I own nothing save Alex and Andrea Strassmeier, their comrades, and Troy Cadwallader.

Cassandra Joule is the creation of Artificial Life Creator.

Max Labatt is the creation of Chaos Angel Darkheart.

Samorei Joule is the creation of NukeDawg.

Aprilius One, PLANTs, 5 October, C.E. 71

Siegel Clyne looked out over the assembled soldiers. ZAFT green and red intermingled with the silver-white of Orb, most notably in front, where Athrun Zala stood next to his friend Kira Yamato. A handful wore the light blue of the Eurasian Federation, among them Morgan Chevalier.

"This has been a trying time for all of us," he began. "From the day this war began through the treachery of the Earth Alliance until the recent battle at Jachin Due, we have been under threat from without and within. The Earth Forces menaced us externally, and the treason of men like Patrick Zala and Rau Le Creuset weakened us."

Athrun winced when his father was mentioned. Kira gripped his shoulder reassuringly.

"However, we have held firm throughout," Clyne went on. "The Alliance's nuclear attack has been halted, and the threat of Neo ZAFT has been destroyed."

"This would not have been possible without our alliance with the Orb Union," he continued, nodding at the man next to him. "Chief Representative Uzumi Nara Athha agreed to cooperate despite the risk it posed to his nation. As you are all aware, his daughter Cagalli is engaged to Commander Alex Strassmeier of FAITH. This will cement the ties between our nations."

In the audience, Cagalli blushed furiously; beside her, Alex didn't so much as twitch.

Clyne spread his hands. "Now the war is all but over. The Earth Forces have been almost completely driven from space, and for now, at least, our Homeland is safe."

After who knows how many died, Alex thought. He didn't blame the Chairman, though; Siegel Clyne was one of the few politicians he genuinely admired.

"This would not have happened but for the efforts of our brave soldiers and those of our allies," Clyne said. "Athrun Zala, please step forward."

Athrun obeyed. He knew what was coming, of course, but he was still very nervous.

The Chairman smiled. "Had GENESIS been used on Earth, it would have effectively rendered the mother world uninhabitable. Athrun Zala, knowing this, piloted his mobile suit, the Justice, to the very core of that weapon, destroying it from within at great risk to himself. In so doing, he quite literally saved the human race from extinction." He turned to Athrun. "Athrun Zala, I am pleased and proud to present you with the Order of the Nebula, for service far above and beyond the call of duty."

Athrun stood at rigid attention as Clyne looped the medal ribbon around his neck, almost oblivious to the resultant applause. Though deeply scarred about what he had been forced to do that day, he had no regrets about his final action. He met Lacus's gaze beyond her father. She smiled at him.

As Athrun returned to his place, Clyne gazed at the crowd. "Few have suffered more in this conflict than the people of the Orb Union." He beckoned Kira forward. "Lieutenant Commander Kira Yamato was living in the neutral resource satellite Heliopolis when the war found him. Despite the anguish of having to fight his own people, especially his best friend, Athrun Zala, he fought for what he believed was right, and ultimately led his shipmates in defecting to Orb."

Kira blushed slightly. I wasn't that important.

"Since then, he has been a powerful ally, as was shown at Jachin when he defeated the traitor Rau Le Creuset in single combat, almost losing his life in the process." Clyne turned to face the young pilot. "It is highly unusual to decorate a foreign officer. However, we cannot ignore what you did for the PLANTs at Jachin. You repeatedly risked your life to defend a nation not your own. Therefore, you have been awarded the Order of the Nebula."

Kira, still unused to being high-profile, barely kept from swallowing at the cheers that greeted Clyne's announcement. In the crowd, he saw Flay Allster and Cagalli Yula Athha standing together, both grinning ear to ear.

Clyne faced the audience again. "Soon, we will begin an operation to liberate Orb from the oppression of the Atlantic Federation. Within weeks, the people of Orb will be free."

"I have to admit, Chairman Clyne makes a good speech," Yzak said an hour later.

Alex shrugged. "It's part of the job, Yzak. The magic of the spoken word is timeless. Which is why I will never be a politician."

"Come on, Alex, you're not that bad," Andrea said.

"Given that I take pains to not be openly emotional, Andrea, I'm afraid I disagree," Alex countered. "In any case, I'm already in the position I want."

"He has a point there, Andrea," Sam said. "Your brother has a mind like a combat computer. He's at his best when planning how to blow something up." He cocked an eyebrow at the Spider. "I'll bet that's why he was assigned to plan the assault on the Orb occupation force."

