Chapter 29: Setting the Stage

Refugee center, Junius Three, 30 June, C.E. 71

Shinn Asuka snapped his suitcase closed. Unlike the majority of the Orb refugees, his family was going to be remaining in the PLANTs even after Orb was freed. That suited him simply fine; after watching that parade in Orb more than a month earlier, his dream was to join ZAFT the moment he was old enough.

To his relief, his parents had not objected at all. On the contrary, they were incredibly supportive, if understandably nervous. In the meantime, though, they were moving to Maius City, there to start a new life.

Shinn stepped out onto the street; his parents and younger sister had gone ahead of him. The station is east of here, he recalled, and set off.

He did not get extremely far. Around one corner, he came to a jarring halt, almost running into four uniformed youngsters. To his shock, Shinn found that he recognized three of them; Kira Yamato, pilot of the Freedom, Cagalli Yula Athha, daughter of Orb’s Chief Representative and pilot of the Akatsuki, and Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT’s newest star.

“Ah, sorry,” Shinn stammered. “I didn’t mean to-“

Alex held up a hand. “Don’t worry about it. You can hardly be blamed for almost colliding with someone around a blind corner.” He stooped and picked up the suitcase Shinn had dropped.

Shinn took it gratefully. “Um, thanks, Commander.”

The black-haired Gundam pilot smiled. “I see you know who I am, at least.”

“Yeah.” Shinn was still nervous. “I’ve seen all of you except her.” He nodded at a redhead in Orb uniform.

“At the parade in Orb, no doubt.” Alex waved at the girl. “This is Ensign Flay Allster, the Archangel’s communications officer.” Flay smiled at the young Coordinator. “So, what brings you out here?”

Shinn squared his shoulders. “We –my family- have decided to stay in the PLANTs even after Orb is freed,” he said. “I’m going to join ZAFT as soon as I’m old enough.”

“Indeed.” Alex gave him a considering look. “May I ask how old you are?”

“I’ll be fourteen in September,” Shinn said.

“I see.” Alex nodded slowly. “If you’d like, I’ll sponsor your entrance to the Academy.”

Shinn’s eyes went wide with shock. “C-Commander?”

“ZAFT needs all the people it can get,” Alex said. “Remember, the Earth Forces still outnumber us by something like a hundred to one.”

It took almost a minute for Shinn to get a coherent sentence out. “I…thank you, Commander.”

Alex smiled. “Don’t mention it, kid.”

Kira watched the crimson-eyed youth go on his way. Somehow, Shinn Asuka reminded him of himself, back at Heliopolis. Except that he is all fired up to do his part, while I wanted nothing to do with the war, Kira thought.

“Are you sure about sponsoring him, Alex?” Flay asked. “He’ll only be fifteen…”

“Flay, you were only fifteen when you enlisted with the Earth Forces, remember?” Alex countered mildly. “Then there’s Nicol, who’s about two weeks older than you are. Besides, Shinn’s a Coordinator. He’ll be fine.”

Flay nodded slowly. He has a point.

“For now, what say we get some lunch,” Alex said. “I know a high-quality restaurant near here.”

Evidently, they were not the only ones to have that idea. Before they had gone more than a few steps, they ran into Athrun and Lacus. A few steps after that, Dearka and Andrea turned up, followed by Yzak Joule and Shiho Hahnenfuss. Then, just for good measure, Nicol Amalfi appeared with M1 Astray pilot Mayura Labatt.

Fortunately, the restaurant in question had a sufficiently diverse menu to satisfy everyone’s tastes. Both Strassmeiers ordered seafood (of course). Cagalli munched on chili kebabs (secretly grateful that Andrew Waltfeld was not there to tease her about it).

“How can you eat something that spicy!?” Andrea asked in feigned exasperation. “I’m amazed you’re not breathing fire!”

Cagalli swallowed. “You’re one to talk, Andrea! I’ve seen the way you eat.”

“Just don’t get Mu started,” Kira said. “He agrees with Commander Waltfeld.”

His sister shot him a nasty look. “What, he prefers yogurt sauce?”

