Author: KhalaniK
Title: Limbo
Chapter: 4/11: Better Than Anything
Pairing: Past Treize/Zechs (made present-tense via flashbacks)
Spoliers: Series, EW Warnings: Death themes, intoxication, eventual male/male sexual situations, foul language, grief, angst, cynicism, debatable instances of sap. Flashbacks throughout. Little kid-ness (bear with me). Rated M for swears and dark matter.
Archive: Fanfiction.net under the name KhalaniK
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.

Limbo 4: Better Than Anything

Panic.

In my entire life, from my anxious childhood to my countless life-threatening missions as a soldier, I had never known panic like this. Not even when my house was on fire and my parents were dead and I had no air in my lungs just smoke and it was thick and terrible and I couldn't find Nonnie just men with guns... .

This was not the same.

This, this spine-seizing, skin-chilling, stomach-twisting panic, was in an entirely different class of its own. It wasn't the panic of sudden confusion or the panic of being late for something important. It was instead the panic right before a shard of wood is driven under a fingernail or the panic when a parachute fails to open. It was mortal panic, the panic of impending doom.

I had taken my last Tetracontin the day before and, like an idiot, I expected that I would find more if I only looked hard enough. The search began calmly, as little more than a brief glance around each room. White pill in here? No. Perhaps in the next room, then? It was a search that was polite and gentlemanly, restrained and optimistic. When a cursory sweep yielded nothing, I willed myself to focus, determined not to overreact.

But the ruse was pitifully short-lived. After my third time in each room, I felt the first twinges of needle-pointed disquiet creeping in from beyond the borders of self-control. In my bedroom, the place I slothfully bided most of my time, I knelt on the bed, running my fingers through every fold of bedding, looking for pills that I might have dropped in my altered state in the months prior.

Nothing.

Then I thought that maybe I'd miscounted the number of containers that I'd received on MO-VIII. It was entirely possible, I convinced myself, that the doctor had given me five and not four. That would have been a reasonable mistake to make, right? Absolutely, I told myself. So I emptied out the remaining contents of the bag that I hadn't even completely unpacked since arriving in France. I smiled when I heard the shaking of pills in a bottle and congratulated myself for remaining civil the entire time, but as I sifted through my things it turned out only to be B-12 vitamins that Gosney had insisted I take. I swore aloud as I dumped all the vitamins out on the bed and picked through them, looking for a hint of white in the sea of yellow.

Nothing.

I checked the drawers in my nightstand -- one could have fallen in there -- and then in the bathroom -- maybe behind the faucet! And then I crawled on the floor around my room, shoving aside furniture and reaching my long and scrawny arm under the bed, sweeping my hand back and forth, listening for the tiny staccato rolling sound of a pill on hardwood.

Nothing. Not a single thing.

I was electrified by an immense amount of nervous energy. After months of lying blessedly prostrate, this overwhelming restlessness was nothing short of miraculous. I paced, my thoughts racing as I impotently attempted to retrace my every movement since I'd arrived. If I even thought it within the realm of possibility that I dropped a pill in a certain place, I would search it twice, maybe even three times.

It was all-consuming, burning me up as the goose bumps rose on my skin. It was hours and hours before I admitted to myself that I'd searched every conceivable corner of the house and that it would be a waste of time to look anymore. Shaking, I ran my hands through my tangled hair and mumbled to myself that I had to focus, focus, game plan, focus, focus. I forced myself to eat some bread, thinking that it might have been low blood sugar contributing to the tremors that rattled my fingers. Though I knew that the bread was fresh and of typically excellent French quality, I found the food tasteless and a little sickening.

I flopped down on the chair in the sitting room and watched my left leg shake uncontrollably. I tried to pull myself together, tried to think about what -- if anything -- I could do next. I knew that somewhere inside me lurked a talented individual capable of assessing and planning, but I had denied him so long that I couldn't access that caliber of skill.

I looked out the window. The sun was out for the moment, soon to be eclipsed by a cumulous cloud. My eyes tracked the dirt road that led from my house to Mr. Kazlauskas'. I wondered how far it was -- probably no more than a kilometer. I could walk it...

Yes, I could walk it. There was a fair chance that the old man wouldn't be there. Hadn't I heard his truck drive off earlier? Old people always have something in their medicine cabinets, and the man was probably suffering from dementia, I told myself, and wouldn't notice a few missing pills - just one or two more was all I needed! Then I'd be ready to stop, yes, that was completely true because I was a man with discipline and character who just needed a little something and then that would be it maybe just one more just one would be perfectly enough because then I would be ready to kick it for good and just one maybe two or three for good measure just to make sure I was prepared....

I shook my head violently, as though I could shake that horrible train of thought right out of my skull. What the hell was I thinking, stealing medication from an old man I barely knew? It was preposterous, and, what's more, disgusting. I was a prince, for God's sake -- a self-hating, piece of garbage prince who wasn't worth the blue blood in his veins, but a prince no less. No, no, no. I wouldn't go that far.

But after so much time spent alternating between pacing and slouching in that chair, fidgeting and nervous, I concluded that yes, I would - no, I had to - go that far. I just had to. I had been staggering clumsily between self-restraint and reckless abandon for countless hours on end, and I'd reached my breaking point. Like the thunderclap- loud ticking of the clock on the wall, the idea of raiding the old man's house bore itself into my brain bit by bit. It went from an abominable option to an inescapable inevitability. I rose from my chair, put on my sunglasses, and stepped outside for the first time in months.

