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. Rated M for swears and darkness
Disclaimer: I don't own any part of GW. No monies have been or will be made off of this thing.
Please see Limbo 1 for very important notes.
I'm trying something different this chapter, using episodic flashbacks
instead of one long one, so here's the legend, though I'm sure you can
figure it out based on context:
xxxx: separates main story from flashbacks
xoxo: separates flashback segments
I also decided not to be so horribly angsty this chapter, because it
was starting to depress me. Also, I have only recently become aware of
the very excellent timeline available at aboutgundamwing. com (thanks
again, Aja and Wystii), and I realize this story has already screwed
the pooch based on it, so sorry to all the canon wonks out there.
Thank you so much to all who've commented, especially Karina and TB! I
cannot tell you enough how much I appreciate your feedback. It gives
me warm fuzzies and makes me so much more conscientious of what I
Hope you enjoy.
Limbo 8: The Entity is Bold and Brash
I huffed, blowing my bangs out of my eyes only to have them fall right
back into place. In the chill of mid-November, I was hot with
frustration. My coat and zip-up cardigan had hours prior been sent
sailing across the room in two separate fits of irritation. Even my
t-shirt felt stifling as another inconclusive error message smeared
its ugly face across the screen.
I was close. Agonizingly close. Each subsequent failed test was like a
hangnail being slowly yanked, and I was to the point where I wanted to
launch the damn thing across the room to keep company with my clothes.
Of course, I have substantially more self-control than that. I also
know when it's time to take a break.
I slid off the stool and stretched the aching muscles in my back and
shoulders. I had an unfortunate tendency towards hunching over the
workbench like an infatuated mad scientist, an unflattering but not
entirely hyperbolic comparison. In my overzealous efforts to complete
the project, I had begun keeping irregular hours, working through the
entire night until a late morning crash sent me back to my rental for
a few hours of imperturbably deep sleep.
It felt good to step out into the cold autumn night. The sky was
crystalline, and the air was so crisp that it burned my nose and
lungs, clearing my sinuses and senses, and could be exhaled like smoke
as a visible puff of condensation. I craned my head back and allowed
myself to feel infinitesimally small in the universal context.
"It might be something simple, something I've overlooked," I said to
myself, thinking back on the procedures I'd followed to get the
receiver online. I doubted that it was the construction. I'd been my
typical meticulous and neurotic self the entire time; what was on that
blueprint was what was on that table mocking my outrage.
"Maybe the design...?"
I couldn't disregard the possibility, though the specs and
calculations seemed correct to me. I tentatively concluded that the
fatal error lay in the one component that I hadn't touched, the
progressive scanning and decryption program, which was the part of the
unit that Vadimas had completed as an OZ researcher. My skills in
computer science were inferior to my engineering talents, so my
attempt to debug the program would have been one more futile exercise
in self-defeat. I was beginning to grow tired of such abuse.
I crossed my arms over my chest -- by that point, I actually had
something of a chest again. In France, I leveled out on the lean side,
which appeared to be my body's preference when not tasked with
routinely manipulating tons of metal in shoot-first- or-die combat.
Towards the end of my OZ career, I'd gotten big, especially after I
began wrestling with the Tallgeese. By the time I took command of the
White Fang, I was over 80 kilos of pure muscle, which was something of
a wonder because I don't remember eating very much in those days.
Brilliant streams of light streaked across the night sky, more
wreckage burning up in the atmosphere. I wondered grimly whether any
of those parts were from the Tallgeese II. I saw the footage of the
explosion taken from one colony's external cameras. Shit like that was
and still is all over the nets. Sometimes it feels like exploitation,
other times it feels like justice.
I'd watched that footage over and over, to the extent of being
morbidly obsessed with it. At first there was disbelief. I couldn't
accept that Treize was in that suit, that he'd actually been blown up,
ripped to pieces, horrible... fucking impossibly horrible... And then it
hit me just how horrible it really was, and it made me sick just to
think about it, literally sick, like I was going to vomit, and my guts
wrenched because of the wrongness, that something so terrible could
happen to the human body, to the body of my friend, the body I'd held,
lusted for, admired, loved, and there was searing, cringing,
jaw-clenching fear that he might have died in agonizing pain, and I
wanted desperately to believe that the explosion had killed him before
the vacuum of space ruptured his lungs and boiled his blood...
So I broke it down, looked up archived training material on death by
exposure, broken down by forensic scientists, given in small packets
to commanders to silently contemplate after losing men, and so I broke
down Treize's death to its most clinical elements, hard figures strung
together with probable assumptions, and I concluded with a mind
unadorned with flimsy suppositions and hopes that he probably didn't
feel much of anything if the core had exploded, as he would have
likely been crushed inside the cockpit or, barring that, would have
experienced acute hypoxia when the cabin depressurized, sparing him
from feeling too much discomfort, a swift death either way... And in my
conclusion, there was some consolation. Some. A small burden
And funny -- all the times I watched that footage and I never saw that
Gundam pilot killing Treize. I only saw Treize killing himself,
falling on his sword, the error so deliberate, so obvious to my
tactically trained eye. Treize had never moved that slowly, never left
himself so open, never threw himself at an enemy with his arms in an
amateur's caricature of an attack position. I didn't blame Wufei
Chang. Didn't ever want to lay eyes on him, thought I might want to
punch him in the throat if I ever did, but I didn't blame him. I felt
bad for him, actually, being used like that.
It was in November that I could finally begin to acknowledge what had
happened without losing it completely, without going glassy-eyed,
without seizing up. By that night beneath the stars, the fact of
Treize's death had become like a veil over my eyes, thin enough that I
could see past it, but always there, tinting everything.
When I felt the goose bumps raising the hairs on my arms, I went back
down to the cellar to try the start-up process one more time. If I
couldn't do it then, I resolved to go to Vadimas for help.
Step one, step two. No problems. The wiring was tight, the power
ample. It had to be the software. I chastised myself for not taking
more computer science classes at Lake Victoria. I was good enough at
math and basic programming, but intricate algorithms like the ones
written by Vadimas were the product of intense study. I would have had
to have chosen the major, which had seemed too static and boring. With
the absence of majors like speedology and fastonomics, I chose
engineering, where at least I could learn to make things that made my
body sing. How stereotypically male of me. It seemed that my interests
hadn't changed much at all since I was five.
Step one, step two, and then, without prelude or explanation, the
program booted up. I rolled my eyes and shook my head when it
happened, because there are few things more obnoxious than
temperamental electronics; you never know when they're going to work.
But I ran with it. The tuner began randomly scanning through the 1600
to 1700 megahertz frequency band, the standard interval for colonial
and other Earth-orbit transmissions. If I picked up anything in that
band, I would be able to confirm that the antenna was working within
And although it was my sole intent, what I'd been singularly striving
towards for nearly two months, I was amazed and not a little thrilled
when it picked up a signal at 1643.4983.
/ "...-ldn't understand why she was asking me that. Doesn't she hear
herself when she's talking? I mean, it's like she's missing some sort
of 'normal' chip or something. She just...I don't know. Know what I
mean? I mean, God, there's nothing more embarrassing than taking her
out in public and -- "/
I made a face and pressed the 6 key to move to a different channel. It
stopped at 1620.9002.
/ "...anything you need me to pick up at the store?" "That cake that I
like. You know which one -- " "With the almonds on top?" "Yes! The
best. I can't believe you don't like it. Oh, well. More for me -- "/
The next station I scanned to was a heated argument between a man and
a woman in a language that I didn't understand. I think it was Hindi.
Something something something hu. Something something something hain.
What was that? I never did bother to learn it. Not like Treize. He was
possessed by it. He soaked it up like a sponge...