Alex and Yzak exchanged despairing glances. “Could you guys think of something more pointless to argue about?” Alex asked.

“Probably not,” Andrea said, completely unrepentant.

Her brother pinched the bridge of his nose wearily. “That’s what I thought.” He dipped a piece of lobster in sauce, then popped it in his mouth.

“See! Alex likes it that way, too!” Cagalli said triumphantly.

“He’s always been crazy,” Andrea responded with a dismissive wave of her hand.

Alex washed the lobster down with some milk. “Don’t bring me into this,” he warned, trying to stare them down. It was futile, and he knew it; Andrea had always been immune to his glare, and the only person who could stare Cagalli down was her own father.

Shiho, meanwhile, was looking at them in confusion. “Am I missing something?”

“Don’t worry about it, Housenka,” Yzak said. “Cagalli and Andrea are so much alike it’s scary.”

“Maybe that’s why Alex fell in love with her,” Andrea said with a grin.

Alex sputtered into his milk, prompting gales of laughter from the others. He mopped his napkin over the spill, muttering darkly in German all the while. I knew she could not let this go without tweaking me about it, he thought.

“Now, now, be nice,” Flay said once she stopped laughing.

“Fat chance of her ever being nice,” Dearka commented, earning himself an elbow in the ribs. “Ow!”

Yzak shook his head. “I warned you what she’s like, Dearka. Not my fault you didn’t listen.”

“Oh, shut up,” Dearka muttered.

Kira appeared to be focused on his lunch, but he was following things very closely. He found the whole thing highly amusing, bringing out a side of Alex that had not been visible at Heliopolis. He acted like a machine, but he is just as human as the rest of us, Kira thought with a carefully hidden grin.

Rondo Ghina Sahaku’s office, Ame-no-Mihashira

Sahaku smiled at the Earth Forces representative. “Thank you for your assistance, Commander,” he said. “I am sure this will prove very useful.”

The other smiled back. “We’re happy to be of service, Lord Sahaku, and grateful that you are willing to send Orb forces to help bring the fight to ZAFT.”

“Think nothing of it,” Sahaku said. “In point of fact, our people are in little danger. Fool though he may be, Uzumi Nara Athha cares deeply for Orb; in light of that, his ZAFT allies are unlikely to do more than disable our units.”

“That’s what we’re counting on,” the other replied. He drew himself up and saluted. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Sahaku shook his head. “What a fool,” he murmured. “Neither ZAFT nor the Earth Forces will be necessary in my ideal world.”

Thanks in part to the Earth Forces, he was well on his way to achieving that goal. The Alliance had provided him with several new mobile suits, including a GAT-X333 Raider Full Spec and a GAT-X133 Sword Calamity. Combined with Orb’s M1s and his own Gold Frame AMATU, they gave him a substantial military force.

Orb is only the first step. Once those Seiran vermin are out of the way –one of the few things I agree with Strassmeier on; pity he would never join me- I can begin to act more openly. Sahaku snorted. Those idiots actually think the Earth Alliance will allow them to do whatever they wish with Orb.

That was one mistake he would never make. He knew perfectly well that the Alliance was dominated by Blue Cosmos, which meant that he had to act very circumspectly. After all, Rondo Ghina Sahaku was himself a Coordinator.

Eventually, Blue Cosmos must be dealt with…permanently.

He pressed a key on his desk. “This is Sahaku. Prepare the Izumo for deployment within the week.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sahaku sat back. Soon, Athha. Very soon.

Vesalius, bridge, 1 July, C.E. 71

For Captain Fredrik Ades, things had taken a very strange turn since Operation Spit Break. Patrick Zala had fled the PLANTs, openly declaring his intention to exterminate the Naturals. At the same time, Rau Le Creuset, Ades’s own CO, had disappeared, resurfacing long enough to nearly kill Alex Strassmeier at Panama.

I never thought the Commander would turn traitor, Ades thought, then turned as his new commander stepped through the bridge hatch. “Commander Strassmeier, welcome aboard,” he said, saluting.

