Milly began to stifle a yawn and then changed her mind and let it run its natural course as she floated down the hallway from the bridge. Her shift had just ended and she was happy to relax. The jump from Earth gravity back to space was a bit of a jolt, even if she had spent most of her life on a colony, where gravity was always a relative thing.
More than the physical stress, the events on Orb had wrung out her psyche. The Earth Alliance's invasion, Chief Representative Uzumi's announcement, the scrambled farewells to her parents and Kuzzey and to her home.
And then of course there was... Tolle. And what Kira had said.
She swung into the elevator, and it was a testament to how lost in thought she was that she didn't register the presence of someone already inside it until the elevator doors started closing. She would have preferred to be alone at the moment, but unfortunately she recognized the person, the name springing instantly to her mind as if it were printed in neat letters above his head.
Even then it wouldn't have mattered much (she could have made do with a smile or a few seconds of small talk if necessary) if it weren't for the fact that he was the last person on the entire ship - perhaps in the entire universe - that she wanted to meet.
Athrun Zala. ZAFT MS pilot. Supposedly Kira's best friend.
... and killer of her boyfriend.
He inclines his head to her, an impeccable move that any diplomat would envy. She is reminded that he is also son of Patrick Zala, the head of PLANT. She wonders with momentarily narrowed eyes if he aspires to his father's 'greatness'.
He makes no further move to interact with her, for which she is grateful, and she turns her back to him, pressing the floor for the womens' dorms as casually as she can.
They ride in silence as any pair of strangers on an elevator would, and her breathing is just beginning to smooth out when the elevator seems to slow for a fraction of a second. And then there is an infinitesimal shudder. And then it simply - stops. The lights flicker, and then dim but do not darken.
Instinctively, she seeks out the elevator's control panel. Movement behind her makes her whip around, but the ZAFT pilot is only propelling himself towards the same objective. He presses the Call button and speaks into the microphone with precise military diction.
"This is Athrun Zala from C block elevator 3. Our elevator has stopped unexpectedly. Requesting a status report."
Milly looks at him strangely. Fancy reporting an elevator malfunction as if it were a battle log.
The intercom crackles to life and a carelessly professional voice answers, "Athrun Zala, this is C block engineering. Is it just you in there?"
"Including myself, there are two passengers. We're unhurt."
"Sure, okay. There was a generator malfunction. Not an attack, so nothing to worry you pilot types. We should have the problem fixed within twenty minutes."
"Understood." He releases the Call button and pushes back. Milly experiences a mild shock when he turns his serious eyes on her. "I guess we'll be here for a little while," he says.
I hope nobody needs to go to the bathroom, Tolle would have added. The thought comes unbiddingly to Milly's mind, and she turns her eyes away from him without responding.
Twenty minutes pass and there is no change.
He goes to the control panel and again, he pushes the red Call button with one precise forefinger. "Engineering, this is Athrun Zala from C block elevator 3. The elevator is still stopped. Requesting a status report."
The reponse is slow in coming and noncommital: "Hi, Athrun Zala. We're working on it. Give us another twenty, and it should be okay."
Neither his expression nor his tone change. With a sense of exasperated acceptance, Milly sits and settles herself for the wait. She allows herself the selfish wish that her shift had been starting instead of having just ended.
But what does she have to do with her personal time, anyway?
The auxiliary power is weak and the temperature drops surprisingly quickly. She finds herself huddling with her arms wrapped around her legs.
She is aware of movement just before something wraps around her shoulders. She looks down before she looks up, noting the orange Orb jacket before seeing the figure of her temporary companion turning away.
She doesn't know what to say.
The jacket is warm.
Another fifteen minutes pass before he goes to the control panel again and presses Call. The slightest of frowns creases a vertical line down his pale forehead. "Engineering," he says. "This is Athrun Zala from C block elevator 3. The passenger here with me is from the bridge. Requesting support to send her out if repair of the elevator is not possible within a reasonable amount of time."
Milly is angry that he seems to be invoking her as an excuse, without her permission. What does he think he is doing?
There is a pause before the voice returns, with an apologetic air there that had been absent before. "Sorry for the wait. We have a good idea of where the problem is. Please bear with us a little longer. It'll be another fifteen minutes, tops."
Milly is shocked. She remembers suddenly that Athrun Zala rarely travels around the Archangel with any company aside from Kira.
Nothing to worry you pilot types.
She watches him frown at the control panel with the same unchanging expression. He pushes the Call button again to say, "Understood." Then he pushes back to lean against the back wall.
She avoids his gaze.
A few minutes pass.
"You're CIC, right?" he says suddenly. "I've seen you on the bridge." She starts and responds with a nod, but she refuses to look up. If she looks into the face of Athrun Zala, she feels that she will want to hurt him. And she doesn't want that feeling. She wants to remain strong.
Then she remembers that whatever her personal feelings, he is now one of the members of this ship. She volunteered to enlist when everyone else did. She will not neglect her duty.
And she is wearing his jacket, for god's sake.
"I handle communications with the mobile suits," she says. Athrun Zala is a MS pilot. It will help in future battles if he recognizes her.
"Understood." It is the same tone that he used with the C block engineering crew. Despite herself, she looks up at him and catches his profile in the dim emergency lighting. He is not looking at her, but she can see his assessment of her feelings as clearly as if he had spoken them out loud. She is tempted to let him continue to believe what he does. It would make everything so much simpler.
But Milly's innate sense of honesty will not let her.
"I'm not like them," she says. His eyes do not shift from the floor. "I don't hate Coordinators."