Though I'm certain that the weather and scenery were brilliant and beautiful, they weren't even a thought in my mind as I walked that dirt road. I saw nothing but the house ahead and the brimming medicine cabinet I pictured in my mind's eye. I became nearly giddy when I saw that the man's pickup truck was gone, and I quickened my pace to a sloppy jog and didn't stop until I was on his porch.

The door wasn't even locked. I couldn't believe my good luck! I am unspeakably ashamed to admit that I probably would have put my fist through the window and reached around to unlock the deadbolts in a pinch. That's the kind of fucking mess I was.

I threw the door open dramatically, like they do on TV, and immediately climbed the stairs, figuring correctly that the master bed and bath would be there. I passed two rooms in the hall which I foggily registered as a guest room and an office. I hit the jackpot one door down from there and made short work of rummaging through the man's medicine cabinet.

Vitamins. Vitamins. Vitamins. Every single damn bottle in the entire cabinet was filled with vitamins. I turned each one frantically, scanning the label. A. B. C. D. E. Fish oil. K. Multi. Selenium. There wasn't one prescription medication in there, if anyone could believe it. Panicked once more, I shut the cabinet and made the fortunate mistake of catching a glimpse of my face in the mirror. A man I barely recognized stared back at me, one with hollowed cheeks and eyes a cold and deadened blue. I stared at myself, incredulous -- not only at my appearance, but at what I'd caught myself doing.

For a long moment, I was completely sober. I saw with absolute clarity how shameful my behavior was, and in that moment I realized that I'd become a common addict, no better than a vagrant heroin junkie. It didn't matter why I was doing it; no amount of self-recrimination could possibly justify this.

With calm that I'd not been capable of mustering for days, I stepped back from the cabinet, slid the door closed, and walked out of the bathroom. In the hallway, men, women, and children from another time watched me from behind their glass frames, their stares nonjudgmental, unconcerned with my sins. The sight of a computer in the office caught my eye and I stopped at the doorway. A question that'd been eating at my guts since I woke up in space announced its presence and my stomach turned.

I took a step into the room and forced myself to stop once more. Did I really want to know? Did I deserve to know, and would knowing make any difference? But then, could I walk away from such a perfect opportunity without knowing? At least if I found out, this excursion would be more than simply a whacked-out malefactor's attempt to score more drugs.

The monitor was on, system logged in. It was the perfect setup. I took a step, then another, until I reached the desk and sat. I opened up a web channel and typed --

Treize Khushrenada.

... Treize Khushrenada (September 9, 171 -- December 24, 195 AC) served as Supreme Commander of World Nation forces in the Eve War of 195. Founder and member of the Specials branch of the Organization of the Zodiac, he was the youngest soldier in the current era to be promoted to the rank of General. General Khushrenada was also a key member of the Romefeller Foundation and a prominent figure in Russian aristocracy. He graduated valedictorian from Lake Victoria Military Academy in 187 and continued his distinguished military career until he was killed in action on Christmas Eve of 195...

No, no, no. Out of date. It had to be. Somebody must have found him, just like the found me. I tried another one --

... Germany -- Thousands of mourners gathered yesterday at the Dorum-Neufeld Cemetery to remember General Treize Khushrenada, one of the tens of thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in combat in the Eve War of 195... The reactor of Khushrenada' s mobile suit was critically damaged by Gundam 05, resulting in a fatal explosion... He is survived by his grandmother, Anna, and an extended family consisting of...

There was absolutely no way that either of those articles could be correct. No way in hell. They had to be... old or just... plain wrong, so I checked more --

... Treize Khushrenada (171-195 AC)... .

... Treize Khushrenada, Sovereign of the World Nation, was killed in action... .

And more --

... crowd of people gathered in Moscow's Red Square to mourn the loss of Treize Khushrenada...

... A significant portion of Duke Khushrenada' s money was willed to the Sancian Reconstruction Fund... .

I lifted a shaking hand to the computer's monitor and shut it off. I then stood, pushed the chair back into the desk, and left the office. I walked down the stairs and exited the way I came.

I walked. The sun was blotted out by dark nimbus clouds and the light was growing dimmer by the minute. Not a single thought ran through my head as I made my way towards my rental, like somebody had disconnected my higher cognitive functioning from my cerebellum. A few enormously heavy drops of rain thudded as they hit the ground and the roof of the house I lived in. One smacked against my sallow face and trickled down my cheek, off my chin.

I had left the door to my house wide open on my way out. I threw my arm behind me to close it when I returned. Inside was the stale, wretched stink of pathetic isolation. As I stood in the sitting room, dark blotches colored my vision and my head began spinning and I was suddenly so hot that...oh, God...

I made it to the bathroom just in time to puke my guts out.

I spend that night and the next day on the bathroom floor in agony. Every part of me felt like it had been pulverized by a mace, every bone broken, every inch of skin punctured. My insides burned as if my organs were tearing themselves apart. I shook violently, uncontrollably; I sweat so much that my shirt was soaked through. And I was weak -- so weak that I could only move enough to retch unproductively over the toilet and collapse back against the floor tiles.

Desperate to get any relief at all, I crawled into the shower and turned it on cold, not even bothering to undress. I did feel a bit better then, but only by the infinitesimally smallest of measures. I don't know how long I stayed in there, but at some point I turned the water off, pulled myself into a standing position, and stripped off my wet clothing. I threw everything in a messy pile in the shower and staggered to the dresser.

I was back to freezing, another wave of cold sweat already permeating my skin, so I pulled on a pair of sweat pants and that bulky black sweatshirt and burrowed myself into the warmth of my bed. I was indescribably uncomfortable and nauseated to the point of contemplating a return to the bathroom, but I mustered the will to not vomit up the little bit of water I'd swallowed in the shower.

