"Scotch, on the rocks, please," A man requested. "And make it a double."
The bartender glanced at him oddly, largely because he had just cut in front of three other people who had been waiting patiently in line. But, in his defense, it was because it was only 6 PM and Athrun wasn't sure he could make it through the rest of the evening, completing all of his best man duties, if he remained as painfully sober as he was right there and then. Fortunately for him, the bartender didn't say anything and poured him a drink anyways, which he downed quickly, welcoming the three-second reprieve it gave him before he realized he was still sober.
He immediately ordered another one and looked at the crowd around him in the meantime, examining all of the impeccably dressed politicians, lawyers, businessmen, and top ranking military officials and their equally elegantly dressed wives or girlfriends, who had all somehow warranted an invitation to Dearka and Mirialla's wedding. He continued to scan the crowd until he eventually found who he was looking for. Cagalli Yula Athha, the most beautiful woman in the room, sitting all by herself, just as alone as he was.
It was the first time he had seen her in years. He had heard she was invited and had secretly hoped that she'd come, though he had no idea why she actually did. It appeared that the universe was working in strange ways to bring them back together. As he stared at her figure, still taken aback by the unexpected sight of her, he suddenly felt a bit breathless and unsteady, unable to find the solid ground beneath his feet. He quickly gripped the marble countertop and felt the hard edge against the palm of his hand. The cold, hardness brought him back to reality.
He's grateful that she hasn't seen him yet, because it gives him a chance to recompose himself and study her uninterrupted for a few more minuets. She's aged just as well as he always thought she would; her hair falls down her back, golden, shiny, and a bit longer than it used to be. He recalls how soft the strands used to feel between his fingers. And her skin was smooth and pale, her neck exposed when she shook her head a little. He thinks he could write poems and sonnets and songs about just how lovely she was, describe every detail of her, from her dark eye lashes to her fair complexion to her rosebud shaped lips.
He's still watching her when she abruptly decides to stand up from her table, discreetly tucks a pack of cigarettes away in her purse, and makes her way towards the woman's restroom. He thinks that this is definitely not something the old her would have done; then again, he had once thought he knew her only to discover that he had figured her out all wrong. Even now, she remained a puzzle to him. However, it seemed as if the restroom was occupied because she changes her direction and hurries to a shadowy corner of the room near a window instead. It's in that moment that he realizes he wants the awkwardness between them to dissipate as soon as possible to make this night a little more bearable. So he makes his mind up and, before he can change it, orders two glasses of champagne. "Wish me luck," Athrun says to the bartender before he crosses the dance floor and goes to her.
Once he's close enough, she eventually notices him and he's surprised to see that she is not surprised at all to see him in front of her. When he's finally right beside her, he presents her one of the glasses of champagne he's brought, as if it were a peace offering. "For you."
"Thank you, but I don't drink." She tells him as she politely rejects the champagne.
"You smoke but you don't drink." He remarks, slightly amused.
"Well, I shouldn't do that either, of course, but…"
She's cut off in the middle of her sentence by a loud eruption of happy cheers that fill the entire room. The sound reminds the two that there is in fact a wedding currently happening around them, that all the people beside them are celebrating the joyous union between a Mr. and Mrs. Elsman and not hiding somewhere in the reception. And then he notices again that she is wearing a bridesmaid dress. A lovely pale pink dress that clings on to every curve and dip of her petite body. "I thought bridesmaids weren't allowed to smoke?" He asks.
"Guess I'm not a good bridesmaid." She answers, as she takes another drag.
"Hey, don't be too hard on yourself now," He replies, hoping to lightened the mood. "I hear that the only requirement is that you can fit into one of these dresses."
She smiles. A barely noticeable smile, but it's a smile nonetheless and it's been so long since she's given him one of those. "Alright. How am I doing then? And don't you dare hold back."
"I'd say you're doing well."
"I'm glad you think so but it doesn't matter. I was an alternate anyway." She admits, grinning. "The original seventh bridesmaid apparently broke a leg in an unfortunate skiing accident. Of course, she swore up and down, the bride - that is, that she had intended to invite me earlier, that she had just forgot to send my invitation because of how hectic planning a wedding all by herself was, but well…you know how thisis. "
"I don't actually." He says and shocks both of them by getting closer. "Tell me."
"Well…" She begins, searching for the right words. "You could say that I have a bit of a sordid history with one of the other guests."
"History? Sounds interesting." He whispers.
"Oh no. I swear it's terribly boring." She whispers back, deciding to engage with him in whatever flirtatious game they were playing. "You probably wouldn't want to hear about it."
"I'm sure that's not true. I bet it was incredible, an epic romance where love conquered all."
"No," She shakes her head. "It was a sad dull real people kind of love. You know? Mistakes repeated endlessly, lessons remaining unlearned, feelings hurt, hearts broken."
