Disclaimer: I own nothing of GS/GSD. R&R please.

Chapter 33

The streets were filled even more than before, despite this being a central area where Orb's busiest people gathered to keep their eyes on the stock exchange and the offices were stacked like sugar cubes in impossibly high piles. While a great deal of olden architecture had been preserved, the change of landscape with times had been undeniable and Orb's central business district was that queer juxtaposition of the quaint and the spanking, corporate-styled new.

Today, thousands of people were crammed into those spaces. They formed streams of movement, spilling out of streets, pouring everywhere, ordered in lines only by the officers on duty. The noise they made was deafening, and the cheers were already breaking out into the air despite the absence of the person that they were waiting for.

It was a strange sight, because the procession seemed to be emerging from outside the crowded place and not coming within it. The suburbs and places along outskirts of the business district seemed to be where the old houses and the more traditional areas remained untouched. It was the same outer rim of Orb's capital where the famed Sarano Abbey attracted hundreds of tourists, and it was the same rim where the Orb Nobles tended to situate themselves. It seemed entirely incongruous that they would be appearing and meeting in the central part of the capital today, especially since the Orb Nobles were generally of discreet habits.

Of course, this wasn't really a day for solely business. Today was a celebration.

Amidst the thousands, boy was moving fast along the streets, a cap jammed on his head and his face flushed with joy and excitement. He seemed tall and gangly, with eyes that flashed jet in his young face, and he pressed against the crowd that had gathered to watch the procession. The class had ended early today, and he had rushed here on the first shuttle bus available. He was in time, and for that, he was glad.

The air was coloured with paper and balloons that floated high, rubber jewels that would only be found flat and devoid of life on fields much later. Laughing and enjoying the few hours of sunlight in the autumn, he shifted his satchel on his shoulder, trying to get a better view of the bodyguards riding on their motorbikes. Today, he decided, he would stay out a little later with his friends- it was a holiday tomorrow, after all, and there was no class. He enjoyed school and lessons, of course, but holidays were certainly welcome too.


He turned, watching his classmates try to keep up and press up to him. He had, after all, rushed right out of class the minute the bell had rung. Impatiently, he waved to them, keeping his feet moving so as to keep close on the path the grand car was clearing. If he could keep up, he told himself fiercely, he would catch a glimpse of her. Everybody was pushing forward, trying to see the person within the car, but he was smaller than them and more determined.

The path was cordoned off in the town square, but he could see something of her face as he followed the length of the cordon. He wasn't the only person trying to do so, and some people mashed against him as they stared, looking and waving at the person waving back.

He had been specifically instructed not to look for her or to let her know that he was in Orb. It had been difficult to do that, because he had so much he wanted to tell her and so many things that he loved about Orb. It wasn't just the school or the friends of his age or even the beaches that he visited on his free days— there was so much he had to tell her.

Even now, as he watched the Orb Princess waving from the car, he knew that it was a matter of time before they met again.

His classmates caught up to him, staring at the end of the procession as it tailed along. The spectators were all applauding still, and more balloons were being sent off into the air. Flowers were strewn on the path, never mind that the wheels had probably crushed some of them.

He watched, his voice and hands stilling, his wild joy at seeing her dwindling somewhat. But as he watched the car move off slowly, he crossed his fingers tightly, muttering a wish to himself.

Almost to himself, Jorne said admiringly, "That was the Orb Princess!"

Michel was waving still, calling out with so many others in the crowd. He too, had been eager to finish class to catch the parade. "Happy Birthday!" He sang loudly, clapping his hands like all those present.

And Sera turned. Her voice was high with excitement, and her hands were emptied of the flowers she had heaped into the air. "Isn't she wonderful, Kaye?"

He nodded, beaming.

-1649 days

"Lady Cagalli."

She looked up, trying not to flinch.

"Surely you know why you're here." The Head Elder was peering at her.

Certainly, she knew that she was about to go through something of an inquisition after her appearance at her official birthday celebration wearing a ring on her finger. She had waited patiently for the days after that; a sadistic part of her feeling disappointment when it did not come immediately. After all, the news had swirled around from the café that the average citizen drank tea in to the office that those at the top of the food chain worked in. She had quite expected to be dragged to the Sarano Abbey almost immediately after what she had done. She had been asked to go there, of course, but Ernest Rohm had only showed up a week after the incident—as if the Elders were expecting all the talk to have died down by then!

The questions would be direct for once. She had not given the Elders a chance to use their discretion and patience this time. Rather, she'd simply taken the bull by the horns.

As she looked at their expressions, she knew that she would have to pay for that.

Last year, the semi-scandal of forged evidence of a tryst between her and Patrick Zala's son. During her twenty-eight birthday, the newspapers had staged a nice summary of all that news, although most had concluded that it hadn't been anything more than a random smear campaign directed towards Athrun Zala rather than the Orb Princess.

A year ago, it had been divine intervention that Orb needed her so much. Orb had relied on her so much in the aftermath of last year's events that it could not have her abdicating because of some clause concerning the Orb nobles and some affair they deemed her to have been unwillingly and wrongly caught up in. There were polls and academic articles on the adjoining page about customs and their place in the current society, but Cagalli had ignored all that discussion throughout the last year.

Of course, it only took another year, the most current birthday celebration and a ring to bring all of that up again. The papers and the prime time talk shows were currently blaring all sorts of headlines- from the recent statements she had made regarding her failure to marry and her past alleged tryst with an intelligencer that nobody knew anything very significant about.

After all, she had given them something else to talk about recently.

