Chapter 34: Shadow of the giant

Many months have passed since that day.

But the pain was still as fresh as if it had happened yesterday…

His heartbeat sped up as he realized it was the same dream that has been plaguing his sleep for months. Yet, knowing that it was a nightmare made it no easier to bear.

This time, he watched as a spectator from faraway, there saw himself and Albert in a distance. Albert looked up to whatever direction the other Athrun was looking, there was an incredibly loud sound, then within fraction of a second, Albert pushed Athrun to the ground.

"No…!" The real Athrun shouted as he raced after the dancing figures. "That's not…Albert!"

A fountain of red sprouted from Albert's back along with a spray of internal organ bits as the bullet entered his body.

"Albert! No, no…!" Athrun reached the ledge where his friend died, he knelt beside his friend in a pool of lukewarm blood, trying to stop the bleeding.

The other Athrun did not panic as he had done, only cradled Albert's body in his arms as he declared calmly.

"You killed him."

"No…I never meant…! I…did not think…!" He defended himself incoherently. His hands were shaking pathetically.

There was simply nothing to explain, everyone has to pay the price for their own choices…and it just happened in this instant that Albert paid the price for his….

The other Athrun only looked him in the eye.

"You should be dead, not him."

Athrun could only shake his head helplessly, tears running down his face. "I…!"

Kira came along and grabbed Athrun, "Who the hell are you talking to? We need to get out of here!"

"What…?" Athrun realized that Kira cannot see what he saw. When Athrun looked back, the other Athrun was no longer there.

The only difference is, instead of Albert, it was Yzak lying on the ground.

Yzak Jule did not move even when Athrun yelled at him. And in horror, Athrun realized Yzak was bleeding and bleeding…

ooo

Athrun jerked up, yelling, "What the hell…!", then felt something wet and pink licking his cheek.

He panted as his hand reached automatically beside him, where he would usually find his wife. This morning, his hand grasped only blanket, Cagalli was nowhere to be found. For a brief moment he panicked, his heart raced and cold sweat ran down his temple, fearing something bad had happened, and overnight his life will be torn from him again…

He gathered his wits, and forced himself to take deep breaths, the licking helped, working a little like face washing.

"Suki, stop it…" Athrun commanded the large teenage golden retriever trying to mount the bed, he was in no mood to play. Suki licked his cheek one last time as it playfully bit Athrun's arm.

When Athrun felt somewhat calmer, he recalled that Cagalli did say something about having to leave early to go back to the office to retrieve something. So that means she was probably not kidnapped or assassinated when Athrun was not looking…

Today is the big day.

The marriage of Orb's matriarch was one with loads of fanfare and excitement, inclusive of death threats and hate mail; but Cagalli brushed them off like they were flies and proceeded with the preparations. Athrun could see for once that she was excited for her own marriage and coronation. They were living under one roof; and with two kids, a baby and a golden retriever between them, there was hardly time or space for anything else. Cagalli had been incredibly busy, and there were times when he won't see her for days on end.

Their friends have arrived in dribs and drabbles through the course of the last few weeks, some have jolly well taken up residence in the multiple guests rooms in the Athha mansion. By mid-morning, Cagalli should be in her room with a very pregnant Lacus fussing over her hair and dress. Kira, Shinn and Dearka were aiding with the security and guarding their respective charges. Spencer, Mwu and Murrue have only arrived yesterday. Uncle Amafi and his family will be arriving today, and Athrun had been prevented from going to the spaceport to fetch them by a very uptight Mana. She insists that something will go wrong the moment he steps out of the estate. So, after the aides helped him changed into his ultra-complicated suit, he realized he had nothing to do but wait for the ushers to come and call him. He patted his pocket to reassure himself that the wedding gift for Cagalli was still there…

Usually he would wander around the gardens and huddle on some fungus-ridden stool with his lab top, where he will receive updates from PLANTs and letters seeking advice. All previous Chairmen are dead, and apparently a live one with experience did have some value and virtue. He acted as sort of an advisor to the council. Other than that, the mech technicians and Erica Simmons would ask him to work on developing their newest weaponry, Athrun deals with the hardware and Kira will be tester for the software.

On a sidenote, the pico Haros went viral, literally. Marlene went around showing it off to her classmates and in three months' time two major toy makers approached Athrun for the copyright and offered a handsome sum, they each up the offer till someone gave in. Athrun was amused at first that his creations would fetch such a sum and cause this mini price war, but now it was getting too noisy on the streets for his taste. It seemed that every other kid had one; and he is now obligated to make Marlene something else. Even Cagalli seemed jealous about the affair and sort of demanded the same.

He would usually work till Suki, the young, spirited, golden retriever comes along and demands every inch of his attention, and he will half-obligingly toss a Frisbee or a bone and wait for the dog to happily retrieve it. In his opinion, retrievers are certainly well-named. Then after rolling around with the dog he will go back in the house ever hour or so to check on the baby, then swim or take a jog.

He could do nothing now, his pants were pure white and he feared that they will not survive the fungus and dog fur…

For heaven's sake, the longer he wore it the more he thought it was unserviceable and so incredibly heavy.

He sighed, and regretted not taking any initiative in the design of the suit. The coat was double-breasted and adorned with gold lining, his shoulders and cuffs were trimmed with gold and heavy golden ropes slung across the embroidery on his chest. The belt was embroidered with gold threads too and with what he suspected was topaz, behind him trailed a white cape with a convoluted design. It was as long as he was tall, and only touched the floor when he stood on one spot for any period of time. He was supposed to put on a pair of white gloves too, but they were currently tucked into one of the hidden pockets at his hip. There were golden clasps, clips and carved buttons everywhere and he was unsure of how the outfit came together.

He stood at the stairwell leading down into the garden courtyard. The place sat atop a hill and overlooked the countryside. It was the royal summer palace and he had liked the place very much and Cagalli obliged him, when he came back with her, she converted the place for him. Now they all stayed here, and Max and Marlene were extra thrilled to finally be able to attend just one school and make friends.

It felt so surreal that this warm, well-lighted mansion was now his home in exile. It felt so familiar and foreign all at the same time.

He deserved none of this…

He leaned back on a pillar, and allowed himself a small sigh.

As usual, he will tell Cagalli nothing of his guilt, she had done so much for him already…In many sense, she had tried to heal him, but some wounds just don't mend…

He closed his eyes, and gave a long, deep, sigh.

