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

Chapter 7

The latest trial had ended. It was not open for the public in the Plants to attend and nobody but the judges, legal clerks and the state lawyers involved heard the frantic pleas of Nina Rochestor as she received the final words of her sentence. She was not the first to have been taken forcibly from the Isle and to face a long overdue sentencing in the Plants, but it was nothing short of irony that her first glimpse of the Plants would be her last as a free person.

On one end of the wall, several screens gleamed silver and blue. The accused however, was and would remain unaware of the Numbers. It would be that way, from the time that she had entered the Isle and until the end of her life.

"You held a conditional state identity from the Plants as an asylum-seeker on the Isle." One judge intoned. "On that basis, the Plants have jurisdiction and can choose to expatriate you to the Earth Alliance territory were you were accused of crimes nearly seventeen years ago. On other grounds, you were assured security if you were to keep with the conditions that you agreed to upon entry. You understood that when the war was over, you would be put on fair trial for crimes that you were accused of in Jamaica and other Earth Alliance territories."

"Yes, but I contest my sentence on the grounds of insubstantial evidence!" Rochestor hissed, not even caring that the state defense had risen to his feet to wave aside her words. "The charge against me then was false; I was set up simply because I am a Coordinator! Even now, the evidence adduced is too incomplete for anybody to reasonably say that I engaged in corruption and poor business practices!"

The judges looked down upon the latest accused in the recent spate of cases sent from the Isle. All three of them had a duty to the State to remain silent about the details of the Isle and the policies behind it, but it had chilled all three of them to learn of its existence from the Intelligence Council's key personnel.

"Nonetheless," One said, "You have been proven to have flouted the agreement underlying your conditional citizenship with Plant."

"I haven't done anything wrong compared to the others!" She cried, unheeding to the warning looks that the guards on duty threw her. "Let me go back to the Isle!"

In the haze of her old habits and the unfettered excess of the years on the Isle, she had yet to accept that Plant intended for the Isle to end. She began to struggle, pushing her weight against the stand and bellowing her denial.

"Silence!" One of the judges thundered. "Your crimes on Earth Alliance territory would have been followed by sentences, but for your successful petition and place on the Isle. As agreed in the conditions of the document that you signed upon your entry and the subsequent asylum, you were not to engage in businesses beyond the Isle. As set out previously, you are sentenced for life and face the following fines in addition."

"No!" Rochestor was screaming now. "That's unfair— I was misled into doing business with Rune Estragon! Rune Estragon— you know who he is, don't you? He lives on the Isle too— he's the one who tempted me into restarting my companies beyond the Isle— he made me manufacture those weapons and trade!" She shook her hands furiously, although those had been chained from the hour that she had been taken from her place on the Isle and sent here in a shuttle. "I know where the location of the Isle is— I'll spill it out if you don't release me now!"

Already, the judges were giving the bailiff the signal to take her away.

"At least, take Estragon into custody too!" She was howling even as she was dragged out. "The others too! He and Lyra Delphius!"

Behind his screen, Yzak Joule shook his head and got up to leave.

The knock on the door made Cagalli look up from the work that she'd been pouring through.

Aaron sidled in, doing a fiery series of salsa step as he dangled the packed lunches from his fingers.

"Well, someone's been taking his dance classes seriously."

He closed the door, sashaying back and forth even as he grinned and deposited the lunch on the coffee table in the centre of her office.

"It helps when you have a dance instructor like mine." He twirled an imaginary moustache and puckered his lips. "That Latino at the studio and the tight pants—it's a beautiful combination. I would introduce you, really, I would, except that you're wearing that on your finger."

"Yeah?" Cagalli laughed, raising her hand for the ring to catch the light, admiring it again as he did. "Is that all?"

"That," Aaron nodded. "And also because I saw him first."

"And that's the real point," Cagalli teased, standing up and pushing back her chair to go and join him. She grabbed a bookmark and stuck it in the file, prepared to close it and to have her lunch. "They did say it took two to tango."

"Oh I'm sure that you'd know," Aaron said slyly, easing himself gracefully into the visitor's sofa now. "So why were you late for work on a Monday morning?"

