Thank you very much to those who read and reviewed last chapter. It felt really nostalgic especially receiving reviews from those whom I still remember from years back. Thank you for your continued support! This chapter is dedicated to all of you~

Disclaimer: I don't own Gundam Seed/Destiny.

sOs

Chapter 26

Fifteen Seconds Falling

sOs

Athrun did not stop running, half-dragging Cagalli by the waist. Adrenaline pumped his body to move forward, making him unfeeling to the pain of Cagalli's teeth biting into the skin of his hand. He kept moving, hiding against trees, doing his best to blend into the shadows of the dying light.

They were deep in the forest and not following the direction Meer had pointed out. It was too risky to travel to the North; most of the soldiers might be there now, awaiting their arrival, ready for an ambush at the slightest hint of their presence.

No, they would have to wait to travel north. Besides, there was a place he was eager to go, guided only by his ears and honed instincts as a soldier.

He exhaled heavily with relief at the sight of the stream. It was wide but shallow, the sand, stones and fish visible from where he stood at the side. He looked at Cagalli, and assured that she would not scream, took his hand from her mouth. Gently, he pushed Cagalli to sit, took her hands and dipped them into the water.

She was silent; her eyes distant as she watched him work on scrubbing her hands clean of the dried blood. He was careful not to hurt her as he pulled her hands deeper to clean her arms.

Satisfied that they were clean, he proceeded to remove her shoes. Grimacing, he looked at the blisters on her heel and sole brought about by running with her high-heeled shoes. He grasped the remaining sleeves of his uniform and pulled, tearing the fabric. Carefully, he used the torn fabric to wrap her injured feet.

He raised his eyes to look at her, his heart clenching. Her ethereal gown was torn, the hem barely grazing her knees, the white material speckled with dirt, mud, soot and blood. Her golden hair was dirty and in disarray, the clips that held it in place long gone. Her face was pale, and the eyes that looked back at him held so much anguish.

Wordlessly, he knelt closer and pulled her into his arms, burying her face against his chest.

It was then that she broke down and cried.

He held her tighter, burying his own face on her neck. Her arms grasped his form close. She cried silently, biting on her lower lip to prevent herself from screaming.

No words were needed to be said. Athrun understood her pain and frustration. Someone was dead because of her. Again. First it was her father she held dear. Now, it was Meer, a person she used to hate but who had in the end still saved her.

He moved back to examine her eyes filled with angry tears, her lower lip bleeding. Gently, he wiped the blood with his thumb and offered his hand instead. As a soldier, he was used to pain. He would gladly accept Cagalli's pain. Using his other arm, he pulled Cagalli towards him, his hand cradling her head as she continued to cry.

She clung to him as if afraid he too would disappear. "I'm here, Cagalli," he whispered to reassure her, his hand caressing her back. "I won't leave you."

She continued to cry, and he continued to hold her close, stroking her face tenderly to calm her, stroking her shoulders to reassure that he was there with her.

In his arms, she was trapped in a protective cage where no one could judge her. She was not Orb's Queen— she was Cagalli, a woman who mourned. Athrun accepted her wholeheartedly, sharing her grief, swallowing her cries, holding her steady to prevent her from crumbling.

When did she start relying on him this much?

The forest was still except for the occasional sound of the animals, the swishing of the trees, moving of the stream and Cagalli's quiet sob and laboured breathing that were slowly quieting.

Slowly, he cupped her face, guiding her to look at him. Cagalli could briefly see the depth of his emerald orbs: old, haunted and sad— the eyes of a soldier who had seen countless of battles. But there was also determination lighting up like cold fire. "Cagalli." When he spoke it was quiet. "You have to live. You have to survive and prevent Azrael from taking everything you hold dear. Do you understand?"

She nodded, her eyes never leaving his.

He took a gun from his pocket and carefully handed it to her. "You have to survive. Shoot if you must."

Her eyes widened, unwilling to accept the gun but Athrun held her hand. He shook his head. "Don't let her sacrifice be put into waste."

