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

Broken Warriors + Chapter 54
Ambush

Wufei was up before anyone else the following morning. His sleep cycle was badly disrupted. The clock by his bed said 5:30 a.m., but his body was still on L-4 time. He showered in the small bath adjoining his room, then stood over the bag the others had packed for him, pondering what to wear. He was still very depressed and disoriented. It was tempting to simply crawl back in bed and let the day pass. Too tempting. But the thought of what the other four would think made him get up and try to get himself under control. He showered in the small, old-fashioned bath adjoining his room and pulled on the loose pants and tank Heero had thoughtfully packed. He could not face putting on those jeans again, not yet.

His room had two doors, one letting onto the interior corridor he'd come in through last night, the other, bracketed between to tall windows, led onto the balcony that ringed the second level above the courtyard. He stepped outside and leaned on the ornate black wrought iron railing. There was room in the small courtyard to do his katas. Heero and Duo had not packed his practice weapons or swords, but he could still do the other Wu-Yi disciplines; if nothing else, it would give him something to focus on beyond his own misery. It was still damp and cool, but he could see patches of blue breaking through the clouds overhead. He supposed it never got very cold here, even in the winter.

As he walked along the balcony to the stairs leading down to the garden, he passed the master bedroom. The curtains of one window were drawn, but it didn't keep him from suddenly imagining what it must look like, too many bodies in one large bed. He walked on quickly. It was none of his business how they chose to live.

He pushed such thoughts away, concentrating instead on the lush tropical greenery and winter flowering vines that ringed the little brick paved courtyard. It was pleasant here. The gentle tinkling of bamboo chimes and the trickling splash of the fountain were soothing. He sat on a stone bench under a tall palm for a while to meditate and the sounds carried him away from his own unhappiness for a little while, leaving him more peaceful afterwards. He opened his eyes and looked around again, then pressed his hands together in front of his heart and murmured a thanks. He wasn't certain who he was thanking--Yuy and Maxwell, for dragging him here. Winner and Barton for welcoming him into their home. The garden, for its peace. All of that, he supposed. Gratitude was good. It was healing.

It didn't involve poetry.

He pushed himself through his exercises, working out the stiffness and poor form his binge of self-pity and sloth had left him with. His body responded well, though. Perhaps it was the place. By the time he finished, he felt a little better about life in general, so long as he didn't try to look ahead more than an hour at a time.

"The garden suits you."

He looked up to find Winner smiling at him from the balcony. Winner waved, and then came lightly down the stairs, barefoot and dressed in worn jeans and an oversized black tee shirt with the Circus della Notte logo printed on it in silver. Wufei felt a twinge of guilt, seeing it. He also had a strange echo of what he'd felt seeing Heero and Duo yesterday morning. Apart from a few brilliant blue streaks in his hair and the silver polish on his toenails, Winner wasn't wearing any make-up. He looked like 04 again, just a little taller and older. All the same innocent good nature shone in those big blue eyes, and happiness, too.

Wufei tried to bow, but Winner got in under his guard and hugged him instead. Wufei allowed it, then stepped back and found himself staring down at Winner's silver toenails, unable to look him in the eye.

"I'm so glad you're here," Winner told him. "You're always welcome in our home."

Wufei bowed and looked up at him. Winner looked so genuinely glad to see him, and was giving him that typical sweet, open smile. Guilt rushed back in, eroding the fragile calm he'd had. "I never answered your emails. I'm very sorry. I'm sorry about a lot of things. Winner, err, Winner-Barton. Or is it Barton, now? I don't know how such things work."

"I'm still Quatre. Can't you just call me that?"

Wufei nodded. "I'll try. And I am sorry, Quatre."

Quatre touched the palm of his hand to the center of Wufei's chest and shook his head sadly at what he found there. "I'm glad you're here now. We all are. Come see the rest of the house, then I'll make us some breakfast."

He slipped an arm around Wufei's shoulders as he guided him in through the kitchen, and to Wufei's surprise, he didn't really mind.

+

Zechs stared into his dressing room mirror as his valet helped him into the expensive gray Italian suit jacket and straightened the empty sleeve. "Well, Tomas, how do I look?"

