Author: Khalani
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 write.

Hope you enjoy.

Limbo 8: The Entity is Bold and Brash

"Fuck!"

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 un-shouldered.

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 specs.

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...

xxxxx

/ 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 universe.

"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 "Izvinite pozhaluista..."

"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 textbook Standard.

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."

"Says you."

"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 very few.

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 fantastically exciting.

"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?"

"Not exactly..."

"You have never been afraid of my mouth before." I felt his foot rubbing against my calf.

"Treize..."

He smiled. "It was a good choice."

xoxox

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.

"Problem?"

My laughter was incredulous and not the least bit amused. "There's, um, no shower."

"Oh?"

"No bath."

"Really."

"There's a drain, and there's a bench."

"Hm."

"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."

"We're tourists!"

"Yoga tourists. "

"I don't care what kind of tourists they are! They have showers there, don't they?"

"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 blue-ball me."

"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 remember it...

xoxox

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 reason.

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.

"Nguyen."

"Here." I took a few steps toward him, hand outstretched, fingers wagging insistently.

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 database."

"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."

xoxox

"Can you read what it says?"

"Not yet."

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 Pete.

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 sandals.

"Yes, now."

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 buddies.

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."

"Ah."

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.

"Well?"

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."

"Very cute."

In a way, it really was.

xoxox

"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."

"Hold still."

"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 good fortune."

"Are you implying that I'm a huge dick?"

"You're blushing."

"I am not. It would not be so bad if it wasn't wet."

"No, it wouldn't. Stop moving."

"I'm not."

"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."

"...Oh. Right."

oxoxo

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 us.

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 Society beat.

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, ravenous.

"She has fleas, no doubt."

"Probably."

"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.

"I know."

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 immunity to.

"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."

xoxox

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 were making.

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 hurt.

"Idiot," I whispered under my breath, my fingers tightening around my glass.

"What's that?"

"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 about it.

"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 next year.

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?"

"Yes."

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."

"For what?"

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 that cliff?"

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 why.

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 underneath. "Milliardo?"

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 see.

"Ah, Milliardo... " He looked very sad when he kissed my brow.

I nodded.

xoxox

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 intentionally.

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 career-abandonment.

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 cups.

"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."

"Perhaps."

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 implementation. "

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, contemplatively.

"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. "Was it?"

"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 yesterday."

"Hm."

"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 forget it.

"Thank you."

xxxxx

1699.0004

Silence.

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?

Silence.

And then...

/ "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, gross.

/ "Water, this is Fire. Radio check confirmed, over."/

Noin?

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 their lives.

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 horizon.

/ "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 fact.

/ "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 shaking sticks."/

/ "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 rational explanation.

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 optimistic.

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]