Author: Khalani
Pairing: Past Treize/Zechs (made present-tense via flashbacks)
Spoliers: Series, EW, Episode Zero
Warnings: Death themes, male/male sexual situations in this chapter, foul language, grief, angst, cynicism, debatable instances of sap. Flashbacks throughout.
Rated M for swears and darkness
Disclaimer: I don't own any part of GW. No monies have been or will be made off of this thing.

Please see Limbo 1 for very important notes!!

This chapter makes reference to my first fic, "Traitor: Breaking Up is Hard to Do." Reading this isn't crucial to understanding this chapter, but you might see some connections if you have (you can find it if you go to the Fanfiction.net site referenced above).  I know I've always put the general warning about sex, but there's actually some in this chapter, so, yep. Oh, and there's some adventurous prose here, too. Do not be frightened.

Very sincere thanks to Karina, TB, and Yami Trekkie for the lovely feedback!

Legend:
xxxx: separates main story from flashbacks
xoxo: separates flashback segments

Hope you enjoy!

Limbo 10: Sweet

Are you aware that any old group of revolutionaries can gather for tea and terror and rightly call themselves a "foundation" ? How unoriginal. How annoying. It wasn't a surprise, but it was so unbelievably irritating.

I thought back to the Preventer transmission I'd intercepted. It seemed they'd found their missing metal and then some. The Barton Foundation. The name sounded vaguely familiar to me. L3. Big money family, mega-capitalists, practically built Triple-9 with their bare hands. Trowa Barton the Gundam pilot - I hadn't yet figured out how he fit into the equation, though I knew he had to represent some variable. As I packed my computer into its case, names, figures, and facts churned in my head along with the words of the net anchor who'd broken the story to me. It'd only been twenty minutes since I'd heard, a measure of time that had been marked by a controlled, continuous set of decisions and actions. Call Vadimas. Put on suit. Pack up shit. At the very least, the impending threat had eliminated the need for me to choose a time to return to society.

I huffed and tied my hair back at my neck.  I wondered how I'd fought for all those years with it draped over my shoulders. This frustration was nothing more than a factor of the brightly-flickering candle of resentment I held for those colonists. It was bad enough that they seemed bent on unsettling the coltishly-unsteady state of peace, ripping the seams out of what Treize and tens of thousands of people had given their lives to construct. But when they decided to use my sister as the bargaining chip, that really, really pissed me off, maybe more than anything, even despite her tendency to voluntarily gravitate towards peril. I felt intensely big-brotherly in a snarling, bristling sort of way.

I gave my rental one last look over my shoulder, the reality of leaving it bittersweet. It had been the set of my square one, my do-over point.  It had been exactly what I'd needed, and growing out of that need felt close to good. I slung my messenger-style bag over my left shoulder. My suit, perfectly tailored, had restriction similar to that of my dress uniform, a bit stiff across the shoulders, urging them into a rigid and intimidating line. I descended the porch steps and walked to the pickup that was waiting for me.

"You look like you mean business!" Vadimas said as I buckled my seatbelt. He'd agreed to drive me to the city, which would take a little over two hours.

I had settled into an eerie calm about what I was doing, the apprehension of earlier that month dissolved by a single drop of genuine purpose.  There was a rightness to it, and the gravity of the situation didn't afford any allowance for me to dissect the reasons why I shouldn't have felt that way.

"I bet you're ready to give them hell."

"I'm feeling a bit eager, yes."

It was different from before. I was different. No longer Zechs Merquise, no longer Milliardo Peacecraft, I was in the space between. A consolidation, a compromise. Why couldn't I be both? I was both. I have been both since the necessity for two arose. It was so simple that a child could understand it. Looking back, I wonder how I'd confounded such simplicity into a twisted, tearing, flailing grasp for self-knowledge.

We pulled out of the long driveway that led from his property and onto the road. It had been ten months since I'd been away from the farm. In the rearview mirror, illuminated by the soft light of dusk, it looked wilted and used-up. In the months ahead it would rain, and the crops would flourish once again in the spring. Winter was a dead time. Christmas was a dead time.

"Mankind will always fight," Treize had said, his unerring credo, even as he strove with every breath towards an end to it.

But fighting has never been the root of the problem. Fighting is a symptom of the disease of imbalance. Fighting is what happens when Maslow's Hierarchy goes unattended, a psychological, Darwinian inescapability. It's also what happens when politicians and other magnetic personalities poison a contented public with impassioned, podium-gripping lectures about how discontent we really are and then turn us over to a few greedy individuals who've decided that the power they already have is not enough. Profiteers of disorder. The Federation. The Foundation. OZ.

Were the colonies a mistake? No. It was the neglect. Nothing thrives under neglect, and when something fails to thrive but refuses to die, the likely result is unrest. There's nothing particularly profound about this, but it's a different lens through which to view Treize's actions. Was he really such an idealist? Was it really a fool's quest to seek to correct an imbalance? I think sometimes I underestimate his pragmatism, as absurd as that might sound. But then, I can't decide most days how I feel about him beyond the invariable certainty that I miss him terribly. As for us, We are one imbalance that is fatally uncorrectable.

I feel anger sometimes. The anger of abandonment. The anger of loneliness. I act out on it, make others nervous. Like repeatedly smashing against the same immovable rock, I rage until I'm too tired to try anymore and recede back into a state of mild dissatisfaction with everything...

But I get ahead of myself.

I remembered something as we crossed the Belgian border, something about the day I was sentenced, the day seventy mobile suits failed to destroy me and Tallgeese. What a turbulent, ballistic chain of events, that inevitable punishment for predestined betrayal, a swan song of rapturous violence. I was both out of my mind and deeply settled in my senses, mournful and triumphant. I'd lost it towards the end, the product of no sleep and post-combative breakdown, had descended into hallucination and total collapse. But there was a thought I'd had, my last waking thought before passing out. A memory. Treize in the stable, kicked by that horrible horse. He'd said he was fine, and I'd believed him. I'd known it in my heart.

But, in reality, he hadn't been fine at all. How was it that I'd completely misremembered something so significant? I have a theory. Perhaps it was what I'd needed to believe then, on the eve of my desertion of OZ, my career, everything I'd worked for. Treize. I suppose it had been easier to move forward after having convinced myself that everything was in its right place, that Treize was and always would be fine. What incredible, fallacious things we have to tell ourselves just to get through this life.

Was there a best time? Yes. Absolutely. That same memory, the real one, was part of it. And in the truck, that's what came to mind before anything else, even with the chaos that loomed, even when facing the threat of a war that we couldn't win. Less charged than our two-week break from R&D. Easier than the dark shadow over India. This time beat out every vacation, every duty day with a few exceptions reserved for those priceless moments of secret affirmation, small escapes always laced with fear. It had started with pain and ended with confession, the sweetness only matched by the heartbreaking rareness of it. I wondered then how such a wonderful memory could be so painful, even though I knew the answer was as simple as the fact that I would never see Treize again.

xxxxx

It was one of the most awful successions of sounds I've ever heard. A startled gasp. A dull thud. A grassy skid. I knew what it was even before I reached the stable. I'd half-jokingly warned him about it. That horse, I'd said, was ruined. Untrainable. Unbreakable. Treize had then offered to rename it after me - not, he clarified, because I was ruined, but rather because the horse and I shared a certain "freeness of spirit." I'd still been slightly offended.

