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. Depictions of violence in this chapter. Little kid-ness. 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 don't hate too much on my verb tenses, if you find mistakes. I've had a huge problem with them in this chapter. I don't know why. Nothing looks right to me.

Please see Limbo 1 for very important notes!

This chapter is more or less an interlude. With cake. There's some flashback-within- flashback action, so the guide's as follows:

xxxx: separates main story from flashbacks
xoxo: separates flashback segments

Special thanks to Karina and TB for the reviews! I am so deeply appreciative. I wish I knew more words for being thankful, because I sound like a broken record, but that's how I feel - thankful. Thank you.

Hope you enjoy.

Limbo 9: Cause and Effect

I bought a suit. Should I have been especially proud of this? Probably not. Most adult men have at least one suit, something they wear to weddings and funerals and retirement parties, et cetera, ad nauseum, normal things that one does in life. The suit I ordered in France was grey. Black seemed too pallbearer, brown too muddy, and blue too reminiscent or tacky, depending on the shade. White was simply inappropriate, and red was so passé, so I settled with grey.

"My neighbor's wife is a seamstress. I'll have her over and she can fix you up," Vadimas told me when he saw the look on my face as I realized that the pants and coat were unhemmed. Of course they weren't hemmed. I should have know as much, having been fitted countless times for suits both in Sanc and Russia, but in France many practicalities from earlier life had escaped me.

"You think she won't have a problem hemming my pants?"

"Why would she?"

I looked at him and blinked a couple of times.

"Oh! Oh, she won't know you from Adam." He pointed one gnarled finger at his own head.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"They say it's Alzheimer's, but she doesn't respond to the treatment. I think she's faking it."

Aggravated but not surprised by my own lack of foresight in the matter, I crammed the suit back into the box, heedless of the wrinkles I was risking. "Why would she do that?"

"Why? To fool everybody else, that's why. We oldsters deserve to have a little bit of fun, don't we?"

I remembered certain old ladies who'd had more than their share of fun fooling people, disseminating hellishly devious and patently untrue gossip just for the sake of entertainment. Although, not all of it was untrue. They'd caught onto Treize and me before anybody else, and I'm inclined to think it was because they were bored, overly-imaginative, and liked the look of us together...

"What are you thinking about?" Vadimas asked.

"What? What do you mean?" I shot back. "I'm not thinking about anything."

"You're smiling!" He tilted his head to the side inquisitively. "What's going through that head of yours?"

Smiling? I'd been thinking of Treize. I wondered when those two things had begun coinciding.

I tossed the box onto Vadimas' kitchen table and muttered "Nothing" as I wandered to his living room to wait for the neighbor's wife, the first person besides Vadimas who I would see in ten months.

I'd been thinking about the salty old Lady Westwick catching Treize and me in a compromising position after a clipped argument about God knows what in the library of the Romefeller headquarters building during one tear-wringingly boring party or another. Who could possibly remember the specifics of all the arguments we had, the ridiculous, inconsequential, ludicrous disagreements? I'd turned and was ready to walk away from it, figuring that he wouldn't pursue or yell in my wake, but he did both in reverse order, stormed behind me, grabbed my wrist and spat some more jibes in my face. I shut him up by kissing him, which outraged him even further until I kissed him again and pushed him back into one of the library's alcoves, right up against the shelves, right next to a marble bust of The Bard, and we made out in an angry, pent-up sort of way until the slow clacking of heels on marble made us pull back and strain to halt the heaving of our intermingling breaths. Treize, looking over my shoulder, said he saw nobody and heard the clicks receding. And as we waited for our bodies to return to a state that wouldn't scandalize everybody who dared lower their eyes, we determined that we hadn't been discovered --

-- until we walked out, back to the party, and passed the desiccated husk of the ancient Widow Westwick sitting on a stuffed settee in the hall, chuckling, no, cackling at us and patting her paper-skin, wrinkled hand on her bony knee. Nothing came of it except a little fun for her and the other harmless biddies she shared juicy stories with. They weren't cruel, and their years had made them unflappable. In many ways, they were more liberal than their grandchildren, probably because they considered themselves too old to waste time moralizing.

Treize and I used to joke about aging. It was such an absurd notion to us, eternally young and brimming with vitality - almost as absurd as having any real life together beyond the hastily basted patchwork called Us. But we laughed it up, pretended we'd be lucky (or, we debated, unlucky) enough to see each other grow old. We'd always shared a similar sense of humor, one marked by a fondness of satire but one not unmoved displays of immaturity and, occasionally, slapstick. We nearly had twin aneurisms trying to hold back our laughter once after watching Engineer Tsubarov take a tumble on a patch of black ice, which was funny only because of the curious rush of expletives that accompanied his Homeric struggle to regain sure footing.

Never before had we heard the phrase "Bastard shit-fucking ice, God damn it!" Treize and I devoted upwards of a (drunken) hour of our lives to deciding if it was 'Bastard, shit, fucking ice' or 'Bastard shit-fucking ice,' choosing the latter after careful (drunken) consideration. I would later revive this obscenity with impressive accuracy when I wiped out on a slick winter walkway that had yet to be salted. Fortunately, we were at home, and the only other person who heard it besides Treize was the old-as-dirt, should-be-retired housekeeper who was weakly shaking a rug out of an open window. Her mole-covered jowls shook when she yelled to me that I ought to be more careful and that my gutter mouth made my face look ugly.