I was absolutely exhausted, and even though I lay there in perfect stillness, I couldn't fall asleep. It seemed that my body was resolutely fixed on my experiencing every moment of this misery, which was as much as I expected and deserved. Like the magnificent thing it was, my brain experimented with ways to tune it out. At one point, it planted a high-pitched ringing in my ear, which distracted me sufficiently until a few minutes later when it faded into the background of my aching muscles. Then another round of dry heaving over the garbage can next to my bed made me at least forget the pain for a while...

And a few hours later, as the day's first light peeked through a gap in the curtains, there was a strange tightness in my throat... no, it was more around my throat -- like a noose -- or was it a neck tie? Yes, I think it was... in my new favorite color... just a little too tight for comfort, like what a gentleman wears to an important meeting... Oh, I could feel it, that constant pressure that keeps lightness in check. I immersed myself in the sensation, which became a memory of important meetings -- maybe the most important meeting of my life...

+

"You look so handsome," Mother said, her long fingers tying my bowtie in front of the full-length mirror in my room.

Like most six-year-olds, I had very little comprehension of what constituted physical attractiveness. The only thing such an expression meant to me was praise from my mother, one of the most valuable currencies in the world. At that time, I was no different from any little boy in that I adored my mother; I was, however, somewhat different in that I pretended that I didn't.

"I told you that Irina is bringing her son, didn't I? He's a little bit older than you are, but I think you'll like him." How was it that my mother always seemed to know exactly when my tie was just tight enough to remind me of its presence but just loose enough for me to breathe and swallow comfortably? "From what Irina said, he enjoys the same things you do." Irina was one of Mother's best friends from her boarding school days in Belgium. I had never met her before.

"How old is he?" I asked, ghosting my fingers over my mother's and trying to get a feel of how to tie the thing myself. I knew she took some silly pleasure in doing it for me, so I exercised enough tact to not ask her for an official lesson. I was completely fooling myself by believing her fawning to be a nuisance. As much as I pretended to be grown-up, I could never get enough of the touch of her hand in my hair, on my shoulder, in my own hand...

"He just turned eleven this month."

I purposefully filtered my excitement, just like my etiquette instructor suggested. In retrospect, this was one of the more damaging phases in my life, a serious time for an aristocratic child where habits that would supposedly make or break one's social future were introduced and enforced. I was already reserved by nature, and some would say that, as the training took root, I went from serious to grave. Obviously, these people had never seen me fence or explore the beauty of the nearby forest or discuss a book that I loved. I decided to let them keep their assumptions. They were only to my advantage anyway.

"I look forward to meeting him," I said, my tone subdued. That was the name of my game.

Mother smiled down at me, undoubtedly hopeful that perhaps I would meet at least one child that I got along with. I wasn't shy about expressing my distaste for the children I was forced to play with, many of whom I thought conducted themselves like oafish, untrained animals. On the occasion that they were boys, they would do insane things like grab my model cars off of my dresser and smash them together with a bwo-o-o-oshhhhh! or a kwa-a-a-ashhhh! sound effect that made my teeth hurt. When my playmates were girls, they were barely worth my time and thought quite the same about me, far more concerned with how cute Relena was and what dolls she had.

"His name is Treize and his title is Count. Their family name is Khushrenada. You will address his mother as Duchess, unless she tells you otherwise."

My tongue tripped over the boy's name and Mother corrected my pronunciation.

"Treize Khushrenada. Is that better?"

"Yes, that's perfect." She stood and walked to the closet to get the blue coat that went with my short pants. She had resigned herself to letting me wear the things after calculating that I barely got three wears out of a pair of regular slacks before they were officially too short. 'You grow like those weeds in the Annex,' she'd said. "Your father will join us for a cup of tea and then you and Treize can go off on your own for a few hours while Irina and I catch up. You will be okay with that, won't you?"

I slid my arms into the sleeves of the coat as she held it up for me. Then I stepped forward, just enough to let her know that I wanted to take it from there. I buttoned each of my three buttons and pulled up my socks. "We'll be fine, Mother," I reassured.

She looked at my reflection in the mirror once more -- so beautiful in her understated way -- and muttered something I couldn't understand in the dying local dialect of her home province. By the way she was smiling at me, I knew that it was something good. I afforded a small smile in return and she took my hand to lead me downstairs, where we met our guests in the receiving room before moving to a well-lit sitting room with a glorious view of the palace grounds.

Navigating social situations was never my forte. I loathed the trappings of peerage and procedure, which were oftentimes so overbearing that they made substantive relationships nearly impossible to form. Most aristocrats were always consumed to distraction with whether they were using the correct mode of address, whether they were eating or drinking at the correct pace, or whether they'd worn a color that was prominent enough to be noted but never so vibrant as to outshine a superior. What made the Khushrenadas exceptional from the onset was that they were unusually at ease in their own nobility, holding their distinguished positions effortlessly while at the same time paying due respect to Mother and me without an ounce of strain.

The women began by chatting about the spectacular fall weather and about Treize's recent birthday, more concerned with their long unattended relationship than with entertaining either of us. Irina would pause and occasionally divert attention to me, coaxing me to talk, giving her son a chance to get a feel for me without returning the favor of revealing any information about him. He appeared fully engaged with our conversation, no doubt taking diligent mental notes. As I conversed with Irina on comfortable subjects like my studies and hobbies, I sneaked furtive glances at the boy's neutral expression, nurturing a quiet envy of the way that he neither looked particularly impressed nor particularly unimpressed. Pleasant poker face. I wanted that.