I'd spent the morning with him at the stable, lying on a stack of baled hay with a tech journal that couldn't hold my attention for more than a few minutes at a time. Treize had been in a talkative mood since awakening, excited about the latest textile engineering research out of Seoul National University, material that had promising implications for body armor. I'd listened attentively, interjected where I could, but mostly I'd watched him edge cautiously around the mean, skittish horse he'd decided to name Kolya, an inappropriately diminutive name for such a bastard of an animal.

While Treize was at Kolya's side, testing his foot lightly in the stirrup, he mentioned that was feeling sweet ("Not feeling sweet. Feeling like a sweet."), so I went back to the house to fetch the rest of a half-eaten bar of chocolate that Dorothy had sent him from their vacation home in Switzerland. She'd handwritten his name on the package, her script multitudes neater than his ever was, curly and smooth. He'd plucked it from the mailbox with a smile that brimmed with sunny affection, held it up to me, said that this was the good stuff. I'm not sure if he was talking about the chocolate or the receipt of a gift from the girl. She always was his favorite cousin and one of the few people in the world he sincerely enjoyed interacting with. As for Dorothy, she was fairly certain that Treize helped her father program the rise and fall of the sun, the orbit of the moon, and the movements of the constellations.

I was walking back from the house when I heard it, and I picked up my pace, entering the stable just in time to see Treize bounce energetically to his feet. I stood in the stable's doorway, frowning.

"Are you okay?"

He brushed the clumps and bits of hay off of himself and walked over to me, grinning. The ass and right leg of his riding pants were filthy from being kicked halfway across the stable, a distance that I am not at all exaggerating. He wrapped his arms around me and rubbed his knee against the inside of my pant leg to make sure he got it dirty.

"I'm fine. How are you?" He kissed me without awaiting my reply.

He smelled like horse, and I told him so between warm, easy kisses. But it wasn't more than a handful of moments before he went strangely stiff, his enthusiasm drained. He pulled back, his face white, and then he pushed me away as he took staggering steps to get outside. When I pursued, I saw him bent at the waist like he was going to be sick, but instead he started to lean to the left, leaning and leaning until he collapsed against the wall of the stable. I stood there for a few shocked seconds, long seconds, seeing but not entirely comprehending his struggle to stay on his feet, even propped up against the building. I broke sharply out of my paralysis and swiftly closed the small gap between us to help him.

"I knew you weren't fine," I gritted out, electrified and hyper-focused by fear. I hooked his right arm around my shoulder and reached around to grab his waist for support. "This isn't 'fine,' Treize!"

He laughed, a hard, nervous laugh that went on far longer than it should have. His head lolled forward, hair falling over his face, and when I pulled him away from the wall, he could barely support any of his own weight. He was breathing shallowly, quickly, laughing as he hyperventilated, clutching at his right side with his free hand. As I dragged him up the path leading to the house, my training possessed me completely, making me steady, calm, leaving no room for panic, no room even for personal concern. Treize became part of a mission objective. Move casualty to safety for assessment. "Safety," I decided, would be the jeep. I was going to throw him in the back seat and, as for assessment, I figured I could do that while I sped like a hell-demon to the nearest hospital.

The jeep was parked out front, thank God, but as we approached, Treize balked. Of course.

"What...are you doing?"

I opened the rear passenger door. "Sit."

He shook his head faintly and tried to pull away from me. "I'm fine, I said...I just need...to lie down."

There's a certain look on a person's face when they're seriously injured, and it's not something that can be masked by discipline or good humor. It's in the eyes, an immaculate self-awareness, a tense acknowledgment of mortality, a dismissal of everything in the world except the body's immediate state of disrepair. Sometimes one can find no greater clarity than in the eyes of a man who is dying. I've seen it. Treize had seen it. And while Treize wasn't dying, not then, I knew - because he knew - that this wasn't something to casually sleep off.

"You can lie down in the back."

"Let go..."

"No."

He was unsteady enough that I was able to get him off balance and force him to sit back against the seat. He grabbed at me for support or to fight back, I'm not sure, so I took a rough pulse while he had a grip on my bicep. His skin was cold, his heart rate frantic. It only took a press on the shoulder, a pathetically small effort, to get him to lie on his back. I took his legs, folded them in, and pushed him further into the vehicle. He didn't argue anymore. I propped up his knees, slammed the door, and ran to the driver's side.

I sat, cursed under my breath, pulled the chocolate out of my back pocket, and threw it on the floor on the passenger side. I thought a word of thanks to the habits of the household, which dictated that the keys be left in the car no matter what, unintimidated by the prospect of theft, ultimately efficient because there was never a question of the keys' location. It wasn't a city jeep favored by young girls and men in mid-life crises. It was the tough-as-nails breed of beast that had helped win World War II, a true all-terrain vehicle that made a child's endeavor of rutted, washed out, potholed, dirt and gravel roads. I tore down the forest-flanked path, knowing every curve, every obstacle, every snag in the transmission. I yanked the rearview mirror down so I could see Treize, who was lying so still, the only movement of his body caused by the dips and jolts of the suspension.

"Treize?"

There was a long pause. Then, "...Hm?"

Up ahead, an impossible deer ventured out in the road. I laid on the horn and yelled for it to get the fuck out of the way, which it did. I kept my eyes glued to the road then, on the lookout for any more animals that had a death wish.

"Are you all right?" Of course, this was the question with the most obvious answer, but I wanted to hear something from him. Anything. Anything but a lackadaisical 'Hm?'

"...No." There was another pause, a small sound of movement, then, "Ah, God..."

I looked back into the rearview and saw Treize, his grey t-shirt lifted, hands trembling, eyes glassy and fixed on his right side, which was bruised purple-red, a large, nasty blotch that stretched down his torso, over his lower ribs, down his stomach. Blood bleeding beneath his skin. Panic finally set in. My panic, not his, for he seemed to lose interest after a few moments, letting his head and arms fall limply back to where they might.

The nearest town had a small but adequate hospital, and when we blew past the last of the trees and out of the forest, I could see the building clearly from the road. My hands tightened on steering wheel, and my foot pushed even further down towards the floor when we hit proper pavement, picking up serious speed that did not relent until we hit the residential area where the hospital was located. Treize grunted softly when I flew over a speed bump and up the ramp to the emergency entrance, where I jumped out, ran in, and barked demands at people until they followed me out with a gurney.

There was a rush of movement, a flourish of overlapping Russian, an inquiry, to me: What happened? Horse kick. When did the injury occur? I looked at my watch. Thirty minutes ago. Did you give him anything? No. They knew who he was, a local celebrity of sorts, a hero, their native son, and made an extra show of speed and competence because of it. He lay there, eyes trailing lazily over the faces of those around him, meeting mine, a small smile, he lifted his hand, reached weakly - or was he waving? I couldn't get close enough, and then they took him into an exam area and made me wait outside.

I proceeded mechanically to do responsible things. I called the house and told them what had happened. I told the records clerk to scan all forthcoming documentation to a confidential inbox at Federation Medical Command. From my phone, I remotely logged onto MIL-DB and contacted Treize's unit to tell them that they should expect further orders from Med Com. I dared a quick email to General Catalonia. I didn't yet know the extent of his injuries, but I knew he wouldn't be going back to his unit in two days, the official end of his leave. And then, when I'd done all that I could reasonably do, I meandered to the waiting room and sat.