"Is that you, Athrun?"

The voice snapped him out of his melancholy and brought a small smile to his face.

"Uncle Amarfi." He addressed, he was glad to see the elderly man. The older man jogged up to him lithely.

"You're better." Yulie Amarfi declared, clearly pleased as he clapped Athrun's shoulder and playfully squeezed his bicep, "A little more meat on your bones too, good. I almost cannot recognize you."

"You too." Athrun replied, "Your gait is much better." He looked around uncertainly, "Where's auntie and Nicol?"

"You know women." The elderly man said off-handedly, "They need to gather and giggle over wedding dress train details and nail polish colours. But I sincerely assure you, your wife looks stunning, you two match."

"Thank you." Athrun accepted the compliment graciously, waiting. He knew Yulie Amarfi did not come to make small talk right before the ceremony, there must be a reason why he sent off Nicol and his wife to come to Athrun in private.

"I need you to talk to someone." Nicol Amarfi finally said as he motioned behind him, and Athrun stared in surprise. He did not expect to see him, of all people.

"Hey Zala. You're still alive." Yzak Jule greeted in his not-so-deliberate-but-strictly-condescending way that made Athrun mysteriously miffed every time. He thought he had gotten past it, but apparently being separated from the source of constant irritation has eroded his immunity to rudeness.

"Hey 'zak."

Yzak gave his infamous eye roll, Athrun frowned.

"Manners, gentlemen." Yulie Amarfi reminded with a sigh.

Athrun gave his arch rival a glance, Yzak was donning the black and purple Chairman suit, meaning he was here on official business. Of what manner, Athrun could not guess. He was earlier informed that Yzak would not be attending the ceremony nor the banquet that followed after.

"I would like to talk about the Chairmen election next month." Yulie Amarfi started the ball rolling.

"We have talked about it, there is nothing else to discuss." Yzak said dismissively, then he threw Athrun a glare, "And if indeed there was, what business is it of his? Zala's exiled till forever and a day."

The statement was true, it hurt; a little. He could never go back to his parents' graves and lay a white lily there, it made him feel like he had failed them. But he had heard of the affair and he have had emails from Steven and Violet asking him to talk to Yzak, apparently they thought quite highly of his argumentative prowess…

Personally, Athrun feels that Yzak should be allowed to choose. If he was indeed forced to take the seat of Chairman, there is no personal commitment, he will not last long. No one will last long unless their heart and soul was in it. Some don't even then.

Athrun wondered why Yulie Amarfi would not contest for the seat, being the most experience member of the PLANTs supreme council. Lacus did not contest either, she apparently did not feel the need to. She had given an almost enigmatic smile that left Athrun guessing-as usual- when questioned about the affair.

Yulie Amarfi sighed, "Yzak, you've been governing for almost a year and some of the policies have just started to come to fruition. Surely you will not let someone else take credit for it?"

"…Why not?" Yzak said adamantly.

"Listen…" The elderly man sighed again, he spoke very slowly and deliberately. "In times like this, the country needs a little more stability, think about it. The last three Chairmen have died violent deaths, two charged with treason, one with a life-imprisonment sentence and the other banished."

"Well, I'm well and alive…"

"Precisely. You being well and alive after the events those few months ago meant something to the people. At least, to them you seem to have a bit more luck on your side, but the more important part is to prove that the Chairman-in-proxy has not lost faith in the system. If you drop the ball now, there will be unpredictable consequences."

That much was truth, though vague, still true. Too much has happened to the political scene over too short a period of time, and if the people lose faith, the system will crumble as easily as a house made of cards. The scariest part is, no one can predict when, they can only minimize the 'how'.

When Yzak did not speak, Yulie Amarfi took it as a sign to continue.

"Yzak, you are young, young men think fast and act fast and have the energy and innovation to make changes. You are a soldier, you were ingrained with the same ethics of those with military training. That's what's ideal to unite both factions in the government. And correct me if I am wrong, eight years ago you opted for a change from military to civilian leadership. Knowing those who thrive in war can never sincerely lead a country in peace, you saw that after two years on the frontline, didn't you? I am under the impression that you too, prefer peace to war."

Athrun did not know about Yzak, but knew he certainly did, and anyone who can sincerely say otherwise will truly be a monster. And after that when Yzak became commander, a Zaft white, Voltaire functioned more as a diplomatic vessel than a warship. That too, was Yzak's conscious choice, surely it counted for something.

There was a flicker of hesitation in Yzak's blue eyes, but when Yulie Amarfi touched his shoulder, he shrugged the older man's hand off.

"You want to make a difference in peace, don't you?" Yulie Amarfi pressed. But Yzak would not give a reply, neither will he look him in the eye. In his state of utter withdrawal, he gave Athrun a fleeting glance, and suddenly Athrun understood what was holding him back.

"Uncle…can I speak to Yzak for a while…?" Athrun requested as he touched the older man's arm, "In private…" He added, and was satisfied that Yzak gave him an alarmed, incredulous glare. "Zala…?"

"Alright…" Yulie Amarfi consented readily, it indicated he really wanted Athrun to work a miracle. He left the two of them and went towards the living room.

"The hell, Zala?" Yzak challenged when there was only the two of them left, he folded his arms across his chest aggressively. "What do you want?"

Athrun merely gazed at him calmly for a while, resisting the urge to let his fist do the talking.

By right, he should try to be as civil as possible, right?

"Damn it, Zala, what the hell?" He demanded more fiercely, clearly uncomfortable. "You're wasting my time."

"The question is, what do you want?" Athrun demanded, getting a little more heated himself.

"That's none of your goddamn business!" Yzak snapped.

Wrong.

Athrun struck out fast and hard, and caught Yzak on his lower jaw, he tumbled backwards, then recovered and struck back. Athrun shunned the fist and turned and pulled his rival's arm over his shoulder, effectively executing a shoulder toss. When Yzak hit the floor, he straddled him and pinned him against the floor.

"What is wrong with you?!" Yzak demanded as he struggled against the grip. "Let me go!"

"The question is, 'What is wrong with you?'" Athrun snarled, "If it were someone else I would have asked them to preserve their personal happiness and go home, but you're not someone else! Do you understand?"

It took a while for the somewhat-compliment to sink in, and Yzak just stared at him with wide eyes.