A short time later, I was saved from further unwilling divulgence by the arrival of my father, which was an event unto itself. He was not fond of formalities, but he recognized the importance of being treated like the king he was, which meant an abundance of procedure no matter what he did. Immediately following, a staff member came in with tea for everybody and we got down to some serious improvisation. The conversation started lightly, but quickly barreled into a full-blown interrogation of Treize by my father. After all, he was just as concerned with the company I kept as I was.

"So, tell me, Treize, what sort of schooling have you had?" my father asked, resting his head against the high back of his chair. It was a classic power position that made him look tall, broad, and imposing - kingly, I suppose, which was pretty much the point.

Treize sat up so straight that I was sure my own neurotically self-controlled posture looked sloppy by comparison. And yet, he appeared quite settled and unencumbered in this state of rigidity, wearing it like an old coat that suited him perfectly. "Until present, I have been educated at home under the guidance of my mother and several tutors, Your Majesty," he said, his voice smooth and confident even under the intense scrutiny of my father. He had a faintly rolling accent which told me that English wasn't his first language, an area where I held an advantage since I'd been raised dually in Sancian and English to prepare me for a diplomatic future that I would never have.

"Oh? And are you considering entering a private institution at fourteen, or will you continue studying with your tutors?"

I knew my father well enough to be certain that he was looking for a specific answer from Treize, but I had no way of predicting what he wanted to hear. I studied his face, which was, of course, unreadable to me. I thought that somewhere in my maturation I would magically gain the ability to sense the inner workings of my father's mind, something that I would have committed criminal acts to have access to, but it seemed that he grew more mysterious with every passing year.

"Actually, Your Grace, I have already been accepted to several secondary academies for admission next fall."

My father's left eyebrow rose, a significant move of tentative approval, but one not without a proviso. "What academies?"

Treize leaned forward and placed his teacup on the table in front of him. I thought he was holding up quite well under the grilling, the only visible strain being an almost imperceptible exhalation of relief every time he shot a successful volley. "Bastogne, Saint Ludmilla, Alexandria, and Schaeffer-Eckstein have all offered me early admission, Your Highness."

Only as an adult can I understand just how accomplished Treize was to have been accepted into all of those institutions, which were universal top picks for every intellectual and aristocratic parent. His mother cast a sidelong glance at him, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. She kept her pride on a tight leash. If I had a child even remotely as extraordinary, I'd smile a hell of a lot more than she ever did.

My father nodded. "Very impressive, young man, but tell me -- do you think you will be... comfortable with your peers at that age?"

This was where Irina jumped in, her tone just shy of confrontational. "Treize is a highly gifted student. His tutors can scarcely keep up with his interests. And as for the social gap, it is slight, for as you can see, my son is quite capable of conducting himself admirably in the presence of those older than him."

My mother stifled a laugh behind her teacup and shot her friend a hasty look of apology for her husband's behavior.

"Oh, Duchess, I please forgive me. I only wished to learn a bit more about your son. I suppose have a tendency towards forcefulness at times," he said, apologizing but clearly not sorry.

"It's quite all right, Your Highness. I'm enjoying our conversation, " Treize reassured, then drank out of his cup in a way that was likely more urgent than he intended.

As I passively listened to a substantially more pleasant exchange between Irina and Father, I wondered where on Earth these people had come from. Mother said Russia, but I was inclined to think they hailed from another planet, where professional aristocrats are hatched from pods and groomed for absolute perfection from the moment they emerge. And, of course, fear had obviously been bred out of them generations ago.

"Perhaps we should let the boys go off by themselves," my mother suggested. "And you probably have to get back to work, don't you?" she hinted to Father.

"Oh, indeed," he said, the relief in his voice evident. "Well, Milliardo, why don't you take Treize up to your room? I'm sure you could find something fun to do there."

"Yes, Father."

We said our formal goodbyes -- bowing and curtseying and bowing and curtseying some more -- and I took Treize to my room like my father essentially ordered me to. Once there, I cringed as he was drawn immediately to the working drawbridge model that I'd made with my construction set.

"You must have worked very hard on this," he said, clasping his hands behind his back and leaning in to admire the intricacies of the piece. He turned back to face me, looking genuinely impressed. "It looks just like it does on the box!"

Of course he had the same exact kit at home. I waited for him to touch it, to make some sort of ridiculous sound effect, or do anything else that characterized my previous guests, but instead he remained absolutely respectful of my personal property. I thought it remarkable that of all my possessions he could have admired, and of all the compliments he could have given me about that possession, that model and those words were the best he could have chosen. How did he always know exactly what to say? It was uncanny -- and irritating. I wanted that, too.

"It wasn't that hard, really," I lied.

Treize looked at me with a small, comfortable smile on his lips, as though he held court with royalty every day of his life. His hair threw off fantastically copper overtones in the light of the sun streaming through my window, and his deep blue eyes held a glimmer of unshakable self-assurance that knocked me off center. He was nothing like the other boys I'd met, who'd gleefully despised me or pandered shamelessly or collapsed in on themselves every time I looked at them.

In an instant, I was overwhelmed by a desire to do or show something amazing, something that he couldn't top with his perfect posture and perfect words and perfect coat that fit his tall, thin frame perfectly. He had awakened my competitive streak, and I felt a pressing need to one-up him, big time. Being a prince clearly wasn't enough in itself. With his impeccable poise, boyish good looks, and unflagging confidence, he very well may have made a better prince than I did, and that intimidated me. I showed him a couple of the more mundane things in my room -- my book collection ("Impressive" ) and my telescope ("My father bought me the same one") -- and decided that he'd seen enough.

"We shouldn't waste our afternoon inside," I said, moving towards the door. "Would you like to get some fresh air?" The dialogue in my head, a translation of what I'd spoken, ran more along the lines of 'We're going outside right now and I don't give a toss whether you like it or not.'