Andrea's eyes widened. "Is that true, Alex?"

He shrugged. "The Council was evidently impressed by how I conducted the Artemis operation, so they dropped it in my lap. Admiral Halberton is the senior Orb officer, but he this kind of operation isn't his area, and he knows it."

"So how are you going to do it?" Yzak asked.

"Orbit drop." Alex smiled thinly. "Drop a whole bunch of mobile suits on top of them."

Andrea winced at the thought of what it would be like for the Earth Forces. Orbit drops had often been ZAFT's trump card; the only reason it had failed at Alaska was because of the Cyclops. She had no sympathy for them, however, not after what they had put her through.

"Count me in," Yzak said.

"I intend to, Yzak," Alex told him. "We're bringing in our best for this one."

"Good." Yzak clenched a fist. "Orb helped us defend our homeland. It's time we did something for them in return."

The quartet wandered to the spaceport; Alex wanted to get some things at his house squared away before they went into action again. Sam, predictably, teased him about his upcoming wedding. Alex, also predictably, ignored him.

Sam took a seat, shaking his head. "I'll never understand you, Alex. You're getting married in less than a year, so why do you keep acting like that?"

"Because I have no tolerance for innuendoes," Alex said coolly. "My one regret about seeing you alive is the fact that I'll have to put up with your idea of humor."

Sam snorted. "Then why not give me some of my own back?"

"Because I, unlike you, do not have a low sense of humor," Alex retorted.

"Now, now, be nice," Andrea told them both, ignoring Yzak's laughter.

Alex rolled his eyes. He didn't protest though; he was too happy that Andrea was there at all to be bothered when she told him off. Mom, Dad, I wish you could see us now.

His sister, seeming to read his mind, squeezed his shoulder. "I miss them, too," she said softly. "But we'll always remember them."

"Yeah." Alex sighed. "Yeah, you're right."

Orb airspace, 19 October. C.E. 71

It was time. After two weeks of frenzied preparation, the Orb exiles, with the help of their ZAFT allies, were ready to liberate their homeland. Though the Earth Forces had withdrawn from Oceania, the operation was not being launched from Carpentaria. Instead they came in via orbital drop, masterminded by Alex Strassmeier.

Four Gundams led the way, Rondo Mina Sahaku's Gold Frame AMATU, Samorei Joule's YMF-X001A Gladiator, Cagalli Yula Athha's ORB-01 Akatsuki, and Kira Yamato's ZGMF-X10A Freedom. Four additional Gundams, X102 Duel, X210 Specter, X09A Justice, and X14A Anubis, followed behind, but it had been agreed that the Orb machines should lead the attack.

"This is Chief Representative Uzumi Nara Athha," Lord Uzumi said. He had come on the Archangel. "I am ordering all Orb forces who remain in home waters to stand down. Unato Ema Seiran and his son have committed treason by allying with the Earth Forces."

There was a lot more to the speech, but the first lines were enough to keep the Orb units docile. None of them were particularly fond of the Seirans.

The Earth Forces were, of course, another matter. Due to Orb's strategic location, they had a fairly sizable fleet in place. Not that it was likely to help against the firepower they faced; the Alliance had a mid-sized battled group against a force that included numerous Gundams.

Still, they tried anyway. One Duel Dagger pilot was foolish enough to engage the Gladiator up close, only to be bisected by an Excalibur.

"These guys sure aren't the cream of the crop, are they?" Cagalli remarked, stabbing her saber into a 105 Dagger.

Alex snorted, his rifle flashing. "The cream of the crop, as you put it, fell at Jachin, most of them through our efforts," he pointed out.

"He's right," Mina agreed. She hurled a spear into one of the few PSA-equipped 105s. "With ZAFT driven off Earth, they had no need for elite forces here."

Indeed, it was rapidly becoming clear that whatever else the Alliance forces stationed at Orb were, they weren't elites. They flew like rookies, were poor shots, proved to be virtually helpless in melee combat, and seemed to have no sense of unit cohesion. Alex soon concluded that they were people other commands simply didn't want.

The battle lasted less than thirty minutes. When they realized just what was happening, the Orb forces who had stayed behind got into the act, hitting the Allied fleet from the rear. Pinned between two forces, the fleet was soon destroyed.

Cagalli struck the final blow. Flanked by the Freedom on the right and Anubis on the left, she hovered directly in front of Yuna Roma Seiran's flagship. She could see him clearly, rising from his command chair in disbelief.

She smiled thinly. "Goodbye, Yuna," she said, and pulled the trigger, her single blast killing everyone on the bridge instantly.