"The Elders would like to know who gave you the ring that you wore to your twenty-ninth birthday celebration in the presence of the other Orb Nobles and the international guests. The same ring that you now wear, I presume." The Head Elder cleared his throat. He seemed quite upset that she had appeared in the Sarano Abbey wearing what had caused all the furor.

One Elder cut in, possibly for her defense. "My lord, she had no choice but to show up at that celebration—it wasn't something she could decline the invitation of."

Indeed she had, in the resplendence of a seafoam-coloured gown that she had to wear at least once a year—ever since she had gone through her coronation. There was no possibility of refusing to participate in the long-drawn ride through the capital's square on that national holiday, or the endless bursts of confetti, the waving to the people beyond a bullet-proof window, and the hours of meeting all sorts of important people right after that. For this year's birthday however, she'd put aside the traditional gems that had been long matched for her since her first appearance to claim her title right after the First War. She'd worn only a ring, and that had been enough in so many ways.

"The Orb Princess' inability to not go through the annual procedures is irrelevant." Another Elder said sharply. "Given that all of us present understand the significance of wearing a ring on that finger—let alone Lady Cagalli who knew that the public eye was on her at that very celebration that she had to attend."

"Who gave you that ring, Lady Cagalli?" The Head Elder repeated. He looked at her unblinkingly.

Somehow, she found it in her to answer with a simplicity that seemed far more powerful than defiance. She had not meant to appear that way, but the conviction was undeniable in her voice, as was the presence of a band around her finger.

"It was Athrun Zala who gave me this." Her gaze did not waver. "He and I are recognized as husband and wife by Plant's law— it has been that way before the end of the Second War."

There were no gasps or anything to that dramatic effect. Of course it was so. They, amongst all those who might have or could have, would have dug into a history that Cagalli Yula Atha had wanted to keep secret for so long. He'd sacrificed her efforts one year ago, and since then, Cagalli was sure the Elders had tried to learn as much as they possibly could. Perhaps, she realized, they had been hoping that the past would have stayed buried and that there was nothing more except rumours for the idle mouths around.

As she looked at them now, she was sure they had learnt something more even without her recent display.

"Is it still in force?" One Elder asked. His frown was so deep that it seemed to consume his eyes.

"Since he was proven to be alive, yes." Cagalli was not given a chance to answer, for another Elder had butted in. "He reappeared before he was declared legally dead. We have never annulled the engagement."

"What a bother." Another Elder said roughly. "He should have stayed dead."

Cagalli admired his honesty, if nothing else.

The others began to speak amongst themselves, and she waited for the Head Elder to call for silence. It was only been after a great deal of his coughing and thumping of his walking stick that silence was restored.

"If you must ask questions, my learned colleagues," He wheezed, "You must likewise give Lady Cagalli a chance to respond."

Gratefully, she looked at the Head Elder, but he seemed to radiate disapproval even as he waved his indication for the Elders to ask away.

"Are you seeing him even now?" One Elder demanded.

They were all been aware of the most recent reports, even if not the past ones of a supposed tryst during a key conference in Neo-Kyoto. As it was, the key corporation that the Zala family had owned had recently acquired a research conglomeration that was based in Orb.

According to what Cagalli knew, plenty of ministers had tried to find ways to prevent the acquisition. There was no denying that they did not want the conglomeration to be bought over by anyone, lest of all a Coordinator like Athrun Zala. He had resigned from Zaft and the Plant public service sector some months before the acquisition—to focus on his family businesses, he claimed, in a public statement.

Of course, Cagalli thought as she looked at the Elders, nobody believed him. It didn't help that the enterprises that the Zala family had owned had once been used to develop weapons and to collect data for effective space and deep-sea piloting. Those enterprises had been reverted into biotechnology research businesses after the Second War, but it seemed that nobody quite believed Athrun Zala when he had announced that it would continue that way under him as a major shareholder. His takeover bid with the Orb-based conglomerate as the preparation for a merger was certainly good enough evidence for people who believed that he was still taking instructions from Plant or Zaft.

But the Orb government owned very few stakes in the private enterprise, and it had been a legal takeover for Athrun Zala's corporation. Cagalli of course, had not been involved much in the Economic Development board's discussions of their efforts to prevent the takeover. The only thing she had been asked to by the board was to give a decision on was the approval of the disapproval of the conglomerate selling out to Athrun Zala. Of course, she had given it. Only the tight control of the media prevented more allegations from flying in the air, and even then, Athrun Zala had done the takeover quite successfully.

It was a good thing that nobody had gotten close enough to ask her opinion on the whole matter, because Cagalli didn't quite have one. On one hand, it seemed almost certain that he was trying to find his way back to Orb. On the other, she was afraid to hope and afraid to know too much. But that itself, was certainty that she believed him—she'd chosen to pick out a ring and wear it even when she'd appeared to have a hundred people wishing her a blessed birthday. Their eyes had flown to her hand—the ring was more ostentatious than she had thought, but perhaps he'd always planned for it to be.

As always, there had been little in Athrun Zala's way when he'd chosen to buy up the Orb research conglomeration. He had done it at a commercial loss, but the long-term benefits were potentially in his favour. It had been headline news for at least a week, since the conglomeration had been crucial in Orb's prowess as the leader in that field of terra-forming technology. He had never spoken to her since their last meeting, and a year had passed before she'd known it. The last she could recall, he had seemed to have aged somewhat. She wasn't sure if it was his appearance or whether it was how mellowed or even more composed he seemed in public.

Cagalli took in a deep breath. She knew her voice was shaking, despite her best efforts. "I am not seeing him presently."

"Did you keep in contact with Athrun Zala during the buy-over of the Tristernte Research conglomerate?" Another Elder questioned.

