Chapter 35: Stay with me

Athrun knew he was hurt, he could not help but sink into darkness. He could hear Cagalli screaming his name, but he could not reply…

He found himself in a place full of lighted candles, far as the eye could see. He laid on the ground, his face inches away from an open flame. He studied the flame for a little while, it danced, though there was no wind, it sang to him; though it had no voice.

He reached his hand toward the strange flame curiously, and as his fingers accidentally brushed the flame, he realized that though it burned brightly, there was no heat. His fingers felt nothing upon contact with the tip of the orange flame. He flicked the flame back and forth for a few times just to be sure of his discovery.

"I played with that a lot when I came too…"

He looked up, and almost could not believe his eyes. He sat up gingerly, coming face to face with the person who has been presiding over his dreams and nightmares for the past few months; he could not tell where one ended and where the other began. He said the only thing he could, the only thing he had wanted to say if he had the chance back then.

"…Sorry…"

Albert gave a quirky half-smile, unconcerned.

"You still don't know." Albert commented.

Athrun could not possibly know what he did not know, but he wanted to agree with everything Albert had to say, it was his due penance.

"I don't…" Athrun acknowledged.

"No, no, no." Albert waved a hand, "I meant, have you ever thought about it? Do you know what was going through my head when I did what I did back then?"

Athrun genuinely did not, he shook his head. Of course he had assumed, postulated and imagined many times before, how much Albert must have hated him; how much he had to suffer in those extra hours where his death was prolonged by invasive life support…

Tears came, he could not hold them back anymore.

"Oh great." Albert groaned jokingly. "Buddy, please stop."

"Okay…I'm sorry…I'll try…I…." He muttered as he wiped hurriedly at his face with his hands and sleeves. Albert only laughed, indicating he was pulling his leg, then actually ruffled his hair playfully, "Don't sweat it, but it's a rule here…there should not be tears in paradise."

"…Okay…" Athrun said as he gazed at Albert, paying attention. He widened his eyes as the sentence sank in.

If he was in paradise, it would mean that he was actually dead, and that…he had broken his promise to Cagalli. She will be a young widow…and will have to raise three kids all on her own…

That thought dropped on him like a boulder.

"What…?" He questioned in alarm.

"You can't stay, you know?" Albert assured him in a more-or-less sort of way, "Still don't know why?"

He shook his head.

"You think…I did it for you." Albert pointed out.

That left Athrun genuinely surprised, it could not have been anything else.

"You think…that because of that…you should never be happy, that if you carried the guilt on your conscience all your life you're somehow doing me a favour. You think that if you were sorry enough for it, you're making up for it. And you will never forgive yourself if you stopped mourning me…"

"No…!" Was his first reply.

"Yes…" Albert gave him a knowing look, "That's what I see, your refusal to ever forgive yourself. All you ever say is you're sorry, I don't like that. Athrun, you're a good and loyal friend, and you think too highly of me."

Now Athrun was confused, so he sat there and waited to be told more.

Albert sighed, then smiled mysteriously.

"I was serious…about wanting to win Cagalli's heart. Love is a very jealous thing. I told myself that I will court Cagalli with every bit of my obvious charm and creativity, and let her make her choice. I thought it will be a fair fight, practically speaking, I have the position and money. I will be able to give her a good life, and Orb will benefit from our union. I was confident…"

That much was true, and it all hurt.

"But at that moment…" Albert turned a little pensive, "I lost…I lost to myself."

"What…?" Athrun asked, genuinely baffled.

"I looked at the way she looks at you and you at her…and for a moment, I was going to do nothing…and let you die. You wanted a swift end, I wanted that woman and you practically instructed me to take her…It was a…win-win. I thought she would be mine, if only you were gone...!" Albert stopped short, and sighed, pausing dramatically, there was shame in his voice.

Athrun understood what his friend was trying to say at last, but could not bring himself to be angry for Albert to wish him dead.

He wished himself dead then…

Athrun could only gazed at his friend earnestly, Albert looked back at him, giving a brotherly half-frown.

"…Then I realized…I…can never take your place." He muttered, pain in his voice, he went on.

"What I did was never for you, it was for her. It was the best gift I could give, my all, my own life in a bid that she will love me in that one moment…"

Athrun felt his lip loosen and an unexpected pang of jealousy that slammed into his chest. He felt a powerful urge to yell at Albert but clenched his fist to contain himself. He realized he could not bear it if Cagalli were to love another, even just for a moment; even if it was Albert…

"Saving you…was my first and final gift to her. I thought I will regret it…but when she came and see me one last time…" Albert intoned solemnly, "…Though I was in pain and scared…and wondering where half my organs went. Even then, though she did not love me…I was not angry or sad. I did what I did…and I don't regret my gift, not even now, Athrun..."

That caused the breath to become stuck in Athrun's throat.

"You should understand, you've done it too, a few times, in fact. You just did it again. Bite bullets, I mean. Love means, I am happy when she is happy, right? I doubt she will be happy if she has to stare at your long and gloomy face for the rest of her life, so lighten up." He actually pinched Athrun's cheek at that.

"She likes it when you smile."

Athrun wanted to cry at that statement.

"So buddy, the best thing you can do to repay me for saving your ass is to make her smile more, make her happy." Albert declared with a grin, "Come, practice. Like this." Albert gave a charming grin displaying all his teeth at that, inviting him to mimic it.