"There aren't many I can trust..." Athrun confessed.

His contacts have been stretched thin, and if it weren't Yzak, it might be someone else. Someone worse, someone possibly willing to use PLANTs resources and influence for his or her own personal gain.

Athrun bit his lip, the next part was the hardest to say. Because he had taken these few months to reconcile his feelings, the hurt, the betrayal, the regrets; they were all part of him now. And though the physical separation and time passed allowed some form of healing, he knew the pain will never truly go away. The part of him that was broken will never repair itself, no matter how long has passed.

"It's scary, I know that…I was fearful as well." Athrun muttered, "I was afraid. When you decide to be a trailblazer, there is a chance someone you love will get hurt…and someone will die. And you cannot see there road ahead because there is none…But…!"

"Zala…" Yzak whispered.

"Everyone dies…So live, Yzak. Fear can do nothing for you, if you won't fight, then you might as well die!"

Yzak gasped softly. He, of all people understood Athrun's sentiments, it was a warrior's spirit.

Somehow it made Athrun amused and mildly disgusted at the same time.

"I am a selfish idiot, I know that. If you're a useless, brainless twit, you'll be free to go home and rot, but you're far from that! Do something great out there and make it count before you retire or whatever!" Before Yzak could rebut, he added, "And if this is about the argument between you and auntie Jule, then it's an utterly pathetic excuse!"

Yzak opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it immediately, his ears turning red. And Athrun recognized it was true, and Yzak was shameful about it.

Yzak Jule gazed at him from the floor, drawing deep breaths. He closed his eyes for some time, as if silently counting in his head. When he opened his clear blue eyes, Athrun sensed a change. The streak of hesitation was gone, he had made a decision. Whichever way, Athrun could not guess.

"Let go, Zala." Yzak demanded evenly as he looked him in the eye, and Athrun released his grip, allowing him to get off the floor.

"And they tell me I'm the violent one." Yzak grumbled as he threw him a dirty look, massaging his jaw.

Athrun merely shrugged, he was unrepentant. "Just for you."

"Tsk."

"Clear-headed now?" Athrun asked casually, suddenly all the fight bled from him. He leaned back on the railing, uncaring of the dust and rust.

Yzak did not look at him, he gathered himself beside Athrun and brought his knees to himself in a thoughtful manner.

"Clearer…" Yzak's voice was quiet.

"You're welcome." Athrun finished graciously.

"I can't believe…I needed you, the greatest morons of all morons in the world to tell me what to do…" He muttered, shaking his head.

"Takes one to know one, I guess." Athrun replied.

"They are still…out there…" Yzak muttered, Athrun wondered who he was referring to.

"…Those who tried to kill you, those who killed Albert."

Athrun felt anger rise in his heart at that. If he ever found those scoundrels he swore he will make them pay, whoever they are.

"If I continued as Chairman…" Yzak said, and he did not continue. Athrun knew exactly what he was worried about.

"You're afraid…they might try to…?"

Yzak gazed at him incredulously and interrupted before he could finish, "Damn you, Zala! You can go to hell for all I care, it's Daniel and Shiho I'm worried about."

Athrun smirked, now this is the default Yzak. He was back in action.

"I can't live with myself…if anything happens to Daniel or Shiho…for my sake." Yzak whispered in a small, tight voice.

"Have you asked them?" Athrun replied.

"…They'll just…support whatever I want…" Yzak shook his head.

"So what do you want?"

"…For them to be safe." Yzak snapped, "And…!" Yzak stopped short again, he turned away at this. He paused for a few minutes.

"You…don't know what you have done…" His voice was low, and it caught Athrun by surprise.

"What…?" Athrun muttered.

"You saved them…" Yzak replied, still not looking at him, "Those soldiers who were out in space with us, many of them have reenlisted in Zaft. And Zala…they are still loyal to you."

Yzak turned abruptly and looked him in the eye. "They only listen and obey me because you have effectively put me in this office, whenever they salute to me…I know that they are really saluting to you. And…my neighbour's five-year-old daughter, was one of those who caught the plague, the antibody was administered in time to prevent brain damage. She is now happy and healthy, and insists on sending a flower every morning to my doorstep. Every damn flower is a reminder…that I can only live in your shadow…" Yzak whispered bitterly, a small ironic grimace on his lips.

Athrun felt an unexpected sting to his eyes, and he gulped audibly.

He had not thought about what it would mean for Yzak…now that he had handed over everything.

"All my life, I've lived in someone else's shadow…" Yzak whispered, pain in his voice. "I thought I had finally stepped out of my mother's…and damn it! I stepped into yours." Yzak forced a strangled laugh, and the sound seemed like a dagger in Athrun's heart…

Athrun bit his lip, he had not meant all that, he had not mean to do this to Yzak…But he could not sincerely say sorry either, because then…it was all or nothing.

If it was not for Yzak taking over the office, PLANTs government may not have been able to establish control. And PLANTs will end up with a military government, and history knows that it works out for no one's benefit. Those who thrive in war can never rule sincerely in peace…

Just as Athrun was fretting over how he could possibly make it up somehow, it was Yzak who broke the awkward silence with a rough sigh. "My god, we are getting nowhere. Zala, why the hell am I talking to you about this again?"

"I don't know…Maybe…I…hope it's not so bad to be in my shadow…as you put it. Yzak…a year has passed, you are the one making the changes now, the one doing things. But me…?" He gazed at Yzak with pain thick in his throat. He sighed shakily. "I cannot…do what you do..."

Yzak would not meet his gaze, but the furrow between his brows deepened.

"Zala, I admit it…" Yzak nodded with a heavy sigh, mocking at himself, "I am scared….Damn it, the thing is…I don't even know of what!"

"Maybe…because you had no liabilities, but now you do."

Yzak widened his eyes, then gazed at him. "…What…?" He asked, "What the hell are you talking about, Zala?"

"Before this, the only liability is your Sedna, you lost her. Then for a time you decided not to have liabilities, and you won't value even your own life. You think that if you could die avenging her; then so be it." Athrun reasoned. "But now, Shiho and Daniel has become your liabilities, and that troubles you…Have you asked them what they want?"

I know what they want!" Yzak stared at him for a time, then he snapped, "I just don't know how to do it."