"Regal, your highness, and very stylish, too. You put me in mind of your father as a young man."

Zechs wished he remembered his father better. He wished a lot of things had been different. All the same, he did look every inch a Peacecraft, even in a designer suit rather than the old imperial dress uniform. "Hair back, I think."

Tomas pulled the shoulder length blond hair back into a military queue at the back of Zechs neck and secured it with a black silk ribbon.

"Yes, that's better. Let them see more of Milliardo, and less of Zechs. And you won't need to help me with that much longer, Tomas. My new arm will be ready in two days."

"That's excellent news, sir!"

Zechs still felt rather guilty at the way he'd treated the man. He'd find a way to replay his loyalty. "Every thing is arranged as I asked?"

"Yes, highness."

In the bedroom beyond, they heard Relena's cheery hello. "Milliardo, are you ready yet? the press conference starts in half an hour."

"That will be all for now. Go and get some rest," said Zechs. Tomas bowed and started for the servant's exit. "Tomas?"

"Your highness?" Pale, thin, attentive, forgettable. The perfect servant.

"Thank you, Tomas, for everything."

Tomas gave him a surprised look. "It is my great pleasure to serve you, your highness. Good luck with the press, sir."

Zechs stepped out into the bedroom to find Relena waiting, looking very mature and attractive in her navy blue suit and brimmed hat. "Well, aren't you a picture today."

"And you!" She walked around him, admiring the suit. "Oh, that was a good choice. You're so handsome!"

Zechs smiled. "Have I told you how much I appreciate all you've tried to do for me?"

"Oh, I suppose you must have mentioned it," she said, fussing over his lapels. Her mind was clearly on the press conference.

"Well, consider this a formal thank you, little sister. You really have been amazing."

"You're my brother, Milliardo. How could I not do everything I could for you?"

"Of course. But I just wanted that understood between us." He sighed and tilted her chin up, gazing into those wide, intelligent blue eyes. "We really are more alike than I ever would have guessed."

"Well, I'll take that as a compliment. I always did think we looked alike."

"It's more than skin deep, Relena. Under different circumstances, you would have made one hell of a general."

"Don't be silly!"

"Before we go, I must ask you something. Have a seat, would you?"

Relena sat down in the chair by the bed. Zechs went to his small roll top desk and leaned back against it. "Relena, is there something you want to tell me about Chang Wufei?"

"Chang? Good heavens, Milliardo! Why bring that up now? He left. Come, you still have to see the make-up people." She rose to go.

"Not yet."

"What on earth's gotten into you? Why would I care where Chang is?"

"I thought he was your friend, like Heero Yuy."

"They helped me during the war, it's true. And they worked for me, but I'd hardly call them friends."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Zechs murmured. "They were ready to give their lives for you and all you represented. I believe you were even in love with Yuy for a time. I should think they both deserved more regard than that."

"That was a long time ago, Milliardo. People change."

"They do, don't they? So you have nothing else to say about Chang's departure?"

"No. Can we please--"

Zechs reached behind him into the desk and tossed the manila envelop of surveillance photos into her lap. "As I said, Relena, we're more alike than you think."

Relena spared the photos a distasteful glance. "So, he contacted you."

"Tsk, tsk. You don't give me much credit. I was rather brilliant at intelligence in the wars. Or did you think it was all shooting and killing? Neither he nor Sally has had any contact with me."

"It was for your own good."

"Ah, but that's where we really differ, isn't it? I'm a far better liar than you, little sister. I know there are more photos of me in Une's possession. Very juicy ones. You might even say you caught me with my pants down. That was very clever of you, Relena. I'm really off my game, I guess. I didn't even suspect. But what interests me most is the ones you chose to use, to act on. You knew I wouldn't leave Wufei in the back room of a Le Fleur sex club, didn't you? You knew him far better than I did, and you knew he wasn't that kind of boy. Did you know he'd swing that way, because he certainly didn't."

"Not until he kissed you," Relena retorted, tossing the photos onto the bed. "He betrayed me! I thought you would be safe with him!"

"No, Relena, I betrayed him, and so did you." He took the copy of the Preventer disciplinary report from the desk and confronted her with it. "You were willing to ruin his career, ruin his damn life, and Sally's, because I seduced him?"