Athrun bit his lip, he could not; he simply could not. He had never known what it means to be happy, he had even forgotten how he faked it just so Kira will not worry for him. It had become so much harder ever since Albert's death weighed on his conscience…

"Hey, you're not even trying…" Albert pouted unhappily, "Just once, okay? Pretend I'm Cagalli if that helps." And Albert playfully batted his eyelashes at him.

It was awfully disgusting to watch another grown man trying to seduce him, and Athrun snorted, and laughed a little.

"That's better!" Albert patted his shoulders encouragingly.

"Now do that, like, a lot. And you'll be just fine…"

Both of them was quiet for a while, and Athrun waited.

"Do you understand what I have done…?" Albert gazed at him imploringly. Athrun could not believe what was happening as he can see what was coming next.

Albert smiled tearfully, "…Will you forgive me?"

Athrun shook his head fervently, aghast and uncomfortable. "You don't have to do that…! I've never blamed you!"

"That's right…you blame yourself, you always do." Albert pointed out as he punched him on the shoulder, and Athrun inhaled sharply.

"That has to stop, because you have no right to tell me that my gift was a mistake…" Albert continued relentlessly, "And you cannot undo my giving."

Athrun stared back at Albert for a long, long time, unable to find his voice. Then eventually, he gave in, knowing that there was nothing else to say.

"I understand."

"You do?" Albert raised an eyebrow, then inclined his ear towards Athrun. "So, as a civilized young man with reputable upbringing, I would like to hear those magic words, please."

Athrun gave a small smile at that, though it was laced with sadness.

"Thank you…Thank you, Albert."

His friend laughed out loud, patting his shoulder as he cheered. "Much better~! One last thing." Albert said as he took out a stack of Uno cards.

"Best of three?"

"We are gonna play?" Athrun uttered in surprise, trying to conceal his delight in case Albert found him childish.

"You've one chance and one chance only!" Albert exclaimed. Then added, "Let's up the stakes, there'll be a penalty if you lose…"

"What if I lose…?"

ooo

Athrun Zala frowned for reason he cannot remember, there was something about a card game, it was strange. He had not played cards in a very long time, it was no surprise he had lost to the dream dude.

He held himself down and listened quietly to the woman because it was the fastest way to gather intelligence and ascertain the gravity of the situation. At some point of the incredible tale, he wanted to burst out screaming and shut himself out from world and this unbelievable predicament for the next thousand years. His last memory was on Heliopolis, finding Kira in the cargo hold and on the opposite side of the war. Orb was the perpetuator of the new MS models, his mission and hence Kira, his enemy. Yet now, he woke up in a hospital with a terrible throbbing headache and no Lacus, Yzak, Dearka, Nicol or captain Rau beside him. But there's there was this crying woman fretting over him, she tried to smile as she explained herself doggedly, so he listened.

When she tried to touch his hand, he withdrew from her. When her fingers brushed his face, he blushed and shied away, he would have ran if he could. But she seemed to mean no harm and was willing to divulge information, so he stayed put, deciding that if the woman initiated any contact more intimate than before, he will somehow escape from her.

Holy crap. Through her speech, he realized that a good 10 years have passed without his knowledge or consent, he was in a hospital in Orb –Orb, why Orb? At this point, he stopped her and questioned about the war he was fighting and Kira came in- reasonably older and more scarred- and gave him a brotherly hug. Athrun pushed him away after a while, then sputtered out his series of questions in a manner that he only hope sounded coherent. Kira answered with an infuriatingly wise look…

"We are good now, Athrun. That war has ended..."

Then they told him his father has died.

That piece of information crushed him. He did not realized his hands and voice were shaking, did not realize that the blonde woman had moved to sit beside him, holding his shoulders as he took in the news. It was like she knew exactly where to sit so that he did not find her presence invading. All his attention was on Kira as he explained what exactly happened.

They took turns and told him many things, it was a blur, and apparently Kira married Lacus- Now how did that happen? And that Lacus had just given birth to their firstborn, a healthy third (technically one and the half)* generation Coordinator who has not yet gotten a name. They told him that he-oh, Athrun Zala!- actually became Chairman of PLANTs. They told him about the rebellion in space led by Dearka's father, about the plague and what he did to save the PLANTs.

His head was reeling from the information overload, his headache intensified but he gritted his teeth and endured.

They told him about the trial, about the death of the Supreme councilor named Albert who gave himself to save Athrun. A face appeared in his head, then there was something about the card game again. Strange…

Holy crap! Yzak is now temporarily the Chairman of PLANTs, the more amazing part is that Athrun was told that he had effectively CHOSEN Yzak to be his successor at the end of the coup. A flash-back image came to him at this point.

It was Yzak weeping soundlessly. From the perspective, he was leaning over Athrun, who was lying on the ground for some reason. It was bizarre…but it also confirmed that Kira was likely to be telling the truth.

It came to the last part about how he ended up in this hospital when the situation got really awkward. The blonde woman gave a pained, obviously forced smile. What was her name again? Cakali or something like that… She and Kira exchanged glances, as if unable to decide whether to tell him something, he got impatient and frustrated –who wouldn't be? He almost yelled, "What?! What is it?"

"Calm down, Athrun…" Kira replied, patting his shoulder.

"He has to know eventually…" Cakali said resignedly. She turned to him, looked him full in the face and whispered. "I'm your wife, Athrun. My name is Cagalli Yula Athha."

