I own nothing save my own characters and machines.

Cassandra Joule is the creation of Artificial Life Creator.

Samorei Joule and Keinn Legwitz are the creation of NukeDawg. The Black Knights concept is also his, and is used with permission.

Strassmeier residence, Martius Four, 7 January, C.E. 73
"So the Prank Wars have begun," Samorei said.

His cousin Alex snorted. "I think Legwitz bit off a little more than he could chew, pulling a stunt like that on Andrea."

Kira Yamato raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure of who it is?"

"Kira, I made contact with the Academy's grapevine within hours of assuming my new post," Alex told him. "Besides which, Andrea made contact with another of my students, Lunamaria Hawke. Luna did some very careful digging, and the rest was history, pardon the cliché."

"So what are you going to do about it?" Cagalli asked. "This is one of you're students we're talking about."

Alex waved a hand. "Nothing. Andrea can handle herself, and pranks seldom rate more than a minor reprimand in any case." He smiled thinly. "I think Mister Legwitz is going to find that he bit off a little more than he could chew."

"You got that right," Yzak said fervently. "If I didn't know what he'd done, I'd feel sorry for him."

"Andrea, despite her happy-go-lucky exterior, has inherited the Strassmeier deviousness in full measure," Alex said. "Her revenge will be more humiliating than anything I could come up with."

Rondo Mina Sahaku laughed. "From what I've seen of your sister, I'd have to agree. And I have to say, I'm glad you have no intention of intervening. ZAFT's need for skilled pilots is too great to dismiss someone of Legwitz's ability unless you absolutely have to."

Alex snorted. "That, Mina, is an understatement, particularly in the wake of the recent pirate attacks." He turned, gazing out the living room's huge window. "All four of them will do ZAFT credit, of that I am certain."

"Just how good are they?" Yzak asked. "I know they're still cadets, but you did pick them for that special course of yours."

"Keinn Legwitz, as Mina just pointed out, is an excellent pilot," Alex said. "Lunamaria Hawke has a gift for long-range support; her sister Meyrin, incidentally, looks to be good at her field as well. Rey Za Burrel is a good all-rounder, effective both at short and long range."

Yzak tilted his head. "What about that Asuka guy?"

Alex was silent for a long moment. "Shinn Asuka is by any standard exceptional," he said at last. "He isn't up to Kira and Athrun's level, but he comes a lot closer than anyone else I've seen since the death of Rau Le Creuset. He's a natural leader, a good shot, and very dangerous up close."

"I know that tone," Yzak said, his eyes narrowing. "You know something."

"Not exactly," Alex said. "There's something about him, something important. I can't put my finger on it, but I know it's there." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter right now."

Cagalli moved to stand beside him. She knew him well enough by then to trust his judgment, even if his reasons might seem odd. One thing she had never doubted was that Alex was an excellent judge of character. If he thought there was something important about Shinn, she was willing to take his word for it.

"Assuming they graduate, which is a virtual certainty, I'm going to recommend them for placement in the Second Stage project," Alex said.

Sam frowned. "Second Stage?"

"ZAFT is planning to build a new warship, and some Gundams to go with it," Kira explained. "A lot like what the Earth Forces were doing at Heliopolis with the Archangel. Anyway, one of the new machines is based on the Strike, so they asked Mu and me for help."

"How long are you going to be in the PLANTs?" Cagalli asked; she was hoping to spend more time with her brother.

He shrugged. "Probably three or four months, long enough to get past the planning stage."

"The new warship is to be called the Minerva," Alex said. "The mobile suits are ZGMF-X23S Savior, X24S Chaos, X31S Abyss, X56S Impulse, and X88S Gaia. All five will be equipped with a feature called the deuterion beam recharge system. This system allows the mobile suit to recharge its battery via direct power transmission from its mothership."

"Sounds handy," Sam commented; he remembered nearly running out of power during the Bloody Valentine.

Alex grimaced. "Unfortunately, the Strike-based design, the Impulse, has a glaring flaw. It doesn't merely equip different weapon packs; rather, the entire mobile suit is modular, allowing it to switch out individual components."

"How is that a flaw?" Cagalli asked; Alex knew far more about the intricacies of mobile suit design than she did.

"It means the Impulse is very weak structurally," Alex explained. "Even with the new Variable Phase-shift -a Morgenroete innovation- a hard enough whack will force the various components to detach from the core unit." He shook his head. "No help for it."

Flay looked up at him, concerned. "Why are you so worried?"

"Flay, another war is coming," Alex said flatly. "You had more contact with the Alliance upper echelons than most. Do you really think they've given up on destroying us?"

She winced, remembering some of her father's nastier remarks about the PLANTs and Coordinators in general. Though she hadn't known about his Blue Cosmos connections until after his death, Flay had long been aware that her father, Atlantic Federation Vice Foreign Minister George Allster, had never been a fan of genetic engineering. "You've got a point there."