"It was only ten minutes!" She protested, shamefaced nonetheless. She'd driven to work in a hurry herself, having insisted that she did not want the bodyguards to fetch her today. Had they fetched her, Cagalli would not have been able to insist that they speed and beat a few traffic lights and she would have arrived far later than by the ten minutes. Guiltily, she tried to rearrange the files on her table.

"You always came in an hour early," Aaron pointed out. "Then again, that was before Mr. Zala turned up in Orb and you began coming to work on time like the normal person. And then today, you came ten minutes late. Can I infer that as progress in the relationship?"

Coughing embarrassedly, Cagalli lowered her head, trying to hide from Aaron's scrutiny. She shuffled her files, looking through some random document that she'd already finished approving. "I don't know what you're talking about! It was a busy weekend at the orphanage and we were trying to pack for the upcoming trip like the Elders wanted. We were also discussing some things about Athrun's work. That's why we woke up late."

It was true that his work was getting a little complicated, thanks to the proposals that Tristernte set up a subsidiary to expand into Plant's biochemical industry. He hadn't been the one to propose it, but for sure, plenty of the directors and even the management were keeping their eyes on him.

Ever since he'd resigned from the Plant Intelligence Council and taken his shares of the Zala businesses' trust, he'd used those to acquire other shares in Orb's leading research corporation. But the management rights that those accorded him were problematic, precisely because Tristernte was a key Orb corporation that plenty of other industries depended on.

So far, Cagalli thought with a sigh, those plans for Tristernte to expand its markets to the Plants were in the proposal stage and there wasn't really much for Athrun to comment on or vote on.

Nonetheless, the proposal itself was filled with thorny issues. As part of Tristernte's board and a majority shareholder, he was expected to make decisions that would enable the businesses to expand. For now, he only had to vote in interest of what seemed like the best proposal in light of the corporation's best interests. That didn't sound difficult, but it certainly was with how in-depth the analysis got. The Tristernte conglomeration was essential in Orb's biochemical technology business and also subsidised by the Orb government. Because Athrun had become a major shareholder by virtue of buying into the company's shares, he was afforded some managing rights. He was aware what a risk this was—those against him would look to him if the Tristernte dividends were affected.

Thanks to Rohm's visit and Athrun's agreement to the Elders' requests, the proposal would soon to become even less easy to handle. If the proposal came up in the meetings while Athrun was away, he was quite sure that merely nominating a stand-in director wouldn't be the best way to handle the board and the media's expectations of him.

Personally, Cagalli couldn't put her finger on what the Council of Elders truly intended from imposing a break on the two of them. Perhaps there had been plenty of press coverage on Tristernte's fiscal year and its proposals for the year ahead and the Council of Elders wanted to prevent any controversy from Athrun's decision. His absence and thereby the neutrality of his decision as the proposal got fleshed out would be the best way to avoid any criticism of his relationship with Cagalli. That said, he probably wouldn't have had to make any at all before the wedding, since the proposal was fairly long-drawn.

Meanwhile, Aaron had watched her unblinkingly. He continued smirking as she settled herself in the sofa adjacent to his and busied herself with opening the packed lunch.

"Oh, I believe you." Aaron said primly. He opened up his own lunch daintily. "I believe that you woke up late despite having both an alarm clock and a compulsively-punctual fiancé and bodyguards to wake you up on time."

She insisted through a mouthful of vermicelli, "But it's true! We were really busy discussing things and we overslept in the end!"

"I'll bet." He grinned. "It's just that I'm wondering what those marks on your neck are."

"Aaron!" She tried to shush him, her face flushing in colour. She prayed to Haumea that there would be no reasons for the security guards to go through the tapes that month.

"What?" He grinned cheekily. "This office is sound-proofed, darling and you have checks once every two days by security to ensure that it's not been bugged!"

"Actually, you should have heard us yesterday," Cagalli laughed. "I almost wish that you and the Council of Elders had eavesdropped on all the plans that Athrun and I were discussing— maybe it would be easier then."

"Yeah, I suppose they still think that he's planning to takeover some vital industry in Orb." Aaron rolled his eyes, forgetting to tease her and insist that she and Athrun had been doing anything but office work. "Maybe they don't believe that he actually wants to be here for you."

