Warnings: This chapter can as well be rated K or G for its utter lack of anything that merits a warning, but please read the A/N first before starting.
Disclaimer: All characters involved here except the two at the end are not mine. And neither is Romeo and Juliet, so pardon any reference to this great work of Shakespeare which may appear in this chapter.
Summary: (AU) Dearka doesn't know what he has done when he invites Chairman Zala of PLANT to his New Year masquerade and introduces him to General Yamato of ORB (Kira x Athrun, Dearka x Athrun, future Shinn x Cagalli)
A/N: Since so many people expressed objection against Dearka x Athrun in the last chapter, I'm changing the summary a little. And I need to make this announcement to clear up further confusion. For AsuKira fans, I'm sorry but I've taken off Kira's name from the second character. I realize (belatedly) that this story is not about Athrun and Kira. This story is about Athrun, about his fights and struggles in this time of his life, along with the people around him. This includes Kira but not only him. He's going to play a major part but there are others who have a role almost as big. As this fic develops, I notice (again belatedly) that I have many second main characters other than Kira, like Dearka, Cagalli and Shinn, so yeah. Just to make sure everyone understands.
The reason why I'm saying this now is because of a rather vicious e-mail I've received about the amount of DA-ness in this fic. I know this is a mistake on my part for not letting you, readers, know sooner about the focus of the story. I just hope that from now on, further misunderstanding can be avoided. Thanks to everyone who has reviewed the last chapter and please enjoy.
To the most wonderfu beta in the world, Kat, thank you. Long live crack pairings XD
Chapter Five: Suspected
There had been many situations Nicol Amalfi, twenty-one years old, had found himself sharing with his old friend Athrun Zala. They had their laughing moments between two best friends, their dangerous moments in the battlefield, their awkward moments when one of them had offended the other, but this, he decided, was one he had never experienced before.
There was one moment he remembered which had been vaguely similar. During their two years of military service together, he had once discovered Athrun together with Rusty McKenzie, his roommate on ship, engaged in an activity far beyond friendly or innocent. That evening, Athrun had finally confessed to him that his preferences lay not at the other end of the spectrum, but if this fact bothered him... Nicol had quickly denied it. He had been surprised – shocked, really – but not repulsed by the idea. Their friendship wouldn't change, he had told his blue-haired friend earnestly, only because now he knew one more thing about him he hadn't before.
This current situation reminded Nicol of that conversation. The difference was back then, he had made himself acquainted with the issue beforehand, although not in a way he would have preferred. This time, he had not the faintest idea.
Two days ago he had received a phone call from his girlfriend, who was also Athrun's secretary, telling him that the chairman wanted to meet him. Despite having just returned from a concert tour in Februarius and Martius, he had readily accepted an invitation for lunch. No matter what the actual purpose of this visit was, he would always be glad to see an old friend again.
Now that he was here, sitting opposite Athrun in the dining room of the chairman's residence, Nicol still couldn't guess. His friend looked a little troubled, a little tired, but it could be the strain from work for all he knew. Running a country while trying to maintain a fragile peace was not exactly an easy job.
Overall, he had nothing to complain about. The food was excellent, the room pleasantly warm and their conversations so far enjoyable. They had talked about a handful of mundane things during appetizer, and he had carefully skirted around any topic related to politics, not because he was uninterested, but because his friend looked like he could do without it for a little while. And then he had told Athrun about his tour along with the stupid mistake his fingers had almost made during Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu in his last concert. In turn, his friend had recounted an incident involving Lacus and her most recent stalker which had almost resulted in her suing the perverted man.
Basically, Athrun had told him nothing about himself.
Nicol appraised the situation for a few moments and then decided to act. If his friend couldn't bring himself to broach the real subject, he might as well do it himself. He swallowed the last bit of his grilled chicken, washed it down with a few sips of red wine, and looked squarely at the man in front of him.
Athrun raised uneasy emerald eyes to meet his inquiring gaze. "Well what?"
"What do you want to talk about? Usually I'll wait until dessert, but my curiosity is killing me right now."
Looking only faintly surprised by this sudden approach, his friend said with a frown, "Nicol, are you implying that I invite you for lunch only because I want something from you? What if I just want to meet you for old time's sakes?"
The pianist smiled slightly. "I know, but to be honest I don't think it's the case this time. You sounded quite desperate on the phone."
The frown cleared up a bit, but Athrun remained silent as his fingers traced the stem of his wineglass. Nicol waited patiently, used to this kind of slow progress every time he tried to wring out a morsel of information his friend hesitated to share. It was a good thing that he had resigned from the army to pursue his own dreams. Athrun, he thought to himself, needed a friend, not a willing subordinate. Unfortunately, most of his friends were also working under him, which made them unable to fully function as a friend when it came to normal relationship. There would always be a line there they couldn't quite cross, but this line, he realized, didn't really exist between him and the chairman. He didn't work for Athrun.
His patience was rewarded not too long after when his friend finally looked at him again. "I'll admit that I need your help," he said with a sigh, "but the rest can wait until dessert. Now why don't you tell me about yourself and Meyrin."
Nicol raised his eyebrows at this obvious change of subject, but decided to play along. "We are fine," he answered, easily evading the real question insinuated by the request. "Meyrin has a new hobby now – bonsais, but maybe you already know. She's very enthusiastic about them, but lately she's a bit off, like there is something else that occupies her mind."
"Nothing bad, I hope?" the chairman lifted his eyebrows, seeming concerned. "Do you know what it is?"
Athrun stopped fiddling with the glass. "Me?" he looked flabbergasted.
"Yes," Nicol replied unhesitatingly, looking straight into his friend's astonished green eyes. "She said you hadn't been eating right, that you overworked yourself. And then she got this little tidbit from your housekeeper that you hadn't been resting well either and naturally that failed to put her at ease."
"It's true then?"