"You can bet the Earth Forces are developing new machines, just as we are," Alex said. "Not to mention they still have at least one Archangel-class ship, and are very possibly building more."

"Do you think they still have influence in Orb?" Yzak asked sharply; he recalled the Seirans all too well.

Cagalli answered that one. "Not a chance, Yzak," she said with a snort. "Unato and Yuna are dead, and they were the major Alliance supporters. Oh, I'll bet there are still a few running around, but not enough to matter."

"She's right," Alex said. "Besides, so many in Orb have fond memories of ZAFT aiding in the defense that any Alliance sympathizers would be lynched. If they were lucky."

Mina nodded. "I agree. Not to mention Kyoji Seiran is actually redeeming his family name. For the foreseeable future, Orb is united in support of both the current government and the alliance with the PLANTs."

Cagalli laughed. "Yeah, never thought a Seiran would be one of the good guys," she said, then looked at her husband. "All right, Alex, what else are you worried about?"

He cocked an eyebrow. "What makes you think I'm worried about anything else?"

"You've been getting more and more obsessive for months," she said, her tone a strange mixture of fondness and exasperation. "So spit it out."

Alex shrugged. "All right. Mu's cousin and the possibility of more biological CPUs."

"Do you really think they'll make more?" Kira asked sharply, sounding revolted by the very idea.

"I wouldn't put it past them," his brother-in-law said grimly. "As for this Jean-Pierre La Flaga, Mu told me a lot about him, very little of it good. If he's joined the military, it could have unpleasant consequences for us."

"We'll deal with that when the time comes," Flay said firmly, her tone making clear that she'd had enough gloomy talk.

Alex shook his head, laughing softly. "I can see why Kira's so devoted to you. You're right, we're not at war yet, preparations are being made, so we should leave it at that for now."

Flay sat back, looking pleased with herself.

ZAFT Academy dormitory
Andrea hadn't exactly wanted to spend her leave engaged in a prank war with an unhinged ZAFT cadet, but that was before the glue incident. Leaving aside the embarrassment issue, she intensely disliked being taken unawares like that. Thanks to Lunamaria Hawke, though, she had a chance for some payback.

Here he comes, she thought. Keinn Legwitz rounded the corner, tossing a used drink container in a nearby disposal unit…which promptly erupted in red paint, drenching the cadet. Andrea stood for a moment, enjoying Keinn's sputtering, then departed before he could spot her.

As it happened, Keinn was in no position to spot anything. The paint, though non-toxic, was more than enough to obscure his vision, not to mention ruin his uniform. After about thirty seconds of wiping his face, his vision finally cleared. His first sight was of his roommate Shinn, who was visibly trying to suppress a laugh.

"Looks like you're a redcoat now," Shinn said with a grin.

"Very funny," Keinn growled. "I'll get her for this."

Shinn laughed. "Face it, Keinn, you asked for it. Crossing the Commander's sister like that isn't the smartest thing to do." He gave his friend a measuring look. "I think the uniform's a write-off."

"You're a lot of help." Keinn grimaced, knowing that Shinn was right. The amount of bleach needed to clean his uniform would probably destroy any cloth it came into contact with. "I'm going to shower and change. Don't wait up for me."


By the time Keinn actually reached the showers, his mood had improved. That really was clever. Of course, I'll have to think of something even better for next time! Humming softly to himself, he happily dreamed of possibilities.

"He was covered?" Meyrin pressed.

Luna grinned at her sister. "Completely. Shinn made a smart remark about Keinn being a redcoat. Keinn headed for the showers right after."

Meyrin giggled. "Serves him right for putting glue on that chair. Of course, he's going to do it again, you know."

"Yeah, and then the Commander's sister will make him pay," Luna said. "I don't think the Spider will get involved himself, but you can bet he's enjoying the show."

Her sister blinked. "Are you sure? I know he's not as cold as the stories say, but he doesn't seem like the type."

Luna laughed. "Meyrin, you know how close they are. Do you really think he could be that devoted to his sister without getting a kick out of her antics?"

"Now that you mention it, no." Meyrin was starting to agree with Keinn that Luna had a minor case of hero-worship where the Spider of Artemis was concerned, but it didn't bother her. "You're helping her, aren't you?"

Luna shrugged. "Why wouldn't I? Keinn needs a good whack on the head, and Andrea Strassmeier is just the one to do it. I just hope there aren't any spillovers."

She was hoping in vain. There would indeed be spillovers, as she would find out firsthand.

Earth orbit, near Ame-No-Mihashira, 12 January, C.E. 72
Tolle Koenig grunted a curse, spinning his Aegis Gundam in a complex evasion pattern. Nicol warned me about those pirates, he thought sourly. I should have realized they'd have more than just GINNs! On the heels of that thought, his pursuer, a ZGMF-600 GuAIZ, overshot him. Tolle snapped his rifle up and fired, reducing the GuAIZ to debris.

