Author: KhalaniK
Title: Limbo
Chapter: 5/11: When We Became We
Pairing: Past Treize/Zechs (made present-tense via flashbacks)
Spoliers: Series, EW
Warnings: Death themes, male/male sexual situations, foul language, grief, angst, cynicism, debatable instances of sap. Flashbacks throughout. Some citrus in this chapter. Rated M for swears and dark matter and aforementioned fruit.
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 5: When We Became We

"Oh! That's a lot of money, Mr. Iversen!"

I handed Mr. Kazlauskas an envelope containing ten thousand credits, a pittance compared to the piles I had shoved in the back of my dresser drawer. "Only if they'll take that much. If not, seven, or even five should suffice."

His old, rough fingers squeezed the envelope a few times, as though he couldn't quite wrap his brain around how much cash he was holding. It was true that paper money was rarely tendered and even considered an antiquity in some large cities, but this was provincial France and Mr. Kazlauskas was elderly. I figured that he would raise few suspicions among the bankers, especially with his delightfully eccentric personality that screamed "hoarder," whether he was or not.

The issue was liquidity – in short, I had none. I was sick of wearing the hand-me-downs from MO-VIII. Running in utility boots every day was growing old and painful, and the sight of my huge, tightly-belted pants was verging on comedic. I wanted clothes that fit and a computer, among other things, so Mr. Kazlauskas offered to get me a prepaid credit card so that I could buy what I needed online. For somebody who'd never particularly favored the activity, I was ready to do some shopping.

I watched him drive off, bound for the nearby city of Saint-Quentin. Beyond the road and to the east I could see a couple of workers inspecting their rows of burgeoning sugar beets. The old man didn't farm for industry like many of his neighbors. Instead, he kept a subsistence crop and sold the overflow at the local farmer's market. I was overseeing the ripening and harvesting of aubergines, tomatoes, a couple of varieties of summer squash, and cucumbers. The tomatoes were vibrant in color and flavorful, and I ate them daily as an unintentional vegetarian. My average meal was a pleasant departure from the stigma the dietary practice carries as a radical form of self-deprivation. I actually enjoyed it, but that could be taken in any number of ways.

That summer was both agonizingly difficult and curiously rewarding. My mood fluctuated pendulously between depression and almost-on-the- cusp-of-contentm ent, with variants of all degrees in between. My spirits drained with something as simple as the weather and rose with something as complicated as a foray into post-modern French literature. Regardless of how I felt, I abided by a strict schedule that included, without exception, even on the weekends, a full day of work. Every morning I awoke with the sun, ran three times from my rental to Mr. Kazlauskas' house, showered, ate, and worked in the fields until dusk. Once or twice a week I had dinner with my landlord, and the rest of the time I cooked for myself and read into the night. Rinse and repeat times three months.

Throughout my life, people have admired my strict adherence to routine. They call it "dedication" and "discipline, " which are definitions far too dignified and starry-eyed for the truth of it. In my OZ days, my routine was a crutch that kept me doing instead of thinking, striving but never really growing. It locked me in place for years on end - a good place, an exalted and respectable place, but it was a lock. A steel trap. That summer in France, my benign, faux-farmer routine served a purpose no more virtuous. It was different kind of trap - the emotional kind, one of my own implementation. There was nothing dedicated or disciplined about it. If anything, it was a little pathetic and smacked loudly of terms like "avoidance" and "escapism."

But the work made me stronger – physically, at least. I found it satisfying in that it was repetitive and mind-numbing. And dirty. There was always a part of me that loved getting dirty, whether with sweat or engine oil or earth. Considering my rank, I wasn't supposed to sully myself with the so-called "hangar rat" work of the enlisted soldiers, but whenever they could find it in their hearts to dismiss their resentment of anything officer, I was grateful to dig my hands into the guts of a suit. When I worked on Mr. Kazlauskas' truck in July, it was the highlight of my month. More than once I caught myself smiling at the filthy gashes on my hands and spent oil under my fingernails while thoughts of an alternative reality trickled through the gyrating fissures of my brain, gravitating downward, pooling, and evaporating under the intense, blazing inescapability of my actual reality.