/ Mai nahii samaja hu. I don't understand./
Treize repeated the phrase aloud, imitating the inflection and pace
with the proficiency of the native speaker in the instructional. It
was one more reminder that he was the most stubborn man in the
"I don't hear your accent."
"I am not using it."
He didn't want to be rude. Almost everybody could converse in
Standard, but Treize was a principled and sensitive traveler. There
were few things he found more insulting than somebody who didn't even
attempt the local language, which was why when such people approached
him in Moscow or wherever he happened to be in Russia, he'd rudely
fake ignorance if they didn't begin their queries with at least an
"Then how will they know you're Russian?"
"I suppose they won't know," he replied, his eyes meeting mine as he
glanced up from a notebook computer with dimensions a mere inch too
small to use comfortably. "Does it matter?"
"It seems to."
"Would you prefer that I did not have an accent?" he asked in perfect
Hearing those words in that way from Treize's lips confused my senses.
They were flat. Boring. Devoid of the intensity that seemed innate in
everything he said. My distaste must have been obvious.
"That's what I thought."
/Aap kaise hain? How are you?/
"I don't get it."
"I believe that 'aap' means 'you' and 'hain' seems to be an
interrogative or a state of existence, probably both. 'Kaise,' I
suppose, is the 'how' part."
"No, I mean, I don't get this." I pointed my finger in a small arc
indicating our surroundings: the inside of a international- class
business jet. He didn't want anybody tracking the tail number of his
personal aircraft, so he chartered one. "This." I pointed to us,
sitting across from each other in our civilian clothes and to our
unopened luggage sitting neatly in the lounge in the far-aft segment
of the aircraft. "All of this."
"I believe the term you're grasping for is 'vacation.' I realize it
has been so long that you may have forgotten how to take one."
"I am enjoying myself."
"I don't know how you can take a vacation now." It was late March of
195. All around us were whispers of something big, something
tremendous and life-altering on the horizon. Whispers and whispers
from all around us. Too close. Immeasurably far. We didn't know
exactly what it was and we didn't know when to expect it, but it was
palpable. It was metal. It was dangerous and apocalyptic. It was the
first domino, teetering, threatening. We had our guns pointed in the
dark, wary of every creaking floorboard, every cold draft, holding our
breaths as we waited for the flick of a switch.
"I cannot think of a better time for vacation."
"We need to be ready."
Without a beat: "We are ready."
"Do you honestly think that?"
"We are as ready as we can be to fight an enemy that, until this
point, has only existed in rumor. There is nothing to do but wait, and
I will not wait a minute longer on the Continent."
Treize had tired of Bremen rather quickly, tired of the close
proximity to Romefeller, to the decorum, the parties, the pandering,
flirtatious small-talk. He'd already secured his position in the
Foundation as well as a long-sought promise from Dermail that he would
be awarded nothing less than full command of the military after the
coup. Operation Daybreak was ready, poised in the rafters, waiting,
hinging on something from the stars, another operation, an explosion
of chaos, a Pandora's box that Treize crouched next to, all poise and
patience, a full deck in hand. Waiting. He had become the archetypical
embodiment of confident control, and at that point he was everything
he would need to be in the year ahead. He was vastly different even
from a mere two months prior, ever changing with mercurial fluidity,
adapting to his position, enhancing it, testing its limits and finding
He ran off without anybody -- not even Lady Une -- knowing precisely
where he was going, skirting around omnipresent and ever-prodding
security details using nothing but smooth calculation and persistence.
Slowly, article by article, he'd packed a bag sitting in a lone jeep
at the back of the motor pool on the basement level of the HQ
building, a unit believed to be out of order until one day it and the
commander of the OZ disappeared, though not before swinging by his
Second's quarter to snatch up the waiting man before speeding off like
a pair of bandits after a heist. The shit probably twirled around on
the fan blades for a good three hours before Une convinced all
concerned parties that His Excellency's absence was planned. Treize
had become an Entity, and The Entity was bold and brash.
"And you didn't want to wait at home?" We always went home. It was
what we did. Home was safe for us. Private. Secluded. That we were
vacationing somewhere that wasn't Russia was both nerve-wracking and
"You chose our destination. If you had chosen to go home, we would
already be there."
"I wouldn't exactly call a closed-eyed, finger-to-spinning- globe
accident an informed choice."
"After I finally got you to comply."
"All you said was 'Close your eyes and stick out your finger.'"
"Were you afraid I might bite you?"
"You have never been afraid of my mouth before." I felt his foot
rubbing against my calf.
He smiled. "It was a good choice."
I blinked once. Twice. My mind stalled and would not interpret for me
what I was seeing. The image was there, clear and unmistakable, the
problem glaringly obvious, but as I scraped for a solution, my brain
drew a long, white blank.
I backed out of the room slowly and turned my head to look at Treize,
who had thrown his bag on one of the two beds and was unpacking. My
frozen stupefaction caught his attention as he moved to the closet to
hang up his clothes, his arms full of casual pants and shirts.
My laughter was incredulous and not the least bit amused. "There's,
um, no shower."
"There's a drain, and there's a bench."
"You're not surprised. Why aren't you surprised? This doesn't bother
you?" I could feel my grouchy jetlag percolating into anxiety. "Please
tell me you didn't intend this."
"The resorts are full of tourists."
"Yoga tourists. "
"I don't care what kind of tourists they are! They have showers there,
"I had no idea you were so fussy."
"Wherever did you get that idea? Just look at me!"
He did and grinned so widely that both of his loathed dimples
appeared. "You should feel thankful that I reserved a room with a
Western-style toilet and a sink with running water."
I took a deep breath and watched as he hung up his clothes, and in
that moment the reality of what we were doing hit me like a sinking
stone in my stomach. We were on vacation. Alone. Together. No work. No
briefings. No drills. No surveillance. No aides. No goons. And we were
in India, a peacefully compliant Federation country with remarkably
little military and rebel activity. It was a small piece of normal, a
sample, a petit-four. He was right. I should have been thankful. I was
thankful, even if it would take me a while to realize it.
I was also amped up to the point where I had doubts about whether I
could decompress at all in two weeks. Being Treize's Second was far
from easy. I had over three dozen regional commanders who reported to
me, one of the two hard lines to the colonel. I fielded their problems
and questions and inspected their ranks and secured their funds and
led them in combat and directed their training, all in addition to
attending my own tangential interests in R&D. Most of the work that
Treize once did was split between me and Lady Une, which was his very
valid excuse for keeping us so close and properly ranked. It allowed
him to focus on strategy and politics, his two fortes, both
irrefutably necessary to build the future he envisioned.
On a personal level, my new post wasn't nearly as stressful as the
combination of my last five duty stations before my promotion. I went
out on assignment after assignment, but I would always come back to my
home base, to Treize. I had every excuse to talk to him whenever I
wanted to, so long as Une wasn't butting her little ass in my way,
which she did often enough to make me suspect that she did it on
purpose. It was as close to perfect as our professional lives would
get. And our personal lives, while far from perfect, at least existed.
As poorly timed as it seemed to me then, the vacation was Treize's way
of reminding me that he was still reaching out for me, no matter what
he appeared to have become, no matter how close we were to the brink
of the abyss. Reaching out to drag me down with him, maybe? He knew
there was nowhere I'd rather be than at his side. I'd said so often
enough. Thoughts of defecting, of insubordination, obsession, and
betrayal, were so alien to my reality that they seemed impossible and
revolting. But it would only be three weeks until I fought Heero Yuy
for the first time and just four months until I was court-martialed.
"You're something else," I groused.
"And what might that be?"
"I'm not sure." Something wonderful. Something I'd never have again.
Something I loved with everything I had and ever was.