"No, my Lady." She looked steadily at them. "I have not been in contact with him at all." She was aware that her answer was not quite clear in the light of the photograph in the past scandal, but the ambiguity was currently her shield.

"Then what is that significance of that ring?" One lord said roughly. "Why do you wear it when you have no contact with him? I remind you, Lady Cagalli, that you were in the public eye the whole time you appeared at your birthday celebration— that display is not something that the Elders expected of you."

"I wear it because I have every intention of meeting him again." Cagalli said quietly.

She watched their expressions harden. "Do your Graces disapprove of my decision?"

Some cleared their throats, some muttered amongst themselves, and some seemed unforgiving. The hardened expressions were somehow familiar looks on their faces. She had long become used to it all.

As it was, her fate had always been hanging in the balance. If she finally couldn't recover from the trauma she had cited as a reason for not marrying, she would simply have to abdicate. The Council of Elders thought they'd bested her— they thought that letting her have her way would be enough time for Orb to become even more powerful. She had understood what most of them were thinking even when they'd decided that she could postpone the effect of the law. None of them expected her to marry at all, but they were surely thinking that Orb could benefit in the present and she'd be kicked off once she'd served her purpose.

She had seen it in their eyes; that cool scorn, that dismissive glances they had given her. They were sure that in eight years time, they would have milked enough out of her for them to kick her off and send her on their way without Orb making too much of a loss or fuss.

She had understood this at very least. In some of their hearts, she had been bound to fail at some point, and she already had at this point.

Already, some Elders had risen and were preparing to leave. One looked at her with displeasure. "I never thought that the Atha Heir would be such a letdown. Your father gave his life for nothing, I think."

So she stood there, watching them, wondering if she was letting somebody down or if her father would have looked at her the way some of the Elders were facing her now.

But the Head Elder thumped his walking stick for silence. "With all due respect, nobody leaves this room until I do."

Uncomfortably, the Elders who had threatened to leave now moved back into their seats.

"I speak for the Elders and I represent all in stating the facts. As a Council, we are privy to dispensing advice regarding the wisest course of action for the Orb Royals and in particular, the Orb Head that is yourself. But I tell you, Lady Cagalli, we are no more than an advisory at the end of the day." He shook his head. "Your decision is your own, and if mine counts at all, I say that it is better you use your discretion and experience with the recent debacle regarding the trilateral zone."

There had been mutters again, and Cagalli looked pleadingly at the Head Elder. "How should I explain myself for his and my sakes?"

"That isn't for just me to say." The Head Elder said heavily. "I represent only myself as I say this, Lady Cagalli, but Athrun Zala is unlikely to be accepted by the Orb public if he insists on being more than a visitor." He shook his head. "At very least, I do not accept him as a worthy person to partner you, Lady Cagalli, and in all honest, I view him with a great deal of suspicion."

"You do not represent only yourself when you say this, my Lord." Another Elder spoke. His tone was very aggressive. "You represent me."

"And me."

"And me."

A few others looked at Cagalli scornfully, and she swallowed, her heart sinking.

"In any case," The Head Elder coughed, wiping sweat from his brow, looking more haggard than ever. "You make your decisions and if you must suffer for it, you will. The backlash from the public will be punishment if you make your decision wrongly, but the decision is still yours. The Council of Elders must know that."

She kept her head high, although she found her tears building. "Then if my people do not give me their approval, my Lords and Ladies, I am prepared to accept it."

"Why does it have to be this way?" One Lady demanded. "You have been working hard and well for Orb, Lady Cagalli, so why this foolishness?" She clenched her fist. "You, Lady Cagalli, promised to keep in line with the discretion we used in your favour! I, for one, thought you understood the significance of the rules governing the Orb Head and Nobles, and we trusted you to do what was best for Orb! Do you really think that a past intelligencer and a son of a madman will truly allow you to repose your trust and confidence in him?"

The murmurs started, but Cagalli shook her head. "I cannot defend him here, and it is not my place to. But I defend my right of choice. Whether the law regarding the Orb nobles has its effect on me or not, I must meet him again. If not openly, then at any cost." She gulped for air, trying to be strong; trying to keep herself together. "My Lords and Ladies, you gave me discretion. I have considered my decisions fully and I ask that you let me use the granted discretion in this manner."

"Why?" The Head Elder asked quietly.

"Because I need Athrun Zala more than Orb or my father needed me to stay here." She said. She was not surprised to find her voice breaking, even if it upset her even more. "He is someone that I could entrust Orb to— because he is someone I would entrust my life to."

One Lord slammed his hand down. "You, Lady Cagalli, you shame us!" He looked at her angrily. "After the debacle died down last year, many of the Elders hoped you would be more careful to not attract the kind of talk that would put the leadership and the government in the worst light possible! But now you turn around and confirm, with what you put on that finger and what you say with your words, that all that was rumoured was true!"

"No!" Her voice ripped through the air. "I did not intend to shame my people, even if I have shamed myself in many ways. This is what I have chosen, despite the granted discretion and the Elders' advice. If my people cannot forgive me for what I have decided, then I will leave my post."

"Are you really prepared to?" Lady Sahaku said softly. She had risen to her feet, her dark locks riddled with some grey now. That subsistence of her eyes and lips had begun, and yet she seemed purer and more steadfast than before. "I agree that if you must pay a price, it is not to us, who are merely your advisors. You know as well as I do that the price must be paid to the people who keep you in your current position. But your father—,"

The Head Elder lifted a hand. "Lady Sahaku, perhaps this is something that is best left outside—,

"With due respect, Head Elder," Lady Sahaku shook her head. Her height was startling next to the stooped Head Elder's. "She must hear this."