He doesn't completely know how to answer to that, so he chooses to guide the conversation to another subject that he feels more comfortable with. "So," He announces, smirking. "Here you are, the bride's eight closest friend in the entire world."
"I've given that a lot of thought actually. And as far as I see it, the only absolute fact is that I'm not one of her top seven friends. I mean, on such short notice she certainly could have asked and been rejected by several other alternatives before she got to me. Which means that I could be her eighth, tenth, or even hundredth closest friend. "
"Or," He interjects, "You were the only person she knew who could fit into the dress."
"I didn't think of that. So that's another possibility." She realizes, "Therefore, I'm not a friend of the bride at all… I'm just another living mannequin to complete the insane symmetry of seven groomsmen and seven bridesmaids."
"Or alternatively," He suggests, "you really are one of her seven closest friends but, the history you mentioned before prevented her from inviting you, and when the original seventh bridesmaid was injured in an accident, it gave the bride the courage to rekindle a treasured friendship that she thought she had lost all those years ago."
"No, that's definitely not it," She told him as she looked at him directly into his eyes. "Me and the bride were never that close to begin with, even when we were close."
She turned around to glance at the wedded pair though he doesn't dare take his eyes off her and he finds himself in that strange position of being closer to her than he's been in over five years.
"There was this two month period over one summer when we were almost friends, I think," Cagalli says quietly, as she watches the bride and groom dancing together on the middle of the ballroom to some horrible generic pop song. "But I haven't spoken to her since I was twenty two; in fact, I haven't spoken to most of these people for a few years now."
"That still doesn't explain why a pretty girl like you is standing all by herself?"
"Some of them used to be my good friends, but a lot of them aren't anymore." She explains, almost a little sadly, and he can read in her eyes that she is remembering when they were younger, when they were all friends or at the very least acquaintances. He can almost see that she is remembering them too - when he and her were a couple - and just when he thinks he's got her, her expression becomes unreadable, as she adds, "The worst part is I'm just so goddamn tired of playing the let's catch up game. The endless repetition of what I've been doing and with whom I've been doing and how is work. And then after I finish my prepared speech, I just nod blankly as they recite theirs. To be honest, I don't know how I went as long as I did without a smoke or losing my mind."
"They used to be my exes friends. Not mine."
"Not even the groom? Not even the beautiful made of honour?" He asks. "I really thought you considered at very least the groom and the made of honour as friends."
"Well they sure were. But, after the break up, they chose a side and I chose mine."
"Then why are you here?"
"I already told you why. I got an invite."
"I meant at the party. Why did you come here, if you don't consider these people your friends?" He know he's being persistent and he's not entirely sure why. Maybe, however irrational it undoubtedly was, he was hoping that the answer would be him.
"You know, I asked myself that exact question when I was getting on the plane." She pauses for a moment, as she gives his question some thought. "And I realized I could only come with two reasons and quite frankly, neither of them were very good."
"And what were they?"
"Curiosity. And… maybe, just maybe, because I knew I shouldn't."
"Something tells me that you still go out looking for trouble whenever you can." He laughs as they both sit down in one of the only unoccupied tables, far away from the rest of the partying crowd. As usual, when they're together, it felt like they were the only ones in the room.
"Or maybe it was because I had enough frequent air miles to make the trip for free."
"Now that's three reasons," he corrects her.
Just as they both finally get settled, they hear the wedding singer start to speak: "All right, attention all the single woman in the room tonight, it's the time you've all been waiting for. Millie is about to throw the bouquet! So all of you eligible bacheloretes come out to the middle of the floor!"
"Ah..." He mumbles. "Isn't that your cue?"
She just looks at him as she says, "I'm not single."
He feels his heart drop, even though he shouldn't. He refuses to let it show though or to let her know that anything that she does still affects him. "Sorry, I just assumed that since you came here alone that you were...well, the invitations were all plus one and you didn't bring anyone…Not that I didn't you are capable of finding someone to bring." He's rambling now and internally, his mind is screaming at him to shut up. "So, you're seeing someone?"
"I am." She takes off one of the gloves she was wearing, revealing a modest but beautiful golden ring.
"You…got married." It wasn't a question, just a mere observation of what was in front of him.
She noticed that he was still looking at her so she said, "I got engaged, Athrun."
"I heard married woman aren't supposed to be bridesmaid."
"Bridesmaids are brides in training. They're basically matrimonial interns. Everyone knows that."
"One, that is an old and out-dated custom. I am disappointed that you would buy into that. And second, once again, I'm not married yet. And three, like I told you earlier, I'm not exactly the world's best bridesmaid."
He downs the glass of champagne she had refused to drink earlier, since he was pretty sure the only way he could talk about her getting married was if he was pissed out of his mind. "Did your husband-to-be come with you then?" He asks abruptly as he places the empty glass back down, feeling the familiar burn of the alcohol as it slides down his throat.
