Disclaimer: Straight to Center is based on characters and situations belonging to Mitsuo Fukuda, Chiaki Morosawa and Sunrise Inc. No copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Straight to Center
She wears flannel and satin, as though she always carried herself that way. He thinks this is rather unusual, but then again there had been too many years between them and not enough hours in a day to spend. There had been miles to go and promises to keep (just not to each other) and the setting sun didn't fare well against the morning dew.
Flannel was the person she once was, sixteen and fighting on the front lines like she had done it all her life. Her fiery disposition was as radiant as a thousand splendid suns back then. He recalls how evident it had been, commanding her courage with an undeniable passion. It's not as though her brilliancy had diminished, it still burned with an intense determination that continued to follow her wherever she went. She's just a little worn than she was before, carrying the weight of a heavy world. So Cagalli trades the flannel for satin and the guns for politics when she inherits her rightful place as Head of State. Nearly seventeen and still far too young and brash to be wearing the maroon the elderly men in her father's council wore, signifying the indefinite amount of responsibilities she had to her country.
He watches as she motions for her guards to stand down, retreating to their black cars not far from the quaint café where time used to be meaningless to them. He quickly eyes her from head to toe before she seats herself across from him. He notices how different she is, how different they both are but it doesn't stop her from giving him a smile that used to belong only to him.
"It's beautiful here, I almost forgot."
Her flaxen hair is neither too long nor too short, just touching the surface of her back suggesting how young she once was and how much older they were and how much older they continue to be. It's tucked messily into a baseball cap while strands jut out almost playfully, falling to rest at the nape of her neck. For a second he considers reaching over the table that divided them (in more ways than one) and tucking the curls behind her ear like how he used to, but no matter how badly he wanted to, he decides it's inappropriate. They are strangers in the shells of distant lovers now, with too much history and not enough chemistry to achieve the perfect balance they both desperately craved for.
The air is stale, typical of an evening in June with hints of wind and soft conversation. The waitress politely asks for their orders.
"Wine, the reddest you have with the finest of tastes," Cagalli says.
He raises an eyebrow because he remembers when they used to come here, with hot chocolate and a strawberry mango milkshake in hand, stories to tell and a life to live together. Here they could be themselves, just her and just him...just them. It was here they talked about what they loved, what they didn't and their dreams of tardy rabbits, Cheshire cats, mad hatters and Wonderland. It was here she pretended she wasn't a Representative of a country she loved too much and it was here he wasn't a soldier or anything pertaining to the likes of one. It was here they shared their hopes for a future, of decades that consisted of nothing but each other. And it was here he seriously thought he could be happy like this for the rest of his life.
Hearing his name spoken from her lips after a yearning absence causes his heart to fall a little farther than it should. Her voice adds more life to the simplicity of his name, something only the potency of a Queen can do. So in return he flashes her one of his most brilliant of smiles like the perfect subject should, no – the perfect knight.
"Coffee, no sugar."
The pregnant pause that follows suit harmonizes with the soft tempos in the air, adding more to their discomfort than they would've liked. But it's been years since they've been like this, since they could be like this, so a part of her doesn't care. She starts to study him with great intent, just like he did her, as though he would vanish if she merely blinked. She wouldn't dare voice it but the very thought had her stomach anxiously hurling and doing flips in ways she barely remembered.
His hair is darker; a different shade of midnight but the length is still the same. And his face, if it was even remotely possible, is more smouldering than the boy he once was, the one whose head was always spinning circles in a wheel. The one who was noble beyond reasoning and faithful to a fault, fighting in wars where boys even younger than he died relentlessly. She only knew figments of the boy she once kissed in space and not the man who presented himself before her, reserved and benevolent. His choice in wardrobe, still ever so sharp and precise honours the person he was, the person he is and the person he continues to be. But it was his eyes, the deepest of greens she's ever seen that causes her to catch her breath. They radiate a maturity about them that speaks of the things he's seen and the things he's done...and the life he's lived without her.
He begins to speak first, habitually straightening his unwrinkled polo. A habit he developed in those two years they spent together, revealing any slight uneasiness he may have. She found this peculiar because from the very moment she met him on that Island so many years ago, he struck her as someone with absolute composure...even though she knew he broke inside. They were so beautifully broken at the wake of the second war, that she was sure they were fate's most favoured instruments, following its whims like a musician commanding octaves on high.
She downs her wine, setting her throat ablaze and her face a flush as he takes a sip of his sugarless coffee.
"How is it?" He asks.
"Bitter." She replies, "Maybe the pino noir would've sufficed."
"Maybe." he chuckles, noting how her knowledge of wines stretched beyond that of red and white. It must have been the state dinners and the who's who and her regal position to thank for that. There's a snag in his chest because the lack of his presence in her life became more evident with each lingering sentiment.
They start to talk about what they've been doing and how each has been. They speak of politics and bring up the topic of light-hearted days. They chat about the orphanage they used to visit consistently and how much they miss the children they played with constantly. She asks about their comrades in space (and of course her brother) and in turn he asks about those who remained on Earth. They even recall their first waltz together, talking as if it were yesterday.
