Author: Khalani

Rating: M for coarse language, 13x6 romantic implications

Warnings: This is an interpretation of events in episode 18 -- "Tallgeese Destroyed." I've added, omitted, and modified some dialogue and details. OZ angst ahoy. Zechs introspective. No beta.

Traitor: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Zechs Merquise has been assigned many titles in his short life: Valedictorian, Lightening Baron, Lightening Count, Lieutenant, Colonel, Perfect Soldier, Treize's Boy, Treize's Pet, Fairy, Killer of His Own Men, and, most recently, Traitor. Though it may seem paradoxical, this latest designation is really no less accurate than the rest.

Yesterday Tallgeese and I were picked up in Antarctica by the battleship Eurydice. After exhausting myself attempting to cast off the OZ search party sent especially to collect me, I surrendered. The three hours in battle with Heero Yuy had been grueling, and it was only a matter of time before my strength and stamina could no longer support my will. Surrender is an option I'd never actually considered before then. Always touted as the final resort, one notch below fighting to the death, it carries with it the quiet stigma of weakness. My submission may have amazed my enemies, but I've recently grown quite used to facing my faults.

Until yesterday, I'd never been handcuffed. I think it was a little much.

Now I'm being escorted by two lieutenants down a narrow, windowless corridor. Their lips are thin, the measure in their movements wavering, like two actors not entirely familiar with their script. They exchange glances, as if reaffirming -- questioning -- whether or not the blocking is correct. They're bringing me to Captain Demetrius on the bridge, presumably to await some official admonishment. My Final Admonishment.

My first real professional reprimand is also the most severe: court martial, with the sought sentence of death. Somehow, given the course of my life to date, it doesn't seem all that ironic. My first true crimes as a child -- a sense of entitlement and an expectation of ease and consistency -- were punished by the murder of my parents and the destruction of my home. I only beg sympathy for Milliardo Peacecraft, for the penalty was hardly equal to the crime. Zechs Merquise, on the other hand, will get everything he deserves.

Almost.

On the bridge, Captain Demetrius apologizes to me for the confined space. One of the lieutenants thrusts his sidearm towards the small of my back, as though I'll break loose at any moment and try to fist-fight my way off of a battleship staffed with a full compliment of armed and well-trained soldiers. He's fresh, a face I've never seen before. The captain remarks that zealous pistol wielding is not required and dismissed them. He gestures to a seat in front of a console and asks me to sit. Asks me. The look on his face says that he's labeled the scene absurd. He is mistaken, though; the only thing ludicrous about this scenario is the behavior that precipitated it. I've read the hastily drafted summons, the Judge Advocate General's signature a gleeful flourish at the bottom. I wonder how many people have been waiting for this.

I tabulate my crimes: going AWOL, deliberately interfering with an official investigation, asking my subordinates to do the same, grand larceny, and directing the reconstruction of an enemy weapon, which they failed to note was not because of scientific or professional curiosity, but because of an obsession with throwing a fifteen-year-old boy into the cockpit and forcing him to duel with me. Conspicuously missing from this list of charges: murder, insubordination, conspiracy, and fraudulent enlistment.

Where did this madness start? It had to have been Operation Meteor. Operation Meteor surprised me. Certainly, there were rumors that the colonies were planning retaliation. Treize even warned me of its inevitability -- and I believed him like I always do.

As a military force, we were clearly underprepared, but as a soldier, I was ready, confident that my constitution was solid. After thirteen years of building Zechs Merquise from scratch, I could predict and direct his every reaction. It was effortless. After all, wasn't he just another stock character filling his designated space? Years of routine, solid direction, and reaffirmations of moral clarity had created the perfect habitat for Zechs Merquise and his righteous anger to thrive. After years of predictably exceptional performance, of impeccable obedience and near-faultless judgment, why would anyone expect anything less?

