Absent-mindedly Treize raised a hand to rub his aching shoulder as he waited for his Mobile Suit to complete the routine system checks. He could have left the work to one of the technicians - the hangar was abuzz with them anyway - but he knew that the pilots of his squadron were watching. And as a commander he had to set a good example. It was the duty of the pilot after all to report any damage and to make sure that the Mobile Suit was in good order after a mission.
Even after a mission like this one. It was almost a miracle that he had not lost one of his men, and that only two had to be taken to the hospital. So far it was not clear who was to blame for the obvious lack of investigation and intelligence, but Treize had entertained himself during the flight back with imagining just what he could do to the one responsible. Sending a squadron into unknown terrain when they were supposed to test new Mobile Suit models was an idiocy that really should have been clear to anyone. But apparently the Alliance officer in charge had thought it amusing to play that sort of trick on the Specials.
"Lieutenant?" The comm unit crackled slightly as one of the men of Treize's squadron called out to him, but this time it at least did not fail entirely like it had done during the battle. "Permission to leave the suits?"
"Granted," Treize answered, then switched to the squadron frequence. "My congratulations to this mission," he said. "You can consider yourself proud of your achievements. But don't forget that any mission can turn into what happened today." As long as the Alliance was in charge of planning at least. Any Specials cadet would have avoided that sort of blunder. "Leave your Suits to the technicians and report to Lieutenant Irving tomorrow morning at ten. Dismissed." He heard some muted agreements in response as the squadron gradually left their suits. Most of them lingered for a few moments at the feet of their suits to talk to the mechanics, but they all were soon headed for their quarters.
Once the final systems of his Suit had shut down, Treize got out as well. A young cadet was waiting down on the ground already, looking absolutely excited at getting so close to Suits that had just returned from battle. Apparently she had not been at the Shanghai base for long, or she would have been used to the sight. The hangar was always full of suits in various states of damage and repair; the rebels in some of the Southern Chinese areas were always up to some activities, and the best the Alliance had thought of so far was to keep them occupied by involving them in fights. Which was fine with Treize as long as it only ate up Alliance resources, but now that the Specials had gotten dragged into it as well, the sheer stupidity of the local Commander was starting to annoy him.
"Sir?" the young girl asked, saluting nervously as he turned towards her.
"Colonel Khushrenada has requested that you report to her immediately, Sir."
Treize sighed inwardly. Giving a mission report was the last thing he wanted to do right now, and he had the feeling that his mother was very well aware of that. Apparently she had decided to ignore it, though.
"Thank you, cadet." Treize cast a last look at his Suit, and once he saw that a mechanic was already approaching he headed for the door to the hallway that would lead deeper into the base.
Treize would have preferred it if the officer he had to report to had been anyone other than his mother. He had a lot to complain about, and in his ears it usually sounded like whining when he told all those things to her. But she was in charge of the test project, so there really was no way out of it. Perhaps they would at least be alone, without anyone else present.
It turned out that he was not so lucky. When Treize came out of the elevator, he already saw that another man was waiting in front of his mother's office door, currently studying the fire extinguisher on the wall. Somewhat greasy grey hair, strange clothes that looked far too warm for the hot climate here. Treize almost immediately classified him as someone he was not likely to become fond of. That feeling was only confirmed when the man turned around, revealing a quite gaunt face that looked like it would crack if he attempted a friendly look.
"Lieutenant Khushrenada, I assume," he said, scrutinizing eyes sweeping Treize's face.
"At your service." Treize concentrated on putting up a blank expression and on not blinking as the man continued staring at him. Whoever this was, manners did not seem to be very high on his agenda.
The man nodded slightly, eyes narrowing. "An impressive performance today, but it could have been better."
Better? How could it possibly have been better? They had been outnumbered, they had been in unfamiliar suits with the tendency to have malfunctions, and still none of the squadron had died. How could it possibly have been better?
"Surely you have your reasons for this observation," Treize said, managing to keep his voice almost neutral. "May I ask what your interest in it would be?"
He could not have said whether the man would have answered or not, but in this moment the door to the office opened and his mother came out, accompanied by a dark-haired young officer that Treize identified as Lucrezia Noin after a moment.
"Once again, congratulations," his mother said, making Noin blush fiercely. "I will be watching your progress with interest." A small smile at the young girl, then she turned her attention to her two visitors. "Ah, Treize. I have been waiting already. And Engineer Tsubarov, it is good to see you here as well."
Tsubarov... the name sounded familiar, but it took Treize a moment to place it. One of those eccentric engineers that worked for the Romafeller Foundation. Some of the members had taken an interest in seeing new weapons developed, and they kept feeding money and resources to a bunch of scientists who had not produced anything useful for the last years. If Tsubarov was one of them, and had also been involved in the new Mobile Suit design, then Treize was no longer surprised at all about the mistakes in the design of the machines.
"Come in," Treize's mother said, opening the door a bit more widely and stepping out of the way. Tsubarov did so without any comment, striding into the room as if he was perfectly familiar with being in the presence of one of the highest Specials officers. The man had no manners, but he certainly had arrogance. Treize hesitated for a moment before following to briefly smile at Noin, who was still standing at the door and looking somewhat lost. He would have to ask later why his mother had congratulated the young girl.