Despite their usual lack of deployment from his lips, Treize knew a children's treasury of ways to describe in Russian how he would fuck your mother, which I'm fairly certain is the most degrading insult in the culture. He'd fuck your mother while whistling, he'd fuck her on a steamboat, and he'd fuck her while whistling, on a steamboat, through the Seven Gates of Hell. It all sounded as beautiful as poetry to me, and sometimes Treize would humor me by rattling off an epic string of embarrassingly crude insults with a sultriness that would make my eyes glaze over. When I speak it, of course, I sound like an fat-tongued idiot, but I always like to listen. Sometimes I'll log on to one of the Russian news stations and leave it playing in the background while I work, which seems a bit infantile when I think of it, like some sort of gently whooshing uterine metronome that I need to stay content.

Treize wasn't often propelled to real anger, tending towards irritation and unkindness. He was more often known to lapse into phases of pensive dejection that made him quiet and standoffish. To cope, he'd bury himself in serious pursuits, problem-solving, planning and scheming his way back to normalcy. Some of his most brilliant and audacious work was produced in these pockets of sullenness. I remember the first time I saw him like that, the first time he was comfortable enough to let that aspect of his humanity show. It'd been a difficult lesson, but I'd coped quite well, I'd say.

xxxxx

"It looks terrible."

Irina Khushrenada set two white shopping bags down on the long, wooden console table near the entryway. Her twelve-year- old son, trailing lugubriously behind her, shut the front door harder than necessary, causing the painting on the wall to slant just slightly out alignment.

I watched them from a small sitting area just off the side of one of the two grand, sweeping staircases that merged in a high arch above me. I'd kept to my book the whole time they'd been gone, my typical daily occupation. I'd read 1/32 of the books Treize kept in his room, one fourth of one of the eight vertical shelves that covered two of his four walls. So many of them were in Russian, but he'd been kind enough to rearrange them for me one weekend so that all of the Standard editions were collected on shelves low enough for my easy access. Peering over the top of my book, one about Russian folklore, I could see that Treize was in an uncharacteristicall y foul mood. He didn't even acknowledge my presence as his legs swept him past me to mirror mounted on the wall. He bared his teeth like an animal growling at itself and scowled.

"They're terrible," he repeated, glaring at his mother, who was idly unpacking her purchases. A silken blouse, a pair of slacks, two pairs of shoes. Whenever she went to the city, she came back with clothes.

She gave him a mild smile, one that spoke both of her rigid bearing and her fondness for her only child. "You can barely see them. They're supposed to be invisible."

"Well, they're not. They look stupid. My teeth are practically straight already."

"The orthodontist said that they will only get worse in the next couple of years. You don't want crooked teeth at the academy, do you?"

He snorted. I hadn't known him very long at that point, but I knew that the answer was a definitive "No." He might have been the vainest boy I'd ever known, and he had every intention of making a stellar, flawless name for himself as a plebe.

Irina spotted me spying on her and her smile broadened. Her hair, the same color as Treize's, was down, framing the feminine curves her heart-shaped face. She dressed in the latest fashion when she went to Moscow, a 20 minute flight from the small airport located in the nearest town, which was thirty minutes away by car. Irina flew her own single-engine prop plane, favoring a slow, scenic ride over the harsh, screaming thrust of a jet aircraft. Oftentimes she would let Treize take the controls, even without lessons, even at such a young age, trusting his dexterity, his seriousness, and his unerring desire to impress. The estate was close enough that she still considered herself a Muscovite, and I sensed that she tolerated the placidity of rural life only because she could so easily "return to civilization, " as she put it.

"Don't mind him," she said to me. "He's unhappy."

My gaze shifted back to my friend, who was fake-grinning at himself in the mirror, his eyebrows knitted together in scorn.

"I'm standing right here, Mother. You don't need to talk about me like I'm not."

"Watch your mouth," she warned, no longer smiling.

Treize didn't apologize, but he didn't venture any more complaints just then. He continued examining himself in the mirror, running his tongue along the contours of the clear plastic.

His mother laughed very quietly, so softly that I could barely hear it, as she climbed the stairway. "You'll thank me when you're older, Treize," which was such a cliché thing to say, but she was right. He would one day look back on his behavior with shaking head and rueful, straight-toothed smile.

"We'll see about that," he grumbled after she was out of earshot. In the mirror, he caught me looking at his reflection.

"Hello, Zechs," he greeted half-heartedly. His mouth settled into a displeased frown. "Can you see them from where you're sitting?"

I shook my head.

He sighed, shrugged off his jacket, and hung it in the closet. "I'm going to go to my room. I'll see you later." With that, he bypassed me once more and walked slowly up the stairs, leaving me alone in the massive vestibule.

After that, he was inconsolable. He completely stopped smiling and began mumbling as he spoke to avoid showing even the barest hint of his orthodontia. His father scolded him over the vidphone and told him he was being juvenile, that he didn't have his priorities straight, to which Treize replied, "And what priorities do you think I should have?" That started an argument between them that ended with Pyotr saying in a low voice that he was sorry for not being home, but that Treize was going to have to learn when to expend his energies and when to let go. Treize didn't like that answer and made the highly unusual decision to hang up without saying goodbye.