Athrun's breath got caught in his throat, he did not breathe for the next ten seconds.

Ooo

He slept, when he woke up again, it was late evening. He noticed that the drip on his arm had been removed. He opened his eyes, and stared at the ceiling for a time, his demeanor betrayed nothing of the internal turmoil ravaging his thoughts. There was too much to take in, too much even for him. He breathed in deeply, once in, once out. He felt his lungs expand and fill with oxygen and he willed for it to clear his head.

At least he was alive.

Cagalli went on last night, illustrating a tale more unbelievable than anything they have already told him. That he, Athrun Zala actually married her, that they have three kids. She-a Natural, and he, a Coordinator. He had no prejudices against Naturals, but he did not imagine a day will come where he will ever marry one. Also, In PLANTs, it was rare for couples to even have one child due to the costs of living, most of his friends are the only child, and good examples will be Dearka, Nicol and Yzak. All solo. To have two kids was an event of extremely scarce occurrence; to have three kids is practically criminal.

Athrun thought if he ever married, it will be Lacus. They were betrothed to each other since young, he knew that if he ever married, it will not be out of love, nor for love.

Athrun studied Cagalli with wide eyes then, thinking the man he had been must really love her to marry her. She is not ugly, mind you, but neither was the type of woman who is commonly thought of as attractive. She has honey-coloured eyes, golden hair that's unruly and rough. Her curves looked like someone who have recently given birth. She has calluses on her palms that suggested she was probably apt at handling fire arms, that part piqued Athrun's curiosity. What is a queen doing learning how to handle fire arms?

The queen part was ambiguous as well, she is the ruler- the matriarch of the nation. She has just been crowned queen after her wedding with him. That means he had married a legitimate princess, he thought that part was pretty cool. There had been an assassin and Athrun was told he got hurt while trying to save her. His eyes widened even further at that. It began to sound like some hopelessly romantic fairytale where the prince fights for the princess against some evil doer, and he was definitely not a hopelessly romantic prince. He is a soldier, pragmatic, logical and will not fight battles that he stand no real chance of winning.

It seemed unwise to question her, so he did not, but he did not believe everything she said either. Eventually, when she finished, Athrun's headache had become unbearable and he requested to rest.

Truth is, he wanted to escape from everything that seemed disjointed about his world. Half of him prayed that he will wake up finding out that it was all a nightmare and he will go back to being 16. The other half understood the state of the world in a hard-earned peace and he prayed that that portion is true.

He woke up in the same troubled world, but with peace.

He knew then, that all was not a dream. He had known, the world was different, he was different. When he examined himself in the bathroom, he realized his person was heavily scarred. He was taller than he remembered, also leaner and somehow slower-though perhaps older was a better word. Other than the fresh wounds on one arm and his temple, the other marks were telling of grievous injuries on his shoulder blade, there were gunshot wounds over his breastbone and waist and burns on his back. At the side of his ribs were neat suture marks, suggesting that those were surgically sewn close. There were smaller, more discreet scars on his wrist and his left arm had been broken twice judging from the lines. So in conclusion, apparently this older version of himself led a dangerous lifestyle. It was unexpected, even for a military man such as himself. At the very least, he expected to shoot at people, not for people to shoot at him. There was even a thin scar on his face across his left eye, indicernible except by close examination, his fingers traced the raised portions. It looks like a knife wound.

"Athrun…?"

It was her voice again. He buttoned up his shirt and walked out of the bathroom. He widened his eyes in surprise as he saw her face.

She put on some makeup today. She had blusher, eyeliner and even lipstick on. Overall, her features look more polished, but somehow Athrun preferred her default, undecorated face. He wondered if she had put on makeup for his sake, but he waved the idea off instantly…

"Are you feeling better? Does your head still hurt?" She questioned, forcing an uncertain smile again.

"I'm better, thank you for your concern, Miss Yula Athha." He replied formally as a gentleman should for any lady asking about his wellbeing. He wondered if there was some sort of title he should refer to her by, but Kira did not, so he had no reference. The smile slipped off her face, then she ventured on. "The doctor says that you can be discharged tomorrow morning, I'll come and fetch you."

He thought for a moment.

"Fetch me….? To where?" He questioned eventually.

Her lips parted, then sealed again, as if very surprised at his query. "To our house…our home." She looked him in the eye and declared with pain in her gaze, "Your home…"

The sentence sounded absurd to his ears, as far as he was concerned, Athrun Zala had no home. His home disappeared along with his mother in that faithful Valentine. He could run now, but he was unsure of where else to go. If he went to her house, he may find more clues, and whether the things that she had told him held any truth. Then again, he was afraid of giving her false hopes, at the moment, he was unsure of what she expected of him...

"Alright…Thank you for allowing me to impose." He said carefully with a slight bow.

"You cannot possibly be a guest in your own place, Athrun." She pointed out sarcastically, seemingly breaking from her act. Athrun gazed at her, he almost smiled, the act of genuineness from her was sincerely charming.

She then came forward and passed him a paper bag, there were clothes inside.

"I brought whatever comfy. Don't be picky, it's a bit big..." She disclaimed as she fished out a collared shirt and slung it across his shoulders. She caught herself awkwardly, then hastily passed him the shirt and the bag and said, "Goodnight, see you tomorrow morning."

