Chapter 33: The Missing Joule

Strassmeier residence, Martius Four, PLANTs, 14 July, C.E. 71

“Samorei, you have a lot of explaining to do,” Yzak said coldly.

The group had gathered in the living room of Alex’s home. Alex himself stood looking out the huge window; the weather people had decided it was time for some rain, which he had always found soothing. Ezalia and Andrea occupied the couch beneath the ocean painting, while Yzak and Samorei had claimed the armchairs on either side of the window. Cassandra sat in Sam’s lap. As it was a strictly family affair, Dearka Elsman, Rondo Mina Sahaku, and Cagalli Yula Athha were elsewhere.

Sam quirked an eyebrow at his brother. “Where should I start?”

“How about telling us what happened when you landed on Earth,” Ezalia suggested. She had been shocked speechless at first; now she looked both overjoyed and angry.

Sam shrugged. “Not really much to tell. I crash landed on the coast of Izanagi, and the Sahakus –mainly Mina- took me in. They nursed me back to health, and I wound up working for them out of gratitude.”

“I think you’re leaving some key factors out,” Alex said, turning away from the window. “Specifically, why didn’t you let the rest of us know you were still alive?”

“And why did you start wearing that freaky disguise after I saw you in Orb!?” Andrea added.

She really has gotten beautiful, Sam thought. Elsman’s one lucky guy. “You’d already disappeared, Andrea,” he said. “I…I didn’t want to cause any more pain, so I felt it best to be officially dead.”

“You actually thought that having us thinking you were dead would cause less pain!?” Yzak said incredulously. “Have you lost your mind!?”

Sam jerked his head at their hawk-faced cousin. “He disappeared not long after I did. Why not yell at him?”

“Because I at least made sure that Aunt Ezalia and Yzak knew I was still alive,” Alex countered, his voice starting to rise. “You, by contrast, made sure everyone thought you were dead. The difference is clear to all but the willfully blind.”

“And then you turn up alive and act like nothing’s wrong!” Yzak added. “What is wrong with you!?”

Sam sighed. “Maybe I was wrong to do that,” he conceded. “Still, it’s not like I didn’t help out at all.” He looked at Alex. “Do you remember who the chief mechanic was for that M1 you used at Orb?”

Alex nodded, wondering where this was headed. “Someone named Samuel Lewis.” His eyes narrowed. “Are you saying…”

“That was me,” Sam confirmed. “I’d heard what Le Creuset did to you at Panama, and I wanted to make sure you had a fighting chance.”

“So, my dead cousin made sure I had an Astray in complete working order,” Alex said. His right arm twitched, and a knife dropped neatly into his hand. “It would have been nice, dear cousin, if you’d had the sense to drop the charade right then and there!”

Ezalia, Andrea, and Yzak flinched in near unison. Alex almost never shouted, and when he did, it was an unbelievably bad sign.

Sam, by contrast, was completely unperturbed. “It would have been very bad timing, Alex, and you should know that.”

Seeing Alex almost ready to explode, Ezalia spoke up. “Children, that’s enough,” she said. “We should all be glad that Samorei is back with us, safe and sound.”

Yzak slowly nodded. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Alex forcibly reigned himself in. “Agreed.” He shot another glance at Sam. “You and I will have to talk about some…other things, though.”

Like Mina, right, Cousin? “All right.”

Orb Embassy, Aprilius One

Even as her fiancé and his family read Sam the riot act, Cagalli was having a confrontation of her own.

“Just who do you think you are!?” she demanded. “You and that worthless brother of yours join forces with the Earth Alliance, and then you have the gall to come and ‘help’ us!”

Rondo Mina Sahaku tilted her head. “So, you don’t believe that I’ve actually changed?”

“Why should I!?” Cagalli shot back. “You and Ghina betrayed Orb because it suited you, and now you’re helping my father because it suits you!”

Mina sighed. “I know you won’t believe me, but there really is more to it than that. Certainly, it suits my purposes; I’ve no desire to be executed.” Her expression hardened. “And it is not easy, Lady Cagalli. You did kill my brother, after all.”

Cagalli did not even blink. “What, was I supposed to let him kill me? He would have, and you know it.”

“Yes, he would have,” the older woman conceded. “I realize that you had no choice. That doesn’t make it any easier.”

That was enough to penetrate Cagalli’s anger. I would feel the same if someone killed Kira, even if they had no choice. “You’re right,” she said, cooling some. “If someone killed Kira, I’d feel the same.” She met the other woman’s gaze. “My father was willing to give you a chance, so I really should do the same.”