She sighed almost imperceptibly, her vivid eyes drifting over Cagalli's face. "Your father was a familiar person to me, Your Grace, and I daresay he left this world only because he entrusted everything by placing it into your hands."

"He did." Cagalli told them all. "But that is precisely why I have the right to make my decision." She thought of Athrun, and unwittingly, she clenched her fist, finding comfort from the metal against her skin.

One Lord spoke up. "What if Athrun Zala is not accepted by your people and they turn their disapproval towards you— even to the extent of your continuing to be the Atha Emir?"

"I am prepared to abdicate." She said quietly. Deep down, she prayed it would not be the case.

"And what if he never comes back?" Another Lady asked. There was derision in her voice.

"I will still make my choice." Cagalli said. But her voice was hesitant. "Perhaps, I have already made it."

The Head Elder was looking directly at her. "Then so be it."

Even now, she wondered what the right decision was. With every passing day, his promise didn't seem any fainter than when he'd held her close to him and made it. But his absence and his very distance made her feel as if she had reached out and grasped only the edge of his sleeve—a frayed thread that might or might not have been joined to something in the first place.

As she moved down in the lift, feeling incredibly isolated even when the two bodyguards were by her side, Cagalli clenched her fist.

The anger and disappointment of the Elders made the recollection of the few hours with Athrun that one year ago seem strangely remote from the reality of what she was facing. There was that awful, nagging feeling of doubt, and she wondered if she was making sense even to herself.

Hours later, alone in her house, she sat on the couch, staring at the mantle's photographs of her family and the father that had never seemed fallible as a human.

Autumn was in its fiercest now, and there was an evening frost on the windows. But she noticed nothing of this, because all the curtains were drawn. In her house, the space seemed constricted quite suddenly, and her vision was blurred as she gulped once. The lights provided little comfort, only illuminating the space that she detested and yet was obliged to belong to; to be chained to.

She thought of a garden with a glass roof that had once enclosed but had eventually sufficed as a sky. There were those faint memories of a rough, choppy sea she had rowed and swam in. Had her world expanded or shrunk since then? The fragrance of the tender duck meat that had been served during the dinner event that she'd attended that week ago seemed to pale in comparison to the memory of vegetables stewing slow and warm.

The photographs seemed small and even insignificant when she got up to take their frames up in her hands, and she was suddenly afraid. As she lifted her hand , she was only marginally comforted by the glint of the band around her finger.

"So be it." She whispered to herself. If there was a mistake she was making, then at very least, it was still a decision she was making for herself.

-1657 days

Petra Joule was standing on her toes, trying to grab at Leon Yamato's hair. He became startled and scrambled away from the balcony that he had been peering over, running to his mother. She had the habit of sneaking up behind people and scaring them, although she seemed to do it unconsciously.

But the sight of the man she was seated opposite to frightened him a little, and uneasily, he hid behind his mother. Petra's mother was there too, and Leon looked at her, a bit unnerved by how little she seemed to laugh. She seemed nice enough though, even if she was very quiet and smiled mostly with her eyes.

In contrast, his mother was far more vocal with her gaiety, even if Leon's father seemed less so. His mother, upon feeling him tug at her sleeve, turned and smiled at him, stroked his unruly hair in an effort to neaten it, and then turned back to Yzak Joule, saying, "It's that scowl of yours, Yzak."

"I've told him before," Petra's mother added. "Children need to be smiled at."

With what seemed like a Herculean effort, Petra's father smiled at his colleague's child, which proved even more frightening for Leon.

"Why aren't you looking after Petra?" Leon's father asked.

"She's older than me—," Leon looked helplessly back at the girl who was nearly strangling a rather mussed-up looking, would-be fierce Alsatian that had pounded its way up to her. She was tall for her age, was already learning how to ride horses, and she was laughing as she fondled the dog's ears. Yet, the massive beast that Leon was quite scared of seemed to be a puppy rather than a guard dog, and it whined its adoration loudly. Petra's hair was long and silvery against the black and russet fur, and if it had been braided nicely at first, it seemed quite hopeless now.

"Well, go back there." His mother urged. She grinned at Leon.

And immediately, the adults began talking again. Leon caught a mention or two of his aunt's name, and he stood there, not quite tall enough to see over the edge of the table, but insistent enough to stay.

His father was shaking his head, looking at some papers that were spread over the tea-table. "I don't know what Cagalli's thinking."

"Probably isn't." Petra's father was looking quite stern. "But none of us here can do more than try to support both of them."

"Certainly," Leon's mother seemed quite serious too, which made Leon wonder what they were talking about exactly. "His resignation came at a strange time, I think. He might have been transferred to the Plant-Orb embassy at any point now, but he chose to cut off all his work and credit with Plant and to reinstate himself as a major shareholder in those businesses." She was looking at the Head General with an expression that Leon did not quite understand. "Don't you think that'll set him back quite a bit?"

"Maybe that's what he wants." Leon's father said. "Maybe he wanted a clean slate this whole time."

Petra's mother looked at the child hanging around. When she spoke, her voice was gentle. "Leon, Petra will miss you."

All the adults were looking at Leon suddenly, and he blushed violently.

"Leon," the Head General said brusquely, "If I recall correctly, Petra doesn't like to play with anyone except you. Do me a favour and just humour her." He looked directly at Leon, smiling just a bit.

Between the prospect of a smiling Head General of Zaft or the Head General's child, Leon backed away uneasily and moved back to the balcony where Petra was standing with her outstretched hands. Her eyes were wide and laughing, and Leon helplessly took her hand and asked, "Do you still want to play hide and seek?"

