat with someone he had loved since the day they first met, while his sister was with a young man whose cold exterior belied the fiery soul within.

None of them had any illusions that their peace would last, but they enjoyed it while they had it.

Chairman Clyne’s office, Aprilius One, 28, March, C.E. 71

Ezalia Joule stepped into the office. “You wanted to see me, Chairman?”

Siegel Clyne grunted softly. “I likely won’t be Chairman much longer, but yes.” He waved her to a chair. “You recall Commander Le Creuset’s report on the Heliopolis attack?”

“Of course, I do,” Ezalia said, wondering where he was going with this. “It is true that Committee Chairman Zala was less than forthcoming about the identity of the Earth Forces mobile suit pilot, but with the Archangel’s defection to Orb, that situation is resolved.”

Siegel shook his head. “Not entirely. I am in receipt of a report Commander Waltfeld made shortly before his defeat at Talbadiya. According to that report, he received a version of the Heliopolis event -from your nephew, I might add- that is quite different from Commander Le Creuset’s report.”

Ezalia frowned. “Different how? I spoke with Alex earlier this week, but the subject never came up.”

“Different in what caused the colony’s collapse,” Siegel said. “It was not the Earth Forces; the Strike was equipped with the Sword pack. Rather, it was Commander Le Creuset’s use of D-package weaponry.”

Her jaw dropped. “D-equipment?”

“Two of the GINNs carried heavy missile launchers, the third had an ion cannon,” Siegel confirmed. “It was those missiles, none of which actually struck their target, and Miguel Aiman’s reckless firing at the Strike, that caused the collapse.” He met her astounded gaze. “In other words, Rau Le Creuset lied to the Council with Patrick’s full knowledge. What does that tell you?”

Ezalia swallowed hard. “That even if Alex is wrong about Committee Chairman Zala’s ultimate goal, he is correct in saying Zala cannot be trusted.” She clenched a fist. “What do you want of me?”

“Your support, if and when the time comes.” Siegel sighed. “I dislike having to take this road, but if any of what your nephew has said is true, then I have no choice.”

“You have it,” Ezalia said firmly. “What of Commander Waltfeld?”

“He and Aisha have almost recovered,” Siegel said. “You know of the new mobile suits Patrick has had built?” Ezalia nodded. “Commander Waltfeld is assigned to that project. Once those new machines are completed, I will send him to the Orb Union, with instructions to, if possible, conclude an alliance with Orb, and to present the new ZGMF-X10A Freedom to the Strike pilot, Kira Yamato.”

She nodded again. “From what Alex has said, Lord Uzumi will likely be amenable to such an alliance, so long as we make our goals clear, and make sure he knows we are not working with Zala.”

“I agree. As for the other machine, ZGMF-X09A Justice, it will be given to Athrun Zala, if he agrees to support us.” Siegel grimaced. “I deeply hate the notion of turning a son against his father, but Patrick has been growing increasingly unstable. If Athrun refuses, I will not blame him at all, but I hope it won’t come to that.”

“He is engaged to your daughter,” Ezalia pointed out. “And the Strike pilot also happens to be his closest friend. If Zala does go as far as you suggest, his son will probably turn against him. It won’t be easy -from what I know of him, Athrun has a strong sense of loyalty- but he will probably do it.”

Siegel nodded. “Your son will undoubtedly support us, and Tad and Yuri have been in my camp, so to speak, for quite some time, so Dearka Elsman and Nicol Amalfi will be with us as well.”

“That still leaves their commander,” Ezalia murmured. “Rau Le Creuset will almost certainly throw in his lot with Zala, and he is the best space commander we have.”

“That’s true,” Siegel said,” but Orb does have Halberton now.” He lifted a box. “And Commander Waltfeld will also bring this.” He pulled the lid up. Inside was the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite. “If your nephew is willing, he has more than earned the right to this uniform.”

Ezalia closed her eyes for a moment, seeing in her mind’s eye the image of Alex Strassmeier in ZAFT red. “It’s been his dream since the Mandelbrot Incident. I think he’ll go along.” She got up to leave, then paused. “Oh, and Clyne, Alex may in fact help get Orb on our side, assuming we can pull this off.”

Siegel raised his eyebrows. “How so?”

She smiled. “He’s romantically involved with Lord Uzumi’s daughter, hard though that may be to believe. I think it likely that they will eventually marry, and that will bind Orb to the PLANTs.”

“It would indeed.”

Ezalia departed, leaving Siegel to his thoughts. I pray that it will not come to such lengths. If Patrick were to learn of it, he might well brand us as traitors. Unfortunately, he was more certain with every day that such measures would be necessary, and soon.

And may God be with us all.