Strassmeier, his space-black hair making an odd contrast to the pristine white uniform he wore, returned the salute. “Thank you, Captain.” He clasped the older man’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you off the battlefield.”

Ades nodded, hiding his surprise. Strassmeier was more personable than he had heard. “Likewise, Commander,” he said.

Strassmeier’s cold blue gaze swept over the bridge. “I trust things are proceeding smoothly?”

“Yes, sir,” Ades replied, grateful for the change of subject. “Our mobile suit complement is at full, three each of GuAIZs and the new Astray Strikes. The last major battle we were involved in was the destruction of the Eighth Fleet, so the ship itself didn’t need much work.”

“Excellent.” Strassmeier nodded approvingly. “Alles in ordnung, Captain.”

Ades frowned. “Sir?”

“Oh, sorry.” Strassmeier looked briefly sheepish. “My father was German, and I’m afraid I occasionally forget which language I’m speaking. It means ‘all in order’.”

Ades gave a slow nod. That made sense; he had heard of Strassmeier’s mania for efficiency. According to Yzak, it was in his blood. German efficiency and all that. “I’m glad you approve, sir.”

Strassmeier smiled; the expression looked somehow out of place on his angular face. “No need to be surprised, Captain. The Vesalius has an impressive battle record, and I do not for an instant believe that it is solely due to Rau Le Creuset. You are to be commended on your skill.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ades said, feeling decidedly strange. The Commander was not at all what he had been told to expect.

“On to other matters.” Strassmeier brought up a general map of space. “I came aboard at this time because there have been some new developments of which I felt I should personally inform you. First, the Earth Forces are reinforcing their Ptolemaeus lunar base.”

Ades frowned. “That’s hardly a surprise, sir.”

“Perhaps not, but Committee Chairwoman Joule told me that there’s a major construction project there.” Strassmeier’s expression hardened. “Best guess is two, possibly three Archangel-class warships.”

The Vesalius’s captain winced. Having faced two such vessels before, he had no desire to repeat the experience. “That could be a problem.”

“It’s not the worst, either.” Strassmeier grimaced. “In addition to the various Dagger models, the three Gundams we faced at Orb are being transferred to space.” For a brief moment, he looked like he wanted to spit. “On top of that, Rondo Ghina Sahaku is up to something.”

“I’ve never understood his motives,” Ades said. “He’s a Coordinator, so why would he deal with the Earth Forces? For that matter, why would they deal with him?”

The younger man snorted. “To answer your second question first, it’s unlikely that they know he’s a Coordinator in the first place. As for the rest, I have long known that Sahaku has his own agenda. He’s undoubtedly using the Earth Forces for his own ends.”

“That would explain it,” Ades agreed.

“In any case, the First Fleet will be moving out in four days,” Strassmeier said. “I thought I should give you a heads-up.”

“Understood. And I appreciate it,” Ades said.

Strassmeier nodded. “All right, then, Captain. I’ll leave you to your duties.” He saluted, then pushed off for the hatch.

Zala residence, December Five

For the first time since the Bloody Valentine, Athrun’s home actually felt alive. With Kira’s parents, Kira himself, and the ever-lively Flay Allster staying there, it was almost like the war had never happened. As far as Athrun was concerned, that was a good thing.

“Thanks for coming, guys,” Athrun said quietly.

Kira grinned. “I should be saying ‘Thanks for inviting me’ or something like that.”

“Normally, yeah.” Athrun sighed. “But it’s different here. With my mother gone, and my father out of his mind…”

“I understand.” Kira gripped his friend’s shoulder.

Athrun managed a smile. “Thanks, Kira.”

“Athrun, you were always there for me back at Copernicus,” Kira said. “I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t help you with something like this.”

There was no doubt he meant what he said. Kira and his family had moved to Heliopolis in order to avoid the war entirely. Nevertheless, he had piloted the Earth Forces’ GAT-X105 Strike in order to protect people important to him. When Kira Yamato accepted someone as a friend, he was loyal to the end.

That attitude had caused Athrun some problems after Heliopolis, but they had only come into direct conflict three times, and neither had been shooting to kill.