"So you find out…"

"Oh, so of all people you are gonna counsel me about the road to happiness? Is that it?" Yzak ridiculed.

"Look, you chose to have liabilities. So deal with it." Athrun retorted. "Life goes on whether you're cowering in a bomb shelter twenty-four seven or if you are out there making a difference. You can't protect everyone from everything and that's the truth!"

Yzak could not find a reply to that. He remained quiet for a time, the breeze rippled past the grass in the courtyard, stirring up loose leaves.

After a few minutes, Yzak said. "Zala."

"Yeah…?"

Yzak took a deep breath, so deep it hurts.

"What if you are wrong…? Damn it! What if both of us are wrong?" Yzak questioned gingerly, looking ahead, it was so unlike him.

"What if the whole frickin' world is wrong…?" He breathed, his voice quivering, he looked up, far away. As if unwilling for unshed tears to flow out.

Athrun took a deep breath, when he did not know what was right anymore, he still did know what he had to do. Just keep trying, and you'll find the way, and either ways after that…

"Then you die…we'll both die."

A sarcastic smile came upon Yzak's lips. A breath, then two.

"That's all…?"

"Yep."

"I was hoping for something worse for you." Yzak confessed, Athrun could not tell if he was joking.

"Don't think it can get much worse for me…" Athrun replied. This was the conversation he had with Kira so many seasons ago, they promised each other they will find the way. And this was the Yzak he was familiar with, the abrasive one who is true to his beliefs; who talks with his fists and thinks with his heart. And by extension, an idiot through and through.

The wind picked up a little, singing softly. Stirring the grass in ripples.

"…Do you hate me?" Yzak whispered in a small voice so unlike him. Athrun found himself surprised. The Yzak so many seasons ago only knew how to shout so that he will be heard. But Athrun suddenly realized that this Yzak is a changed man.

He now speaks softly, and he will be heard.

"Why should I…?" Athrun questioned in an equally quiet voice though a thousand thoughts raced in his heart.

Athrun could not admit it to himself, but at some point in time, he did, he tried to. He wanted to blame someone, anyone. He wanted to hate the world, but the harder he tried the more he could not. He could blame no one for his predicament, and ultimately he realized he loved the world...because his world was filled with Cagalli's love.

It was her converting the Summer palace, discussing with him what décor he preferred and relaying it to the architects. It was her pushing the kids towards him when they were scared because he looked so thin and frail after a few months of separation, Cagalli told them kindly. "From now, he's daddy, you two call me mommy, it's official. We are a family, we will stay here from now on. And, it's quite windy and when the wind is too strong, daddy might be blown away, so you two must take turns to hold his hand." Both kids gaped sincerely at that, then unanimously ran towards Athrun and took each of his hands just as a gush of wind blew past. Then he squatted down, and the two wrapped their short arms around his neck and cried and cried while Athrun patted theirs heads.

At the dinner table, Marlene donated a fried prawn and laid it tenderly on Athrun's plate, "Eat more." She said, waiting in delight, her eyes bright.

In response, Max cried, "No fair!" and quickly added another fried prawn to Athrun's plate. "Eat mine first!"

"Hey that's not fair, I gave him first!" Marlene protested, then turned to Athrun, "Eat mine first!"

"Mine!" Max shrieked.

Athrun had not been prepared to touch any of the prawns as he knew they were the kids' favourite, and he frowned in disbelief as the children bickered over whose prawn should be eaten first.

Ultimately, Cagalli stepped in, "Stop it this moment, you two!" She scolded, "Didn't you promise to be good?"

"But…but he tried to cut queue!" Marlene accused Max with a finger, it was apparent she was upset.

"No, I didn't!" Max denied, then turned to Athrun, "I just want you to eat more!"

Cagalli blew a strand of fringe from her face in exasperation, then also deposited one prawn onto Athrun's plate. With her fork and knife, she shuffled the three prawns sporadically, then when she stopped, she commanded Athrun, "Eat."

Since Cagalli said so, it is so. Athrun ate obligingly, a little amused at the continual choruses of, "That's mine, no that's mine…!"

The freshness was in his mouth, sweetness in his heart...

Max and Marlene loved the new puppy, they would play with it, demand for turns to feed it. Max even tried to smuggle it into his room. Athrun was curious about the new retriever puppy, it looked like the one Cagalli had when he was a bodyguard. But obviously, he cannot win two young children when it came to cute, furry things. So he was going to wait till the kids grew sick of it. After the third day of the puppy's arrival, and he had still not managed to even touch it, he was a little crestfallen. Cagalli sighed as she came home, very calmly, picked it up and deposited it into Athrun's lap to the squealing objections of the kids.

The little pack of fur looked at the new human with large, bright eyes, then sniffed the buttons on his shirt, then gave it a tentative chew. It was ticklish and Athrun brushed it off as he gave a smile.

"Name him, won't you?" Cagalli said. "He's yours, you know."

Athrun's mouth fell open, "He is…? I…ah…"

He was secretly delighted as the puppy nuzzled his palms, then rolled over, exposing it's pretty pink belly. It stuck out its pink tongue and gave Athrun an adorable look, demanding a tummy rub. That meant that it really likes him.

Tentatively, Athrun used his fingers to twirl circles on the puppy's soft belly, and it squealed blissfully, thumping it's left leg.

At that point, Athrun could only walk short distances unaided, the muscles on his legs simply too damaged to support more. He was unsure whether he was fit enough to take care of a pet.

Marlene chimed in unhappily at Athrun's hesitation, "Why can't he be my birthday present? I'll take good care of him."

"I'll take better care!" Max yelled.

Athrun could not argue to that, his hand stopped abruptly, and he picked up the squirming puppy and was ready to return it back to the demanding children when Cagalli placed a hand on his.

"The maids, and I will be in-charged of cleaning and whatnot, your job is only one thing and one thing alone."

"Which is…?" He asked uncertainly, it did not sound like there was actually anything left for him to do.

"You play with it. Have some fun, let him chase you around when the kids are at school. Or in time, you can chase him."

That sounded utterly silly, but to have fun is to be silly. Cagalli smiled at him at that, biting her lip, then whispered something soft and erotic into his ear.

He could not hate a world like that.

"I…saw to your deportation." Yzak said softly, bringing Athrun back from his recollections.

Athrun realized that the guilt has been eating Yzak alive, Yzak went on slowly.