"Goodnight." Athrun replied. "Oh and thank you."

She leaned forward and tiptoed to give him a peck on the side of his mouth like it was the most natural thing in the world, the thing is, before Athrun could think better or it, he leaned inwards so she could reach him. Her surprised showed on her face, he was just as surprised as she was. She gave a crooked smile and bumped him playfully on the arm, another unexpected gesture he found exceedingly charming.

"Whatever that was, I hope you remember it in the morning." She said as she left.

When the door closed, Athrun explored the bagful of clothing supposedly belonging to him. The items smelt like baby powder, sour milk and fabric softener. Yet everything fits right down to the length of the pants. The style was what he would wear as well, simple designs and sharp cuts, all single block coloured pieces and comfortable fabrics. He even found clean underwear, socks and a pair of oxfords in his feet size at the bottom. This revelation gave him more to think about, the clothing and shoes was something she cannot possibly conjure out of thin air without measuring him and forcing him to answer a painfully long questionnaire about fashion. So the only possibly conclusion is that these indeed belong to him.

The question is…does she belong to him as well?

The lipstick stain she left on his face gave him no answer…

Ooo

"Did it work?" Lacus inquired as Cagalli took over the baby so Lacus could rest her arms for a bit, nursing is actually very hard work.

"I don't know." Cagalli confessed. "I'm not sure whether he even noticed, if he noticed, he didn't like it much. But…today, he allowed me to kiss him…"

"That's a start~ Men are after all, visual creatures. I'm sure he noticed." Lacus chimed, she sounded hoarse and tired, but still lovely.

"What am I gonna do…?" Cagalli sighed.

"Convince him by logic, show him things that may jog his memory."

"I'm quite worried about him meeting the kids…" Cagalli muttered, "Lacus, the 16 year old Athrun is the one betrothed to you and to the war. There's nothing else on his mind. He tries to hide it, but I know. He doesn't believe everything I said. I can wait if he cannot remember me, I will wait. But I don't even know how to start telling the kids that their father may have cleanly forgotten about their existence because he knocked his head. They'd be devastated."

"But you still have to tell them, don't you…?" Lacus said quietly.

"I know. I have been putting it off for a few days and the Marlene has been pestering me to no end. If I don't update them they'd be scared, but if Athrun disowns them first thing tomorrow I don't know what to do..."

"One step at the time, Cagalli. He has a soft spot for the kids, you know that. That paternal instinct that kept him and Marlene alive won't just disappear, you know."

"I hope so, you want …your baby back now?"

"Yeah…I can feel my hands again."

"By the way, have you and Kira thought of a name? There are too many babies here for me to be specific."

"We are in the final phase of choosing, you'll see." Lacus gave a trademark enigmatic smile that declared the conversation closed.

Ooo

Cagalli held onto Melody as she made her way to the room Max and Marlene shares. The kids were doing their homework, when Max saw her, he hit his sister lightly on the forearm and sat upright on the bed. Marlene pushed her homework aside and gaze at her calmly from her desk.

"Max, Marlene." Cagalli began, licking her lips. "I just came back from the hospital."

The kids gazed at her soundlessly, waiting for her to go on.

"Athrun will be coming home tomorrow."

They cheered and began to ask her a thousand and one questions. She held up a hand, "Let me finish…Athrun's injured, you two already know that." Cagalli took a deep breath, "He doesn't remember us…"

It was a pin-drop silence as Max and Marlene took that in.

"So…we make him remember!" Max suggested with gusto.

"How, you doofus?" Marlene mocked irritably, it was unlike her.

"We hit him on the head again?" Max blurted out, Marlene gave him and incredulous glare. "You're such an idiot!"

"Marlene…" Cagalli placed Melody down and let her roll around on Max's bed, she drew up Marlene's hands. The child's lips were quivering visibly. "What?!" the child demanded abrasively.

"It's not Athrun's fault..." Cagalli said quietly, the girl gasped.

"He cannot choose what to remember, what to forget. Know that he did not and will never choose to forget Marlene..."

Marlene teared up at that, then broke into an all-out wail. "I don't want HIM TO FORGET MARLENE~!" For some reason Melody chose this moment to start crying as well. It was a strange phenomenon of collective effervescence.

"I don't want it too." Cagalli took Marlene into her arms, ignoring the din. She patted her back, stroking her hair and combing it out with her fingers.

"But don't punish Athrun for it." She turned to Max as well, "Be patient with him when he comes back, answer his questions. Be good and definitely do not try to hit his head, understood?"

The kids gave each other the look, then simultaneously did the heel click cum Zaft salute they must have learnt from Daniel.

'Yes, mdm!"

ooo

Athrun Zala did not even make it to the front door.

He should have noticed the feverish scratching and barking the moment he was standing on the porch. When the door opened, a golden beast burst out from its depths with wild vigor and literally charged Athrun down. Through trying to defend his face from the monstrous creature and the ample saliva, Athrun could make out that it was a teenage golden retriever. The creature was all heat and muscle beneath his hold and had greeted Athrun with a passion and loyalty pups show only to their masters. In short, it was positively ecstatic to see him. It slobbered all over him, panting and jumping and panting some more, it was pretty much pinning Athrun to the ground.

"Suki! No!" Cagalli ordered sternly as she warded the dog off, Suki backed off, obeying its mistress. Cagalli then turned to Athrun. "Sorry, he really misses you these few days when you're gone. Did you hit your head?" Athrun shook his head.