It was a humble and uncomplicated existence, made more so by my inclination towards the most monotonous activities. There was an abundance of time to let my mind skitter about as it might, refusing focus and direction. Fragmentary thoughts of Libra, the war, my parents, Relena, Sanc, Noin, and the Gundam pilots arose and either receded into dark vats of nothing or were swallowed by a fast-moving undercurrent named Treize Khushrenada. Even after eight long months, he was always there below the surface of my consciousness, wanting to be remembered, responsive to the touch and willing to take me, drag me, smother me, tease me with implicit promises of joy if only I entertained him a little. Just a little was all he needed to pull me, glassy-eyed and limp, into the warm depths of a fond memory. I'd fallen into that black and eager vortex on a few occasions, each time leaving me fraught with distress, knowing I'd done something I ought not have done but secretly happy that I'd done it. It was almost always good, but like a drug, it was the dangerous fact of withdrawal that I had to keep in the forefront of my mind.

But I'm not perfect, and I've been known to fail magnificently, especially when it comes to controlling my impulses. I was digging up a dying aubergine plant one day when I was dragged ruthlessly into the recollection of the first of many conversations Treize and I had about living off the land. It was ridiculous, really, two privileged aristocrats talking about farming as though we had any idea what it actually entailed. It was a marvelous prospect, though...

We were finally on leave after four months of nonstop R&D in Corsica. If such things can be believed, we weren't always at war. Interminably preparing for war, yes, but our daily lives scarcely resembled the frantic, grasping chaos of post-Operation Meteor days. When not training with my assigned unit, my particular skills were often lent to OZ Research and Development, where I tested and consulted on mobile suits in various stages of completion.

I was wild about it, finding tremendous fulfillment in flying some engineer's half-baked box of wires and gears around just to see if I could survive it. Sometimes they malfunctioned and smashed to shit, typically after I bailed out of them but occasionally not. Other times their design and construction were sublime, affording me the closest thing to a religious experience I would know just from the sheer faultlessness of it. These assignments always scared the hell out of Treize, but he never denied me. He spent his share of time with R&D as well, taking temporary leave from combat command to keep his eye on prototypes and upgrades. At the root of his interest was his carefully veiled mistrust of his commanders and certain third parties that suspiciously funded some units more readily than others.

At 21, newly-promoted Major Treize Khushrenada was already elbow-deep in his pet Specials project, but there was something about Prototype Unit 12 that he couldn't shrug off. In Corsica, he spent his days in the hangar and on the proving grounds, watching me, judging me just as readily as he judged the suit. He then spent long nights staring at the schematics and algorithms with a single-minded fixation that rivaled mine, furrowing his brow now and then, and taking slow, contemplative strolls around his small, makeshift office to clear his head or redirect an idea. His unusual reticence on the subject bothered me, especially after harboring hope that we would spend the duration of the duty assignment engaged in long, serious, intimate discussions about technicalities, improvements, and perhaps... other things.

I know now that Treize's mind was employed far more with the philosophical implications of the Taurus prototype than with the technical elements that had me so enraptured. While I was marveling at how fantastically responsive the AI was - almost too responsive, as if it could read my mind - he was peering into a grim future where that AI served as a replacement for pilots. We weren't functioning on the same intellectual plane. It angered me that he refused to include me in his bleak spans of contemplation. Did he think I wouldn't understand, or that I'd laughingly accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist?

But that was Treize.

No, the trip had been strictly, lamentably business and virtually nothing more. Instead of feeling closer after being so rarely paired with him in such tight quarters and working environments, I felt that he'd drifted to a far-off shore. As the tour of duty drew to a close, I asked him to take leave with me, the tone of my request just two slight shades short of desperate. He agreed without hesitation. By the end, we'd both had it with R&D's spare accommodations, long spans of unproductive endeavoring, and clashing cluster-fucks of opposing ideas from too many parties. It was exhausting. We were both exhausted. And the prototype, after all that hassle, was deemed incompatible with the combat profile of the average Specials pilot. Her brain was too big, and she liked to make decisions on her own. No, no, no, said Treize, both personally and through the ironclad authority of Uncle Catalonia. Not yet. Not like this.

I'd lightly suggested taking the train to Russia for our two weeks of leave, which Treize immediately latched onto, refusing to hear otherwise. There certainly was a spontaneity to him, one of the qualities that made him an adept leader and a limitlessly amusing friend. Yes, Treize was amusing – especially when he was out of uniform, which is the way I liked him best. We could only be so much with our masks and formalwear and the emotional burdens of lost comrades, too much stress, and not enough sleep. Without them, we were almost two typical young men enjoying holiday together. One could conservatively guess at how rare these times were and still be overestimating.

I reserved a private compartment on a train that ran from Monaco to Moscow, and I absolutely had ulterior motives in selecting this mode of transport. With no work or expansive estate to afford him distraction, he would be my captive audience. We would reconnect properly, and I could finally get a feel for where I stood – where We stood.