"That's another one down, Boss!" his wingmate called. The other, piloting a ZGMF-1000 ZAKU, added his own fire, nailing two more GuAIZs.

"Don't call me that," Tolle said absently, searching for more targets.

"Hey, you're the senior officer, Lieutenant Commander Koenig," the ZAFT pilot said. "With La Flaga an Yamato in the PLANTs, you're the acting CO of the Archangel's mobile suit team, remember?"

Tolle sighed. A lieutenant commander and I'm not quite nineteen. This is crazy. Of course, his friend Kira had been promoted to captain at not quite eighteen, so he supposed he was in good company. "How many are left?"

"Just a couple of GuAIZs and that Laurasia," the other said, all business again. "I don't think this will last much longer."

"It had better not," Tolle said sourly. "I'm starting to think that group Nicol wiped out last month was just the tip of the iceberg." He shifted to mobile armor mode. "Time to finish that Laurasia." One bright red blast later, the stolen frigate exploded.

Tolle sighed. He'd faced much tougher adversaries, but that wasn't the point. Regular soldiers, even Earth Forces soldiers, were one thing. Pirates were quite another, especially when they had equipment that they shouldn't have had access to.

Alex is right, there's something going on. Though he had little of his friend's strategic acumen, Tolle was quite capable of recognizing the unlikely when he saw it. Pirate GINNs weren't too surprising, but the GuAIZ, though no longer ZAFT's main unit, wasn't exactly surplus material either.

"You okay, Commander?" his ZAFT wingman asked.

Tolle shook himself. "Yeah. Just trying to figure out how pirates could have gotten GuAIZs, but it's making my brain hurt."

"I know what you mean." The ZAFT pilot didn't even attempt to conceal his disgust.

Tolle fired one last shot, vaporizing an enemy GuAIZ that had somehow survived the battle. "We've done our job. Let's head back."

President's office, Washington, D.C., 13 January, C.E. 73
"Are you certain about this?" President Copeland demanded.

His intelligence chief nodded grimly. "I'm afraid so. Pirate activity in space is increasing at a disturbing rate." He sighed. "Much as I would like to, I can't blame this on ZAFT. Not only have the PLANTs been suffering just as much, but at least one such group was annihilated by a ZAFT task force."

The third man in the office stirred. "Could they be sacrificing their own people, Mister Dalton?" he asked quietly.

Dalton shook his head firmly. "Not a chance, Lord Djibril," he said firmly. "If Patrick Zala were still alive, and in charge, I might concede the possibility, but not Clyne. It's not in his character."

"Much as I despise the man, I have to agree," the new leader of Blue Cosmos said. "Getting Orb to join with ZAFT in an alliance against us was a masterstroke on Clyne's part; there's no way Uzumi Nara Athha would join forces with a man who would sacrifice his own people."

Copeland grimaced. If only that idiot Seiran hadn't gotten himself killed! He turned to the fourth and last person in the room, the only one who wore a uniform. "And what is your assessment of the situation, Marshall Simmons?"

Field Marshall Tobias Simmons, Supreme Commander of the Alliance Forces (and a member in good standing of Blue Cosmos), cleared his throat. "I'm inclined to agree with Director Dalton. The pirates have to date been using mobile suits that are obsolete, as in the case of the GINN, or nearly so, as in the case of the GuAIZ."

"What about those frigates?" Djibril pressed. "I understand that the Laurasia-class is still in front line service."

"Naval Intelligence believes, and Director Dalton's analysts agree, that there is someone highly placed in the PLANTs who is trying to provoke a conflict for reasons unknown," Simmons told him. "Whether or not we give this person what he or she wants is, of course, a political decision."

Copeland massaged his temples wearily. "There are times I wish it wasn't. Very well. Since ZAFT is hitting the 'pirates' just as hard as we are, we can't exactly protest to the Supreme Council."

"Agreed, sir," Simmons said. Dalton simply nodded.

"What of our own forces?" Djibril asked.

Simmons smiled thinly. "We've already begun work on five new GAT-X models, designated X121 Rapier, X135 Catastrophe, X150 Terra, X263 Verboten, and X371 Corsair. They, along with Phantom Pain, should be ready by early fall."

"Hmm." Copeland drummed his fingers on his desk. "Do you have a target in mind?"

"Yes, sir." Simmons brought up a space map. "The new PLANT known as Armory One. We have reason to believe that ZAFT is up to something entirely new there."

"Then why not strike now, and end it?" Dalton asked.