"You were so careful with your steps then, a true princess." Athrun laughs finely, something she sadly admits she had forgotten the sound of.
"Don't call me that!" Cagalli characteristically hisses, though, not without traces of a smile, "If Kira hadn't stepped on the skirt of my dress and you didn't take that turn I wouldn't have slipped and..."
He teases her now with a tint of amusement, saying there are still parts of her he recognizes and that's when they both fall silent to the dead of night. They converse like no time had passed, searching for each other in their offhand remarks, even though at the forefront of her mind, of his mind, they both knew...knew that this is a pleasant interruption to the past and an antiquated wound waiting to be reopened from the past. There had been too many sunrises and sunsets, too much time gone by, too many encounters avoided and chances not taken and too much of the heart to give, but not enough conviction and more uncertain reluctance dwelling in the depths of their minds.
The waitress comes and he picks up the tab. He rests his eyes on Cagalli as though he is back on that island again, seeing her for the first time. There they were, amidst an ocean of souls, two in six billion, looking at one another straight to center as if there is no room at all for any other thought. Their eyes couldn't break free from the spell of old feelings and enticing what ifs. So she does something that surprises the both of them when they stand. She extends a hand, coaxing in him a temptation they both knew they wanted to fall prey to, but never had the chance...until now.
"Should we entertain this a bit longer, Athrun?"
He reaches for her hand and the touch is so electric it could hurt. Even their touch is different now – where once their hands were decorated with flirtatious caress and naive strokes, are now soft with age and refinement. Another aching reminder of the life they didn't live together. He pulls her close, ignoring the stares of faceless nobodies that start to realize who exactly they might be and whispers in her ear something that makes her heart soar.
"Lead the way."
He's leaning against his car now as he watches her relieve her guards of their duties for the night. They eye him well, because he knows they know who he is and with one final instruction they leave. He opens the door to the passenger seat and Cagalli slides into it like she had done hundreds of times before. And soon enough they are cruising down the highway, the outside world bleeding into one another because clocks do not have hands here and the world consists of nothing else but the two of them. He catches from the corner of his eye, how her hair is falling forward and her mouth is askew as the music is blaring while she succumbs to the heaviness in her eyes. It must be the wine.
He accelerates towards a destination they wordlessly marked on a map, toying with the idea of playing make-believe. It was her idea then, but he humoured her about it without end... because at seventeen, when they were young and in love, it had made her happy. So Athrun continues to drive between the stars as Cagalli naps on, dreaming through the noise as the weight of her head presses against his shoulder, familiar and surreal.
The music lulls the thunder of their hearts to a momentary peace.
Maybe it means nothing, maybe it means nothing
Maybe it means nothing, but I'm afraid to move.
She slams the door of his car shut, the noise louder than she had anticipated and laughing harder than she has done in awhile. She's changed out of her flannel and satin in exchange for white and tulle and where her cap had hidden her tresses now sat a veil that seemed like it was always meant for her. They were crazy, absolutely so. Maybe it was the wine that intoxicated her judgement but Cagalli reminded herself it wasn't just her, it was him to. Dressed in a blazer with a perfectly shaped tie and delicately pressed pants, wearing a smile of sweet confection. She runs on the brick below her, with a bouquet of her favourite flowers in one hand, bellowing for him to come closer.
Athrun breathes in the sight of her, stunning and so sure of herself. She is his even for this one stolen moment in time. This one evening that nearly compensated for all the wasted mornings, afternoons and evenings that were lost to the stupidity of their youth. He takes a hold of her hand and like the perfect gentlemen, twirls her like how she should be twirled and they both laugh, filling the atmosphere with fluorescent announcements beating wings overhead.
Cagalli falls limply into his arms and as their laughter subsides, they realize how close they are. She looks up at him now, because he's always been taller than she was, towering over her even in the empty space at the corner of her heart.
"Well anyway," She says, "I'll see you around..."
"Yeah...okay." He simply looks at her, emerald to amber, gold to jade, Athrun to Cagalli but doesn't let go. Her breathing becomes heavier as he tightens his hold on either side of her arms, making sure she is real and they are real...together.
The realization of what they pretended to do, what they pretended to be started to dawn upon her like a treacherous flood eating the world whole. It began to eat away at both of them when she spoke the words that broke the spell of glass slippers and magic pumpkins.
"A-Athrun I...I can't have this. You know I – we both did, but yet we..."
Here they were, imitating a life they did not have and could not have. Wearing their hearts on their sleeves like they were sixteen again, falling in love in the midst of war and adventure, holding onto each other as if they were the only ones left in the world.
"Who are you, taking coffee, no sugar?" Cagalli hums, tears outlining the edge of her eyes. He understands now, suddenly on the same wavelength, dull and painful. It is depressing but she strains on, choking on the words that were drilled at the back of their minds. "What else - what else has to be different?"