"I made sure you'll never step foot on PLANTs again…for as long as you live. I…forced you to flee and I made it plain." Yzak looked him in the eye, the furrow between his brows so deep, his aquamarine eyes fierce and unyielding.

"Because if you were to hate me, I want you to do it from the start."

Athrun could not reply for a time.

"…I can't…hate someone for saving my life…" Athrun confessed in a small voice, it was damn hard to admit it, but Yzak did what others could not do then. Even if he were to hate him, he could not do it with his whole heart, sometimes he did not know whether to think of Yzak as friend or foe.

"I don't think…I can ever hate you…" Athrun admitted awkwardly, and was thankfully interrupted by an unexpected yelp, he did not think he had ever heard Yzak produce a sound like that.

Athrun turned. "What…? Oh Melody, don't eat that!" Athrun commanded the fat baby as she gummed Yzak's sleeve, Yzak hurriedly pulled his sodden sleeve away, "What's that?!"

"That." Athrun started as he hurried over to stop the infant from trying to eat other things, "Is Melody, she is three months old and has reached developmental milestones extra early, she started crawling last week, and she has escaped her crib a few times."

Athrun picked up the baby gently and held her close to his chest. Melody made delighted gurgling sounds and pulled at Athrun's clothes. She was the only one who had inherited his hair colouration and green eyes and looked like a miniature so much that Cagalli calls her Athrun-little.

"Melody, that's uncle Yzak, he'd be scared if you try to eat him again, so don't."

"I am not scared!" Yzak declared, his ears turning red again. "I was just startled, that's all."

Athrun chuckled knowingly. It was then one of the maids ran out, frantically searching till she found Melody. "Oh sir, I am so sorry, young mistress disappeared the moment I wasn't looking!" She said as she took Melody from Athrun.

"It's alright, I can't seem to make her stay put either."

Melody protested at being taken from Athrun's chest, and held on to his hair till the maid had the pry open her small fist. Then Mana ran in with two ushers, pointed at Athrun and shouted, "There you are! We have been looking high and low for you! Come. Oh, Chairman Jule, good morning to you!" Mana curtsied to Yzak, who nodded his head in response.

"Good morning…Looks like you have to go, Zala." Yzak said dryly. "About the election, It's none of your business." He added needlessly.

Yzak gazed steadily at him for an infuriatingly long period of time, like he was a complete idiot. He held the latter's gaze, hoping that he had punched some sense into him.

"I'll let you know." He promised, Athrun was satisfied. There was the sound of a child laughing, then Yzak produced a second yelp, and this time he disappeared altogether from Athrun's peripheral vision.

"What the…?" Athrun muttered.

Yzak and Daniel were on the floor beside him as Suki came up beside them good-naturedly, sniffing at Yzak tentatively, then gave his face a wild, wet lick. "What…?" Yzak only muttered in disbelief.

The boy was a little taller and his hair messier. He had apparently pounced on Yzak and caught him utterly unaware, and he was muttering so quickly it sounded like an incantation.

"Looklooklookyit'soneofthosethingsyoutoldmeaboutwithpinktonguesandfluffytails I think he really likes me coz he'sbeenlcikingmeallovercanIgetonepleaseforChristmaspleasepleaseplease?"

The Chairman of PLANTs was on the floor massaging his back. It was a graceless moment, and Athrun stored his laugh for another time as Yzak exploded. "Daniel, you…!"

"Don't be angry, I didn't mean to knock you down! Butcanwegetadoglikehimplease?"

"Here, boy." Athrun called to Suki deliberately, patting his knees. The teenage dog gave a wild turn, his tail swiping Yzak across the face and bounded over to Athrun, tail high and wagging wildly, there was a shred of his latest mischief lodged in his teeth which Athrun chose to ignore.

Athrun highly doubted if Yzak will consent to having a beast like him tearing up the curtains in the house...

Ooo ooo

It seemed that Mana was still uptight, for after all the rushing, Athrun still had to wait when he reached the venue. He was led to one of the holding rooms in the back of the church, an old, old artefact that smelt of termites and coins. The decoration in the room was tastefully done though. He waited alone for a while, for Mana had insisted that he swear he will not leave the room. He sat there, having nothing to do, he fell asleep on the couch.

He woke up to someone's fingers touching him, they were small and fluttered like a butterfly, and they lingered on his neck, chest and his hands. He grabbed hold of the hand as it touched his palm, and he held on as he saw it was only his bride. She made his heart skip a beat or two…

Athrun gasped softly, she was seated right in front of him looking every bit like an angel. She was dressed in a long white gown with a sweetheart neckline, with translucent organza sleeves that were embedded with small pearls and crystals in an elegant, swirling pattern, the sleeves shrouded her slender arms in a peek-a-boo kind of sensuality and hooked at her middle fingers. The front of her dress was a corset with golden embroidery, upon closer inspection, it seemed to match those patterns on his own chest. Her dress had an incredibly long train and was hemmed with intricate lace and diamanté in a peacock feather pattern. She wore no necklace, only a pair of teardrop shaped earrings. Her veil was pinned to her hair, which formed a few braids atop her head and trailed tranquilly down her back. She was wearing a rose gold tiara set with emeralds and sapphires. And he realized that the colour scheme was chosen based on Cagalli's hair colour alone.

How her golden hair accentuated the colours on her tiara and her dress…

"Quit staring." She hit his chest playfully.

He only nodded, unable to articulate exactly how she made him feel.

She poked his chest. "I'm still trying to tell how all these gold and white hold together…"

"I don't know either." He said dryly.

"The colours match your eyes." She added, pecking him on the cheek. Suddenly, he did not quite hate his clothes so much anymore.

"Is it time?"

"Not yet." Cagalli replied leisurely. "Can you hear that?"

Athrun tore his attention away from his wife, and listened. It was Lacus's voice singing from outside.

"This is the first song, we are supposed to hop out on the third."

"I was not briefed on the sequence of events. Do I need to go out first and stand somewhere?"

"Nay, we head out together."

"So Kira has no chance to give you away?" Athrun asked, aghast.

"I made sure he wouldn't." Cagalli replied.

Athrun could not argue.

"I thought we are not supposed to see each other before the ceremony?" He said quietly, swallowing his accusations then hating himself for his cowardice.

Cagalli frowned.

"I'm sorry, I have been so busy…I didn't have time for you."