"You weren't yourself! You aren't--"

"Oh, but I am," Zechs told her, letting the anger show through now. "You think you know me? We hardly saw one another before the war and after that I was in a coma! Somewhere in there I became some sort of plaster saint in your mind. Or a chess pawn, perhaps? You do play so well. Well, let me introduce you to the real Milliardo Peacecraft.

"I sucked my first dick when I was eleven years old, and I loved it. I was something of a legend at the Academy, and not just for my grades or piloting ability, believe me. I'd have bent over for Treize Kushreneda in a heartbeat if he'd wanted me to. I spent years trying to convince him that he did. Aside from that, while you were having tea parties and worrying about which dress to wear, I was breaking bones and rupturing my spleen, learning how to pilot a suit, duel with a saber, and kill a man with my bare hands. I bloodied myself to the elbows, to protect you from having to see the world I saw. And yes, through all that, I was brave and charming and tormented and oh, so very romantic. At least that's what all the men I fucked around with told me while they were under me or in---"

"Stop it!" Relena cried, pressing her hands to her ears.

Zechs pulled her hand away and held her by wrist, pulling her to her feet. She cowered before him but he did not relent. "No, for once you're going to listen. I've been trying to make you see that since I regained consciousness. But you just don't listen! I've never made any secret about what I am. I'm a used up, disillusioned, crippled, bitter, queer ex-soldier. Those little jaunts to Le Fleur? That's what your dear brother needed, to make it worth being alive. That's what this pretty cage you stuck me in reduced me to. You might have meant well, but your strategy was flawed from the start. Make a man like me feel like a prisoner, Relena, and I will always fight back."

He released her and she fell back into the chair. She was trembling and pale, but that stubborn glint in her eye was still there. The Peacecraft in her, he thought with grudging admiration.

"Well, I'm done wearing a mask. Never again, Relena, not for anyone. Not for you. Not for Sanque. I'll leave that to you! And now that I have your full attention for once, I have a choice for you to make."

"Really? What is it? Are you going to kill me?"

"No, my killing days are over. I learned a great deal more than that, all these years as Zechs. So here's the deal. I want all charges against Chang and Po dropped immediately. I want their jackets cleared and all reports, files and photos destroyed. None of this ever happened, officially or unofficially."

"I see. And if I refuse?"

"I have two speeches I can give out there, Relena." He checked the clock and smiled. "Hmm. Just eleven minutes to go before air time, and I have it on good authority that some of the journalists I invited are already in place, in among your carefully chosen pack of lapdogs out there. My men are old hands at dirty tricks and dirty laundry, Relena. And some helpful soul has already tossed a little chum in the water for the sharks."

"What could you possibly tell them about me that would cause a scandal?" Relena laughed.

"Aside from what you tried to do to Chang, you mean?"

"He did accept gifts."

"He didn't know."

"And he did forget to arrange backup. And he did make improper advances toward a man under Preventer protection."

"I'll be more than happy to testify on his behalf. Should make for some interesting headlines, don't you think? But you misjudge me. I wasn't threatening to expose you."

"Really, then what?"

"That's another way we differ, sister dear. You were prepared to throw poor Wufei to the wolves. I will only throw myself. You're groomed for politics, Relena, but I was trained as an officer. A good officer never asks more of his men that he would do himself. Your friend Yuy understood that perfectly, even though he and the others were only children, and glorified foot soldiers. They are honorable young men, every one of them. You shouldn't have fucked with them, Relena. They understand loyalty and I suspect that if I push your little machination into the limelight, they'll close ranks with Wufei. What will that do for your popularity? How will it help Sanque, to have you revealed as the sort of 'pacifist' who would destroy a fine, dedicated young man like Chang Wufei to save yourself the embarrassment of having your brother fall in love with him?"

"In love with him?" Relena sneered. "You hardly know him!"

"That's my concern. What will it be, Relena? Are you going to pick up that phone and call off Une and her hounds, in which case I will go out there and make you very proud. Or am I going to drag my Peacecraft name into some very nasty, very sticky mud?"

Relena glared at him, then a smile slowly stole back to her lips. "You would do that, undo every good thing I've tried to accomplish for you."

