Author: KhalaniK
Title: Limbo
Chapter: 6/11: Do You Know How Polite I Am?
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. Military-ness. Rated M for swears and darkness.
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 6: Do You Know How Polite I Am?

"Tonight at 02:00 hours, all of second platoon will assemble here at the juncture between utility road three and this defunct lay of railroad track. This will from hereon be labeled rendezvous point Bravo."

Treize used a long stick to point to two other parallel sticks and a perpendicular line of discolored, frayed twine that he had arranged on his makeshift sand table earlier that day. The diagram was impressive for an improvisation; mounds and ridges in the dirt detailed the topography of the training grounds and positions of each of the three companies currently utilizing the facility.

"At 02:05 hours, we will begin moving north along the utility road - approximately 3.4 kilometers - until we approach this tree line here." Point. "This spot will be hereafter labeled rendezvous point Charlie."

The trees were represented by sprigs we had collected from fallen pine branches around our encampment. I had broken apart a massive pine cone and used the pieces for the bivouac tents in each company, assuming a circular perimeter with the commander and executive officer snug in the middle. I wanted to smack one of our lieutenants when he remarked to his friend that the scaled-down representation of our site was "cute." It kind of was, though.

"I can say with reasonable certainty that Major Galanos will have his soldiers paired up in twos, which likely means ten tents in this configuration plus one for his XO and one for himself here." Point. "Unlike our site, I know that his soldiers retreat from guard duty at midnight."

Treize loved ground training. He loved wearing his full battle rattle, which included camouflage battle dress uniform, Kevlar helmet, flack vest, canteens, ammo pouches, and bayonet. He loved running tactical drills and carrying an assault rifle. He also loved digging foxholes, sleeping in small tents, and eating cold, unpalatable rations. He never kept his love for ground training a carefully guarded secret, despite the peculiarity of a man of his social stature favoring such training conditions against the wealth-built cleanliness of the sim tank. In many ways, Treize would have been well suited for the armies of the previous era, something he was aware of and took a measure of pride in. He was tough. Sometimes his elegant intellectualism made us forget this.

What Treize did not love was Major Galanos, which was why he was planning a late night ambush on the man's encampment. Galanos, who had been one of Treize's flight instructors at Lake Victoria, was an unapologetic modernist, firmly convinced that ground training was a dead antiquity from an age before mobile suits arrived and saved us all from getting our dainty aristocratic hands dirty. He was rankled that we hadn't even brought our Leos into the field. "That's realistic," he'd muttered under his breath at Colonel Cavanaugh's pre-mission command briefing back at the base, glaring at the smug turn of Treize's lips.

Galanos' attitude, one that grew increasingly unpopular as Treize's influence proliferated, was exactly the type that Treize loathed in a soldier. In his mind, a soldier was either willing to assume all responsibilities incumbent of the title, or he was no soldier at all. Galanos thought that Treize was merely pandering to the typically wasteful, anachronistic whims of Romefeller, not realizing that Romefeller was willfully blind to the day-to-day workings of OZ. "Ground training is for the safety of the soldier. Surely you are not opposed to keeping your soldiers alive," Treize had been heard commenting to Galanos after the briefing. And so it had always been between them, both men stubbornly convinced of their own correctness, both eager to trade jibes as they tested the limits of professionalism.

"Our objective is twofold: steal their unit flag and disarm as many soldiers as possible. Hernandez and Krieger, you have the best run times, so you will approach their encampment from the southeast and head for the center, which is where Major Galanos' tent should be. The flag should be posted like ours is, right at the commander's door. Take it and run as fast as you can back to rendezvous point Bravo. You will wait for the rest of us there."

I detected a hint of remorse in Treize's voice, a longing for days past when his own speed had earned him special recognition and assignment. Back in his academy days, he was tremendously fast, always effortlessly and admirably athletic. He was the top fencer, the top runner, top pilot, top student, top junior instructor. It was a bundled package, every part inextricable from the rest, like an intricate three-dimensional molecular model. This structure of unusual talent went by the common name "The Best," a label that became a subtitle to his name and rank: "Cadet/Lieutenant/ Captain Treize Khushrenada: The Best." It was a title he came to expect, his youthful sense of invincibility blotting out the logical conclusion that he would only get older, slower, and busier with each passing year. When he was eighteen and a mobile suit accident on X-18999 crushed his right leg, mangling his knee, a complex system of denial and rationalization became his only way to cope with the untimely demise of his physical prime.

Three years later, he could often be seen sparring at the base's salle with members of the fencing club that he presided over, always practicing, reaffirming his title, soothing his doubts. For a time, he was once again the top fencer - firmly seated, comfortable, assured. Then Captain Loutrec arrived. After that, Treize would frown in an uncharacteristicall y self-depreciating way and say that he wasn't fast enough to beat the man, only indirectly acknowledging that his failure was due to his ruined knee. I would occasionally drop in to watch him practice, and I observed a predictable pattern that emerged at every meeting. Ninety to one-hundred minutes into it, almost like clockwork, his lunges would become shallower and his advances would begin lose strength. His competitive aggression would turn into a desperate push through pain, fueled by firm unwillingness to believe that somebody his age could have a bad knee. I imagined a small grimace of discomfort on his face below his mask, one tinged by nagging frustration with the joint, which was part artificial and part an underpaid, overworked colonial surgeon's reconstruction of original tissue. I never joked about it, for it was a reality that I didn't want to face either.

We were a good command team. Together, we ran our soldiers through drill after grueling drill, unrelenting, if only to spite some soldiers' presumptions about the entitlement they felt Specials officers deserved. The bulk of the force hailed from privileged families, weeded from other applicants by that innocuous-looking personal information section on the application. There were a handful of charity cases, mostly to keep the OZ inspector general from pinning down a firm accusation of classism. The resulting stock at its untrained baseline was, as Treize put it in a huff of annoyance one day, "A herd of swooning, prissy, weak-ankled nancies." Treize and I denied having such qualities, favoring ourselves adventurous woodsmen undeterred by filth and hardship, a characterization we had carried with us from childhood.