"It's alright. I understand." He shrugged and lied smoothly, deciding not to pursue the matter. There were times where he will not see her for a few days in a row and half expected her never to come back. But she returned every time, much to the displeasure of his more sadistic and cynical self, and the cycle repeats.

She chuckled in a so-not-lady-like way. "Not getting cold feet, are you?"

"Cold feet?" he questioned incredulously, "Woman, the only time I am ever genuinely afraid with you was when you almost sliced my head off with that blasted sword."

"That's not fair…" She protested weakly, twisting her dress on lap. "That was my first knighting ceremony, you just happened to be my guinea pig…"

She perked up suddenly, "Oh! I was supposed to pass you this." She said as she took something from the table beside her.

He regarded the item Cagalli handed to him, it was a thick jewelled rod with carvings and topped with an emerald stone as large as a pigeon's egg.

"A cane? How quaint." He commented.

"It's a sceptre." She explained.

"Another one of those royal symbolism thingies?"

"Dunno." She said, "I was following instructions, just hold on to it. Apparently, my dad held it too."

"I feel like we have gone back 400 years…" Athrun muttered.

"Quit complaining." Cagalli punched his arm playfully. "Can't you be slightly happier on your wedding day? At least smile a little for the cameras later, please?"

Athrun pursed his lips, wondering if he really frowned so much. He was never the smiley type, he wondered if Cagalli will be happy if he faked one. Both of them knew that it was a political marriage and was done for show, Cagalli needed to marry someone to ascend the throne and become queen, it does not matter who it was, so long she does it before her birthday. He guessed that she did it so as to secure his citizenship and if and when PLANTs ever decided to drag him back for whatever reason, she, and by extension, Orb has an excuse to step in for him. Athrun hated himself and the situation for that, he never wanted to be her burden. He never want her to be a hostage of circumstance, to force her to choose between her country and him….

Before Athrun was forced to make a promise he could not keep, Maximillion and Marlene tumbled in. Max was in a tiny tuxedo and Marlene in a short, white dress and a corona of white flowers.

"Ooooo…!" Marlene said first, she skipped over to touch the detailed decorations on Cagalli's sleeves and train, her eyes were literally sparkling.

"Mommy, it's so pretty!" She thrilled.

"You like it?" Cagalli asked uncertainly, "I guess I can…eh, pass it down as a family heirloom so you can wear it for your wedding?"

"Really…? I can wear it one day?" She asked in delight.

"Sure." Cagalli replied generously.

Then the door opened again, admitting Kira and an usher, Kira saw Cagalli first and gave a small, genuine smile.

"My sister is all grown up." He commented as he walked to the family, he passed a small white pillow decorated with ribbons and pearls to Max.

"Come on, surrender those rings, or your ring bearer here will have nothing to carry." He said as he patted Maximillion's head, the boy placed his hands on his hips, "Yeah, hand them over!" He declared in mimicry of a cowboy.

A strange feeling overcame Athrun as he took his ring off, it felt immediately like he had lost something important, which should not be the case since he knew exactly where it is.

Cagalli placed a hand on his, as if reading his thoughts. He nodded once wordlessly, though the feeling did not go away, he got up anyway and followed the usher.

A wave of chill passed through his senses, and he was alert instantly. It was a strange feeling, he could only describe it as a six sense, an instinct left over from his days as a soldier.

"Sir?" The usher questioned as they neared the entrance. "Is everything alright?"

He nodded, of course he did.

Something felt wrong, but he could not put a finger to it; there was no need to alert the others with his undue suspicion. At least, he hoped fervently it was undue. Security was so tight he doubted if a fly could get in, what could possibly go wrong?

"Sir Athrun Zala!" The door opened and the guests' eyes fell upon him followed by a somewhat unpleasant silence. He started forward uncaringly, nobody liked him, they made it plain and he got used to it. It was as if the nation was making plain it's jealousy at him stealing their beloved Princess, he would not regret the stealing, so he was fine with the consequences too. Cagalli's marriage should have been one that will strengthen Orb's neutral position and influence, but nooooo, she chose to marry some notorious half-crook, complete convict. So he became the source of ire from day one in meetings and the Emirs loathed him.

As he walked nearer to the front, he gazed briefly at the grand crystal chandelier hanging overhead, and made sure the security guards are all in place along the periphery of the place. Some of the faces became more familiar, the crowd rowdier and the smiles warmer. Some were his ex-colleagues, still bodyguards or military men who were hooting and mouthing 'Kiss the girl'; all at the same time. Kisaka, his ex-superior, gave him a helpless wink at that. Erica was in attendance, grinning. Luna and Meyrin waved with heartfelt abandon, Shinn just raised a hand. Murasaki was with Steven and his partner, and Steven blew him a fly kiss which he pretended to shun. Captain Murrue was there with Mwu, and Spencer and a young lady by his side, Athrun made a mental note to ask subsequently.

The crew from Archangel where present too. Andrew oh Andrew, was sitting there with the crew of Eternal, signature brew in hand, toasted him. At the very front was Nicol's family. And beside them, unexpectedly, a very pissed-off-looking Yzak Jule, an excited Daniel pointing at something on Athrun's shoulder and asking questions.

Athrun reached the front and mounted the stairs to meet with Lacus, who took his hand briefly, she whispered, "Happy for you two."

"Thanks." He whispered back, she released his hand. Then started the third song as the announcer went, "Princess Cagalli Yula Athha!"

The contrast could not have been greater. This time the whole room stood up and clapped as the doors opened once again, and sunlight streamed in, Max tottered in first, followed by Marlene as the ring bearer and flower girl. Then Athrun felt his breathed being wrestled from him in a pleasant way.

Cagalli had the veil over her face, and she glided in with Kira holding her hand. With the light from the stained glass window, she was absolutely beautiful, he could not help but sigh.

He did not deserve her, he never would. For her, he will endure all humiliation, for her he will lay down his life…

Then he saw something amiss. As he, Lacus and the solemniser were elevated, he could see almost every person in the hall. He saw as two men took out mini-handguns, it was the retractable-at-the-wrist type and was so small it would fit into a grown man's palm. They were somewhere in the middle-back of the room, Athrun recognized them, he had seen them in one of the meetings before. It was not imperative to know who they are, only that they were aiming the guns at Cagalli…

"Lacus, hide!" Athrun said as he unceremoniously shoved her behind a stone pillar as gently as he could. Then started running before his brains caught up, his acquaintances seemed to believe him with nothing said, Dearka and Shiho appeared out of nowhere to drag Yzak away. That much happened to the other VIP in the room.