"Room service will bring a bucket of hot water. And a ladle"
"A bucket...and a ladle."
He draped last of his four pairs of slacks over a hanger, careful to
fold them along the pre-pressed creases. "You are intelligent enough
to figure out what to do with it, no doubt."
"It'll take one bucket alone just to rinse my hair."
"I will share my bucket with you."
"Do you say that to all the boys you abscond with?"
There was a dark shadow in Treize's smile, and as he approached me
from across the room, I enjoyed a moment of wide-eyed, elated
anticipation before he took me by the shoulders, slammed me back
against the wall, and leaned his weight into me. "You're no boy," he
growled in my ear. His hand slid between us and cupped me none too
gently, making me gasp. "Boys don't feel like this."
"You would know..." I tried to move against him, but he had me pinned
so hard that there wasn't any room for it.
"You begged me for it."
"And you gave in. Weren't you supposed to be the adult in that situation?"
"You forced my hand." He squeezed me. I was already hard. "Literally.
Or have you forgotten?"
I reached my free arm around and grabbed his rear. "You were going to
"I was trying to be decent."
"You weren't decent. You were wicked." I tried to kiss him, but he
wouldn't let me.
"No, this is wicked." He let go of me, one side of his mouth upturned,
taunting, and walked back to his luggage to finish putting his clothes
away. I sighed heavily and sagged against the wall, too tired and not
surprised enough to even comment. Not a minute later, room service
knocked on the door and delivered a seafoam-green bucket of hot
water...and a ladle. Treize had ordered it for me, and I somehow
managed to thank him without sounding like a bastard.
I spent a good thirty minutes in the bathroom, freezing between
awkward ladle scoops, grateful from the onset that I didn't need to
wash my hair. I couldn't have handled it. The event ended with my
cursing and unceremoniously tipping the bucket over myself, and when I
stepped from the bathroom with a towel around my hips, I expected to
be met with no small amount of teasing. Instead, I found Treize sacked
out on one of the beds, fully clothed except for his shoes, arms
crossed over his chest, legs crossed at the ankle. I said his name.
Nothing. Not even the flutter of an eyelash. I couldn't bear to wake
him, even though it was only 17:40. He'd accumulated so much sleep
debt over the year that I thought it unlikely that he would ever pay
it down, but I always wanted him to try.
I slipped on a pair of drawstring cotton pants I pulled from my bag,
not wanting to be at a disadvantage, and carefully settled down next
to him, covering both of us with a spare blanket I'd found in the
closet. He made a small, strained sound, his face contorting into a
look of pain, before turning over onto his side. I seized the too-rare
opportunity to slide in close, and I wrapped my arm loosely around his
waist. We had so few opportunities to sleep together, just sleep
together without worrying about who might be found out of quarters or
who might be needed in a pinch. Touching my nose to the back of his
neck, I picked up the scent of something juniper or rosemary, his
shampoo, I believe, something that suited him just as well as
everything else I loved and loathed about him. Outside, a car horn
honked angrily and I heard yelling in Hindi. The scene was at once
comfortable and confusing, familiar and foreign. I thought I wouldn't
be able to sleep with all the commotion, but something stronger than
the ambient noise level drew me in, pulled me down, made my eyelids
heavy. I think it was Treize. He was warm. He was breathing slowly. He
was in my arms. In that moment, he seemed utterly uncomplicated and so
did the rest of the world.
As I fell asleep, I remembered something that I forgot to clear up
with Major Nguyen before I left, AOTC rescheduling, something about
moving to June, something so inconsequential that I can't even
I slept like the dead that first night, awakening over twelve hours
later sprawled out across the bed and drooling on Treize's pillow,
which, fortunately for him, he was no longer using. He'd risen some
time before and gone out onto the balcony overlooking the light
traffic of the shop-lined street outside of our hotel. The place
wasn't posh by any stretch of the imagination, not like the luxury
resorts crammed with hundreds of well-to-do yoga enthusiasts attending
a large conference outside the city. But our hotel was quaint, clean,
local, with a lush, well-groomed courtyard. It was also sinfully cheap
to stay there, the rate for our spacious room totaling in at about
twenty-five credits a night. Of course, it was lacking certain
amenities, but it didn't take long for me to find the appeal in the
simplicity of it.
I padded groggily out to the balcony, too disoriented to be concerned
with my shirtlessness, masklessness, carelessness, and found Treize
sitting in something that was only a mesh cup holder classier than a
lawn chair. I shielded my eyes from the rising sun and grumbled a
"Good morning" in response to an exponentially more pleasant greeting
offered from behind a copy of my favorite book, Anton Bajek's 'The
Tapestry.' As soon as I was cognizant, we ordered breakfast from room
service. My selection of fried finger chips had earned an appalled
look from Treize, who ordered yellow dal after being told that the
sale of meat, eggs, and alcohol had been banned in the holy city of
Rishikesh for the last two-and-a-half centuries. I laughed at him. He
called my breakfast unadventurous, which made me laugh harder for some
Later, I was leaning over the plugged sink as it filled for my morning
shave, plucking a few stray hairs from my brow, when I heard the sound
of a phone. It was the standard ring tone, the one the company expects
you to swap for the latest top ten pop song. From the ring, that
boring, unadventurous ring, I knew it was my phone, a military issue,
palm-size supercomputer from which I could redirect satellite orbital
pattern and launch missiles from remote silos in the far reaches of
Siberia and the Australian outback.
I'm not being serious, but I did have up-to-the-microseco nd GPS, vid,
and full network access capabilities. It was top of the line, no less
technologically superior than one would expect for the Specials SoC.
Half-expecting an important call, I turned off the water and moved
with a purpose towards my luggage, where I'd stashed the thing before
we left Europe. When I came out of the bathroom, Treize was standing
beside my suitcase, holding my phone out and away from him as though
it were covered in sewage.
"Who is it?" I asked, knowing he'd looked at the caller ID.
"Here." I took a few steps toward him, hand outstretched, fingers
Instead of doing the polite thing, he slinked past me and walked to
the bathroom. I heard a 'plunk' and the ringing ceased.
"What the hell?!" I yelled when I followed him and saw my phone
sitting at the bottom of the sink. I glared at him when he didn't
answer right away. "No, really! What the hell?"
I think I saw the briefest flash of regret in his eyes, but it was
swiftly overrun by the cold, impenetrable set of self-righteousness.
"We had an agreement. No work."
"It could have been important."
"Nguyen knows you're on leave. He can take up whatever it is with Une."
"That's no reason to trash my phone!"
"Surely there was nothing on it that could not be retrieved from the
"What do you know? Maybe I had personal numbers on there."
It seemed as though the thought had never crossed his mind. "Did you?"
"Maybe I have more of a life than you and the military!"
"Do you?" There it was. Jealousy. A twitch of the brow, a hardening of
the eye. A firm, flat frown. I knew that look. I'd invented it.
"It's none of your business."
"No," he acquiesced dryly, "I suppose it isn't."
"You're just..." I fished my phone out of the basin, scowling as it
dripped. "You don't have to be so dramatic."
He was silent while he watched me remove the battery to let the water
from the innards drain. I used my t-shirt to wipe inside the nooks,
doubtful that anything could be salvaged but unsure of what else to
do. Between us was nothing but potential energy, like those
demonstrations where the man at the top of a ladder is holding a text
book, ready to drop it, but standing fast. A calculation pops up: GPE
= mgh = (8.0 N)(10 m/s^2)(2m) = 160J. Except, in the case of us, it
wasn't a book about to drop but rather a word, a sentence, an apology,
a criticism, all things of indeterminable mass, all values too
abstract to be quantified and calculated.