There was only a small something of a We back then, a half-completed sentence that needed serious tending. We'd shared a strong friendship for over ten years, but something unexpected and not a little frightening had started happening to us the year before Corsica. I don't know precisely how it began – perhaps with a careless innuendo, a joke that was suspiciously only half-joking, a trifling obscurity, or a hand that lingered just a second too long. One instance became two, then three, and then they were countless, each more awkward and intense than the last, but none more substantive than a whisper.

These incidents haunted me, filled my mind with heated, lascivious images, and made me preternaturally aware of every word, breath, and movement of the friend I suddenly wanted more from. The more attention I paid, the more I noticed, which only further excited, frustrated, and confused me. I loved him – I always had, in the way that only best friends can love each other. But love, I've learned, can alchemize from fraternal to romantic with only the smallest of suggestions. With each passing day, I sensed that my affection for him was becoming something else, something that seized me, made me breathless and full of the most delicious shame.

I wanted him, obsessed over him, and touched myself to thoughts of his hand instead of mine, only based on the foolhardy hope that he felt even the slightest bit of the same. In uniform and out, on post or off, on duty or leave, it didn't matter when. I had it bad. My life became a series of highly-anticipated vid-phone conversations, staff meetings, informal dinners and formal OZ functions strung together by painfully long bouts of Treize-less distractions like battle and combat simulation. It was torture, though part of me loved every minute of it.

It ceased being a long, ill-defined sequence of agony on the last day of our last vacation together in Russia, when Treize, casually passing me in the hallway, grabbed me by the arm and kissed me. When it happened, it didn't feel like the culmination of anything; it was so brief that it was over before I registered it, giving me a hard-on only after he'd descended the staircase, after I realized what he'd just done to me and what it unambiguously meant.

And immediately thereafter came Corsica, where that kiss – that single, unmistakable confirmation of what I'd only dared to wish for – became a silent behemoth that followed us everywhere. Treize never mentioned it. Indeed, he acted as though it'd never happened. But it was there with us, growing heavier, bulkier, and more insistent as the weeks rolled on. By the time our tour of duty terminated, I was about ready to snap and do something colossally indiscreet.

When we first walked into our private berth at the Monaco station, a wave of panic clenched me as I faced the reality of what close proximity we would be in as we slept. The two bench-style seats that converted into beds were separated by a gap no larger than an arm's length. I allowed myself to linger in the giddy thought that we'd practically be sleeping together. I had completely intended such accommodations when I made the reservation, but being finally confronted with it yielded a nervous excitement that I could barely fake my way through.

Treize acknowledged the arrangement without comment or minutest indication of feeling about it one way or the other. He quickly settled in and took a seat across from me after the train left the station, slouching a little, with his arms crossed over his chest and his legs stretched across the gap that separated us. He was using my bench as an ottoman, his feet planted beside my left hip. His eyes darted to the monitor on the wall, which showed our train crossing into northern Italy.

"I do believe that I will miss Vito," Treize said, referring to the deli proprietor on Corsica. "I think there are tragically few alive who would dare to call me `Forks.'"

One side of my mouth curved up at the sound of the moniker and the memory of the perplexed look on Treize's face the first time he'd been called it. "At least you weren't `Clapper.'"

"Most people take reasonable measures to avoid such things. Though, in Lieutenant Kwan's defense, it could have been very unfortunately placed acne."

"I'm surprised he kept going there," I said, glancing out the window at the steep, green valley below. "But then, the food was that good."

Treize closed his eyes in brief remembrance of his favorite dish. "His wife's fiadone was fantastic. I should have brought some for the trip."

Some would think it dubious that Treize Khushrenada ate anything but caviar and beef bourguignon, but they would be ignoring a crucial element of his leadership style: esprit de corps. If his subordinates frequented a quaint local deli, Treize would eat there, too. If his soldiers raved about a club, he would drop by for a drink. He really would. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it. He showed up in a t-shirt, one of those expensive ones that looks just like the cheap ones, threw his arm around my shoulder, the light scent of cologne on his neck, and yelled over the thrumming of the bass that he planned on getting me very drunk. I'm pretty sure I had fun that night.

This hands-on approach to building camaraderie only lasted until Treize reached the rank of colonel, when the rank gap was so large that it would have been inappropriate for him to be seen in such places with such company. I think he was happiest as a major, when he had the freedom to be adventurous and sociable, but commanded the respect due to such a rank. Most of the soldiers enjoyed being around Treize, feeding off of his energy, his intelligence, his confidence, and that strange something about him that was warm, something fragile and personal and tidal that effused in good times and violently, wincingly ebbed when he was irritated or posturing for those Romefeller blowhards.