“I appreciate it, Kira, believe me,” Athrun said. “You and Flay are welcome to stay here whenever you’re in the PLANTs.”

“That’s enough gloomy talk!” Flay said before Kira could respond. “We’re supposed to be relaxing here. I know we’re going to be leaving in a few days, but we shouldn’t be thinking about that now.”

Kira and Athrun both laughed. Somehow, it was hard to be depressed with Flay around. “All right,” Kira said, still laughing. “We’ll be good.”

Flay smiled. “Good.”

They moved to the living room, where they were joined by Lacus Clyne, as well as Kira’s parents. Haruma and Caridad Yamato had been delighted when Kira and Athrun reunited at Orb. Having met Athrun before, they knew that he was nothing like his father, and that he would back Kira no matter what.

Mindful of Flay’s desire to avoid discussing the war, they instead spoke of their plans for after the war. Flay and all three Yamatos intended to return to Orb. Kira was going to remain in the service, though he would likely go on extended leave.

Athrun, too, planned to remain a soldier. In the wake of the Bloody Valentine, he felt it was his duty to defend his people. As it happened, Lacus’s father had approaching him with an interesting proposal.

“It’s called FAITH,” he said, tucking an arm around his fiancée. “Fast-Acting Integrated Tactical Headquarters. He wants me to be the field commander.”

Flay leaned forward. “What’s it about?”

“It’s a sort of special operations unit, reporting directly to the Chairman,” Athrun explained. “Members will act outside the normal ZAFT chain of command.”

“Father thought Athrun would be best because he’s already a hero to our people, and he has the Justice,” Lacus said.

Athrun nodded. “I’ll be asking Nicol to serve as my exec; the Blitz would be useful for a unit like that.” He sipped from a glass of water. “I think Chairman Clyne is considering Alex for FAITH, as well.”

“It would fit him,” Kira said. “He’s always done well on his own.”

“No kidding,” Athrun said with an involuntary shiver. He clearly remembered being briefly scared by his first sight of the Valkyrie; the ship looked positively evil. “There’s a reason people are calling him the next Rau Le Creuset.”

Flay had a dreamy look in her eyes. “You know, he’s really handsome in that white uniform.”

“Hey!” Kira protested. “What am I then!?”

She smiled affectionately. “The one I love,” she said, eliciting a furious blush.

Athrun laughed. “Just be glad Cagalli didn’t hear you. She’s pretty possessive where Alex is concerned.” He smiled at the redhead. “So, you’ll be going to Orb?”

“Where Kira goes, I go,” Flay said firmly. “Everyone I really care about is with either Orb or ZAFT these days. With Daddy gone…”

Athrun flinched, looking away. “Flay, I’m sorry about-“

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened, Athrun,” Flay said. “You were doing your duty as a ZAFT soldier, and you couldn’t have known my father was on one of those ships.”

“And besides, you didn’t destroy the Montgomery,” Kira added.

The Justice’s pilot seemed to sag. “Thanks, both of you.”

Jachin Due defense perimeter

He is right on schedule, Chris Madsen thought, watching the Laurasia-class frigate slide into parking orbit. Such a vessel was of course a common sight near the space fortress Jachin Due, but this particular ship was rarely seen anywhere near the PLANTs, for it did not belong to ZAFT. The Cobra belonged to the mercenary organization known as Serpent Tail, the group to which Chris once belonged.

Two mobile suits launched from the frigate, one a customized ZGMF-1017 GINN, the other the MBF-P03 Astray Blue Frame, the Second G version if Chris saw it correctly. He keyed his comm. “Gai, Elijah, is that you?”

“It’s us,” Gai Murakumo confirmed. “Been a while, Chris.”

Chris smiled, goosing the Inferno forward. “Yeah, it has.”

“Is it true you’ve joined ZAFT?” Elijah Kiel asked.

“I’m sitting here in a heavily-armed Gundam and the Jachin forces aren’t shooting at me. What do you think?” Chris said mildly.

“We thought they might have hired you,” Gai said.