I should take a moment to mention that Treize was beloved and coddled by the entire house staff. They loved Pyotr immensely and found his wife mostly agreeable, and when Irina had a complicated pregnancy and was told she could have no more children, the staff swept down upon Treize like he was humanity's last hope for survival, the last boy on Earth. This is, at least, until I arrived and siphoned off a share of the attention by being the solemn, tragically orphaned Princeling who was - my goodness - they'd never seen a more beautiful boy... except for Treize, they'd hasten to add when he was around, though he was smart enough to know when he'd been beaten in the good looks department, even if only by the barest of highly subjective measures.

Lara, the young cook and Ukrainian immigrant, adored Treize especially. She took her job seriously, knowing exactly what foods to prepare for what mood, season, and occasion. She'd taken a sisterly liking to me and was eager to learn what foods I might have eaten in Sanc so she could prepare them for me. When she first started pursuing the matter, I was less than forthcoming, so she pulled out pictures of several popular dishes and pointed to them and asked, "Did you eat this one? How about this? Does this look familiar?" I shook my head or nodded accordingly while she took diligent notes on my responses. Then one day, the day of my seventh birthday, she made a Sancian banquet-style meal that even Pyotr came home to enjoy. I remember having to leave the table half way through because I couldn't stop crying. She followed me, also crying, apologizing profusely, and she held me while she explained that she only wanted to make me feel at home. I favored her above the rest of the household staff, and, actually, I liked her more than I liked either of Treize's parents. She was soft and affectionate and shamelessly emotional.

I remember one of the few times Lara asked me to join her in the kitchen, a day about three weeks into Treize's orthodontic crisis. She told me years later that she would have invited me more often except that Madame didn't consider such a hobby especially appropriate for me, finding it a little too -- oh, let me guess -- queer for her tastes. (I am not displeased by the irony.) It was a cold and rainy day, which had compelled me to sit at my desk and watch the raindrops cascade in long, trickling paths down the window. She knocked softly on the open door to get my attention, and when I turned to look at her, she was holding a child-sized apron and smiling sadly. She said that Treize was in the library studying for entrance exams, which I already knew...

"So," she asked, "wouldn't you like to help me bake a special surprise to help bring around our grouchy Mr. Hyde?"

I agreed, even though I didn't yet know who Mr. Hyde was.

"Treize loves Kirschtorte, " she said as I followed her to the kitchen. She'd had one of the other women make my apron the week before, a request that had probably made them coo and twitter at the thought of how I'd look in it. On the counter was a thick book opened to a picture with a caption that read "Black Forest Gateau." She pointed to the picture and raised her eyebrows at me. Her blonde, Slavic beauty was stereotypical but no less remarkable for being so. "Will you help me make it?"

"I don't know how," I eked out.

Lara bent down and gently held my head in her slender hands. "Don't worry, darling. I'll show you. We'll do it together. Wouldn't you like that?"

I nodded.

We collected ingredients from a pantry that was as big as my bedroom and laid them all out on a large island in the middle of the kitchen. She pulled up a high stool so that I could work comfortably next to her, and, like two children emptying a toy box, we pulled out so many measuring cups and spoons and utensils that I couldn't believe that we'd use all of them, even though we did.

"Good cake," she said, "means good work. If you don't measure everything perfectly, your cake will fail."

Those were terms that I could relate to, since I've always been a stickler for exactness. When she said that 200 grams meant 200 grams and not 210 or 190, I understood completely. I even agreed, though I knew as much about baking at that time as I did about engineering. It was the principle that I was confident in.

She was a patient teacher, taking the time to show me the proper way to measure out flour and the right technique for cracking an egg. She wasn't condescending, and she even let me use the hand mixer. We ate cherries as we went along, and she poured me a few naughty milliliters of Kirschwasser so that I knew what it tasted like. She instructed me in the Russian words for each item, each process, and encouraged me to speak the language as much as I could. She would occasionally take pause to give me a Ukrainian translation, but only to make a point about how different the languages could be, and she would comment about how undesirable the Russian language assimilation efforts had been, how it was left to the rural communities to keep the language alive while the government and corporations pushed for more imported broadcasts and publications. She explained these things in terms I could verbally understand, though conceptually I couldn't comprehend why a government would do that. I believe that Lara's lesson about Russo-Ukrainian strain was my first intentional instruction on the topic of politics.

We worked for over two hours, taking our time with the decoration, filling and emptying the piping bag, giving our best effort to make it look exactly like the picture. And she gave small words of encouragement, never to excess, always with a bright glimmer in her hazel eyes. "Oh, Zechs, that looks lovely!" "Oh, Zechs, that's perfectly like the photograph!" Her kind praise helped me come to accept the sound of my new name, something I thought would never happen, something I wonder if she realized she was doing.

"One more to go," she said, gesturing to the small bowl of dark, ripe cherries. "I think you should have this one."

I could feel the faintest of smiles creeping onto my lips as I placed the cherry upon the last of the small mounds of frosting that formed a circle around the top of the cake. It was a glorious cake, and it was the first thing I'd been proud of in a very long time. If I could go back, I would take a picture of it so I could have something to look at on those days where I couldn't remember a single thing I'd ever done right.

"If this doesn't make him smile, I don't know what will," Lara said as she led me from the kitchen and to a small table in what I suppose might be described as a breakfast nook. She set the cake stand in the middle and pulled together two place settings using dishes and utensils from the hutch in the corner of the room.

"Do you want to go get him, or do you want me to?"