Of course, they both knew the answer to that.

-1699 days

A month later, Aaron Biliensky found that Cagalli was still brushing aside the errant reporter that managed to get through the cordons to try and get an interview from her. For that reason, he had forbade her from turning up at the planning session.

With a great deal of difficulty himself, Aaron had alighted from the car with the bodyguards and managed to squeeze into the Orb's National Museum for a briefing that Cagalli had been expected to attend in preparation of a charity event in a week's time.

It was quite startling, even to Aaron, how fickle the media was.

While she had absolutely insisted on wearing a ring, Ernest Rohm had convinced her that putting it on another finger was necessary. As usual and on behalf of the Council of Elders, the spokesperson had paid a trip to her office an hour before lunch, and had set his proposition out to her. She had agreed to compromise finally, unable to be as resistant as she thought she could be.

Throughout this, Aaron had been quite sick with worry for her. There was this awful bravado she went about her work with, and while she seemed entirely in control, he wondered if this was truly the case.

The reporters of course, were still curious about the new manner she was wearing the ring in, the ring itself being hotly discussed. While Cagalli had clearly tried not to think too much about news and bits of gossip, those about her were far too conspicuous to ignore. Even Aaron could not ignore it at times.

The head curator had given Aaron a curious stare upon meeting him, but like the others, he could not ask Aaron why Cagalli had decided to send a proxy instead. Surely, Aaron realized, everybody had been hoping to see the Orb Princess in person and to see if the ring on her finger was still being flaunted, as the media painted it.

But like the others, the curator would have come to the conclusion that she'd worn it on another finger during her birthday celebration in her haste or in some kind of wardrobe malfunction. That seemed to be the case now, since the Orb Princess had switched the finger she was wearing the ring on. Or perhaps, Aaron thought wryly, those present here would have also subscribed to the recent theories that she had been wearing a ring too large for any other finger, and had only recently gotten it fixed.

As Aaron moved through the empty museum halls, trying in vain to listen to the head curator with his thick accent, he felt slightly disconcerted that any response of his could be heard with the echoes of the exhibition walkways. The bodyguards and the other curators were behind at a respectable distance but Aaron still felt as if a reporter would get in somehow. Those were all held outside, for the museum was exclusively for the planners today. Of course, he thought, one of the curators who was frantically scribbling something might have been paid to get a response from him. It wouldn't be the first trick that he had encountered when it concerned the media dogs.

"So this is where the painting is—the same one that the Orb Princess will unveil in a week, yes?"

"Of course." Aaron tried to look focused as a few curators behind began to speak rapidly and all at once, discussing where the entrance would be, the lighting, et cetera. The bodyguards, as stoic as they were, seemed a bit unnerved by the museum's emptiness as well—it had been vacated especially for the Orb Princess today, although she had sent a proxy.

"Mr. Biliensky," the head curator was requesting, "The plan is that the tables will be arranged here, and the guests will be seated in a way that allows them to view the paintings from all angles. The Princess of course, will be at the most important table— our trustees and beneficiaries will be expecting her."

"I see." Aaron said, trying not to think of the evening that Cagalli would have to spend with potentially snooty donors of art and connoisseurs that spoke through their noses. Inwardly, he wondered why her personal donation to the event that was supporting some key charities wasn't sufficient for her to be excluded from attending. "I have taken note of this and will convey the message to the Orb Princess."

"The problem is that the unveiling of the main piece will be in another room, and that the artist insists that it cannot be placed with the others." The curator was discussing details with a few assistants. "And yet we think it will be lovely if she could do this—," They started arguing amongst themselves.

"Typical," Aaron muttered to himself, falling behind a bit to stare at the sculptures. Some were incomplete, even if the torso itself was beautiful, for some of the artists had chipped away the parts of the sculpture they did not approve of. It made for a strange garden of magnificently sculpted anatomy in various stages of completion—presumably, the sculptors had died before they could finish their work.

For the life of him, he could not understand the artistic temperaments of the creative, as much as he tried to appreciate their work. Aaron glanced around, looking at the massive paintings that hung from the walls and even the ceiling. He did not have much time to look, however. The curator was moving forward and she strode after him, eager not to get lost in the extensive archive of fine art.

They must have moved into the Noveau section, for the furniture displays in their cordoned sections were distinctively reminiscent of shell shapes and boasted graceful, vine-like tendrils. Admiring those, he continued to fall behind the curators who were discussing the length of curtains and similar things.

While being a main patron of the National Gallery, Cagalli would certainly feel out of depth where organizing events and massive operations were concerned. Half-wishing that he did not have to turn up and be part of the consultation process on her behalf, Aaron wandered along the perimeter of the room, not bothering to even pretend that he was thinking of something constructive to add to the planners' decisions.

And as Aaron did, he halted, gazing at a glass-encased but entirely empty pedestal. "What is this?"

One assistant scurried over. The curators noticed this and moved over too. The head curator looked at the description and picture of what he was pointing at and immediately hastened to explain. "Mr. Biliensky, this was the Rupertian piece that Caftan and Cartierie agreed to exhibit about last year!"

Puzzled, Aaron stared at the description and accompanying picture of a large, pigeon-egg shaped sapphire. He had been wondering why Caftan and Cartierie hadn't recalled their loan yet. Until then, he and Cagalli had been prepared to pretend it still existed. "Last year?"

"That's right!" Another curator chimed in.

Aaron lifted his eyes to regard all of them. "Then where is it?"