"Once everything starts, there will be no stopping it," Treize said,
his tone doubtless, his gaze fixed, his stance tall, strong, sure.
"There will be no time for vacation."
(Read: This is the last one we'll ever have together.)
"There will be no time for rest."
(Read: We'll rest when we're dead.)
"There will be no time for us. Not like this, anyway."
(Read: Time will never be on our side.)
(If only I'd understood it then.)
He put one of his hands over mine and lightly took my chin with the
other, turning my attention back to him. "I don't want there to be
distractions. " He took my ruined phone and set it on the counter. "I
only want there to be you."
"Sweet sentiment," I replied quietly, sarcastic without intent, even
as I let him divert attention from his erratic behavior, even as his
words touched me. "But I don't suppose you left your phone."
"I only brought my personal. Une knows the number, but I asked her
only to call in the event of emergency." 'Emergency,' I assumed, was
understated code-speak for Operation Meteor or whatever concoction of
anarchy the colonies were planning to drop on us.
Treize had an excuse to have a second phone, one full of numbers for
his sprawling family and countless civilian acquaintances. He
sometimes took the numbers of people he spoke to only once, "just in
case" they would be of significance later, "just in case" he could use
them in some capacity, call in a favor, offer a favor with the
unspoken agreement of future returns. Ever the diplomat, ever the
businessman, ever the networker. A handful of numbers were for people
he simply found interesting, people he would invite to parties to
shake up the guest list and the guests. As for real friends, however,
Une and I were pretty much it.
"I will have Johann retrieve your data."
"What's the point?" As I turned away from him, out of his grasp, I
heard my unshaven face scrape against his fingers. I grabbed my kit
and went back to what I'd been doing before the phone fiasco started.
"There's nothing on it that I can't get from Mil-DB."
"That was not fair of me to say."
"It was the truth. Nothing fair or unfair about it."
He moved behind me so that he could talk to me in the mirror. "What
would you like to do today?"
I shrugged as I slathered on my shaving cream with short, practiced
motions. "Not fight with you, for one."
"I think that will take an effort from both of us."
"I'll be good, so long as you don't pitch another fit and destroy
something else of mine."
"All right. And I could do without the shit attitude."
I eyed his reflection sharply, critically, and then, for the first
time in what might have been weeks, I smiled a real smile. "Deal."
"Can you read what it says?"
My camera was a single-lens reflex, not digital like the one I'd had
prior, the one I'd grown out of, the one I'd felt lazy using. With an
SLR camera, every photograph must be taken with deliberate precision;
multiple elements must be considered. Every perfect picture was
because I'd made it that way. Every botched picture was because I'd
miscalculated or been too hasty. Any idiot can point and shoot, though
I've never begrudged such an idiot his sleek, slim, digital camera.
Not everybody likes the set-up, the inconvenience, the bulk, but it
was one of the few artsy things I did and one of the few pleasures I
had that reminded me of my mother.
My first camera, a point-and-shoot, had been a Christmas present from
Treize's father, a man named Pyotr who went by Petya among family and
friends and Peter in Federation and Foundation circles. I'd even heard
him called Pete once, at one of the many Khushrenada events, which he
had received with a tight-lipped smile that barely concealed the
indigestion the nickname seemed to cause him. He was never any of
those names to me, always "Your Father" to Treize and Count or Colonel
Khushrenada to third parties. I never called him anything to his face,
which resembled Treize's so closely that one would swear the two men
had been stamped from the same cutter and only colored in differently.
I never saw him enough to become close; he was eternally on duty,
always working in his capacity as the deputy commander of the
Federation Military Intelligence Branch headquartered in Prague. But
even still, our unfamiliarity did not preclude thoughtful gifts that
carried implied comments, the point of the camera being "Get your nose
out of those books and go outside, for Chrissakes. Fondly, Pyotr."
I snapped in my zoom lens, my impromptu spyglass, pointed it in the
direction of the sneaky bastard who was following us, and turned the
focus dial until I could see who he was working for.
"Delta Sierra November." I lowered my camera and turned back to
Treize, who wore the same face his father had when he'd been called
He pulled his phone from his front pocket and pressed the keys with
sharp, irritated stabs. When he put it to his ear and held it in place
with his shoulder, a purplish hickey peeked up over the collar of his
button-down shirt of white linen.
I put the viewfinder up to my eye once more, going tete-a-tete with
the paparazzo from across the Ganges river. He was in his
mid-thirties, white, ignorant enough of custom to wear shorts. We'd
noticed him earlier that day after stopping for aloo tikki at one of
the stands outside the Andhra Ashram, thinking little of it until we'd
caught him sloppily trailing us across the Lakshman Jhula footbridge.
When I'd whipped around to give him a pissy look, he'd turned on his
heels and went back the way he came.
Which had led to the stand-off at hand.
"You need to get a leash on your South Asia bureau, Mr. Carpenter," I
heard Treize say as he walked back and forth along the length of the
makeshift storefront of a nervous-looking man selling flip-flop
I, a man eternally concerned, was unconcerned. Treize had a leash on
Mr. Carpenter's balls, from the sound of it, something that didn't
surprise me. The first time I'd seen a picture of us in a magazine,
some supermarket tabloid short on celebrity stories that week, I'd
flipped out, retreated, paranoid, from all public engagements with
him, something that he'd found obnoxious and unacceptable. That was
when the payouts began. He was on a first-name basis with dozens of
editors, most of whom could easily be persuaded to pursue other
stories with some monetary inspiration. He wasn't about to have the
parameters of his relationships dictated by gossip rags, even if it
meant throwing his personal money at flotsam-pseudo- reporters who had
children to send to Harvard and World Cup box seats to promise their
He was off the phone after a terse comment about keeping deals, and
through my camera I saw our friend take a call on his cell, make an
exasperated face, mouth a few choice words of displeasure -- fuck,
goddamn, maybe shit but perhaps shot -- and flag down a bicycle
rickshaw with a defeated flop of the wrist. I snorted, pleased, and
lowered my camera to rest by the strap against my chest.
"What did you tell him?"
"I reminded him that I am still in close contact with Chancellor Klein
and can at any time decide to inform her that her exchange intern has
been cited for academic misconduct on no fewer than three occasions in
the last two years."
Treize reached into his back pocket, withdrew a ten-credit-note from
his wallet, and gave it to the shoe salesman in exchange for a decent
pair of brown sandals that only cost two. He waved the man off when he
half-heartedly protested the extra and apologized to him in Hindi. We
stepped into the doorway of a restaurant fragrant with basmati and
garam masala, where Treize removed his shoes and socks and replaced
them with his new guilt-purchase.
I'd never seen him in anything of the sort before, but with his
relaxed fashion and well-rested eyes, he pulled them off. They were
practical, and many of the natives wore them, which met well with his
"When in Rome" philosophy.
He smiled and bounced on the balls of his feet. "Now we match."
In a way, it really was.
"Remind me why I am the one who has to stand in front of it."
"You bet on the Superstars."
"We never shook on it."
"I don't even understand the rules of cricket."
"You knew you had a fifty percent chance of losing. You bet anyway."
"I would never have made you do this if you'd lost."
"Bullshit you wouldn't have."
"Does it have to be right now?"
"Oh, right now is perfect, I'd say. Rain so early in the year... What
"Are you implying that I'm a huge dick?"
"I am not. It would not be so bad if it wasn't wet."
"No, it wouldn't. Stop moving."
"You're shifting. I can't focus."
"I think you cannot focus because I'm standing in front of a
four-meter-tall glistening phallus."
"It's a sign of fertility."
"I don't think the Indians have a problem with fertility."
"Maybe because there's one of these on every other block."
"Just get it over with."
"Stop trying to sabotage the shot and I will."
