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Chapter 3 Main Chapters Chapter 5

Chapter 4 - Weeding the Garden

Shinn slowly wandered down a hall, still bemused after his meeting with the Chairman.

Shinn realized that he could simply say the words of the apology to Roanoke. Nobody, not Chairman Clyne, not even Chairman Durandal, could've made him really mean them. No one could force him to mean those words. That was it, then, that could be his solution.

But when had he become a man who mouthed empty words?

He hadn't, and he wouldn't, Shinn decided, grinding his teeth. That meant, then that he'd have to actually mean it when he apologized to that monster. He'd have to apologize for ridding the world of that menace.

It wasn't fair! There was no justice to it, he raged. He ought to be figuring out ways to bring Roanoke to justice. Roanoke had to pay somehow! If Roanoke spent his whole life repaying him, it wouldn't be enough, but at least it would be something. Shinn simply couldn't let Roanoke's monstrous deeds be forgotten. He had to avenge Stella and all those others who had died because of Roanoke. Roanoke had to experience twice the suffering all those people had undergone.

A maid, emerging from a room she had just cleaned, looked up at Shinn's face, gasped, and quickly hurried along to the next room, quickly closing the door.

Shinn paused a moment and stared after her, then kept walking. What had she seen that so frightened her? Was it his face? He wasn't some sort of monster! But he realized his thoughts had been taking a bit of a monstrous turn. Still, it couldn't be possible - he only wanted to see Roanoke brought to justice! But he was thinking so darkly just now. Somehow the situation today had ended without chaos, death and war, so why was he determined to reintroduce that horrid trio? Knowing that threesome so well as he did, why did he wish them to return to the world?

Before, he had told Kira that people always trampled the flowers, that suffering kept happening despite any wishes to prevent it. Shinn had never seriously imagined that it was possible that he could be one of the people who trampled the flowers, and that thought frightened him. He leaned against a wall and shivered, putting his hand over his mouth.

There was nothing else to do - he had to get rid of this horrible conviction, this terrible burden. He had to apologize for what he had been about to unleash upon the world. Shinn knew the piercing sadness of wars and losses that could never be regained, and he had nearly been ready to start a war with Orb, just to fulfill his own desires. Even when his first encounter with Roanoke had ended peacefully, he'd been the one who tried to reignite the fire.

Shinn lurched away from the wall and hurried down the hall, his footsteps marking a quick but uneven beat as the realization of what he was continued to wash through him.

Then he turned a corner, and Roanoke turned another corner, and they were facing each other.

Shinn looked him in the eyes, and said in a horrified voice, "I apologize."

That was it, then. He'd said it. It was done. Now that it was done, his desire for justice and his lust for vengeance leapt up again, outraged at this turn of events. They demanded their own chance to speak, to throw their own words in; a condemnation, just to let him know he really hadn't forgotten Roanoke's transgressions, or a threat, to put Roanoke in his place. But in his mind also was fear of what might occur if the Chairman were to hear of such words.

Above all this, he felt a calm alien to him. He could honorably leave things as they were. He'd followed the Chairman's orders more faithfully than he himself had expected to be able to five minutes ago. Shinn could go back to his room, close the door, and try to sleep the night away. He wouldn't have to deal with Roanoke any more, especially not once the conference was over and he left for the PLANTs. Things were closed between them, and though things were not as he might have wished, the numbness he now felt was better than the constant lashes of painful memory.

Shinn moved his foot to turn to go, but Roanoke's head had bowed to him, and a look of ineffable grief came across his face. "I'm very sorry." He took a breath and went on, "I'll never get to tell her that, so the least I could do was tell you."

Staring at him with a face of flint, Shinn realized that it wasn't quite over yet. This was the last thing that connected them, Roanoke's broken oath. Shinn's sense of justice was screaming most acutely now, that Roanoke was right to feel that way about what he'd done to Stella, and if that painful realization had to stay in Roanoke's mind for the rest of his life, it was only a splinter of what he deserved. The Chairman hadn't made any orders about this, and even if she had, it would've been laughable. No human leader could authorize a dead person to absolve a live one, nor order survivors to proffer solace to a monster when his debt was owed to the grave.

Besides, Roanoke was probably just looking for pity, wanting to make himself seem better than he truly was. Maybe he was trying to manipulate Shinn, or maybe he was under orders himself and was a good actor. Shinn didn't have any orders to hear out any lies, or any true remorse expressed several years too late.

Shinn swallowed hard. What would Stella have thought if she knew he simply let Roanoke's words drop to the ground? What would Shinn himself do with those last painful memories of Stella when he flung himself into sleep, as he longed to do? What if Roanoke were sincere? Shinn himself, he had just experienced the driving need to expunge himself of his wrongs. If he were to deny that to another person, would he get another chance to relieve himself, should he need it?