It was likely that the Council of Elders hadn't realised that business wasn't something that Athrun was particularly interested in. Beyond the fact that he'd been working in some isolated, top-secret place, Cagalli personally felt that it was quite telling that the Zala investments and businesses had been in trust for almost as long as Patrick Zala had deceased. But the Council of Elders clearly didn't see that as indicative of Athrun's real intent, and as a result, they were both was getting an extended holiday.

Not a bad deal, Cagalli thought dryly.

But the truth of the matter regarding his foray into the Tristernte corporation was that he'd needed a route into Orb that didn't involve Plant or Zaft. Of course, that wasn't the Council's fault for not knowing it. They didn't know that he'd been used to doing business with Kitani Harumi doing most of the steering, and frankly, the style of steering in the context of the businesses that Harumi had helped him run definitely wasn't dependent on any corporation and securities laws. While Athrun had his other plans to stick with this job for a while, he certainly wasn't keen to go on with it indefinitely.

"So after your discussion," Aaron was fishing around again, thus interrupting her thoughts. "Was there anything exciting that made you wake up late today?"

She took up her lunch once more and stabbing a bit of meat. A laugh was threatening to erupt. "For goodness' sake, Aaron, we mostly sit in bed, reading."

This was often true, thanks to either work or Lacus' book recommendations. Clearly though, Aaron wasn't convinced.

"Oh, reading." He repeated. "I see." He pushed up his glasses, putting aside his chopsticks very elegantly. "I can imagine what you'll tell me after you both come back from that trip that the Elders wanted." His smile grew wider as he crossed and re-crossed his legs elegantly. "You'll be looking at me and telling me that you spent all our time reading.

Cagalli laughed now, unable to prevent it. "At this point, I'm afraid to ask what else you're imagining."

"Nothing that's not family friendly," Aaron fired back blithely. He put up a hand, looking at his five fingers. "Maybe we need another thumb." He stuck up another finger. "That's my bet. Family friendly, alright."

And Cagalli laughed helplessly, almost choking on her lunch. "Oh Aaron, we haven't even gone through the wedding yet!" She sobered a little. "Also, the Council of Elders would give me hell if we ever had a wedding that allowed tongues to wag and suggest that it was a wedding of necessity and wedlock."

"Oh they really aren't up to date with a modern society, are they?" Aaron sighed. "That's why they think that they can order both of you to leave the country for this period."

"Well, actually—," She leaned back, thinking about how Ernest Rohm had basically waltzed into Athrun's office and conveyed the Council of Elders' demands. "It's not all that bad."

Now that he'd gotten his route and the marriage would take place in less than a month, Athrun would acquire an Orb citizenship soon. For now, he was on a long-term stay in Orb because of his work, but that would change soon. Once he had a right to stay permanently, he would find a buyer of his shares and leave it at that. Perhaps, Harumi already had something in mind, as Athrun had mentioned.

"Maybe the Elders are doing the best thing here." Without knowing why, Cagalli found herself defending the Council of Elders. "They're right in saying that the public depends on them for setting a standard of conduct for the Orb Nobles that's above what most of the society would accept from the average person."

Aaron shrugged. "That may be so, but that's a really convenient excuse for whatever that they've been putting you and Athrun through too."

"Yeah well," Cagalli mused, "So long as they keep out of Athrun's life, I don't really mind if they try to manage mine. It's just one of those things."

"And he's alright with that?" Aaron questioned.

"I suppose." She said, not even so sure. "We just need to stay together. Things will work out and we'll just grow into it with the passing days."

But some part of him could never settle down, Cagalli had realised. Some part of him actually missed being in that cramped space, manoeuvring the gigantic mobile weapon, cutting through air and being lifted into dizzying heights. He'd already sacrificed his eyesight for hours of practice as a soldier, resulting in his need for reading-glasses to correct his long-sightedness.

There were moments when he would stare into space, moments when he would begin to walk fast and stride despite the pace that they'd strolled at just seconds ago. As horribly ironic as his next job choice seemed, the offer from a Plant-affiliated university in Orb to lecture on war history was right up his alley and experience as an instructor. When he'd mentioned it to her and they'd laughed over how he was technically the war history and didn't have to teach it, they'd both known why they had even started joking about it.