The room was grey. The lightest tint of grey, something that came from the shade of the eco-friendly bulbs, something enhanced by the paint on the walls, which wasn't white, wasn't brown, but was like the water you dip your fingers in when modeling with clay. The chairs were plastic buckets of the most ergonomically displeasing form. An old woman eyed me warily, looking offended. Perhaps because I was crashing from an adrenaline high with drooping eyelid. Perhaps because my shirt was smeared with dried horse shit from when I was shoving Treize in the jeep.

"What?" I asked in Russian, sick of her already.

She didn't say anything, but lowered her head and grumbled aphonically as she fumbled with a pair of knitting needles.

It was quiet. Nobody was moaning in pain. No blaring Code Blue alerts sounded. Doctors, nurses, attendants, and clerks spoke with hushed voices as though we were in a library. I thought through various points proceeding the accident. The trademark easy dismissal. The sickly drain. The uneasy giddiness. The lolling. The perfunctory resistance. The unsettling quiet.

I was the one with the ten-centimeter- thick medical file. I was the one who was in and out of hospitals on a rolling cycle. I was the one who got crushed, thrown, and hit. I'd been bandaged, splinted, stitched, scanned, medicated, and cut into more times than I could remember. I had scars of all shapes and textures. The worst were the burns, the ugliest, the asymmetrical, lumpy rises and troughs, their origin unmistakable even with the most skillfully laid grafts. The cleanest were the stitched splits, the shards from exploding consoles, deep cuts that made nice, straight lines. Surgical interventions were the same, tidy, as attractive as a scar can get. Treize was always the one in the waiting room, when we were lucky enough to be assigned together, though most of the time he had to hear about it from halfway across the planet, which bothered him so much, I knew. He'd been smacked about his fair share in combat, had the prosthetic knee - Halfway to being a bionic man, I'd teased, for not even I had a prosthesis. His scars were scars of bravery; mine, more often than not, were scars of insanity, earned by doing things few in their right minds would do, flying the unflyable, fighting the undefeatable. It should have been him in the waiting room. How could he ever stand it? The stink of sanitation - why did it have to smell like that? Why couldn't it smell like the clean room at R&D...?

My phone buzzed. New orders. ATTN: Zechs Merquise, Captain, UESASC: Soldier is assigned temporary duty at Corsica Base, OZ Research and Development; telecommute authorized; duration not to exceed one month without additional approval. ATTN: Treize Khushrenada, Major, UESASC: Soldier is assigned convalescent leave not to exceed four months without further medical evaluation and authorization. Signed: Ming Wu, Lieutenant Colonel, United Earth Sphere Alliance Specials Corps.

That was fast.

I stood, suddenly extremely impatient, and walked to the reception desk to ask about Treize. "Hold on," the receptionist said, "I'll check."

She checked. A nurse followed her out, glanced around the waiting room, unsure of who he was looking for. The receptionist pointed and retreated to her desk. The nurse, a young, smiling Buryat with blue scrubs, ran his slim fingers through a small stack of paperwork as he gave me the rundown:

Blunt trauma, three broken ribs, CT scan confirmed can't translate in right kidney, hence the can't translate, drained nearly a liter of blood, currently undergoing endoscopic (?) surgery to repair damaged organ, minimally invasive, expect full recovery, what is your relationship to the patient? his friend? will require a solid week of bed rest with gradual increase in activity, he's a soldier, correct? no duty for a month, at the very least, will be prescribed oral analgesic for pain and discomfort, here's the prescription, the pharmacy is on the first floor, we've had great success with this drug, will somebody be available to help him out? you? here's a set of instructions for wound care, will be ready for release tomorrow, will be out of surgery in an hour or so, then you can visit with him, you'll want to bring him some clean clothes because we had to cut him out of what he was wearing, I do have his boots, though, (nervous chuckle), I haven't seen an injury quite like that from a horse, must be a terrible beast, I can't believe how much he bled, oh (!), but you don't want to hear about that, I'm sure, he'll be just fine, you know, just fine.

I think I said my thanks before he walked away. I was relieved, horrified, and exhausted.

xoxox

After I brought him home, Treize spent the first two days in a deep sleep. I kept him full of some new designer drug, nothing like its crude opiate ancestors, something precisely calibrated to make the brain crank out a poetic balance of serotonin and endorphins. The fact sheet read like a technical manual describing how each small modification in dosage could engineer a different state of consciousness and relief. When I woke him intermittently to feed him, make him drink water, give him his meds, he looked terrible, said he felt terrible, was miserable, humiliated when I had to help him sit up, walk to the bathroom, lie back down. Even on the full dose, he was in severe pain with virtually every move he made, even breathing, courtesy of the broken ribs, a smashed kidney, and deeply bruised muscles.

I didn't sleep in his bed like I usually did when we were home together, afraid that I might throw my arm around him accidentally, habitually. I used my room with both of our doors wide open in case he needed anything. Lara came up the first day and wept for him, which I listened to, lock-jawed, from the hallway. Her tears made me feel as though maybe I should have been more upset about his condition, even though I knew there was no need for it. I assured her that he would be fine, and when she asked me if he was hurting, I lied. The groundskeeper cut some beautiful, perfectly open roses and brought them up in a vase, appearing moved upon seeing the master of the house in his semi-conscious state with his oily hair, frown-set face, and immobility. He asked me to tell Treize that he was praying for him, and I mentioned then that he was going to recover fully, to which the groundskeeper replied that it never hurt to pray for the ones you love.

When I tried to give him his pills on day three, he told me that he didn't want to take all of them. He grabbed the fact sheet off the nightstand, blinked blearily at it for a minute, and stabbed his finger at the indications for one pill. He told me he refused to spend his entire leave asleep, I told him that he would be in considerable discomfort on such a low dose. He retorted that he'd rather be in pain than be a bloody vegetable. We leisurely bickered over it for a few minutes, and I agreed to give him a reduced dosage only if he promised not to try to do anything. I meant anything. If he even attempted to get out of bed by himself, I was going to drug him behind his back, I swore it. He asked me why I wasn't back in Xi'an. I told him that I was on TDY, ostensibly to help R&D burn through a backlog of unprogrammed simulations and statistical analyses, something I could do from home. He then smiled for the first time since his surgery and said he was looking forward to spending the month with me - and why wasn't I sleeping with him?

It took me a moment to formulate a reply. What a strange thing for him to say. How strangely unreserved. How strangely... sweet.

xoxox

"This feels wonderful."

Treize continued to sink lower, lower, until his head fully submerged, and then popped back up, hair sopping, water dripping down his face. He lifted his left arm, grimacing, and pushed back his bangs into a wet semblance of the style he typically wore at work.

It was his first wash since the accident, though not his first attempt. He'd wanted a shower the day before, but when we got into the bathroom and turned on the water, the sound of it slapping forcefully against the wall of the shower had made him nervous. "Screw it," he'd said and walked very stiffly, slowly, stubbornly back to bed, batting away my offer of assistance, leaving me to trail behind him like a mother behind her teetering, obstinate, dirty child.