"It's nothing," Athrun quickly said, a stubborn note entering his voice. "You know, I just... I have a lot in my mind."
Nicol shook his head disapprovingly. "No excuses. You should know better than letting your mood interfere in something as important as eating and sleeping. And you better finish that," he said, nodding toward the half-finished chicken on Athrun's plate.
"You sound just like Meyrin," his friend said with a half smirk. "Things starting to rub off?"
"Don't try to change the subject again," the pianist warned, trying to hide a blush that was threatening to show on his face at the implication. Athrun made a mock-pout at him but picked his knife and fork again obediently.
Nicol watched his friend picking on his food in silence, Meyrin's words swirling in his head. Something had happened, she had said with a frown, but she didn't know what. Could he do anything about it?
Nicol had promised her that he would ask Athrun – and do everything within his power to get an answer, as long as none of them landed him in prison. He had long since accepted the fact that his girlfriend had once loved his blue-haired friend. This was actually the reason why they had become close in the first place – that and the fact that Meyrin was absolutely in love with his playing. Now it was he who held her affection, but even though her adolescent crush had matured to a deep, unshakable loyalty, her habit to observe the chairman remained. That was why she noticed these little changes.
There was a big possibility that she was right. Nicol still remembered the stubborn, idealistic pilot his friend once had been. Except his political views and beliefs, Athrun had rarely shared anything with anybody, even his closest friends. He would suffer his trials and tribulations in silence and sort them out gradually by himself. That was how he dealt with his problems, had been since years ago and most likely would still be in the future.
But missing meals and forgetting to eat? Somehow Nicol found them strange. Even he who had pursued a career entirely unrelated to ZAFT had never been able to go against what years of military training had instilled him. Whatever the condition was, keeping one's body in shape was the foremost a soldier had to keep in mind, eclipsed only by direct orders. Even during a battle, they had to remember that without a body that functioned perfectly, they would be unable to fight at all.
To think that Athrun had disregarded this was unthinkable. He was constantly surrounded by military figures, three of whom were his close friends, and enough people who had made it their business to watch over his well-being. Cooped up in this environment which demanded his continuous attention, he must be aware that he couldn't afford any absence. The smallest lapse of judgment could send him to eternal regret and self-condemnation, especially knowing his tendency to blame himself.
But Meyrin was worried and Nicol couldn't say that he wasn't too.
The sound of cutlery being set with a final note on the plate distracted him from his thoughts. Nicol looked up and found Athrun looking at him solemnly, grim determination in his eyes. "I can't have another bite," he announced, for once sounding far less mature than he normally was.
Nicol could feel his frown deepening. "You usually handle stress better than this," he commented, hoping that his friend would rise to the bait and explain.
"Maybe I'm losing my touch," Athrun said with a small noncommittal smile. "Besides, there are still desserts, right?"
Nicol wanted to say something else but a tug from his instinct made him reconsider. Once more, he steered the conversation away from work and filled the silence by telling Athrun about the offer he had gotten from a movie producer to star in a music-based film. When they had moved to dessert, he was relieved to see that his friend had relaxed a bit, although he suspected that a different kind of thought was still flurrying inside that head. After knowing him for so long, it was hard for Nicol not to suspect a little about everything.
If he had to choose a word which contradicted the other man the most, the pianist would choose 'simple'. He had never met anyone more complicated in his life, either in the way his mind worked or the way things revolved around him. Athrun seemed to complicate things only by breathing and existing, which in Nicol's opinion was a very rare talent. Luckily, the young chairman had developed a method to deal with that many problems surrounding him one by one. This was also one of the reasons why he had won that race for the seat two years ago.
But Nicol was still worried. Like that time, when an enemy ship had shot Rusty's mobile suit down a few weeks after their conversation. He was glad that he had discovered them before, because although Athrun had said that it didn't really matter – they were soldiers, he was prepared to face something like this – his green eyes had painted an entirely different picture. If he hadn't known, he wouldn't have been able to understand the real extent of his friend's grief.
Maybe he couldn't do anything to help solve the problem – after all, death was death – but he could stay. And listen. And stay.
He knew that it was the moment when they had gone through dessert and Athrun locked their gazes together through thin vapours rising from cups of coffee. "I will tell you now," he said, his expression strained but resolute, "but please don't interrupt me or I'll lose my wits."
Nicol complied and stayed silent throughout the narration. The first time Dearka's name was mentioned, he could already feel that this would be far from good, and Athrun, true to his perfectionist nature, didn't disappoint him.
It was like, light-years away from good.
Being their comrade-in-arms, he was not unfamiliar with the state of the relationship between Dearka and Yzak – their love, uncertainties, and then their painful breakup and even more painful evading-each-other routine they had fallen into. What was new for him was this mutual symbiosis which had seemed to develop between Dearka and Athrun after the breakup. He still remembered. It was a period when he hadn't been able to stay close to his friends due to a succession of concerts after concerts.
And, Nicol realized guiltily, back then he had just begun his own relationship Meyrin. His whole attention had been focused on her, with a quarter or so spared for his full agenda. None of his friends had come to him, so he simply assumed that everything was going well and old wounds were healing just fine.
Well, apparently he was wrong.
Nicol resisted an urge to sigh deeply when Athrun had finished speaking and now was waiting for his reaction. The problem was, he didn't know what to say. Of all the possible reasons for inviting him to the residence, this was certainly not among the three-hundreds or so he had guessed.
In the end, he settled for a question.
"Okay, what do you want to do now?"
A grim look settled on the chairman's face and he tapped a finger anxiously on the table. "I don't know," he replied, desperation transparent in his voice. "This... thing hurts us all. I don't like doing this to Yzak, but I'm not sure what to do with Dearka either. I really don't know."
Nicol gave him a sharp, perceptive glance. "I need to know this first: are you in love with him?"