For the new soldiers still floating in the Lake Victoria fantasy that mobile suits are infallible, ground training was a nightmare conceived for pure, evil pleasure by the twisted minds of deranged madmen at brigade command. Where Galanos was soft, understanding, and quietly mocking of the exercise, Treize and I were harsh, uncompromising, and deathly serious. Any slacking, commiserating, or complaining was met with a thorough chewing-out by me or sometimes even Treize, which had a particularly motivating effect. The best way we found to inspire interest in our soldiers was to do everything ourselves with great vigor and ferocity. For some, simply watching Treize and I fight our way through a muddy obstacle course was enough to awaken their own inner filthy woodsman. In the young aristocratic soldiers' minds, if Duke Khushrenada and Baron Merquise could roll in the dirt, choke down rations like pros, shit in the woods, sleep on the ground, and go a week without properly bathing, they could perhaps cram their yapping and suck it up.

"Captain Merquise and I will lead the rest of second platoon from position to position, seizing weapons. Each tent should be spaced far enough apart that, if we observe noise discipline, we should be able to move along without the adjacent tent knowing that we're coming. After we seize the weapons from the two soldiers at each position, one person will remain at that position to prevent them from going to their commander. If they try to move, shoot to kill."

Instead of bullets, each assault rifle was equipped with a laser, which could be detected by the specially treated uniforms that each soldier wore. During the week of training, the battalion ran scheduled combat exercises pinning each company against the others, and if a direct hit was scored, points were lost. The rules didn't explicitly forbid unscheduled confrontations like the one Treize was planning, but it was generally assumed that the companies would keep to themselves during downtime. Treize had a fondness for taking advantage of general assumptions. He would actively seek opportunities to exploit flaws in training, tactics, and strategy, often with a dramatic flair that made his point obvious and memorable. A substantial part of Treize's image was build on a foundation of animated retellings of his audacities, stories that fueled the jealousies of those who weren't there to see them in person. His showmanship earned him admiration and ire, and even his strongest critics couldn't honestly deny the correctness of many of his conclusions.

"Regardless of how many weapons we've collected, we will move out for rendezvous point Charlie exactly fifteen minutes after we encroach upon their position. It will be your responsibility to leave their encampment on time. If you do not, one of those disarmed soldiers is going to run to Galanos and you very well might end up in their brig tent."

At that point, we handed out custom made wristwatches that alerted the wearer with a small electrical shock, like static charge from a car door, instead of an alarm. Treize described the sensation as feeling "like somebody is tearing your arm hair out," a description that made even the bravest in the group tense. I knew from experience that Treize was exaggerating, something he did when he was getting bored. How he managed to bore himself to death with his own briefings was beyond me.

"Do not get caught. If you move quickly, quietly, and according to instruction, our mission will not fail. Are there any questions?"

Treize scanned the faces of his twelve officers, looking for signs of doubt or confusion. "Fix your chinstrap, Lieutenant Keese," he said when he saw the soldier's helmet strap unsecured, dangling along the side of his face. The soldiers thought it looked more Hollywood like that, though it completely defied the function of the equipment, which was to stay on the head.

Our gazes crossed briefly before I saw the telltale sign of trepidation on Lundholm's face."Do you have a question, Lieutenant Lundholm?" I asked.

His eyes widened and he ducked his head as I singled him out. He was new to the unit and, by all accounts, was terrified of me. I can't imagine why. "I-I just don't know how you plan on seizing their weapons, sir."

"I will ask for them. If they refuse, I will insist," Treize explained nonchalantly.

This exercise, though tactically valuable, was really an excuse for Treize to humiliate Major Galanos. He knew from careful observation that Galanos had a slight issue with unit cohesion – very slight, nothing more than a small tear in his command structure. He excelled in the technicalities of leadership, but Galanos lacked the personality to bind soldier to commander in a way any more meaningful than the rank system required. "They wouldn't die for him," Treize quietly concluded the night before when he came to my tent to discuss the next day's training schedule. "They'd stop at the edge, pause, push on only because of an idea that they should, perhaps, but never because of him." Treize's soldiers died for him. Thousands and thousands and thousands. I would have, too. Back then.

"I know that it seems simplistic, but if we confiscate even one weapon, we can claim victory. Every soldier has orders from his commander to never let their weapon out of sight unless directly ordered by an authorized individual, which, according to chain of command rules, does not include me. If Galanos is not taking this training seriously, it will show in his soldiers."

Treize had the ability to enchant his subordinates with one single word: victory. Achieving victory with Major Treize Khushrenada had the legendary reputation of being one of the most fulfilling experiences of one's career. People begged, bribed, and fought their way into Treize's units based on this mythology alone.

Hernandez, smirking, spoke up. "This is a bit atypical for ground training, isn't it, sir?" he asked, looking at me even as he asked the question to Treize. In any unit I helped Treize command, there were always certain soldiers who were "mine" and certain soldiers who were "his." Hernandez was mine. Many responded to both of us equally, but soldiers played favorites with us even as we strove with great care to refuse our own similar inclinations. Some preferred Treize's driving sense of higher purpose, which manifested in eloquently woven words about honor and duty that lifted the soldiers' spirits, easing them through tough times, reminding them of why they joined the elite Specials - even if their true reasons were as selfish as wanting to blow off their parents.

As for the soldiers who favored me, most did so out of admiration for my reputation, which at that point consisted of a whole hell of a lot of talent dashed with flecks of rebellious insubordination that kept me from being classified as a goody-boy (though that never stopped people from calling me that anyway, among many more unflattering nicknames). I was blunt, honest, and engaged, always willing to help a soldier who needed it and gave a damn, and on the rare occasion that I did trend towards ideology, it was always tainted with grim realism that some soldiers preferred to the heart-fluttering poetics of our commander.

"That is true," Treize replied, "and I think everybody would be better off if more operations like this were conducted. What is the point of training as a foot soldier if you never encounter real enemy resistance during that training? We train to fight, not to appease brigade commanders. Some people forget that."

It was unprofessional to criticize another commander in front of subordinates, even indirectly, but the effect was evident as I watched the soldiers react to our leader. His words emboldened them, made them hold their heads a little higher, made their posture a little straighter, and fueled their excitement about helping their commander settle a grudge. With every sentence, expression, and action, he was indoctrinating them with his own values, and with each passing day they carried themselves more and more like him. Together, we would all dig our fingers into that fracture in Galanos' unit and rip through it like an raging infection. Together. That was unit cohesion.