"Let's go, then." Cagalli offered a hand, he did not take it, but slowly picked himself up. The dog ran in tight, jolly circles around himself and Cagalli, occasionally nudging his knee towards the house. It continued to trail after him wagging its tail proudly like following Athrun was the bestest thing that has ever happened in creation.

Lacus and Kira greeted him from the living room, she looked so tired and her sweet voice had turned hoarse from the evident lack of sleep but she came forward and embraced him, "Congratulations on your discharge."

"Thank you…" He muttered as he hugged her back, they are still on amicable terms then. Kira walked up with a newborn held tenderly in his arms, he was beaming tiredly at Athrun. "This is the one I told you about." Kira gestured for Athrun to approach, then eased the infant into Athrun's arms. Athrun was a little nervous about handling the tiny, fragile creature, but he surprised himself as he knew exactly what to do when transferring the baby. As with all skills, it was pure muscle memory and he took a moment to swallow his surprise, one more piece of evidence that he may have actually participated in the upbringing of three kids.

The newborn had long eyelashes, just like her parents, they were a curious shade of maroon. Athrun could not tell at the moment if she looked like her mother more, or her father. But to watch her in her peaceful sleep, well-fed and satisfied was therapeutic enough.

"Congratulations…!" He gushed at Kira and Lacus, he was not sure what else to say, but at that moment he was sincerely happy for them.

Haro and Birdy came to him, Haro almost smashing into his face, he avoided the excited toy and quickly passed the baby back to Lacus. Leaving his hands free to subdue Haro with one and let Birdy landed on his other palm. It was good to see that they are both well-maintained, though a bit older, Haro could use a fresh coat of paint.

Then came the kids.

"Daddy!" The voices were high and shrill with excitement. There were a pair of them, Cagalli said there were three but she never mentioned twins. The pair had golden hair and bright green eyes, not quite the same shade as him, lighter, more emerald than forest. They came pounding down the stairs in mirrored synchrony, the boy cheering wildly and the girl biting her lips. The kids fastened themselves around his middle and hugged him unreservedly, their little bodies soft and warm. Athrun did not know how to respond for a while, then he hugged them back awkwardly. Essentially, you cannot quite receive a hug without giving one.

There was such honestly and longing in the embrace that he was instantly convince that this was not a lie. The children acknowledged him as a parent and were fierce in displaying their affections.

"You're back!" the boy declared, look him in the eye and gestured for him to come closer. He leaned down obligingly in a squat, the boy threw his short arms around his neck and nestled his head on Athrun's chest. "Mommy says you cannot remember us, do you remember now?" He demanded with an unhappy pout.

The girl climbed onto and sat on his thigh, "You cannot forget the promise you made to Marlene, you said that I can be your bride when I grow up…" Athrun stayed silent, it was unlikely he will promise something like that, he believes in monogamy and he had no interest of dashing a kid's hope.

Suki chose this moment to take advantage of the situation, it placed both paws possessively on Athrun's knee and sat down there, tongue out and obviously pleased that it found a prime spot. It scooted its' giant head beneath Athrun's palm and panted gleefully, demanding a scratch.

It was warm and childish and unexpectedly it brought a wave of heat to his eyes. He never thought he will settle down and father a few kids or even get a pet. Between him and Patrick Zala, it was always 'father' and never 'daddy'. One does not simply walk into Patrick Zala's presence without a clear objective. These children showed no such inhibitions, they simply don't care, they just barged in his world and demanded for his attention. It was something Athrun never achieved with his own father, it was something he wanted to do if he ever became a father; no child should have to feel like second-class citizen in front of him...

Abruptly, he removed himself from the boy and pushed Marlene off and walked away. Suki whined piteously at the missed tummy rub, the boy called after him but Marlene stayed silent. Surprisingly, Cagalli appeared in front of him and gestured for him to follow her, she led him into a spacious bedroom and closed the door.

"The kids won't come in here without permission, they won't see." She said quietly as she turned and looked him in the eye. With a finger, she traced the tears from his left cheek. Alarmed and embarrassed to be tearing up in front of a stranger, he tried to hide his face, but she was already off to the far end of the room where a cot sat. Curious, he calmed himself with deep breaths and followed her as she bent forwards and gently lifted something out from the cot. When she turned around again, he gasped softly.

There was a cute, chubby baby in her arms with an unruly mop of blue hair in the exact shade, a couple months ahead of Lacus's newborn, she blinked blearily. Athrun had seen his own baby photos before and this one is practically a carbon copy, there was pretty much no doubt about the parentage unless the baby was a clone.

"This is number three." Cagalli declared as she played with the baby's hands and made little cooing noises, "Melody. I promise she's not a clone." She added, as if reading his mind. Athrun is unused to being mind-read, he was a bit irritated.

"The other two…?"

"Maximillion, our first born. Marlene, the little girl, as you can see, non-identical twins."

'We weren't married yet when they were born…" Athrun pointed out doubtfully, he also never believed in premarital sex.

"We are, but it was never announced." She replied. "Your idea."

"Mine…?"

"It's in the past." She sighed. "Any case, this is our room. The real master room of the summer palace is upstairs, so are the kid's rooms, but we moved down here after you returned from the PLANTs."

"Why…?"