"No," Athrun answered quickly – too quickly, in Nicol's opinion, but he said nothing. "And I'm not going to. I already put myself in enough mess without having to face that one." He paused for a moment and then added with a softer voice, "Besides, there is someone else."
"Someone else?" Nicol echoed in mounting confusion, unsure if he had missed the mentioning of this other someone in the story earlier.
"You don't want to know," Athrun gave him a small humorless smile. "Anyway, it's not really relevant. The point is I don't want to keep doing this. It's starting to affect our work and there is no guarantee that it won't become worse in the future. The problem is Yzak will never go against Ezaria's wish because he loves her too much. And Dearka is already too stubborn at this point to do anything."
"Well, it did seem like Yzak really thought nothing of him when they broke up," Nicol admitted reluctantly.
"Exactly," his friend heaved a deep sigh and stared down at his coffee. "He... is more vulnerable than he lets on, you know?"
Nicol was unable to find anything to say for a long time. The tone Athrun was using struck him as strange and he suspected that there was more to it than he could decipher at the moment. Storing this information for later study, he moved on with his list of questions.
"Do they really still love each other?"
Athrun gave him a look which said that the question was rhetorical at best, but the pianist was still unconvinced.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, it's obvious," the other finally answered. "Get them in the same room for five minutes and you'll see for yourself."
Nicol tried to picture the situation in his mind and had to confess that he found it very easy to imagine.
"I still don't understand," he spoke again with a frown. "If you want to stop – let's just say – seeing him, I see no reason why you cannot just tell him so. I don't want to put it this way, but whatever's happening between Dearka and Yzak is their problem. Both of them have made a decision and that is not to fight back. They have to accept the consequences."
The chairman remained silent, back to staring at his cup, and the wheels in Nicol's mind kept revolving. He was right. There was something more to this. He could already guess what it was but decided that a gentle approach would help to smooth the way.
"Or is it something else that bothers you?" he asked carefully.
Green eyes flicked up faster than the speed of light. "What do you mean?"
"I think one of the reasons why you can't decide what to do is because you don't want to let him go."
A silence, one which Nicol actually preferred never to have any part in, caught up with them. He waited, trying to maintain his calm outward appearance despite feeling like he was going headfirst into a blind hunt. He knew that Athrun guarded his innermost feelings with something bordering on mad jealousy and hated nothing more than to see others touching them without his express permission. This time, however, Nicol realized that he would rather risk his friend's wrath than do nothing.
That was why when a thin smile unfolded on Athrun's face, he was rather taken aback.
"I guess it's time for me to admit it," the voice which answered to him was steady, almost nonchalant.
"So that means–"
"It's not quite like that," Athrun interrupted him, his composure lessening a little. "You're getting this wrong. I don't love him. Not in that way."
"And what way is that way?"
He got a weak smile in return but Nicol was so not going to give this one up. He stared at Athrun, unaffected by the beseeching look, until the other man admitted defeat with a sigh. "All right, if I'm to be really honest with you, I… well, Ijustwanttoprotecthim."
Nicol blinked. He wasn't sure he had gotten that right. "You what?"
"I just want to protect him," Athrun repeated more slowly but also more faintly, looking at anywhere but him. "Maybe it sounds strange but I really do. If only you knew what he was like after Yzak left him. I'm afraid that if I..."
He faltered at that, but Nicol had already gotten all the hints he needed. "If you do the same, it will completely destroy him," he murmured, easily picking up the line.
Athrun stared at him, his face unreadable, but then shook his head. "No," he said bitterly. "When you put it that way, it sounds so good. So noble. In reality, I don't feel that selfless." There was a deafening pause, and then he added in a smaller voice, "Maybe I'm just afraid."
"Afraid that you'll love him?"
"Yes," his voice was now downright shaky. "God, I'm really disgusting."
Nicol felt a rush of painful emotion in his chest at this, at the sight of his friend biting his lips and shutting his eyes as if in pain. "No, Athrun," he quickly said, leaning forward to emphasize his point. "That is called selfish. And it's very human to be selfish."
The other man looked like he hardly listened. "This other guy I'm sleeping with," he mumbled, "I don't know who he is. As a matter of fact, I don't care who he is. And do you know why?" Nicol opened his mouth to stop him but Athrun didn't give him a chance, torrents of words gushing rapidly from his mouth, "Because I don't want people I love to get hurt because of me. I don't want someone who holds a grudge against me target any of you. Dearka is a mistake, but this other guy? I don't care. I don't even know who he is, so why should I care? I…"
"Enough, Athrun," Nicol cut him off sternly, aware that he was raising his voice but far from troubled by it at the moment. "You're just blaming yourself."
"That's what I really think, Nicol," was the flat answer he got and it disturbed him immensely because his friend sounded more normal than hysterical. "I'm not painting a bad picture of myself. I am the bad picture. This is me. This is what I truly feel."
Nicol was shaking his head fervently. "No, that is not you," he said fiercely, refraining himself from going round the table and shake him. "Even our opinion of ourselves can be clouded at times. You said you really didn't care about him? I know you. Don't expect me to believe it."
"Why else would I do that?"
"I don't know your circumstances with this man," he answered steadily, "but I do know many people who've done things far more stupid and outrageous than this to break loneliness."
"It still doesn't change anything," the stiff tone was back in Athrun's voice. "The fact is I've been using him for my own gain. I've been putting him in danger and despite knowing that, I'm still doing it."
Nicol decided to put up a better fight before his friend could get carried away again. "Did he object?"
The respond remained exasperatingly stubborn. "No, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I don't care I've been putting someone in danger. He'll run away as fast as he can if he knows what he's getting himself into."
"Athrun, you're only confused because of your problems with Dearka," he pointed out, desperation already shading his voice. "Stop trying to demean yourself. That only makes everything look worse than it actually is and certainly doesn't help. Why don't you calm down and we'll start once more from the beginning."