"Any other questions?" He paused and then nodded. "If you feel you need to go over the details of the operation once more, speak with your squad leader. Until then, get some chow, attend to you weapons, and, if you can, get some rest. I will see you at 02:00. Fall out."

The soldiers scattered, heading back to their positions to do as ordered. Treize and I remained by the sand table.

"It will be a clear night tonight. Are you sure you want to come?" Treize asked, poking his stick into the groove that represented the river.

Since battle dress meant Kevlar helmet, wearing my mask was not an option. During the day I wore the sunglasses from my cadet days, but at night that would obviously impact my vision unfavorably. I was uncomfortable without my accustomed protection, though I wasn't about to skip out on this particular mission because of it.

"I wouldn't miss it."

Treize smiled. He was oddly pale despite the heat and the sun. "I don't think you'll regret it."

Battle dress suited him well. It accentuated his rougher edges in a way that a dress uniform never could. Treize was not beyond being ruthless and crude. He was, after all, a young man with a tremendous amount of power, responsibility, stress, and ambition, even at that stage in his career. He had a slightly greater tendency towards roughness in the field, as though the surroundings necessitated it, excusing him from the gentlemanly expectations of the ball and conference rooms. He was still respectable enough, though, unless he could find a good excuse not to be, in which case all bets were off. It was an unpredictability that excited me, encouraging me to push him harder than I typically would.

"Oh," he added, "and the supplier packed cigarettes in the rations. If you catch anybody smoking, feel free to smoke them." 'Smoking' was a term for physical punishment that typically included pushups and the evil bastard cousin of the pushup: the squat-thrust.

A few moments of silence passed between us as I bit my tongue, reluctant to bring up what had happened the week prior but unable to get it off my mind. I watched him as he looked over his expansive model, no doubt calculating distances and rates of travel with his brilliant, mathematically adept brain. As I eyed him candidly, the strong angles of his face - further accentuated by nearly a week of intense physical training and unsavory rations - struck me as absolutely perfect. Of course, I did feel a certain way about him, but his face was also extraordinarily well-formed in the geometric and aesthetic sense. His features were perfectly symmetrical, nary an odd mark or peerless dimple to be seen (for the record, he had two dimples that murdered his stoic handsomeness by way of sheer adorability, compelling his own personal War on Grinning that I routinely strove to foil for my personal enjoyment).

I loved him. I wanted to say it right then, which I thought quite beyond the realm of possibility. But, God, wouldn't he have been shocked! I don't even know how he would have reacted to something like that. If I could relive that moment once more, I would have said it without hesitation, if only to etch the look on his face into my memory forever. Instead, I said something that would darken his mood and sour our relations for a few hours.

"We need to talk."

Treize didn't even dignify my statement with eye contact. Instead, he knelt down to modify the features of the table. He toyed with the curve of his utility road in an imprecise, disinterested way. "No, we don't. There's nothing to discuss. Not about that, at least."

"So, you're going to pretend that it didn't happen so that it can happen again? You can't just let it slide, Treize."

"I can and already have." He looked up at me with a withering expression that oozed disdain. "You're dismissed, Captain. Do try to use my rank next time you address me."

I glared down at him, furious at his flippancy. He was done with the subject and done with me, but I'm nothing if not persistent. I would continue to bring it up again and again until he did something other than dismiss me as a nuisance.

Saluting in the field is strictly verboten, so I turned sharply on my heels and stormed back towards my tent, fuming. On the way there, I passed a smoking soldier and put the heat on him to a degree vastly disproportional to his crime. Treize later told me that he could hear my yelling from all the way across the encampment, which was careless and tactically stupid of me. After I finally laid off of the poor lieutenant, I didn't feel any better.

At the appointed hour, we assembled at point Bravo and began the run to Galanos' camp. We traveled single file in the deep ditch along the side of the utility road, with Treize and the two flag-stealers in front and me bringing up the back of the formation like a good XO. When we reached point Charlie, Treize stuck out his right hand and made a downward gesture, the silent command for "take a knee." There, we performed our practiced routine of synchronizing our chronometers for fifteen minutes while Hernandez and Krieger went for the flag. Treize then pulled me up to the front of the formation and we waited two minutes before heading towards the enemy encampment. On the way there, we passed the lightening-fast Hernandez and Krieger, who bore the Alpha Company guidon proudly.

"Not a soul in sight," Krieger, also mine, reported to me.

"Good work. Stay low on your way back," I replied.

They nodded and took off. Treize led the rest of us to the first tent he spotted on their perimeter. We all crouched down and he wasted no time opening the flap and shining his red-tinted flashlight at the sleeping faces of the two hapless occupants. Peering over his shoulder, I watched the ensuing performance.

"Wake up, soldiers."

The two young men stirred, and, coming to their senses, sat up in their sleeping bags. One of them had sweaty, messy hair half-plastered to the side of his head.

"I need you to give me your weapons. Major Galanos is taking an inventory because somebody misplaced theirs. He called me over to help him collect. I hope you won't mind."

Immediately, one of the soldiers reached for his weapon and his partner, sensing that his cohort was doing the right thing, grabbed his. I couldn't tell if they were going to shoot Treize or surrender their rifles.

"Yeah, sure," the crazy-haired soldier mumbled, clearly unaware of who he was talking to. It was doubtful that he could even see our faces with Treize's flashlight blinding him. He handed over his weapon.

Treize took it, passed it to me, then took the other. "Okay, soldiers. Go ahead and try to get some more sleep. Your weapons will be returned soon."

It was as simple as that. Treize closed the flap, stood, and pointed to one of his lieutenants, a pre-arranged sign that he was to guard this tent. The rest of us moved to the next position. As we approached, we could hear voices. Treize made the sign for us to halt and take a knee. We heard a female's voice -

"Yes...Harder. .."

- and then the unmistakable grunt of a male.

Treize and I exchanged a look that was somewhere between amusement and disgust. There was a moment of acknowledgment there, a reminder that we did things like that behind closed doors, unbeknownst to everybody in our present company. Our precious, dirty, and dangerous secret.