He smiled and strode smoothly to my side. "Lead on, Your Majesty."

When we returned to the sitting room, Treize's mother was holding Relena and mentioning something about how she would love to have a little girl, a comment that made Treize's curiously bifurcated eyebrows gather. I interrupted them successfully and told Mother that I intended to give my guest a tour of the gardens. She frowned apprehensively as she considered it, until Irina whispered something about "being fine with Treize." Mother then gave me a long, serious look that implicitly begged me to not embarrass her and reluctantly gave her permission.

Outdoors, we walked alongside the palace, past the rose garden and into iris country, where Pagan was tending the plants. He wasn't just a butler -- he dabbled in all areas of palace life. I think most days he would have rather been the full-time gardener, for I believe he secretly reveled in the quiet and fragrant loveliness of the grounds. And who didn't? Running into him was fortunate, for it gave me a chance to make my intentions known to a third party and to secure my alibi.

"Hello, Pagan," I greeted. "Have you been introduced to Count Treize Khushrenada? "

The man stood and tucked his gardening shovel into his apron. His smile was partially obscured by his bushy moustache. "Why, no, Your Grace, I haven't had the pleasure yet."

I introduced the two, and Treize, like the unearthly creature he was, pinned those irises as Pagan's favorites and complimented him on them. This made the man's eyes sparkle - another victim of the insidious Khushrenada charm.

"I'm taking Count Khushrenada to the Annex, in case Mother or Father wonders where we are. We may be there for some time."

"Well, I hope you young gentleman enjoy yourselves on this beautiful day," he replied. There's a strong chance that he suspected my actual plans, but he subscribed to the theory that children should be given a wide pasture to roam in, both figuratively and literally. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Count Khushrenada. "

Treize bowed to the butler, something I found appallingly out of line -- even if it was Pagan, who I liked very much. At that time, I was quite happily married to the letter of the law and not the spirit.

"The pleasure was all mine, Sir."

Treize always had an excellent sense of balance, which I later learned comes only from experience and deep self-reflection.

The man watched us closely as we walked towards the south end of the property. I could tell because I was repeatedly sneaking what were probably glaringly apparent glances over my shoulder.

"What's in the Annex?" Treize asked, leisurely taking in the beauty of the grounds as we strolled.

"Um, more plants. A gazebo. Nothing exciting."

"Then why are you taking me there?"

I glared up at him. He had a sly expression on his face, one that completely contrasted the fresh openness of his earlier social front. With his short, reddish hair and longish nose, he looked just as fox-like as his comment suggested he was.

"Does your mother trust you?" I asked, doing more indiscreet over-the-shoulder reconnaissance.

Treize paused slightly before he answered. "I've never given her a reason not to trust me."

Treize Khushrenada Lesson 101: Listen very, very carefully, for he almost always chooses his words precisely.

"We're not going to the Annex." I saw a crucial turn coming up. "At the end of this row of lilies, make a sharp right to get behind them. We're going to move along the wall. I think you're going to have to stay crouched so that our mothers don't see you from the sitting room."

He nodded and we proceeded as casually as possible until we reached the end of the lilies -- casual meaning our childish interpretation of casual, which was a great and obvious exaggeration that included excessive arm swinging from Treize and an off-key whistled tune from me. We made our tactical turn and I scurried in front of him as we skirted along the generations- old brick wall. After a few meters, we reached the tarnished metal door that led to the outside world. There we crouched as I moved my special rock and used a stick to dig into the dirt to retrieve the key.

"Where did you get that?" he whispered.

"I saw the groundskeeper drop it one day." I was a terrifically naughty boy. A good boy would have given it back, but that key was literally my key to freedom.

I reached up and inserted it in the lock, turning it very conscientiously so that it made as little noise as possible. And then, slowly -- over the course of an entire minute -- I pushed the door open. It was rusty and loud if not coaxed just so, but I opened a wide enough gap for the two of us to slide through without creating a scene. We slipped free of the property and I closed the door behind us.

Outside the gate, we took a moment to absorb the magnificence of the forest that lay before us. It was an ancient wood, thick with coniferous and deciduous trees and lush undergrowth. The afternoon sun squeezed through the small, varied gaps between branches, giving the forest floor a mottled look that made the scenery look even more surreal. The forest was my sanctuary, the love of my life at that age.

"This might be one of the greenest forests I've ever seen," Treize said reverently, surveying the lay of the land and then looking back down at me with an unselfconscious grin. "I can see why you didn't return that key."

"Well," I said, unbuttoning my coat, "we all have our secrets, don't we?" I spoke with nonchalance, but in actuality I was thrilled to be in the woods, thrilled to be breaking the rules, and thrilled to be showing this strange alien boy my glorious country. "You'll want to take off your coat and tie. There's a bit of a walk ahead of us."

We draped our coats and ties over the cleanest-looking boulder we could find. The relief was immediate, for the white cotton of our dress shirts was far more appropriate for the weather than our coats had been. Treize unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt, revealing a coin-sized silver medallion that rested right below where the sharp ridges of his collarbones dipped at his sternum. I didn't find out what it was until a year or so later when he showed me up close: the Mother of God of Kazan, one of the holiest of icons in Russian Orthodoxy. It was an heirloom from his beloved and vehemently pious grandmother. He never believed in the religion and he never took off the medallion, preferring to think of its significance in secular terms of family tradition and, at times, good luck.