Simmons, though a lifelong soldier, had none of the soldier's contempt for a civilian spy, whatever his other (many faults). "Two reasons, Director. First of all, as I said, the new units won't be ready until early fall. Secondly, I believe it would be to our advantage to allow ZAFT to finish whatever it is they're doing…and then take it for ourselves."

"Rather like what Rau Le Creuset did at Heliopolis, only better planned out," Copeland agreed. "I will defer to you in this matter, Marshall. Lord Djibril?"

"I agree," Blue Cosmos's leader said promptly. "Once we have our new machines, plus whatever it is ZAFT is working on, those space monsters will be finished at last."

How wrong he was.

ZAFT Academy, Cafeteria/Alex's office, 5 February, C.E. 73
Shinn Asuka was in high spirits. He'd just aced three exams in a row, and on top of that gotten through a very nasty simulation (the Second Battle of Artemis) without so much as getting hit. Of course, there hadn't been much danger; the most powerful unit, Rondo Ghina Sahaku's Gold Frame AMATU, hadn't gotten anywhere near him. Even Keinn had finally showed a little control, methodically shooting down at least ten 105 Daggers in less than a minute.

Then there was Keinn's prank war with Andrea Strassmeier. Normally a cadet couldn't hope to pull that on a superior and hope to graduate, but Andrea seemed to enjoy the contest. Or perhaps it was simple stubbornness on her part; Shinn had heard that both Strassmeiers were every bit as strong-willed as their Joule cousins.

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud crash, followed immediately by a shout of outrage. Turning, Shinn saw Andrea Strassmeier sprawled on the floor, an expression of utmost fury on her face. Her chair had collapsed under her.

This is gonna be big, Shinn thought, watching the redcoat storm out.

Minutes later, Andrea burst into her brother's office. "What is with him!?" she demanded without preamble.

Alex looked up from whatever file he was perusing. "You mean Legwitz?"

"Yeah -how did you know!?" She stared in disbelief. "It's not like I told you!"

He snorted. "Sis, I got in touch with the Academy's grapevine within hours of assuming my post. Very little happens that I don't know about."

Andrea collapsed unceremoniously into the chair in front of Alex's desk. "So why haven't you done anything about it!?"

"Because I saw no need," her brother replied. "You seemed to be dealing with it well enough. In any case, pranks don't rate more than a minor reprimand unless they get out of hand, which is unlikely to happen."

She grumbled under her breath. "Fine. Mark my words, though, he's going to pay for this!"

"I would expect nothing less," Alex said, grinning just noticeably.

Her reply to that was short, sharp, and vicious.

ZAFT Academy simulator complex, 15 March, C.E. 73
Shinn found it difficult not to wipe his hands on his trousers as Commander Strassmeier walked in. Today was the final simulator run, and the Commander had already warned them that it would be nasty. For his part, Shinn could think of only one battle that would qualify: Jachin Due.

The Commander waved them down before they could snap to attention. "As you are aware, this will be the final simulator run," he said. "Failing this will not mean failing the entire course, unless it stems from a truly spectacular screw-up."

Keinn winced.

"Being shot down will not necessarily mean failing the run," Strassmeier continued. "Indeed, I will not be at all surprised if none of you make it all the way through."

Luna raised her hand. "Why is that, sir?"

He met each cadet's gaze in turn. "This is a simulation of the Second Battle of Jachin Due," he said simply. "You will be facing the best Neo ZAFT and the Earth Forces had at the time, including Calamity, Forbidden, Raider, and Providence. Deathdealer won't be a factor; Bartlett was concerned with me to the exclusion of all else that day, so including him would be pointless."

"So four Gundams and a few thousand grunt suits," Keinn summarized.

Strassmeier nodded. "Correct. However, the mass-produced units should not be underestimated, particularly the 105 Dagger." He checked his watch. "That is all. Good luck."

The simulator cockpit seemed somehow smaller than normal. Maybe it was just his imagination, since he was about to begin his final simulator run, but Shinn could have sworn the restraints were tighter than usual. He shrugged it off; such thoughts would only slow his reactions.

His displays lit up, revealing an image of the Archangel's hangar. "X105 Strike, to the catapult," a voice said.

"Roger," Shinn responded, then glared at X303 Aegis. "Try to keep it together this time, Keinn."

"Roger roger," the other pilot said, unperturbed.

Shinn rolled his eyes, and then he was launching. Almost instantly, he was engulfed in a hail of laser fire. Swearing under his breath, he cut hard left and dove, returning fire as best he could. Two Strike Daggers simply vanished, and a third was liquefied.

"Haha, take that!" Keinn crowed, blasting a Duel Dagger into debris.

"I knew you were crazy, Keinn," Luna said. Ignoring the mobile suits completely, she locked onto a Nelson­-class ship, snapped her guns together in sniper mode, and fired, adding a missile salvo for good measure.