The soldiers we were leading, well aware of what was going on in that tent, freely expressed their feelings on the subject.

"That's nasty. Nobody's had a shower in a week," one lieutenant whispered.

"Quiet," I commanded.

Treize, unafraid of a little copulating, moved closer. He didn't open the flap for obvious reasons, but crouched in front of it.

"Hey!"

Inside, we could hear the "Did you hear something?" of the male and the "Shhh!" of the female.

"This is Major Khushrenada. "

"Oh, God!" the male exclaimed, then "Uh, yes, sir?"

"Are you aware that Specials regulation 37-F strictly forbid sexual contact between soldiers on duty, the punishment for which can and frequently does include trial by court martial?" It was an embellishment of the sentence and a made-up code number. Treize wasn't the regulations wonk people assumed he was. He had better things to do than memorize rules he didn't follow.

"Sir, we haven't done anything of the sort," the female lied. That really pissed Treize off.

"Do you think I'm an idiot?" Though his voice was calm, there was a sharp undercurrent beneath which hinted at an anger that soldiers had wildly speculated about in close quarters with peers. They'd never seen it, and they likely never would. The implicit threat was far more terrifying and made for a magnificent preemptive behavioral modifier.

I'd experienced it before - Treize's real anger. Once. It was after one of his soldiers had been caught brutally raping a female soldier. From behind a closed door, I heard pure venom in Treize's voice as he told the kid that he was going to destroy him and, by association, his entire family's quite substantial reputation. When he spoke to the soldier, his voice was low and his words startling, so foreign, so cruel, so unlike the person I'd grown up with. Deserved as those words may have been, they made my fingers dig into the upholstered arm of the chair in the waiting room outside of his office - had he known that I was listening, I wonder? The young man descended swiftly into hysterics and an endless string of sobbed apologies, at which point Treize literally said that he was going to break the kid's face if he didn't get the fuck out of his office in thirty seconds. It was the first time I heard him swear at a soldier, though not the last.

The victim had begged Treize for a quick and tidy end to the matter, as tidy as rape can possibly be, so he didn't bring down the Stambaugh family with specific accusations. Instead he kicked the kid out of service with a general discharge, had the man who cooked Romefeller's books dig up the impressively long history of Stambaugh corporate tax evasion, and proceeded to anonymously break the story to a ferocious media that tore the family apart mercilessly. The kid must have remembered Treize's promise, even if his meticulously- covered tracks left no clue to prove his involvement. When the young man committed suicide later that year, Treize said "hm" and continued on with his paperwork.

So, did Major Galanos' soldiers think that Treize Khushrenada was an idiot?

"N-no, sir."

"I'll tell you what - you hand over your weapons, and I won't inform Major Galanos of your brainless infraction of unambiguous policy."

"... Okay"

"Stock first."

We took their rifles but didn't bother staging a soldier to guard them. They weren't about to run to their commander and tell them the enemy commander had blackmailed them into handing over their weapons after he caught them fornicating.

The next tent only had one person in it.

"Where is your cohort?"

The soldier, bleary-eyed, reached for his glasses. "He...um... ." The soldier reached over and felt around the empty sleeping bag beside him, as though he would find a full-grown soldier buried in there somewhere.

"He... ?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Well, he's 'I don't know' without his weapon, isn't he?" Treize made a beckoning gesture with his hand and the bespectacled soldier, riddled with confusion and distress over his peer's whereabouts, handed over the weapons as though it was the expected punishment for missing battle buddies.

By the time we collected and staged an officer to guard, we only had two minutes before we would have to return - just enough time for one last tent occupied by two males.

"Major Galanos asked me to circulate around the company and collect weapons; Colonel Cavanaugh is at the command tent and has ordered a surprise inventory."

"Of course, sir," one of the soldiers said, grabbing his weapon to hand over.

"Wait," the other one said, stopping his partner. He eyed Treize critically. "What's the code?"

"You know, your commander was frankly a bit frazzled over the colonel's arrival and completely forgot to give it to me."

The resistant soldier's composure was unrelenting. "Then you can't take our weapons, sir."

Treize poked his head out of the tent and looked to his left, pretending to see Galanos collecting weapons down the line. In the moonlight, he looked drained and washed-out, like a specter terrorizing the grounds with mind games and cunning. He stuck his head back in the tent. "Major Galanos is two tents over. He will certainly vouch for me, but, as you can guess, we're trying to collect rifles as quickly as possible."

"Then we can wait for him." He was probably only about seventeen years old, likely fresh out of the academy. I couldn't decide if he was playing tough because that was his temperament or because he thought it was what Treize would want to hear.

"Look, I understand your skepticism, but this is serious. I need your weapons now." Treize reached into the tent insistently.

In that moment, I saw Treize's actions and words for what they were: he was letting off steam, tempering his frustration with the system he lived and worked in. Treize cyclically grew aggravated with Romefeller, the Alliance, and every other governing body that used soldiers, entertained themselves with soldiers, and bet the future on soldiers without holding themselves to the high standards of soldiers. They lied through their veneers about their intentions, their values and goals, and Treize was a quick student. He honed such a talent for deception that he fooled even the granddaddies of the sport into trusting his allegiance, a ruse that was tiresome and emotionally taxing. He despised both the players and the game he played so well, and he swore to me that, one day, it would all be worth it. "Just a little more time," he would say, "and you'll see, Milliardo."

Treize loved his soldiers and he was proud to be one. He hated being used and he hated seeing his men and women used, even though his logic knew the necessity of it. He had to bide his time, position his pieces before he could enact his horrible, sweeping plans, and though he bore it with scarcely a complaint, he hated the wait. This camp raid, this petty stab at his colleague, was one of the small ways he coped with the deficit of political heft and the impatience he suffered. He'd bury them all one day, just like he buried the Stambaughs. He knew it. I knew it. His soldiers, somehow, knew it. We were just waiting, holding our breaths, praying we'd end up on the right side of him, whispering a word of condolence to those who would not.

"I can't give you my weapon, sir."

"De Luca, come on!" the other soldier pleaded, panic-stricken.

"He doesn't have the password."

"I don't give a shit about your password," Treize spat. "I want to know why you are disobeying a direct order from an officer of a rank you will clearly never attain."