To his surprise, the chairman obeyed him and stopped talking. And when he thought that he couldn't be more surprised, a smile suddenly broke on Athrun's face.
"You sound like a true psychiatrist, do you know that?"
Nicol stared at him for a few seconds, flabbergasted. That was certainly not what he had expected, but then he remembered that there was this thing called 'mood swing' in his friend's dictionary. He couldn't help but to return the smile.
"Maybe I should charge you then. I can do with a second job," he told Athrun, who snorted at this suggestion.
"As if you need one."
They both were starting to laugh although neither of them understood what the funny thing actually was. For his part, Nicol was relieved that they could get off from the battleground for a moment. He really didn't like the direction their conversation had been going, but he knew that they had to talk about it. This problem was taking heavy tolls on his friend, more than he had thought at first. He had to search for another way to open a conversation without setting off the bomb.
A second later, however, he decided that in this stage of things, overlooking subtlety and taking the problem head-on was worth trying.
"You care for him, don't you?"
His not-quite-a-question question seemed to take Athrun aback for a moment. "Yes," he replied softly and Nicol wondered at how his green eyes seemed to shine brighter when he was speaking with pure honesty and nothing else. He knew that he was given a glimpse of one of those rare moments when Athrun Zala lowered his guard down and showed his heart to the world.
"Is that the reason why you want to end things with Dearka?"
"No," this one was less sure, but Athrun seemed to realize it too and wasted no time to confront it. "Well, maybe that isn't entirely true, but it's still just a very small part of the reason. I don't like to stand between Dearka and Yzak, that's the big one."
Nicol believed him. A part of him was glad that they had finally come to a definite point, but the rest still felt that they were missing something somewhere. He realized what it was a moment later.
"You do know that it's okay, don't you?"
The look on Athrun's face was incredulous. "What? Standing between them?"
"Falling in love with Dearka," he corrected. "Well, there will be consequences you don't like, but as long as you two can work it out–"
"It's not an option," Athrun cut him short, his voice flat and firm – and, Nicol realized, leaving no room for argument. He dutifully stayed silent now that he had understood the level of sensitivity this topic bore.
Falling in love with someone who was the love of someone else's life was one thing, but falling in love with someone who happened to be the love of your friend's life was quite another. Nicol wanted to point out that since Yzak had called it off with Dearka, the councilman really had no right to be resentful, but of course Athrun wouldn't listen to him. He could practically hear the respond he would get if he dared so much as to suggest it.
There were many sides of Athrun he had been introduced to, but above all, Nicol knew that he was a fiercely loyal friend. He wouldn't allow someone he cared about to be hurt and that was why this problem took so much of his attention. This time, he was the blade that wounded his friends, the wicked villain who ripped and razed and trampled.
And this was exactly the one perception he needed to correct. Nicol knew it would be a thoroughly complicated journey, considering how his first attempt had almost ended in a shouting match, and couldn't suppress a deep sigh.
"I shouldn't have left you for so long," he said dejectedly.
Athrun raised a pair of elegant eyebrows, looking amused. "Because then I'll get myself trapped in a big mess like now?"
"Not only you, Dearka and Yzak too. I'm not saying that my being there would definitely make things better, but now I don't know because I never tried."
"I don't see how this can be your fault, Nicol," his friend argued with a frown. "Don't try blaming yourself for something you didn't do."
"Exactly," the pianist sighed again. "That's because there was something I didn't do."
Athrun looked like he was about to remonstrate further, but the arrival of one of his aides stopped him from speaking. A piece of paper was given to him, which he took with a small 'thank you' and read as the aide withdrew to the direction of the door. Nicol knew that something had happened when his friend's face darkened and he looked back at him with stormy eyes, the piece of paper crushed in one hand.
"I have to go back to the office," Athrun told him, his voice tight with agitation.
"What's the matter?" he inquired carefully.
"Something happened in West Africa." He rose from his seat and held out a hand, saying apologetically, "I'm sorry about this, Nicol. After asking you all the way here, now I can't stay long."
"Don't worry about it," Nicol quickly stood up too and instead of taking the offered hand, followed his earlier instinct and went around the table to hug the other man. "I'll try talking to Yzak," he said gently, pretending not to realize the immediate tensing of his friend's body. "I'll be staying here for a few days anyway. Just keep your mind on West Africa and let me handle this for the moment."
"I'm your friend, Athrun," he interrupted, gripping the other man's shoulders tightly. "Stop trying to patch up everything alone and let me help. You already have one entire country to worry about."
The flash of surprise and one other emotion he couldn't quite interpret in his friend's eyes told him that he should have said this long time ago.
Kira was acting strange.
Cagalli frowned when for probably the millionth time that night her brother heaved a deep sigh and toyed with the hem of his shirt. After being his sister for… well, practically since he had been born, she could always tell when he was feeling a little bit off. Not to mention, there was a rerun of one of those cheesy black-and-white movies he loved so much on television, and even that couldn't seem to keep a hold on his attention more than five seconds after every commercial break.
She was not an observer. Life passed her by in such a blur that she only had enough time to gather her wits, bark out orders and hope that she didn't miss anything in the process. This small deviance from normalcy, however, was so glaring that she had to be blind, deaf and stupid all at the same time, not to notice it. If she didn't know better, she would say that he was suffering this mortal disease called lovesickness.
But there were myriads of other reasons, which were not only more probable, but also a great deal more believable. Today hadn't been an uneventful day and after spending the day discussing and arguing about the conflict which had risen in West Africa, Cagalli decided that enjoying a rare leisure time after dinner while sipping hot Russian tea was in order. She dragged her twin along because she knew that he was as worried about their ephemeral peace as she was and while others might see this as a little unfair – after all, he was a military officer – she didn't give a damn. Kira deserved it.