Chris shook his head. “I’m under Alex Strassmeier’s command, and he doesn’t operate that way. Oh, he will use mercenaries if he has to, but he does not really trust them. Nothing personal, he’s just wary of someone who’s loyalty is to his paycheck.”

“Can’t blame him,” Gai admitted. “Come on, we can chat aboard ship.”

Laurasia-class frigate Cobra, Gai Murakumo’s quarters

“…So, we ran into Alex’s sister outside Orb, and things went on from there,” Chris said, lounging back in his chair.

Gai, who wore the remains of an Atlantic Federation uniform, raised his eyebrows. “So why did you go so far as to join ZAFT?”

Chris was silent for a few moments. He had left Serpent Tail even before the Nova battle of the previous year, where Gai had confronted Mikhail Coast, barely escaping with his life. Most of that time had been spent helping his friend Alex at Heliopolis.

“Part of it was because Alex did,” he said at last. “Mostly, though, because it was the right thing to do.”

“So, you won’t be returning to Serpent Tail?” Elijah asked.

Chris shook his head. “It might sound crazy, but…I’ve found something to believe in.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about fighting Serpent Tail at this point,” Gai said. “Given their recent actions, I don’t think they’d hire us in the first place, and we wouldn’t accept if they tried.”

The younger man looked surprised. “I always thought you were pretty much for sale to the highest bidder.”

“Normally, you’re right,” Gai said. “But working for the Earth Forces isn’t very healthy right now.”

“True.” Chris shrugged. “Like I said, I’ve found something to believe in. And the PLANTs are my home; I am not letting those Blue Cosmos bastards win. Or Sahaku, for that matter.”

Gai nodded. “Speaking of Sahaku, that’s one reason we came. Erica Simmons –I’m sure you know her- asked for help getting out from under control.”

Chris tilted his head. “She’s not exactly rich. How much is she paying you?”

“Nothing,” Gai replied. He smiled at his friend’s expression. “Erica was a tremendous help when I was in Orb, Chris. I pay my debts.”

“Besides,” Elijah put in, “Rondo hates mercenaries, so it’s a matter of self-preservation.”

Chris snorted. “I’ve noticed.” He cocked an eyebrow. “So, what does this have to do with ZAFT?”

“More Orb, actually,” Gai said, “but ZAFT as well. Specifically, we’d like to see whatever information you have on Rondo Ghina Sahaku.”

Chris pursed his lips. “I’ll see what I can do. The Orb stuff should not be a problem; Lord Uzumi considers Rondo a traitor, after all. ZAFT might be a little trickier; a lot of people remember that you attacked the fleet at Nova, and of course there’s Miguel Aiman to consider.”

Gai nodded. Since he was the reason Miguel had been unable to use his custom GINN at Heliopolis, he understood very well. “We’ll take what we can get, Chris, don’t worry. I won’t ask you to compromise your loyalties.”

“Thanks.” Chris smiled gratefully. “I’ll talk to Alex about the ZAFT data; since his aunt chairs the Defense Committee, he might be able to do something.”

Gai clasped his hand. “I appreciate it, Chris. Say hello to Andrea for me.”

“You got it.”

Eternal, bridge, 2 July, C.E. 71

Andrew Waltfeld shook his head at the report. Apparently, the Earth Forces were sending a vast number of reinforcements into space, specific destination unknown. Three Agamemnon -class ships, an undetermined number of Nelson- and Drake-class vessels, along with numerous cargo ships and transports. Orb had only a limited involvement; Rondo Ghina Sahaku was going with the Izumo and his Gold Frame AMATU.

Bet Cagalli will be thrilled to hear that Waltfeld thought, sipping his coffee. She hates him almost as much as she hates Seiran. Hopefully, Alex will keep her under control.

“What’s up, Andy?”

He grinned at the woman standing next to his chair. “The Earth Forces are moving again. A whole bunch of ships are on their way.” He handed her the report.

Aisha scanned it. “No idea where they’re going?”

“All we can say for sure is they’re not heading for the moon,” Waltfeld said.

“It’s a tempting target,” Martin DaCosta, Waltfeld’s loyal protégé, put in. “You think Command will be sending us out?”