"You are impossible."
For an instant, I had the perfect shot. My quick reflexes captured it.
"Definitely one for posterity."
"Yes, yes, I will save it for my first born. Let's get some food."
"All that cock making you hungry?"
"Actually, I was thinking of chana masala at that restaurant down the
hill with the deck overlooking the river."
"You're no fun sometimes."
"That's not what you told me last night."
I jiggled the bag of day-old bread I had in my hand and looked up and
down the alley. Nothing. I shook it harder until the plasticky
rustling noise echoed off the walls of the buildings on either side of
Treize was leaning against the cement wall behind me, smoking a Gold
Flake ("For the Gracious People"). The day after we'd arrived, he'd
discovered that the convenience store whose alley we were standing in
sold looseys, a fact obtained after he impressed Vikram the owner with
his Hindi accent, courtesy, and the slang word "sutta." He and the man
had become fast acquaintances, finding mutual interest in the budding
military ambitions of Vikram's oldest son, Akrit. Vikram didn't know
who Treize was, only that he "knew" people and was a veritable
encyclopedia of information on the subject. Treize had told him that
the Specials were the only way to go, but that Akrit should hold off
on enlisting until he took an extra year of science and math in
preparation. Based on Treize's plans, there wouldn't even be a
Specials Corps in a year. I knew that as well as he did.
For all the filthy, choking stench of it, Treize looked like a
picture-perfect, cool, attractive, corporately- planted advertisement
for the smooth, refreshing flavor of premium Andhra Pradesh tobacco. I
choose "picture-perfect, " though this in no way reflects the level of
neatness with which he was carrying himself. His pants were wrinkled.
And his shirt. His hair was on the messy side. His cuffs were rolled
to mid-forearm. All of these elements converged under the banner of
careless chic, unintentional, unconcerned. It had only been a little
over a week-and-a-half, and he already looked like a seasoned ex-pat
or one of those public broadcasting journalists on the Culture and
He routinely bitched out soldiers for smoking, rightly stating that it
made them look unprofessional, but he always had one during every
vacation. Just one. Always. He'd buy a pack and throw away nineteen
every time. The brass lighter he had to use generally saw more action
burning threads off of assault uniforms and singing frayed nylon on
combat gear than lighting up cigarettes. Even he admitted that the
routine was repulsive, but it was something he relished even though it
was the brand of defiance typically subscribed to only by adolescent
boys who wanted to piss off their fathers.
I whistled softly and shook the bag.
"She might not come today."
"She'll be here."
"You may attract other attention."
"They're hungry, too."
"You looked like the Pied Piper yesterday." He half-closed his eyes as
he took one last, long drag and then scraped the cherry along the
ground to put it out. The butt went into the garbage can conveniently
situated to his left.
I whistled louder.
"How many were trailing you?"
"At least seven."
"And one cow."
There were animals everywhere in Rishikesh. Emaciated cows walked down
the streets, their hips and ribs jutting sharply under their
tightly-stretched skins. Some pulled carts, some carried merchandise,
many simply wandered looking for rubbish and handouts.
I shook the bag again.
For every cow there were a dozen dogs that looked equally as wretched.
They were friendly because sometimes tourists were friendly back and
would keep them alive long enough to proliferate to numbers even more
depressing with every year. Some got hit by cars or motor rickshaws,
some died from disease, many died from starvation.
I heard a yelp and a quick skitter of claws on pavement.
"I told you."
I smiled and pulled out a piece of bread as I crouched to greet the
small, brown puppy that had stopped at my feet, her rump and tail
wagging furiously, her front paws prancing in place. She devoured the
slice with remarkable speed, her puppy lips smacking as she chomped,
"She has fleas, no doubt."
"Fleas jump high."
"I'm not terribly worried about it, Treize."
She licked my hand when I tried to pet her head, all smacking, wet
mouth and tongue. I wanted to name her. I had a dog once in Sanc, a
German Shepherd named Ollie. He bit me once and I never saw him again.
"You can't take her. I know what you are thinking."
And I was thinking it. I didn't want to leave her to become a starving
teenage mother with a miserable life of three-to-five years, if that.
She was sweet. She liked me. Treize didn't burst my bubble by
mentioning that it was probably only because I fed her that she showed
such great affection.
There was no process for it, no quarantine, no vaccination and
examination series. It was simply illegal. And, really, I had no
business owning an animal with the schedule I kept, with the quarters
I had. I fed her one more piece and pet her as she gobbled it down.
She not only had fleas, she was riddled with them. I could feel their
eggs and waste all along her neck.
"I saw a veterinary clinic near the hospital. We can, at the very
least, have her spayed and deloused."
I looked up at him and saw on his face the sort of universal fondness
for baby animals that even the most powerful of men couldn't claim
"Got a case of puppy love?" I asked with a smirk as cheesy as my question.
He pushed himself away from the wall and put both hands in his pockets
as he walked towards the mouth of the alley, sandals slapping against
his heels with every step. "I'll ask Vikram for a box."
It started with a movie, a love story that was magnitudes more
complicated than it needed to be, viewed after a long day of walking
around the city, photographing, eating, doing nothing in particular
but enjoying each other's company, same as we'd done every single day
since we'd arrived. Treize and I had stretched out on the bed next to
each other and turned on the television with the slow, skeptical
curiosity of two people unfamiliar with indulging in something so
blatantly passive. Sitting there with him, leaning against a
pillow-fortified headboard, brought a giddy twist of a smile to my
mouth, one that I dared not let get too wide lest the rightness of the
moment prove to be some strange, wonderful dream and nothing more. I
threw my leg over his. He put his hand on my thigh. We snacked on
fritters from a grease-stained paper bag.
We riffed the movie, creatively sorting out the convolutions, and at
some point Treize said something so unspeakably raunchy - I can't
remember exactly what it was, but it did contain the adjective
"crusty" - that I poked him hard in the side with my finger. He
squirmed and laughed, one of the only times I'd known him serene
enough to react like that, and I pressed my unusual advantage with a
full-on attack that concluded when I slid my hand down his pants and
let him know that I was interested in more than his dirty jokes,
which, of course, led to my moaning into the mattress as he fucked me
hard, the catchy tune of a Bollywood dance number playing loudly in
the background and doing a respectable job of covering up the noise we
It was good. I felt good. Great. Fantastic. Calm. From India with our
incommunicado status, our lives in the military seemed a wispy
phantasm, a fading memory, and I couldn't even feign distress over my
lack of interest in ever going back again.
The mattress sagged and rose as Treize got up out of bed. I watched
him as he went to the balcony, deftly side-stepping our discarded
clothing, the muscles of his naked back and shoulders unstrung and
fluid as he walked. He snaked an arm around the drawn curtain to slide
the door open, letting in fresh air. The room smelled like sex and
sweat, and as I lay on my stomach, completely satisfied, chin resting
on my crossed arms, I wondered lazily if maybe I shouldn't try to wipe
up the stain I'd made on the sheet.
He walked to a small table next to the entertainment center and poured
two glasses of purified water from a four-liter plastic jug. There
really wasn't a drop of alcohol to be had in the whole city, and the
absence of it during extended periods with Treize was unfamiliar but
not at all unpleasant. It was refreshing not to wake up with a
hang-over. It was enjoyable to converse with my friend without snide,
nasty, insincere jibes sneaking in from behind a wall of intoxication.
Drinking was the silent blight of the military, one of the few ways
soldiers could legally decompress from the strains of the job. Treize
and I weren't too good for it.
I sat up on my elbows and took the proffered drink, my fingertips
still trembling. Treize lay on his stomach next to me and drained his
entire glass, his Adam's apple sliding under his skin with every
swallow. When he finished, he made the small "ah" sound that people
make after a refreshing drink and pushed his damp hair out of his face
with his wrist.