Then Shinn realized what he had to do. It didn't matter whether Roanoke was sincere or not, though he hoped for Roanoke's own sake he was. Shinn wasn't going to be the villain here. His mind had held on to more vileness in his life than anyone ever had a right to, and he'd be an idiot to carry it any farther. Shinn had been sure his righteousness, his justice, his vengeance would be an analgesic for the suffering of the wars and the betrayals, but it wasn't, so it was time to try something else. He was going to stop using the past to club and dictate to his present, and he wasn't going to deny anyone else that chance of freedom. If anyone refused to take that chance, that was their own problem. He was going to live differently now. There was enough sorrow in his life without constantly bathing in it.

Shinn began to say, but ended up shouting by the end, not in anger but in the intensity of his determination, "I apologize. I mistook you for someone else. But you, you killed Neo Roanoke, didn't you? Then I'm grateful to you!" Shinn had just enough time to see the look of stunned gratitude on Roanoke's face before he spun on his heel and went back to his room.

He'd said what he'd meant to, then. If that man had changed, had put aside Roanoke, then he was grateful. If not, then that was Roanoke's problem. It wasn't Shinn's concern any longer.

Maybe what the flowers needed, Shinn realized as he walked, was someone to watch over them. No one person, not even any group of people, could prevent the flowers from being trampled on, for sooner or later someone would, even accidentally. Perhaps the only option, then, was to water and weed the flowers, and when they were trampled, to restore what could be restored, and give a decent burial to what could not. It would never be easy to see such beauty laid in the cold earth, but it was better than the futile attempt to will it to life, or an unending hatred for those who had trampled it. In fact, Shinn had found that doing such things trampled the remaining flowers. If the sorrow was going to come anyway, then Shinn wanted to be one of the people known for restoring the joy, not for dragging the sorrow on and dredging it up year after long year.

From this day forward, no matter what happened to the flowers, Shinn would be there for them.

The next day, Cagalli firmly shook the hand of the Eurasian Premier. To Cagalli's left, Gen. Kisaka and the Eurasian military liaison were shaking hands, while on her right, the Eurasian Representatives were greeted by Orb's Representative Homura and another Representative.

The cameramen stood a short distance away, along with some of the security guards, and the cameras swiveled to follow the diplomats as they walked along the grassy path towards the palace.

At the moment, as Cagalli and the others were being cleared through one of the security checkpoints, the chatter between the representatives was cordial and conversational, about the weather and compliments on the palace and its grounds. Once they were inside, the conversation would remain neutral for some time longer, as she officially oversaw the introduction of the Eurasian representatives to the representatives from the PLANTS. Then, once they all entered the main meeting hall and the cameras were excluded, the tone of the conversation would change, even if it were to still sound cordial.

Cagalli refused to let such negative thoughts weigh her down. It was incredible that all three groups, who at various times in the past decade had been at war with each other, were able to sit down and have a peaceful discussion.

Admittedly, it was the need of the Eurasian Federation that had led them to the bargaining table, for they had suffered much in the last war, since Junius 7's breakup and then the Destroy Gundams had hit Eurasia particularly hard. The Atlantic Federation was as yet unready for such a meeting.

Yet Cagalli still held out some hope there. The Atlantic Federation's government officials, seeing the media appeal of her summit in progress, had been calling more and more frequently, trying to determine her amenability to meeting with them on terms they felt were more favorable. Her own Council had so far turned down the proposals, but in her private discussions with some of the representatives, she sensed that there was growing willingness to talk, since further war was less likely than at any time in recent memory. The willingness in her Council was slower to appear than it should've been, since the failure of the Seiran family's pro-Earth Alliance policies, and the clan's subsequent extinction, but Cagalli felt she was finally managing to balance the cabinet between the Earth Alliance and the PLANTs, and giving them both a fair chance.

They were inside now, and Lacus and the Joules and the rest of the PLANT delegation were entering the room. Cagalli prepared herself for the first introduction.

Two days afterwards, a news anchor smiled at the camera on the stagehand's cue. "Thank you for watching News Eurasia. This is the last day of the seminal three-way talks between Eurasia, Orb, and the PLANTs. We're now bringing you live footage from the palace's audience hall, where the Eurasian Federation's Premier is about to begin his speech."

The audience hall of the palace was a massive gallery, with many rows of seats, but it was filled to capacity on this day. Windows set high in the tall ceiling provided the morning's natural illumination for the crowd, who listened to the sonorous voice of the Eurasian Premier. Guards from Orb stood at attention in dress uniform along the walls and near Cagalli's seat to the side of the podium, listening absently while scanning the room for threats. The security details of the Premier and of Lacus hovered impressively behind their charges in black suits.