"Do you have any big secrets?" I asked indelicately as we started up the trail side-by-side, close enough to be more intimate that I was accustomed to but far away enough to preserve my cherished personal space. I was going for bust with this kid, taking out all of the stops that I reserved for less frustratingly enigmatic individuals. I figured incorrectly that there would never be enough time to politely get to know him, so I went for the bluntest instruments I had. It was a bold tactic, and one that didn't entirely fail.

"As you said, we all have them. I have some that are bigger than others, yes," Treize replied, completely sidestepping the essence of my question. His long legs, clad in slim-fitting, light grey pants and black knee-high boots, carried him smoothly and just a hair faster than I could move without additional effort.

"Like what?" I increased the length of my stride in order to keep up with him without looking like a mincing fool.

He smiled a little and his eyes moved up and to the right, as though trying to decide which of the multitudes of secrets would be the best to reveal. "Do you remember those academies I mentioned to your father? Well, I left one off the list. On purpose."

"Really? Why?"

"Because I haven't told my mother that I applied."

"What academy? And why wouldn't you tell your mother?" I asked, running my hand through the plants that lined the path.

"I was accepted to the military academy at Lake Victoria. I plan on going there. She already forbade it, but my father will help me convince her, I'm sure."

I frowned. "Why would you want to go to a military academy? So you can learn how to kill people?" I was young, but I was already quite well versed in sarcastic intonation, which seemed at the time a very mature way of conversing.

That comment earned Treize's full and enthusiastic attention. "Oh, no. I don't want to kill anybody. I really don't. It's only because I'm interested in computers and physics and engineering, and I know that the military has many opportunities for people with such interests."

"But why don't you go to a regular school and then go to graduate school and be a professor? My father is friends with the physics professor at the university in New Port and he does experiments all the time."

He nodded thoughtfully. "That is true, and I've certainly thought of doing that, but the military has a large budget and resources that you cannot find in the civilian world." He paused and his eyes narrowed. "Plus, haven't you ever seen a mobile suit on television and gotten this feeling of, how should I say it --"

"Fear?"

"Well, of course fear -- that's rather the point of it -- but I was going to say..." He paused and muttered something in Russian, his pleasant expression falling to one of intense concentration as he lapsed into thought. After a moment's struggle, the word "Exhilaration! " burst out with the brightness and gusto perfectly befitting it. "Whenever I see a mobile suit or a tank or a battle cruiser or fighter plane, I feel exhilarated, and all I want to do is get behind the controls. Haven't you ever felt that way?" He looked down at me, his expression open and hopeful, as though he were imploring me to find common ground with him - any at all.

I felt panic then, a surge of paranoia over the sure knowledge that he could read into a part of my mind that I kept carefully hidden from my parents and nonnie - one that was obsessed with anything that had an engine and moving parts, mobile suits most regrettably included. My days of knight and chainmail fantasies were over, replaced by dreams of speed and power. Yes, I could see exactly where Treize was coming from. Even if I didn't want to.

"Maybe a little," I conceded. I ripped a huge, thick leaf off of a plant with little purple flowers and began tearing it up into tiny pieces. We walked in silence for a few minutes, the path growing steeper with every step as we moved up the parabolic slope of the mountain.

Suddenly, Treize stopped and stuck his arm out to block me from moving any further. Immediately I balked at the gesture, but when I looked in the direction he was pointing his finger, I completely forgot about the insult.

Scarcely ten meters from where we stood was a large, proud buck with a stunning set of antlers that any trophy hunter would have coveted. He was startled by our presence at first, his ears perked, tail kicked up, ready to run...only, he didn't. Instead he stared at us with an intensity that I didn't know existed in an animal that wasn't a born predator. I felt a twinge of guilt then, like I was an intruder in a sacred realm, a stark contrast to the possessiveness that I typically felt about the forest (gloriously mine, every inch of inch of it).

I don't know how long we stood locked together like that. It could have been seconds, minutes, or days for all I knew. With a sudden and spectacular display of power and leaf-kicking, the buck bounded off without any specific provocation, leaving us, captivated, in his wake. When Treize and I looked at each other, we were wearing the exact same dreamy smile.

I stared at him hard. Did he feel it? The glimmer in his eye -- was that it? Had I finally met somebody who felt humbled at the feet of the natural world, someone who felt like crying when he thought about how impossibly beautiful the Earth was? Yes, I knew it. When he smiled like that, just like I did, I knew it. This was no snooty pansy who hated dirt and practiced ballroom dancing for fun. This was a boy who knew the secret that I thought only I knew -- that the smell of wet leaves is really the smell our mother's hair, and that the dazzling smear of stars across the night sky is the blanket she tucks us in with. God, he knew it, didn't he?

I felt the beginning of something building between us, binding us together. It was something organic and alive, something so profound that it ached when I tried to touch it. He was the one my mother had been praying for, the boy who would be my real friend and make me happy. The thing I felt between us... I didn't need any more proof. We could have had nothing else in common but that and it would have been enough.

I liked him. A lot.

Treize's fingers brushed so lightly against forearm that I would have missed the gesture if I hadn't watched him do it. "That was lovely, wasn't it, Your Highness?"

"Call me Milliardo."

"Whatever you like."

A short time later, we arrived at the hardest part of the journey, which consisted of a steep, rocky climb on all-fours. We reached and stepped together, practically in unison, glancing over at each other on occasion, smiling every so often. There was something about endeavoring together that felt right in a way I couldn't understand, everything always easier with him, more significant with him, more correct and good with him. It was a feeling that would hang between us as the years progressed, as we became teenagers and then young men.

We reached the top and stood, breathless from the exertion and from the sheer majesty of the view. We were standing at crest of a gigantic cliff that plunged hundreds of feet to the city below, beyond which was the expansive and flawless azure of the bay. The sun was low and just beginning to paint they sky pinkish-orange.