"I'll do it," I replied, growing excited at the thought of how much he'd appreciate what we'd made for him. I wanted so badly to please him, to make a permanent mark on him. I wanted to show him that I was grateful for the friend he'd always been, even when I was pathetic and broken up.

Lara grinned and tucked my hair behind my ears. "Let me know how it goes."

I found him in the library sitting in an overstuffed chair, his legs draped over one of the arms and a heavy physics textbook in his hands. He had blown through three math books since I'd arrived at the household and was already dabbling with calculus. He loved physics, taking great pleasure in learning the technicalities of the universe, deconstructing the simplest of cosmic expressions -- a breeze, a fire, a vacuum, a whisper. It was all wondrous and worth learning, made exponentially more important by its relevance to his career choice.

The study of it was where his natural gravitation towards inquiry merged with the notion that he had to do something important, be someone more, reach for something beyond cold actuality, far beyond Russia, the Earth, the galaxy, all the way to infinity. He wanted to reach into it and pull out something magical and immortal, something he could give, something that would fill a void in the world that he couldn't define at that age. It was so nebulous, but the longing was there. That was the real reason he went to Lake Victoria -- to hurl himself into the unknown with hopes of maybe finding what he sought, a salve, a cure, a bandage to tend a damaged history of bloody repetition.. .

xoxox

It started the day I got there, the inability to sleep, the inability to close my eyes without seeing things that would make me tense so hard that I thought I'd snap, a tension that I thought I might be able to release if only I could scream. But I didn't, couldn't, because I was somewhere else then. Everything I'd had was gone, scattered, engulfed, smeared, ruined, and all I had left was an enormous, drafty house in a country I'd never visited with people I barely knew. From the day I arrived, a day I don't even remember, Treize regarded me with the hushed attentiveness of a scientific researcher, always observing me, no longer effusing with cheerful eloquence as he'd been before in Sanc. He was quiet and continuous. For a while I didn't know if he knew what had happened, why exactly I was there beyond the obvious fact that my parents were dead and his mother had been my mother's closest friend. During the day he went wherever I went, which was usually nowhere, and watched me with a small, perpetual smile on his lips that somehow always seemed fresh.

He never asked me about it. He didn't ask me much of anything but just sat with me in the room they gave me, the one across the hall from his that had a neutral color palette, reserved for a second baby that never came. We would go hours without speaking, ensconced in a silence too dense to hold anything, not even discomfort. I had no comments for him, no jutted-chin challenges, no claims to stake, no contentious jabs, no questions. At that time I didn't care about unraveling his mystery, punching through his armor, because there wasn't anything mysterious or guarded about the way he was with me then. He was as open as I've ever known him, sensitive on a level far beyond his years to what I needed from him, something undemanding, a warm space, a person who wanted nothing and offered everything without provision.

Eventually, the darkness of my room would fade seamlessly into a state of dreamless, death-like sleep, something I would only be aware of after I woke up to the sun soaking the room in a gauzy light that felt fluffy and surreal until I remembered where I was and why. Soon after I awoke, Treize would knock softly on my door, peek his head in, smile with a softness that radiated mostly from his eyes, tell me that it was time for breakfast and that if I wanted anything special to eat I should tell him, to which I always shook my head. I could have set a watch by the exchange if I'd cared at all about time. The household ran like the military even when Pyotr was gone, the kitchen like a DFAC serving on a schedule. It left little room for whim, an odd choice for a family rich enough to afford plenty. It was a routine that kept me afloat but one that also made every day seem an unvarying repetition of the one prior.

I was too young then to wonder whether Treize's father had known the Federation's plans, considering his position in the MI branch and, if he did, why he didn't warn anybody. The truth, I'd discover later, was that the branch had been purposefully left out of the loop; Onegell had relied on old reports and a handpicked team from Signals to carry out the intel for the operation. The attack was something so risky and unenlightened that it wasn't revealed to the eggheads at the branch because they would have protested it into nonexistence on cultural and political grounds, if not philosophical ones. Treize's father had been an intellectual, had studied at the finest institutions in Europe, a dark-haired, darkly handsome, brooding man who looked like a poorly-cast actor in a costume when he wore his uniform, too professorial to play the role of trained killer convincingly. He was also a man, they said, who took pills because he was depressed, though I could never confirm this.

Pyotr earned his high rank by being the smartest son-of-a-bitch in every room he ever walked into and a man who knew a few things about upward mobility and closed-door diplomacy. He understood the most delicate and complex of domestic and international dynamics and had very little patience for the frivolities of his social class. He was the kind of man who would have laughed mockingly if a Sancian invasion had been seriously suggested to him, if only because he'd done a semester in New Port as an undergraduate and, even as a Russian, had been impressed with the hard, unsmiling sensibility and devout nationalism of the country's citizens. MI knew exactly what my father meant to the country, the region, the continent, the rest of the world, and the colonies, and they correctly predicted that any Federation aggression against him would send shockwaves around the Earth Sphere for decades.