The negotiations had been long and difficult, but they were over, and all that remained was this series of speeches from each of the three leaders to take credit for their accomplishments. The exact format of this event had proven to be one of, if not the most, intractable and emotionally charged events to negotiate. After taking far longer than had been originally allotted for the planning, they had determined that the speech would be in this room, to the general public and assorted dignitaries, and that the Premier would speak first, then Lacus, then Cagalli.

The Premier concluded his speech, and there was polite applause. There was a camera flash as he shook Lacus' hand, then he returned to his seat and Lacus took the podium. She paused a moment, and when the room had settled, she began speaking in her melodious voice. The room grew ever stiller as she talked. A cloud crossed the sun, and the room darkened slightly.

In the audience, a man shifted slightly.

Lacus continued the opening of her speech, recalling the tragedy of the recent wars, in preparation for a contrast with the recent times of peace. Cagalli's mouth quirked - she wondered how people anywhere would react to this part, because she suspected that Lacus had some criticisms to level even of recent times. Even in peace, there lurked injustice, cruelty, and treachery.

A man in the audience drew a tiny, hidden pistol out of a coat pocket and aimed it at the podium, while shouting, "For the preservation-!" The man in the seat next to him suddenly realized what was transpiring, lunged, and grabbed the gunman's arm. The assassin's gun was forced down, and the pistol fired into the ground. There was the sharp ping of a ricochet as the assassin punched in the face the man restraining him. A moment later, more of the people around him began to fling themselves onto him, holding him down.

The room was now filled with screams and excited voices and people drawing weapons. The security details quickly formed huddles around their charges and began escorting them rapidly out of the room.

One of the Orb guards, seeing his chances fading away, took aim at the huddle containing Lacus and shouted the conclusion of his comrade's slogan, "-of our blue and pure world!" Before he could fire, however, an ashen-faced young Orb soldier frantically shot the treacherous comrade, then fired again and again before his superior ordered him to cease fire. The young man gulped, realizing that, having been too young for both previous wars, this was the first shot he had ever fired a shot in anger.

The soldiers slammed the bunker door shut behind Cagalli. Gen. Kisaka was shouting something excitedly to some of the soldiers while Cagalli scrambled to her seat and placed a headset on her head.

"Palace lockdown is complete," Gen. Kisaka said, rushing to her side, "but they're having some trouble calming down the audience chamber. At least one of our own was in on this, and it's making them nervous about trusting any of our guards."

Cagalli slammed the armrest of her chair with an open fist. Only the most trustworthy of her men were in the bunker with her now, so she was not concerned at the moment. It was the knowledge that citizens of Orb had been involved in this assassination attempt that left a bitter taste in her mouth. She had hoped that none of her people would still be captivated by Blue Cosmos' lies and prejudices to any degree, but clearly the evil had so far taken root that it could sprout up at any time, even in her own palace, and blossom into murder.

Clearly, she had failed.

"How are the Premier and Lacus?" Cagalli asked.

"Their choppers are away," an aide reported from a nearby workstation. "They're taking the planned route to the nearest military installations."

"Any injuries, fatalities?" Cagalli asked tightly.

Kisaka shook his head, "No word from the choppers yet, and the audience hall team still has their hands full."

Kira completed the prelaunch checklist and activated his cockpit microphone. "Freedom here, online," he reported between gasps. He had run all the way to the hidden hangar on the palace grounds as soon as he realized something was wrong. As usual, in order to avoid being seen, he hadn't been in the audience hall. It was hard for Kira to not be with Lacus when she had triumphal moments of her career, like today was supposed to be, and harder still when she was in danger, as had actually occurred today.

"Freedom, roger that," said the Terminal communications officer. "Cleared for liftoff at any time."

Kira sighed. It still didn't feel right, not hearing Miriallia as his CIC when he was in a mobile suit. He wished that she had chosen to come, but today was supposed to be the last day of negotiations, and tonight was the final event Cagalli planned to host, so it was looking more and more unlikely.

"Any word?" Kira asked tightly. Terminal's communication channels were secure, but careful communication was always the best course.

"Not yet," the communications officer replied.

Kira sighed again and slapped the armrests. He was sitting in the cockpit of one of the Strike Freedom, one of the most advanced mobile suits on the Earth or in the PLANTs, but his powers were still so limited. He didn't even know if Lacus or Cagalli were hurt, much less could he prevent their deaths in a situation like this. He simply had to be prepared for any further, larger-scale attacks.