"Are you understanding any of this?" he asked, gesturing at the TV
with his empty glass before throwing his arm over the edge of the bed
and letting the cup drop to the rug with a dull thud.
The movie was still playing after an epic two and a half hours, and
resolution still seemed to have evaded the haplessly clumsy, tactless
protagonist who was, at that moment, on his knees begging his suave
match-maker friend to turn him into a
super-confident- ladies'-man- sex-god or something of that nature.
"Strangely, no less than before," I replied, reaching for the corner
of the mattress to grab the remote that had been shoved to the side at
some point during our tussle. I flicked through the channels with
every intent to hurriedly skip over every news station, the terrible
bearers of the world outside of our isolated mountain hideaway.
British Broadcasting, American Broadcasting, Canadian Broadcasting,
Chinese Broadcasting, Brazilian Broadcasting... It seemed like there
were hundreds, and I bypassed the grim, attractive faces of at least
eight pairs of anchors before the flash of the unmistakable captioned
words "New Port City" stopped me. It wasn't a conscientious decision
but rather something automatic, a paralysis that had lashed out like a
bolt from some long-dormant charge. No longer opposable, my thumb
hovered over the Channel Up button, frozen and useless.
Demonstrations. Throngs of people in the streets throwing Molotov
cocktails and rocks. Local police and Federation "peace-keeping"
soldiers in riot gear lobbing rubber bullets and canisters of tear gas
in return. I choked back a comment about them at least using rubber,
realizing that it made no difference, that the occupation was no less
civil for it, the Federation presence no less disgusting to me. The
protest was being led by the university students. Their faces were
angry, smudged with dirt and blood, some half-covered with bandanas,
some with strips of toothpaste under their eyes and noses. They'd done
this before. They were organized, prepared, resolved. The mayor called
for order, told them to think of my father, that he wouldn't have
wanted them to use violence. He implored them, told them they were
behaving shamefully. Stop. We are pacifists. Stop, and nobody will get
"Idiot," I whispered under my breath, my fingers tightening around my glass.
"Invoking his name is insulting, cheap, and uninformed. There's
nothing shameful about what they're doing."
"They are fighting." Careful words. Delicate. Obvious. Non-obtrusive.
I rarely talked about Sanc or my family, though Treize was typically
bent on gently keeping me prompted on subject whenever it consciously
or accidentally came up. Most of the time I grumbled the topic away or
mutely ignored what was an obvious attempt to get to know me better,
but it was one of those rare nights when I actually felt like talking
"My father fought for Sanc every single day. Just because he didn't
have a nuclear arsenal doesn't mean that he would have put up with
Federation occupation. He would have been right out there with him."
I'd once seen an archive photo of him, no older than I was at that
time, chained to a minister's car after the man had cast the deciding,
dissenting vote on legislature that would have mandated five weeks of
vacation for every full-time employee in the country. My father had
been young, handsome, his hair short, his clothes in the hippest
youthful style of the time. He'd been cut away by the police and
arrested, along with several other students. It'd caused an uproar and
made the prince more of a national celebrity than he'd already been,
the native son, the pride and future of Sanc. Predictably, my young
father won his little war by a landslide when the bill's even more
liberal incarnation, six full-paid weeks, came to the parliament the
Treize turned on his side and regarded me with an interest that seemed
almost innocent in its purity, free of cunning and ulterior motive.
"Do you think he would have used similar methods?"
I could feel my eyes narrow. "He wasn't Ghandi." I was tensing all
over again as I tried to hold at bay an onslaught of resentment,
helplessness, regret, and countless other subversive, unwanted
emotions. "The mayor lives in Colonel Ballesteros' pocket." I may have
hated politics, but I knew Sancian politics better than anyone. I knew
everything that went on there. Not because I felt I had to, but
because I wanted to. Because I love Sanc. Because I always have.
Treize's hand, comforting in that it connected me to something more
tangible than my feelings, ran over the dips and ridges of my back.
"You want to go back, don't you?"
"To this?" Hell yes. I would have gladly been in such a demonstration.
Perhaps in another life, one where I'd never been taken out of Sanc
after the invasion, a fantasy I'd had about growing up hidden in the
countryside to later return to New Port as a man, as a leader, a
fighter of a different ilk, not a prince swathed in luxury but an
angry student on the street... I could have settled for that. That could
have been me. Even growing up in Russia with Treize, it still could
have been me. The fact that it wasn't was nobody's fault but my own.
"You've never considered Russia home."
I absently reached over to put my still-full glass on the nightstand.
"That's not true," I said, even though it was.
"Will you go back?"
"I want to." It was a reluctant admission, one heavy with concern
about implications. What it meant for me. What it meant for Us. What
it meant for my past and my future.
"I would go with you." He tucked my hair behind my ear. "If you wanted
that," he added.
Blindsided by shock and something akin to joy, it's here that I forgot
Treize Khushrenada Lesson 101, the most elementary tenant that begs
scrutiny of even a word so innocuous-seeming as "would." I "would" go
with you. Taken in a certain context, this tense that implies a
condition to be unmet, as in "I 'would' go with you if I didn't plan
on ending the war by destroying myself." Of course, it could just as
easily have been polite phrasing, an attempt to sound unassuming, but
in retrospect, it seemed an ominous and conscious choice.
"I couldn't ask you to do that." I wasn't being coy. I knew how much
Treize loved Russia, the peace he felt when he was there, the only
place he felt truly at peace, really. Perhaps that's something only
our homelands can give us, why I felt like a life-long guest in the
East, why every cell of my body ached for Sanc whenever I let it and
sometimes when I didn't want it to.
Treize's proposal was nothing less than the summary of my most private
and guiltily-tended hopes. It was another fantasy of mine -- I had so
many ideas and dreams of what I wanted my life to be. It was a
domestic fantasy of a placid life with a garden and dozens and dozens
beautiful Sancian summers together, until we were so old that we could
only laugh and wonder how we ever had the energy for all of the drama
and bickering and passion.
"Would you want me to?"
I've turned this question over and over in my mind -- not the question
itself, but the matter of whether or not I'd heard insecurity in his
voice when he'd asked it. Had it been there, or did I insert it at
some later point because I wanted it to be? That I can't remember his
exact tone is distressing, and it feels like a tiny, invaluable
treasure has slipped through my fingers, something I can never
reclaim, something I have to fabricate because I can't handle the
uncertainty borne of my fading memory.
"I mean, of course I would, but - "
He leaned in and almost touched his lips to my sweaty temple.
"Wherever you are, that is where I most want to be."
I swallowed hard, but even so my words still came out thick. "You would?"
I rolled over onto my back and scrubbed my face with my hands,
besieged by something I didn't have a name for. "I'm sorry."
It was scraping at the wall of my chest, something blunt and tightly
coiled. It jabbed vaguely, sloppily when I tried to pinpoint it. I
pushed the heels of my palms into my eye sockets as though it would
stop the pressure building there.
"I'm not sure. Everything."
He draped his arm across my chest and rested his chin in the hollow of
my collar. "Do you remember what you told me that day on the edge of
Did I remember it? It was one of the clearest, cleanest, most
treasured memories I had. It was what I saw when I lost control of a
prototype and didn't have the clearance to bail out. It was a band of
colors so vibrant that I lost my breath and words when I attempted to
describe it. It was a portrait of my childhood, of my country, of my
best friend, of me, genuinely happy.
"'This is better than anything.'"
"You have nothing to apologize for."