Perhaps, Cagalli thought painfully, the young Lord Lyadov was right in some sense. Those who'd grown up during the war and who'd never been able to get out of industries and social circles thereafter were doomed to stay where they were or face the reality that they didn't fit in anywhere else in society. But Athrun was trying— as hard as Kira, if not harder. Surely that counted for something?

She poked at her food. "I guess it's their job to meddle and I've already become used to it."

"Yes," Aaron shot back directly, "But I'm not sure you should tolerate it."

She smiled reluctantly, thinking of Athrun's silence and the unspoken tension as his bodyguards accompanied him out each morning. "Give and take—what does it matter?"

The girl in her hammock had been lying in it for hours. It had taken some coaxing, some pleading and a great deal of anxiety before anyone had called for Epstein. And even then, his presence here at the Fourth Isle did not seem to be registered by a girl who'd once been inseparable from her sister and begged him for piggy-rides.

She seemed to have grown up in his absence. Granted, nobody really knew her age, but she had the unmistakeable gaze of an adult now. That gaze was focused on the low ceiling—one with an intent and a weariness that spoke of everything and nothing.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Epstein said again.

She continued swinging, not heeding him or his question at all. She'd built it from ropes that she'd once trained with—looped and knotted and lassoed for hours until those were too soft to be of any real impact but strong enough to be woven like this.

There had always been that dangerous edge in her. He'd recognised that as they key difference in her personality, no matter how easy it was to mistake her character and ways to be identical to her sister's.

Nobody had been sure which twin was the elder and the younger. The twins themselves couldn't decide and it had seemed pointless when they considered themselves halves of a whole. But there was that maturity that Laplacia hadn't quite had until more recently, and even then, Laplacia had always seemed younger; fresher—more trusting.

"I didn't ask you to be here."

"You didn't have to. Jin Yellenov called me here."

His voice, quiet in the already smallish quarters, was no cause for her to look at him. She continued to stare at the ceiling, her hands folded as the hammock suspended her from the ceiling, and it was impossible for him to see her full expression. "He was worried about you cooping yourself up like this and refusing your meals."

As he took one step closer, Epstein found himself hesitating. Her silence told him about everything he needed to know. Of course he would know. He'd met her and her twin as a young adult, staring at the wards that his own guardian had brought back? He would understand her now, when he'd understood their fear and helplessness even then.

"You must take care of them. You will work with them from now on. They'll be aides like you—my aides."

He'd been told that. He'd resented it a little at first—he'd always been rather jealous of anyone who competed for attention from Athrun, a man whom he thought of to be the equivalent of his elder brother or even father. The pale-haired girls had been curled in a corner when he'd first met them, one huddling in fear and the other with wide eyes and bared teeth. They had seemed to be animals to him. He had glanced at them, apprehensive and repulsed.

The girls had been on shuttles and boats for days, jammed with others and crammed back to back. They'd seen enough to know danger and to fear the people who came near them—the journey had been long and people were unlikely to have been kind where supplies where limited. One must have gotten in the way at some point—there were bruises on her cheek. That was the same one that bared her teeth and flew at Epstein, scratching and biting when he went near to offer them food. The other had sobbed silently, cowering and weak from fever.

But that had changed. Slowly, eventually, it did. Very few people would have extracted human, vulnerable qualities from a pair of siblings who belonged to no place in the world. But Rune Estragon, for all his apparent coldness and deliberate distance, had. And as Athrun had insisted once, so had Epstein Cleamont. He was the person whom they truly trusted. Just as Epstein had pledged all his loyalty to Athrun Zala and even the persona that he assumed on the Isle, the twins had eventually vested all their trust in a man they saw as part of their family.

Epstein wasn't so sure about that anymore.

"I suppose you'll never trust me to make promises ever again," Epstein admitted in a low voice, "Since I couldn't keep you both safe the way that he asked me to."

This time, she looked at him. Her eyes, for all that swirl of colours, seemed dull. "So long as Laplacia doesn't return to an Isle that's become what it is, you'll be doing me more than a favour and keeping your promise to Mr. Estragon. Even if she's a pilot, it's better than coming back here."

"It's a matter of time before those in charge realised the switcheroo you did with her test results," He said firmly. "I could always step in and say it was a matter of administrative negligence. But you won't be able to stay here in her place indefinitely, Cartesia. You know that."