Mina smiled. “If you need added incentive, recall that we’re going to be marrying into the same family.”

Cagalli nodded. “Just how did you meet Samorei, anyway? It’s not every day an Orb noble gets to know a ZAFT ace.”

Mina’s gaze took on a faraway look. “It was just after the Bloody Valentine,” she said in a distant voice. “Sam’s GINN had crashed on the beach in the north of Izanagi Island. Some of our people found him and brought him in.”

Cagalli frowned. “I remember hearing about some kind of impact, but I thought it was a meteor.”

“Ghina made sure it was kept quiet,” Mina said. “A GINN High Maneuver quickly visiting on Orb would have caused quite a stir. In any case, our doctors nursed him back to health, and he ended up working for Morgenroete. He now holds a commission in the Orb forces.”

“Explains the uniform,” Cagalli said. “But Morgenroete?”

Mina winced slightly. “Yes. He was involved in the G-weapon project, which I somehow doubt is going to sit well with Commander Strassmeier.”

Cagalli winced in turn. “No kidding. If certain people –Kira and his classmates, plus Murrue and Mu- had not been onboard, Alex would have attacked the Archangel.”

“I’m not surprised. Sam told me about how his aunt and uncle were killed in the Mandelbrot Incident, Andrea’s kidnapping, and Alex’s hatred for the Alliance.” Mina’s lip twisted. “I supported your father when he chose to give Andrea refuge in Orb.”

That was not a surprise. If Mina really were involved with Samorei Joule, then of course she would support giving his beloved cousin safe haven.

“Now it’s your turn,” Mina said. “How did you meet the Spider of Artemis?”

Cagalli shrugged. “The first time was at a diplomatic reception four years ago. He had just had his right arm bitten off by a shark –he told me that after Heliopolis- and he was not in a good mood. Of course, I couldn’t tell by looking.”

Mina chuckled. “Yes, Sam told me about Alex’s cold façade. Never expected to see it firsthand, though.”

“Anyway, I didn’t see him again until Heliopolis.” Cagalli flushed, embarrassed. “I thought he was a ZAFT spy at first. He actually lost his temper when I confronted him about it, after the colony collapsed.”

“A rare occurrence, Sam tells me,” Mina said.

Cagalli nodded. “He spilled his guts about everything he’d been through, and we were friends from then on.”

“And now you’re much more,” Mina observed. “I heard about the engagement.” She smiled wryly. “For a moment, I was sure Yuna Seiran was going to drop dead of an apoplectic fit. Pity he seems to be made of sterner stuff.”

“He’ll get what he deserves in the end,” Cagalli said darkly, her dislike momentarily forgotten. She shook herself. “I wonder what Alex is up to now.”

Mina snorted. “Probably giving Sam a challenging time. He dislikes me, that much is clear, and by all accounts he’s a fanatical PLANT patriot.”

“You got that right,” Cagalli agreed. “He’s obsessed, and he’s never liked your family to begin with. Your brother’s work on the G-weapon project only made things worse. And,” she added grudgingly, “our engagement will complicate things even more.”

Mina nodded slowly. “One engaged to an Athha, the other to a Sahaku. Yes, that could complicate things a great deal.”

Strassmeier residence, garden

Alex sighed, contemplating the plants around him. The garden had been his father’s refuge; Klaus Strassmeier had explained that he needed to immerse himself in nature from time to time, get away from the lab. Of course, whether the gardens could be called “nature” was debatable, inasmuch as a lot of them were genetically engineered, many by Klaus personally. Not to mention being arranged in a perfect geometric pattern.

“I thought I’d find you out here,” Sam said, walking up to him. “You said you wanted to talk?”

Alex nodded. “We’ve already hashed out your disappearance in general terms. Now it’s time to get specific.” He nodded at the emblem on his cousin’s uniform. “Starting with your connection to the Sahakus.”

Sam shrugged. “I already told you that I worked for them out of gratitude.”

“And just what did that entail?” Alex asked pointedly.

The other tensed slightly, knowing how Alex was likely to react. “I went to work for Morgenroete,” he said. “The job took me to Heliopolis.”

“So, you were involved in the G-weapon project,” Alex said softly.

Sam covered a wince. On the rare occasions Alex shouted, he was ready to kill. When he whispered, he was ready to kill everything. Such was Sam’s view, anyway. “I was.”

Alex’s eyes bore a strong resemblance to ice crystals right then. “You were involved in the G-weapon project. The project that brought Rau Le Creuset to Heliopolis, ultimately resulting in the colony’s collapse. The project that forced Kira and me to fight people important to us just so we could do what we believed was right.”

“Right so far,” Sam confirmed.