"Stay focused on the mission," Rey admonished them. He drew a saber and slashed, bisecting a 105 Dagger that had tried to sneak up on him.

I'm focused, all right, Shinn thought. Clipping his rifle to the Strike's hip, he drew a saber of his own, stabbing a Neo ZAFT GINN through the cockpit, then slicing a vengeful GuAIZ's head off. When a few more tried to close on him from multiple angles, he drew his other saber and began a spinning maneuver, slicing them all to bits.

Keinn appeared more interested in the Peacemaker Force Moebiuses. His rifle flashed again and again, each shot marking the funeral pyre of a mobile armor. Not too surprising, perhaps; as a PLANT native, he was likely to take a dim view of nuclear weapons.

"Uh oh," Luna said. "Here come the Alliance Gundams."

Shinn glared at the incoming machines. Not only were they evil, but ugly to boot. He would take great pleasure in destroying them. "I've got the Forbidden," he said.

"Roger roger," Keinn responded. "I'll cover you."

The young Orb native bared his teeth at the hideous Gundam. "Time to put an end to this," he snarled, then swore as the enemy's plasma cannon flashed. Mindful of the Forbidden's ability to guide its beams, Shinn dodged, at the same time keeping his shield raised.

True to the original's now deceased pilot, the Forbidden pressed Shinn hard. He was so busy dodging that he could barely get a shot in, and those were deflected by the Geschmeidig Panzer system. On the plus side, the Forbidden had only one weapon that could actually hurt him, at least until his power ran out.

At this rate, that won't take very long. "Time for a new strategy," Shinn muttered. His right saber came out again, but this time he didn't use slashing attacks. Instead, he waited for the Forbidden to come to him; once it had committed to an attack, Shinn intended to finish it.

Then he saw it. Forbidden hauled back on its scythe, apparently intending to bisect the Strike. Seizing his chance, Shinn plunged his saber into the other machine's cockpit. The resultant explosion knocked him backwards.

"Nice work, Shinn!" Luna called.

He breathed deeply, trying to slow his heart. "Thanks." He then noticed that the Aegis was missing. "Where's Keinn?"

"I think he got in a fight with the Calamity," Luna said. "He'll be all right."

Shinn grimaced. "You hope."

I have got to be crazy, Keinn thought. The Aegis was far more maneuverable than the Calamity, but the Alliance machine was more heavily armed. It was exploiting that advantage mercilessly, beams and bazooka shells pouring out like water from a hose.

"Okay, he's got heavier weapons, but I've got more mobility," Keinn muttered. "So let's move." Shifting to mobile armor mode, he twisted and dove, evading a double cannon blast in the process. His CIWS destroyed a couple of bazooka rounds, and then he was clear…temporarily.

The machine (or AI) seemed to recognize what Keinn was up to, but it was far too late. His Scylla cannon erupted, engulfing the Calamity in red light. It seemed to almost dissolve as the multiphase blast, weapons, armor, and finally the machine itself melting away.

"Good job, Keinn," Shinn said. "I didn't think you had it in you."

"Shut up," Keinn said mildly. His rifle snapped up, blasting a Long Dagger into oblivion.

"Watch out," Rey interrupted. "Here comes the Raider."

Shinn cursed. "I'm on it." X370 Raider was possibly the biggest threat of the three Alliance Gundams. Fast, with a physical weapon capable of damaging PSA, it had been a major annoyance in the war. To Shinn Asuka, it was a symbol of everything he hated.

Unfortunately, bringing it down was a dicey proposition at best. Shinn's initial laser blasts missed wide; the Raider, still in mobile armor mode, promptly slammed into him. His retaliatory shots did no better; cursing, he stowed the rifle and drew a saber.

"Let's see how you like it up close and personal!" The Raider obliged, transforming and moving in close. It's Mjollnir swung, impacting on the Strike's shield. A follow-up Zorn blast met the same fate, and then Shinn moved.

He slashed once, bisecting the Mjollnir, then reversed, taking off the shield cannon. His other saber came out just as the Zorn started to fire; his stab destroyed the head. Sweeping around, he held the sabers in a scissor-like position.

"Take this!" Shinn snarled, and pulled, cutting the Raider in half at the torso. The two halves drifted several meters apart before exploding.

"That's all the Earth Forces Gundams," Keinn said. "Almost done -what the!?"

Shinn turned, and his eyes widened. Rey was under attack by ZGMF-X13A Providence. That wasn't surprising; what was surprising was the fact that Rey wasn't fighting back. He was barely even moving; once in a while the Duel would evade, but Rey's heart apparently wasn't in it.

Then the Providence deployed its DRAGOONs. Beam after beam struck the Duel from every direction, reducing a sleek mobile suit to an amorphous blob of molten metal.

The simulator cockpit went black.

Debriefing room
"Rey, just what in blazes where you doing!?" Shinn demanded, his face bright red. "You just let the Providence vape you!"