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see our soldiers trading incredulous looks. Most probably didn't realize that their commander was play-acting and very likely enjoying himself enormously. I was certainly amused by his theatrics, regardless of what the flat line of my lips suggested.

"You may outrank me, sir, but you do not outrank my commander. I have specific orders from him not to hand my weapon over to anybody who doesn't have the proper credentials. If you think I'm going to give you my rifle just because you burst into my tent and pitch a fit, you're mistaken, sir."

"Name and rank."

"De Luca, Franco. Lieutenant, sir."

In an instant, Treize drop his veneer of outrage. "All right, then. Carry on."

I felt a pinch at my wrist, as did every other soldier in our company who had successfully set their chronometers. We met at Charlie point and hauled it back to Bravo, where Hernandez and Krieger met us, brandishing Alpha Company's flag with wide smiles.

Back at the encampment, Treize and I conducted an after action review, deeming the mission not only successful, but tremendously well executed. Despite the late hour, everybody was keyed up and proud of a job well done. Treize didn't bother tempering their joy with a lesson about humility, for it was as much his victory as the platoon's, and he was feeling pretty good about it. As a reward to them, he didn't break formation for privacy when Major Galanos radioed him on the battalion frequency and called him every derogatory name he could think of, some of which made the lieutenants scoff and bristle. Treize let his soldiers listen to what bad leadership sounded like: overinflated and graceless. That was the real lesson of the exercise.

About an hour before the sun came up, Treize and I sat hunched across from each other in his tiny two-man bivouac tent, the same as every other soldier's, planning for the day's return to standard billeting. We were in a casual state of battle dress, with our helmets and blouses placed neatly in the corner, leaving us in our substantially cooler t-shirts. Until that training exercise, I had no idea that Croatia could get so hot in the summer.

"The first thing I'm going to do when we get back is arrange Lieutenant De Luca's transfer to our unit," Treize stated, shining his red flashlight on the map we had spread out between us.

"Don't you think you should let Galanos have at least one capable soldier?" I replied, watching his finger trace a line across the paper.

He made an amused sound. "Do you think that every soldier that comes into my unit is a good soldier when they arrive?"

I knew the answer to that. Treize didn't need to recruit the best soldiers in the world; he created the best soldiers in the world. His had the rarely-matched ability to turn ordinary men and women into extraordinary ones, simply by developing their skills and giving them confidence in their abilities and commander. These were the most basic principles of leadership, entailing nothing more extraordinary than firm and constant reinforcement, and yet so few leaders had the strength of will and character to walk the path that Treize did. For many, the lure of nurturing one's own resume through personal accomplishments was greater than the perceived rewards of nurturing inexperienced soldiers into professionals. If they realized that the latter directly augmented the former, well, there would have been more Treize Khushrenadas in the ranks.

"You, of course," he continued, "are an obvious exception. I never have to worry about you, Zechs." This was a flat-out lie. He always worried. He looked up from the map and one corner of his mouth curled upward. With that crooked smirk and a faint smudge of dirt on his chin, he looked about two ranks younger.

I resisted the temptation to succumb to his un-showered charms and didn't waste a breath before barreling back into the hazardous conversational territory of the day prior. His last comment seemed the perfect segue.

"And yet, I have to worry about you." He had nowhere to run, and kicking me out of his tent was something he was going to have to do quite literally.

He shook his head wearily and looked back down at the map. "Not this again. I wish you would let it go."

"You were a dropped pen away from getting a bullet in the back of the head. And what's worse, you refuse to take any precautionary measures." I glowered at him, desperately wishing that he would validate my very legitimate concerns.

"That is not correct. I gave approval for additional rooftop snipers -"

"Hire more snipers to kill snipers. Brilliant. Just brilliant"

"- but I will not be forced into the basement like some disobedient child."

"It's not a fucking punishment!"

"Let it go. Please." Please? Something wasn't right. Where was that severe bullheadedness he'd been so liberal with at the sand table earlier?

I was surprised when the harshness of my glare didn't bore a hole clean through his skull, like the bullet that nearly killed him. "What is wrong with you?"

Treize wiped his brow with the back of his hand and sighed. "You're exhausting me."

I knew as much, but I couldn't reign myself in. I couldn't help it... In my mind I pictured Treize's body slumped over his desk, blood spilling out of him in a wide, terrible pool. I imagined getting a phone call saying that somebody had found him like that, which would lead me to horrifying realization that the last words I had said to him that day were the last I would say to him ever -

Jesus... I think it was a joke about some wing-nut politician that I loathed. That could have been the enduring legacy of our relationship - my asinine commentary on some greasy, worthless, pus-bag-of-a- statesman. The worst part was that I didn't even particularly care for politics.

That appalling thought, coupled with the angry adrenaline coursing through my body, made me stupid with emotion. I took Treize's head between my hands and forced him to look me in the eye.

"I will not apologize for wanting you to live, Treize." I tilted his head and hissed angrily in his ear, "If you can't understand my feelings, then maybe you're not as smart as I thought."

It was then that I felt the heat on his face and wetness on my fingers. It was hot outside, but it certainly wasn't sweat-bullets- hot. I pulled back and pressed my hand to his forehead and very suddenly forgot that I was upset.

"You... " I tried to wipe the beaded moisture away with my hand, pushing it into his hairline and causing his bangs stick up. He'd cut it shorter than usual for ground training because he couldn't stand the way it felt when it was dirty. "Treize, you're burning up."

"It's nothing to worry about. We're leaving in a few hours, anyway."

"Yeah, leaving for a 15K march." I rummaged through his nearby duffle bag, pulled a t-shirt out, and pressed it to my face to smell. Clean enough. He let me dab away as much sweat as I could from his face and neck, the lack of resistance convincing me that he felt as terrible as he very suddenly looked. "How long have you felt ill?"

"Not long." His hand brushed mine before he took the shirt away from me and tossed it back into the open bag from which I'd taken it. He missed. "It's nothing."

I stared. With the redness that the flashlight was casting, he looked like he was on fire, engulfed in hot sickness. He was rarely ill, gifted, among many other things, with a robust immune system. But when he got sick, he got sick as a dog, the flat on your back, sleep in the bathroom sort of sick.