We were quiet for a few minutes, appreciating the scenery and the smooth, gentle rocking of the train. It was an old line and an older model of train, one not designed for practical purposes like high-speed commuting. It was a train for those who needed a vacation and didn't mind taking a long, calm, measured breath every now and again. I sighed and ran my hand through my bangs, glad to be free of my mask. I then sensed Treize watching me instead of the countryside.

"What?"

He threaded his fingers together behind his head, looking fully en repose. His body was a lean line accentuated by the vertical ribbing on his black jumper and the perfect fit of his khaki slacks. I don't know if he realized how sexy he looked just then. He probably did. He was always self-aware like that.

"If you could be doing something else with your life, what would it be?"

The question caught me off guard, and I'm sure my face showed it. "You mean, right now?"

Treize nodded, smiling a little, encouraging me to give him a good answer.

But what was a good answer? For a long time I thought my work as a soldier was important, and there were many instances when I couldn't conceive of doing anything else. I was good at it, and the occupation was a crucial mark that defined me. I thought about what I should have said, that I would go back to Sanc and reclaim the throne that my father had forcibly vacated, but that wasn't right. Implicit in Treize's question was what I would want to be doing, and being a monarch didn't qualify under that condition. I chewed discretely at the inside of my cheek as I regarded the vineyards and rows of olive trees outside.

"I think I'd want a farm."

One forked eyebrow rose conspicuously. "A farm."

I hated that look. It was one of those expressions that he gave to people he wanted to unsettle in order to test constitution or seize advantage. It didn't necessarily indicate how he felt about a person, as such opinions were kept under close watch and buried skillfully in sarcasm or vagaries. When directed at me, however, I perceived it as a universal negative. The thought of his disapproval made me anxious, especially when I felt that I was now also auditioning to be his potential... what? Lover? Boyfriend? Fuck-buddy? Preferably not the latter, but I'd take it in a pinch.

"What kind of farm?" he continued, his voice not at all patronizing but, in fact, genuinely interested.

"I don't know. Vegetables, grains, grapes. Whatever." I shrugged.

"Milliardo Peacecraft: Farmer-Prince of Sanc?"

"Don't mock me, Treize. I'm serious, and I'm also aware of the irony, thank you."

Treize's smile broadened, exposing teeth orthodontically aligned in a childhood that seemed so very far away. "I didn't mean to mock you. I think it sounds rather idyllic. You could get yourself a nice little wife and have a brood of children to help you bale the hay."

I had a laugh at that one, a dry, rolling rumble from my chest. "Give me a break. Could you see me with a wife and children? Really. Picture it."

His glared at me. He was no longer smiling. "I'd prefer not to."

I felt unfocused under the weight of his intensity as I struggled to formulate an appropriate reply – whatever was appropriate to say to something like that. When I finally spoke, my voice was so small that it was nearly eaten by the smooth sound of the train gliding over the tracks.

"... Then don't bring it up."

There was a noticeable bump as we rolled onto a bridge that spanned a sizeable gorge. My left hand touched at the laces of his black leather oxfords.

"You've thought about this before, haven't you?"

"A bit." I pulled out some of that battle courage that I always had a surfeit of and tested it against the strange intimidation I felt. "You could come stay with me," I offered, my adolescent brain already concocting brave scenarios about what might happen in my secluded, rustic country home. "When you needed a vacation," I hastened to add.

"We could make wine."

"So, just grapes?" I smiled uncertainly at his receptiveness to my fantasy, part of me embarrassed by a childish feeling of eagerness to please him as though he were my Lake Victoria instructor all over again. "We might turn into alcoholics."

"Then we should probably grow some food so we don't get too drunk to work. Though who knows how it will ever get prepared," Treize replied, making light of our mutual inability to cook – which was due mostly to each OZ base catering the officer's chow hall to the tastes and customs of old money. Really, calling it the "chow hall" was a joke. The place could have passed for a two-star restaurant. "Perhaps we should try some cooking over our holiday so that we're prepared for farm life."

I pictured the two of us frowning over a burnt, dried-out roast. "There's no reason we shouldn't be able to cook. It's like Lara said: `If you can follow instructions, you can cook.'"

"We should be fairly accustomed to following instructions, I think." He bent his legs and moved his feet to rest on the floor. I felt bereft at the loss.