She gripped the gun, bowed her head and slowly nodded.

He took her hand and pulled her up, his eyes asking if she was ready. When she nodded, they continued running.

Night had fallen, the forest looked more sinister but the darkness worked to their advantage. From what Athrun knew, Blue Cosmos, the faction that Azrael headed, was dwindling, their numbers falling due to the stable peace Earth and PLANTs were trying hard to maintain. This might explain the few soldiers guarding them.

They were crossing a small river when the first shouts came.

"I can see something moving there!"

Athrun whirled around, eyes straining to see where the soldiers were, as he pulled Cagalli out of the river and behind a big rock. There was a lamp on the other end of the river held by a soldier carrying a riffle.

Athrun gripped the gun on his hands. He would not hesitate. He would kill to protect her.

Cagalli was holding her breath as the soldier with the lamp scratched his head and muttered to himself, "But I saw something here."

The soldier's young face was scrunched up in determination as he crossed the river, walking near their hiding place.

Checking the gun on his hand, Athrun made a decision. He had to conserve bullets for long range enemies. For this soldier, he had to use close-range tactics. Cagalli stared at Athrun, her eyes bright in the dark as if asking permission. 'I'm good at hand to hand combat.'

But Athrun shook his head. The man still had a riffle. He was not taking chances. Entrusting his gun to Cagalli, he crouched low, limbs contracted, ready to pounce.

There was a yell of curses from the soldier as Athrun pulled the man's arm and threw him over his back. The soldier landed with a loud thud, and there was a sickening crack of ribs and limbs.

Athrun had barely taken two steps when a shot rang through the night and he felt a burning sensation on his side. Another soldier had emerged from the bushes, gun raised, and ready for another shot.

"Athrun!"

Two more shots were fired as Cagalli threw stones at the soldier to distract him. She ran up to him and punched him in between the eyes, ignoring the pain on her knuckles as it broke through the bones of his nose. Blinded, the soldier screamed and grabbed her arm and threw her aside, landing onto the hard earth.

Wincing, Athrun sprang and kneed the soldier in the abdomen. The soldier coughed blood and collapsed beside his comrade.

Cagalli rushed to him and he pulled her hand as they ran away from the scene. Ignoring the pain, his eyes scanned the terrain for shelter.

There was a drop, and another— a slow pitter-patter of rain.

He gripped his side, trying to prevent the blood that pooled from his wound from staining the earth. It would be dangerous if their captors would be able to trace them because of it.

The rain was beating steadily, soaking both their forms. It was cold, biting through their flesh. It seeped through the earth, making the land slippery, mud splashing as they ran. Athrun looked at Cagalli who was trying hard not to shiver. They had to find shelter quickly.

There was a big tree with a hole underneath it. Assessing that it was big enough to accommodate them, Athrun pulled Cagalli in and then collapsed against one of the walls of the enclosure.

Cagalli knelt beside Athrun and inspected the wound. Her heart was beating loudly against her chest, panic filling her senses. 'Not another one, please!' she begged. It was a nasty injury without an exit wound, the bullet still deep within his body. But it was more to the side, and not instantly fatal as long as she can stop the bleeding.

Athrun's eyes were closed as Cagalli lifted whatever remained of her skirt and ripped the fabric, splitting it in a jagged line that barely reached the middle of her thighs. Carefully she pressed it on the wound to stop the bleeding.

"You're going to be alright, Athrun.." she whispered more to herself for reassurance. "It's alright.."

Athrun slowly nodded, "I've had worse."

Cagalli managed a small wistful smile, "What? Another part of being a soldier?"

"A good, courageous soldier, yes," he replied, his eyes similarly wistful.

She thought she must have done something really bad in her past life to be punished this much. They were in a situation where both their lives were hanging by a thread, uncertain of their next course of action. She studied his face, the stark contrast of the paleness of his skin against his midnight blue hair tousled, muddy and damp from the rain. He had been shot twice, one in the shoulder, and another in the abdomen. In another time, she would be in awe at how tough he was, neither complaining nor howling in pain. But the way he gritted his teeth, closed his eyes and regulated his breathing took away any other feeling but worry, panic and helplessness.