"Amazing... " Treize said, his voice hushed by something more emotional than fatigue. I watched a line of sweat as it trailed down the side of his face, which was already beginning to show the masculine contours that would later make him remarkably handsome.

"This is what I really wanted to show you. This is better than anything." I was overwhelmed as I always was by the beauty of my country, the land I thought I would come to govern. Such a faraway dream, my homeland unspoiled...

We stopped to rest on the rocks and talked about the important things in our young lives like books, fencing, movies, and cars. Mother was right -- we had a great deal in common. As we talked, I wondered when I would get to see him again, not knowing that it would be so soon and under such horrific circumstances.

I knew right then on that cliff that Treize was special - no, "special" was never quite the word to describe him. He was brilliant and endlessly mysterious, with a cool but occasionally fierce temperament and a wicked sense of humor that he reserved for only me, I think. He was my best friend, brutally honest when he needed to be but unafraid of entertaining a fool's hope for a better world. As I lived my fraudulent life as Zechs Merquise, he was the one who reminded me of who I'd started out as, the one who I tucked so neatly beneath my mask and uniform. He was the one who helped keep Milliardo Peacecraft alive, even when I wanted to kill my other side for weakening me or driving me to desperation that I couldn't control.

And Treize was perfect, even with the numerous, sometimes fatal flaws that I would later come to know as our friendship deepened and we became more than friends. He was perfect for me and, in the end, the only one I ever wanted.

And now he was gone. Not gone in the sense of living in another country or fighting on a different side. Those I could handle. I could handle him with somebody else. I could handle him a thousand miles away with no intent to return. I could handle these things because at least these scenarios required him to be alive to choose them.

But dead? Dead was what my parents were, what my neglected rubber plant was. It was the way I felt after a 20 mile run. Dead is what happens to old people and tragically ill children who never got a chance to fuck up their lives. Dead is something for the religious to ponder and for the atheists to secretly fear. It never, ever could describe Treize Khushrenada.

Could it?

My heart knew it did, and I wanted to cut it out, kill it, smash it and hate it, spite it for the happiness it gave me before tearing me apart with a simple acknowledgement of truth...

There was that terrible pressure again and that tightness around my throat, strangling me and making me gasp. Dead pressed its brutal mass of ugly weight into my body and I was too tired and skinny to fight it. My vision blurred as I thought about one of the last things Treize ever said to me --

"You've always done what you thought was right, no matter what. That's why everything will transpire exactly as it should."

You're so goddamn cryptic, Treize. I hate you.

I let out a horrible choked sound and -- fighting it -- I clenched my hands into fists. What I thought was right? I didn't do what I thought was right! I did the only thing that my anger would allow me to do. It wasn't about right and wrong. I didn't think like that. Treize thought like that, but not I. Not after OZ. Not after Sanc fell for the second time. Not after Epyon fucked my mind.

I didn't care about the consequences. I latched onto Quinze's dogma, just like I latched onto Treize's, and I spewed it on cue. It was a cover, just like Zechs Merquise was -- a cover that let me settle my grudge with Heero Yuy and let me demonstrate to everybody just how sick I was of murder dressing itself as rightness, honor, duty, and, of all the sick things, justice and fairness.

Nobody was ever fair to Sanc. They weren't fair to six-year-old Milliardo Peacecraft and his family. They weren't fair to Zechs Merquise when he was tired of being a tool of Romefeller, of OZ, and of Treize Khushrenada. And they sure as hell weren't fair to Milliardo Peacecraft the adult, the Goodwill Ambassador, who really did try to do things the right way. How long did that joke last? A couple of days?

What I thought was right? There wasn't an ounce of right in anything that Treize or I did. We were tyrants and monsters, no matter how noble and good our intentions might have been. And Zechs Merquise was the most fearsome monster of them all, the worst of them all... until Milliardo Peacecraft reared his furious head and sucked everything Zechs had ever been into a sea of numbers and calculations and predictions -- predictions! It was a piece of software, for God's sake! I tore the world apart because that fucking thing told me it was the only way I'd ever kill the rage that was slowly killing me. How was any of that right?

"How could that be right, Treize?!" I yelled to an empty room, my voice gritty and broken.

And how could you throw yourself to the bastard world you loved so much, as though it actually deserved your concern...as though it would ever appreciate how deep your love for it was...even if your way of showing it was so misguided? You would have let all your blood into her soil if you thought it would make things right and smiled as you bled... .How could it be that you would never bleed again, Treize? How could that possibly be... .?

I was crying for the first time since I was a child, sobbing uncontrollably -- hysterically. This grief, inconceivable in its enormity and so long in coming, consumed me wholly. I cried so hard and for so long that I thought I would never stop. I didn't want to ever stop. I wanted to cry myself dead.

But I did stop. At some point, I fell asleep with Treize's name on my lips, damning him or loving him, I'm not certain. When I awoke, it was sunny. I felt impossibly drained, but at the very least I didn't feel like vomiting. Instead, I was ravenously hungry and somehow numb enough to crawl out of bed and put something in my stomach.

It was the beginning of May, though I didn't know it at the time. It was also the beginning of my recovery, which I didn't know either. Off the drugs, I felt completely alone and empty. The house was quiet, too quiet, filled at horribly unpredictable intervals with the sound of my snarling, swearing, or mumbling apologies and regrets for every breath I had ever taken. I spent a significant amount of time on the couch in the sitting room, thinking about the past - taking up temporary residence there whenever I could. I relived memories of life with the Khushrenadas, of our tempestuous days in OZ, and those heart-achingly few uncensored, unregulated, unplanned days with Treize as my lover and friend and nothing else.