"We have the combined IQ of at least 250."

"If I remember my records correctly, it's more like three hundred and something. That doesn't necessarily indicate culinary aptitude, though."

I grunted in acknowledgment. I felt slightly calmer than when we boarded the train, though we hadn't even skirted the issue of what the hell was going on between us, aside from his fierce admission that he couldn't bear the thought of my being married with children, which was... something, wasn't it? The sun was setting behind Alps to the west and soon the dining car would begin serving dinner. I looked forward to having a relaxing, anonymous meal with him. No lieutenants, no commanders, no pomp, no procedure. I thought that maybe a little alcohol would smooth things over and perhaps choke back my tension level to something more manageable.

"I can't believe they're still doing construction on billeting," I complained, referring to the Corsica base. "It's been, at the very least, four months."

"The workers certainly do have a predilection for striking."

"Well, the contract director should be notified, then. Get somebody else to do it."

"Was it that horrible, sleeping like that?"

"You should know! Didn't you have to share a bunk with Captain Adams?"

"Technically, yes. But I did have my office."

"Oh, yes. I forgot. Your `office.' I suppose there was that couch they gave you." I wrinkled my nose as I recalled the thing, which one would swear had been stolen from the lobby of the sleaziest hotel on the island. "It smelled."

"Better than Captain Adams, at least."

"I never did see him in the showers."

Oh, yes. The communal showers - another perk of construction - had been a nightmare for me because of my shameless sexual obsession with my friend. I'd tried so hard to avoid him, but somehow he was almost always there whenever I was...

Treize smiled unevenly and looked back out the window. In the receding light, I could see the faintest of flushes on his cheek, but I convinced myself that it was only coloring from the sunset.

"He is modest."

"Modest? How can anybody be modest in the military? There are unisex washrooms at the academy." My own gaze drifted out the window, catching a view of the shimmering, polished-glass mountain lake that had an enchanting effect on me. It was incredibly beautiful; I wondered if any of the other passengers were taking note of the remarkable natural splendor that was literally right outside their windows.

"Not everybody went to the academy. I think Adams was commissioned out of university."

"Still. He's been in the field. We've all had to piss in front of each other at one point or another. Or worse."

"Would you like to know something that I'm not especially proud of?"

"Let me guess – another confession of Schadenfreude? " I saw his telling smile in the window's reflection, one that reminded me that I knew Treize better than anyone, even the way he prefaced his declarations of not-quite-guilt.

"I enjoy seeing the look on the new-com lieutenants' faces when I tell them that there aren't any latrines on the field training grounds."

I cleared my throat and dropped my voice as low as it could go. "`Just this hole. You squat, you shit. Throw some dirt on it with your trenching tool. Don't forget to wipe your ass, `cause I don't wanna be smelling it.'"

"Captain Patil's most eloquent explanation – impressive imitation, by the way," Treize replied as his attention lazily drifted back to my face, his words infused with laughter that didn't quite materialize. "He was always so refreshingly straight-forward. "

"There's something to be said about an officer who keeps it concise."

He let out a small hiss of feigned pain. "Am I so horribly unbearable to listen to?"

I schooled my voice to mock Treize's, exaggerating his accent, bumping the level of conceit up about a dozen notches. "`When considering this tactic, it is helpful to reflect on the theories of Takahashi, who surmised that one of human kind's greatest weaknesses is his ability to reason in the face of certain death. Indeed, that one should have the presence of mind to reason upon recognition of the inevitability of demise is... something. ..ancient mores cultivated in something something... '"

"You did take from it the most important point. And I don't sound like that."

"Yes, you do, and I only get it because you made me read Takahashi. Those guys didn't know Takahashi from Tomoguchi from Timothy Teigs. Maybe you should try gauging your audience a little better."

"I will keep that in mind." The tone of his voice told me that he had no intention of doing so. He insisted on giving his soldiers something more cerebral than SOPs and tactics to think about, never questioning their receptiveness to it and never underestimating their intelligence. I thought he gave most of them too much credit. I still don't know if I was wrong for thinking that. "Who's Timothy Teigs?"

"An actor. He was in that movie – I can't remember the name of it – with the computer programmer who becomes a superhero messiah or something comparably improbable... "

"`The Algorithm.' I believe it got four stars out of four."

"So in the three-and-a- half seconds you've had to yourself over the past four months, you checked the movie reviews?"

"Lieutenant McKissick was talking about it with Lieutenant Cheung last month when we were conducting armor stress analyses."