Athha residence, 29 October, C.E. 71

Ten days after the short, sharp battle to liberate Orb, things had finally calmed enough to have a proper celebration. Unato Ema Seiran had been executed for treason soon after, and his remaining loyalists purged from the government.

Lord Uzumi's residence, as befitted the seat of one of the Five Noble Families, had a huge ballroom, and that evening it was packed. Uzumi himself stood with Siegel Clyne, who was visiting from the PLANTs.

Athrun and Lacus were on the dance floor, he in uniform, she in the white dress she had worn when she first boarded the Archangel.

Kira and Flay were also on the dance floor. He wore his dress uniform, while she was in the red evening gown Andrew Waltfeld had given her in Banadiya. Aside from the fact that they never bumped into anyone, they seemed oblivious to their surroundings.

No surprise, Alex thought, standing with Cagalli near the wall. He had to admit that Flay was absolutely stunning in that dress, though she wasn't really his type. Just as well, otherwise things could have gotten messy. Kira and Cagalli would take their time killing me, he thought wryly.

He spotted his sister on the floor, her space-black hair contrasting sharply with the white dress she wore; her partner was, inevitably, Dearka Elsman.

"You think it's gonna last?" Cagalli asked softly, nodding at the pair.

Alex nodded fractionally, a gesture most people would have missed. "Andrea has made that almost brutally clear. She's in love, which makes Dearka one lucky guy."

Cagalli nodded back. "If he can keep up with her, anyway. That girl is crazy."

"Too true," Alex murmured. A double flash of red caught his eye, his cousin Yzak walking past with Shiho Hahnenfuss on his arm. He suppressed a grin; Shiho's persistence had paid off.

Mu La Flaga and Murrue Ramius stood by a window; Mu had expressed a dislike of dancing, which the Archangel's captain didn't particularly mind. She accepted all of Mu's (many) quirks.

She'll need all the patience in the universe to put up with that guy. Much as Alex admired the Hawk of Endymion, he was far from blind to the man's sometimes questionable personality.

His gaze returned to Kira and Flay. There's a pair that belong together, Alex thought with a smile.

For the first time in months, Kira Yamato felt at peace. The war was over, his homeland was safe, he had reunited with his best friend, and he had won the heart of the girl of his dreams. For the moment at least, he had everything he could want.

Flay felt much the same. Though the grief at the loss of her father was still there, and always would be, she knew that she wasn't alone. Kira would always be there to help her, along with her friends.

Including Alex Strassmeier, she thought, suppressing a giggle. Who'd have thought that guy was actually kindhearted? I know I didn't when we first met.

"Having a good time?" Kira asked softly.

"The best," Flay said. "Thank you, Kira."

He smiled. "I should thank you, for staying with me all this time."

"I did what came naturally," she told him.

They were silent for a while after that. Kira's gaze wandered occasionally, seeing a number of his comrades. Sai, Tolle, and Mir stood together near a buffet that had been set up. Also with them was Kyle Perry, standing out for once in his red uniform.

Nicol Amalfi provided some background music, M1S pilot Mayura Labatt sitting near the piano. Despite the uniform that marked him as a soldier, Nicol seemed in his element, barely glancing at the sheet music.

"I'm just glad we have this time together," Flay whispered.

Kira smiled. "Me, too, Flay. Me, too."

Samorei Joule hid a grin, watching his brother and cousins. They've all done well for themselves, he thought. Yzak's in white, Alex gets to join this new FAITH organization, even Andrea's a redcoat. Not to mention each of them is seeing someone, he added, chuckling.

"You certainly have an interesting family, Sam," Mina murmured.

He shrugged. "Crazy is more like it. Yzak's a hothead, Andrea's hyper, and Alex, well, half the time I have no idea what he's thinking. He has the ultimate poker face; unless you know him very well, his face tells you exactly what he wants it to. Which is usually nothing."

She laughed softly. "Yes, I can see that. Ghina thought it was a pity he could never get Alex to join him. He respected Alex's cunning."

"That cunning is what got your brother killed at Artemis, even if it wasn't Alex who struck the final blow," Sam said with a snort. "There's a reason people call him the Spider."

"I know," Mina said, looking over at Alex and Cagalli. "And I know there was never a chance of Ghina persuading him. Leaving aside his engagement to an Athha, after talking to Alex I have come to the conclusion that you understated his devotion to the PLANTs."

"The only thing more important to Alex than the PLANTs is his family," Sam said flatly. "Threatening either when he's around is a quick way to a nasty end."