"For you, Relena. Not me."

"But this all comes down to your word against mine, doesn't it? I already have Chang dealt with. He went rather quietly, you know. I'm not sure how deep the devotion runs there, Milliardo. I'm not sure he's worth what you're risking. I have your psychological profiles, you know, from before the war, and since. It's not really a pretty picture."

"You're going to challenge my competency?"

"It wouldn't be difficult, you know. Not that I want to do such a thing to you, of course! But it is my word against yours, isn't it? Who do you suppose they'll listen to?"

"Oh, I dunno," said a new voice, one that made Relena go pale and whip around in her chair. "I think they might listen to me and my boyfriend here, if we back your brother up."

"Duo! Heero!"

The pair emerged from the dressing room and waved at her. Dressed in stylish black clothing and black leather jackets, they could have passed equally as bodyguards or film stars. Or assassins. Heero leaned on the wall by the doorway, eyes deadly calm and tracking her like a predator's. Duo sauntered over and gave her a disarming smile. "Hey, 'lena! It's me, your favorite painted slut. Long time no see."

Relena saw past the smile to the anger burning in those violet eyes. "I'll have you arrested! This is private property and you're trespassing!"

"That's not a very nice hello! Besides, we were invited." Duo flopped down on the bed and pouted at her. " After we flew all night, too. Back me up here, Merquise."

"It's true. They're here as my guests," Zechs informed her. "And before you go jumping to conclusions, Chang had nothing to do with this, either. He has no idea they're here. Right boys?"

"Affirmative," Heero said with a curt nod, still glaring at Relena. "Sally does not know, either. You're brother contacted us personally through channels of his own, last night. Wufei and Sally will pass any polygraph test."

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"Zechs thought it would make a nice photo op, y'know?" Duo said, grinning again. "Peace time reunion, former enemies shaking hands and making nice, that kinda thing. He said to meet him here. How were we to know we were gonna walk in on a family spat by mistake?"

Relena looked from them to Zechs, and her shoulders sagged. It almost made Zechs feel sorry for her. She had so much to learn, if she was going to lead the free world.

"Very well. I'll do as you ask. All of it. Is that all?"

"Not quite. There's one more thing, which has nothing to do with Chang. It's non negotiable."

Relena shook her head. "Quickly. The reporters are waiting."

+

Quatre showed Wufei the various parlors, the exercise room and the workshop. Wufei paused over the tables, admiring the masks and costumes Quatre and Maxwell were working on. The walls were already covered in photos of the different performers in costume, including a poster of Trowa in a very sinister looking black outfit, holding a coiled bullwhip and looking positively evil. Sensuous, but evil.

Quatre chuckled, seeing his expression. "You really have to come see the show. How about tonight?"

Wufei gave him a doubtful nod. He owed them that much, of course, but he wasn't sure he was going to enjoy it.

Trowa wandered in to join them, still shirtless and looking very sleepy, despite the mug of coffee he was holding. "Morning, 'fei. Good to see you." The black band around his bicep flexed impressively as he shook hands with him. The greeting was not as warm as Quatre's had been. His bangs were over his face, messier than usual, and the one green that showed was hard to read.

Wufei bowed to him, too. "I'm sorry for the way I've treated you both, and for not coming to see your show sooner."

The green eye widened appreciably, but he just shrugged and shoved his free hand in his pocket. "The past is in the past. I came down to tell you that there's an interview with Milliardo Peacecraft on CNN in few minutes, if you're interested."

Wufei had trouble breathing for a moment, and he could feel his face going red. Of course they knew. Everyone knew! Empathetic as ever, Quatre touched his arm, then led him upstairs to one of the parlors.

"Where are the others?"

"Still out." Quatre and Trowa settled on an overstuffed velvet sofa. Wufei moved to one of the armchairs, but Quatre shook his head and patted the seat beside him.

Wufei settled stiffly next to him, keeping his attention on the screen of the large television.

The newscasters finished up with reports on L-2 fiscal corruption and food shortages in the Sahara, then the scene switched to an all too familiar scene.