“That’s perilously close to outright treason, Sam,” Alex said, his voice still soft. “You just admitted working on prototype mobile weapons intended for the Earth Forces.”

“It also helped Orb,” Sam countered. “And I was operating under the Sahakus’ orders the whole time.”

Alex snorted. “Maybe so. The Sahaku connection is another issue entirely.” He glared at the older man. “What were you thinking, joining forces with them? They are not as bad as the Seirans, granted, but that does not make them trustworthy. They are smarter than the Seirans, and far more ambitious. The Seirans just want to rule Orb; the Sahakus want to rule the world.”

“Rondo Ghina Sahaku did,” Sam told him, his voice cooling noticeably.

Another snort. “Do you expect me to believe that Rondo Mina Sahaku isn’t just as ambitious as her brother was?”

“She used to be,” Sam admitted. “I, however, was able to influence her enough to change things.” He matched his cousin’s glare. “She’s willing to help put an end to this insane war. What more do you want!?”

“For her to put an end to her family’s rivalry with the Athhas,” Alex shot back. “Or have you already forgotten who I’m engaged to?”

“If Cagalli will do the same, the way her father already is,” Sam told him. “Listen to me, Alex. Just as you love Cagalli, I love Mina, and I will do anything to keep her safe. Do I make myself clear?”

Alex nodded, recognizing the implicit threat. “Very clear.”

Sam grinned. “Now that we have that out of the way, I think we ought to do a little catching up. How’s Andrea doing?”

Alex relaxed. “Aside from joining ZAFT and dating Dearka Elsman, same as ever.” He shook his head. “She’s also close friends with Flay Allster, of all people, a fact that deeply disturbs me.”

“I’m just glad she got out of that Combat Coordinator mess,” Sam murmured; he had always been closer to Andrea than Alex. Indeed, her disappearance had been one of his main reasons for joining ZAFT. “And I’m glad your dream finally came true,” he added, noting Alex’s white ZAFT uniform.

Alex fingered his collar. “I hesitated at first, until Uzumi pointed out that I was a son of the PLANTs regardless, so my joining ZAFT didn’t change anything in that regard.” He looked at Sam sidelong. “And I’m glad you finally understood something clearly at last about Patrick Zala. Only took you three years.”

“It only took you that long to find a girlfriend,” Sam retorted, grinning. “Figures it’d be the Athha girl; you’ve always been attracted to the tomboy type.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “I’d hit you, Sam, if it didn’t have potential diplomatic repercussions. And if you weren’t right.” He raised an eyebrow. “You, on the other hand, go for the schemer type. Lady Macbeth, anyone?” His tone made clear that he was joking.

Sam threw back his head and laughed. “Lady Macbeth, nice, except Mina’s hands aren’t bloodstained.” He wiped his eyes. “Man, anyone who says you don’t have a sense of humor doesn’t know you.”

“You know perfectly well I don’t believe in showing my true feelings in public,” Alex said mildly.

“So, you like making people think you’re a cold fish?” Sam asked.

Alex nodded. “Yzak often says I’m like his teammate Nicol Amalfi on the inside. Since many potential adversaries see that as a weakness –stupid, given the skill of people like Nicol and Kira- it’s best not to show it.”

Sam shook his head fondly. “Same old Alex. Cold as ice on the outside, warm and fuzzy on the inside.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Warm and fuzzy?”

“Hey, you fell for that Athha girl, didn’t you?”

The Spider of Artemis closed his eyes in resignation. “Hopeless. Completely hopeless.”

Unato Seiran’s residence, Orb Union, 15 July, C.E. 71

“So, Rondo Mina Sahaku has joined Athha,” Unato Ema Seiran said.

His intelligence chief nodded. “Yes, my lord. Her pet ZAFT renegade attacked the Earth Forces fleet at Mendel, and the Izumo itself reached the PLANTs yesterday.”

Yuna Roma Seiran clenched his fists. “As if Lady Cagalli’s engagement to the bastard Strassmeier wasn’t bad enough,” he growled. “Father, we need to eliminate Sahaku. Bad enough to see one Orb noble, even a traitor, marrying into a PLANT family, but two? Especially Sahaku, who has a private army to draw on.”

“Agreed.” Unato grimaced. “I always knew that we would eventually have to dispose of her, but I didn’t expect something like this.” He looked at the intelligence chief. “Can we get an asset to the PLANTs?”

The man shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. Even if we could, the chance of success would be low. Lady Sahaku is no fool, and that ZAFT renegade is not just an ace pilot; he is also a highly capable bodyguard. Then there’s Strassmeier. He may dislike Sahaku, but her relationship with his cousin means he would almost certainly protect her the way he would a blood relative.”