"Sounds like a movie analysis to me."

"They were on break."

"And they thought you wouldn't mind listening to their cinematic commentary."

"They had no reason to censor themselves."

I snorted and fought off a yawn of my own that seemed to inflate my fatigue into bones-deep exhaustion. "I can't wait to sleep tonight," I grumbled as I let my head fall against the back of the seat. Regardless of the dangerous potentiality of our sleeping arrangement on the train, I was thankful that I at least wouldn't be crammed in a bay with nineteen noisy, slovenly lieutenants like I'd been for the last four months.

"There's no rest for the wicked, Zechs," Treize reminded me, as though I had forgotten.

"I'm trying not to think about that, actually."

"Oh?" Another smile, small and sincere, warmed the calm blue of his eyes. "Then what are you trying to think about?" He looked so handsome in that moment, always most attractive when he was being himself, unconcerned with appearing bulletproof and omniscient.

I opened my mouth to say something decisive like `What's going on with us,' but instead I faltered. My throat suddenly felt full and tight, and when I spoke, my voice was low and thick. "I just want to enjoy our time together."

Maybe it was something about the way I said it, but his entire demeanor changed with those words. His smile dissolved into a thin, neutral line, and his eyes narrowed and refocused, closing off any emotion that had been in them the moment prior. He disengaged his hands from behind his head and let them rest on the bench on either side of him. With a tightly-controlled expression, he stared at me for a silent expanse of time I couldn't measure. I saw his fingers move incrementally at odd intervals, as though he were contemplating doing something with them. He was fidgeting. Treize never fidgeted.

I stood then, compelled by some alien audacity that possessed me like a spirit. I swayed for a few moments with the train, looking down at Treize, letting him look up at me. His lips parted slightly and the fingers of his right hand contracted into a loose fist. I walked forward until I was standing on either side of his legs, my knees lightly hitting the bench with each rock of the compartment. All at once, I realized that I couldn't go back to the other side, that I'd trapped myself with no specific intention except to compel something to happen between us besides niceties and insinuations. It was at once terrifying and elating, the terror stemming from nothing more elaborate than inexperience. The elation, I suppose, was borne from the same.

I felt it then, his hand, oh-so-light against my leg, touching along a crease in my trousers. Then his other hand, a more substantial presence, moved up the side of my opposite leg and came to rest on my hip. I saw Treize bite his lip for the briefest of moments as his fingers pressed into me, holding me firm against the motion of the train and my own unsteady legs. I felt myself stir as my mind clouded over, the two things seeming to happen in direct proportion to each other. My behavior was so blatant, such a brazen demand for attention. That he was actually obliging me was, my God... I couldn't believe I was getting what I wanted.

I reached out an uncertain hand and ran my fingers through his hair. I'd done such a thing before, but always as a joke accompanied by some brotherly and hypocritical jab about vanity. It was a bit stiff from styling product, but it began to fall free as my fingers combed through slowly, dipping at times to trace a sideburn, the outline of an ear...For a time I simply stood there, letting him touch me as he liked while I traced the line of his jaw, the curve of his eyebrow... all of those wonderful places that I'd only felt before by way of careless or carefully planned gesticulation. His slow and careful hands coaxed a shuddered sigh from me as they slid down my backside, and his gaze fixed rather plainly on my crotch, which was just below his eye level, jutting out, giving me away completely.

I let him guide me, pull me, push me until I was on my back, my body canted, legs hanging off the bench as though a sudden wave of exhaustion had plowed me over from a proper sitting position. In a move so fluid that I barely noticed it, he was half on me and half beside me, his slight frame wedged between me and the back of the wide seat. Tentative. Half-committed. His eyes searched mine for permission to do what he'd already done, though he already had it and would have realized that if he'd still been looking in the right place. I could feel his hitching breath against my ribcage and hear each quick, shallow exhalation with pristine, hyper-attuned clarity. It was exactly what I wanted to hear – his slipping control, his weakness, his mortality. Somewhere in the background of him, I heard my echoed response as the quiver in my stomach reached up to constrict my lungs and throw my heart into a frantic rhythm. I touched his face again with the hand that wasn't pinned beneath his body and pressed my lips to his.

There was restraint in our kissing, a not-unpleasant hesitation wrought by an underlying fear of what might happen if we stopped caring about the speed our physical relationship was moving at: zero-to-six- hundred. There was something safe in the awkwardness of our physical arrangement; the fact that my feet were still on the floor served as grounding to keep the charge between us in check. It was completely irrational, but I was sure that if I stretched my entire body onto the bench, we'd have to go all the way, right there and then. There'd be no way around it. It was a certainty derived from mistrust in my own self-control and new, bold assumptions about my powers of sexual persuasion.