This wasn't the usual light society piece, but a press conference. A podium had been set up in the garden outside the north wing, in front of a small audience of reporters and cameramen. Wufei caught a glimpse of the gazebo in the background, bathed now in late afternoon light. He was surprised at how much it hurt to see that place from such a distance. He hadn't considered it home, but it still hurt, knowing he'd been cast out. Actually, it was far more painful than he could have anticipated. He did his best not to show it, but was suddenly aware of the others glancing at him.

Quatre patted him on the knee. "It's going to be OK, Wufei."

Wufei pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around his knees. He didn't see how.

The shot cut to a close up of one of the senior commentators. "Hello, I'm Max Hartley, speaking to you live from the Peacecraft country estate near Le Fleur, in the Sanque Kingdom. In a few moments Ambassador Relena Peacecraft will introduce her elder brother, Milliardo Peacecraft, better known to some as Zechs Merquise. This is his first public statement since the end of the war. In what is being called by some a 'resurrection by media,' the elder Peacecraft will today seek to clarify who he is and what he stands for. Sanque government officials have heavily vetted the questions, but it is hoped that some sense of the man himself will begin to emerge, after so many years of subterfuge and political confusion. Security is heavy here. In the past twenty-four hours Peacecraft liaisons have intercepted one hundred and eighty nine threats against Mr. Peacecraft's life. These threats come from a remarkable variety of people. Once an Alliance officer, Peacecraft went against the pacifist beliefs of his family, ostensibly to 'fight from the inside' for his country's freedom. As an OZ Elite and close confident of the late Treize Kushreneda, he turned against the Alliance, only to turn on OZ in favor of colonial independence, in the end align himself with the terrorist group, White Fang. His motivations have remained unclear, as closely guarded as his masked identity once was. Now it would seem that Relena Peacecraft, surely the most revered and respected figure of our time, seeks to redeem him in the eyes of the world as another victim of confusing times. To what end? That remains unclear, but it is speculated that she wishes to see Milliardo Peacecraft reclaim his place in Sanque, and in the world."

"Try not dropping any more space stations on us, for a start," Trowa muttered. Quatre nudged his knee and Trowa shot Wufei an apologetic glance. "Sorry, but I still have nightmares about that."

"So do I," Wufei murmured, but that's not what he was frowning about. Nearly two hundred threats in twenty-four hours? He shuddered, thinking how carelessly they'd traveled around.

"The more of a public figure he tries to be, the more trouble he'll attract," Quatre said, perhaps picking up on his thoughts. "Until Relena started making an issue of him, you didn't hear much about him."

A scattering of applause brought their attention back to the screen. Relena walked to the podium, dressed in a dark blue suit and hat. She looked as calm and perfect as always, Wufei thought bitterly. That must come from getting what you wanted.

"Thank you all for coming. I can't tell you what it means to me, to be able to present my brother to you today. The war was a confusing time for all of us, but none more than those who tried so hard to set things right. My brother was among those people, and in the end he was willing to sacrifice his life to make amends for his misguided struggle. I hope you will listen with an open mind today, and try to see him as I do. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Milliardo Peacecraft, prince regent of Sanque."

"Prince regent?" Trowa asked.

"Sanque is still a constitutional monarchy," Quatre told him. "Technically, Zechs is the rightful heir to the throne, if he decides to claim it."

Zechs stepped to the microphone and gave his sister a small bow. Wufei caught his breath softly, hoping the others weren't looking at him.

Zechs had on a gray suit and a collarless white shirt. The tone was somber, but the cut very stylish and casual. He looked very dashing, and the empty sleeve fluttering in the breeze at his side took nothing away from that. His hair was pulled back at his neck, but the long blond bangs hung over his eyes as they always had, intensifying the incredible blue and the earnestness of his gaze. Whether it was the camera or some skillful makeup, the lighter tone of the regenerated skin did not show. He looked almost exactly as he had three years ago, handsome, youthful, and slightly disdainful as he gazed around at the crowd.

"Damn!" Trowa murmured, and Wufei heard an appreciative little growl from Quatre, too. Wufei felt himself blushing again, though no one was looking at him now.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," Zechs said, giving the crowd on of those regal little nods. "I hope you can all hear me. My voice was damaged and I'm afraid this is the best I can do for you."