“And the Spider of Artemis is a martial arts master and a crack shot with any firearm known to man,” Unato said sourly. “You raise an excellent point, unfortunately.” He rubbed his temples. “What are our options?”

The intelligence chief shrugged. “All we can really do is hope the Earth Forces –or Blue Cosmos- get lucky. My sources tell me that the Alliance is trying to regain nuclear capability.” He tapped a folder he had brought along. “Failing that, we can hope all four of them fall in battle.”

“How likely is that?” Yuna asked.

The other side. “Unfortunately, not very. Before joining Orb’s military, Samorei Joule was a ZAFT Elite, as was his cousin before his recent promotion. Lady Cagalli is also highly skilled, and the Akatsuki is a very formidable unit. As for Lady Sahaku, rumor has it she is even better than her brother was.” He looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, my lord, but that’s the situation.”

Unato grimaced again. “I see. No help for it.” He looked at his son. “Yuna, I want you to contact Azrael. I know he’s already made Strassmeier a priority target; we’re just asking that he add Joule, Sahaku, and the Athha girl to the list.”

“Of course, Father.”

Amalfi residence, Maius City, PLANTs

Music filled the small room, the light notes of a piano. The musician, a sixteen-year-old with green hair, was very gifted; he barely glanced at the sheet music before him, playing largely with his eyes closed. Looking at him, one would never realize he was an ace mobile suit pilot.

It has been too long, Nicol thought. I have spent so much time in battle, I had almost forgotten what it was like to do this. Even that recital Athrun and I attended after the Eighth Fleet battle was not the same.

He smiled wistfully. Though he had no regrets about his decision to join ZAFT, there were some things he missed, and this was one of them.

Nicol’s dream was to become a concert performer, but after hearing of the Bloody Valentine, he had felt that he ought to do his part and join the fight. He had enlisted the day he turned fifteen, and quickly rose to near the top of his class. On graduation in September of C.E. 70, Nicol’s scores had been high enough to earn the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite and had won him a place on the Le Creuset team.

Now, almost a year later, he was fighting alongside people who had once been his enemies…

Footsteps sounded behind him. “Don’t mind me.”

Nicol smiled, recognizing the voice. “Hi, Mayura,” he said, his fingers never faltering. “What brings you here?”

Mayura Labatt parked herself in a nearby chair. “Your mother invited me to drop by,” she said.

Nicol nodded, unsurprised. Both of his parents had been delighted when he and Mayura started dating. His mother in particular wholeheartedly approved of the young Astray pilot, saying that Mayura was just the kind of person Nicol needed in his life.

“You really are good,” Mayura went on. “I’m not really into this sort of thing, but I can still tell.”

“Thanks.” Nicol finished the piece and started another. “I’ve always enjoyed this, ever since I was little.”

“Ever play in concert?”

Nicol shook his head. “The closest was a recital just after the Eighth Fleet was destroyed.” He smiled wryly. “Athrun was there, but he kind of fell asleep, though he told me later he was only resting his eyes.”

Mayura laughed. “Sounds like him. I don’t know him the way you and Kira do, but that’s easy to picture.” She stood and moved to lean against the piano. “You really should see about playing in concert.”

“Not till after the war,” Nicol said. “When the PLANTs are free, then I’ll see what I can do.” He finished playing, stood, and drew her into an embrace.

She rested her head on his shoulder. “I’ll help, any way I can.”

Public park, Junius Five, 18 July, C.E. 71

“Would someone mind telling me what we’re doing out here in the pouring rain?” Alex asked.

Sam chuckled. “Hey, you’re the guy who finds rainfall soothing.”

“I prefer to be indoors when it rains,” Alex retorted.

“Come now, Alex, at least we’re all wearing raincoats,” Rondo Mina Sahaku said, taking Sam’s right hand in hers.

Alex shot her a glance but held his peace. He still did not exactly trust her, but he was willing to give her a chance. Not to mention pressing the issue with Sam around was a Bad Idea.

“Besides, it helps us stay incognito,” Cagalli put in. She pressed a hand on her hip; beneath the coat, Alex knew, was a holstered auto pistol. “And we can take care of things if we have to.”

Alex nodded. He himself wore his Luger in a shoulder holster and had three knives in a compartment in his artificial arm. Sam had a knife up each sleeve, one in his right foot, and one on his belt, as well as his old ZAFT-issue machine pistol. Mina Sahaku had a gun in her coat, and all four of them were highly proficient at hand-to-hand combat.