"Because you couldn't really walk." That came as a surprise to Athrun, when they talked about the events of the last few months, it felt to Athrun like it was memories of someone else's life.

"But…"

She sighed.

"I know you have a lot of questions, I try to answer them, but sometimes I think you don't quite believe me… I brought you here so you can see with your own eyes what is true and what is not. I assure you that I have absolutely no reason to lie. Now…I am really, really tired. Let me catch a nap this Saturday afternoon, we'll talk over things tonight, I'll answer the rest of your queries then, okay?"

He had no choice but to nod, he knew she had reached the end of her patience with him.

"You can hide from the rest if you don't feel comfortable, but at least take Suki out for a walk, the maids tell me he's chewing up everything he can lay his paws on. I think he is quite stressed out without you depleting some of that boundless energy."

Melody squirmed and reached for Cagalli's chest, to Athrun's surprise Cagalli started undressing right there and then. Soon her cleavage was presented before his very eyes...

"Wait…!" He cried out in alarm, he felt as if it was inappropriate for him to stay. His face and ears felt so hot he was sure he looked like a tomato. "I'll erm…! Go out…" He muttered somewhat coherently as he gestured at the door, then jogged towards it.

"Oh." Cagalli said, for some reason clearly crestfallen.

He quickly tore his eyes away from her and escaped before the blood rush to other places. He opened the door by a mere sliver and slipped out quickly.

Having no other excuse to have a moment to himself, he volunteered to take Suki out for a walk. The maids handed him the reins eagerly and some newspaper. Suki was so excited that it would not stop jumping around in excitement all the way to the gate.

"Stop it, you brute." He chided as Suki almost tripped him with its leaping and bounding, the retriever cowered even though Athrun did not raise his voice. Athrun wondered if he was very strict with the dog as a puppy. He was starting to wonder where he should walk to when Suki chose a direction and charged full force ahead, dragging Athrun along. Turns out it had discovered a squirrel and was all up in action trying to catch it, Athrun dug his heels into the ground and reined Suki in. When he managed to stop the dog, he said very firmly, "Sit, Suki."

Suki sat on the spot obediently, its wild energy being expanded all in its intensively wagging tail.

"Good boy." He praised as he leaned down, rubbing Suki's head and scratching its ears a little. It gave a delighted yip, licking Athrun's hand.

"Let's go."

Turns out that Suki has a sort of a fixed path through the estate, it basically meandered around landmarks like a certain bush, a certain cliff side or lamppost and it is punctuated by the appearance of random creatures. But pretty much Athrun was free to trail after the excited canine, he got what he wanted; time and space to think.

It still feels like a dream. So far, it seems like a good one. In summary, after a thousand and one wars from the time he was sixteen, he had apparently saved the world two or three times, and in his free time gotten the love of a woman; have three kids, a career and had time enough to rear a pet and not let it die of neglect. In all truth he wanted to congratulate himself, it was a perfect life according to all lifestyle magazines, but there was something missing and he was unsure of what it was. Just as pieces of his memory was missing, he felt as if parts of him are missing as well…

It was all good and well, but somehow he was not happy about it, neither was he unhappy. Everything felt surreal, it felt as if all these accomplishments are someone else's and had nothing to do with him, he just happened to be in the shoes of this man who had done all of this in. Now, he had responsibilities to a family that he felt nothing for. He liked them well enough after meeting them for the first time today, he was grateful for the kindness, warmth and hospitality but that was it for now.

On the other hand, regarding Cagalli, he still felt as if she was putting up a show at times when she was with him with occasional lapses in her acting. That's when her true self shows through, it seems that she had been suppressing herself and molded into something she was not, and it has been happening for a while. Maybe it had something to do with the Orb government, or maybe it had something to do with him, he was not sure. But at this point, he felt the feeling in his chest tighten, he frowned. He realized it has been happening every time he thought about Cagalli, he wondered what it was.

He thought back at the scene just now in the summer palace, he felt his ears start glowing again and he tried to rub off the sensation. He wondered why he had never realized that her figure is so good the many times she visited him in the hospital. But she looked really, really tired today, he wondered why. He found himself hastening back, and was almost dragging Suki along back to the mansion at the thought that she may be unwell. The newspaper went unused as there was no bowel movement from Suki that walk, he informed the maids that much as he handed over the reins, the newspapers and the dog. He was perspiring a little as a result of the haste, and that caused the bandages to itch.

He went back to when he last saw her, there she is, still in the room. It was late evening and the sun was setting serenely in the horizon, for some reason she was lying on the bed in a big T-shape, fast asleep; her face was turned away from him. That caused him to smile for no reason at all, her posture is so…un-ladylike. He wondered what the paparazzi will say if they photographed their queen sleeping like that. He approached quietly, unease in his actions, rounding to the side of the bed where he could see her face. Her brow was furrowed, he wondered why, a thin sheen of perspiration was also visible on her forehead.

Stealthily, he placed two fingers on her forehead, then a whole hand. Heat bloomed across his palm, she was running a fever.

"Cagalli…?" He asked tentatively.

She stirred at his voice, coming to, she opened her eyes and squinted at him, then quickly flitted to his hand touching her face. He removed his hand, afraid that she might be uncomfortable, one does not touch a lady without their permission. But she caught him back, he thought about it again, those reflexes ill-befitting of a queen, her hands rough and callused enough to make him wonder who she truly was…

"Are you feeling alright?" He questioned.