"You can't march. The men will notice." I tried to appeal to his interests, which, above all, typically consisted of putting on the most perfect performance possible. "I can lead them. Make up some excuse to leave early. Tell them that General Catalonia sent - "

"I will do no such thing. I will be fine until we get to the airfield. I just..." His touched his mouth as though trying to physically block any further admissions of weakness. When his gaze fell on mine, his eyes were pleading. "Give me two hours?"

I frowned and felt his hand on mine again. I nodded in defeat, knowing that I was fighting a losing battle even while my opponent was expending most of his energy in the struggle to keep from passing out.

He'd persevere through the entire march, his only visible symptom the sickly pallor of his skin. After a day in the infirmary, he'd spend the week on mandatory quarters, sleeping like a dead man, full of antibiotics and whatever food I could get him to eat. Later, as he began to feel better, he would occupy his time complaining about overly-cautious physicians and wasted time, all the while asking me for updates on the unit. Each time I'd refuse his request, he'd declare with a small, sleepy smile that I was impossible sometimes.

"And I appreciate your concern, I really do, but if somebody wants to kill me badly enough, a few feet of concrete isn't going to stop them. You know that as well as I do."

"You could at least try, Treize." I wanted to pull away, but at that moment I felt so much affection for that hand on mine that my petulance was thrown to the wayside where it belonged.

"If anything ever happened to me, you would be fine. I have no doubts about that."

"Why are you telling me this?" I whispered roughly.

"Because it's the truth."

He leaned in close and kissed me on the forehead, keeping his illness away from my lips, though I would have taken it wholly upon myself to spare him. Any day. In an instant. If that were my hell instead of this, burning with fever so that Treize wouldn't be sick, so that he wouldn't be dead, I would live it gladly and forever.

xxx

I was in my room remembering all of this, waiting for the sun to go down. I'd spent a rare day inside lying on my bed with my arm flung over my eyes to block out the light. When dusk settled in, I let my heavy limb fall to my side, dimly noting that my sleeve was damp.

It was September 9th, Treize's birthday. He would have been 25 years old.

How impossibly young to be mourned.

Reflecting on the tone of my day, I was having my doubts about what he had said in Croatia. Nine months after his death, I still felt the pitiless ache of sadness every single day. It was a different sensation from when I was grieving for my parents. Their death burrowed under my skin and permeated every cell of my body like a thick and virulent cancer. It grew dark and metastasized into rage, fueling my base desires for revenge.

Treize's death, after the initial cataclysmic shock and denial subsided, drained me. It was a slow and dangerous leak in my fortitude that had the insidious twin effect of mimicking recovery. Over the summer I had pulled myself out of the mire and made an earnest attempt to integrate into life again. I had gained weight, started taking care of myself, tended to an occupation of sorts, and had a fairly substantive connection to another person. I don't know why, but I assumed that grief was formulaic, with a distinct ascension, climax, and recession. I wasn't prepared to be propelled back into heartbreak by a mere date on the calendar.

I felt depleted. Tired. Incurable. My anger with myself and Treize had worn as thin as my optimism. I thought it ironic that such a strong emotion had so little tenacity. It used to be the driving force that kept me fighting when all I wanted to do was throw my mask in a dumpster, muster out of service, and fade into obscurity - with him, of course. I hadn't realized how close we'd become, anger and I, until I could no longer hold onto it.

Some would call such things progress. To me, it felt like a spiritual deadening. Then again, the only form of spirituality I'd ever subscribed to - falsely, I might add - was the doctrine of soldierly virtue, but I was no longer a soldier and no longer a ronin. I was, however, still very much a villain. With my credit, I'd purchased a computer and spent much of the first week-and-a-half of September familiarizing myself with the world that Treize and I had helped create.

The ESUN: unified but not, many but one. As Romefeller's chief representative, my sister's bold but frightfully ill-conceived dissolution of national borders had been disastrous, and the ESUN took this knowledge to heart when it wrote its charter. There were countries still, and colonies maintained their autonomy, but participation in the centralized government was mandatory, not optional or bound by club rules as it'd been with the Alliance. The new government, legislated by the new ESUN Council, was configured to be the most fair and practical way for all nations and colonies to meet and talk and vote. The sum of its fairness and practicality was outshone only by the majestic stateliness of Council Headquarters, where dignified men and women in dignified clothes gathered with dignified civility to write the future. Hm... That sounds familiar.

The first few months of the new year had been good, characterized by equal parts solemn remembrance and ecstatic revelry, replete with ambitious marketing and electioneering celebrating the New Dawn for Humanity. Money was made. People partied. Humankind was Reborn - that was the word on the street, the word people were sold, the word they clung onto like a lifeboat in a storm of unprocessed shock and disbelief. Had the war actually happened? Yes, yes, so far away. Time to move on into the brave new future.

But as the fervor over the future's promise subsided, old irritations reared between nations. The transition to actual democracy, particularly in Europe, was a convoluted and strained one. For the last handful of decades, Europe had been the de facto oligarchy Romefeller masquerading as a confederacy of democratic nations. The people were beginning to discover that real democracy is a chore, and that diplomacy is not a series of fetes and cocktail parties, but rather a string of misunderstanding and minor calamities interspersed with nightmarishly inconvenient bureaucratic hurdles.

Disillusion crept in from the fringes of the media. A few intrepid commentators began to question the feigned social evolution that the new government was touting. "Is humanity really any different after the war than before?" they asked. Slowly, people expressed their dissent. At the onset, they were cautious. Fearful of uprooting a utopia that did not truly exist, they stuck to delicate phrasing and argued in a most academic and genteel fashion. But it didn't take long for strong and dynamic personalities to emerge, and these imperious talking heads urged free expression and purgation of feelings. They encouraged grief, remorse, and, most importantly, anger. Everything that the ESUN had tried to sweep under the rug, like so many discarded mobile suits and soldiers, flew full-on back into the faces of everyone. And it wasn't pretty.

Enter the infamous Milliardo Peacecraft, scapegoat of the new era, punching bag for the emotionally stifled. As we had pegged ourselves in our last days, my posthumous reputation was the polar opposite of Treize's. While people erected monuments and dedicated academic halls to him, they burned effigies of me. While they extolled his selflessness and whitewashed the unsightly transgressions of his past, they cursed my birth and dredged up every slanderous morsel they could, provided it didn't incriminate or besmirch Treize's name - a caveat that would (mostly) save our relationship from exploitation.