I sat on the bathroom floor near the tub, one leg drawn up, the other extended across the floor tiles. My foot touched the base of the bath, a claw-footed behemoth, a unit that had been with the house longer than most of the other fixtures. It had taken quite some time to lower himself into it, something so painful that he'd broken out in a sweat from the effort. I'd watched, spotting him, and had felt peculiarly awkward doing so, like I'd been invading his privacy despite the number of times I'd seen him naked in various other non-sexual situations. Seeing him so vulnerable had upset me in a way I couldn't precisely articulate, perhaps because it'd kicked the legs out from under the image I had of him as an impregnable fortress. I'd never seen him torn up like that before. Even after L3, I'd only seen him after he'd recovered significantly. Those scars had been earned and healed alone - or, at least, without my witness. Somebody had been there. Somebody who wasn't me... Not a place I particularly want to go, though.

He rested his head back against the high lip of the bath and closed his eyes. He hadn't been comfortable since he'd been home from the hospital, too much hurt, too much hassle, too much dependence. He'd kept his promise not to adventure about, though it hadn't been much of a promise to keep considering the punishment he incurred from merely turning onto his side. Since I'd lowered his dose, he'd spent most of the time awake or semi-awake, never sleeping soundly. Despite this, he had attempted to be pleasant with great success. In fact, I'm not even sure he'd been trying all that hard.

"What are you thinking about?"

I started out of some haze and glanced up at him. "Nothing."

He rolled his head to the side to look at me. He gazed in silence, a small smile on his lips. I broke eye contact after a couple of seconds, letting my attention drift to a spot on the wall that wouldn't come clean... two towels on the rack, His and His, I thought with a dark spot of humor... what a life we had...

"You were scared, weren't you?"

"Of course I was," I admitted unapologetically.

"I should have let Pavel work on him. You were right. I was stupid to try."

I didn't say anything.

"I'm sorry for scaring you."

I still didn't say anything.

"Thank you for helping me."

"What else would I do?" I replied, eyeing him questioningly from beneath the heavy fringe of my untrimmed bangs. "You're my friend. Of course I'm going to help you."

"What's wrong?"

"You're being so... Forget it." I was torn between wanting to say it and not. I wanted a nap right then, just so I wouldn't have to finish the conversation.

He raised his eyebrows. "What?"

"Nice."

Those same brows fell and drew close. "Am I not nice to you?"

I took pause to choose my words carefully. "We're not very nice people, Treize."

It was true. Of all of the adjectives I could use to describe us, "nice" never made the top ten. Polite enough, good-natured, hopeful, perhaps. Nice, not so much.

He considered this statement seriously, his face adopting an unusually transparent expression of disappointment. "No, I suppose we're not. Why is that?"

"I'm not sure. I've never been particularly nice. You used to be. Until you joined up."

"There's not much room for nice in the military." His eyes moved from side-to-side rapidly, incrementally, indicating a certain high energy of thought. "But we should at least be nice to each other, don't you think?"

"We're not mean to each other."

"No, not usually, but sometimes we're very mean, wouldn't you say?"

In the ensuing quiet, I heard the water slosh lightly about, and I imagined him running his hand along, trying with limited success to get as close as he could to the surface without skimming it. Something like that. Something pointless. Doing something just to do it just because why not.

He continued. "And when I make you uncomfortable simply because I'm flying a bit on whatever they gave me - "

"You're not making me uncomfortable. "

In fact, though I hated myself for thinking it, I liked Treize better under mild chemical influence. It made him an adult echo of the boy he once was, before the world became too serious, the mission too pressing, too demanding, too strangling, before it cut us off from our hearts, leaving them to harden and shrivel from lack of use while we turned the cogs of history with only our minds, plans, and egos to guide us.

"I'm not loopy."

"No, you're not." Not loopy. Uninhibited. "You seem content."

"Would it be ironic if I agreed with you?"

One side of my mouth quirked up. "A bit."

"Oh, well. Could you reach the shampoo for me?"

xoxox

I was dreaming.

An endlessly long line of us in our physical training uniforms, black t-shirt with olive-green shorts that are just a little too short. The shirts are snug; there's no room for a belly. Not in the Specials. Treize always looked great in PT gear. Especially the shorts. But he's not in my dream. The line of us, the endlessly long line of us, moves through a maze of stations. Poke one. Poke two. Poke three - that one burns. Poke four. Poke five. Poke six. Poke. Poke. Poke...

"Quit it," I grouched into my pillow. I was on my stomach on the side of the bed I wasn't used to sleeping on, the side furthest from Treize's wound, the one closest to the window and the farthest from the door. When I cracked open one eye, I saw that it was still very early, the sun not even up, the sky dull outside the window. He poked me in the arm again and I turned my head to look at him through a thin wall of not-yet-awake fog.

"What?"

He was chewing his lower lip, considering me with something distantly resembling apprehension. My first fuzzy thought was that something had happened, that he'd discovered he was pissing blood or some other ill-boding side-effect that the hospital had told him to be on alert for.

"What's wrong?" I sat up on my forearms and passed my hand along my face to brush aside sleep-messed hair.

"Will you sit on me?" he asked, voice thick, gritty.

I squinted as though it would help me better comprehend what he'd just said. "What?"

He took my hand and slid it beneath the duvet, right over his straining groin. My eyes went wide and my chest seized. The universe and everything in it compacted into a single point. It was always that way when I was with Treize, my terminal velocity, unrivaled, dizzyingly intense. Better than any jump. Better than any fight.

"Are you sure?" I couldn't keep the undercurrent of knotted excitement out of my voice, something that blew the cobwebs clean from my consciousness, making me alert, piqued. Even as I thought about his injury, the potential for his discomfort, how I should have been more mature and reserved, I squeezed him, stroked him a few times.

He pressed himself into my hand with a sharp intake of breath. "Please..."

There was hasty preparation, just enough, no more, and when I did as he asked, what he pulled me out of sleep to do, I remember thinking with fleeting coherence that I couldn't think of a better way to start the day. It was a different perspective, a different balance, one that shifted the weight of control in my favor.  I never particularly enjoyed measuring our dynamics in such unfeeling terms, but control and power were the unfortunate currencies we often traded with.

I was eighteen then, generally insatiable and perpetually functioning on a full charge of unspent energy. I flourished in the bombardment of pleasure, the raw, grunting physicality, the gut-clawing, unrelenting, positive feedback loop of desire for Treize Khushrenada, the one person who by some freak cosmic accident appeared to feel the same for me. I settled into an enthusiastic rhythm and looked down on him with a self-serving voyeur's delight. Across his torso stretched the blotched mess of red, purple, green, and yellow, mottled tendrils that stretched wide like a water stain that gets under the carpet and seems to only grow larger and darker with time. It was the worst then, ugly, painfully tender. His broken ribs had to have been hurting him, but instead of exercising care, urging me to slow down, even telling me to stop altogether, he only let himself get dragged further into what we were doing. Every sharp, panted breath seemed to make his touch needier. Down my flanks, over my thighs, settling on my ass with a firm grip, squeezing, holding as his hips began to move, compounding everything. I let my head fall forward with a rough sigh, no longer able to rest in my modicum of imitation-Treize coolness, which was never me, anyway.

One hand moving back up, grasping onto my shoulder, sliding down  my arm. He took my hand again, guided it to my middle, settled there. Sure, why not? I touched myself like he wanted me to, noting with no small surge of arousal the expression on his face as he watched, cheeks, neck, and chest flushed, gaze heavy-lidded, fixated on my hand and what it was doing, flitting up my face whenever I vocalized in the ineloquent lexicon of sex just how outrageously good I felt. He bit his lip again, harder this time, as if to bite back a sound that might threaten his usual restraint, and his left hand shot up and grabbed the artfully-twisted wrought iron of the bed frame. The muscles of his arm and chest flexed, holding on for life, holding back...