The head curator scratched his head embarrassedly. "Well, Cartiere recalled it. It was sold off in a private auction just months ago, Mr. Biliensky. We tried to convince Cartiere to keep it here, but they decided that the offer they were made was far too good, never mind that the Noveau section hasn't been complete since then."

"What about the identity of the buyer?" One curator was asking another. The one who had been asked shrugged. Aaron however, was not listening.

His eyes flickered back to the empty case, and he wondered if she had been mistaken.

-1723 days

The phone was ringing. Muttering incoherently, she pulled the blankets away, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. She shivered, wiggling her toes to keep warm in her old baggy shirt and ratty shorts that had been sufficient for pyjamas.

The cell-phone somewhere under the blanket was ringing. The sound echoed in the room, and it occurred to her that if someone had called the house, every phone in the house would have rang in unison with this one in different tunes. For reasons unknown even to herself, there was one cordless phone for every room in the house. Thank Haumea she had only three cellphones for work.

Blearily, she reached for the one ringing, trying to clear her voice. The sun was barely up and already there were people calling. Her day off wasn't supposed to be like this, she thought grumpily.

She winced as Aaron's voice shot through the earpiece. "Hello Cagalli! I need you to confirm that you know what to do for the raising of the curtain later."

"Aaron," She wheezed, picking up the clock, "It's only five-thirty."

He sounded quite scandalized. "Shit, Cagalli, you sound like you're sick! You only have two hours to get ready for the charity event!" He was working himself up. "Do you need aspirin or something?"

She shook her head, feeling exasperated. "Most people sound like this when they are forced to wake up at five in the morning, Aaron."

There was a long silence, then a chuckle. "It's five in the evening, Cagalli. You must have overslept."

She pulled aside the curtains, looking at the sun. It was bright in the sky—setting, that is.

And took her all of a second to realize that she had overslept on her day off, despite her grand plans to go for a nice long morning walk in the nearest park that had been built— one or two kilometers away from her estate.

She swore loudly.

"Are you going to come over soon?" She looked around at her bedroom, noting its untidy state. Slightly alarmed, she began ruffling her hair with one hand while sitting up on her bed. If Aaron saw the pigsty that Cagalli's room currently was, he would not forgive her. But more than that, she had been forcibly jolted from her sleep to be reminded of the charity dinner she'd agreed to attend.

Irritated at her carelessness and her lack of proper planning for her semi-day off, she began to toss things around, trying to find the invitation card amidst the stack of papers she'd taken to bed to read.

"Yes, yes, the bodyguards will drop in there with the stylists, then send you to the National gallery." He said brightly, quite unaware that Cagalli's home resembled something of a pigsty during this past week. "And don't forget to go through the packages that they sent over yesterday afternoon."

She could have pulled her hair out. "Oh Aaron, I got back home yesterday and conked out on the bed!" She tried not to get too agitated, although she was already standing on her bed. "I haven't gone through the information that I need for tonight!"

"It's fine, it's fine," He said quickly. "Just think of something to say about the homegrown, Orb talents featured tonight and the goodwill of the donors. That's what's the gist of the script." There was a little pause. "And get yourself looking presentable please, dear. There's the black dress that I mentioned the other time—the stylists approve, I should think."

She shook her head, quite upset. "I could kill myself, Aaron. The place is a mess."

"It's fine," He repeated reassuringly. "Go get yourself prepared—you have two and a half hours, and it's alright to be about half-an-hour late—they are expecting that anyway. Just remember that the chauffeur and bodyguards are coming soon. I'm coming over too—got to prep you up since you missed the last briefing session."

She nodded, replacing the receiver. Frantic now, she jumped off the bed, ran down the main staircase of the house.

The house was cold because she had forgotten to switch on the heating system since yesterday. But what did it matter when her home was merely a place for her to sleep in— an elaborate, oversized hotel room?

She put the thoughts out of her head and began trying to locate the documents that she had neglected to go through. There were packages everywhere that had been posted to this house, amongst the documents. Those had probably been the most recent things cleared by security. If there was anything that Kira and Lacus had sent over, those had surely been at least a week ago.

Their photographs lined the living room's mantle. Lacus' child had large blue eyes, a handsome boy who seemed so tranquil at times but so lost at others when he struggled to understand what the grown ups talked about. Next to his son, Kira was smiling, and she knew that her twin's remuneration was complete. The child was the final ounce of hope that was needed to make him forget the lives and deaths behind him.

Smiling slightly at the thought of them, she spotted the packages accumulated over the week—those were strewn over the coffee table. Not caring to sort through, she swept those all up, thinking that she would surely find the script that she would have to speed-read through upon opening up the packages.

As Cagalli trudged back up the stairs, she could not help noticing the state of the house, cursing the oversleeping that she had indulged in.

Sighing, she gazed at the state of her room, which was incidentally representative of most of the living room and kitchen. Yesterday had been a bit of a mess for her, since she'd basically drove straight home after work and proceeded to try and bake a strudel.

Perhaps, Ernest Rohm's third visit in the week had frustrated more than she had realized or registered. For one, she could not blame him for turning up when it was simply his job to convey the Elders' will. He had sat in her office, personally going through every plan she had in her schedule for the next two weeks. She knew what the Elders were afraid of. Her unpredictability and her recent antics had made them jittery. For another, it seemed entirely reasonable that he look at her with that clear scorn and distaste

Oh but how infuriating!

She had given up at some point; too exhausted after peeling the apples. She hadn't gotten past measuring the flour. Her exhaustion had surprised her, particularly since she hadn't done anything really strenuous. She'd then decided to spend the night reading some materials, and she'd fallen asleep without even knowing it. Perhaps, the strain she had tried to ignore had made her oversleep in some ways.