The rage against me manifested as a flagrant smear campaign that afforded the public the catharsis they craved. Of course, they lamented the fact that I was dead and could not be tried for crimes against humanity. Over and over again commentators regurgitated futile and furious wishes for my survival, devising fictional plots outlining exactly how I would be tried and for what crimes.

There was, however, one lone voice that rallied to my defense, though it's doubtful that he was doing it out of altruism. His name was Andrew James, an Australian journalist who took great pleasure in bucking against the mainstream. He introduced to the public such items as my true civilian kill tally (lower than advertised), and correctly postulated that I had purposefully picked one of the least-populated places on the planet - Siberia, with the dual intent of affronting Treize personally - to fire the Libra cannon at. This fact surprises some people. Yes, I did have some measure of control over myself at the time. No, I wasn't a blind, heartless, bloodthirsty monster. Not completely. "For a paragon of evil, he was awfully polite," James remarked in his satirically- slanted column.

I don't know about "polite," but I did give my actions some thought.

Mr. James equated the public's loathing of me to fear of the boogie man, wrought out of a knee-jerk defensive reaction to being scared out of their minds. He also posed questions about why Quatre Winner's destruction of multiple populated colonies was rewarded with astronomically high stock prices and billions of dollars in revenue while people demanded my head and expressed regret that I had survived the Alliance invasion of Sanc. I had mixed feelings about Mr. James; part of me was grateful for the consideration, no matter how snide, while another part wished that he would allow me to be plainly hated. Shades of gray confuse, and there was already a surplus of confusion for the ESUN to combat.

How funny, how fitting that the one man who defended me was nearly as much of a sarcastic asshole as I was.

I was shocked to see that another absolved criminal, Anne Une, was the head of the new Preventer agency. When I'd known her, she was barely able to command a single unit without lapsing into overzealousness, tactlessness, gracelessness, or, later, fits of schizophrenia. Treize's unyielding trust in her had always been a point of contention between us, but she'd served him dutifully with every ounce of ability she had. A rare quality such as that would never go unrewarded by him. As far as I could gauge, she seemed to have pulled herself together into a competent leader. In short, she was doing much better than I was.

I could search the news only for so long before growing listless from the repetition and negativity. It hurt to be hated, even if it was what people felt they needed. The most I could wish for - and I did so with utmost sincerity - was that Relena would one day forgive me for what I'd done. Though I barely knew her, I loved her tremendously. The feeling of holding her in my arms on Libra was imprinted deeply in my heart, something I bore modest hope of doing again. Just once more, if that was all I could have.

When I crawled out of bed on September 10th after a long night spent ruminating, I felt the old familiar grip of resentment tightening around me as I bitterly blamed humanity for not trying harder. Treize died for them. All of them. All of us. And we couldn't even keep it together for a solid year. What was everything for if not for just a little peace? Two years. Three. Five. Surely a hundred thousand lives were enough to buy at least that. Of course, nothing at that time had happened to disprove the finality of The Last War (as it was known in some optimistic circles), and yet I couldn't dismiss the simple fact that nothing fundamental had changed. There were still soldiers, men and women floating adrift in roles given to them as a consolation, and there were still weapons - many weapons, enough to kill everybody if deployed creatively enough.

What had changed? The unity of the government? All it took was a stiff breeze to topple the United Nations of the prior era. How was the ESUN Council any different? How were we any safer from ourselves? How were we any more evolved? How could so much doubt thrive in a world of the public majority's own making?

What the hell had really changed?

The silence was painful. It was a pessimistic time. I missed Treize badly, and without anger to coddle me, I retreated into cynicism.

That morning I dressed in jeans and a light jumper and made my habitual trek up the hill to help Vadimas load produce into his truck for market. I found that most of my ill feelings held up rather poorly to a distracting day's work, even if my nightly musings regularly reincarnated them. The fact that my landlord was always so kind, beyond all rationality, also took the harsher wind out of my sails.

As I crested the hill, I saw Vadimas standing in the middle of the beet field next to an unnatural-looking pile of dirt that I hadn't seen the day before. His hands were on his hips and he was shaking his head, laughing. I ran into the field and joined him at the rim of a three-meter- wide crater that held a heap of charred, twisted metal.

"Would you look at that!" the old man said, bending over in obvious discomfort to get a closer look at the object.

I crouched down next to it and ran my hand over the blackened surface, smooth from the friction of atmospheric entry. It looked like it had once been a single sheet that had been bent by explosive heat. Perhaps it was the perfectionist in me, but I felt a pressing need to reshape it. I stood and wedged the heel of my boot into a crevice while pulling on the opposing end to unroll it. The metal bit into my palms, but I didn't stop when I saw the progress I was making.

"Don't hurt yourself, young man," Vadimas implored as he watched me wrestle that space trash like a frantic scavenger.

When I finally wedged it open, I could see the pristine, unscorched green-brown paint job that confirmed my suspicions. I could hear my blood pounding a steady tempo of anticipation in my ears as I knelt once more to inspect it.

WF-02MD-43. One of my Virgo II units.

It was only a single, thin sheet of superficial armor plating, but it was industry standard to label every single assembly piece to make identification possible in the event of an accident. Touching it with my bare hands was surreal, like I had recovered a prehistoric artifact instead of a part from a weapon I had deployed less than a year prior. My fingers traced along the indents of the serial number as I recalled the frightful might of those abominable suits. I'd always despised the mobile dolls based on principles that I'd adopted under Treize's tutelage, which made me wonder why I'd used them. Perhaps I really had wanted to play into his scenario after all... God, why couldn't I remember my own intentions?

"Do you recognize it?"

Unaware of the contradiction between the way I was caressing the metal and my words, I lied.

"No."

"Are you sure, Erik?"