Mina nodded. Lady Cagalli is in good hands, at least. She looked at her companion. "Do you have any regrets?"

Sam blinked. "About what? Staying in Orb, or being with you?"


He shook his head. "Of course I don't regret being with you, Mina. I don't know where I'd be without you."

"And Orb?"

Sam shrugged. "This is my home now, and it's not like I'll never see the PLANTs again. Besides, the rest of the family can take up the slack. Andrea's a hot pilot, Yzak's a great team commander, and Alex, well, let's just say I pity any Earth Forces soldier who falls into his web."

"And many will," Mina said. "You know the war isn't truly over, Sam. The Earth Forces will be back."

"I know," Sam replied. "Blue Cosmos still controls the Alliance, and there's no way they've given up on wiping us out."

"Of course they haven't." A brown-haired young woman in the black-and-gray of a ZAFT ship captain approached them. "It's the reason for their existence." She held out her hand. "I don't think we've met. I'm Lia Ramius."

Sam shook her hand, smiling. "Alex and Andrea's Junk Guild friend. I'm Samorei Joule, and this is Rondo Mina Sahaku."

Mina bowed. "A pleasure to meet you, Captain. It's easy to tell that you're related to Murrue Ramius; you look very like her, and your shiphandling skills are extraordinary."

Lia waved a hand. "Everyone tells me I look like Aunt Murrue –not that I mind- and I grew up in space, so working with a spaceship came naturally. It's nothing special."

"Perhaps," Mina said. "You must admit, it's rather odd for a Junker to join ZAFT."

"Contrary to popular belief, I've never had any romantic interest in Alex," Lia told the older woman. "Even so, he's the closest I've ever had to a brother, so I'm not just going to sit around while he's fighting."

Sam raised his eyebrows. "Even though you're no longer under his command?"

"Andrea's my friend, too," Lia said. "Besides, I'll still be working with him a lot."

"True." Sam's eyes seemed to focus on something in the distance. "I'm glad the PLANTs have people like you," he said softly. "I have a feeling they're going to need you."

An hour later, Kira and Athrun found themselves outside, getting some fresh air. Lacus and Flay had chosen to remain inside, chatting with their friends.

"It feels strange to be alive," Kira murmured.

Athrun glanced at him. "What do you mean?"

Kira shrugged. "After everything that's happened since Heliopolis, how is it that I'm still alive? When people died all around me, I still survived."

"I know what you mean," Athrun said. "Still, war spares more lives than it takes. It just feels different when you're on the front lines."

Kira nodded. "I know, but it's still strange. Le Creuset almost had me, and if you hadn't turned up I would have died when GENESIS misfired." He closed his eyes. "So many battles, and yet I came through." He looked down, then met Athrun's gaze. "I'm glad I had you beside me, Athrun. We make a good team."

Athrun smiled. "Yeah, we do. Just like old times."

Kira chuckled, recalling their time in Copernicus. The two of them had been well known; as one of their teachers put it, where one of them was, the other was sure to appear. Some of their classmates even theorized that they were telepathic.

He touched the green robot on his shoulder. Kira was one of only two people to receive such a gift, and he treasured it.

"Your parents mentioned that you were moving," Athrun commented.

Kira shrugged. "Flay doesn't have a family to go back to, so she'll be living with us. She mentioned that her father had a fairly large house in the Orb countryside, and suggested that we move there. Mom and Dad liked the idea, since we'll need more room anyway." He glanced at his friend. "How are you holding up?"

Athrun blinked, feigning ignorance. "What do you mean?"

"Don't try to pretend nothing's wrong, Athrun," Kira said. "You don't blow away your own father and come out unscathed, even if he'd lost his mind."

Athrun sighed. He'd never been able to fool Kira. "I don't know," he admitted. "I keep thinking, was there something I could have done? Could I have stopped his madness before it started? Then I remember the look on his face when I…when I shot him."

"Athrun." Kira gripped his shoulder. "It's not your fault. I know it doesn't help, but you really didn't have a choice, and you said yourself that he wasn't your father anymore." He hesitated. "Just…just remember what he was like before Junius Seven, remember the man he used to be. Maybe that's trite, but it's still true."

The younger man sighed again. "You're right."

"Remember, you can always talk to me," Kira said, smiling.

Athrun smiled back. "I know. Thanks, Kira."

The next few months were hectic. While officials from Orb, the PLANTs, and the member nations of the Earth Alliance hammered out a peace treaty, the people of the war-shattered nations set about trying to get things back to normal.