"This..." he breathed, seemingly to himself, his other hand tightening around my ass, "like this...  this is it..."

He thrust up sharply, and I couldn't stop from crying out.

He groaned loudly, suddenly completely unconcerned with himself, and his eyes rolled back. "Yes...  exactly like this..."

The small medallion around his neck slid little by little down its chain with every rock of our bodies, and I spared a lust-flustered moment to entertain how the Holy Mother of God might feel about what we were doing in her presence. I might have laughed if I hadn't been on the verge of losing it. Between him and my own hand, the tight, quivering mass in the pit of my stomach compacted, driving me urgently to push and stroke just a little harder, almost, almost, and it was Treize tensing, shoving himself up as deep as he could, moaning and clutching as he came, that made that dense mass expand explosively, sending me over... To fall, fall... It was the best kind of rush, the elation, the incomparable euphoria, cushioned by a different kind of intimacy that gathered around us like a cocoon.

He let go of the bed frame, and his shaking fingers drifted overhead to the nightstand, where he grabbed a tissue and gave it to me to clean off my hand. I got off of him then but stayed close, on my side, firm against the warmth of his body, which, even with the gruesomeness of the wound, was still absolutely amazing to me - even more so for what it did to me, what it made me feel, how much it made me want, over and over. It was never enough.

"Good morning," he drawled, his breathing slowly returning to a deeper, steadier rate. Only then did he indicate the pain that must have been there the whole time, which manifested in the slightest of hitches upon full inhalation.

I touched my lips to his damp temple. He tasted salty, unwashed, fantastic. "Yes, why is that?" "Ah, well," he paused to clear his throat, "I was awake at, I believe it was three. Wide awake, for some reason."

I lifted my head so that he could slide his arm around me. His fingers delved into my hair.

"And I was thinking about when all of this mess started. How I let my attention slip, didn't stay close enough to the horse. That was the problem, you know."

I touched my fingers very lightly to the patch of purple-black right below his ribcage. I'm not sure what possessed me to do it. When the muscles below retracted sharply, I pulled my hand away with an apology.

"You didn't hurt me," he reassured, taking my hand and resettling it in the middle of his chest, "I'm a bit guarded about it, is all."

I moved my palm to the left until I felt defiantly strong beating beneath. I stayed on that spot and got lost for a moment watching the hypnotic, gently rising echo of that pulse in his neck.

"'Would you rather be kicked by a leg that's coiled, or a leg that's fully extended?'" I asked rhetorically, repeating the stable hand's mantra that we'd both heard so many times that we were certain we were permanently, infallibly programmed.

"Yes, I know. It's as I said. But this morning I was actually thinking of before, of you, lying on the hay with that journal you kept pretending to be interested in."

"I was interested. It's just that you were more interesting. "

Treize laughed softly. "And I thought I was the only one pretending. Anyway, it was three in the morning, and I began thinking of the way you looked in the stable, the way you were stretched out, the way your hand rested on your stomach, like this." He demonstrated cautiously on himself. "You had your leg up, and when you looked over at me... I don't know what it was about the way you were looking at me, but I could barely focus."

"Hey, you got kicked after I left."

"I'm not blaming you," he said lightly. "And, as I lay here, I listened you next to me, breathing, fast asleep, and the sound mingled with my memory of you, pooled and snowballed, and my mind went off in a rather more inappropriate direction. I mulled over the conundrum of my current limitations and considered alternatives, which culminated in a tortured cycle of raunchy fantasies that fell very much along the lines of what just happened."

"But you didn't want to wake me."  I smiled against his cheek. "So you just lay here for three hours."

"I was, ah, debating resolving the matter myself," he admitted, his tone taking on that thick edge again, "but I thought you might be interested. There came a point when I couldn't think about it anymore."

"I was dreaming that we were getting inoculations. "

I felt his fingers under my chin, coaxing me to lift my head again to look at him.

"You really are incredible." His eyes were so clear then, unclouded by thought or distraction. "Beautiful. I don't tell you often enough, but I always think it."

I told him in the language of my mother that I loved him, the only thing I remembered in her dialect, the expression I'd heard most often, smoothly rolling and gently guttural. It was effortless, like the truth should always be.

"What does that mean?"

I pressed firmly on that spot right above his heart. "It means that I feel the same about you."

xoxox

Another moment I wish I could have photographed: Me and Treize sitting up in bed, casually dressed, barefoot, me working, Treize writing, doodling, refusing to show me. The window open, the breeze stirring the curtains. Me, happy. Treize, happy. The world of war was with us, tangible in the simulations I ran, but not consuming us. Treize, light, not really caring. Me, glad for it, this time without guilt.

He leaned to the left until his head was touching mine, eyes fixed on the small computer I had on my lap. "How is it going?"

I shrugged. "Things I could have done as a plebe, but it's hardly worth complaining over since I get to do them from home."

He leaned further in. "You're not doing it right."

"Well then, Instructor, Cadet respectfully requests to be educated."

Treize reached over, pulled up a command screen, and typed in a new trajectory for OZ's latest supersonic transporter. Instead of continuing on its course around the planet, it slung out of orbit, past Luna, past Lagrange Point 2, and then further, off, off, off into space.

"It wants to go."

"Go where?" I laughed. "Into the Sun?"

"That's where it belongs."

He smiled wistfully and watched as the program terminated with a warning tone and a message: ERROR! Object Exceeded Simulation Parameters.

He laid his chin on my shoulder and kissed my neck with open mouth. I tensed, relaxed, and my head drooped to the opposite side.

"You always smell great," he said, breath warm and wet against my skin. He inhaled deeply. "Did you know that?"

My lips parted with a sigh and I shook my head. His hand began creeping up my shirt, over the most prominent scar I had, a long, rudimentary field-surgical cut made to dig out several large pieces of jagged metal from a sabotaged jet fuel tank.

"Do you want to see what I'm working on?"

I laughed again, this time with a breathy edge. "You're working?"

"In a sense. And, in another sense, definitely not."

He sat upright with significantly less discomfort than even a few days earlier and flipped back a few pages in the graph paper notebook he'd been working in.

"I was thinking of revisions for the Specials' physical fitness regulations. What you and I spoke about earlier."

On one page, he'd scrawled the description of the modifications. First was a statement regarding changing the standard for push-ups, newly requiring the arm to bend to a ninety-degree angle or smaller or else the repetition would not count on the physical fitness test. Principle: To be able to get up when you've fallen down flat, full ruck and gear, an additional weight that could easily exceed fifty kilos. He also made notes about the addition of the pull-up, with rationalization that one must be able to hoist oneself into one's own suit in the event that the automatic winching system was down.

"I don't know how you write like that."

"Like what?"

"Like a manual."

"Well, when you author enough of them, you get a sense for it."

Back before Treize had become the de facto leader of the Corps, he'd singlehandedly rewritten nearly every regulation the organization abided by. And though he was nothing for quoting specific sections and paragraphs like some of the other commanders ("I have better things to do with my time," he'd explain), he knew every rule forwards and backwards.

