Cagalli Yula Athha: the girl behind the tough front. This is what she thinks of love and heroism. As for princesses? She doesn't like them.
There are many other things she is looking for, of course (the right words to get through to her father, a way to fix the world, and a gun that fits her hands just right, to name a few), but somehow, somewhere along the line, love slipped in there as well.
It probably started when she was very little, and her father's eyes were still as blameless as his arms were strong. She used to curl up in bed and listen as he read her stories of heroes and princesses, some old and some new.
Cagalli was never quite sure whether she wanted to be the hero or the princess. She still isn't. Not that she believes in heroes and princesses anymore. She hates being a princess, and she doesn't think she's very good at being a hero, either.
She doesn't remember when she stopped believing in princesses. It was a long time ago. She learns quickly, after all. But she believes in heroes for a while yet after that. In fact, she only stops when she sees the mobile suits poised in the heart of Heliopolis, because that is when she knows that her father has betrayed everything he stood for, and her father was meant to be the greatest hero of all.
After that, she has no princesses and no heroes to stay at her side in her heart. All she has is love, and she doesn't even know where to start looking for that. What does it look like, anyway? What does it feel like?
In the long run, though, love isn't as important as all the other things. So she sets it aside for now and decides to try to recreate a hero in herself, even though it seems an impossible cause. As soon as the solid earth is under her feet again, she joins the Desert Dawn. She fights with them. She becomes friends with them.
She watches them die.
Kira and his friends are there, being heroes. She does everything she can to be a hero herself--it isn't enough. Ahmed still dies, and at the last, he gives her a gift: he gives her love.
So now she knows what love is: it's a cold stone to tuck away, forever raw and unfinished. Right?
She takes the malachite ore out as soon as she gets a chance, and she studies it under the desert sunlight. She turns it every which way, trying to see some hope in its chipped edges. She can't find anything. It's just a lump of stone. She thinks maybe love is like that--a pretty bauble that people amuse themselves with. How silly, that once she thought love was something that could inspire heroes and save princesses.
But then she looks at Kira, and she begins to wonder if perhaps it is something else. She wonders if it is the way her heart speeds up when she's close to him, the way she reaches out to him and feels like she's reaching for the other half of her own soul. Is love something so pure and deep?
(The funny thing is, when she's on the island with Athrun and his thoughtful gaze, she doesn't think of love for a moment. What she feels there is too raw, too real. And there is no hero and no princess--only two confused and angry kids, weapons in their hands and hearts in their throats.)
(But all the same they put their weapons down, and perhaps they almost hold each other.)
And then Kira is dead.
She almost can't comprehend it. Is this what love is? Is love watching them all die, one after another? Is that what heroes get?
Cagalli wants to destroy the one who did it--but she looks at him, the gun trembling in her hand, and she's not sure she can. He still has the same thoughtful eyes, but they're haunted now.
No. She can do it. But she doesn't. Because she thought she could be a hero, but now she just doesn't want anyone else to die. And all she can do to make that happen is put down her gun.
I want to protect you, she would tell him if she thought it would mean anything. But in the end, all she can do is tell him to stop killing. Maybe that can be enough for now.
It is only afterwards, once she's walked away with the tears still hot in her throat, that she wonders how much love was caught in the pendant she slipped around his neck. She wonders if it will be any good for protecting him. Her love hasn't exactly done much good in the past.
Though she walks away from Athrun with nothing gained and one pendant lost, she feels like he's left something in her, too. An ache she can't get rid of--the awareness of everyone's pain. Of course she's always known that people were out there hurting, and she's always wanted to be one of the ones to stop it.
(So does he. She knows that when she looks at him. Maybe that's why it's so easy to admit it around him.)
The ache doesn't go away. At night when she lies in bed it gets worse, and the only way to ease it is to remember a lovely island lost in a great wide ocean, where two people looked at each other, saw each other, and put down their weapons.
(She doesn't know, yet, that she's thinking of love. It doesn't look like love from here.)
The ache doesn't dissolve to tolerable levels (not go away, it doesn't go away, it's always there and now she's realizing that it's always been there for as long as she's known of war and pain in this world) until she has her arms around Kira and she's knocking him to the floor and holding him there, pinned beneath her where he's safe.
And there she realizes that although she no longer wants to touch him quite so much, no longer wants to pull him into her arms and kiss him mouth to mouth, she still loves him. This is a love she wasn't looking for, but she found it all the same.
She almost thinks it's all right, that she can do without the fairytale love, that this is enough. Maybe there is no love and there are no heroes, only stupid kids who go around getting themselves killed and doing their best not to kill too many others.
But at night, thinking of that island in the middle of the glimmering sea still helps her sleep, and sometimes she almost thinks there's someone next to her.
The first time she begins to believe in heroes again since seeing the mobile suits in Heliopolis is when she sees Athrun and Kira descend together to the shores of Orb from their new mobile suits. It is the sort of thing that would make Athrun muse about irony, really. And perhaps what she does to them then, perhaps the way she holds them, is inappropriate--
--or maybe it's just what they need. She doesn't stop to thing about it. She only grabs them both, and for a moment, she thinks she knows what love is, love in all its aspects--
--and then it's gone. But it is a beautiful moment.
She keeps fighting. When she loses her father and is left with only Kira (but perhaps Athrun as well, although it's strange that she should think that), she cannot help but be glad for that moment, for without it she is afraid she would be lost again, adrift upon a sea with no lovely island in its middle.
Her father is gone, but there are still heroes.
And yet she is still not sure what love looks like.
When Lacus arrives, she thinks that maybe that's what love looks like: a beautiful girl reaching out for Kira like that, making him smile.
That's why she bursts into Athrun's quarters and demands that he tell her.
"What?" he asks, blinking slowly at her as he stands.
"Are they in love?"
He sits back down, rather slowly now. "I don't know," he says.
She looks at him this time, and she realizes that it's not because he doesn't know Kira, not because he doesn't know Lacus. It's because he's like her: he doesn't know love. "Yeah," she says. Then, before she can stop herself: "I hope they are."
She wants them to be happy. That's part of what love is. Even if she never knows the whole of it, at least she knows that much.
Here is another secret Cagalli Yula Athha has never told anyone, and one she never will: when Athrun Zala kisses her, she is too much in shock to really think about what it feels like. But when it is over, she knows she wants another one.
More than that, she wants him, whole and intact and smiling the way Lacus wants Kira, and she will go to any lengths to see him that way.
As she climbs from her mobile suit in the aftermath of battle, holding him tight against her, she looks up and she sees the whole of love steadfast in the middle of the world like an island in the middle of the sea:
Love is knowing when to put your gun down, and then knowing that you'll pick it up again, and why. Love is knowing when to let your man go and when to hold him tight and pull him away from his own fate.
Love is what makes the heroes who save the world.
And she smiles, then, as she feels the beat of Athrun's heart against hers, because that's the way she's always wanted it.