Then it entered my brain, a silent infiltrate. My first encounter with Gundam 01 was a catalyst, sparking to life a corner of my brain that was atrophied from lack of nurturing. A new player, a new challenge was all I thought it was at first. A distracted Zechs Merquise is not unusual. Whenever the latest mobile suit is all-go for testing, I insist on being pulled from current assignment to participate. This, Treize knows, is one way to keep me content. Like a good handler, he knows when to grant me a large berth and when to reign me back to his side. This isn't an occasion for resentment, for, as a commander, I know that it's capable management and not condescension that creates this dynamic between us. I'm sure that affection is also a factor. A call back to headquarters at once chafes and excites me.

The attack on Lake Victoria was also pivotal. What started as a textbook tangent became a full-blown diversion when Noin -- so capable and willingly at my disposal -- joined me. A dear friend and faithful ally, she abandoned her professional duties in Africa and has since worked tirelessly to accommodate my impulses. A dangerous succession of distractions has since followed, like when I took a break from Operation Daybreak to put a bullet in Daigo Onegell's head. Then another deviation, to Sanc, where the Beast overtook me and my hometown watched, silent. Since the day that I apologized to my father, the smell of moldy tapestries and wet granite still fresh in my sensory memory, I have lurched with a maniac's persistence down the greatest detour of my life. This path, electrifying in its recklessness, utterly frightening in the amount of control it affords me, has led me to this ship and this chair.

What is the name of this sickness? I've turned my back on the institutions and people that have afforded me constancy -- mentors, subordinates, friends, routines, privileges. The neat partitions I've created in my mind -- the places where I've sorted right from wrong, productive from futile, necessary from superfluous, friend from foe, and destiny from choice -- are riddled with fissures. Moreover, their sanctity has diminished with my self assuredness.

What started as an itch is now a rampaging infection. Questions bombard me. What is my strength compared to Heero Yuy's? What is my resolve matched against his? Antarctica was the litmus test that exposed decisive limitations. It proved that the soldier Zechs Merquise has critically failed, bested on every level of import. He's tumbled from his apex, shamed by a kid who fights for the selfless and uncomplicated principle of freedom from occupation. Heero Yuy is what Zechs Merquise should have been.

The sickness has a name: Doubt. For Zechs Merquise, it may prove fatal.

I don't turn my head when the console beeps to life. Instead, I watch Captain Demetrius's brow furrow. He knows something and obviously has expectations of the man on the line.

I know who it is -- it could be nobody else -- but, even still, the sound of his voice makes my collar feel impossibly tight around my throat.

"I'm sorry to make you uncomfortable, Zechs."

I learn instantly from his tone that I'm dealing with General Treize Khushrenada, commander of OZ and the Specials, Romefeller's youngest and arguably most powerful member. I remind myself that this conversation is not only being overheard by Captain Demetrius and possibly Lady Une, it's also probably being recorded. For my trial, no doubt.

"Don't concern yourself, Your Excellency. I'm prepared to face court martial."

"As long as you continue to be a strong force for Romefeller, I see no need for a court martial."

"‘Strong force'?"

I wonder if this is a tasteful euphemism for "destructive, jaded, insolent criminal entity." Part of me finds humor in this offer, but it's quickly lost because I also know that it's not for Romefeller's sake that Treize wants me to return to my post. He could never say that, though. Not like this. Not this Treize.

"Romefeller is concerned about the Gundams. They're the most powerful mobile suits on Earth. Would you continue to fight for me to defeat the Gundams?"

There's a sound behind Treize's voice, like linens drying in the breeze. It's less an interference than a soundtrack, like the gentle whoosh of a baby monitor. I think of the best way to phrase what I'm about to say. There is no way to really cushion or qualify it. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the weight it carries, it rolls off my tongue easily.

"General, I'm sorry. I don't believe I can follow Romefeller's ideas any longer."

It's like shrugging off a boulder that I've carried with me most of my life. There is relief there, but also ache, cramping, a sudden chill of exposure and fear. I find myself vehemently hoping that Treize is not surprised by this. Surely, with all of his foresight and unmatched skill in reading people, he must have known this was coming.

Though it's probably no more than a second long, the pause seems like one of the longest of my life -- almost as long as the one after the first time he told me he loved me. Only now it's his turn to be paralyzed.

" ... What?"