Sometimes Cagalli wondered if it was a wise thing to do to give the role of the deliveryman to her brother. He was one of the most high-ranked officers in ORB military and had a huge range of responsibilities. The problem was, she couldn't trust anyone else. Attempting a communication with PLANT nowadays when you were evidently a country on Earth was a bold, even suicidal move. She couldn't just let anyone handle a matter as delicate as this.
Kira, sharing her concern on the confidential element, agreed almost immediately. His recurring absence might be conspicuous, but Colonel Fllaga was doing a splendid job covering for him. The older man did his part of the game without asking too many questions, a quality which she found utterly admirable.
On second thought, she could have sent him.
Or maybe not.
The point was, now she was unsure if she hadn't given her twin too much responsibility; hence her suggestion to him to keep away from work at least for tonight. Should anything happened, everyone knew where to contact them anyway.
But here he was, brooding and sighing and obviously some hundreds of miles away from enjoying himself from what she could tell. When he made that exasperating sound once more, Cagalli decided that enough was enough.
"Kira, will you tell me what's wrong?" she asked with a tone of voice as sweet and sisterly as possible in order not to frighten her brother.
The face which stared back at her was confused. "What do you mean?"
"You are..." she paused, fumbling around for the right word, and finally settled for the most obvious, "fidgety."
An uncomfortable look passed across his features. "Am I?"
She blew a bang out of her eyes, annoyed. "If you want to play that game, fine by me. Where shall we start? Twenty questions?"
For some reason, her brother's face turned into a slight shade of red. "It's not that important."
Cagalli snorted in disbelief. "Not important? Tell me something, Kira, do I really look that stupid to you?"
"I mean it doesn't concern politics or warfare or… anything important," he quickly corrected.
"And why would I be thinking that either politics or warfare could make you blush like a schoolgirl?"
He didn't answer this but his face flamed even more and Cagalli realized that she might have just struck gold. An idea started to ferment inside her head. Was it possible that her anal-retentive twin really…
"All right," he said heavily – so heavy in fact, that it sounded as if he had to drag each letter to get past his lips. "It's just that there is this guy–"
"I knew it!" she shouted triumphantly, grinning at her twin who was shooting her icy glares, and quickly added, "Okay, I'm going to shut up."
"Do we really have to talk about this?"
Cagalli exhibited one of her smuggest smirks unabashedly. "Of course you may tell me at your earliest convenience, dear brother, but please do so before this night ends because I'm sure as hell not going to let you sleep before–"
"There is this guy," he interrupted her, irritated, "whom I had the chance to meet some weeks ago. We seem to like each other and that's all. Satisfied?"
She shook her head slowly, fully conscious that this just added another degree to his annoyance. "You may want to be a little more specific than that," she told him with a serious voice, "because I still can't see any reason why this mystery man – who, assuming from your tone, is not important at all – occupies so much room in your head that you can't pay any attention to this movie and look!" She pointed at the television – where the heroine was presently wailing because she had just shot her lover who happened to be a secret agent from an enemy country or something, Cagalli didn't care that much – before looking back at him with gleaming eyes. "You don't even blink! You always cry during that part and now you don't even blink!"
"I hate you when you're like this," Kira mumbled darkly.
"Since it's a part of me, you'll have to deal with it," she said breezily. "Now talk."
Her twin gave her one last sour look before speaking up. "There's not much to talk about. I met this guy and we liked each other and blah blah blah. End of story. By the way, I met him at Dearka's party."
Cagalli stared at him, her former amusement diminishing faster than scoops of ice cream would during summer. "Kira, are you crazy?"
"Yes, I've figured that much myself," he murmured with a sigh, but she decided that she couldn't deal with it now lest she exploded.
"You met this guy at Dearka's party," she started, trying to keep her voice under control but aware that the bridle was slipping bit by bit, "which was a masquerade, which we attended together on the New Year's Eve, which was held in, if I'm not mistaken, Februarius One, which was undeniably a part of PLANT, which was a space settlement inhabited by Coordinators and no Natural at all, which was currently in a not-so-friendly relationship with most countries on Earth. Assuming that my line of deduction is right and I didn't happen to miss anything, which part of your brain, Kira, told you it was okay to do something so enormously, fabulously stupid like this?"
"I like you even less when you turn to sarcasms," he pointed out.
"I turn to sarcasm because my twin brother seems to think that it would be funny to play out the second act of Romeo and Juliet!" She was practically shouting now. "He's a Coordinator, Kira!"
His face suddenly gained a different shade of red. "Wait a minute. I thought the point of us trying to establish a contact with PLANT is so there will be no difference between Naturals and Coordinators? What happened to that noble purpose?"
"Yes, and please bear in mind that we're still in the 'trying' stage!" Cagalli didn't lower her voice. "Look, I don't care if he's a Coordinator – besides, you're obviously one too – but I do care that we're down here and he's up there and after what happened today in West Africa, PLANT may want to blow up the remaining countries on Earth, and then OMNI will retaliate and send legions of mobile armors into space, and then you'll really get yourself a perfect Capulet-Montague situation!"
A thunderous silence occurred. Her chest was still heaving after the shouting, but Kira only stared at her with this unreadable expression on his face. She eyed him warily, inwardly preparing herself for any kind of argument he might come up with. She was getting very good at this.
And then unexpectedly, all of a sudden, out of the blue, red, green or orange, who the hell care, her brother smiled at her.
"I really love you, Cagalli, do you know that?"
Cagalli felt like she was missing a point somewhere. "Wha...?"
"I know you're worried about me," he continued with a softer voice, a gentler smile, "but I'll be okay. I know what I'm doing, or at least have a vague idea of what I'm doing, but still. Don't worry about it."
"I just…" she paused, waving her hands around at a sudden loss for words.
"I know and I really thank you for that. You don't know how much that means to me," he bent closer and placed a kiss on her cheek – and suddenly the long couch they were sharing seemed far, far smaller than it had been a fraction of a second ago. But maybe it had something to do with her sudden urge to run away.