He did find it odd that Mina and Cagalli were not tearing into each other, though.

“There they are,” the quad leader said. “Just a little longer…”

His number two nodded, expression quietly vicious. Just a little longer, and we can take out some space monsters on their own ground. He did not know how Lord Yuna had gotten the information that led to this attack, but it was definitely spot-on.

“Now!” the leader snapped.

Alex spun around, yanking out his Luger. “Heads up, we’ve got company!” At least a dozen armed men were charging them. One of them fired, his shot bouncing off Alex’s right arm; Alex’s return shot took him in the right eye, shattering his skull.

Sam talked Mina to the ground and produced his machine pistol aimed. “Who are these guys, anyway!?” he demanded, putting a precisely aimed burst in an attacker’s chest.

“For the preservation of our blue and pure world!”

Alex cursed in German. “That answer your question?” His right hand twitched, and a knife appeared in an assassin’s throat.

Cagalli appeared at his side. Her pistol barked, smashing through a terrorist’s nose. “Bastards!”

Then it was Mina’s turn. Her gun, it turned out, was not a gun at all, but rather a needler. The small hypervelocity projectiles literally separated an attacker’s head from his shoulders.

“This is not how I’d planned to spend my day,” Sam muttered. His right-hand knife came out just in time to slash the throat of an enemy who got too close. “Six down.”

Alex’s Luger chose that moment to jam. Cursing, he shifted the weapon to his left hand and lashed out with his right, smashing yet another terrorist’s face. The dead man toppled over, tripping up one of his fellows.

It soon became clear that Alex’s initial estimate of attackers’ numbers had been low. Even more were coming seemingly out of nowhere. Luckily for Alex and his companions, there was plenty of cover, and none of the attackers were Coordinators.

Sam had knives in both hands now, slashing left and right, Mina covering him with her needler. Cagalli and Alex crouched together, he is having unjammed his pistol. Slowly but surely, they struck down the somewhat inept assassins, taking them out one by one.

Mina abruptly leapt to her feet. “This one’s mine!” Ignoring Sam’s startled protest, she lunged at an isolated Blue Cosmos operative, tackling him to the ground and knocking him unconscious.

“Why did she do that!?” Cagalli wondered, putting a bullet through an enemy’s heart.

“I think she decided it would be wise to take at least one of these vermin alive for interrogation,” Alex said. His hand twitched again, and a knife buried itself in his target’s chest. “She’s probably right.”

Then it was over, and the four youngsters just stood there, watching the rain spread red streams in what had been a peaceful park just minutes before.

Detention center

The man Mina had captured was soon awake. In light of the fact that his group had attacked at least three foreign representatives, plus one of ZAFT’s top commanders, the local police did not hesitate to use truth drugs.

“I have to say, it’s lucky you guys were armed,” the officer in charge said. “Those were some pretty serious challenging cases.”

“We noticed,” Alex said. “I don’t know of any Blue Cosmos operative who isn’t a hard case.”

The OIC nodded. “You’ve got a point there.”

“Hard cases aside, who set them on us?” Sam asked. “It’s not easy to get that many operatives into the PLANTs.”

“I don’t know how they did it, and neither does the prisoner,” the OIC said. “He does, however, know who sent them.”

Cagalli gave him an impatient look. “And that is?” she prompted.

“Yuna Roma Seiran.”

Mina’s jaw dropped. “How good he have managed that? Yuna’s not smart enough to pull it off.”

“He probably bribed someone who did know the tricks and let them handle it,” Alex said, then turned to the police officer. “Why were they sent after us?” As if I could not guess.

The other snorted. “The Seirans need the four of you eliminated, so Yuna –without his father’s knowledge, evidently- decided to do something about it, even though he’d already been warned the chance of success was very low.” He jerked his head at the holding area. “What should we do with him?”

Alex looked at his companions. “What do you guys think?”

“I say let the justice system run its course,” Sam said. “He’ll get what he deserves.”

“I agree,” Mina said. “However, as a noble of Orb, it really isn’t my decision to make.” Cagalli nodded agreement.

Alex shrugged. “Very well.” He turned to the OIC. “Just go through whatever SOP is for this sort of thing.”

“Yes, sir.”

The door opened behind them. “Hey, Alex, the Chairman wants to see you.”

Alex turned and froze despite himself. His cousin Yzak was now dressed in the white uniform of a ZAFT commander. On top of that, the scar that had typified him ever since coming to Earth was gone. His demeanor had changed subtly as well; though still a hothead, at the same time Yzak seemed more relaxed.