Waltfeld grunted. “I’ll bet they do, DaCosta. For one thing, we have a whole bunch of new machines to field test. Two warships, Eternal and Thunderbird, plus the Astray Strikes and Alex’s Anubis. Besides, if we can nail Sahaku, it’ll make retaking Orb that much easier.”

DaCosta nodded. Rondo Ghina Sahaku was easily the best pilot the “provisional government” had; killing him would weaken them both militarily and politically.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how Kira does in a space battle,” the Tiger went on. “Sure, we’ve got reports from the Le Creuset team, but that’s not the same as a firsthand look.”

“If he’s anywhere near as good as we’ve heard, the Earth Forces are in for a nasty fight,” Aisha said.

Waltfeld chuckled softly. “And that’s just facing him alone. The way he and Athrun fight, it is like they read each other’s minds. I’ve never seen anything like it.” As he spoke, he mentioned a visual record of the Battle of Orb.

More than one person whistled in amazement. Freedom and Justice moved in almost perfect unison; their maneuvers coordinated to the millisecond. It was as though a single mind was controlling both machines.

“That’s right,” Waltfeld said, grinning at his crew’s astounded expressions, “Kira Yamato and Athrun Zala are phenomenal alone; together they’re the next best thing to unbeatable.”

DaCosta looked up over his shoulder. “What about Neo ZAFT?”

“They could be a problem,” Waltfeld admitted. “Le Creuset almost killed Alex with that new machine of his; he’s probably the only person who could give Kira a run for his money. At least, the only one who would actually fight him,” he amended, recalling Athrun.

“Kira will do fine,” Aisha said. “I’m glad you didn’t shoot him back in Banadiya.”

“So am I,” Waltfeld said. “Things would have been a lot tougher for all of us if I had.”

Tougher indeed. Kira Yamato was by far the best mobile suit pilot in their ranks, barely edging out his friend Athrun and significantly better than Waltfeld himself. While he was no leader, Kira was nonetheless an inspiration to his comrades, Orb and ZAFT alike.

Naturally, he found it highly embarrassing…

Archangel, cafeteria

Tolle speared a piece of meat with his fork. “You know, I’m actually looking forward to the next battle.” He held up a hand to forestall Mir’s incipient protest. “It won’t really be as dangerous as you think, Mir. Since the Aegis is primarily a space model, I will have an easier time out there, and no mass-produced unit can match a Gundam.”

She nodded reluctantly. “But what about those new machines?”

“If they turn up, Kira and Athrun will take them,” Kyle Perry put in, setting his tray down. “Seriously, Mir, you’re worrying too much.” He smiled gently. “Look, we’re all in danger here, and besides, he’s right. The Aegis is superb in space, and no grunt suit can match a Gundam.”

Mir still looked uncertain. “What about people like Rena Imelia, or Morgan Chevalier?”

“Mir, they’re the exception, not the rule,” Kyle said. “Besides, I think Alex would take the Moonlight Mad Dog; he held him off in an M1at Orb.”

“You should listen to him,” Tolle said. He took her hand. “Mir, I’ll be fine, and it’s not like I’ll be fighting alone out there.”

“That’s true,” she conceded. The Archangel alone had seven Gundams, the Duel, Buster, Strike, Blitz, Aegis, Justice, and Freedom. Natarle Badgiruel’s Thunderbird had the Dreadnought, a DEEP Arms, and eight Astray Strikes. And, of course, there were the Strassmeier team’s units.

“Hey, guys!” Sai joined them. “Lacus is going to be performing in a few minutes.”

The cafeteria’s main monitor lit up. Lacus Clyne stood on stage in a blue dress, her hair tied in an intricate braid.

“Hello, everyone,” she said in a clear voice. “I am incredibly pleased to be here today. Thank you all for coming.”

Tolle and his friends found themselves riveted. This was the first time any of them had actually seen one of Lacus’s concerts, and even though she had not started singing yet, they could not turn away.

“These are challenging times,” Lacus said. “Orb has fallen, and many of their people have been forced to flee their homes. However, we must not give up hope!” She spread her hands, smiling brightly. “If we continue on, we can bring peace once again!”