His chest constricts into something he thought wasn't so excruciatingly possible until now. There is a reason not to want this because they were nothing more than dark curtains drawn by the passage of time. They echoed street signs in the silliness of old dreams as though to tease the missing years between them. There is however, no silver lining here, just added depth to the pain of craters and world scars that lay dormant in their hearts.
She tries to push him away with fierce stubbornness because she doesn't deserve this, she can't. She's already chosen, chosen her country instead of her heart. So why did it feel more difficult this time than a million miles to run? Why did the hardest thing and the right thing have to be the same? It just isn't fair...life never is. So Cagalli starts to hammer at his shoulder, bouquet in hand and petals falling with ruthless grace to the floor. He takes it all in, gently propelling her against her manor door.
And he leans in and kisses her. It's been far too long since he tasted her like this. His kiss is supple, shy yet demanding. There is a growing hunger he had known once before, sitting at the pit of his stomach and it doesn't take long for her to react. His hands are now cupping either side of her face and she runs her hands at the small of his back, pressing into him, deepening their kiss to meet every demand. Tears aside, she too begins to feel the longing of blind passion, wanting nothing more than to nourish the butterflies fluttering inside.
There is a reason as to why they didn't want this. There is a reason not to want this but they both forget in fervent kisses and eager hands.
He never thought he would find her here, underneath him and tugging impulsively near the collar of his shirt, removing his tie with little to no effort. He hadn't thought much would come from this night when he braved the blizzard of his mind and decided to inform her of his visit. He hadn't thought of the possibility of her actually agreeing to meet with him, and if she did, he only imagined naught but empty words resonating what they once had and the people they once were. He never thought that the beat of his heart could be as loud as the chirping of a thousand birds, acting on its own accord, replicating the depths of her deepest desires.
And no matter how much they resisted their memories of distant past, the magnetic attraction they had to one another, without a doubt, defied all laws of inertia even after all this time.
Their kisses were no longer timid, but hurried and not nearly as gentle. She licks the bottom of his lip before firmly planting them over and over again, like a mantra without end. When they pull away gasping for air, he glares down at her, all of a sudden serious and hesitant, but before he could say a word she slowly closes the distance between them, silencing any unwanted thought.
"You started this," She quietly states, breathing calmly between kisses.
"Yeah, I suppose you're right." He acknowledges, sighing in defeat.
The veil had fallen from her head awhile ago, caught in their feverish bouts of wanting need. The thin straps of her dress falling from her shoulders, lying at each of her side, inviting feather light kisses from his lips. The chain around her neck that was previously hidden had flung out from inside her dress and that's when he sees it - silver and ruby glistening through the alabaster of the night.
His heart is rendered speechless, igniting in him a flurry of indescribable emotion. He noticed the chain before but he never once thought that it could very well be the ring of his affections, hanging so closely to her heart. His final memento just before he hurt her, just before he left with nothing more than a disenchanted kiss and an empty promise.
He remembers leaving her when she needed him most, vulnerable and broken and pressured beyond relief. He left her because he felt restless at her side when the newly lit embers of the second war began. Cagalli let everyone believe he was the victim. That she had chosen her country over him but he too chose. Chose something other than her, chose what he believed to be the right thing to do.
"Athrun, aren't you coming back to us? Back to the Archangel? Back to Orb?"
He forces his eyes away from the ring and closes them as the mutterings of his ghosts whisper in his ear. The silence was enough to make her want to disappear. She notes how he eyed the ring she kept all these years, resurrecting a frantic feeling in her chest. She had hurt him back then too, deciding to marry a man out of political convenience. A man she did not and could not love, all while Athrun was away... So she understood why he said it then, but it didn't stop the poison of his words from seeping into her system like a permanent disease she couldn't get rid of - even to this day.
"I know why you did it, but some things are unforgivable...even to me."
She couldn't do it, however. She couldn't give herself away like that. So she ran, she ran from the responsibilities she had to her country. She had let her country down on such selfish whims but she couldn't marry a man who wasn't Athrun. Didn't she already mention that fate was cruel? So she says the very words they were unable to say, caught in between the cries of war, bleeding separately for days on end, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry..."
And right then and there, all is forgotten as he sweeps her into a passionate kiss but not before saying, "Me too, Cagalli. We're...both idiots, huh?"
She laughs in between the kisses and agrees in her mind that they are. This moment is everything and nothing because it was just her and just him, throwing all their demons away at the foot of their cross. Athrun is and will always be irreplaceable to her, she finally comes to terms with this, and Cagalli is and always will be his home.
They lie in bed, tangled in between the sheets as the lull of her breathing, ever so soft and quiet, eases the temperaments of his soul. Pulling her closer to him, he commits every part of her existence to memory. Athrun doesn't want to wake her but he wants, no - needs to let her know that there is something definite about them. Something concrete. That there is something he wants to hold onto from now until forever (and more).
"Cagalli," he smiles, "I'm home."
And just before sleep befalls him, Cagalli pulls his face closer and places a chaste kiss on the edge of his lips.
Words like rain, how sweet the sound.