He then flipped to a page scrawled with the heading "Real Exercise." One picture showed a soldier in his PT uniform chopping wood under the caption "The Log Chop." Another picture showed a soldier with a shovel, scooping from enormous mounds of what appeared to be horse muck. Caption: "The Shit Fling." I smirked at the pictures - which were neither poorly nor particularly well drawn - and the impetus behind them. Treize had been punished with such activities on a regular basis as a younger man, as had I. And he was right, that was real exercise. A look of mutual amusement passed between us.

"I think our soldiers have very little understanding of what constitutes true physical exertion."

"Most of your soldiers didn't grow up quite in this environment. "

"I so badly want to toss some of those lieutenants in a pile of mess like this," he said dreamily, pointing to the mountain of manure and used hay, "to see their reactions. Like that bunkmate I had at my first duty station."

"The prissy one in the top bed who used to jack off all the time?"

Treize made a small sound of exasperation. "I cannot count how many times I awoke in the middle of the night thinking there was an earthquake. We were at New Edwards, after all."

I pictured fifteen-year- old Treize's face upon awakening to something like that and then upon the realization of what was really transpiring - the keen alertness, the disgusted sneer, the irritated balling of the fists.

"What did you do?"

"I punched him in the ass and yelled at him to do it in the bathroom stalls like everyone else."

"You punched him in the ass?"

"I punched whatever part of him was overhead. I was not aiming for specifics. It simply happened to be his rear end - and this is after enduring this behavior for two months without complaint, mind you. He showed me the bruise later that week, as though I would want to see it. I'm not sure what he was thinking."

"Maybe he was thinking about you all those nights."

"Good lord, I hope not. He was a troll."

"But you wouldn't have minded if he were good looking."

"That is not what I meant," he backpedaled. "I meant that - "

"You might want to stop there." I slid my hand between the current page and the next, trying to peek. "And the rest of this?"

Treize pressed the page down, stopping me. "That one is not ready yet."

"Oh, come on."

He barely put up a fight, and when I turned the page, I saw a crude stick figure drawing of two people clearly having sex. In fact, they were in the same position that we'd tried earlier that week. The caption said "Modified Sexual Position Number Three for Category Two Equine Injuries."

My face got warm, and I knew I must have been blushing furiously. He pointed to the one on top.

"That's you."

"I gathered."

He was very close again, and he brushed my hair behind my ear so that he could whisper in it. "You looked so hot..."

I swallowed hard. "I didn't know you were into pornography. "

"I was inspired." I felt his tongue.

"So," I ventured unsteadily, "what are positions one and two?"

"I'm not sure yet." He pulled back and tapped his finger to his chin in a gesture of mock-contemplation. "We will have to research and document the proper procedures before I submit this to Training and Indoctrination. We only have..." He looked at his wrist at the watch that wasn't there. "...A week-and-a-half left. Do you like how I did that, by the way? Started with position three?"

"You brilliance is unparalleled. You really plan on going back so soon?"

"I am feeling much better."

"I can tell."

xoxox

"What about this one?"

"That one is good. That will be excellent for the sauce, I think."

I pulled gave it a quick yank, broke it off from the roots, and stuck it in the small basket Treize carried.

It wasn't my first time mushroom hunting. However, all the times we'd gone before, Treize had done the choosing and picking while I'd held the basket. Even injured, he'd insisted on doing it himself until I hugged him from behind and told him that he didn't have to be like that - like what? - like the damnably stubborn man he seemed inherently, irreparably to be. You don't have to be tough for me, I'd said. Let me help. After a long beat of quiet, a session of personal bargaining, he'd reluctantly agreed. Strange, because I'd thought it a lost cause from the get-go.

"And this one?"

"Perfect..."

I crouched down to pick it -

"...if you want to spend the night draped over the toilet, vomiting so hard that all the blood vessels in your eyeballs burst from the force of it."

My hand froze and swiftly retracted. "Sounds like you've had experience."

"An unfortunate mistake. But it looks very similar to that one you just picked, doesn't it?"

"Maybe we should stick with just tomatoes."

"Nonsense. I won't let you pick a bad one. And if by chance one slips by, well, we'll be in it together, won't we?"

"And I thought you had no sense of romance."

"I am romantic."

"Really? With whom?"

Treize shifted his weight and hugged his free arm over himself, over his wound, grasping his opposite elbow. The temperature was cooling quickly as the sun set, and it was almost too chilly for our late spring jumpers. His hair, meticulously, fashionably mussed in a style he could never get away with on duty, strained against the product that held it as the wind began to pick up.

"You are not precisely Prince Charming."

I eyed him without malice, finding it surprisingly easy to shrug off a comment that might usually send me into a fit of spiteful retort. "What about this one?" I pointed vaguely at no one mushroom in particular.

"Fine."

"What, are you mad now?"

"No."

"Then what?"

"It's getting cold. Let's go back."

Without waiting, he turned and started down the wooded path.

xoxox

He snatched the paper out of my hand.

"'This is my grandmother' s favorite gnocchi recipe. She used to make it for us when we were children. This is real Italian cooking, not that garbage you'll find in some cook book. I hope you have fun making and eating it. Eternally yours unto the ends of the universe, Lucrezia.'" I snatched it back. "It does not say that. It says 'Yours, Noin.'"

"I was reading the subtext."

"Please. I'm just a friend."

"A friend she wants to procreate with."

"Look at us!"

"I think we're more than friends, don't you?"

He drew closer, backing me up against the kitchen counter. The blue of his eyes was charged with heat and mischief, and just as he was kissing me, pressing himself to me as I reciprocated with like vigor, my hands in his hair, my mouth hungry for him, Lara walked in. I saw her in my periphery, saw tastefully-shaped brows shoot up, her fingers fly over her shocked, gaping lips, and then I watched her do an abrupt about-face and rush back out of the kitchen. Embarrassed, I put my hands on Treize's chest and tried to push him away.

"What?" he hissed, pushing even harder against me, digging his hips into mine. "You think she doesn't know? You think they don't notice that you never sleep in your room? You think they don't hear us when I'm fucking you?" The way he said "fucking" was almost like an onomatopoeia, such was the thrusting force of it. "They probably listen outside the door."

"They do not!"

"You must admit, we do make a sexy couple."

I scoffed. "That's beside the point."

"Is it?" He let go, turned around, and faced the cutting board on the island. There was a chopping sound, and when he turned back, he held half of a deep maroon tomato out towards me. "Here. Eat this."

I intended to take only a bite, but instead he shoved the entire thing in my mouth. It was so much that I had to make a concerted effort to keep it all in, my only means of protest the perturbed look I gave him and a muffled, unintelligible, sarcastic "Thanks."

As he watched me struggle, the luminosity of his smile grew with every troubled bite, until it was brilliant, exuberant, dashing. He looked very handsome then. Roguish and unburdened. Forever young. Ecstatically alive.

"I love you."

I stopped chewing, palm over my lips to keep the juice from dripping out while I tried to swallow what I could.

"I want you to know."

I blinked, unable to do anything but look ridiculous. He moved in close again and touched his hands lightly to my tomato-bloated cheeks. There was such tenderness and endearment in his eyes, I'll never forget it.

"Remember that always."

xoxox

"I will miss this."

He shook the last of his medication into his hand. He had another two refills, but he wouldn't fill them. He wasn't like me, a man who would take prescription drugs as a chemical vacation. He wouldn't be on duty in any state of intoxication, no matter how slight. He had too much at stake, too many lives in his hands to be anything but absolutely, crushingly serious.