They understood cause and effect, knew that Sancians were tough, unrelenting people who would never let the occupying forces rest, who would compel others to turn their backs on the Federation and its mysterious backers like Romefeller. Resistance cells had the Federation infiltrated at all levels, either through direct, fraudulent enlistments or by manipulations of underpaid, over-hassled, scarred and paranoid occupation forces with bribes, exchanges, and blackmail. They rigged docked mobile suits with explosives, hacked into defense nets from remote ghost servers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, and held Sancian mistresses and unspeakable acts of violent suppression over the heads of men and women who masqueraded around the global stage as respectable, honorable leaders. They had wide webs of contacts in the largest news corporations in the world and routinely flooded the nets with raw footage exposing the Federation as every bit the cruel, totalitarian terror-machine it was. The invasion had been a blind, ferocious, ill-advised offensive, and while the initial strike had been exceedingly well calculated in the tactical sense, the cost in Sancian and international resistance over the years would later warrant its classification as a catastrophic failure.

The night I discovered Treize's secret was only two weeks after the invasion. I know because the moon was full, severe as a searchlight through my window. It had been pitch black the night Sanc fell, the new moon, predictable if we'd ever suspected the Federation would do something so brutal to us. Nights in the Khushrenada house weren't silent. The place creaked, groaned, and sometimes it squeaked when the wind blew. But as I lay there that particular night, soaking up the sounds with a mind as blank as the expression on my face, I heard something different from shifting wood and scraping branches. The sound was dampened, the sound of a human voice on top of the sound of quick, rhythmic thwaps and atonal rumbles, and, between them, splices of high-pitched sounds that were screams, no doubting it. That was a sound I would never again mistake for anything else, the sound of a woman screaming, women screaming as they knelt over the bodies of their loved ones, writhed on the ground, shot or full of shrapnel... I'd seen it all, heard it all in a blur as I ran faster than I ever had, each gruesome encounter making me run harder if only to get away from it...

The sounds made my chest feel so heavy that I thought it might crush me, if such things were possible, so I grabbed the thickness of the down duvet and pulled myself to sit up. My hair stuck to my cheeks and neck, my too-large nightshirt to my back, and I had to get out of that hot casserole of a bed or else I was sure that I really would scream and wake up everybody in the house.

All the upstairs rooms were covered by thick carpet, the kind you could lie down on and easily fall asleep. Between my bare toes, it felt almost as soft as grass after all the dew had evaporated away. I made no sound as I turned the knob on my door and began to pull. I knew where the scrape in it was, had heard it every morning when Treize came in to get me for breakfast, and I discovered that if I pulled through it quickly, the scrape would be indiscernible from the various other noises the house produced. When I stepped out into the hall, I saw a light from beneath the door directly across from mine, flickering light, and the sounds were clearly coming from the same source. It was past midnight. I wondered why his parents let him stay up watching movies, remembering detachedly that my parents wouldn't even let me have a computer in my room because they knew I'd be up all night on it, too.

I stood there in front of his door and stared at it. I swayed, my knees locked because whatever he was watching was churning my blood through my body at breakneck speed, and I knew that holding still was the only way to keep my head from exploding due to the pressure. The one part of me that moved was my hand as I reached out and put it on the round knob in front of me. I held the cold brass, got a feel for it, moved it incrementally to the right and left to see where it caught. I don't know why I turned it, why I thought that cracking open Treize's door was the right thing to do just then. I wasn't sure how I felt about him then, whether or not I considered him my friend anymore. The concept of friendship seemed superfluous in the face of what I'd seen two weeks prior, just as pointless as eating, bathing, sleeping, and crying. These things all seemed to have little use, because what were they outside the framework of the love and security I'd based my entire life upon? I had nothing to lose by opening that door, by spying on him, by looking into his world for a few minutes.

There were no scrapes in Treize's door. I was able to turn the knob and push it open wide enough to see inside without offering any indication of my doing so. He sat at his desk in front of his computer, his semi-profile perfectly in my line of sight. The room was dark except for the brightness emitting from his monitor, bathing him and the wall behind him in electric techni-white...

And the movie he was watching, a war movie, I'd thought, wasn't a movie. It was the news. It was shaky, shoulder-mounted footage from a network-quality camera, shuddering and moving down the long stretch of a street littered with cars that appeared to have been abandoned only after desperately trying to wedge around the gutted, burning carcass of a city bus. There was a sharp jerk as the camera spun around, down a cross-street littered with stones from a wide strip of cobbled road that had been torn up and thrown about by artillery fire. Some of the mess was from the shops lining the street, buildings which had been shelled out, most barely holding their structure. And through the chaotic veil of shaking, I could make out one of the signs: "Sunday Morning." A bakery. I knew because I'd been there once. I'd had an apple tart, one made especially for me by the nonchalantly racist fat lady who owned it, because it was the new year and because she'd always prayed for my father to have a son, and what a handsome son, so much like his father when he was younger, but, oh, she supposed (with a note of disappointment) that he had more of his mother's face, when she got a better look at him, yes, he looks like he's from The North, that boy, untamed and reckless except for his eyes, those Peacecraft eyes that are undeniably Southern in their cold sophistication...