A throw knife now would be perfect, but bullets travel faster than whatever he could throw. Also, the moment he lost the height advantage he might hit the others instead of the gunmen…

Then he had an idea.

"Get down, everyone!" He yelled at the top of his lungs as he threw the sceptre at the chandelier, he aimed at the side. The point is to create a loud sound that warns the general public of danger. The whole structure shook violently as it made contact with the heavy rod, creating a sharp, resonating clang. Loose dust as well as little pieces of crystal came raining down on the audience and for a moment Athrun cursed, afraid that he may crash it instead. Most normal people ducked for cover, Marlene had the sense to get out of the way and burrowed under the pews and dragged a shocked and protesting Max with her. Athrun had moment to feel sincerely proud of her.

Almost all except the gunmen had taken refuge in one way or another. Good, Athrun next grabbed the ceremonial knife as he passed the table of showbread display and charged towards the gunmen. "Get away from her!" as he let fly the knife.

Kira was in shock, but dragged Cagalli upright and started towards Athrun. "Athrun!"

"No, don't, hide!" He yelled these words in succession at the two of them in exasperation.

The men will be aiming for him next, that was the point. Better him than Cagalli.

The knife struck one man in the middle of his forehead, it did not go deep, after all, it was a blunt blade made for show, not for use. It would not kill, but would give the man a good concussion; he fell like piece of rock. His accomplice then cursed and aimed the gun at Athrun, who dove out of the way just in time to avoid a bullet to his chest. When he tried to get up there was pain, the bullet had clipped his arm, but he had no time to worry about the injury now.

"Athrun…?!" Cagalli screamed, concerned.

"Dammit!" The gunman cursed as he aimed the gun back at Cagalli, it was probably his last chance to finish his target off. Cagalli did not back off, she charged swiftly towards the man, likely aiming to disarm him. To Athrun, the gun never seemed so fast and Cagalli so slow, he saw after a few milliseconds that the gamble was lost. Cagalli will not make it before the man shoots her at point blank range. The other guards have their guns out and was rushing towards their charge, but dared not fire in case they hit Cagalli, they will not be able to help her. It left the job up to him…

Athrun did not need to think twice.

The rule of thumb of being a bodyguard is, if you are physically standing between the bullet and your charge, no one can shoot her.

He stepped up onto the backrest of the pew and jumped, he grabbed Cagalli and wrapped himself around her, providing as much cover as he could.

Gunshots went off, there were not one but a few.

Then it seemed as if a boulder hit him on the head, the rest was lost in wonderland as his consciousness faded…he seemed to have heard of someone's voice screaming his name…

Ooo

"Cagalli!" Athrun called out her name as he enveloped her like a giant blanket in that instant, his weight and momentum carrying them away from the gunman whom she had almost disarmed. She knew as well, that the gamble was lost as she tried, the gunman was unfortunately, a Coordinator. By the speed of his reflexes Cagalli felt her blood run cold as she realized how fast he was. Even then, she could not help being upset with Athrun.

Multiple gunshots went off, the terribly loud sounds left her ears ringing. Dread filled her as she saw the blood on his arm, he was hurt.

He was always like this.

They landed, it was anything but graceful. It was jarring and rattled her to the bones, but did not hurt much with Athrun cushioning her. For a moment her cheeks were pressed against Athrun's ribs, and she could not see anything. Then she got off, trying to untangle herself from all the fabric and his arms around her; she had to ensure that he was not hurt more badly than she thought. And had to get them to safety if the gunman was still abound. Her worries were uncalled for, once she was out of the way the gunman became cannon fodder, and he was riddled with more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese before he fell dead. The security guards than converged on the unconscious one and others reassured the guests.

Her dress was ruined, but she did not care; the scolding from the stylists will come sooner or later. Somehow it will be her fault for turning their fashion presentation into an assassination attempt.

"Athrun!" She yelled as she got up, patting his face.

He was unconscious, hopefully from the fall and not something worse, then her hand stopped abruptly as blood seeped slowly onto the carpets, originating from somewhere at the side of his head. Athrun was out-cold, and did not respond even when she screamed at him. Thankfully, though soft and ragged, he was definitely still breathing.

Using both shaky hands, she shifted his head carefully bit by bit until she saw the wound at the edge of his brow on the left side, it stretched to the hairline and was apparently inflicted by a sharp pew leg upon landing. The pew's leg carried a streak of brownish red upon is bronze surface, declaring its guilt.

"Wake up, Athrun!" She yelled, fighting panic. "Wake up, IDIOT!" In desperation she hammered his shoulders, "Come on!". Next, she pressed down on wound with the cape, and bit her lip in surprise as she realized her fingers sank in a little. She released the pressure immediately, afraid that if there was a skull fracture her efforts might have aggravated the wound instead.

"Help…help!" She croaked out, her mouth had gone dry, knowing that basic first aid was not enough, Athrun needed medical attention; and probably soon. She scanned the crowd to find someone, anyone who can help. Tere were guards coming now, trying to reassure her and wrap a cloak around her, it was not what she needed.

The wedding guests, the emirs and their families were whispering among themselves, most were too scared or shocked to do anything. She knew they never liked nor approved of Athrun and her, but at the moment she pushed away her anger and called out again, "Please, help! Anyone?!"

Then Kira charged through the masses with G, who knelt down beside Athrun, examining the wound. "Clear the crowd!" He told Kira. Kira nodded, his face pale with worry. Kira stole one more anxious glance at his best friend before proceeding to fend off the busybodies one by one.

"How is he?" Cagalli demanded, brushing off a guard who wanted to get her to safety.

"Cracked his head." Giorados said, probing the wound expertly. Then proceeded to pat him down. "You alright, princess? Are you hurting anywhere?" G asked while he was doing that.

"Go stuff yourself and stop calling me princess!" She retorted, on the verge of exploding at his untimely humour. "I'm fine! Can you help Athrun?! Is he alright?"

"Can't tell. But it is a stable wound, apart from the cut on the left arm he is not hurt anywhere else, we should move him some where safer. An X-ray will help with assessing the extend of damage."