"No, he couldn't. Not on so short notice."
"What does he do?"
"For a living."
"C'mon, tell me. We're friends, aren't we?"
"He's a doctor, a cardiologist. Let's leave it at that."
"At least tell me where you live now because you obviously don't live in this city. I mean, I never bump into you anymore. You're never at any social events."
"We moved out to London a few years ago." She replied, "How about you? What have you been up to? Are you seeing anyone or did you get married?"
It was the dreadful question that he'd been avoiding all night. To be honest, he was expecting it, just not from her. "No, I didn't, but I have a girlfriend." The second the words left his mouth he had already regretted them. As if by saying that he had a girlfriend made anyone not feel bad for being unmarried at his age.
"Is it serious?"
"Not at all." He wishes that he could lie to her, but he couldn't, not when she knew him better than anyone else. "But I actually like it, the lack of seriousness. It's just a bit of good fun. And in my experiences, when it gets too serious, it might as well be over." He notices that that she was looking at him with an expression that was a mix of bewildered and amused, and it confuses him. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I know your kind of guy. I know you so well, or at least I used to. And you, Athrun Zala, are just not that kind of guy. That's not you."
"Of course they do, it would be crazy to deny that. But I don't think that, in this particular aspect, you have changed at all. For god's sake, you've been in monogamous relationships since you were fifteen. I don't think you're even capable of doing casual." She adds, "Anyways, where is that girlfriend of yours?"
"She didn't come either," He answers. "She's busy working in Amsterdam right now. She's with a ballet company there for a few months."
"Wow, a ballerina. She must have a lovely figure."
"Yeah, Meyrin does."
"Did you just say Meyrin? As in Lunamaria's little sister, the one who always had a little school girl crush on you?" She asks, incredulously. "For Christ's sake. Reviving past romances, and with a younger woman, I wouldn't have taken you for that."
"I already told you people change." He tells her, a little sharply. "I mean you're living proof of that." And there it was, some of the feelings that he still had for what she did to him, for allowing them to grow apart and become distant. All of the resentment, which he had thought he had moved on from, was still there.
"I'll give you that," She concedes, not wanting to fight with him. He suddenly feels bad for his childish outburst and wants to apologize but before he can, she starts to speak again. "So…Meyrin."
"Meyrin, the ballerina… I can almost picture her." Then she grabs another cigarette and prepares to light it.
"C'mon, don't smoke, it's bad for you." He lectures her, but she ignores him. "What would your doctor fiancée think?"
"Seeing as he has succeeded leaving it but not before hooking me on it? I guess he accepts it, but still despises it."
"What is it even like being a doctor's fiancée?"
"It's similar to being a soldier's wife, both are workaholics," She answers and he knows that she's referring to him too in this example, "You see, I kind of experienced both, to an extent at least. I wasn't married to this other guy, but we were in a serious relationship that meant a lot to me."
"What's the difference then?" He asks her and he can't help the look of longing that he lets escape.
"The doctor wears better ties." She smiles and he can't also help looking at his own tie, as to make some sort of comparison, with whom, he doesn't know. It's all a bit weird for him to hear talk about a man she's agreed to spend the rest of her live with. A man that wasn't him. And he decides once more to guide the conversation into new territory that he's more comfortable with.
"You know, I do remember you from before," He says to her, "In fact, I remember the very first time I saw you."
"Really." She says, but she sounds sceptical.
"I'm serious. I remember the first time I really saw you." He adds, "I was nineteen years old and so were you. It was at university and it was near the end of our first year and you were outside, sitting on the quad. I recognized you because I had seen you in our class before though I didn't know your name, but I really wanted to, and I was about to go into class, and I remember seeing you there, all alone. Which I kept on thinking was rare for you considering people always loved to be around you. But there you were. All by yourself, like you were tonight. Except that time, you were under on a bench reading a book."
"And what was that book?"
"I think it was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen."
"You are so making that up!"
"No I'm not," He defends himself, "Why would you say that?"
"People do it all the time. Make up little details, connecting truths with half truths to make things seem more believable. It's like storytelling."
"Fine. Whatever the book was," he continues, "You were totally absorbed in it. And maybe it was because I didn't know you that well at the time and all I knew was that I wanted to know you, I interrupted you and said: You know that class is already starting right?"
"And what did I say?"
"You said: Who are you?"
She lets out a laugh. "I never said that."
"You did. Trust me."
"And why should I?"
"Because I could never forget one of the best days of my life." For the first time that night, she's left silent. She's surprised by the complete honesty in his words and tries to open her mouth to form her own words, but nothing comes out. It's a rare moment to catch her off-guard and the band has just began to play a song, so he seizes what might very well be his only opportunity. "Cagalli, would you like to have this dance?"