Wufei couldn't suppress a small shiver at the sound of that voice. The heartache began to seep back in; this had been a mistake. He shouldn't be watching this, not knowing how the man felt about him, if he even spared him a thought anymore. But he stayed where he was, unable to look away.

"I have a brief statement prepared, after which I will be happy to answer any questions you might have. I wish to begin by apologizing formally for the events leading up to the Libra crisis. I was not in my right mind, those last few months of the war, but that excuses nothing. I don't blame anyone who feels I was not adequately punished for my actions at that time.

"It's true I came to my senses at the last moment and did what I could to destroy the station fragment, but that would not have happened if it had not been for the honorable intervention of Heero Yuy and the other Gundam pilots. I applaud the world for forgiving and embracing those brave young warriors. Two of them were kind enough to be with me today. Ladies and gentlemen, Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell."

The camera angle shifted to a shot of Heero and Duo sitting there among the reporters and dignitaries. Both were in black and Heero looked like--an assassin? He gave a tense nod, clearly not relishing the attention. Duo stood and waved, flashing a brilliant smile that got applause.

"Their presence here today represents how far we have come. Together with my sister and her allies, they helped set the world on a path to peace. I wanted that, too. So did my friend, Treize Kushreneda." He paused, as if he were going to add another apology there. It was a significant pause, but instead, he said, "I stand before you today a broken man, but perhaps the same man I have always been. I believe in peace. I believe the ideals of the Sanque Kingdom are a worthy cornerstone for a lasting peace. I pray with all my heart for a future in which all people are free, regardless of their birth or race, religion or sexual orientation." The camera shifted back to Heero and Duo again, who were now holding hands. "If we are to have a true peace, then all people must be free to enjoy it. I fought for that ideal three years ago. I believe it just as strongly today."

Applause broke out again and the camera cut briefly to Relena, who stood smiling a bit stiffly among her uniformed advisors and bodyguards.

Zechs let the applause subside, the picture of self-effacing modesty now. "Thank you. I believe I am not out of step with the world, in that opinion. I am a student of history. I believe that the strong create the weak, and the weak resent them for it. That is the root of war. A very wise young man told me that he believed we are in fact, all weak." He paused and gave Heero a nod. "I wish I could share that belief, and the compassion that comes with it. I have tried, but I cannot."

"I am a student of literature and poetry, as well, and have found far more wisdom and comfort there than in the study of politics. I would like to share a quote with you, from the writings of Lao Tzu. It's a verse a very dear and insightful friend shared with me during my recovery.

Wufei leaned forward, with a gasp, hardly believing his ears.

Quatre reached over and touched his knee, nodding.

"It is the thirty third verse of the Tao Te Ching. Forgive the author for being, as I am, a product of his times, when he uses the image of a warrior. He was speaking of leadership, I think, and personal integrity, rather than war.

"A good warrior is not bellicose,
A good fighter does not anger
."

Wufei gripped the arm of the couch, scarcely believing what he'd just heard. Zechs recited the entire verse, using that persuasive voice to great effect.

"A good conqueror does not contest his enemy,
One who is good at using others puts himself below them.
This is called integrity without competition,
This is called using others,
This is called parity with heaven.
The pinnacle of the ancients
."

The crowd was very quiet when he finished. A split screen showed Relena looking very solemn.

"These words may sound strange, perhaps even distasteful to your ears, but to me, they make perfect sense," Zechs told them. "That is why I must, in good conscience, place myself below any who think I should lead, and announce my formal abdication of the title, Prince of the Sanque Kingdom."

Stunned silence greeted this.

"That is not my only reason. My family and my name were taken from me when I was six years old, just as my sister's name was taken from her. She was raised to revere and preserve the values the Peacecraft name has come to symbolize to the world. I became Zechs Merquise, and the mask ultimately took on its own reality. I' was Merquise far longer than I was ever Milliardo. At this point in my life, I think that I am neither. I don't know who I am, really. But I do know that I cannot in good conscience, seek any position of leadership in the Sanque Kingdom. As much as I admire the tenets of total pacifism, I have seen first hand too many events that taint my perspective. It takes a pure heart and a clear eye to practice that doctrine faithfully, and I, sadly, possess neither. I am humbled by those who do."