I bit my teeth down hard to keep a small sound of recognition from falling out of my mouth. And then the screen went a furry gray for the briefest of moments before new footage spooled up, similar in quality but so much more terrible. Soldiers in assault uniforms bounded athletically up the stairs leading to the parliament building, a grand structure that was older than most of the city. From the front entrance, different soldiers led sloppily-dressed ministers and cabinet members at gunpoint. These men and women were pushed into a long, straight line that reminded me of a game we used to play at the palace when we got enough people and then forced to kneel. Behind the ministers were soldiers with rifles trained, soldiers who wore yellow-tinted anti-glare glasses and black uniforms, the pitchest of black like the night the stormed and crept through. One soldier walked in front of the line with a vid screen in hand, scrolling through faces, pointing to the ministers that owned them, at which point a crack would ring out and the minister would slump forward onto a pile of his or her own splattered blood and brain matter. Two were executed, one man and one woman, before another soldier saw the camera and bounded to it, sidearm in hand. There was a crush of pistol-butt against bone and the camera reeled and fell to the ground, the recorder still running as one more minister crumpled, the others crying and whimpering, pleading for their lives...

Though I was too stunned to be sickened, Treize wasn't, and his hand rose up to cover his mouth when he saw those people drop, his eyes wide with the same thing I felt. He sat forward in his chair, fully engaged, never once taking his eyes off of that screen. He watched every horrible, nauseating second of it, barely blinking, swallowing heavily now and again, his lips silently moving in what might have been an expression of disbelief. I trembled where I stood, distantly envious of the other boy's relative constitution, and it wasn't long before I couldn't stand to be in that sickly light anymore with those terrible, nightmare images that were immeasurably more terrifying because they were real, because they were of my home. I don't know how I got out of there without making a sound. I was on auto-pilot as I backed away from his door and everything behind it, not snapping out of it until my elbow smacked against the doorframe at the entrance to my room. I didn't sleep that night, even after Treize gave it up at 2:47.

The next day, it was as though nothing had happened. Same time as the day before, he knocked softly, peeked his head in, smiled with a softness that radiated mostly from his eyes, told me that it was time for breakfast and that if I wanted anything special to eat I should tell him, to which I once more shook my head. He didn't look changed, didn't look as though he'd been up most of the night, didn't seem moved or haunted. For the duration of that day I wondered if perhaps I'd dreamed it all.

But it hadn't been a dream. Every night after that, night after night after night I heard the same thing at the same time, crawled out of bed in the same way, crossed the hall, opened Treize's door with the same caution, and watched what he watched. Time slipped by unaccounted for, the only time existing for me the horrible aftermath of the invasion. Every night there was new footage, different footage, all of it Sanc, so much footage that I wondered where it'd come from. Most wasn't as clear as that first night. Many images were taken on cell phones, hand-held camcorders, and thrown onto the nets as quickly as possible before they were discovered, before the reality could be disproven by the victors. I never grew accustomed to it, always closing out our sessions with tight fist, sore eyes, and unsteady legs. Treize no longer covered his mouth but sat curled up, knees hugged to his chest, chin upon them. Sometimes his eyes teared up, sometimes he bit his lip, and sometimes an unexpected loud noise startled him, but he didn't stop.

I remember the exact image that gave me away one night, two weeks after the first time I'd caught him, judging by the moon. It was an image taken by a camcorder, the shot filmed from behind a chunk of rubble not ten meters from where the action was. It showed a girl about Treize's age crying over the body of her father, who'd minutes earlier been sniped down while trying to fight back with a hunting rifle. The man had gotten a shot off on one of the soldiers, an officer, by the sidearm he was carrying, one who must have been popular because his buddies were frothing with blood lust. They grabbed the girl by the back of her coat, dragged her over to the curb, and told her to bite it. Put your fucking jaws around it, one explained, and even at that age she must have known what they were going to do, because she shook her head and started screaming for her dead father, for anybody to help her. She flailed until one of them dug his knee into her back and made her bite it while the other one planted his boot sharply against the back of her head. The camcorder shook and whoever was holding it began sobbing. Treize flinched and pressed his face into his knees, the only time I'd ever seen him look away.

I didn't realize that I was making noise until his head rose sharply and whipped around. In a lightning-fast stream of movements, he unfolded, sprang to his feet, glared in my direction, and, with a quick swipe of his hand, turned his computer off. Only in the black of his room on that lightless, new moon night did I realize that it had been one whole month since my parents had died. I couldn't see anything, and the only sound I heard was loud, asthmatic gasping that seemed to be coming from me.

"Milliardo?" he whispered.

They told me I had to pick a new name. What the kind of request is that, I thought, for what name could I possibly have other than the one my father had given me?

I clutched my hands to my chest as if I could stop my lungs by force. The lightheadedness I felt dissipated when Treize turned on a small, soft-bulb lamp next to his bed. He moved quickly to the doorway where I was standing and coaxed me to come in with a hand on my arm. He shut the door behind me and walked back to the other side of the room, his back to me, hands on his hips. A rough, shivering sigh escaped him.

"How long were you there?"

I'd calmed myself enough to speak, to tell him that I'd been there long enough to see the most horrible thing I'd ever witnessed except for when some eighteen-year- old boy in uniform put a bullet in my mother's head, but I was out of words, completely out of energy and will.

When I didn't say anything, he turned around, the look on his face one of sorrow, shame, and uncomprehending dismay. He crossed the room with those long, sure steps that I'd once struggled to keep pace with and took me by the shoulders.

"Look at me."

I raised my head and saw in his eyes an intensity that I'd never seen before and would never see again, fire-lancing, staggering intensity that was greater than lust, hate, and love, intensity beyond what any grown man could muster, the intensity of a boy who knew he could do anything in the world, even stop the unstoppable.