It was easiest in the PLANTs, which had only been hit twice, at the very beginning and the very end of the war. Yzak was assigned a pair of Nazca-class destroyers, the Voltaire and Rousseau, as a reward for his stellar performance. Dearka, though offered a command of his own, was content to remain Yzak's XO.

Athrun Zala, with the help of Alex Strassmeier and Nicol Amalfi, was able to recruit a solid core for the new FAITH organization, including Alex's friend Kyle. The nondescript pilot explained his acceptance by saying he was tired of being nondescript.

Gilbert Durandal was chosen in a special election to fill the Council seat vacated by the late Patrick Zala. Alex, who distrusted Durandal, refrained from comment, but stepped up his investigations into the man's background.

His sister Andrea retained command of the old team, though only Lia Ramius remained of the original membership, the rest having moved on to other duties. Her white Gundam continued to strike fear into the hearts of the PLANTs' enemies.

In Orb, Uzumi Nara Athha quickly restored his nation, ably assisted by Rondo Mina Sahaku and, ironically, a cousin of Yuna Seiran. Murrue Ramius was promoted to commodore, though she remained in command of the Archangel. Kira Yamato, much to his surprise, was also promoted, and placed in command of Archangel's mobile suits. Mu La Flaga, amused, assured his young friend that he was fine as number two, citing the fact that Kira knew more about mobile suit operations, atmospheric or space, than a lot of ZAFT pilots.

Andrew Waltfeld was placed in command of the ZAFT detachment stationed in Orb. He normally operated off either the Archangel or Thunderbird, both of whose captains were friends of his.

And on 23 May, C.E. 72, Alex Strassmeier and Cagalli Yula Athha were married.

Strassmeier residence, Martius Four, 14 June, C.E. 72

Alex and Cagalli sat together on the porch. The wedding had been rather more public than either would have preferred, but given their positions, he a famous ZAFT ace, she the Princess of Orb, they'd known it was unavoidable.

"So far, every lead on Durandal's past has come up dry except one," Alex said. "Apparently, he was Rau Le Creuset's personal physician."

Cagalli's eyes widened. "So he must know what Le Creuset was."

"Exactly. Given that he also knows about the three of us," meaning Alex, Cagalli, and Kira, "that does not bode well. Unfortunately, it's nothing I can take to the Chairman." Alex shook his head. "For that matter, it could be entirely innocent, though I doubt it. Someone had to handle old Metal Mask's medical treatment, after all."

He's got a point, Cagalli admitted. Not that she believed it any more than he did. "So what now?"

"Now, I relax, and let the future take care of itself for a while," Alex said, wrapping an arm around her. "Despite the restrictions in the Treaty," restrictions he had vocally opposed, "the PLANTs are in a fairly strong position. The new ZAKUs are working better than I had expected, and it'll be months yet before the Alliance recovers from what happened to Ptolemaeus, not to mention the fleet they sent against us here."

She rested her head on his shoulder. "You're right," she said, sighing contentedly. "The PLANTs and Orb are safe. The future can take care of itself for a while."

Alex smiled, then bent down and kissed her.

ZAFT Academy entrance hall, December Three, PLANTs, 27 September, C.E. 72

A black-haired, crimson-eyed youth stood nervously at the admissions desk, trying not to fidget. Despite Alex Strassmeier's promise, he still wasn't completely sure that he would be accepted, even with ZAFT's need for more people.

"Everything seems to be in order," the green-uniformed man said at last. "You must be something special, Mister Asuka, if the Spider of Artemis is sponsoring your entry."

"I don't know about that, sir," Shinn Asuka said, hiding his immense relief. He'd made it!

The man handed him an ID card, smiling. "Trust me, Mister Asuka. I've met Commander Strassmeier before, and if he takes a personal interest in someone, that person bears watching." He nodded down the corridor. "Get your things squared away. Welcome to ZAFT."

"Thank you, sir!" Shinn said. He turned, and took the first step towards his destiny.

Author's note: At last, the war is over. Orb is free, and the heroes of Jachin have a chance to rest. Meanwhile, young Shinn Asuka's adventure is about to begin.

A little short, perhaps, but there really wasn't much left. And before anyone rags me about the ZAKU, I recently heard that the first version was produced mere months after Jachin, so it's not really out of place.

I do not know when the next story, detailing some of Shinn's time at the Academy, will be posted, but it shouldn't take too long. Of course, "too long" is a relative term.

Last, I would like to extend a special thanks to NukeDawg and Storm Wolf77415. Without them, I highly doubt I could have made it this far.