Author: pyrzm
see ch. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Broken Warriors + Chapter 39
Hollow Man

Usually an evening of mindless fucking made Zechs sleep like a baby. It was a habit he'd picked up his last year in the Academy. It had helped get him through the war. Not that it had been so mindless and anonymous in the early days. He used to tell himself it was better with someone you cared about. It had been easier before he was an officer. It wore on the soul, to enjoy a young man's company and his body, and then send him out to die. First Walker, then poor Otto. After that, the faces began to blur and names didn't really matter. Just as well.

He'd taken up where he left off a couple of weeks ago. It started with a need to prove to himself that he could come and go as he pleased, and to hell what Relena or her hired guns thought. After a lifetime devoted to duty and discipline, saying "fuck it" felt quite good. It was one of the few things he could still feel anymore and it hit like a drug. So did finding himself back in that club down in Le Fleur. The trouble with drugs was that sooner or later you had to take more and more to get the effect.

Maybe that's why it hadn't worked this time and he was still awake and pacing the floor at dawn, with a million images from the past few days playing in an endless loop in his head? Or maybe it was Chang, with his disapproval and comic shock and that body that moved easily as a swaying willow when he let it . . .

He'd known who Chang was the moment Une brought him into that holding room on L-4. He'd wanted to hate him, and had managed to do so for a few days, But it seemed he still had enough tattered honor left to admit that it was sorrow and jealousy, not hatred, that made it so hard to be around the young man. He, Zechs Merquise, should have dueled with Treize, given the man that much respect for making him into the man he was. Pride and lunacy had denied them both that final match. It wasn't like Chang had taken any satisfaction in it. He'd wept, for god's sake!

So he would not hate the boy. Instead, he'd found himself picking at him, trying to crack that austere, stick-up-the-ass attitude. He really did play that "inscrutable Asian" act to the hilt.

Zechs had plenty of practice testing young soldiers, finding their weak points, pressing on raw nerves to see how much it took to make them break. With perverse delight, he found a good many weak points in little Chang's defenses. He was already getting bored with the game when Chang pulled the most amazing recovery. And with poetry, no less, and philosophy! Not to mention his grasp of fighting techniques. A part of Zechs's soul that had been MIA since the explosion suddenly sent up a flare. If this boy had turned up as an Academy cadet, there would have been fistfights among the instructors to get him. All that talent and potential, packed into a tight, pretty little porcelain doll body. Zechs Merquise would have made certain that cadet ended up on his training roster, and in his bed.

How ironic to end up with that deadly, battle-scarred little doll as one of his paid keepers.

Chang was useful, resourceful, and had more spirit left than Zechs had initially given him credit for. This became painfully obvious when he let Chang goad him into sparring practice. That had been a bit humbling; only stubborn pride had kept him from quitting the first day. Chang's honor and his patience had impressed him, he had to admit.

Still, it was fun to poke and pry at the edges of the boy's personality. He was turning out to be-- and the cliche was simply unavoidable-- one of those sets of Chinese nested boxes. He was finding it entertaining to try and get through the layers.

That didn't explain why he'd dragged the boy off to Le Fleur with him.

Relena's visit had left him in a foul mood. What lovely dinner conversation they'd shared, with Po and Chang as witnesses. Perhaps if Chang hadn't been there to hear. Perhaps if he hadn't seemed so embarrassed and sympathetic. Perhaps if he hadn't revealed such a tempting naivete, with his verses to lost love and dead wives.

So, in his bloody-minded mood, Zechs decided to catch the kid off guard and see if he could open his eyes a little. Let him be the Lightning Count's doll to play with for an evening. God knows he'd been easy prey.

That wasn't why the fun gradually drained from the exercise, or why dawn found the ghost of the Lightning Count shambling around the grounds, shoes soaked with dew. He could have been content to gloat over the shocked look on Chang's face when he caught him fucking that first man. Had Chang noticed that his little appetizer was also Asian? And it had been fun to save him, cruelly fun to manipulate him into playing along and dancing. It might have stayed fun if Chang had fought back, or-god forbid-- enjoyed himself. Instead, when taunted with a bit of his own philosophy, he'd gotten that certain look, the same look he got sometimes when they sparred or traded poetry verses. It almost seemed like a connection might be possible, and that was the last thing Zech Merquise wanted from anyone.

What was it then that kept him awake, and brought him here to this sheltered corner of the grounds where the watchmen said Chang had spent most of the night?

Autumn mist still hugged the ground, hiding the koi pond and giving the impression that the ornate gazebo was floating just above the ground like a tethered lantern.

Chang sat cross-legged on the floor near the latticework overlooking the misty pond. He sat upright without support, looking perfectly comfortable and at ease with a book open on his knee and his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. The ugly shirt and trousers were gone; he wore his usual sparring clothes: the dark blue and white yukata, belted tight over loose white trousers. His feet were bare, shoes neatly side by side next to a candle and a small stack of books. He looked like he was planning to meet Zechs for the morning sparring match, except for the fact that his hair still hung loose around his shoulders.

That hair. Zechs allowed himself a smile. He'd wanted to see it down last night, mostly to see if he could make Chang do it. A petty victory, perhaps, but the spoils had been unexpectedly sweet. It was much longer and thicker than the severe braid had suggested. Zechs had managed to surreptitiously touch it once, as they sat at the bar. It was silky and fine as a child's.

Chang had not noticed his approach yet. Zechs was struck by how delicate and lovely the boy looked in this light, and in repose. Pale golden spacer complexion, finely arched brows like Japanese brush strokes over those liquid black eyes. And that face, almost feminine by crass Western standards, was serene. Zechs had never imagined the stiff, formal little prig in the perfectly starched uniform could look like this. So very lovely, and so young, too, in spite of everything he'd lived through.