Rey didn't meet his gaze. "Shinn…"

"Enough." Commander Strassmeier's voice cut off any further arguing. "Rey, I don't blame you for freezing. The Providence very nearly took down Kira Yamato and the Freedom; you would have stood little chance in the Duel. Still, remember that it's not just your life on the line out there."

Rey nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Good. As for you, Shinn, I don't blame you for being angry. However, you must not let that control you." Strassmeier leaned forward slightly. "If you lose your temper, you're already halfway to losing the battle. Remember that."

Shinn forced himself to meet the other's gaze. "Yes, sir. I will."

"Good," Strassmeier repeated. "Aside from Rey's understandable problem with the Providence, your performance far exceeded my expectations. You not only passed, you excelled. Congratulations."

The four cadets saluted. "Thank you, sir," they said in unison.

He smiled. "Unless you do something incredibly stupid between now and April, your graduation is assured. I would advise you not to get complacent in the meantime." He stood. "Dismissed."

Zala residence, December Five
Two teenagers sat together on the grounds, gazing up at the sky. Neither cared that it was artificial; they had come to love the PLANTs almost as much as their homeland of Orb.

"That was wonderful, Kira," Flay Allster said. "Thank you."

Kira Yamato smiled. "It is your birthday, Flay. The least we could do was whip up something special."

She rested her head on his shoulder. "You didn't have to, especially since your parents had to come so far, but I'm grateful anyway." She sighed. "I never thought I'd celebrate my eighteenth birthday in space."

"Let alone at the home of a top ZAFT officer," Kira agreed with a grin.

Flay snuggled against him. "I never thought I'd say this, but I'm glad ZAFT attacked Heliopolis two years ago. If they hadn't, the Earth Forces would have kept the Archangel and the mobile suits, and," she looked up at him, "I wouldn't have gotten to know you."

He wrapped an arm around her waist. "Maybe, maybe not. There's no way to tell." He stroked her hair with his free hand. "What matters is that it did happen."

"You're right." Flay closed her eyes.

Kira smiled down at her. So much happened since that day, both good and bad. Whatever else that fateful event had done, he was deeply grateful that it had brought him and Flay together. It was thanks to her, along with his sister Cagalli and Athrun Zala, that he had been able to keep fighting. I fight to protect others, that's what makes me strong.

Kira remembered a conversation with his brother-in-law, just after the Battle of Mendel. "Ideals are all well and good, but most people need something more tangible to fight for," Alex had said. "You're no different."

"What about you?" Kira had asked. "I know you fight for the PLANTs, but is there more to it?"

"Of course." Alex had nodded. "For my sister, and for your sister," he'd added with a grin. "For my family."

He was right, as usual, Kira thought. I fight for Flay, for Cagalli, for Mom and Dad, and for my friends. I have the power to protect them, and I will, no matter what.

He tightened his grip just noticeably. It was hard to believe that Flay had started out as a Blue Cosmos sympathizer. By the time the Archangel had reached Orb during the war, she had long since become a fierce opponent of the terror organization, guaranteed to fly off the handle at any suggestion that Coordinators as a group were somehow evil.

Good thing, too, since she's going to be related to a major PLANT family. Embarrassed though he was, Kira knew perfectly well where their relationship was going to lead.

So did Flay, judging by the fairly broad hints she'd been throwing out of late.

She looked up at him. "Thinking about something?" she asked, reaching up to touch his face.

"Just how far we've come in the past couple of years," he said, shifting position slightly. He took her hand and gently squeezed it. "And the future that lies ahead."

Flay giggled softly. Kira had a tendency to speak in almost verse. She wouldn't have had him any other way. "Me, too," she said simply. "But no matter what happens, I'll always be by your side."

"I know," Kira whispered. He kissed her. "And I'll be there for you, no matter what." He fell silent, and the two of them watched the sky grow dark.

Joule residence, Martius One, 20 March, C.E. 73
"Your mother is certainly a good hostess," Mina commented.

Her husband shrugged. "It comes with being a politician. Unless you want somebody mad at you for some stupid reason, you have to set a good table." He shook his head. "I still don't get why Yzak doesn't have his own place."

"I'm sure he will soon enough," Mina said. "Right now he seems content as he is, and when you think about it, his duties don't leave him much time for house hunting."

Sam grunted. "Got a point there. If Alex hadn't inherited his place, he'd be living in a trailer somewhere, the way FAITH and the Academy keep him so busy."

Mina laughed. "I don't know about that, Sam. He is married, after all, and I don't think your mother would have allowed him to park just anywhere, and I know Lord Uzumi would have made arrangements."

"You're right about that," Sam admitted. "I don't know Lord Uzumi as well as you do, but I can't see him leaving his daughter out in the cold, and Mom would make sure he had a place large enough for a family. She wouldn't take no for an answer, that's for sure."