I stuffed the last of my shirts in my duffel and pulled the zipper closed. "Miss what?"

"Feeling good."

I turned around and saw him swallow the pill dry. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, wearing every article of his battle dress uniform except the soft cap. The look on his face was one of resignation, a solemn, wordless acknowledgement of something he didn't ever want to say aloud.

I, without headgear or blouse, crossed my arms over my chest. "I think you have a problem."

"Most likely, I have many problems. We all do."

"I'm talking about you." And your father, I didn't say.

We spent a few moments in silence as he probably calculated the cost/benefit ratio of discussing the matter with me. He bent down with nothing more than a clench of the jaw and pulled hard on the laces of his stiff-ankled jump boots, tying them into a quick, practiced knot. He'd earned the right to wear them by jumping out of so many airplanes at so many altitudes, a distinction also shown by a small patch above his name tape featuring the Greek letter lambda. On my chest was the same, except my lambda was wreathed in ivy, meaning that I'd jumped higher, stratospheric, and more often. Only five had ever been awarded in the history of the Federation. He was never jealous.

"The possibility hasn't escaped me."

"I don't suppose you'll ever do anything about it."

"No." He stood smoothly, looking every bit invincible, though he would be barred from physical fitness training for another month while he continued to heal. "There's some functionality to it. It keeps me measured."

"I don't even know what that's supposed to mean." I frowned. "What do you think would happen if you did something about it?"

The smile that spread slowly across his lips was whimsical, so distantly departed from his "despondency, " or whatever avoidant euphemism he used to describe what was really going on.

"I might muster out and live happily ever after."

xxxxx

What a fucking joke. It's not funny, though. Not one bit.

I hate him for leaving me. I hate him for thinking that I'd be fine on my own. I fucking hate him for it.

I booted up my computer in the truck and logged on the network just in time to hear his daughter proclaim that she was the rightful heir to the World Nation. Jesus Christ, Treize. Couldn't you have told me? I know that you knew about her. I could see it in your face, even though I had no idea what exactly I was looking at...

When I saw her then, I saw him, and when I heard the words coming out of her mouth, I wanted to throw up.

"Can you go any faster?"

The speedometer crept higher. In the distance I could see the expansive, softly fluorescent blanket of low-hanging clouds looming over the city like a curse. The dense line of opposing traffic grew thicker and slower as more people fled the capitol, unsure of what they were fleeing but knowing intuitively that the capitol wasn't the place to be at a time of war. A time of war. Didn't we just have one of those? Wasn't that one supposed to have been the last?

A half-kilometer ahead of us, a police checkpoint forced the few cars brave enough to venture into a potential battle zone to a standstill. Vadimas swore softly as we slowed and fell into the queue. With the truck idling, I could hear the wailing of an old air raid siren outside.

"This won't work. You have to pull off this road. Up there."

"That is not a road you want to go down, young man."

"I have to get into the city. Find another way."

He yanked on the wheel, slammed down the gas, whipped the truck around, and took us back in the direction from which we came.

"That wasn't entirely subtle."

"I know a better way!"

He was smiling, hands tight on the wheel, leaning forward enthusiastically. Excited. It was exciting.  My blood was thick with adrenaline, and the only thing dampening it was the thought of that little girl, Treize's little girl, brainwashed and bastardized into some sort of sick figurehead. Somebody we all recognized and somebody we didn't even know. Somebody we idolized and somebody we suddenly feared. It was disorienting. Disturbing. Disgusting.

I wondered what he'd been to her, if he'd held her, if he'd played with her, if he'd sent her birthday presents, if he'd kissed her on the cheek and told her he loved her. I didn't know. I still don't know. And not knowing still bothers me as much as it ever did.

Vadimas took an exit, a highway, another exit, a country route, another exit, and then another highway, managing without guidance to sneak us into the city limits without encountering another blockade. I worked with him, checking the computer, directing him down the few roads that hadn't been flagged by the network as being blocked off or overrun with people. The city was a nightmare. Everywhere we drove, people were huddling in the streets, scared, shouting, putting the thinly-stretched police force on edge. Throngs pushed against disproportionately tiny crowd-control teams. Vadimas struggled to keep us moving, and I sank back in my seat.

The Preventer HQ building was, unfortunately, right near the city center. The base proper, where the hangars and runway were, was on the outskirts and occupied a large, gaping black space on the otherwise detailed satellite image I referenced on my computer. It used to be an OZ base. I remembered being temporarily stationed there for the second phase of my officer training. There two-dozen hangars there that had once housed over 100 suits. Mostly Leos, Treize's favorite, though there was one each for Tragos, Aries, and, later, Taurus units. I hoped that those hangars weren't completely empty, hoped that Une was still as paranoid as she'd ever been, still imbued with the propensity towards deliberate concealment that had made her such an unpredictable commander and appropriate officer for a secret organization like OZ.

We turned down the access road that led to the main gate of the headquarters campus, one dotted at regular intervals with warning signs: Not A Throughway - Visitors Must Be Accompanied By Authorized Personnel - All Vehicles Will Be Subject To Search - Please Have Identification And Proof Of Vehicle Ownership Available. There were two men at the guard shack armed with assault rifles; one had a German Shepherd tethered to his wrist. They were in combat gear of the same pattern and hue as we'd used in the Specials, the only difference being the artfully geometric "P" patch sewn onto the left shoulder. Vadimas rolled down both of our windows.

"Well, ho-ly shit," one of the guards named Costas said when he got a good look at me. I was suddenly thrust back into the world of the International Standard, something I'd reminisced in and listened to but hadn't actually spoken since arriving in France. I harbored the brief, irrational fear that perhaps I'd forgotten how to speak the language I'd been using since I was old enough to put word to concept.

The two men didn't look especially comfortable with their lot. The one who wasn't Costas, nametag lost in a shadow, let his weapon droop by the strap over his shoulder, reminding me of one of those fair-weather lieutenants in Croatia who hated ground training week with prickling passion. Costas put up a good effort to look professional, but he kept his finger on the trigger of his rifle in a way that screamed amateur. I suspected that they were regular field agents posted at the gate especially for emergency lockdown. This wasn't uncommon in the martial sector. We'd practiced it in the military regularly.

"I'm looking for Director Une," I explained unceremoniously, succeeding with no small effort to calm the urgency in my voice. The last thing these guys wanted was to meet with a keyed-up Zechs Merquise - least of all when I was trying to persuade them to permit me entrance.

"Yeah, well, she's probably looking for you, too."

"Think so?" Interesting. I was fairly certain that I'd been declared dead.

Costas put his hand on the frame of the truck and leaned in as he spoke. "Rumors. Something some ore miner said. Some different guy told the press he saw you on C-208. Another guy said you were a Buddhist monk or something. One agent here said she saw you once in the shop, at the vending machine, buying a candy bar. Point is that, around here, your 'death' hasn't exactly been accepted."

The agent with the dog shifted his weight, revealing his name to be Ma. "Just wave him through, Costas. Shit." He had a gaunt, sallow face, but his eyes were quick and lucid. He took a long drag off of a cigarette I hadn't seen him holding and then crushed it under his boot.