"I won't go from this Isle." She sat up. Her unbound hair tumbled over her shoulders. Usually looped at the side, the paleness of her hair matched the white of her face and her gritted teeth. She looked wild; angry and desperate. Her gloves were somewhere on the floor, and the loose shift that she wore made her seem like a displaced, unsettled sea-ghost. "She'd never be able to stand this place. She doesn't understand it the way I do—the way that I have to now."

He shook his head. "Laplacia's competent, but Zaft wanted the pilot who had the better results. They think it's her for now, but these things will be discovered in time. They'll discover that she has a real handicap with her arm. She'll be sent here eventually and you'll be put back into the position that you were supposed to be in. If you're discovered as the cause of the switch and mix-up, you'll be punished."

And Epstein watched her eyes dilate and darken.

She bared her teeth. "Don't you dare let anyone know."

He took another step nearer to the still hammock. "I don't have to, Cathy. It will happen on its own."

Her voice shook when she answered. "But you promised!"

"I tried my best." He said tightly. "I don't know if it's enough."

She leapt out from her hammock and distracted, he watched as it swung uncontrollably in the air. But she was still—frozen in her stance, outrage on her face. "You said that you'd look after her!"

"I did." He admitted. He took a step closer, studying the girl. "I'm trying. I never told her about the switch that I made on your behalf. She worries every day about you—she misses you. She asked me to let her come back to visit you, although that's impossible."

"I'm glad that it is." Cartesia spat. "I never knew what the Isle truly was. But I thank the Fourth Eye for showing me. He will never be as kind as Athrun Zala was, but at least Alstarice Krieg is honest. This is the real world, isn't it? This is where nobody can sugar-coat the stories and tell us that we're doing something good for the better of a world back there on the Plants. Those were just lies— that's why Rune Estragon never let me or Laplacia see what was truly beyond the mansion and those cliffs of the Fifth Isle. I knew there were other Isles beyond there, but I didn't even know what the Isle I was on contained—let alone the others. Now I know. It was a hellhole in the first place and it's become a fortress—I won't allow her to come back." She stepped forward, her eyes unblinking on Epstein's. "I won't allow you to let her come back either."

"As far as possible, I won't allow that." He told her honestly. "But your twin will be heartbroken, Cartesia. You can't keep it from her forever. She's so excited about what she's currently doing and yet she beats herself up inside every day. She's guilty for what she thinks was a better score—she told me that she'd wished for the both of you to have the same scores, just so that they would take both of you. She's so full of hope that way, Cartesia."

Cartesia watched him, narrowing her eyes. "She's naïve. But that's why you have to protect her."

She turned back to the hammock, her hair slashing fast and white across her cheeks.

His breath hitched and he felt his fists clench. "Cartesia, you're just as important to me and Mr. Estragon as Laplacia is. That's why I came here."

"I'm fine." She said stubbornly. "I understand the function of the Isles. I understand my role in it. I understand yours and Mr. Estragon's."

"Yes," Epstein said slowly. "But have you accepted it?"

Unable to see her expression, Epstein wondered if he had done the right thing and acceded to her request.

But when he reached out to touch her shoulder as he had done so many times in the past, she pulled away.

Stung, he stared as she climbed back into her hammock and began to swing once more.

A few isles away, Sheba wondered if she had done something wrong. The world around her had never seemed so quiet and so clear, but she knew that it was a mess and she contemplated her actions with more than a tinge of regret. Without really thinking about it, she began to reach past the tea and to a lighter that she'd picked up from somewhere.

"I didn't know that you smoked." Lent commented.

Realising that he was awake and turning to him, Sheba began to put away the lighter. "I started a few days ago."

"When Tom came here?"

"Yes." She found no reason to avoid that topic. It was difficult admitting that one of the Eyes had proven to be so affected by the recent turn of events that he had suffered some form of breakdown.

"Alstarice shouldn't have said what he did," Sheba said bitterly. "He told Tom that once the Isle was shut down, Tom would have to go back to the real world too. He told Tom that back in the Plants, Tom would be a freak."