With his right arm, Athrun held her shoulder and tenderly pushed her against him, careful not to get her bloodier than she already was. She was shivering in his touch, both from the cold and fear. He would have wanted to light a fire but everything was damp and a fire might alert their captors of their location.

They would have to start moving once the rain slowed down. But for now, they stayed in that position for a long time.

It was an hour after when the rain finally slowed to a patter. The clouds were shifting, allowing the iridescent light from the high moon to filter out. After wrapping another bandage to his wound, both Athrun and Cagalli carefully travelled North. It was a risk they had to take if they wanted to be found by Yzak and Dearka.

The forest was dark and quiet, taunting their senses to the danger that lay with their every step. They continued walking for hours, senses alert with every twig snapped, every swishing of the leaves and every droplet of rain.

A wolf howled in the distance, long and haunting. Athrun squeezed Cagalli's hand in his, reassuring her even without words.

And she trusted him wholeheartedly.

The sound of the crashing waves was reaching their ears and their eyes met. They moved slowly, careful to be hidden against the trees. Peering into the horizon, they could just barely see the teasing orange of the sunrise and gray of the still lingering rain clouds.

Beyond the trees was a short grassy clearing leading to a cliff. Athrun inspected the cliff and grimaced at its height. Cagalli, who was beside him, threw a rock and watched as it took fifteen seconds before it broke the surface of the sea.

"We can't jump," Cagalli finally said, shaking her head. "We have to find—"

Athrun raised his arm to silence her and shoved her behind him. Confused, she raised her eyebrow and watched as his expression darkened and his grip on Meer's knife tightened.

At first, it was faint— there was the sound scuffling footsteps— but it grew steadier as they drew nearer. Athrun and Cagalli held their breaths, their hearts hammering against their chests. From behind the trees, five men with heavy riffles emerged, their lips twisted into sneers. The leader of the group who seemed not older than twenty stepped forward, his light green hair covering a part of his sardonic eyes.

"It is useless to struggle, just surrender now!" the leader announced, his own riffle poised to shoot.

Athrun growled. Where did they come from? Were they following them? He was very careful and even without his heightened senses, he would have known if they were being followed. His eyes caught the reflection of a small metal tower on the shore to the far right of the cliff. Shit. It was an observation tower.

The men were slowly closing in. He couldn't engage in a fight without endangering Cagalli's life. They had to flee.

Amidst the sound of the guns loading, Athrun could hear a very faint buzz. He partly peered behind him, his eyes searching the sea, his mind working fast on a plan.

"Cagalli," his voice was quiet, his eyes focused on hers. "You have to live. Promise me that."

"W-what are you saying? We'll survive this! I promise!"

She watched as his lips tilted into a small smile. His emerald eyes were solemn, almost apologetic. "Sorry, Cagalli..."

Cagalli's eyes widened as Athrun turned and embraced her, tucking her head against his chest. With great force, he pushed them off the cliff. She could barely scream as the men fired, and Athrun shielded her from the bullets with his own body.

They were falling.

15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10 seconds— She didn't know how many of the bullets pierced his body. Athrun's blood seemed to defy gravity as they hovered in the air like rain drops.

9, 8, 7, 6, 5— The rushing wind was painful to her eyes but she could not bear to close them, afraid that when she did, Athrun would vanish.

4, 3, 2, 1.. 0— Her back stung in pain as it hit the surface of the cold water and yet they continued going deeper, and deeper, her lungs screaming for air.

And then everything was black.

sOs

Azrael's pleasant countenance was gone, replaced with raw fury as he treaded through the dense forest of Orb. That bitch Meer just proved her uselessness and let his precious captives free! He should have never trusted that bitch coordinator even if she was highly regarded as valuable by one of his right hand man, Yuuna.

Oh, and that right hand man also vanished just when he needed him to do his job.

