by: Shoori

Marking it Down to Learning + Chapter 17
The Long Road to Redemption

Zechs shifted slightly, frowning as he found himself moving even closer to the edge of the chair he was perched on. He supposed that the tension in the room was affecting him.

His frown deepened. How could it not be affecting him? His light blue gaze moved slowly across the other occupants of the large living room that formed the central space of the townhouse the five Gundam pilots shared, the room that had now been converted to the Preventer's main base of operations for the mission against the Order.

Une sat in a large armchair across the room from him, scowling impartially at the three former pilots. Since none of them were paying any attention to her, however, her non-verbal signs of irritation were rather wasted. That just seemed to be irritating her more.

Une hadn't taken well to the news that Duo was apparently ensconced as one of the Order's prostitutes. At first, she'd been convinced that it was part of a plot that the Gundam pilots had cooked up between them to infiltrate the Order behind her back and without her knowledge. She'd ranted and raged and refused to listen to anyone's explanations, until a few cutting comments from Trowa cut off the barrage of accusations she'd been lashing at all of them. Once she'd realized that, so far as any of them knew, Duo's presence within the Order was nothing but a horrific coincidence, she'd shifted her fury to the absent pilot, denouncing his skills and sense and behavior in such a barbed and frankly bitchy manner that even Zechs, who'd had to work closely with her in many different capacities for years, was amazed.

That time, Trowa had had to be physically restrained as he leapt at her.

Zech's penetrating gaze moved to the former acrobat. His eyes narrowed as he watched the other man. Trowa reminded him of the lions the younger man had once tended. His lean body radiated the same aura of barely repressed, rigidly contained power and menace as the caged animals Zechs remembered seeing at the circus. Trowa's fists were tightly clenched, and he moved back and forth with a fluidity that only seemed to somehow accentuate the tightly coiled rage that Zechs knew could easily boil forth any minute. Trowa's green eyes blazed with anger and frustration, and Zechs was uneasily aware that the other man could snap again at any minute.

Somehow, Heero's anger was easier to deal with. The Japanese man was angry too, but his anger had been expressed through shouts, curses, and a few physical manifestations, to which the freshly punched holes in the living room wall paid mute testimony. But Heero's anger had run its course and burned through quickly, and now the former pilot's mouth was set in a tight line of determination as he sat in front of his laptop, fingers flying over the keys as he ran through the new data they'd accrued that day, working on revamping and upgrading the map of the Order's facility. The stakes in penetrating the organization had abruptly gone up, and Heero was determined to accelerate their timetable.

Wufei stood by the window, his back to the glass, his arms folded impassively across his chest. His face was expressionless, his gaze flat. But beneath the seeming detachment, there was a sense of readiness. His emotionless gaze followed Trowa in the other man's angry pacings around the room, and Zechs knew that the Chinese man was watching his lover, waiting to intervene if that rage that Trowa seemed so barely able to contain suddenly erupted.

Zechs was uncomfortable. There were so many variables here, so many loose ends not to say loose cannons that could resolve themselves in such a myriad of unpredictable ways. The pilots were all tense to the point of breaking, worried about Quatre, about Duo, about each other, and, Zechs guessed, about things of which he knew nothing. He didn't know in what state Quatre would arrive home, didn't know how the others would react to seeing him... He didn't know. And he wasn't used to not knowing.

His frown deepened again as his gaze returned to Heero, and he watched the other man almost enviously. Heero had immediately thought of something to do, and he was doing it. He had turned away from all the almost-naked emotion flooding the room, and was concentrating on the computer program. He was doing something constructive.

Zechs hadn't been able to think of anything to do, to say, to act upon.

He wanted to. He only felt control over a situation when he had some idea of how to handle its variables. Without a plan of action, he was at a loss.

And Zechs didn't like being at a loss.

For eight years, he'd worked feverishly to ensure that he would never be in that state again.

Actually, he supposed that that wasn't quite accurate.

For some time nearly two years, in fact - he'd had no plan at all.

He'd had nothing.