He paused and smiled sadly. "That's really all I have to say. I'll take your questions now. And I urge you, in the spirit of our new free and peaceful society, to ask me whatever you wish."

Quatre laughed aloud as the camera zoomed in on Relena's pinched little smile. "I don't think she realized who she was dealing with. Whatever he may say, he's still Zechs Merquise."

The questions that followed took full advantage of that.

"What name will you go by now, sir?"

He shrugged eloquently. "What's in a name? But I've gotten rather attached to 'Zechs'. It's so much easier to say than 'Milliardo', don't you think?"

"Sir, were you insane at the time of the Libra incident?"

"Probably."

"Next question," the moderator prompted hastily. "The gentleman in the back. I don't think I know--"

"It's rumored that you were gay." This came from someone in the far back. The man's accent was thickly German.

"I know that voice," Trowa muttered, squinting at the crowd. "It's that slime bag from Madrid, the tabloid guy!"

"Were gay?" Zechs elegantly stressed the first word. "It's not the sort of thing one gives up, like a hobby."

That got a laugh, and Quatre and Trowa saluted Zechs with their coffee mugs. Wufei pressed his hands to his mouth. It did not surprise him that Zechs would admit to it on global live television but he was impressed.

"Then you admit it, Mr. Merquise?"

Zechs gave the man a charming smile and laughed. "Certainly I admit it. It's not a crime."

In the foreground a moderator was motioning frantically for a new question. Movement at the back of the crowd suggested that Meir was being asked to leave.

"If you give up your title, sir, are you also giving up the protection from your government?" a woman in the front asked. "How do you feel about all those death threats?"

Zechs sobered. "Which is better, in your opinion? A long life, or a full life?"

"Both?"

"That would be ideal, but this is not a perfect world. I'll live as fully as I can, as long as I can. Beyond that, I have little control. I can't change what I did, as much I might wish otherwise. I can't change how some people feel about the man I was. I can only hope to somehow make amends as the man I wish to become."

"What will you do, sir? There isn't much call for suit pilots anymore."

Zechs joined in the laughter this provoked. "A fact I'm very glad of. As hard as it might be for some of you to believe, back in my Academy days I was a bit of a bookworm, and a romantic, too. Ah, you laugh, but I was! This lengthy convalescence has had one advantage; I've finally had time for poetry again. That is my first great love, not war. For the first time in a very long time, I've had the leisure to expand my knowledge and learn a few new things. At the moment I'm reading the most splendid collection of Japanese verse. Amazing. So concise, yet full of meaning--I don't suppose you'd like to hear one? Get a little insight into this secret side of me while you have the chance?"

An encouraging round of applause went up. "Very well. This is a current favorite of mine, discovered just few days ago. It's from a trio of verses by the poet Fujiwara.

Fujiwara. Wufei held his breath, heart suddenly loud in his ears.

Zechs's voice deepened, and his expression was suddenly pensive, even melancholy. He found the camera and looked at it. Wufei shivered, feeling as if those vivid blue eyes were looking straight at him.

"These long black tresses
that I roughly pushed aside--
Now strand upon strand
they rise in my mind's eye
each night as I lie down.


"Oh!" Wufei murmured.

"You recognize it?" Quatre asked softly.

"Yes." The poem he'd left for Zechs was part of that same Fujiwara trio, and Zechs had said himself that he knew nothing of Japanese poetry. He'd found Wufei's message and he'd answered in kind. Wufei didn't realize he was crying until Trowa passed him a handkerchief.

The reporters gave Zechs a polite smattering of applause, clearly unsure what to make of the love poem.

Zechs just looked bemused. "You were expecting something more martial. Sorry to disappoint but that's not where my heart lies." He looked back into the camera again. "No, I think that's one of the most beautiful poems I've ever encountered, and one I am not likely to ever forget. Other questions?"

Stunned, Wufei stared at the man on the screen, graciously fielding questions, without hearing a thing that was said.

"It meant something, didn't it?" Trowa murmured.

"I think it means there's hope for 05, after all," Quatre replied.

[chap. 53] [chap. 55] [back to pyrzm's fic]