The boy had laughed at first, trying to push the words away and trying to remain calm. But the increased provocation had gone to his head and he had attacked Alstarice, his aide also losing the control that had used to be present whenever Tom had been around. It had been an awful sight, she recalled, one Eye attacking the other and a dog the size of a bear nearly tearing the flesh off Alstarice's aide when the latter had tried to break up the fight.

Lent blinked once. "Alstarice likes to joke."

"It's true though." Sheba muttered. "About Tom being a freak back there. That's why Tom reacted the way that he did."

"What would you have the Intelligence Council do?" Lent questioned. "Settle Tom back into Zaft like he had never left and came here? Or for that matter, ask all of us to go back to the normal jobs that we'd had before this?"

"I don't know." She said. She looked at the lighter, flicking it once.

"Already addicted?" He asked, watching her closely. Without his glasses, he seemed to be younger. He was not really handsome to begin with, but there was something youthful and good— something true and open about his ways.

It was frightening, she realized. It had taken so long for her to accept that he had been waiting— so long for her to be honest about seeing him as he was, ready and willing to wait for as long as she needed to go to him. And even then, their hours together had been another way to waste the precious time that should have been spent on studying the Isle and its current events. She should not have felt so utterly at ease with him or recognized how natural it was to just give in, as if the years had never come and gone and they had never spent all these years avoiding anything.

She continued sitting up, gathering the sheets around her and avoiding his gaze. "I'm not. I was just waiting for you to wake up. We should get back to dividing those files on the Fourth Isle. What do you think of Orlick's idea? Should we bar the ferries moving between Isles?"

"I'm for it." He agreed. "That way, lesser news will spread between the Isles when we start sending larger shipments of people back to the Plants. I'm just worried that if we prevent the ferries from carrying people between Isles, those near to the coasts would realize that something was up and spread the word anyway."

"Better that than to allow information to travel between Isles," Sheba told him.

He stretched a little, peering tiredly at the bedside clock. "True."

"And what about Cartesia Daemon?" Sheba questioned. "Do you think that she's unstable?"

"Not really, no." Lent considered this, folding his arms behind his head and looking up at the ceiling for some time. "I think she's safe enough. But Tom is another case. His aide should be discharged as soon as possible— she's hopeless."

Lucretzia Nombre had been unstable from the start, but with the new wave of panic on the Eighth Isle and the way that the dwellers there had begun to accuse each other of being Plant spies, her fragile nature was becoming far too clear for the Eyes' good.

"You're right," Sheba said. "She almost blurted out Tom's name in the presence of the Isle-dwellers. She needs to go. I'll start on the papers and the application for her to go back to the Plants." She shook her head. "Maybe she needs more attention than we thought."

He studied her. "We can work on those tomorrow."

She turned away, not willing to settle back. Unconsciously, she began to reach for the cigarette, but he put his arm over her, pulling her to him and then taking it away from her.

"Don't get started on those," He reminded her gently. "Orlick can't get through a day without his fags—you'd best avoid them completely.

She looked at him wordlessly, not sure if he was trying to say something else. "Lent, I should say this again—,"

"I know." He interrupted. He smiled softly, but she saw the hurt anyway. "It's just for today."

She found that she couldn't hold his gaze.

He began to bring her close once more. "I know."

It wasn't just Mathilda Surinth and her personal assistant this time—the assembly of wedding planners had occupied every chair in the living room. Naturally, even all the antique chairs and the additions of the arguably more modern sofas could not accommodate that many people. Alongside the usual furniture were the chairs that Athrun had personally shifted from the dining room because he insisted that nobody be left standing.

Of course, less than half of the planning team was present today.

Athrun had personally brought out the trays of coffee and tea. But as grateful and somewhat surprised as plenty of them were, none of them seemed to really want the beverages. Plenty of them sat tightly, clutching their mugs and not taking a single sip.

They were all watching the Orb Princess.

Cagalli had been flipping through very wordlessly. At points, she had drawn in breaths sharply and it seemed that all the wedding planners' air supply was somehow linked to hers.

As she flipped through the final pages, she paused and shifted her hand occasionally. He had already seen the rather choreographed and overtly composed shot of her in an armchair with himself standing by her side, but it seemed that she was unconsciously seeking his approval even when there was no opportunity for her to voice this before the planning team today.