He'd lived alone on a small colony more like a satellite, actually and he did nothing.

He prepared meals, because he'd been rigidly trained all his life that eating was what you did at certain times of day.

He'd slept, for the same reason.

But he'd done nothing else. He'd sat alone, in the dark, in the cold, and waited.

He'd been pulled out of his seclusion to fight in the Eve Wars, but once they were over, he'd returned to his solitude.

One day, Relena had shown up and asked him what he was waiting for.

He'd stared at her for a long time but hadn't bothered to answer the question because he thought that the answer should be apparent.

He was waiting to die.

Since the moment he'd learned that Treize was dead, that was what he'd been waiting for.

Without the other man, and the promise of life Treize had brought him, Zechs had been waiting to die.

Treize had been one of the few things that Zechs had lived for since the day that Sanc had been attacked, its monarchs killed, its royal family destroyed.

Zechs had been six years old then, but he still dreamed about that day all the time.

He remembered the sudden crash, and the explosion that had rocked the walls of the palace.

He remembered the frightened retainers who dragged him from the schoolroom to the main courtyard where he'd stood helpless and watched his home burn.

He remembered the tight, pinched face of Dorlian, his father's retainer, as the man explained that he could hide Relena, but not him, not the boy who so resembled his dead father.

For years, Zechs had been passed around Europe, hidden by various noble families from different nations who had owed his father allegiance.

He had lived in their homes, and was raised with their children.

They paid for his tuition at the most exclusive of private schools, they bought him food and clothes and horses.

And guns. God help him, they bought him guns, and they taught him how to use them.

And use them he did. He learned to fly and to fight and to kill, and those lessons fanned the flame of hate and revenge that the fiery destruction of his home had ignited within his heart.

Those years were hard, despite the luxuries with which he was surrounded, and they were lonely, despite the constant parade of people who moved through his life, currying secret, cautious favor with him.

He was a curiosity to them, he knew. A boy without a father; a king without a country. It would be dangerous if anyone were discovered harboring him, but if he one day regained power, it would be dangerous to have been one who had spurned him. So he was at once courted and shunned, helped and pushed aside, forgotten.

Very few people had ever shown him true kindness or allegiance.

The Kushrenada family was among those few.

He had spent a lot of time with them they were willing to harbor him more frequently and for longer periods of time than anyone else was. He had been sent to their home for the first time when he was nine, and had been there for almost a year. He had returned again when he was eleven, and thirteen, and yearly from then on.

In Treize he'd found, for the first time in his life, a friend.

The older boy helped him with his studies, rode with him, talked with him as though he were an equal, not a higher-ranked "poor relation."

When they were apart, they corresponded, and Treize had convinced him to enter the Academy and study there to become an officer. When Treize began to rise to power, Zechs had been the natural choice to be his lieutenant. His loyalty to the other man had been cemented by that childhood closeness, and the other sort of closeness they had developed when Zechs was fifteen and Treize was twenty-one.

Zechs pushed himself back in his chair, closing his eyes and wearily rubbing one hand over his face. Why was he allowing himself to think about this now? It had no bearing on the current situation; none at all. But he couldn't stop the line of memories...

Twenty-one. God, he'd been so young... they'd both been so young. But Treize had not seemed young to him he'd been powerful and masterful and polished and perfect. And Zechs had fallen completely, utterly in love with the person he'd always worshipped.

Treize had pushed and tested that love over the course of the four years that followed. Time and again, Zechs had swallowed his own beliefs and ethics to follow in the path that the other man had set for him. Finally, there had come the irreparable breach, and Zechs had struck out, struck away from the man he loved.

But not forever! It wasn't supposed to be forever!

Their differences were ideological. They were differences in ideal and principle, and in the way each felt that the war they were embroiled in should be fought. Those differences were insurmountable in the confines of that conflict, but the conflict wouldn't last forever. So Zechs had left, but left knowing that one day he would return to Treize, if not to General Kushrenada.

But Treize had died. The one thing that Zechs had never even remotely considered had happened.

For he'd never thought that Treize would die. Treize couldn't die.