Hurriedly, she stretched to ease the soreness of her still-slumbering body, and then floundered up the stairs again to the bathroom to freshen up, for Aaron could not abide mediocrity. Brushing her teeth, she peered into the reflection and wondered why there were dark circles under her eyes even when she'd slept for so many hours.

Worst of all, she did not know where to start with the neatening, be it herself or the house that the bodyguards would probably shake their heads at. She felt tired and hollow and battered, and she told herself there and then that it was because the Belgium trip the last week had been rather taxing. But she knew that the reasons ran deeper than she would have liked to admit, for she was quite sure the press would be at the dinner tonight. Contemplating the scene later was tiring in itself.

For now, she tried to instill order to her dressing table by neatening up the various lotions and things scattered in chaos over the vanity top. The stylists would surely think the worst of her later if she revealed her dressing area to be as untidy as this.

As Cagalli rummaged with things, she inevitably thought of sparkling things that a trinket box had once held, and she thought of a painted smirk on a tiny cat. All those things seemed to have been part of a world that had decayed with the passing of the incident.

Frowning to try and forget, she finished fiddling, moved to the wardrobe door, opened it, stared pointlessly, grabbed the first dress she looked at, and then closed it. She dragged herself to sit on the bed, undressing and then getting into a bathrobe, all the while staring into space.

Aaron would sulk if he arrived and found her and the house in this state of frayed disarray. The bodyguards and stylists would surely panic at her lack of preparation but Cagalli weighed her options and decided that all of them would deal about it later. Technically, she was supposed to get prepared for the event, but they could all rush in the last hour probably get things done fast enough anyway.

And she sat on her bed, kicking off the slippers and gathering the packages she'd put on the bed. She sifted through the pile absent-mindedly, looking for the one that would be labeled as the script. Once she found it, Cagalli told herself, she would take her bath and then quickly read through it. But while she shuffled the envelopes, one struck her as being particularly bulky, and her curiosity was piqued enough for her to tear it open.

She tore the brown paper away carelessly, crumpling it, balling it and then tossing it to a bin somewhere in the room's corner. There was no card even if the packaged revealed itself to be a large, elaborate, beautifully embossed box, and she shrugged, thinking that Lacus would have been too busy with Leon these days.

But as Cagalli snapped the box open, a silver strand with a large, nearly liquid drop of sapphire slipped into her lap, glistening like a tear, a blue pigeon egg. A long time ago, it had been nestled against her flesh, but it had taken a bullet for her.

She held it up, blinking, recognizing it and then her mouth fell open in surprise. It wasn't supposed to be complete— it had been broken, hadn't it?

Desperate now, she searched the folds of the torn package for a card. There was none. A thought struck her and she moved from the bed to the bin, picking up the ripped paper and smoothening it. But there was no writing on it.

Almost angrily, she turned back to the packages on her bed. She set to work ripping those open, slicing those with a letter opener if she could not pull the paper open with her hands. There was a script that she found that was relevant for the evening's purposes— but nothing else that she was looking for. She could not find what she had been looking for.

Her grip on the letter opener that she had seized from the table in the room grew so tight and hot that it took a few seconds before she realized she had cut herself. She stared at the thin red line across her index, and it seemed unreal to her.

Hadn't it been a long time ago that someone had chided her for her clumsiness? Hadn't she been so surprised and bewildered by his reaction to that little cut she'd somehow sustained while preparing a meal for him to the point that she'd cut herself again? He'd always hated it when she was clumsy and hurt herself—he hated how pointless her injuries often were; how accident-prone she was. It had always made him yell, and she had always become so flustered that a second injury had been inevitable.

In silence, Cagalli got up. She found a small band-aid and fixed her finger. As she did, she found her shoulders trembling.

Things were in order now. She was in order. There was nothing more.

She glanced at the dress she'd randomly selected and thrown on the bed without really thinking about her choice. It lay there in a solemn black, framed by torn papers and the remnants of what would have been envelopes. The script was there, weighed down by a magnificent gem whose opulence made it almost artificial. It meant nothing to her—it could not mean anything to her. Tremblingly, she moved to the bed once again, sitting there and picking up the script and what seemed like a parody of a gift. It sparkled and her throat constricted.

She would read the script and learn it in time, even while her eyelashes were being curled. It was fine. There was nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. Nothing at all. So—,

The bell rang, and clumsily, she got up, slightly dazed.

And she moved through the corridors; room after room; moving past the chairs she'd used as a child; moving past the emptiness that led to another space of meaningless order. The bell to her front door was still ringing.

And she stumbled to it, unlocking it with a steady, unfeeling hand, unconscious of what she was supposed to expect; wearing only one her bedroom slippers. The other must have been lost along the staircase. She scarcely knew; she was blinded in some ways, and her fingers seemed thick and stupid as she fumbled with the many locks.

"Hurry, Cagalli," She heard Aaron say. "Don't keep us all waiting now!"

"I'm coming," Cagalli muttered.

She opened it, trying to summon goodwill and laughter to receive Aaron, the team of stylists and the bodyguards. At the same time, she steeled a smile on her face, praying that the cold autumn air and the evening would not expose the way her fingers were shaking.

But the last of daylight fell into her house even as the lamps outside shone in too. Those cast a glow over her face, and those rays seemed to rush into the house, and her eyes widened as she blinked.

Aaron was standing there, beaming at her. "Why, Cagalli—,"

Then his eyes darkened and his nose wrinkled. "Dressed like that with a bathrobe, and with just one bedroom slipper. All I can say is, thank goodness you're wearing proper underwear."