After the applause had died down, Lacus moved to the center of the stage. “This song if for my fiancé, Athrun Zala, and the brave crew of the Archangel,” she said. The lights dimmed, a spotlight focused on her, and she began to sing.

The small group in the Archangel’s cafeteria were entranced. Lacus’s voice seemed to flow over them, wrapping them in a soothing blanket.

“What a beautiful voice,” Sai murmured.

Mir rested her head on Tolle’s shoulder. “Yeah,” she agreed.

“Athrun’s a lucky guy,” Tolle said softly. Mir nodded; she felt no jealousy at the remark. Tolle was completely devoted to her, and Lacus was not his type in any case.

“Yeah, he is,” Mir whispered.

Restaurant Divine Constellation, December Three

“I’ll say this much for the Pink Princess,” Mu said. “She sure can sing.”

He and Murrue sat in a dimly lit restaurant not far from the ZAFT Academy. Most of the patrons were, naturally, ZAFT cadets, but there were a few civilians scattered around, as well as a few Orb soldiers. At the moment, all but a few were watching Lacus’s performance.

“It’s no wonder she’s so popular,” Murrue said. “She has a good voice, and the gift of holding people’s attention.” She smiled. “Athrun is a very lucky man,” she added, unknowingly echoing Tolle’s words.

“You got that right,” Mu said. “Of course, he’s not the only lucky guy around here.”

Murrue blushed, knowing exactly what he meant. “Maybe,” she conceded. “There’s a lot to choose from.”

Mu laughed. “Yeah. Alex and Cagalli just got engaged, Kira and Flay have been together ever since we landed on Earth, Dearka and Andrea are going out, and I happen to know Nicol’s been seeing Mayura Labatt lately.”

“The Astray pilot?”

“That’s the one,” Mu confirmed.

Murrue shook her head in wonder. “Amazing how things turn out sometimes.” She took Mu’s hand in hers. “I, for one, have no regrets.”

He squeezed gently. “Neither do I, Murrue. Neither do I.” He threw a brief glance at a corner booth, spotting a familiar hawk-faced figure. And neither does he, I will bet.

Cagalli shook her head fondly. “You know, Alex, if we weren’t already engaged, I’d think you were trying to work up the nerve to propose. This sort of thing isn’t quite your style.” She indicated the dishes on the table between them, laden with far more expensive food than normally preferred.

He shrugged. “I thought it would be fitting for us to have at least one elegant dinner, cliché though it may seem.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining,” she said, smiling. “I could wish we were a little less conspicuous, but there’s no help for that.” Since they both wore white uniforms, visible even in dim light, she had a point.

Alex waved a hand. “Everyone’s watching Lacus right now, though I’m pretty sure Mu saw us.” Not that either minded; Mu could be annoying at times, but he was a good friend.

“He’s here with Murrue,” Cagalli pointed out. She sipped her drink. “Do you have any plans for after the war?”

“Besides staying with ZAFT, not at the moment,” Alex said. “I just hope Aunt Ezalia doesn’t start trying to pressure us to set a wedding date.”

Cagalli snorted. “She wouldn’t dare. We’re both so stubborn that it’d be a waste of time, and she knows it.” She grinned. “Besides, she has her hands full with Yzak.”

“Oh, man,” Alex groaned, briefly covering his eyes with one hand. “I’d forgotten about that. Can you imagine how he would react? I sure can.”

His fiancée laughed, images of Yzak turning bright red appearing in her mind’s eye. “Yeah, you’ve got a point,” she said when she could manage a coherent sentence. “Trying that with Yzak is a BAD idea.”

“To put it mildly.” Alex took a bite of fish. “So, how long do you think we should wait?” he asked in a softer voice.

Cagalli frowned thoughtfully. “We should at least wait until I’m of age,” she said. “Sometime next year at the earliest.”

“I agree,” Alex said. “The timing of our engagement was for morale purposes, but I don’t think either of us is ready to settle down just yet.”

“We have plenty of time,” Cagalli said. Neither of them doubted that they would survive the war.