Mina raised her eyebrows. "Would Alex try to refuse?"

Sam chuckled. "Alex Strassmeier is self-reliant to a fault, Mina. He'll let others help him out -he knew perfectly well he couldn't take on Zala by himself- but he hates the thought of being dependent on anything like charity. His father was the same."

"I'll keep that in mind." Mina shook her head. "Your family are all stubborn, Sam."

He grinned. "And you're not? I seem to remember you forcing me to stay in bed for weeks after I crashed in Orb."

"That was different; you were badly injured. And don't talk to me about Coordinator healing abilities; in case you've forgotten, love, I too am a Coordinator."

"Oh, I remember," Sam said, still grinning. "That's one thing you and Cagalli have in common, making you mad is a Bad Idea."

"That's right," Mina said sweetly. "I've noticed that she's the only person your cousin the sharpshooter is genuinely afraid of."

"That's because she can get to him like no one except Andrea," Sam said. He ran a hand along her spine. "She's also the only person besides Bartlett to really challenge him on the training mat. Even I've never managed that."

Mina chuckled at that, unsurprised. After meeting Sam, she had taken a look at recordings of old martial arts matches, and Alex Strassmeier's skill had to be seen to be believed. "He seems to have some talent with knives," she commented, recalling an ill-conceived attempt on their lives near the end of the war.

"I got him interested in that," Sam said. "That little compartment in his artificial arm was my idea." He grinned. "It appealed to his sense of the sneaky."

"That I can believe," Mina said, laughing. "Even Ghina was never as secretive as Alex."

Sam shrugged. "It comes with his background. His sister abducted, his parents murdered, and he was fighting against the civilian head of ZAFT. He couldn't afford not to be secretive, not if he wanted to succeed."

His wife nodded. "It's amazing that he and your brother are so close."

Sam snorted. "You're telling me? I've never been able to figure that out. Not that I'm complaining, mind you; Alex has always had a calming effect on Yzak. Just remember this: attack one, and the other will kill you."

"I remember that from the Battle of Orb," Mina said, referring to Yzak's banzai charge at the Raider. "What about your sister?"
He pursed his lips. "Cassandra's always been an enigma," he said. "She's the product of some sort of bio-weapon project; I don't really know any details. She loves Yzak and me, and she's even fond of Alex, which is another thing I've never understood."

"Young children instinctively know whether they can trust someone," Mina said. "Besides, I've noticed that Alex drops his poker face act in private."

"I guess so." Sam shrugged again, then wrapped an arm around her waist. "Why don't we go out for a while?" he suggested.

Mina smiled, squeezing his hand. "I would like nothing better,"

Strassmeier residence, Martius Four, 31 March, C.E. 73
When Commander Strassmeier had spoken of giving his students an up-close look at how their best operated, it had never occurred to Shinn that the Spider would end up inviting him and a few of his classmates to dinner. Nevertheless, there it was, and there were more guests than just Shinn and his three friends. Not only were other cadets present, but so were a number of big names from both ZAFT and Orb.

The Commander had explained that it was important for a ZAFT soldier to be adept socially as well as militarily. (He'd added in a rather sheepish tone that he needed the practice himself, given who he was married to.)

"Congratulations to all of you," Strassmeier said, nodding at the cadets. "Two days from now you will officially be joining ZAFT's ranks. And not a moment too soon; we need everyone we can get."

Luna, visibly nervous, cleared her throat. "Is there something going on, sir?"

"To a certain extent, there always is," Strassmeier told her. "However, this is more urgent. Nicol?"

Nicol Amalfi nodded. "You all know about the recent pirate attacks, of course. What you don't know is that the Earth Forces are increasing their strength in places the pirates haven't hit at all, especially on Earth."

"Are you saying there's likely to be renewed warfare?" Rey asked softly.

"That's exactly what we're saying," Strassmeier confirmed. He took a sip of his drink; coffee, or so Shinn thought from the smell. "My belief is that we will be at war by the end of the year. I say this not to make you nervous, but to make sure you're ready. You, all of you, will be part of the defense of the Homeland."

Shinn took a deep breath. "Sir, what about Orb?"

"I have no doubt that Orb will be a prime target," Strassmeier said gently. "Don't get discouraged, though. We may be in a weak position relative to the Alliance, but that doesn't mean we're helpless."

"He's right, kid," Andrew Waltfeld agreed. "We've got some nasty surprises for the Earth Forces when they come calling."

Shinn sat back, feeling at least marginally reassured, and the talk turned to other matters. He spent the time surreptitiously watching the senior guests. All of them were either friends or family of Commander Strassmeier (or, in the case of Kira Yamato and Rondo Mina Sahaku, both). Not all were military; Lacus Clyne was present (Keinn asked for her autograph, which she happily gave). Of those who were in the service, Flay Allster, a senior lieutenant, was the most junior aside from the ZAFT cadets.