Because of the new and terrible awareness of a world I couldn't stand to be in, I was able to see things I'd previously ignored, like the filthy state of my living space. One day I awoke with an unbidden, urgently pressing need to clean the place from top to bottom. I found a washing machine in a small utility closet and decided to clean my dirty, sweaty-smelling clothes, which I actually put away afterwards instead of throwing on the floor. I then cleaned out the fridge and noted with a frown the dire lack of provisions.

That, of course, brought me to an entirely different matter: not only had I not paid the rent since February, I'd also had my every meal provided for by the man I wasn't paying. Of all the shame I carried for my actions over the past four months, the blatant disregard for my unreasonably kind landlord was the most pressing and real. Moreover, it was one of the only regrets that I could literally pay for, if only I could get myself to leave the house. I debated it for days, almost too embarrassed to put forth the effort and furious with myself for being so irrational.

Finally, on one not-so-very- special day, I gathered the backlogged rent payments, pulled myself into a state of semi-propriety, and made the trek up to the old man's house. The weather was as phenomenally beautiful as the property, which I'd never allowed myself to appreciate to until just then. On every side of me were rows and rows of crops, verdant and flourishing in the black soil. There was a faint smell of fertilizer in the air, not entirely unpleasant, but just enough to remind me of where I was, even with my eyes closed.

I was winded by the time I got to the house, something I should have expected given my months of inactivity. Still, it was an alien and wholly unpleasant feeling. I had always been so athletic; now I could barely walk a kilometer. I wondered what the Lightening Count would think of me. Would he laugh? No, he wasn't cruel. He would probably be disappointed by lack of dedication to living.

I took a deep breath and ran my hands through my hair, which I'd started brushing again at some point that month. I raised my hand to knock but froze as I heard the sound of that old pickup truck rolling down the long, dirt driveway. Mr. Kazlauskas pulled the vehicle up to the house, grinding the clutch as he shifted. When he saw me, he got out of the cab and walked towards me, waving, with a large smile on his face.

"Oh, Mr. Iversen! I'm so glad to see you!" He clapped me lightly on the shoulder. "Just give me a minute to unload and we can talk inside, okay?"

Before I could respond, he turned, walked back to the truck, and began unloading a large basket of asparagus. I moved quickly to help him, trying not to show the strain of lifting on my face. We carried four baskets of various items of produce inside, and the man asked me to sit in the living room while he prepared a kettle for tea. In the hallway between the kitchen and the living room was a full-length mirror, and, for the first time in I couldn't remember how long, I got a good look at my body. I believe at that point I was officially emaciated, and it was not at all pretty. I lifted up my shirt and could see my ribs and the ruler-straight scar that ran from just below my navel to my sternum.

When the old man caught me gawking at my own gauntness, he said "Bah!" and literally pushed me into the living room. He sat me down on the couch and took a seat next to me in a worn-out upholstered rocking chair. I started speaking the minute my backside hit the furniture, impatient, fearful of not being the first to admit what an irresponsible tenant I was.

"Mr. Kazlauskas, I'm sorry that I haven't paid my rent in so--"

"Oh, please don't, Mr. Iversen. Really!" he interrupted. "I have been checking in on you since you got here. You have been very sick! I should be apologizing for not stopping by recently. I've been busy with the market, you see." His expression was plainly regretful, his bushy eyebrows furrowed with concern.

"No!" I said more forcefully than I had intended. "No, really. I'm horrible. I...can't believe you didn't evict me. And bringing me food was just --"

He reached over and patted my bony knee in a stereotypically grandfatherly way. "Young man, I understand. You have not been well. I have plenty of money without your rent, so don't feel bad at all. And as for the food, well, I have to eat, too! I always make too much, you see." He smiled. "I hope you didn't miss the meat!"

Miss the meat? I hadn't even noticed. But then, there was a lot I hadn't noticed. "I'm ashamed to ask, but what's the date?"

"May 20th -- the Pentecost to the believers!" He laughed boisterously.

He graciously let me sit in dark, contemplative silence as we drank a cup of herbal tea together. Afterwards, I tried to pay him extra for his troubles, which he refused outright. He then invited me to the house for dinner the next weekend. Considering my behavior over the last few months, I was in no position to refuse him.

Walking back to my rental, I felt something on the breeze that was light and refreshing, hinting at something new and different. Was it the smell of impending summer? Later that evening there was a spectacular storm, and I opened the windows to let that sweet rain smell in. I stood on the porch and watched the downpour, the lightening's jagged javelins scorching across the black sky and throwing light on the fields.

I wanted Treize there with me, his warm hand around my waist, grabbing a little, a quirk of a smile on his lips, making me squirm because I'm ridiculously ticklish. I wanted him to whisper in my ear, tell me how lucky we were to see such a spectacular display of natural power... and he would tell me that I was like that, like lightening, a magnificent burst of energy that's impossible to hold onto... beautiful, he might even say. And I'd lay my head on his shoulder even though he was a little shorter, because that's what I liked to do sometimes, and he would run his hand down my back, through the fall of my hair, and ask me what I was thinking about. I'd tell him You, You, You, only You, Treize, because the truth is that I love you. Tell me that you love me, too... I need to hear it. I don't want to beg for it, but I will.

Thunder blasted through the night like a sonic boom. I leaned back against the front door and sagged down to the floorboards. A rogue raindrop hit my arm, and I started humming that bath song: Clean the body, clean the soul, something, something, wash it away, down the drain, isn't a bath a marvelous thing? A soft, dark laugh rose from my chest, the timbre of it flat and insincere.

[part 3] [part 5] [back to Singles a-k]