She considered the question, then asked in return, "Why do you ask when you don't care?"

But he did care…

Athrun bit his lip, it seemed to be too unmanly for him to blurt out that he practically ran all the way back just to check on her; so he did not.

Instead he asked, "Do you want water, or…something to eat?"

She studied him for a while, her gaze was unnerving, but she conceded, "Water." He poured a glass from the bedside jug and helped her to sit upright, her actions were lethargic and jagged. He placed the glass in her hands and supported the base as he helped her to drink. She emptied the glass, gave a small sigh of relief and looked at him again, giving a half smile.

"You're all sweaty…" She observed as she removed a short golden hair from his sideburns, for a moment her thumb brush past his cheek, causing the pleasant tingling, numbing sensation again. "Did you finally take Suki out for a walk?"

"Yeah, according to your wishes, my queen."

She frowned, "Then why are you back so soon? And what game are you playing?"

He thought for a while, wondering why she seemed upset with him addressing her formally. "That's your rank, is it not?"

She sighed irately, "I am a queen, but I'm not your queen, Athrun." She looked him in the eye.

"I don't even know who I am…" He answered bitterly. He have been at the mercy of so many things, truth to be told, he was really tired of it.

"You're not alone in that, you know." She gave a quirky smile, then sighed heavily. "I should take a shower and go to bed, this headache is killing me…"

"You don't even want to eat dinner?" He asked in surprise as she got up slowly.

"I don't have appetite…" She muttered dismissively, she looked at him again, this time for a long time. "Hey… Can I ask for a favour?"

"Uh hmm?" He nodded tentatively.

"I don't know if… you know…" She started as she reached the closet, then sighed and finished the rest of her statement. "Can you help me to ensure the kids get dinner? Tuck them in?"

"Sure." He agreed readily, it should be quite fun, maybe he can tell a bedtime story. She widened her eyes in surprise, a small smile curling her lips, "Thanks, I don't think I can manage…You're much better at wooing children to sleep than me."

"I am….?" He wondered, "Well. I'll try. Before that, will you eat a bit?"

She considered, then repeated his own words back to him. "I'll try."

Ooo

Cagalli has been awfully discouraged.

In actual fact, she was hoping that meeting the people and coming back to the Summer palace will jog Athrun's memory. When he was introduced to members of the household, it was evident that he recalled nothing and was reserved and formal in his responses. Each response broke Cagalli's heart a little more. He was distant and cold even to Suki and the kids. He seemed uncomfortable to be in the same room as she was when Melody got hungry, Cagalli did what she will normally do without realizing that Athrun would respond like that. After he hurriedly excused himself, Cagalli became very acutely conscious of the stretchmarks on her person, which are everywhere.

For the first time in many months, she did what she told herself not to do.

She wept.

When she and Athrun left the PLANTs, she told herself she will not cry in front of him anymore. He has enough reasons to be sorrowful. The Athrun who came back to Orb with her was like an empty doll, emotionally he was thoroughly drained. The insults were not just physical- they had not broken his spirit; they had broken his heart. The injuries on his person were supposed to take years and years of physical therapy to heal, but in two odd months he was up and about. The physiotherapist hailed it as a miracle and turned clergy.

But he, he never quite came back to her.

Athrun does not talk much to begin with, after the ordeal, he talked even less. He kept to himself and when she tried to spend time with him through her busy schedule, there will be as mask of guilt on his face. It was as if he felt as if he was not worthy of her time, she really wanted to punch that look off.

Albert's death had affected him greatly, for once he was one the receiving end and had to come to terms with the fact that this is the weight of sacrifice. She wanted to tell him 'I told you so', but she did not want to rub it in his face. He had been plagued by nightmares and would wake up yelling, he says he wants to forget but Cagalli suspected he really did not want to. If she analyzed Athrunpedia correctly, he felt as if to forgive himself means to forget Albert's sacrifice. That somehow if he punished himself enough for it, he can someday stop being angry with himself. Any sane soul knows that the vicious cycle will never straighten itself out, these few months she felt herself losing hold of him. His past was devouring him and there was nothing Cagalli could do…

Even when it was time for them to finally and officially be married, Athrun remained passive. She was obligated to marry and she wanted it to be no one else but him. She was hoping he would have planned some lusty getaway up his sleeves and he would be right beside her again. She was fearful that their love had grown cold and Athrun will tire of her meddling…

The assassins made her realize that his heart beat for her still. It made her relieved and terrified that in that moment his choice was to physically shield her from the would-be assassin. She would have hit him if he was not already injured.

When Athrun ran from her, it was the last straw that broke the camel's back, she was tired and stressed out by the massive wedding preparations, by the assassins; by Melody who still relied solely on her for nourishment and by Athrun who had basically lost his memory of her and all that ever mattered. Karma has a way of rubbing stuff in your face. A long time ago, she made Athrun wait three days for her reply of whether to marry him; this time she was waiting for him to tell her whether he was willing to stay with her. She cried as she fed Melody, then passed her baby to the maids and cried herself to sleep.

She had not expected to wake up to Athrun's voice and hands, those familiar hands, large and warm were as comforting as ever. It was Athrun, her Athrun. She had not expect him to return, did not expect him to help her drink and promise to tuck the kids in. When he came back in an hour with a bowl of porridge flavoured just the way she liked it, it was too much. She could not help it anymore, she wept in front of him, again.