"Okay…" She agreed reluctantly, then Kisaka came and grabbed her by the shoulders, "Lady, I must insist you be adjourn to a more…secure location. Lady Lacus is already waiting for you in the car.

"But Athrun…!" She began to protest.

"We will take care of him, but safety first." Kisaka gazed at her gently, "Come."

ooo

It was late at night by the time she fought her way back to his side.

It was almost surreal as she entered the ward, there were armed guards placed outside, but other than that, it was peaceful in contrast with the tumultuous day she has had. She had changed out of her bridal gown and was forced to literally hide till the home guard was sure that there were no more hostiles. It would have been worse had Lacus not been by her side, assuring her, singing a little. Then Lacus quietly told her that her tummy seem to be hurting, she was beginning to have cramps. The others- the men particularly- stopped in their tracked and panicked.

Cagalli did not, she has had three babies. The third was a homebirth with only Mana with her. (Yes, it is okay to wonder where Athrun was.) In many ways, Cagalli was quite experienced. She guided her friend through the relaxation technique while they contacted Kira, they then went to a hospital and she was left alone to bore herself to death as she hid from the non-existent hostiles.

Her body felt heavy as she settled down on one of the chairs, she sighed. Athrun was unconscious, and was sleeping quite peacefully. He had apparently not woken since the incident.

She hated it, it was always like that. Him getting hurt protecting her, and her sitting by his bedside worrying her guts out. He has had a bit of a concussion this time and was bruised all over from the jarring landing, the wound on his head required four stiches, and the Doctors said there will probably be a little short-term memory losses. The 'short' part got her worried. 'How much will he not remember?' She wondered. If he woke up and said he don't know who she was, Cagalli might just punch him.

She took his hand, and whispered softly, "…Idiot." Then kissed his temple.

How could she live with herself if anything worse had happened to Athrun? To him who is so altruistic to a fault, who somehow seemed more withdrawn and melancholic than ever after Albert's death. She had done all that she can to cheer him, and she hoped and prayed that time will heal, but it seemed that after all this time, Athrun was not about to change. She knew his love for her, yet he had never bothered to love himself.

He will never know that she still found it amazing that she wake right next to his sleeping face, he will never know that she will just gaze at him; at times poking his nose and cheek a little. At times she will trace the beard stubbles that had grown overnight, and as laws of pigmentation goes, the stubbles were an interesting dark blue. It used to be that Athrun will jerk awake and try to break the neck of anybody who tried to touch him when he slept, but as he got used to her, he simply opened his eyes; blink blearily, then grab her hand, hug it to his chest or face and drift back to sleep. And a little signal pops up in her head going, 'Oh, so cute'.

She touched his face now, tracing through his lashes, comforted by his slow, even breathing. He stirred, and he opened his eyes, they were a startling forest green.

"Athrun…?" She implored, half expecting his hand to come over hers. "You alright? Are you hurting anywhere?"

He simply continued gazing at her, he frowned a little, raised an eyebrow, her heart sank as she realized there was no recognition in his eyes. He withdrew a little from her hand, the signal was clear, and her blood ran cold. He did not want her to touch him, and continued looking at her as if she was a foreign creature unknown to him.

"Athrun?" She cried, "Are you alright?"

He sat up slowly, his eyes never leaving her, appraising her, judging her. He nodded tentatively, his lips parted a little, on the verge of asking a question she will dread, she answered anyway.

"I'm…Cagalli. Do you…remember me?" Her lips had gone dry, her heart raced.

He looked at her from top to toe, and did not acknowledge or refute her statement. Then after a while, he shook his head almost reluctantly.

It hit her hard, very hard. She was on the verge of tears as she stopped herself.

Athrun had gotten hurt because of her, it's not her right nor her place to fall apart, she had to stay strong for them both, she had to find a way to heal him and make him remember…

Still, disobedient tears began to roll down her cheeks.

Athrun gasped softly, concern and panic shone on his face.

"Erm…have I done something wrong? Why are you crying?"

She almost laughed at his student-like ethics, she only bit her lip.

"No, it isn't…! Not you, no." She hurriedly rubbed her face, but the tears would not stop, every drop defiled her control.

"Who are you?" He questioned, he winched, a hand went to his temple, then his eyes widened as he realized it hurt to touch his head. Cagalli grabbed his hand, afraid he will tear the stiches by accident, he gazed at her for a moment, then pulled his hand away from hers. That hurt even more, it felt as if he was tearing off a chunk of her heart…

"I'm Cagalli, Cagalli Yula Athha. We are in Orb..." She said through gritted teeth.

"Oh, okay, I'm Athrun Zala. I guess this is my first time in Orb…" That statement chilled her to the bone, this 'short-term memory loss' was not short at all, through the discussion, it seems that his memory seemed to have regressed all the way back to when they just finished the battle of Jachin Due, possibly even earlier…

Maybe till before he met her...

ooo

Hi all, it has been so long. I am not even sure whether anyone will be still hanging around to read this two epilogue chapters 34-35. I have been very busy because of a thousand things. My husband and I just moved in to our new place, a lot of money, a lot of getting used to. But I am happy. Lolz.

I also just finished watching Gundam seed destiny special edition. Basically they squished 50 episodes and final plus into 4 movies, they cut out a lot of subplots and even edited out some of my fav scenes. Like the one where Athrun woke up with Meer in his bed. But it reminded me about how much I love Gundam Seed. This edition was told from Athrun's POV, he will narrate with his thoughts at the middle and back of every movie. Poor Shinn, becoming not a main character in his own series because the characters from Seed are too popular and too well developed. *laughs*

Also, I need to take a moment to appreciate Yzak Jule. Without him, a lot of main characters would have died. When Junius fell, Jule team was the first response team that took the brunt of the damage from the terrorists, when Requim was unveiled, the Jule team was the one who successfully damaged the relay station enough to cause the beam that was meant to hit the capital Aprilius to hit Janurius instead. I think this is an extra scene, I don't recall it in Seed destiny...Finally when the Neo Genesis was about to fire a second time and Dulliandal did not wait for this own forces to evade, Yzak was the one who commanded the Eternal to move out of the way thus saving Lacus, Andrew and gang. Eventually Yzak became Lacus's body guard and Kira became his colleague.

Enough of my ranting, R &R please! The next chapter should be the last.