Sam broke the silence. “Never thought I’d see you in white, Yzak,” he said with a grin. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” Yzak grinned back, then gave Alex a smug look. “You gonna just stand there?”

Alex shook himself. “Right.” He gave Cagalli a quick kiss and departed.

“So, what’s going on, anyway?” the princess asked.

Yzak smirked. “Alex just earned himself another promotion. You’ve heard about that new spec ops unit Chairman Clyne is setting up, right?” Cagalli nodded. “Alex landed a spot with them. Athrun’s going to be the field commander, with Nicol as his exec.”

“It makes sense,” Sam said. “I heard a lot about what Alex was able to pull off before he joined ZAFT. This new FAITH organization is the perfect place for him.” He tilted his head. “So how come you’re not jealous?”

Yzak shrugged. “In case you did not notice, Sam, I got promoted, too. I’ll be taking over for Athrun, with Dearka as my second-in-command.”

“Alex still outranks you, though,” Mina pointed out.

“So what? I’m a mobile suit pilot, simple,” Yzak said. “Alex has always been better than I am at grand strategy and stuff like that.”

Sam nodded. He distinctly recalled Alex’s near obsession with military history. Alex had read every book on strategy he could get his hands on, starting with the works of Sun Tzu. He had a knack for it, as Artemis had proved.

“Why’d you get rid of the scar?” Cagalli asked suddenly.

Yzak actually looked embarrassed. “Well, since the guy who gave it to me is a friend now, it seemed kind of pointless.” He turned to leave. “See you guys later.”

“And where are you off to?” Sam asked, a teasing note in his voice.

This time, to the astonishment of all present, Yzak blushed. “A date with Shiho Hahnenfuss,” he admitted.

The room dissolved into laughter.

Siegel Clyne’s office, Aprilius One

Siegel smiled as the hawk-faced young man entered his office. “Welcome.”

The youngster saluted. “Commander Alex Strassmeier, reporting as ordered, Your Excellency.”

“Please, relax,” Siegel said. “In fact, be seated, all of you.” He waited until the three had obeyed, then flowed suit. “No doubt you at least are wondering what’s going on, Commander Strassmeier.”

“Yes, sir, I am,” Alex admitted.

Siegel nodded. “Understandable. Athrun and Nicol have been involved in this already, so they have a clever idea of what’s happening.” He nodded at the two ZAFT Elites. “After recent events, I deemed it wise to bring you in as well.”

Alex frowned. “Are you talking about the new special operations force?”

The Chairman nodded again. “It is still in the process of formation. Athrun here will be the field commander, with Nicol as his exec.” He stood, activating a view screen. “Orb has fallen, and we are on the verge of losing Kaohsiung. Victoria is in Earth Forces hands, as you know, and we have reason to believe they are preparing for an assault on Gibraltar.”

Alex grimaced. “That’s bad.”

“Indeed. That is why Ezalia, and I decided we needed a new force, one outside the normal chain of command.” Siegel looked at him shrewdly. “With your experiences prior to joining ZAFT, you demonstrated considerable ability. And that, Commander, is why I am offering you a position in FAITH.”

The younger man met his gaze. “Assuming I accept, just what would that entail?”

At Siegel’s nod, Athrun answered. “You’ll be able to act pretty much as you see fit, within limits,” he said. “You’ll answer only to the Chairman personally.”

That could have advantages, Alex thought. “All right,” he said. “I accept.” He stood, came briefly to attention, and saluted.

“You’ll have to get over the excessive formality,” Siegel said with a chuckle. “This isn’t like the regular ZAFT forces.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Alex said. “What about my team?”

“Your sister will take over command,” Siegel told him. “She may not have your strategic ability, but she’s still very good at her job.”

Athrun laughed. “Even if she is completely insane. No offence.”

Alex waved a hand. “Nothing I haven’t said many times –to her face.” He stood. “Well, I’d best get going. If you will excuse me, Your Excellency.”

He ran into Ezalia Joule just outside. “Hi, Aunt Ezalia.”

“Alex.” Ezalia smiled, touching the wing-like emblem on his collar. “I see you’ve accepted.”

“Yeah.” Alex smiled back. “I could hardly refuse an opportunity like this.”

She laughed softly. “You always did love a challenge. Sometimes that is what made you fall in love with Cagalli. By all accounts, having a good relationship with her is a huge challenge.”

“Depends on how much she likes you or doesn’t like you as the case may be.” Alex shook his head. “Lucky for me, I happen to be on the positive end of the spectrum.”

“True.” Ezalia’s expression softened. “Your parents would be enormously proud of you, Alex. Thanks to you, the family is back together. You’ve fulfilled your dream and found someone to love in the process.”