He cursed. He was surrounded by morons! By worthless people!

Adjusting the pistol in his hand, he surveyed the area. He could not leave the important task of finding the Queen of Orb and the Chairman of PLANTs just to his soldiers- he was personally going to attend to the situation at hand.

His mind worked into plans. He had to be careful. As one of ZAFT's elites, Chairman Zala was a force to be reckoned with. Djibril's unconscious form— his strongest and most brilliant man— was a testament to that. He had to be swift with his gun and should not hesitate to use the Queen of Orb as a shield if Zala forced him into a pinch. Surely he wouldn't dare to hurt her? And then there was also the Orb Queen Attha herself to be considered who was said to be reckless and brash, he had to—

Azrael stopped in his tracks, all thoughts broken, as he saw the silhouette of a man leaning against one of the many trees. Upon recognizing the man, his lips contorted into a frown, the man's name bitter on his lips.

"Le Creuset."

The said man raised his head, and Azrael hated the blasted mask the coordinator wore that hid the expression of his eyes. It only allowed him to see the upward curve of his lips. Le Creuset straightened, his white ZAFT uniform bathed in the orange rays of dusk.

Azrael's eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here? How did you find this place?"

The ZAFT Commander did not answer but allowed his smirk to grow wider. Suddenly, Azrael's fury doubled and he glared, realization dawning. "You knew." It wasn't a question but rather an accusing statement. "You knew." He repeated quietly, malice evident in his voice.

Le Creuset remained unmoving, neither confirming nor rejecting his claims. Azrael's hold on the gun tightened. "You knew everything didn't you? You always did, even back during the war." His teeth clenched. "If you knew, then why did you not say anything? Why did you not stop us? I could have killed Queen Attha. I could have killed Chairman Zala."

A low, amused chuckle escaped from the commander's lips. Even with the mask, Azrael knew the coordinator was looking at him with arrogant amusement. It made his blood boil with anger. "And yet you did not kill them. It was a risk but it was also just as planned."

Azrael's voice was slowly losing its confidence. "You—You planned all of these? You planned— No— expected me to capture them?!" Le Creuset was known to play mind games with his enemies and Azrael was trying his hardest not to fall.

The amused smile was still on Le Creuset's lips. "Everything— yes — all for the sole purpose of setting the stage of your death."

Azrael shook with anger. With a strangled cry, he fired continuously. But the Commander was too fast, and the next second, he felt his hand being twisted and his body slamming hard on the ground.

"You have become a big threat, Azrael. You cannot be overlooked any longer."

Le Creuset could still remember that night when he had tried to send a formal request order for an assassination. But before it was received by Athrun, it had been intercepted by an intruder to the ZAFT office. He was slightly annoyed that he chose to delete the file, after realizing that Athrun would not approve— the chairman was too righteous.

Amusingly, later he learned that the intruder had been the Orb princess.

And so, he was forced to act on his own, bidding his time for the perfect chance, manipulating people like Meer to stalk his target. He had waited for so long...

He looked down at Azrael's fear-stricken eyes and a cruel wave of pleasure washed over him. He twisted Azrael's arm holding the gun so that the barrel was now pressed against Azrael's temple.

"You CANNOT kill me, Le Creuset!"

He clicked the safety of the gun.

"Goodbye, Azrael. I will meet you in hell."


To be Continued...

So what do you think? Please review!

Sorry for the short chapter. This was meant to be part of chapter 25 but I decided to cut it. Phew! One more chapter and then an epilogue before this story finally ends! :)

Before writing this chapter, I was able to rummage from my old notebooks the original plotline for this story. Reading it almost 9 years later, I'm glad that things changed throughout the years (one could only imagine just where in the world I got those weird ideas from, thank goodness some of them weren't put into actual writing :P) It was challenging to pick up this story after four years, but I have never felt this happy writing again. I wish that the other Gundam Seed fan fictions, especially those classic ones that made me love the fandom in the first place would also get updated. There will never be a "too late" time for AsuCaga :)