"I have a vague idea," she murmured wryly, feeling her face heating up, and he laughed. Cagalli decided that since she couldn't bury her head into the carpet, the best course of action would be to change the subject. And so she did.
"So who is this man?" she asked in a hopefully casual tone.
Kira cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Well, that is certainly a difficult one to answer," he said with a weak half-smile and at his sister's raised eyebrows, added in a smaller voice, "We don't know each other."
"You don't… what does that mean, you don't know each other?" Cagalli could already hear her voice rising again.
"It was a masquerade, remember?"
This was inadequate and he seemed to know it too, which was why he quickly added another explanation, "We didn't introduce ourselves to each other."
The earlier headache was returning to her. Fast. Cagalli closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. "You disappeared some time before the countdown," she said flatly.
"I was with him."
"And I'm assuming you're still in contact with him."
"But you don't know each other."
"Kira, you're absolutely mental."
"I know," he laughed but it sounded a little strained. "You have to see him, Cagalli. He's... I don't know, I think I'm bewitched."
"It does sound like you are," she commented dryly. "Did I have a chance to meet him?"
A kind of light she had never seen before came to her brother's eyes. "As a matter of fact, yes. He's that blue-haired man you had a dance with. The one with the silver mask."
She looked at him for a long moment and then whistled appreciatively, grinning. "Well, well."
"Now you see what I mean."
"Yes, I think I can understand why you're falling head over heels with him," she chuckled, nudging him on the ribs. "Is he handsome?"
"I don't know."
"And I don't really care," he said fiercely, his eyes challenging her to say more. Cagalli stared at him, openmouthed. During times like this, she felt like she was arguing with a ridiculously stubborn seven-year-old boy rather than with her supposedly-of-the-same-age twin brother.
But trying to go against Kira who had that look on his face was about as productive as singing 'Happy Birthday' to a deaf man from Pluto or Andromeda or what other existing galaxies out there. Her point was, it was so overwhelmingly useless that she must be either moronic or simply brainless to even consider doing so.
In this kind of circumstances, withdrawing to a neutral zone seemed to be the safest way out, both for her mental health and reputation.
"One thing for sure, he knows how to dance," she said after a moment of turning her head upside down for neutral subjects.
"And to kiss."
Which might be not so neutral at all. Cagalli stared at him with hardly-covered trepidation for one long minute before risking another question. "Am I going to regret it if I dare to ask how far you two have–"
Her smile was painful. "Okay, that pretty much explains the situation," she murmured to no one in particular, trying with all her might not to scream out loud. She couldn't believe it. Men! Sex first, talk later. She always knew there was something wrong with that gender!
Kira was looking at him anxiously, so Cagalli took a deep breath and again moved to another subject. "So, why are you nervous?" she asked him, hoping that the fact that there was a vein twitching on the left corner of her forehead went unnoticed by him.
But it looked like she didn't have to worry. Her brother was too busy covering his obvious reluctance to answer the question.
"I'm waiting for a call," he mumbled in a small voice.
"You are behaving exactly like a love-struck schoolgirl," Cagalli declared ruthlessly. That was the best she could do at the moment. After all, the majority of her self-restraint was already spent in order to keep her head away from the nearest rock-hard surface, which unfortunately were available in copious abundance inside this room. The coffee table was one example among a million.
To her astonishment, Kira responded with a laugh. "I know I'm being stupid in this thing."
"Stupid? Losing a few screws in your head is more like it."
"Don't," she cut him off, knowing what he was about to say. "I'm not sorry yet and I want to keep it that way. So don't let me hear anything that can make me feel sorry that I've decided not to beat the living crap out of you tonight. Is that understood?"
Kira grinned at her. "Yes, Ma'am."
They fell into a companionable silence and returned their attention to the television. After about ten seconds looking at the movie which she totally had no idea why they were still watching, Cagalli found her mind drifting to other topics. She didn't want to think about her twin and his unidentified boyfriend, so a minute later she was already immersed in the problems she had to face in her office earlier that day.
Someone might be tempted to mention that the point of staying at home and taking the night off was to relieve her mind for a moment from the need to worry over things, but already waist-deep in devising a possible response to the last letter from PLANT, Cagalli didn't care much. She hadn't stopped thinking about it since Kira had returned, and the frequency only increased after this new conflict in West Africa.
Talking about peace nowadays was regarded as either foolish or childish. She didn't know whether it had anything to do with the fact that both she and the current Chairman of PLANT were relatively young, but they had had a chance once. There had been contacts already and both sides seemed inclined to proceed further. For the first time in years, she saw hope.
And then this happened. Cagalli always prided herself as an optimistic woman, but in her opinion the prospect now was about as bright as looking into a trash can. Even if the chairman and his staff wished to continue pursuing a peaceful solution, she wasn't sure if his people would agree. More blood had been spilled. There must be revenge.
Every time she remembered this, Cagalli always felt this overwhelming anger toward someone – she didn't even know who. She wanted to blame someone. This might have just worked, but now…
"What are you thinking about?"
She looked up, finding Kira looking at her curiously, and heaved a deep sigh. "What happened in West Africa today."
"It's bad," he agreed with a nod. "To make it worse, the South African Union claimed that it was the work of a separatist group and they had nothing to do with it."
"And you believe it?"
"Our intelligence in Victoria doesn't."
Cagalli returned her gaze to the television where the credits were rolling in, shaking her head slowly. "More than a thousand Naturals died, Kira. I don't know about Coordinators, but this isn't going to be good for us."
Her brother didn't reply, but she could feel his eyes on her, burning a hole at the side of her head. After a few minutes, she remembered who was the more accomplished person in patience between them and looked back at him, admitting her loss.
He didn't smile – in fact, he didn't even blink at this small victory – and only said, "PLANT is waiting for our answer."