But he had.

Zechs was stunned, shaken to his core. In many ways, it was the nightmare of his childhood relived, where the one man he loved and looked up to, the man who was larger than life and more enduring, was suddenly, shockingly, ripped away from him.

He hadn't been able to believe it. Even after all this time, part of him was still screaming in denial.

It couldn't be.

Treize couldn't be dead.

But he was, and all that Zechs could think to do was to wait to join him.

Somehow, it never occurred to him to hasten the process. That wouldn't be right, somehow, wouldn't be playing by the rules of the game. Treize wouldn't have approved.

But he hadn't been able to think of anything else to do. Until Relena had come, and forced him back into the world. She'd delivered Sanc back to him, given him a focus and a purpose and a piece of the life that he'd thought he'd lost forever.

But he was still alone, still cold... still waiting. He had more to do while he waited, but he still was in stasis, still merely existing until the time came when his wait would be over.

In the last month, though, that had begun to change.

And of all people to bring him back, that it should be Chang Wufei was an amazing irony.

Wufei had been one of those things that he and Treize had disagreed on, one of the many disagreements that Treize had emerged from victorious. Treize had wanted the young man, wanted to revel in that fierce warrior spirit the Chinese boy had radiated so proudly.

Zechs hadn't wanted anything more than Treize, and, though he hadn't said it, had been a little hurt that he wasn't enough for the older man.

Treize hadn't addressed that directly, but Zechs always felt he knew it, and that's why he had pulled him along into his plan of seduction.

His very thorough plan of seduction.

Before Zechs really knew what was happening and certainly before Wufei did the three of them were lovers. Treize had never physically forced Wufei to do anything, but the Chinese pilot had certainly never intended to take a man much less two men as a lover, before he found himself between Treize and Zechs in the General's large bed.

For several months, while the forces of OZ fought the Gundam pilots, the three men fought by day, and fought a different sort of battle by night.

The turmoil it caused the youngest man was practically tangible, but again and again he proved unable to withstand the temptation Treize presented, and again and again he returned to them.

The tension that the bizarre relationship caused between Treize and Zechs was one of the determining factors in Zechs' decision to leave OZ, and Treize, behind.

Then, it was Wufei who killed Treize, thereby eliminating the possibility of the future that Zechs had dared to dream he might have with the older man.

But it was Wufei who came to him several weeks ago, and determinedly broke through the walls that had been shielding Zechs since Treize's death eight years before. It was Wufei who touched him as he hadn't been touched since the last night he spent with Treize. And it was Wufei who, the next morning, had packed his bag and brought him to the townhouse where he lived with his other lovers, announcing that Zechs would stay with them until he decided what he wanted to do next.

Quatre, Heero and Trowa had been a bit nonplussed by the sudden announcement that the former Lightening Count would be staying with them, though not nearly as much so as Zechs was himself. But within a day or two, much to Zechs' surprise, they'd seemed to completely adjust to his presence.

A day or two after that, when Wufei was with Zechs in one of the many bedrooms, continuing his campaign to make up for the older man's eight years of celibacy, Heero had wandered into the room and nonchalantly joined them.

The next night Quatre had come too, and a few days later he'd brought Trowa with him.

Zechs had gone from complete abstinence to sleeping with four men in less than two weeks.

He was still reeling.

But he wasn't under any illusions. He wasn't part of what the others had built over the last several years. It was just... Well, he was there, for one. For another, they pitied him. He was certain that Wufei had told them his story, and possibly even enlisted their help in his plan to bring Zechs back to the world.

Also, he thought, he was probably something of a fill-in, a temporary replacement for the other of their number whom they were all so desperate to find. In some small way, his presence probably helped to fill the gaping hole that had been left by Duo's absence.

Far from upsetting or angering him, he was grateful that he could do that for them. By all rights, they should hate him everyone should hate him for the things he had done in the war. Instead, they took him into their home, into their confidence, and into their bed. If his presence lessened the pain of their loss any, he was glad of it.

But he wasn't certain how he fit with them, what part if any he should or was entitled to play in their personal affairs.