The sound of the TV in the background was garbled, wordless, like
mumbling in a pool. If I'd been listening, I might have heard the
human interest sound bite about Vice Foreign Minister Darlian bringing
his fourteen-year- old daughter with him on his upcoming tour of the
colonies. I felt tired, faded, disappointed, upset, and I wasn't sure
Treize lifted his head and one-by-one coaxed my hands away from my
face. I think he was just as surprised as I was at what lay
I was fifteen when I had my first real scare as a pilot. The impact
had hurt, the mystery of the malfunction had chafed, but it was the
claustrophobic crush that they'd spent more than four hours extracting
me from that had driven me to tears. Panic. Something like a flashback
- or a flashforward, if anybody believes that sort of crap. Nobody had
seen me cry then, but I'd felt it on my cheeks.
The moment I registered the blurriness of Treize's face, I brushed my
knuckles over my eyes, wiping away something I never wanted him to
"Ah, Milliardo... " He looked very sad when he kissed my brow.
It was the same plane. The tail number, a mash of five letters
beginning with 'D' and ending with 'Y', was the same. We took the same
seats, exchanged nods with the same crewmen, and poured drinks from
the same mini bar. The whine of the engines was the same, something as
individual as a fingerprint, something that only an experienced pilot
can detect. I think even my clothes were the same, but not
Gone, however, was the thrill, the excitement, the promise, the
nervous flutter in my stomach, replaced by a flat line of dread. I'd
let myself forget too much, too willingly let the weight of my
responsibilities drown in a sink full of shaving water. Zechs Merquise
didn't seem at all important anymore, to the world or to me, and it
had only taken two weeks in unfamiliar surroundings playing pretend to
make me wish I'd never taken him up in the first place. I stared out
the window, at the New Port Bay-blue of the sky. We were chasing the
sun, and we would be tired when we reported for duty the next day.
Treize was on the phone with Une, informing her of our return, taking
in status reports with smooth nods and chicken-scratch shorthand
scrawled with a stylus on the touch screen of his laptop. Treize wrote
with the can't-be-bothered- with-neatness strokes of a mathematician
bursting at the seams with fast-cropping, revolutionary ideas, which
contrasted startlingly with the practiced, fluid flourish of his
signature, one everybody recognized but nobody could quite reproduce.
He showed no signs of remorse over the end of our vacation, though he
must have felt it. He must have. But OZ Commander Treize Khushrenada
could not lament his position openly, not even to his best friend, not
anymore. He'd grown past that, hardened himself to the point of
disallowing all entry into the cold vault that contained his doubt,
his exhaustion, his fear, and selfish, secret desire for
He ended the conversation with a small, neutral smile that carried in
his voice and a pre-packaged phrase about being glad to return to
work. His phone, the same as mine except with a more chipper ring, was
dropped into a small hole in the table that was supposed to be for
"I have a ticket to 'Carmen' on the seventh. Two tickets, actually."
"Can't. Orbital patrol rotation with Third Group."
"Who is going with you?"
"Otto, Pak, Graham, and Gruber, I think."
"Perhaps you will see some action."
He twisted back and forth in his chair, which had a lot of give to it
and rotated 360 degrees like 10,000 credit-per-day reclining barstool.
"Do you have to do that?"
"No." He stopped. "The Taurus units are on schedule for Corps-wide
I remained silent.
"Noin's seniors have already begun training on them."
"Just knock it off, will you?"
He rocked his seat back and knitted his fingers together over the
plank-flatness of his stomach."Vacations cannot last forever, Zechs."
"You've bounced back easily enough."
He seemed to be bouncing, rocking his chair back and letting it revert
to its original position over and over and over, albeit slowly,
"Because I have to. We both have to. We cannot afford not to."
"It was a bad idea."
The rocking stopped for the single intake of a breath before resuming.
"I'm so sick of this shit, and it hasn't even begun yet."
"Remember why you joined."
"I joined because of you. To be with you."
He straightened and sat properly as though finding his own behavior
quite suddenly juvenile. "And for your revenge."
"Fuck it. There's no place for it."
"There will be." His tone was dark. Serious. There was something in it
that was enticing, perhaps even sexy. "Soon. You can put a bullet in
Onegell's head personally, if you'd like."
There was a time when I would have committed any sin for the
opportunity to murder the man who had led the attack on Sanc. But on
that particular day the thought seemed cruel, petty, over-dramatically
bloodthirsty, and pointless. I'd been away and out of uniform for too
long. I no longer saw red. I saw azure shores. I saw the life we could
have had if we'd only lived it differently.
I continued to stare out the window, biting my thumbnail not out of
habit but to distract myself from my thoughts, from the way Treize was
looking at me, from the hurt. The impossibility of being anything
different from what we were was painful. There was nothing feasible
about what I wanted for us. Not at that time. Not ever.
"I want to go back to India with you."
"That would be wonderful."
"Tell me we'll go back."
His eyes were clear, bright, and tranquil. There was no deception
there, no intent, no doubt. "As many times as you want."
Maybe he was thinking of his own fantasy, the only place where our
lives intersected in a way that wasn't inherently doomed, the only
place we could ever have a happy ending.
"I forgot to tell you - Vikram's younger son had his tenth birthday
"I heard he got a puppy."
I turned my head, and for approximately 2,000 revolutions of the twin
wing-mounted jet engines, I saw the man I'd spent the past two weeks
with, the man who, for all his complications, mysteries, and
difficulties, had always been my dearest friend. He loved me. I knew
it. He almost never told me in so many words, but he rarely let me
Why wasn't I satisfied? I'd worked hard to get the device online. It
was proof, in some way, that I was still useful, that I could do
something for a living besides working in the murder industry.
Certainly it wasn't the most virtuous of undertakings, considering the
immense ethical impropriety, but it really was a technological
accomplishment. As far as I knew, the military had never developed a
unit quite so elegant, compact, and powerful.
So why wasn't I satisfied?
/ "Fire, this is Water. Radio check, over."/
Code names? Interesting, if only because it wasn't another telephone
conversation between quarreling lovers or businessmen. In the silence
that filled the room as we waited for Fire, I wondered who this Water
woman was. Perhaps she was a spy. Perhaps she was an agent of the
federal government. Perhaps she was calling out to her paramour.
Perhaps my imagination was lacking.
The military had been fond of code names, call signs, mascots, and
other intra-unit colloquialisms that would baffle anybody not
affiliated. Some units considered it an goal to have the most abstract
or outrageous code names permissible. One commander I served under
chose his call signs based on all the women he'd slept with, which
allowed him to go by names like "Nancy" and "Carmelita," something
that was not only tacky and completely lacking in humor but, frankly,
/ "Water, this is Fire. Radio check confirmed, over."/
I felt myself leaning forward, hunching again but not caring. That was
Noin, no doubt in my mind. I knew her voice, had known it since she
was thirteen, had heard it change little by little over the years.
Lucrezia Noin's voice was firm even before she commanded anybody in
uniform. The year we met, it was the self-assured, measured voice of
the older sister who kept her brothers Marco and Gianni in line. It
faltered one year, her first year as junior instructor, when she found
out that they called her a dyke behind her back, because why else
would she be in the military. They didn't know that it was because she
wanted to fly in space, because she used to sit on a grassy hill on so
many humid-hot summer nights and imagine being in one of the shuttles
that rocketed up the Valentino Moretti Space Port launch spire number
three, the one closest to the south end of the field, the one she rode
her father's old motorcycle to to watch the 14th shift cargo launches
- cargo because they were huge ships, and the rumble of their
afterburners made her insides shiver with excitement.. .