She let out a small dry chuckle. "Are they still? Think, Kira. After what happened in West Africa, they will reconsider the merits of taking our offer – which if I may add, sound a little too insignificant and far-fetched at the moment. Assuming that the chairman really wishes to cooperate with us, I don't think the clash was provoked by their side and you know what that means."
"Then we'll have to make a bigger offer," he said resolutely. Cagalli lifted her eyebrows, uncertain.
"It's time for one of us to make a bolder move," he pointed out.
"Actually I was under the impression that we have been doing pretty bold things all along," she mumbled, evoking a smile from him. "You do realize that it's crazy, right?"
"I thought we're already past that point."
"Right," she chuckled and punched the side of his arm lightly. "But they have to be mad too if they decide to accept out offer because it's totally, utterly crazy."
Kira grinned at her. "Then it's just perfect. We're going to be a bunch of madmen fighting for peace. What can possibly be better?"
Cagalli laughed and leant closer to him until her head touched his shoulder. It never failed to surprise her how these small contacts she shared with her brother could make a tremendous effect on her mood. They made her feel safer, stronger, better, and sometimes, when she was with him like this, one or two peace agreements seemed perfectly attainable if not effortless. She used to blame it on the fact that they were twins, but for the moment, she was just glad that she had him.
"It won't be easy," she mumbled, closing her eyes.
Kira wound an arm around her shoulders, his fingers brushing her hair, and replied matter-of-factly, "If it was, thousands of people would have done it already and we wouldn't be facing this problem."
"True," she smiled at him, suddenly wishing that she was stronger. Kira seemed concerned by this reaction and so she quickly said again, "You know, I was thinking about Scandinavia. They're supposed to be neutral, right?"
"Supposed to be," he reminded her.
Cagalli straightened up a bit and looked at him. "I seem to remember that you were the one who was talking about making bolder moves. Where has your courage run off to?"
"There is only a very thin line between courage and madness," he told her with a twinkle in his eyes, "but since we're all already mad, that's beside the point. So you want to involve them?"
She shook her head. "Not involve. Notify. I will let them know that we're taking this course of action and see what they're going to do. If they have some guts, they will come up and support us." She paused, belatedly realizing that she sounded ridiculous saying that in this condition. "I'm too optimistic, aren't I?"
"Being optimistic is your specialty," her twin said without bothering to hide his amusement. Cagalli chose to ignore this.
"We'll have to start drafting a plan as soon as possible. And as much as I hate saying this, we shouldn't keep the other representatives out of the loop any longer. If PLANT says yes, we're going all-out."
"Yes," she nodded and breathed in deeply to calm herself. After the plan was put into words, not only lingering as far-off thoughts and indefinable ideas, she had just realized how big it actually was. "A meeting with PLANT, out in the open so the whole world can see what we are trying to do. And then…"
"And then we'll have to be ready for anything that may follow," Kira supplied darkly.
She smirked at him. "That's your area."
"Before it comes to me, dear sister, you have to do everything within your power to prevent it from becoming my problem," Kira pointed out. "The Earth Alliance's response may not be necessarily military, you know."
"Yeah, right. Do you honestly believe that?"
"Then shut up," she chuckled but knew that it sounded edgy. Kira seemed to notice this too because the hand on her shoulder suddenly tightened. It took every bit of her strength to look at him again, and when she did, she was a hair's breadth away from completely breaking down.
"Am I jeopardizing my people, Kira?" she whispered, her question almost unintelligible in the thick robe of tremor.
Her brother did not say anything for a long time. Cagalli could tell that he was twisting and bending his mind to come up with a way to soften the blow because she knew that it was exactly what she was doing.
Jeopardizing her people. Dishing out their lives for the so-called higher purpose.
At last Kira opened his mouth. "I'm not gonna say that everyone in ORB will be happy with this plan," he said, his tone somber, "but don't you think everyone will want to fight for what they believe?"
She gave him a little smile, both hopeful and grim. "It sounds very idealistic."
"This country was built on ideals, Cagalli."
"I thought people are the nation, not ideals."
"You know your people," his voice was firm, almost stern and she realized that he was determined to win this part of their dispute at any cost. "They want to fight for what's right and good. And in fact, it isn't only ORB. Many citizens of the world think like we do, that this war is wrong. Their government may disagree, but that's why we're here, right? To start."
She opened her mouth to make another argument, but he leant in, resting his forehead on hers. "And remember, the voice of the people is the voice of God."
For some reason, this made her laugh. "Don't go quoting Alcuin this late," she protested and pushed him away. "You're creeping me out and now my head is hurting."
"Maybe you should get some rest," he suggested. "We'll talk more about the plan tomorrow, okay?"
She smiled at him. "You go ahead. I still want to sit here and brood."
"Don't stay up too late."
He was rising from the couch when Cagalli suddenly caught his hand. "Hey, Kira," she started, unsure how to approach the subject but getting on anyway. "This may be nothing at all and I'm not trying to butt in on your business or anything, but you see – this man you're seeing – he's very well-versed in politics. I think he's a man of considerable power and I..." she gulped. Oh, her brother was so going to get it later for making her say this. "...I don't want to see you get hurt."
"Thank you," he smiled and bent down to kiss her cheek. "I love you too, Cagalli."
And how in the name of Haumea could he say embarrassing things like that without being embarrassed?
Cagalli decided that the first thing she would do when she got up tomorrow morning was to call Millie and ask for Dearka's number. Coordinators or Naturals be damned. She must know who that man was.
His eyes hurt.
Shinn reached out toward his desk lamp and turned it off, sighing deeply when darkness bathed his eyes. They were watering a bit, something which he had just realized after working nonstop for….
…almost four hours.