"You do remember what this guy did, don't you? It sure as hell wasn't some 'oopsie!' slip-up! He wanted to kill every damn one of us!" He turned away, into the shadow, and when he continued to speak, his voice was laced with venom. "You and your fucking dolls. We could barely keep our shit together out there..."

Ma regarded his partner for a moment, a moment of acknowledgment, a nod of validation, and then nudged his chin at me. "Are you here to kill us?"

"No."

He pulled something out of his pocket and gave it to the dog. A biscuit, from the crunchy chomping sound. "I do remember something," Ma said to Costas. "I remember him kicking everybody's ass. I think we could use some of that about now. Let him through."

"Yes, just fucking let him through."  Costas stepped back into the light, shaking his head, smiling mirthlessly. "Why the fuck not? What's one more fucking OZ crony around this joint? Might as well change this to a fucking lion's head," he spat, pointing to the patch on his arm.

"Are you looking forward to having a colony dropped on your head? I'm not. Plus," Ma jerked his head in my direction as he addressed me, "I think you're the only one who can pilot that bitch in Hangar 5."

The bitch in Hangar 5 that only I could pilot... I wondered what that was, kindling hope that it was some reconstruction of Tallgeese and not Wing Zero or (please) not another Epyon. I could tell by the way Ma spoke, the way dismissed decorum, the way he regarded me with neither spite nor admiration, that he was a former hangar rat. If only because of that fact alone, I respected him.

Costas sighed and hoisted his rifle over his shoulder carelessly. "How do you know that thing even works?"

"'Cause I stuffed in her beautiful guts with my own hands." He waved said long-fingered hand incrementally. "Go on. 20th floor. I'll tell security you're coming." His gaze, piercing, settled on Costas' face. "You got a problem with that?"

"Whatever." He shrugged acquiescently. "We're all going to die anyway." He then looked squarely at me, his eyes sore, tired. "Some peace, huh?"

Costas and I stayed locked like that for a moment, frozen, nothing of particular significance passing between us. I'd made a terrible decision, he'd bared the brunt of it, like so many others had. I supposed that I'd have to get used to these sorts of encounters. God knows I deserved every single one of them.

He triggered the gate to open from a remote in his hand. I mumbled my thanks, and we navigated a small maze of cement blockades to merge onto the campus' main road. When we pulled up to the front entrance of the towering headquarters building without incident, I was astounded almost to the point of laughter. No guns were blazing, no bullhorns were calling for my unconditional surrender. The entire event was extremely anticlimactic.

Vadimas threw the shifter into park and clapped his hands on his lap. "Well, I guess this is the end of the line!"

I unbuckled my seatbelt and put my laptop away. "You make it sound so grave."

"You're right - I suppose this is really the beginning of the line for you."

We watched together as the first flurries of snow melted on the windshield. The smile on his face was one of satisfaction. Perhaps he considered bringing me to Brussels another gesture of penance for the sins he felt he'd committed.  How ridiculous. How old-fashioned. The man was over seventy years old. What did he think constituted adequate atonement, anyway?

"Do you still miss her?" I asked quietly. "Your wife."

I'd seen pictures in the hallway, the living room, his bedroom. Their wedding photo, photos with their children, their grandchildren. Her existence was palpable, even after her death.

He turned his head to look at me, and his smile broadened, clashing sorrowfully with his words. "You never stop." He spoke directly to me, about me. He knew. "Even when you think you have."

When I stepped out of the vehicle, I was distinctly aware in that moment that I would have some sort of a life on the other end of the Barton obstacle. I didn't know then that I would be officially pardoned because of what I would do a few short hours after entering Preventer Headquarters. I think my confidence had to do with something completely intangible, like the way the air tasted. Something silly and magical.

I slung my bag over my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a pair of agents blatantly gaping at me from the front entranceway. Surely they had better things to do, considering the potentially planet-destroying crisis at hand, but I suppose it would have been like winning the gossip jackpot to be one of the first to behold the resurrected incarnation of the Lightening Count.

I turned and grasped onto the open truck door. I was always monumentally terrible at these things, confessions, gratitude, expressions of fondness. The naked honesty frightened me, probably something to do with attachment issues, dead parents, post-traumatic stress, dismally low self-esteem, and so on. I'm a therapist's wet dream of psychological entanglements. Goodbye has always been the hardest for me. I hated saying it to Treize at the end of leave, at the end of the day, the end of a telephone conversation. Something about the last goodbye being the last one ever, a fear that actualized for me on Christmas Eve of 195. When was our last goodbye? A real goodbye, not some court-martialed, White Fang goodbye... How terrible that I can't even remember it...

"I don't think there's any way I can properly thank you for what - "

He made that exaggeratedly disgusted face that he usually made when dismissing something ridiculous I said. "Bah! Save it. Please."

"No."

"Well, then don't draw it all out like a greeting card. If you feel the need to say it, just say it."

"Thank you."

"You don't have to thank me," he said with a wave of his hand. "I did it because you're too young to suffer the way you would have it. You're barely even an adult! Wait until you're an old man like me, then you can horse-whip, neglect, and curse yourself all you want."

I nodded, closed the door, and spoke to him through the open passenger window. "If everything goes well, I'll be back for my things."

"I look forward to seeing you then, 'Mr. Iversen!'"

His wizened hand latched onto the shifter and put the vehicle into drive. As he rolled up the window, he called out one last thing to me:

"You deserve to be happy!"

I snorted. "Right."

I watched him drive away, back to France, back to his vegetables and his cellar full of nostalgia. What a strange man, I thought. Strange. Wonderful. He hadn't even been afraid. But then, I suppose when one has outlived the Federation, very little intimidates.

As I climbed the stairs to the entrance, I considered the reeling cascade of events that had brought me to that single moment in history. How many of those events had been directed or motivated by one man and my love for him? Countless. Most. After we met, my life was never the same. I'd been sucked into his orbit by an act of unthinkable brutality, and flung out of it... no, I was never flung out of it. I think I'm still in it, even today.

The two agents at the door parted the way for me, continuing to gawk in my wake. When I strode past the notified security desk, one agent nodded her acknowledgement while the other, telephone to ear, stared blankly. As I entered the elevator, I brushed shoulders with one agent I recognized as a former subordinate of mine. He greeted me as though we'd last seen each other in morning formation and moved with haste towards the lobby.

On the twentieth floor, I walked the long hall that led to only one office: Hers. She was in there, the woman who had loved Treize so much that she'd lost control of herself, repeatedly spited by the way her reality contended with the web of rumor that always surrounded them. They were betrothed. She earned her promotions by giving him head. They were secret lovers. They had kinky leather sex. They were secretly married. Pretty much the same things they alternatively accused of us. I never really believed insane love and plain insanity to be the cause of her... internal conflicts. Love hurts, especially the unrequited type, but I'm inclined to chalk it up to a crisis of conscience. How was she supposed to reconcile her adoration of Treize with the atrocities and acts of duplicity he asked her to commit regularly? At least she'd found the point of disconnect - so many couldn't or refused to see it. And at least, upon discovering it, she hadn't abandoned him like I had.

From behind her closed door, I heard her arguing with somebody over the phone, her voice laced with the urgency and insistence that befitted the current emergency state of the ESUN. I opened the door and asked forgiveness for the intrusion. Even with the startled scowl on her face, my first thought was that she looked very pretty with her hair down. I smiled in return.

It was good to be back.

[part 9] [part 11] [back to Singles a-k]