When Cagalli cries, it was never the dainty variety you find in drama serials, it was the crying-your-heart-and-guts-out variety that she suspected held no appeal whatsoever to most men. Yet strangely, Athrun did not run or shy away from her, he stayed where he was at one side of the bed. Cagalli found herself crying against his shoulder.

Cagalli suddenly realized this must be how he has felt staying by her side these months, even if the time and attention was stolen, she selfishly wanted him near her. She wanted him to tell her that he loves her still. The attention and liberties dispensed were like charity, no matter how small, she clung on to them desperately and hopefully.

He did not ask nor say a word, just held her and stroke her back as she cried until she was spent. When she pulled away from his chest, he pressed some tissue into her hand, then proceeded to dry her tears with one in his own. His actions were tender, his voice soft as he questioned, "Do you feel better now…?"

She did. For a moment while his hand was still on her face, she could pretend he loves her. She nodded slowly.

"Have I done something wrong again…?" He asked gingerly, the look on his face was boyish and that provoked a smile from Cagalli.

"It's not you…." She muttered whimsically, "I guess it's just karma…"

He thought for a moment, "So…you're saying you did something wrong before…?"

"Something like that." She admitted frankly, "We were nineteen when you proposed and….I made you wait three days for my reply…"

He was startled, though she could tell he was seriously considering the prospects, "What a terribly long margin to suffer." He managed eventually.

"I didn't think it was…" She said contritely, then twisted her mouth. "…I'm the one on tenterhooks now."

"What are you waiting for?" He asked curiously, she almost smiled, it seems that he really does not get it. So all her sobbing was pretty much one-sided.

She looked him in the eye, gazing into those soulful forest greens orbs.

"You."

He looked back into hers, replying, "…I'm here."

"No, you are not." She said bitterly, "Athrun Zala, you never came back to me, you live for your past, no…You live in your past! No matter what I did, no matter what I try, I'm never a good enough reason for you to live. I was never bait good enough to draw you into the present. If you actually died for me I…I don't know what I'd do!" With that, she punched him on shoulder, he did not back off. She hammered his chest again and again, as if hoping he would understand the pain he was causing her.

"Don't…please don't leave me, Athrun…" She cried in a strangled whisper, she hated herself so much for that statement.

She wanted to wait him out and allow him to make his choice, she did not want to ask as it was unfair to place the kids and all in front as hostages and demanded he say 'yes'. She wanted him to choose to stay with her in this matrimony, but she had been so scared…

Her outburst caused him to be silent for a moment, he did not look angry at all at the accusation. On the contrary he was calm and collected, he nodded once and her dread doubled. She had forced his hand, she had forced him to give her a possibly premature answer that has the power to dominate the rest of their marriage and possibly their lives. It was too late to take back the demand.

Her heart was in her throat as he turned to look at her, once again looking into her eyes, her soul.

"Three days." Was all he said.

She was dumbfounded for a moment, wondering what the hell he was saying.

"I'll let you know in three days." He repeated himself, and she stared at him some more. The sheer audacity of it was so unlike him, but internally she heaved a sigh of relief. The inevitable has been postponed, that also meant she had three days to redeem herself...

"I have one condition." He added after a moment, then gingerly he said, "I want you to be yourself, I want to get to know you…" He took her hands tenderly, "Let me see who you are…Then I'll give you my answer."

Cagalli only nodded at the somewhat-compliment, she was not given to acting and hypocrisy in the first place.

He smiled a smile that will cause the statue of the Birth of Venus to melt, then offered her some more porridge. She gaze at him curiously for a while, wondering if he really intended to feed her, he inched the spoon closer and she gave in. She ate the porridge off the spoon he was holding.

The porridge tasted better than ever, Athrun only asked, "Your staff really loves you, the cooks kept looking over my shoulder, telling me how to season it. Too hot?"

She bit her lip, then nodded just to see what he will do, he blew slightly on the next spoonful of porridge, then offered it to her…

Her heart leapt in delight, quite unable to believe her luck.

ooo

OOO

Dear all, this is the author, reporting after nearly two years of hiatus. To say I am not apologetic will be a lie. I had thought that no one else was following this story. Behold, 9th Nov 2017, I received a review, that was the last straw that broke the camel's back. I really longed to write again.

So much has happened in my life, ups, downs. One of the most remarkable things is that I am now 4 months pregnant with my first child. My hubby and I are very happy, we have been praying for a child for a couple years. The terrible nausea/vomiting bloatedness, mood swings has passed and now I am left to grapple with the weight gain and aches, but hey, it is a suffering of joy.

At times, I feel quite alone in the fandom with new animes titles coming up every other week. Yet, no other character has quite captured my heart like Athrun Zala. I don't want it to be a typical prince-lost-memories still fall heads-over-heels in love indiscriminantly. Athrun is...Athrun, he is analytical, thinks way too much, pragmatic, excellent. Gallant and a little slow on the matters of the heart. Yes, it will be continued, I let it not be a cliffhanger and be kinder to everyone's hearts. Just a reminder, Cagalli's would-be-assasins are still out there.

I am actually working on a manga doujin series wrt the two years Athrun spent as Cagalli's bodyguard. I have completed nearly a hundred pages...Only thing is, idk who will still publish/host it. XD

So...with this chapter, I wish you a Happy new year!

Ming