He stared at the glowing numbers from the clock on his desk in disbelief. It was a quarter past ten. Shinn knew that he could get very absorbed in his job sometimes, but this was way over his normal standard. Usually, he could barely spend an hour behind his desk, glued to a chair without getting up and walking around the desk a few times, wishing that he had not taken up the job.
Today was different because for the first time since she had become the chairman's secretary, Meyrin had forgotten to give him a copy of the itinerary for the following week. He had not received it on his desk like he should have every Friday and Shinn was so astonished by this that it didn't occur to him to contact her immediately. It wasn't like Meyrin to forget.
As the result, he had just gotten the copy this evening. Meyrin had been apologizing to him since then, but what was done was done and Shinn had no choice but to confine himself in his cramped office for hours to make the necessary preparations. The chairman would make a visit to Januarius next week and Shinn wanted to make sure that they would be ready to take everything which might be coming their way. Absolute protection might not be possible, but he sure as hell wanted to stay close to that point.
What worried him was the increased activity of many groups of late. There were some that despised Athrun so much to the point that killing him would be regarded as an act of heroism, the epitome of justice and virtue. Their increasing activity was, of course, hardly good news for him. Not to mention today's incident in West Africa. He wasn't directly involved, but seeing the chairman spending the better part of the day cooped up with his military advisors and officers, even he could tell that it was bad.
Which really went without saying. This was the first major conflict after almost a year. Of course it was bad. Since the news had reached them, Athrun had been sporting this look on his face which might as well say that PLANT was under attack. Councilman Jule's expression was a little more terrifying and Shinn noticed that people had been busy clearing out of his way all day.
He was considering checking if Athrun was still in his office – which might earn himself another reprimand for his overanxious character which was bordering on neurotic according to the chairman – when there was a knock on the door to his office. He stared at it for a long moment, wondering who the hell on earth would be knocking on his door at this hour.
"Come in," he replied but not before reaching for his gun first and turning on the lamp.
Two familiar faces walked in and Shinn was forced to reflect if Athrun was right, even if just a little. He was too easily agitated.
"You called, Sir?"
And how could he possibly forget that? He had just called them about half-an-hour ago to meet him here in his office.
Selina Cavarallo and Rob Markham, two of his best agents and the golden pair of the squad. The utter dissimilarity of their characters might just be exactly why they could work together so well, although this level of cooperation was obviously not obtained in one night. Cavarallo, a young dark-haired woman who had habit to flirt with every handsome man within a one-mile radius, was the literal opposite of her partner, a tall blonde man, whose personal motto was obviously 'silence is golden'. Their cooperation, however, proved to be better than most for as far as he could see.
Professionalism notwithstanding, there was a talk within their small group about the true nature of relationship between those two. Shinn could hardly give a damn what his agents did in their free hours as long as they carried out their appointed task to perfection – and of course, as long as nothing they did was detrimental in any way to the chairman. He sometimes dwelt on the possibility that their close personal life might be affecting them in work, but so far none of them had disappointed him, so he basically had no grounds for complaining.
That was, of course, until he discovered that neither of them was attracted to the opposite sex. They could play the role of lovers if they had to – and this was very useful if they had to do their job in disguise – but it was a point-blank fact that they were gay. And they were – or at least Cavarallo was – damn proud of it.
(Which brought him to the question why she flirted with every man in the vicinity, including but not limited to her superior – which was him – and this question had plagued him since the moment he found out about their preferences. Much, much later, he discovered that it was only for the sake of seeing them squirm. But not like he cared anyway.)
Shinn cleared his throat. "I know you two aren't due until eleven, but I want to discuss something first. This is about the visit to Januarius next Wednesday and I want both of you on the team."
Whether they were surprised or ecstatic or simply puzzled by this announcement, Shinn honestly couldn't tell. He proceeded to give each of them a copy of the itinerary and lend the list of details he had just composed in the last four hours.
"There will be a briefing for the whole team on Sunday and another on Tuesday's night. The visit itself will take up the whole day, as you can see in that paper. Learn it and commit every letter to your memory, because I want you to know and remember what he's doing during this or that hour. As for the details, I'll give them to you at the briefing after I make some more copies." He paused for a moment and then added, "I know you two usually take the night shift, but I want to be prepared for this visit. Since the chairman will be out in the open quite often, we may have to expect the worse."
"No problem, Sir," Cavarallo answered with a grin. "We know how much you depend on us."
"Just for that comment, Cavarallo, I may reconsider my decision for giving you a night off tomorrow."
Her face fell but she quickly recovered with a wider grin. "Well, quite fine by me, Sir, if I can get a chance to see that handsome brunet again. Right, Rob?" she nudged her silent partner who only gave her a dark look.
Shinn stared at her. "Brunet?"
"Oops. Not supposed to talk about that, are we?" she giggled, feigning remorse very badly that he had to wonder what she was doing here in his squad. On second thought, it might be deliberate.
"What brunet? What are you talking about?"
"The chairman's guest a week ago, Sir. You know, the night visitor."
Shinn wasn't sure if he was more confused or panicked at this point. "Are you sure his hair wasn't blonde?" he pressed on, feeling his heartbeat speeding up with each second.
"It could be, I suppose," she murmured, obviously uncertain, and threw a look at her partner who only shrugged. "Well, I'm not sure. Seemed like brown to me, but it was quite dark back then."
"And yet you could see that he was handsome?" he asked dryly.
"That took an entirely different talent, Sir," she answered with an impish grin.
"Whatever," he waved a hand and returned his gaze to the list of details. "You two are dismissed. I'll let you know about my decision tomorrow."
"Aw, but you know, Sir, if you decide today then I may get a chance to call my girl and–"
By the time they reached his door – Cavallaro was quite literally dragged by her partner – Shinn had completely tuned her out. His eyes were staring at the list but his mind was a few universes away.
End Chapter Five
Notes: Shinn's getting on the tracks! We'll find what he'll do later. As for now, please review!