He glanced towards the large, golden body of the Akatsuki, which Mu had just brought online, then at the giant red humanoid form of the Infinite Justice, still resting where Athrun had placed it when he entrusted it to them, just before his departure. One of Terminal's pilots had powered it on and was preparing to sortie with Kira and Mu if necessary. Kira sighed. "Athrun," he murmured.

The thunder of the helicopter's blades interfered with Lacus' concentration, as did her own thoughts. The last time something like this had happened, Meer Campbell had died in her place. Who else might have taken her place today? She calmed herself and maintained her composure as Cagalli's face appeared on the portable communications monitor she held.

"Lacus!" Cagalli exclaimed immediately. "Are you hurt? Is anyone in your party hurt?"

"No, we have sustained no injuries," Lacus assured her. "And yourself?"

Cagalli scowled, "We took a few injuries apprehending the assassins, but it doesn't sound like anything life-threatening. And I heard from the Premier's team, they're also well."

Lacus nodded. "I am extremely glad. I apologize for not contacting you sooner, but apparently Councilman Joule objected to being escorted to the safe zone and demanded a channel to me to assure my safety."

Cagalli's expression was mixed amusement and irritation, imagining the trouble Councilman Joule must've given her guards, then she replied, "Not necessary, Lacus." Cagalli frowned, then continued, "I'm the one who needs to apologize."

"It is not necessary for you to apologize for the actions of others," Lacus told her.

"I didn't mean for this to happen," Cagalli swallowed. "I, I thought I could protect you, Lacus. I thought Blue Cosmos had dwindled more than it has. But preliminary reports suggest that it was one of our own who let the assassin through security." Cagalli stared at her lap in shame.

Lacus shook her head. "I accepted your suggestion that we hold the talks in Orb for two reasons. It was proper symbolism, since the PLANTs did attack Orb in the last war. However, I knew that anti-Orb sentiment was running high in the PLANTs, triggered by memories of the last war. My security team's analysis bore out my hunch. You would've been in more danger had you been on Aprilius One than I was in your palace."

After a moment, Cagalli said, "Thank you." She added, "We were all very concerned."

"I appreciate it, as always," Lacus said, taking her meaning.

Kira breathed out in relief. The message had reached him only a moment ago, and he had not been sure it would ever arrive.

He refocused on the Freedom's readouts. Simply because Lacus and Cagalli were safe didn't mean that there wouldn't be more trouble on the horizon. There always seemed to be more trouble.

Later that afternoon, Dearka was standing in a sitting room, examining the photographs of foreign dignitaries and portraits scattered throughout the room. Security had given him a cursory questioning, but he and many other people had to wait for a great deal of time for that cursory questioning, and it was a relief to be alone instead of in the crowded waiting area.

The door opened behind him, then closed quietly. Dearka studied the person who had entered via the reflection in the photograph for a moment, then commented without turning around, "You missed all the excitement. That's not like you."

Miriallia took a seat and commented, "Excitement always finds me, I simply accept it."

"That's why you planned a photo shoot in the Amazon, right?" Dearka teased as he turned to face her. "So, how did it go?"

"Better than I expected," she said coolly. "Our crew all caught intestinal diseases, but not at the same time. And how is everyone here, especially after all the excitement?"

"Likewise, better than I expected," he told her. "Nobody died, and it mostly ended up being the Blue Cosmos assailants who were injured. Lousy timing, though. I was looking forward to hearing Chairman Clyne's speech. Representative Attha's, too, for that matter."

She nodded. "From all the news I've seen, there's more interest than ever in hearing what they have to say."

Dearka took a seat and continued studying her. It didn't help much - her face was as unreadable and neutral as ever. He had only rarely seen her even the least bit happy, as though she kept such things inside, where they wouldn't reach her face. Kira and Cagalli had mentioned once that Miriallia had been able to laugh, at one time. This was before he'd ever met Miriallia, of course, and of course, before Tolle had died. Dearka shook his head, giving it up - he'd never been good at reading her face. Maybe there was a ghost of a smile on seeing him, maybe not.

"So, what are you thinking?" he asked.

"I'm thinking you're more used to this than I am," Miriallia commented, gesturing at the room around them.

Dearka cocked his head.

"Your family's more used to political activity," Miriallia commented. "When I was growing up, the idea that, well, that I'd be inside the palace of Orb for more than an hour's field trip would've been ludicrous. Having served with the Chief Representative on a mobile suit carrier, then being invited to visit at her palace," she shook her head, "wasn't even a daydream."

"And yet it happened," Dearka commented.

"That it did," she agreed, and lapsed into a thoughtful silence.

Dearka decided that it was unlikely that he'd learn anytime soon why she had chosen to make an appearance, and decided that it didn't really matter. He'd learned by this point to take what he could get.

Chapter 3 Main Chapters Chapter 5