"I swear to the mother of God, to everything -- " He clenched his teeth together and his brow furrowed deeply as he dug his fingers into me to the point of pain. "I swear to you, I will never let anything like this happen again. I swear it to you." He pulled me to him and hugged me tightly, fiercely, and I was limp, hands useless at my sides, face pressed into his chest.

"No matter what the cost," he breathed.

He was only eleven, but I believed him.

xoxox

From that pivotal day forward, Treize buried himself in preparation for the academy, for the career that he thought would allow him to mold society into a shape less miserable. Propelled by the awfulness he'd witnessed and by the image he had of his father, who seemed to Treize to have the power to bend gravity to his liking, he spent hours a day studying, riding, helping the stable hands, running, and doing calisthenics routines that seemed insane in their vigor and creativity. His parents were unaware of his motives, thinking his decision to enter the military was motivated by tradition and his interest in science. They didn't realize that he planned on forcing the world into the greatest paradigm shift of the era. To join him later would seem only natural to me, for who could turn their back on intentions so pure, and who could resist taking the journey with a person so fundamentally good? That I would avenge my parents and country was an afterthought; Treize and his vision were the real reasons I became a soldier.

His liquid blue eyes scanned over his text book, absorbing reflected photons and sending electrical impulses into that magnificently receptive brain of his. He had enviable information retention abilities; some would later speculate that he had a photographic memory. Treize's real talent was that he was always carefully attuned on the world around him, his perception and concentration crystal-clear and imperturbable. It was what made him an excellent pilot, student, and a man to never underestimate, for he did not forgot the deeds and words of those around him.

"Did you need something?" Treize asked, not even looking up from his book.

I kept a frown at bay by reminding myself that our cake would surely blow his mind and turn him back into the person I once knew.

"Yes. I have something for you," I said in Russian.

Only then did he lower his book and look me over, discretely looking for the "something" I supposedly had for him. "Do you? And what might that be?" he replied in Standard. One of his reddish eyebrows cocked upward, the only indication of interest he would give me.

"It's a surprise."

He stared at me for a handful of seconds before bookmarking his place and rising nimbly from his chair. He was taller then, and the young-adult contours of his body had begun to fill in from all the work he'd been doing. A broadening of the shoulder. A sharpening of the jaw and hollowing of the cheek. The growth of firm, lean muscle on his arms that ever-so-slightly pushed up the larger veins under his skin. These differences were small in one sense, for Treize would always be trim, but the contrast with the Treize's I'd first met the year before was shocking to me.

He closed his eyes, held out his hand, and I took it tentatively after considering it with some confusion, because I hadn't expected him to do such a thing. I led him to the nook and guided him to sit at one of the two settings Lara had prepared.

I stepped back and tried to calm the tingle of excitement that was stirring in my belly. I was certain, absolutely and beyond all reservation, that he would love it. And how could he not? It was his favorite cake -- Lara would know -- prepared by two people whose sole purpose for baking it was to make him happy. He was so very often a polite boy, a kind boy, even a sweet boy on the occasion that he forgot himself. Yes, I had no doubt in my mind that the cake would alter his entire worldview, make him forget about his braces, and maybe even oblige him to put a hand on my shoulder and smile his new plastic-coated smile that didn't seem at all unattractive to me.

"Open them."

Treize did as I asked and stared blankly at the cake as though I'd presented him with a ham sandwich on that floppy, post-apocalyptic, hyper-enriched, glaringly white, spongy mush that passes for bread in some countries. I think he would have been more interested if I'd set up his physics book to the section on wave dynamics. At least then he might have uttered a word of gratitude.

"A cake."

"It's Black Forest cake," I clarified. I chewed on my bottom lip and vehemently hoped that he was joking with me. "Lara and I made it for you."

There was a dreadfully long pause, and then the reply I'd never conceived in the various scenarios I'd run through back in the kitchen: "I'm not really hungry."

All at once, the fledgling happiness and anticipation I'd felt dried up into a lifeless, gritty powder, the stuff I imagined was left behind after a cremation. I wondered how that could possibly be his answer, after all the time we'd spent together, after all the facets I'd seen of him... how could he say something that countered all the information I'd collected over the last year - not only countered it, but brazenly defied it?

I then felt another kind of tingling, one that rose from my fingertips settled in my jaw.

Did he have any idea how lucky he was? Any idea? For all the sympathy he so obviously had for me, did he possess the faculties to reflect back on his life and realize just how extraordinarily fortunate he was? He had two parents who were alive and who loved him, even if his father was absent and his mother was at times cold and unfeeling. He had an old, proud home filled with people who would literally do anything for him, so deep was their fondness. Like Lara, who had stolen over two hours away from her real job - which was not showing idiot seven-year-olds how to bake cake - only because she adored Treize. She loved him so much that thirteen years later she would name her first son after him. That was the kind of life Treize had, the kind I'd once had before it'd been ripped from my small, frantically clutching hands.

It was the first time I'd ever wanted to hurt somebody. I wanted to grab him by the shirt collar and shake the sulky aloofness out of him. I wanted to yell at him, tell him to stop being a brat, to stop spitting in my face by taking all the wonderful things he had for granted...

But I didn't. Instead, I reached over and grabbed a fistful of cake. Slowly, thoughtfully, like an artist working thick paint across a canvas, I smeared the dessert across his face, moving diagonally from one corner of his chin, over his nose, up his forehead and into his hair.