He broke the kiss with a delicacy that seemed cinematic in a perfect, romantic way and allowed more of his warm weight to bear down on me. His eyes were sharp and alert even as I felt him relax. "Is there anything in particular you want to do during our time off?" he asked, his voice undercut by the tension I also felt in his fingertips as they moved in a vexingly chaste line just above the waistband of my slacks.

"I don't know," I replied, suddenly irritated for reasons I didn't understand. I twisted my trapped hand around and confirmed with a daring grasp what I thought I'd felt pressing against it. He jerked at the suddenness of it and sucked a sharp breath between his teeth. The feel of him in my hand, hard and twitching, reminded me of the obvious but still foreign fact that we were doing something sexual. One moment we were on opposite sides of the compartment talking about Timothy Teigs. A single moment later, it seemed, I was holding his cock. We'd sprinted to the next level with so little effort, into territory that was uncharted, serious, and irreversible. It was something as intimidating as it was exciting, as easy as it was complicated. "Like you said... cook something... "

"Like what?" His touch lingered, languished in that dispassionate place, wasted by some default notion of propriety that was as pointless as an umbrella in a typhoon.

"I don't know!" I snapped, grabbing his hand and forcing it down to where I wanted it, shoving against it as I held it there with obstinate insistence until he finally shucked off some failed failsafe he'd set and allowed himself to participate. It was because I wasn't an adult, which was a bullshit reason. I was a soldier, and I'd forfeited the liabilities and conveniences of my age upon commission.

His eyes went dark and half-lidded as he unzipped my pants with a freshly-awakened urgency and touched me like that for the first time. He jerked me off, just like I fantasized about except incalculably better. I enthusiastically returned the favor later that night after an exquisite dinner that we stupidly smirked our way through and barely tasted.

And that's how We officially began - on a train. As for what we ended up doing on vacation, we did do some cooking... when we weren't in his bed. It didn't take much persuasion at all to get him to give me what I wanted, what he so badly wanted to take from me. On the night that it finally happened, he confessed his long-held, secret desire for what he hoped was my virginity, admitting in a breathy whisper to feelings that started long before they became even subtly apparent to me. When it finally happened, it was wonderful – after I was through being terrified about the whole thing.

But that vacation marked the start down a hard road of self-denial, obfuscations, and trysts, and a very real threat grew steadily with every illegal expression of our affections: the threat of total career destruction. It was a tightrope act that we would mostly master, with a few frightening slips that would turn me into a paranoid wreck for weeks on end as I waited to be exposed, first as a queer and then as Milliardo Peacecraft.. ..

But it never happened.

Back at Mr. Kazlauskas' farm, I closed my eyes as I drove back the memory of doing those things with him. I could feel the heat in my cheeks, equal parts wanting and shame for wanting. I distracted myself by inspecting the failed aubergine plant for signs of infestation and, finding none, pulled it from the ground and put it in a basket to take to the composter. Standing, I looked at the rows of thriving vegetables and wondered why this particular one had died. Sometimes, I think, there's no good reason for death.

The weather that day was particularly glorious. I took my time walking back to my landlord's house, admiring the overwhelming abundance of life around me. I know Treize would have loved it. I heard the familiar sound of Mr. Kazlauskas' pickup and stepped up my pace to meet him. He greeted me in his animated fashion, waiving an envelope vigorously.

"They let me put it all on here, Mr. Iversen!" he exclaimed, handing me the envelope. Inside was a credit card attached to the bank's propaganda pamphlet that went with it ("A New Dawn for the World - A New Dawn for Banking").

I could feel myself smiling, not only at the old man and my now conveniently electronic money, but at the ridiculousness of the Federal Bank of Europe's new ad campaign.

"I appreciate it, Mr. Kazlauskas."

"Bah! Call me Vadimas! And I can call you Erik. I'd say we're at least acquaintances, don't you think?"

I nodded. Yes, he had my permission to call me by my other false name. I wondered if he'd even care if I told him who I was.

"And you can use my computer to order a computer of your own. Anytime!" He started walking to the house and then turned his head to call out that he was looking forward to my cooking.

That evening, when I was in his kitchen frying patty pan squash in olive oil and thyme, I thought about how far I'd come culinarily. As we intended, Treize and I really did learn how to cook respectable meals together, and it wasn't nearly as horrible as I'd envisioned. Our first roast had actually tasted quite good.