So many war heroes in one spot, no wonder Luna's so nervous, Shinn thought with a carefully hidden grin. Murrue Ramius, Mu La Flaga, Natarle Badgiruel, Samorei and Yzak Joule, Rondo Mina Sahaku, Cagalli Yula Athha, Athrun Zala, Dearka Elsman, a veritable sea of gold braid and ribbons.

Keinn, for his part, was very glad he wasn't sitting next to Andrea Strassmeier. She was starting to scare him; their little prank war had reached new heights the previous week, when she had somehow managed to slip a dead fish into his pillowcase. (Though Keinn wasn't aware of it, Shinn had cooperated in the trick.)

"Commander, do you have any theories about the pirate raids?" Luna asked.

Strassmeier shrugged. "Only that someone on our side very much wants to start another war. It's definitely our side, too, that's the only way they could have gotten Laurasia-class frigates."

"Even though ZAFT has been smashing them, it's still increasing tensions," Cagalli added. "The Alliance would love an excuse to declare war. Right now, pretty much all we can do is delay that as long as possible."

"It may seem odd that we're telling you this when you haven't yet graduated," Strassmeier said. "However, hiding the truth will do you no good, and may even hurt you when we're attacked again. Better that you be ready."

Meyrin Hawke raised a hand. "What will we do when it happens?"

"Our duty," the Spider said simply. "Remember this, all of you: There is no substitute for victory. Anyone who thinks war is better than peace is an idiot, but sometimes it cannot be avoided. When that happens, it must be won and won decisively. Peace without victory has been tried before, and it has never worked."

Kira nodded agreement. "He's right. I used to think otherwise, but when Rau Le Creuset attacked Heliopolis, I realized that sometimes you can't escape. There are some things you can't protect without fighting, that's why I'm still in the military."

"And that is why ZAFT exists, and what you have joined ZAFT to do," Strassmeier said.

Shinn turned back to his meal. "There is no substitute for victory." "There are some things you can't protect without fighting." The words echoed in his mind. I'll remember that, he promised himself. I'll protect my family and my home, and I'll do my part to defeat the Earth Forces.

ZAFT Academy complex, 2 April, C.E. 73
Alex stood a half step behind Commandant Miller, watching the assembled cadets. His four students stood in front, along with Luna's sister Meyrin and a few others. Today they would officially become ZAFT soldiers, and he could see the keen awareness of that fact in their eyes.

"You have all done well," Miller said, winding up his speech. "I have no doubt that you will continue to do ZAFT proud. In particular, four of you have proved to be truly outstanding." He gestured for Alex to join him. "Shinn Asuka, please step forward."

Shinn obeyed, feeling like he was in a dream. At last, he was going to take his place in ZAFT, as one of the elites.

"You have not merely passed, but excelled at every test set for you," Alex said. He could see the fierce pride in his student's crimson gaze. "You have proven to be the best of the best. In recognition of that, you have been granted the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite." He clasped Shinn's hand. "Congratulations."

Shinn returned the clasp, then took a step back and saluted.

The ritual was repeated three more times, for Keinn Legwitz, Lunamaria Hawke, and Rey Za Burrel. Each time, the applause was nearly deafening; not a trace of jealousy marred the occasion. Those who wore the red uniform were almost always admired rather than envied.

Alex replaced Miller at the podium. "Though I never attended this Academy, it has been a great honor to be able to teach here, however briefly," he said, no trace of his dislike of speechmaking showing. "I am grateful that I was able to assist in bringing up the next generation of ZAFT." A relative term of course, since he was barely twenty years old.

He stepped back, making room for the Commandant once again. "You will receive your orders within the next few days," he said. "In the meantime, welcome to ZAFT." The assembled soldiers saluted as one. Miller returned it, then said, "Dismissed."

"And that's that," Alex murmured. "I hope they do well."

Cagalli squeezed his hand. "I'm sure they will."

"Shinn and his friends at least," Alex said. "They, along with Luna's sister Meyrin, are being assigned to the Second Stage project. Shinn's going to be the test pilot for the Impulse." He jerked his head at the door. "Let's go."


They both knew that the next war would come soon. Neither relished the prospect, but they were confident that they, along with those new soldiers, would be ready for it.

Author's note: Shinn has graduated, but it seems the Earth Alliance is up to its old tricks. Soon a new war will begin.

I apologize for the extreme lateness of this chapter. Our computer caught a virus and died, and all the data, including the nearly complete original version of this chapter, was unrecoverable. The computer has since been replaced, but I was forced to start from scratch.

The next story, entitled Destiny Awaits, will be started shortly. I cannot say when it will be posted, but I will try not to make you wait too long. That is all.