Noin's voice made sense to me, and in the context of the transmission
I was illegally monitoring, it proved one of my speculations about the
nature of the code names. The moment I'd read about the Preventers and
confirmed that she'd survived the war, I was certain that she'd be a
part of the new government's defense force. She'd put so much of
herself into what had happened, whatever adjectives people ascribed to
what we did, that there was no way she would simply leave it to the
ESUN to attend to the fragile state of the union. Ex-soldiers like
Noin were the foundation of the agency, which was good and bad, though
more good than bad. Having a surplus of skilled pilots on hand has
never been any paramilitary' s chief complaint.
/ "How's it looking on your end?"/
I missed her. She was one of the two people in the world who ever
really liked me and the only one of those two who was still alive.
People never particularly liked me. Ever. Not as a child, not as a
teenager, not as an adult. Tolerated me, loved me, respected me, yes,
yes, yes, but like? Like is different. I've never had an abundance of
like in my life. Noin and I had grown close again around the time I
defected, especially when I was chasing Heero Yuy around and
disobeying orders by reconstructing 01 in order to lure him to me.
Later, she'd symbolically donned my family's coat of arms to watch
over Relena and Sanc while I was gallivanting around space pretending
to be a diplomat and, when that failed, hack-and-slashing as many
mobile dolls as I could get my hands on like a blind, directionless,
angry child smashing his toys in a rage, like those boys who came to
my room when I was a child and crashed my cars together because that
seemed to them to be the point of their existence. Of course I'd
arrived in Sanc too late to do anything about the Romefeller invasion...
/ "I've got nothing. My sensors are cold."/
And then, God, I was so terrible to her. I can still hear the horror
in her reaction after I explained with utmost seriousness that I
believed the solution to war was to destroy Earth. Never before had
she been a truer friend than when she tried to hold me back, her
nature so immutably good, and never had I been crueler to her than
when I shoved her away and left her to the mobile dolls. I killed over
400 soldiers on Barge that day, people who had at one time been my
comrades, commanders, and subordinates. People who'd entrusted me with
Sometimes I don't even remember why.
/ "How could we lose that much metal? Where the hell could they
possibly be hiding it?"/
I wondered if she was talking about Gundanium. I couldn't think of
another metal that would cause such distress.
Unless, of course, she was referring to the fabled Thirteenth
Constellation. It had been in the barest stages of production when I
left OZ, more parts rumor than actuality, like the Tallgeese II and
III. But in the chaos of the various schisms and reformations of the
world's defense forces, detailed plans could easily have been leaked
in a moment of spite by a disgruntled R&D staffer. Probably Dr.
Loubser. I knew they'd swept the Earth and colonies for Gundanium back
in February, but large amounts of neo-titanium, with its multiple
industrial uses, could easily have gone unrecorded. The Preventers
must have had some other reason to suspect that trouble was on the
/ "We just don't have enough people up here. Simple as that."/ The
unidentified woman sighed as though she'd had quite enough of that
/ "I can understand that people would prefer that the defense budget
be smaller than the education budget, but I think even the Department
of Forestry gets a bigger cut than we do. Let's hope she gets that
bill through the legislature, or it'll just be you and me out here
/ "You'd better watch your tone, young lady. We can't have any
rabblerousing in the ranks now, can we?"/
Noin laughed wryly. / "If this blows up in our faces, you know they're
going to blame it on us."/
/ "If this turns into what we think it might, we'll have much more
than flack from the government to contend with."/
Damn right. If they didn't even have enough resources to run routine
patrols, there was no way they could fend off a large or even
mid-scale insurgency. They'd already decommissioned the overwhelming
majority of operational mobile suits in the spirit of peace -- a stupid
move, were anybody to ask my opinion on it. The Gundam pilots didn't
seem to be anywhere, except for the celebrated heir to the Winner
Corporation, who seemed too busy turning phrases and credits to give
the Preventers the time of day. He'd given several public
announcements on the state of the company during 196, and, after
watching a few, I'd decided that he reminded me of Treize. Still does.
/ "I really hope that we're wrong."/
As did I, but years of training and field experience had given Noin a
keen gut. She was typically not one to exaggerate or extrapolate to
illogical conclusions. If she ventured the implication that a colonial
force was amassing, she did so only after eliminating every other
I wanted to be there badly, so badly that I felt urgently compelled to
leave for Brussels that night. Or was it morning?
But what would I say when I got there? Would I simply walk into
Director Une's office and ask for a job? I didn't think there was any
way I could start working again without the public clamoring for
something from me -- an arrest, a summons, something. Anything. Perhaps
a lock of hair and an apology. I was, after all, trying to be
I sighed and hated what I had to do next. I couldn't keep the receiver
online, no matter how curious I was. I was done with trying to justify
immoral behavior, something that had come to me naturally after years
of studying with the master. Aside from his relationship with me, that
had always been Treize's greatest flaw.
Shortly after the sun came up, Vadimas met me in the cellar and I
showed him that his invention worked beautifully. He smiled and
laughed and said "I told you so." He then validated my do-gooder
attitude by deleting the program from the computer's memory. Without
the program, the device was a glorified doorstop. Without the program,
the only thing left behind was the work I'd done.
"That's appropriate, " he told me as he closed down the CAD program I'd
been referencing. "Out with the old and in with the new."
"Sometimes the new isn't better."
"Bah! You need an attitude adjustment, young man. The new is all this
world has got! And, like it or not, that includes you."
"You're oversimplifying. "
"What's so complicated about it?" he asked, resting his hands on his
hips like a weary mother. "You going to stay here forever? I like you,
but I don't think you're happy here."
Happy? Since when did I deserve that?
"No, I won't. I was thinking that I might..." I paused, not sure if I
believed what I was saying, "...go to Brussels."
Vadimas beamed at me, his tea-stained teeth a brownish, uneven line.
"Good! They could use some talent there. Lord knows what trouble's
brewing on the lunatic fringe. And anyway, somebody's got to watch
over that sister of yours. She's a firecracker! "
I wanted to tell him that there were entire security detachments
dedicated to keeping Relena from the creeps and scoundrels of the
universe, but his words kindled something old and familiar in me. It
was like hearing my father's plea when I was four, essentially asking
me to not hate the new baby, please, but I knew that she no longer
needed me if she ever did at all. I doubted she would have much use
for a deadbeat big brother, or worse, a deadbeat big brother in prison
for war crimes.
Going back was a high-stakes wager, but that's the only way I tend to
gamble. Either the ESUN would grant me leave under the blanket pardon
they'd issued to everybody who was anybody, or they'd lynch me. I gave
myself 3:1 odds on the latter.
"She's grown up," I said, recalling the latest picture I'd seen of
her. In it, she was wearing a suit. Christ, how old was she? Sixteen?
Not even I wore a suit, and I'd turned twenty somewhere between
swallowing fistfuls of pills and fantasizing about my dead boyfriend.
What would I say to her? Wouldn't "sorry" be tantamount to insult? Who
the hell says "sorry" for trying to destroy Earth? It wasn't as though
I'd accidentally elbowed her in the breast (which I've done more often
than I'd prefer to recall, something I'm doomed to repeat because of
her height relative to mine and her penchant for standing too close).
I'd purposefully fired Libra's cannon with her right in the
crosshairs, trusting only the reflexes of our old butler to save her
from vaporizing into my deepest regret. I'd also pissed on everything
she held dear and then flaunted it in her face like a malicious prick.
Remembering that...what the hell had I been thinking?
Many things, most barely rational, and I had to accept that. It was
the only way I could hope to move on.
"Brussels, eh? Big, big city. Center of the world now. When will you go?"
I gave him a one-shouldered shrug. "Next month, probably."
I wasn't brave enough to go to Brussels just then. I promised myself
one last month in Picardy, and then, just in time for the anniversary
of Treize's death, a return.
[part 7] [part 9] [back to Singles a-k]