Yes, we will, Alex thought. We will win this war, free both Orb and the PLANTs, and then we will have a chance to rest. I do not for an instant believe that this will be the last war, but if we can win, we will be in a much stronger position next time.

On the screen, Lacus had wrapped up her song. “Thank you again,” she said. “I have an announcement to make.” The Pink Princess paused dramatically. “I will be accompanying the First Combined Fleet aboard the warship Eternal,” she said.

“Did you know about that?” Cagalli asked softly.

Alex nodded. “Aunt Ezalia told me. Lacus has decided it’s time to do her part.” The meal finished, he stood. “Come on. There’s a place I want to show you.”

Curious, Cagalli rose and followed him.

Observation gallery, core of Martius Four

Sometime later, they floated in the core of Alex’s home colony. The facility was seldom manned by more than a couple of techs, as most of it was automated. Their main duties were to monitor the colony’s rotation and the lift tubes that connected the habitation areas at either end.

“I used to come here when I needed to get away from everything,” Alex said. “The view soothed my nerves.”

Cagalli immediately saw what he meant. Though small, the gallery provided a breathtaking view of the PLANTs, Earth, and the stars. Since the area was in freefall, it was easy to imagine drifting through space, free of any constraints.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered, entranced.

“This is one of the things I missed most,” Alex said, moving to her side. “Heliopolis had nothing like it.” He pointed at a distant pinprick of light. “That’s Jachin Due, gateway to the Homeland.”

Cagalli nodded absently. She knew Jachin was a fortress bristling with weapons, but it was impossible to tell at such a distance. “I can see why you like it here.”

Alex smiled, wrapping an arm around her waist. She promptly nestled against his side. “Here, I could forget entirely the increasing tension between Earth and the PLANTs, even after my parents were killed.” He waved his free hand expansively. “This is what I’m fighting for.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “It’s what we’re all fighting for.” Freedom, and the ability to just live in peace. Cagalli closed her eyes, heaving a contented sigh.

Alex smiled down at her, reflecting on just how lucky he was. In the space of seven months, he had reunited what was left of his family, gotten his wish of joining ZAFT, and won the heart of a princess along the way.

Cagalli, sensing his gaze, looked up. “What are you staring at?” she asked almost coyly.

“The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” Alex said, then bent down and kissed her.

Siegel Clyne’s office, Aprilius One

“The fleet has almost finished assembling,” Clyne told his guest. “Their first target will be an Earth Forces convoy on its way to L3. Fortunately, only one Orb vessel is involved, the Izumo.”

Lord Uzumi sighed. “I do not wish for any more of Orb’s people to be harmed, but if it must be so, then Sahaku’s cabal is the ideal choice. The man is a traitor, and I have no doubt he is merely using both the Earth Forces and Orb itself for his own ends.”

“And your daughter?” Clyne asked quietly. “Are you worried, knowing that she will be going into battle again?”

“Of course, I am worried,” Uzumi said. “Any parent would be. However, there is no stopping her, and she is piloting the most powerful mobile suit Orb has yet produced.”

“Not to mention the fact that her brother and fiancé will be there as well, and both are very protective of her,” Clyne agreed.

Uzumi nodded. “In any case, Cagalli’s presence on the battlefield will be valuable, both because of her own skill and the fact that a noble of Orb is willing to fight for her people.”

“I only hope it will be enough,” Clyne murmured. “If Neo ZAFT were to intervene, it could be a disaster.” He shook himself. “No matter. If Patrick dispatches his own forces, then we will deal with them as they come.”

Though it will be hard on Athrun, he thought. Having to fight his own father, it is fortunate he has Lacus and Kira to help him. That was one of the main reasons he had been willing to allow Lacus to accompany the fleet.

Uzumi sighed. “Regardless, we must deal with both the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT, if we are to stop this war.”

Clyne nodded reluctantly, wishing that his former friend had not lost his mind. “Would that it could be otherwise…”

“What is done, is done,” Uzumi said.

Clyne nodded again. “Yes. Yes, you’re right.”

The respite was nearly over. Soon battle would rage in space once again…