Standing over the stove, I wondered if he'd ever been serious about having a life after the war, or if he'd been anticipating his dramatic exit even while describing what shade of marble would be best for our countertops. Dark grey, almost black. Modern. The kitchen would be modern. It seemed like such a silly, implausible, childish dream. It was a dream that I had hedged an immense emotional bet on, and it had proven as evanescent as the life I'd wanted to share it with.

Absently stirring the vegetables, I entertained the "why" of his death. Did I do it? No. Did I want to? Absolutely, and for no reason other than that I'd reached a saturation point where I could no longer stomach another florid polemic about the beauty and fragility of the human condition.

Nearly everything I did in the war was driven by a decade-and-a- half of desperation. I had watched Sanc fall to the Alliance, the Alliance fall to OZ, OZ splinter into factions, and Sanc once more fall, this time to Romefeller. Like dominoes – mere game pieces – cascading, dragging nations and lives down with them, the power struggles continued, heedless of the death and outrage they elicited. I had to do something, and it had to be big. I think I'd have done something whether or not Treize had been there to oppose me. The fact that he stood in my way was something he coordinated, not I. That's the way it worked with him. Even when I wanted to escape him, I still ended up tightly bound in his warm, firm grasp.

It infuriated me that he tried to use me as an implement of suicide, and it sickened me that I so eagerly gave in to his taunts. My hurt and anger had consumed me to the point where I didn't care about what we had and what I'd lose by killing him. I didn't see our past or future. I only saw rage and a machine's promise of a swift end to it. There'd been a whisper in the back of my brain that told me he'd be pleased if I killed him, just as there was another that begged me to reconsider. By that point, I'd parsed my personality into so many pieces that I couldn't tell who was me and who was my mantle.

There were certain undeniable truths about the war that weren't subject to the cynical or romantic slant of my retrospection. One was that Treize sacrificed immeasurably for the humanity he loved, surrendering personal freedom, rest, and normalcy, among many other things. He truncated his life by at least five dozen years just to attempt to stir the souls of the people. His personal forfeiture was great and courageous; I would never refuse him that. And on an emotional level, I could understand and accept his reasons for what he did, for I'm certain he felt the same despair as I.

No, not the same. I'm sure his pain was greater, for he was always far more compassionate and sympathetic than I ever was. His was a profound, quiet agony that affected him so deeply that I wonder if, subconsciously, he welcomed his hero's death for more personal reasons. Is that morbid? Presumptuous? It's sure as hell sad... so sad... because all of it was completely unnecessary...

I think at some point that summer I tried to admire the twisted logic of his plans for peace. Somewhere between sorrow and longing, I wanted to determine his actions to be good. I wanted to think that I'd tried to crush an effort that was beautiful and righteous instead of violent, appallingly naive, and misconceived. But in order to see Treize's world in this light, I had to ignore the blood that pooled around his feet, thicker and sadder with every assassination, every widow's cry, every shredded and burnt body. No peace without sacrifice, I tried to rationalize. Everything was done with the best of intentions to teach a necessary and eternal lesson. And my actions helped him – yes, maybe that was my plan all along, to help him. I almost convinced myself of that on a particularly mindless and whimsical Thursday. It was the most outrageous lie I'd ever told myself, one that I must have needed to believe in that moment. It didn't stick, of course.

But whether he was right or wrong, saint or Satan, forward-thinking or deluded, I didn't care. Those adjectives - those petty and inadequate words - weren't Treize Khushrenada. They were the only explanations anybody could afford for a man as complicated, with ideals so foolishly grand and optimistic that they begged a thousand adjectives and somehow defied them all.

I just wanted him back. It was the simplest and most impossible of wishes.

"Shit."

I burned the squash.

"Smells good, Erik!" Vadimas called out from the living room.

I sighed and put my hands on my hips, staring down at the blackened mess I'd made in my inattentiveness.

How long was this going to last?

"Oh, that looks wonderful!" the old man said, suddenly at my side.

"I don't think that's quite the word I'd use."

"No, no, try it. I think you'll be surprised," he reassured, nudging me with his elbow.

I grabbed a fork from the drawer and skewered one of the sad little vegetables. It looked pathetic. Expecting the worst, I bit into it reluctantly.

"There is no reason why that should taste the way it does," I commented as I went for another piece.

"See? I told you! You're a natural, I think."

Huh. Imagine that.

[part 4] [part 6] [back to Singles a-k]