Frankly, Athrun couldn't care less about the photographs. If being next to her meant that he had to look almost like the bodyguard that he had been when he'd first entered Orb, then the only word that he would utter was 'Amen'. While he understood the impact that those photographs would have on the public, he was keener on trying to be as normal as possible. And while he understood precisely why the designers had been careful to introduce allusions to the Orb military for his formal white suit, Athrun was more concerned about other things than the cut of the collar and the supportive, less dominant posture that he'd been directed to take on in the photographs.

Instead of obeying Mathilda's instructions to go over some planning details, they'd stayed up for all Sunday night, taking turns to read a novel that Lacus had sent to her. Surely, Athrun had remarked, if Lacus had insisted on sending it to her while knowing of the lengthy procedures of security, it warranted a thorough reading.

On the other hand, he could fully appreciate the images of his wife-to-be. One of the dresses was reminiscent of the rather recognisable seafoam piece, except that the designers and stylists in charge had skilfully tweaked the original design to include a more fitted bodice in replacement of a less billowy skirt and an astounding gradient of shimmering shades.

As Cagalli's eyes flitted to his, a question lingering in those, he smiled and nodded slightly at her. He had thought that it was obvious that she had long obtained his approval and everything that he had to offer.

In the meantime, there was more to handle.

"That picture is the proposed official picture that the press will receive," Mathilda Surinth said. Her composure seemed to become a strained, slightly artificial version of her usual self and Athrun detected a tiny tremor in her voice.

Looking at the orchestrated effort, Athrun was reminded that the essence of these procedures wasn't about the memories as much as a balancing act for the public's sake. For most part, the pictures and the way that they'd been painstakingly developed certainly told him so.

"It looks appropriate." Athrun told Mathilda and she nodded a little tensely, her eyes still trained on the silent Cagalli. Clearly, he noted wryly, his opinion wasn't as important as Cagalli's.

Heavy and embossed beautifully with leather, the photographs were bound and ready. . As he'd looked at the photographs, he'd decided that for all his apathy, the compilation had been rather well done.

Perhaps, however, the rightful adulation the effort deserved had been muted by his recollection of the tedious planning and the procedures that involved secrecy, high-level security, cameras, a roped-off beach and cliffs. The clothes that had required twenty people looking after those, as well as heavy make-up, at least six photographers, two directors, and a very, very long veil.

It seemed that the entire room was holding its breath. Naturally, Mathilda Surinth and all those present were sitting on the edges of their chairs.

"I think it's wonderful." Cagalli said softly.

And there was an collective audible sigh. Some began to clap, and relieved smiles seemed to break the last of the tension away. Had Cagalli disliked the end results, Mathilda Surinth and her team would have surely been devastated.

Recently, Athrun reflected, Cagalli had definitely been a little distracted. Perhaps the holiday would do them all some good.

She looked around, still a little dazed as she glanced up and then looked around the room as if noticing for the first time that there were more than ten people in it. She smiled shyly, a child suddenly. "I guess all that effort did pay off."

In her crisp, tailored suit, Mathilda was the picture of professional competence, except that he felt her hand tremble when she reached across the coffee table to shake his offered hand.

"I am overjoyed then, Mr. Zala and Your Grace," Mathilda told them. For a moment, she paused and then she shook her head once, easing back into her bulldog-persona. "But there is more to come ahead."

She snapped once, and an assistant moved forward with her organiser. "The rehearsal at the chapel will have to be done the day you return from the rather spontaneous holiday that has come up—,"

Inwardly, Athrun wondered how she managed to make their upcoming holiday sound like an obstacle or liability to something.

Nonetheless, Mathilda consulted the organiser and then nodded. "But it is just as well. The decorations and renovations will have been completely finished by then. It will be as good as the actual wedding, save for the lack of guests, of course." Worriedly, she peered at them. "Will you both be able to memorise the vows on your own?"

"We will be," Cagalli said valiantly, trying her best to keep her lips from twitching. "We'll think about it while on our holiday as well. As often as we can—it will occupy every free moment that we have. We'll rehearse even—," She paused, exchanging a glance with Athrun. "— in our sleep."

And Athrun shot her a sly look while Mathilda beamed, clearly approving of Cagalli for once.