Quatre's pain since he had begun his infiltration of the Order was almost palpable. He'd been there, offering the silent support of his presence, as Heero and Trowa and Wufei tried to figure out how to help the Arabian. But they hadn't asked for his input, and he hadn't offered it. He'd seen Quatre get paler and thinner and more miserable, but the other blond hadn't asked for his help, and so he'd extended no offer.

But now... The situation now was infinitely worse than it had been. And, as he continued to watch the other pilots, he realized that none of them were really in any condition to determine how they could or should deal with the situation that had suddenly exploded on them.

Perhaps now it behooved him to take action.

But... he didn't know. He didn't know if that would be overstepping his bounds, or what the consequences would be if he did.

All he knew was that he didn't want to hurt any of them again. He already lived beneath a burden of regret so heavy that sometimes he felt he could hardly bear its weight. He didn't want to do anything that would add to it.

Suddenly, there was a stir at the doorway, and everyone's eyes riveted to the man who had just entered the room.

Quatre looked awful. His skin was chalky white, and he looked exhausted and ill. Zechs' sharp gaze noted the slight tremors that racked the other man's body. He looked ready to collapse.

Quatre wasn't looking at him, though. He was staring across the room at Trowa, who had stopped mid-stride when the Arabian entered the room. The two men stared at each other for a long moment, and Zechs saw Quatre flinch at the cold anger in the glare Trowa was directing at him. Trowa's fists clenched again, convulsively, and Quatre's eyes closed, his face contorting with pain.

Zechs reflexively stood up, as Wufei started across the room. Since the start of the operation, Quatre had never visibly displayed that much distress. He must be very near the breaking point to be showing it now.

"Hey, guys."

Quatre's voice, light and disconcertingly normal, broke the tightly stretched silence in the room. Zechs frowned at him the blond was still standing in the same spot, swaying with fatigue and reaction, his eyes still tightly closed. But his voice betrayed none of the turmoil he was so obviously feeling.

Wufei stopped halfway across the room, frustration written across his features. He wanted to address this problem. But Quatre hadn't been checked yet they didn't know if he was clean, or if the Order had somehow managed to plant some kind of tracing device on him. And until the Preventers team had checked him out, they all had to speak and act perfectly naturally.

"Hey, Q," Heero said lightly. The blue-eyed man was still sitting in his chair, but had turned around and was staring at Quatre.

Wufei glanced at Trowa, but the auburn-haired man set his jaw and glared at the floor, not speaking.

"How was your day?" Wufei asked after a moment, and Zechs winced. He could only hope that someone who didn't know Wufei wouldn't recognize the tension in the other man's voice.

"Rather long, actually. If you don't mind, I'm just going to go pass out," Quatre announced.

Zechs blinked in surprise. Quatre usually made an immense effort to talk, to chat as though he hadn't just been in a brothel. If he couldn't summon enough of his impressive control to provide his cover...

Wufei was alarmed too, if the expression on his face was any indication. But he replied easily. "Of course not... We'll be in in a bit."

"Good night, then!" Quatre managed cheerfully, before his knees gave out.

A few of the Preventers who had trickled in behind him caught him, and soundlessly pulled him over to the sofa. Zechs turned away as they systematically began to strip him, took his clothes away, ran various instruments over his body and through his hair, searching for any small, concealed device. They carried him over to a machine and strapped him in, searching with X-rays through the layers of his skin, making sure nothing had been hidden anywhere within him.

Through it all, Zechs sat helplessly, unable to make any noise that would betray his presence or their intent. The searchers had to move slowly, so as not to make any sounds that would indicate to any listeners that they were there, or searching for a recording device. The process was slow and tedious, and the sheer indignity of it was awful.

Finally, after more than an hour, one of the team spoke.

"He's clean," he announced succinctly, and he and the others turned and left the room.

Heero rose to his feet and walked over to Quatre, and pulled the other man to his feet, wrapping a white robe that had been set on the sofa around the taller man's strong frame, tying it securely around Quatre's waist.