"Of course," he says, the epitome of politeness, if it weren't for his unbending posture. She can almost hear him completing the sentence: 'Of course you don't hate us while we're risking our lives for you.' Milly feels indignant at his close-faced assumptions.
"Kira is a Coordinator." She says it like a challenge.
He stiffens. "Lieutenant Yamato," he says. That makes no sense, and she is confused, until she understands what he means by it.
"I can call him whatever I like," she retorts. What does it have to do with him, after all, what she wants to call her friends?
Unexpectedly, he turns to her with cold eyes. The muscles around his mouth are tight and angry.
"Why?" he says. "Because he's your little Coordinator attack dog? Because he jumps to attention when you call him by name? Tell me, is it fun ordering him around on the battlefield, knowing that he could die at any moment to protect all of you? Has it ever occurred to you that he was forced into this precisely because you're all too weak to defend yourselves?"
She is taken aback by his tirade. And then she is infuriated by it.
What kind of person does he think she is? She, who has all the reason in the world to hate him, who has been making explanations to herself on his behalf for all this time.
How dare he?
"Listen, you," she snaps. "I've known Kira for over a year, and the fact that we're friends has nothing to do with him being a Coordinator, much less with me being able to- to 'use' him. From how he talks of you, I thought you'd be a much better person, but so far you're just feeding the stereotype of the arrogant, self-centered Coordinator."
He stares at her for several long seconds, and then he blinks rapidly and looks puzzled and flushed. For the first time, his face relaxes somewhat and he looks unsure. "You're... one of Kira's friends? But..."
Milly is about to say, "Of course!" How could he not know by now?
But then she realizes that she has been avoiding Kira lately, precisely because she didn't want to chance running into Athrun Zala. And she realizes that there would be no reason for Kira or anyone else to mention her to him. It would only have been grounds for awkward questions.
She had always assumed somehow that everyone must have been whispering, exchanging words of pity about her behind her back. But she knows her friends, and now that she thinks about it, that can't be true.
Oh, Milly, who's being arrogant and self-centered now?
She can only nod and answer, "Yes. I'm worried sick everytime he goes out."
In the last half an hour, Athrun Zala has changed from polite gentleman to ZAFT soldier and now to embarassed boy. She wonders at the transformation as he says, "I didn't know." He stares at the floor, his expression tightening again. "I've heard some things being said on this ship that I don't like."
Milly has heard them too. She is reminded that Athrun Zala has known Kira for much longer than she has, that despite the mind-boggling fact that they had been trying to kill each other for the past few months, they have managed to remain friends. She wonders how many friendships can survive something like that. It's not hard to imagine from his expression that he must feel each snide insult and derogatory remark about his friend like a personal slap in the face.
Milly knows this because Tolle was just the same way.
"They can't help being ignorant," she sighs, as she always used to sigh to Tolle. It never makes her feel any less helpless, but she has always wanted to be practical. "At least they usually don't say anything where Kira can hear."
"He's not stupid," he snaps. It sounds like he has made this argument often in the past.
"Of course not," she returns. She is angry that he should assume that she does not care, that she is excusing the people who say things about Kira behind his back, or that she doesn't understand that Kira only pretends to be oblivious to it. "But what can you do? Coordinators killed a lot of our people."
She refuses in Athrun Zala's presence to put names to those people, even in her head.
"The Naturals killed first," he says. His voice is hard. And stubborn. This, also, is an argument he has evidently made often.
"I know," she says. Everyone knows. "But does it matter anymore?" Now that both sides are bent on exterminating each other, does it really matter anymore who started it?
His fists clench, and his lean, muscled arms, bared by the non-OMNI issue T-shirt he wears under his doffed jacket, are shaking with the strain. "It shouldn't," he says.
It shouldn't matter. But it does, and he is trying not to let it.
She doesn't want it to matter, but it does.
It isn't fair, she thinks, that she of all people should understand how he is feeling.
He turns his face resolutely to the corner, and Milly begins to think that their conversation has ended, until he says,
"I'm sorry about..."
She experiences a moment of panic, and she cannot breathe. He knows after all, she thinks. She is frantic. If they start talking about Tolle, she will have to hate him. There is nowhere to run.
"...about Heliopolis," he continues. Her breath chokes in her throat. She feels a sharp sting of disappointment that she tells herself is actually relief.
"It doesn't matter anymore," she says. This time, she is the one whose voice is hard and unyielding.
Don't invade others. Do not allow others to invade us. That was her country's motto. Her country, not the Earth Alliance's. It is something that she believes in, something that she fights for. It is something to protect, just like her friends and family are.
He nods. He thinks that he understands, and maybe he does. And then again, maybe he doesn't.
The lights flicker and brighten, and the elevator hums. A moment later, it is descending smoothly again.
Milly stands. She takes off his jacket and folds it carefully over her arm before offering it back.
She examines her feelings and is satisfied that she does not hate Athrun Zala. She is equally satisfied to find that she doesn't like him either. He is arrogant and stubborn and stand-offish, she tells herself.
"Goodnight, Athrun," she says, as the elevator dings, having reached her floor.
His green-blue eyes widen a fraction before he takes his jacket back. She wonders for a moment how much his parents paid for his startling eyes and unnaturally blue hair, or if, being a Coordinator, he had simply been born that way by chance.
"Goodnight, ..." He falters.
"Miriallia," she supplies.
"...Miriallia." She feels his eyes on her as she glides out of the elevator.
Before the elevator doors close, she turns and catches them with one hand. She can be an impulsive person sometimes, she reflects. Athrun looks at her with clear surprise, looking very young, and reminding her of Kira or Ssigh or any other boy she might meet on the street.
"Call me Milly," she tells him, and she let the doors shut.