Alex felt tears sting his eyes but refused to let them fall. “I like to think so,” he said softly.

“It’s true. Trust me, Alex.” She gave him a quick hug. “Try to be understanding about Sam, though.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t mind his choice of…companion?”

“Even if I did, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Ezalia said. “He’s just as stubborn as you and Yzak.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Alex muttered. “Easier to herd cats than to get Samorei Joule to change his mind. Less painful, too.”

His aunt laughed. “You haven’t lost your gift for one-liners.” She shook her head. “Speaking of Sam, I have to talk to him. MMI just finished a new prototype, a test bed for some weapons intended for the next generation of mobile suits. I thought Sam would be a good pilot.”

“Makes sense,” Alex agreed. “He’s a hot pilot who was involved in the G-weapon project. I’d best leave you to it, then.”

Ezalia hugged him again, quickly. “Take care of yourself, Alex.”

“I will.”

ZAFT test facility, December Five

Samorei Joule stood on a high catwalk, facing a dormant mobile suit. “Mother, just what is this thing?”

Ezalia switched on a set of spotlights. “This is a new prototype, a test bed for weapons intended for the next generation of mobile suit. YMF-X001A Gladiator.” She pointed to various parts of the machine. “Of its weapons, only the CIWS –it uses the same model as the Freedom- and rocket anchors aren’t contemporary designs.”

Sam whistled softly. “A beam rifle, two beam boomerangs, two anti-ship swords, and something that looks suspiciously like the Scylla mounted by the Aegis and Calamity.”

“It’s called a Callidus,” Ezalia said. “Of course, aside from the CIWS and rocket anchors, these are all very preliminary versions.”

“They’ll do,” Sam said. “It’s better than anything the Earth Forces have.” He turned to face his mother. “Mom, Alex has already read me the riot act about Mina. How do you feel about it?”

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Samorei, if she was able to win your heart, then she must be a special person.”

“Alex doesn’t seem to think so,” Sam said, a grin tugging at his lips.

“Alex was born suspicious, you know that” Ezalia said. “Admittedly, I can’t blame him in the case of Mina Sahaku, not after what her brother did.”

Sam nodded. “Mina doesn’t, either especially since he’s engaged to Lord Uzumi’s daughter. It’s only natural that he’d be suspicious of any Sahaku.” He shrugged. “I don’t know if he’ll ever like her, but he’s willing to at least give her a chance.”

“And he’s not going to harangue you about it again,” Ezalia said. “He told me that herding cats was easier than getting you to change your mind about something.”

He laughed. “That’s Alex, all right. A one-liner for every occasion.” He came forward and embraced her. “Thank you for understanding,” he whispered. “And…I’m sorry I made you worry.”

She hugged him back. “It’s all right. Just be careful out there.” She pulled back, meeting her son’s gaze. “And do make sure Lady Sahaku survives as well. With her brother dead, and the likely fate of the Seirans, Orb is running low on nobles.”

Sam laughed again. “No problem there. I’m not worried, though; Mina can handle herself on the battlefield.” He looked back at his new Gundam. “I can’t wait to take this baby for a spin.”

Ezalia sobered. “You’ll have your chance soon enough, I think. Things are going badly on Earth; it’s only a matter of time before they attack the PLANTs directly.”

Sam nodded. “And I’ll fight them. For Mina, and for the Homeland.” The last came out with absolute conviction; though he was now a citizen of Orb, Samorei Joule still bore love for the PLANTs.

Yes, I will fight them, he thought. For Mina, for the Homeland, for Andrea, and for the aunt and uncle they murdered.

Zala residence

Kira Yamato stood gazing over the artificial lake. He had received word of the attack an hour earlier and had come out to try and calm himself. It had not worked very well; Kira normally had a calm disposition, but attacking his beloved sister was guaranteed to put him in a murderous rage.

Those bastards! If I ever get my hands on Yuna, he is dead!

A hand landed on his shoulder. “Kira, are you all, right?”

He took a deep breath. “I will be, Flay. It’s just that-“

“You’re angry about what happened,” Flay finished for him. “So am I. At least they came out all right and took out most of their attackers. The only reason Lady Sahaku spared one was so that they could interrogate him.”

“Yeah.” Kira clenched his fists. “If I ever get my hands on Yuna Seiran, he’s dead. Nobody attacks my family like that.”

“You’ll have to take a number,” Flay said wryly. “I don’t think Alex has been that mad since the Raider almost killed Cagalli at Orb.”