Run away, little boy, he thought, catching himself. The big bad wolf is on your doorstep. Run!

He cleared his throat and climbed the steps but kept his distance. Chang looked up over his glasses and one dark brow lifted slightly, a silent question.

"I'm surprised to find you here," Zechs said.

A slight tilt of the head, nothing more. "I come here often, to practice and read. It's peaceful."

"I meant, to find you still here on the job. I rather expected you'd be packed and gone, after last night."

"Really? Why is that?" The inscrutable act was back. He hadn't moved, except to mark his place in the book with one finger.

"I was a shit last night. If you wish to leave this assignment, I won't stop you." Chang said nothing. It was beginning to be a bit unnerving, this strange calm. "I thought you might wish to quit."

"I considered it. I will stay."

It was Zechs's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Does this mean you enjoyed yourself?"

"Not in the least."

"I plan to go there again, you know."

"Then I must accompany you, unless you choose someone else."

"No, it will be you."

"In that case, perhaps you could give me more notice next time, and suggest more suitable attire?"

The Zen master act was beginning grate on Zech's nerves. "I won't be going just for the dancing."

"Understood." Chang remained unflappable. If anything, he seemed anxious to get back to his book.

Irked, Zechs walked over and inspected the small stack beside the shoes. One was in Mandarin. The other had the binding of the house library: Emily Dickinson. The book Chang seemed so engrossed by was Zechs's collection of T.S. Eliot. Something else caught his eye, as well. Next to the books lay what appeared to be a marijuana joint. It was so incongruous with the rest of the scene that he laughed.

Chang offered it to him. "A gift from Joey the bartender. He thought I needed consoling while you were occupied in the back. I've recently given up the practice."

"You're suggesting I should--" Then the import of what Chang had said struck him. "You use drugs?"

"Not anymore. Do you want it?"

"No, thank you."

Chang shrugged and tossed it over the railing into the pond.

Surrendering to this surreal scene, he sat down with his back to the lattice. "What are you reading?"

"My knowledge of Western literature is quite limited. I was struck by something you quoted the other night and did an online search of the lines I remembered."

"'The Hollow Men.'"*

"Yes." That was the passage he'd been marking. "I've read it a number of times this morning."

"You like it?"

Chang nodded. "The imagery is not always clear to me, but it seems to capture many of the emotions I've felt since the war. Several of my friends would probably also appreciate it, if they could understand it."

Zechs was dumbstruck. He'd come here expecting a fight, a parting, and instead this boy was calmly laying his soul out for view. Without thinking, he asked, "What lines struck you in particular?" as if they were students together in an Academy lit course. Or as if it were Treize sitting there, asking him that same question over a glass of port one rainy night.

Chang glanced down and found his place. "In the third part, here. 'Is it like this
in death's other kingdom, waking alone at the hour when we are trembling with tenderness. Lips that would kiss form prayers to broken stone.'
"

Zechs detected the faintest flush of color in those golden pale cheeks. He felt his own heart miss a beat.

"I was struck by the ending, as well," Chang said, quickly turning the page. "'This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.' My life nearly ended with a bang many times, yet I believe I understand the sense of futility the poet was trying to convey. I did have some trouble with the reference to pears, though."

"'Here we go round the prickly pear at five o'clock in the morning'? It's a type of cactus, something prickly and harsh that grows in a desert. It's just an image, like the rest of the poem. A dark night of the soul."

"Ah."

Zechs caught a glimpse of his own despair in the depths of those liquid, night dark eyes. That sense of connection stirred again and he shook it off hastily. "And the Dickinson?"

"I chose it merely because I recognized the poet's name. But I'm finding her work halting, overly sentimental, and didactic."

Zechs laughed again. "It seems we have some similar tastes."

"Some." Chang's tone imbued that word with a significance not lost on Zechs. "May I ask you a personal question?"

He assumed it would be something to do with his overt display last night. Instead, Chang asked, "Why have you not attempted suicide? I've wondered that since I got here, and even more so, having read your Eliot."

"What do you think my great heroic last feat on Libra was?" he replied. "After that, I was disabled and off my head for a long time. Then?" He shrugged. "I'd become what you see now: one of the hollow men, my head piece stuffed with straw, in my rat's coat and crow skin, 'behaving as the wind behaves.'"

"Blown this way and that by circumstance?"

"I suppose."

"I have done the same."

"But no more? Why?"

Chang gave him the hint of a smile. "A kind friend pointed out my loss of integrity. I found I did not wish to continue in that manner. I had become 'stiff and straight' like a dead man, as you said last night. That is not how I wish to go on."

Interesting. Zechs stood and stretched. The night had caught up with him; he was exhausted. "Easy for you. All you have to do is walk out that gate and chose a direction. I'm afraid I'm stuck here, making my little night raids out into the larger world for my wicked, pointless pleasures."

"That is a choice, nonetheless." Chang rose with unconscious elegance and gathered his books. "Do you wish to spar this morning?"

"Another choice, eh? No, let's do that later, when we're both rested."

Chang nodded and started for the doorway of the gazebo. Zechs watched the play of early sunlight in that dark hair, and the controlled grace of his stride. "Are you certain you didn't enjoy dancing just a little, Chang?"

A dark look from those dark eyes was his only answer. Zechs smiled again as he watched the boy hurry off, recalling the feel of those slim hips swaying under his hand. "'And all that's best of dark and bright meet in his aspect and his eyes.'"

++

* For the full text of 'The Hollow Men': http://www.cs.umbc.edu/~evans/hollow.html

Apologies for the typos. Argh! I'm my own beta and it shows. For some reason accented letters turn into Zs, so I'm leaving them out. And I really do know the difference between "meditation" and "mediation". Honest! It's my spell checker that doesn't.

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