In that instant, my fingers dig into my palms and I feel burning heat in my cheeks. How can a word spoken so calmly carry such gravity, like a tablespoon of black hole that sucks the resolve and composure right out of me? Flagging and hesitant, I'm overcome by defensiveness. I explain around the marrow of this conversation, which, suddenly, is the matter of my devotion to Treize.

"I've been fighting the Gundams out of personal feelings, and that's something that has no place in war. My battle with the Gundams is over."

"I see," he says, his tone recovered, even and smooth. "In that case, Zechs, sacrifice your life for OZ..."

There is somebody below -- perhaps beyond -- Zechs Merquise. Like Zechs, he's nineteen, his life stretched before him like the limitless expanse of an open field. Unlike Zechs, this young man has the potential and breeding to be an international leader, the eloquence to write lyrical and poignant speeches, and an unrepentant desire to make the world good again. He also possesses Zechs's fatal flaw: an unwillingness to play his assigned role.

"...A guilty verdict in court for your conduct would be detrimental to the organization ... "

The most perfect day in this young man's life was spent stretched across a couch with his head in Treize Khushrenada's lap, feeding his two-book-a-week reading habit. Once, when he thought he wasn't being noticed, he turned his head and gently pressed his nose to the other man's shirt. The simple scent of fabric softener on lightly ironed white cotton reminded him that they were alone, together, with no accoutrements of their occupations and no identities but their true ones. Fingers ran through his hair and he smiled. They both smiled.

" ... but if you died an honorable death ...

This memory sustained him when his persona alienated him. It gave him hope of one day shucking off Zechs Merquise like a husk, burying him forever with his wretched mask and brutal agenda. If there was any compassion in the universe, he and the man he loved would live through the war and move to the countryside. They would tend endless rows of grains and vegetables and grow old together, relishing each moment spent in peace and contentment. These are the types of things that teenaged war-orphaned soldiers fantasize about.

" ... soldiers would mourn and develop a stronger will to fight. Naturally, the higher powers in Romefeller would be satisfied. The name Lightening Count will live on as a legendary hero ... ."

Is this person Milliardo Peacecraft? I can't say for certain.

" ... That would be wonderful ... ."

A hiccup in the metronome tells me that he's not quite convinced of this. Gears are grinding. The massive machine he has engineered -- propelled by revolutions, assassinations, battles, and audacious hopes -- is highly sensitive. Every component requires a watchmaker's attention to detail. The smallest distraction or indecision carries with it the grossly disproportionate risk of ruining everything. Even worse is the very real possibility of a malfunction that would spare the General, but only at the sacrifice of the Man. I think ... I've always suspected that this is the machine's inevitable course ... .

" ... Your death would have that much value to it. If you died, you would be free ... ."

If Zechs Merquise is dead, there can be no more Zechs and Treize, Colonel and General, subordinate and superior. No more friends, no more colleagues. In a brief moment of preternatural clarity, I see the rightness of it. Zechs Merquise, after all, was modeled on Treize Khushrenada -- it's only appropriate that his life comes to an end at the hand of his idol.

"Farewell, Zechs Merquise."

A response dies in my throat when I hear the telltale signal that ends all OZ communications. The bridge is completely silent until Captain Demetrius performs a tactical throat-clearing. He is gazing at a nearby GPS monitor, trying to act disinterested. We're in the South Pacific, off the coast of New Zealand's northern island.

"In three hours, 50 Aries and 20 Cancer units will attack this ship." He looks down at me. "My crew's currently making repairs on the Tallgeese. Chief Meiser's directing everything. They will be finished within the hour."

I'm not sure how they negotiated Meiser's pardon in light of his willing participation in the reconstruction of Gundam 01. I vaguely wonder if he gave them information about me and just as vaguely note that I don't really care one way or another.

I can't believe that this whole farce was planned. All bases covered, all contingencies considered. Typical Khushrenada bullshit. If Treize thought that it would end this way, why did he seem so damned surprised? This sudden anger is compelling, a symptom of Zechs raging against his execution and against the only person who can really hurt him.

I am ready for this fight.

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