All at once, the ridiculousness of my hiding my identity became apparent. Like an absurd metaphysical sign, that hunk of metal jettisoned from lower orbit was a reminder that the Milliardo Peacecraft of the White Fang was the same Milliardo Peacecraft who grew up in a palace, the same Milliardo Peacecraft who lived beneath Zechs Merquise, and the same Milliardo Peacecraft who spent his days brooding and picking vegetables on a farm in northern France. Why was I still wasting energy fighting it? Why was I still lying to myself and to others? Why was I scared of the consequences of reconciling my identity?

"That's not my name."

"Well, of course it isn't!" Vadimas replied, chuckling, holding his modest belly with both hands as though he couldn't contain his amusement.

I stood slowly and stared at his smiling face, speechless. He was shorter than I, hunched from age and what I assumed was a lifetime of hard labor. His eyes gleamed.

"Don't act so surprised, Mr. Peacecraft. I'm not as senile as I seem!"

I struggled to formulate a reply, averting my gaze to the scrap pile, then to the distant fields, then back to the man's cheery face. "How... long have you known, Mr. Kazlauskas?"

"Since the moment I saw you on my stoop back in February." He gave me a good clap on the shoulder. "I knew you'd tell me when you were ready!"

I shook my head. It was the only thing I could do.

"Now that we've got that out of the way, let me show you something!"

He took me by the wrist and pulled me towards his house. I felt an irrational desire to stay with the Virgo scrap, but that would have led to a pointless exercise in self-recrimination. Later that day, I went back to the site to find that the armor had been removed and the hole covered. I never saw it again.

He brought me to a door that I'd always assumed led to a root cellar beneath the house. From his pocket he pulled out a set of keys and, after some fumbling, unlocked the padlock. We walked down a narrow and steep set of stairs into a wall of cool and musty air. With the flick of a switch, the room lit up.

To my right was a heavy work bench that was strewn with electronics parts and metal casings. On the wall were tacked-up blueprints, multiple layers superimposed upon one another. To my left was a smaller work bench that held a computer terminal which had been gutted. Next to that was a drafting table upon which more blueprints sat. I was immediately drawn to the larger of the two work stations, where I picked up a small soldering gun that was lying next to a motherboard. It felt like a pistol.

"This is my workshop! Here, sit!" he said, taking the gun out of my hand and seating me on a stool. He then rummaged through a small closet near the stairs and came back with a portfolio that was nearly as big and thick as his torso.

He dropped it on the table in front of me and motioned for me to open it up. Inside were paper clippings in multiple languages, slim technical manuals, hand-drawn sketches, and packets of operating procedures branded with the OZ Research and Development unit crest. Many screamed "CLASSIFIED. " Of particular interest to me was a picture of eight men of ages ranging from approximately 25 to 60. A couple were smiling, and the others ran the gamut from blasé to sternly authoritative. One of the two smiling men I immediately recognized as Howard. The other, the oldest-looking of the bunch, was undeniably Vadimas Kazlauskas.

I looked at my landlord, his face a moderately aged transposition of the photograph. He was grayer, balder, and wrinklier than his younger self, but he still seemed to have maintained the same effervescence.

"You knew Howard," I remarked, examining the other faces to see if I could identify them. I couldn't.

"Oh, did you know him, too? That son of a bitch owes me money!" he complained with a raucous laugh. "You never played cards with him, did you?"

I shook my head. I think I might have liked to, though. "Were you in OZ?"

"Oh, no!" he exclaimed, horror-struck, as though I'd asked him if he was presently wearing women's undergarments. "I was a contractor. We all were." He pointed to the photograph.

I was captivated - a stirring, electrifying feeling, like a young boy's excitement over a fast car or a jet aircraft. It had been a long time since I'd felt that way; I welcomed it, if only as something different from malaise.

"Did you work on the Tallgeese?"

"We were her fathers," Vadimas said, once again gesturing to the picture. "I was a computer engineer. Oh! You'll like this!"

He retrieved an old notebook computer from beneath a crinkled pile of papers and brought it over to me. He closed the portfolio and set it aside, giving me the computer to hold. When I turned it on, the screen flicked to life and displayed the familiar startup sequence of the Tallgeese's operating system. It was strange to watch the artful play of code and graphic without the accompanying sensations of her thrusters in my hands and the sweet smell of oil and old leather. Even still, it hypnotized me, wooed me, and made me miss her just a little.

"We all played an important part in building her. I designed her brain." There was a note of pride in his voice, and perhaps an undertone of that same nostalgia I was experiencing as I watched the program boot up. I had never seen this side of Mr. Kazlauskas before, one that resonated strongly with me. It was a commonality that I hadn't anticipated at all.

"I loved my job," he continued, "but it was wrong." He killed the power on the laptop, suddenly remorseful, as though he regretted showing me his work, and took the computer away from me.

I spun around on the stool and watched him retreat back to that small closet. "How so?"

When he rejoined me, he was once again his jovial self. "Ah, don't listen to me! I'm just an old fool reminiscing. Here's what I really wanted to show you."

He directed my attention to the blueprints that he had tacked up on the wall. I scrutinized his face, looking for signs of what he had been on the verge of explaining to me, but he'd masterfully masked all traces of shadow.

"This was my last project before I retired. I never got to finish it. And now," he held up one of his hands in front of my face, slowly flexing fingers knotted by arthritis, "I'm not young anymore. But you," he grasped onto my wrist and patted the top of my hand, "you have good hands."

Good hands? I barely recognized them. They were different hands from those I had in OZ and the White Fang. They were the unremarkable hands of a young man instead of the calloused, skilled hands of a professional soldier. I wasn't sure if they suited me.

"What is it?"

"It's a wireless scanner, but with much better amplification! You could eavesdrop on the colonies from a hundred stories below ground."

I arched an eyebrow. "Those are illegal." Hugely, as in spend-a-decade- in-prison illegal.

He waved a hand at me. "Bah! I don't mean anything by it. I just want to know whether or not it works. I spent a long time on the design. Wouldn't you be curious?"

I was already curious. The pile of parts on the workbench reminded me of the scattering of metal beams, nuts, and bolts that composed my childhood construction set. I wanted to put them together, pull order from the chaos. At any rate, I would also need something to occupy my time as winter drew near. What did I have to lose?

"I suppose it doesn't matter if a dead man breaks a law, does it?"

Vadimas grinned broadly. "Let me show you these plans..."

[part 5] [part 7] [back to Singles a-k]