Kira nodded, stroking the robot bird on his shoulder. One thing he had never doubted about his future brother-in-law was his ability to protect Cagalli. With his skill in the martial arts, a talent for knife tricks, and uncanny marksmanship, the man was a veritable walking death machine. Getting on his bad side was a safe way to commit suicide.

Of course, a lot of my friends are like that, he thought with a wry smile. Athrun Zala, Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Mu La Flaga, and Andrew Waltfeld, just to name a few. For that matter, Cagalli herself had a rarely seen vicious streak.

“Do you know when we’ll be going out again?”

Kira shrugged. “FAITH is finally getting set up, so Athrun and Nicol aren’t in the regular chain of command anymore, though they’ll still be flying off the Archangel. Yzak’s taking over the team.”

Flay chuckled softy. “Never thought I’d see him in a white uniform. He deserves it, though.”

“Yeah.” Kira wrapped an arm around her. “He’s good, Flay. Maybe not on my level, or Athrun’s, but still one of the best.” There was no arrogance in that statement; Kira was telling the simple truth.

She rested her head on his shoulder. “And you’re the best.”

“Maybe.” Kira smiled. “Flay, thank you.”

She looked up at him, puzzled. “For what?”

“For being there.” Kira stroked her cheek. “Without you, I would’ve lost my mind a long time ago.”

Flay smiled. “You’re welcome, but I wasn’t the only one. Cagalli was there. Sai, Tolle, Mir, Alex, even Kuzzey. You were never alone.” She snuggled against him. “But I’m glad I could help.”

“More than you know.” Kira leaned close and kissed her.

“They look so happy together,” Lacus said. She and Athrun stood in the hallway behind the two Orb soldiers.

Athrun nodded. “Yeah.” They turned away, letting the couple have some privacy. “When I first heard that they were together –Cagalli told me on that island- I thought it was proof the Earth Forces were manipulating Kira.”

Lacus raised her eyebrows. “Why is that?”

Her fiancé rubbed his cheek ruefully. “Her father, Atlantic Federation Vice Foreign Minister George Allster, was a top Blue Cosmos official. Anyway, Cagalli slapped me in the face over it.”

Lacus laughed softly. “I can see that.”

“I knew when I actually met Flay that she was no Blue Cosmos fanatic,” Athrun said. “Cagalli was right; she was the only thing really keeping Kira going. And he was all she had left after her father was killed.”

Lacus nodded. “I wonder what they’ll do, after the war.”

“You can bet they’ll get married sooner or later,” Athrun said. “We’ll still see them a lot; I’ll be working with Orb quite a bit.” He grinned. “Besides, they’ll be visiting the PLANTs fairly often. Remember who Cagalli’s engaged to.”

“Yes.” Lacus looked pensive. “They needed each other just as much as Kira and Flay did. Alex was in despair over his family, and Cagalli needed someone who would treat her like a normal person.”

Athrun smiled. “And what about us?”

Lacus smiled back. “It may have started as a parental arrangement, but we’re far beyond that, I think.” She held up her favorite Haro. “You wouldn’t have given me Mister Pink, otherwise.”

“Haro! Haro!” the robot chirped.

Athrun chuckled. “Yeah, you’re right.” His eyes took on a distant look. “We’ll have a future.”

Jachin Due command center, 8 August, C.E. 71

Alex stared at the situation plot; his expression grim. ZAFT had already lost Kaohsiung and Gibraltar, and now the Earth Forces were launching a major attack on Oceania. Alliance mobile suits had been confirmed around Ayer’s Rock, including a few Buster Daggers, one of them reportedly piloted by Rena Imelia, and Kira’s onetime nemesis Edward Harrelson in a Raider Full Spec.

“So, it’s begun,” Siegel Clyne murmured.

“I don’t think we can hold Carpentaria, Siegel,” Ezalia Joule said. She looked at the trio of Orb nobles standing nearby. “We’ve confirmed Rena Imelia’s involvement.”

Cagalli snorted. “No surprise there. She knows better than anyone else how to use those Buster Daggers.”

“What bothers me is their next move,” Mina said. “If we lose Carpentaria, there’s only one place left for the Alliance to strike. Here.”

Grim nods all around. The PLANTs, the Coordinator Homeland, were the only possible objective if the Earth Alliance truly intended to win. While Patrick Zala’s Neo ZAFT was a wild card, and had to be destroyed, the true symbol of victory for the Alliance was the complete destruction of the PLANTs.

“We will prevail,” Uzumi said. “We have no other choice.”

Alex took Cagalli’s hand. The Earth Forces may be coming, but they will have to fight on our home ground. We have the advantage in space. He was not stupid enough to think it would be easy, but he was confident they would succeed.