This was true. A glimpse of her chemise was there because she'd run to the door in a hurry without even adjusting her bathrobe properly. In vain, Cagalli tried to lift a hand in a sorry attempt to fix her appearance but her trembling fingers hung from stiff limbs at her side. The other hand with the script and necklace was equally leaden.

"Haumea, didn't I tell you to dress up and get ready for the event?" Aaron looked annoyed at his carelessness. "You have that lovely number that I told you to pick out for the event—why aren't you in it?"

"Aaron," Her voice was soft and it was breaking, but she did not notice it. "The parcel—,"

And Aaron beamed. "Oh, the delivery finally got there, did it?" He snorted. "The bodyguards took a long time deciding if it was safe—I had to do most of the work in convincing them that it was safe. Wasn't easy, I assure you, since there was no address or sender."

Her stunned silence answered him, and Aaron chuckled. She began to sputter incoherently.

"S-Shattered— that night—I,"

"Yes, I know, Cagalli." He said blithely. "You were really lucky that the one you wore was a fake. How fortunate that Caftan and Cartierie didn't trust you with the real thing, so they gave you a fake to wear on the night when you were kidnapped. And you got it shattered! But hey, no biggie. The real Rupertian's yours now and you could shatter it for all they cared."

"H-How? " She shook her head wildly, staring at him.

"They sold it some time ago!" Aaron chided her. "I suppose you never read about the undisclosed price and piece in the Sothebie's auction, right?"

Dumbly, she stared.

"The buyer requested the purchase be undisclosed because it was meant as a surprise! I myself never knew about this until I visited the National gallery and was told so too. Here!" He stepped aside.

But Cagalli was hardly listening.

She was staring, her door open, her body numb and yet, remembering how she had felt warmth in a person's circumference.

Her fingertips were at her lips, like she was biting back a cry but forgetting how to.

"I know I promised to have that strudel, but I've got somewhere to run off to now." Aaron said cheerfully, still indulging in his monologue.

"Aaron—," Her voice was ragged.

He frowned a little as he moved back down a step, appraising her. "I really think you should have worn that dress."

And then Aaron began taking a few steps back and stumbling a little, down the steps of her house, laughing and waving once.

She did not notice; she hadn't even looked at him once. Her hand was still at the frame of the door, the other on her mouth now, frozen.

There was silence again, and the door was still wide open. The last of the light was giving way to the lamps that she'd considered extinguishing at one point. Cagalli could not even watch as Aaron ran off into the distance. Vaguely, she realized that car he'd used was probably there, and he would drive through the gates with the security features again. He and the bodyguards would have easily cleared, and he had done it only just.

But she stood there, her body tense. It struck Cagalli that she lived in such a gigantic house with a narrow door.

What was the use of such a house? The only house she'd ever really known in her life had disappeared when everyone had left; first her father, then Mana, then Kisaka and even the maids she sent away because she did not need them—,

Her eyes were glistening and her thoughts raced in sequences that did not have a proper start or end. Yet, the only thing that came to her lips was a muffled cry of equal joy and sorrow. She did not see the new, faint lines in his face but she saw only the light in his eyes and face. She was not as aware of the longing in his face as much as the way he seemed more human and frail than she'd once thought he was capable of being.

"Hello, Cagalli." He said quietly.

He watched her for a moment, and there was no apology or anything else that he offered. He had re-entered without her consent, without warning, without a card or identity or any indication that he had remembered the past. It should have sent the bitterness up her throat; it should have made her reel with the injustice of how he had never seemed to feel more hurt than her.

But she found then that she didn't need anything more. What more did she need when she had learnt to accept each little disappointment? And what did she understand about trying to forget when she could still recognize that distant beating of wings and the renewal of faded memories? Those were the memories that had once been far too broken to help a person dream, but now—

Helplessly, she shook her head once, a tiny cry trapped behind the one hand she managed to raise. In her other hand, the heaviness of the sapphire glinted, casting a blue stain on the papers of a script she had yet to read and learn, her limp fingers weak around both.

And she flinched when he brought his hand to the one she'd clapped over her mouth, plucking it away from that silence she imposed on herself. His fingers were warm and seemed more powerful and more steady than the trembling ones that he held.

At the same time, she lost control of her other hand, dropping both the script and the present he'd given her, and those fell mutely to the carpet. It mattered little that one was so very light and the other so weighty— both were inconsequential.

"It's been a long time." He gave her a small, slightly sad smile. It seemed so familiar that she wondered if time had really passed.

"You—," She swallowed, choking back her tears bravely, trying to return his smile. "Too long, if you ask me."

And gently, Athrun took her by the hand, stepped in, and closed the door behind them.

0 days.


A/N: Dear readers and reviewers, thank you so much for your continuous support over all this time and chapters. The Isle has definitely been a joy to write and such a learning experience for me. This project took some time to complete, for sure, but I really enjoyed the end results and the responses.

A heartfelt thanks especially to the reviewers. I know I kept many of you in horrible suspense (and perhaps continue to do so), but I suppose there were so many ways the story could have ended and this was my favourite of the six alternate endings I had written.

In many ways, this ending is what I have always believed is most likely.

It isn't so much an answer but a question—a challenge.

Latest news: I am working on a sequel even though I actually didn't intend to. I finished an epilogue that I did not release with this story. Until now, I am hesitating on whether to continue on this fic or whether to start a new one or to leave it entirely. Well, we'll see how, but thanks for all the lovely reviews and I hope to see the same support if and when there's a sequel/continuation of this story!