I dropped my hand and took a moment to admire my work. The look on Treize's face was one of absolute indignation, mouth agape, one eye sealed shut with chocolate frosting, the other wide and with dilated pupil. His bangs stood at an odd angle, molded by a fluffy layer of whipped cream dotted with speckles of moist cake. An errant cherry dropped from his brow and onto his lap.

I stared at him, still angry but growing less so with every passing second. When his tongue darted out of his mouth to lick the icing from his upper lip, I burst into tiny childish giggles. It was such a foreign sound to my ears, and Treize smiled when he heard it. He used his left hand like a trowel to dig the frosting out of his eye socket and smeared what he'd gathered across my smirking mouth.

"Good cake, Milliardo."

I licked my lips. It really was excellent.

xxxxx

I eyed my suit over the top of a copy of Nabokov's Russian translation of "Lolita." I'd hooked the hanger over the short neck of a light fixture that gave the sitting room of my rental a warm glow, leaving it in plain sight for me to ponder, distracting me from the trials of Humbert Humbert. I laid the open book face-down across my chest, the spine protesting with a crackle, and wondered what exactly I was going to do with myself.

The fitting had gone well. If Madame Boucher recognized me, she didn't show it, and she certainly didn't seem to be in the throes of degenerative brain disease. She'd commented that I had the longest legs she'd ever measured, marked a few spots in the trousers and sleeves with short ticks of white tailor's chalk, told me to strip out, and spent about five minutes on the sewing machine. The result was as well-crafted as any from the mustachioed tailors in Russia who fussed and bustled about for hours - oh, the hours of my life wasted while being fitted for tuxedos and other formal party wear, an overly-complicated process that always made me feel as though I were some lopsided giant for whom special arrangements had to be made instead of a well-proportioned young man of normal dimensions. Jesus. One would think they'd been paid by the hour.

So, I had a suit. It struck me then that I didn't have a plan for it, its purchase having been the result of impulse, something that seemed correct at the time. I figured that I would wear it when I went to Brussels to approach Anne for a job, which I had roughly planned out for later that month, maybe after Christmas, when I assumed things would be quiet. There would be some event, a ceremony of remembrance that I intended to ignore completely. Whatever the new president had to say wouldn't mean anything to me. I'd read his biography. He'd never served in the military and never even been in public office. He'd been the CEO of a tech company in South Africa, somebody unsullied by the Old Guard ways, a fresh face with forward-thinking ideas that would catapult the ESUN into a new future of networking and space exploration. New colonies! On Mars! Great idea, except for all the dilapidated pieces of shit already orbiting around Earth, colonies on their knees shaking their tin cans and practically begging for money that never came.

Out with the old, in with the new - wasn't that what Vadimas had said? But I was still stuck in the old, which had me sucked in to the knees, and for all the struggling I pretended to do, I mostly just wanted to be completely devoured by it so that I wouldn't feel like I had a choice in the matter. That suit was my choice, and perhaps some smarter part of me had bought it and hung it there so that I wouldn't forget which decision was the correct one. If Treize could have seen me then, seen what I'd been, seen what I'd become, he would have been disappointed. More than disappointed.

My God, what I wouldn't have given to hear just how disappointed he was, to see him standing across the room next to my suit, bitching about wasting my life like a recluse, to see the false anger that hid his concern and, even further behind that, a profound longing for my happiness. "Look at what we've created," he would say, "and for what, so that you could bar yourself from it?" And then he might cross the space between us and stand beside where I was lying, look down at me, and frown. And I suppose then I'd reach up and grab onto his hand, which he'd probably let me hold for a couple of seconds before pulling it away and taking a seat on the opposite end of the couch. And I guess he'd let me rest my feet on his lap, and then he'd finger the hem of my jeans and explain what it all meant, every intention he ever had, what regrets he died with, what he hoped for the future, for me, and he might say that he wanted me to move on, find something I truly loved to do, find somebody who would give me what he couldn't. And at that point I'd probably clench my jaw and ask him how he could do this to me, how he could expect me to move on like he'd been nothing but a bridge to the future, a horrible future built on the end of his life, a future where the finality of his death was the only thing guaranteed, the rest of it a black tunnel that we were expected to hold hands and march through with our heads held high in triumph over our basic natures...

I did clench my jaw then and ask those things to an empty room, and I felt so sad when there was no Treize there to respond. It was the most basic sad, a flat, lightly-choking constant that made me want to be dead because maybe then I might feel a bit better. The world didn't need everlasting bastards like me and Heero Yuy anyway. It needed brave, dynamic people with high ideals and the will and strength to lead us to them. People like Treize, people whose deaths we can always weep over because they are so romantically tragic, blindingly brilliant people who dazzle us until there's nothing left in them for fuel, who collapse and explode like a dying star, throwing out waves and waves and waves of themselves that stretch on forever and ever, across the entire universe.

When I heard myself begin to sniffle like a child, I growled and threw my book across the room, because I had to do something, anything, right that moment - anything except cry. Time to be done with that shit, I told myself. Time to get a grip. I was a twenty-year- old man with a suit, God damn it. Time to get a life.

I stared blankly at the splayed, bent pages of "Lolita"... Lo in the morning, Lola in slacks, Dolly at school, Dolores on the dotted line, but always... In the arms of Humbert Humbert, she was always Lolita...

See, Relena? I thought. You're not the only one who can grow up.

[part 8] [part 10] [back to Singles a-k]