The office was sparsely furnished; just a large desk with some chairs around it, and a small table in the corner with a coffee machine and some mugs on top. Shanghai had never been one of the Alliance's most comfortable bases, and this room clearly was no exception. The quarters for the officers that were stationed here looked a little better, but anyone who was staying at the base only temporarily had to put up with rooms that had the charm of a basement. Treize also suspected that the Specials got the ones that were even less nice.
"Take a seat," his mother said, gesturing at the chairs in front of the desk while she sat down in one that looked slightly more comfortable. "Engineer, I believe you have not met Lieutenant Treize Khushrenada yet."
"No. Duke Dermail has mentioned him though."
"How kind of my brother to do so." She shuffled briefly through some papers, then apparently found what she had been looking for. "Lieutenant, we would like to hear your impressions from today's tests. Engineer Tsubarov has been participating in the construction of the new models, so he will stay here to listen too."
Treize sighed inwardly. He really did not want to do it this way, but there was no way out of it. At least he knew now whom to be angry at for the disastrous mission.
"Where would you like me to start?" he asked.
"Give us an account of the battle first. We'll have time for the specific test results later."
"Yes Madam." Treize paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. "We headed for the assigned coordinates. Commander Bunt had suggested them as a suitable area for practice, and according to him there were no indications of enemy activity in the area."
"Which was wrong, as we know by now. Go on."
"We proceeded with the tests as ordered. It soon was obvious that the new models are not ready yet for field missions."
Next to him Tsubarov snorted in indignation.
"Once we were about halfway through the tests, we got the first signals of approaching hostile suits. The base said that they could not see them on radar yet, but that they would send reinforcements in our direction just in case." Raising his head slightly, he focused on the curtain right behind his mother. The memories were not pleasant at all. "The enemy suits were mostly Leos. Fifteen according to my count, but I cannot say for sure without looking at the recordings first. They attacked immediately."
Normally such an attack would not have been a problem. Treize's squadron had been outnumbered slightly, but the men he had commanded were highly skilled, while the attackers had lacked coordination. But with those new suits the odds had been shifted drastically.
"Casualties?" his mother asked, making a quick note on a sheet of paper.
"None, but First Lieutenants Etoo and Verheyen were wounded. They have been taken to the base hospital for treatment."
"And what about the damage to the suits?" Tsubarov wanted to know. "Those were prototypes."
Treize turned to give him a cold look. His opinion of the man was getting worse by the minute. "Three suits have been completely destroyed, and most of the others have been damaged too. The mechanics will have the reports ready in the morning."
"I hope for your sake that you were careful in battle and did not risk any damage that wouldn't have been necessary for the sake of some tactical approach."
"So you would have preferred it if I had let one of my men die rather than deflect a blow that was meant to be the killing strike?" Treize asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral. He was starting to have a really hard time refraining from snapping at the man.
"Gentlemen..." Apparently his mother had sensed the dangerous turn the conversation was taking. "I am sure that your Mobile Suits have been handled with the necessary care, Engineer. And the technicians at the base will repair them as good as they can."
Tsubarov bowed his hand slightly in acknowledgement. "Thank you. Now, Lieutenant, what was the impression of the suits during battle?"
Treize did not want to talk about this anymore. He was tired and he was feeling sore and all he wanted was taking a long bath that would soothe his strained muscles a little. But if Tsubarov wanted a report now, there was no way around it without being absolutely rude to him.
"The performance was alright, apart from the malfunctions," he said, trying to talk about something positive first. "They are fairly easy to handle, and the response time is good."
"Of course they are," Tsubarov returned, looking smug. "The Taurus has been designed to overcome the slowness of the Leos after all."
"They are quicker. But I am afraid that the cockpit needs to be reworked."
Narrowing his eyes, Tsubarov glared at him for a moment. "What do you mean?"
"The pedals are a little too far apart. And the manual control is at an angle that gives the pilot cramps in his fingers and wrists after some minutes." Treize paused to look at Tsubarov meaningfully before continuing. "The seat is also at a wrong angle, and some of the monitors are so far back that the pilot has to crane his neck uncomfortably to see them. It would be best if the entire cockpit was redesigned."
"You don't know anything about Mobile Suit design, Lieutenant. The cockpit has been designed like that for a reason." Obviously any criticism about his suit was a sore spot with Tsubarov. Treize mentally filed this away for future use. He did not like the man at all, and any method to annoy him and put him on edge was welcome.
"Maybe I am not an expert on design. Though my teachers at the Academy were quite impressed... But I can tell when a Suit will give a pilot trouble. Fighting an enemy is the only problem the soldiers should have to care about. Being unable to defend or attack properly because their hands are shaking from the strain of operating the controls definitely is not something that can be ignored. I am sorry to say so, Engineer. Your Suits may be a fine machine from the technical aspect, but you seem to have ignored the fact that a pilot has to be able to operate them."
And that ignorance had almost cost lives because the soldiers had been exhausted by working with their suits even before the battle had started.
"The pilot is always the weak point," Tsubarov said, looking entirely displeased with what Treize had said. "It would be far better to design Mobile Suits that did not have to rely on a human being. Then there is no longer a need to pay attention to unimportant things like comfortable seats."
"Engineer, I am sure you would value a comfortable seat too if you had to stay in a suit for twelve hours."
"I have to agree with the Lieutenant on that point," Treize's mother cut in before Tsubarov could say something. "At the moment the pilot is necessary, and a fight will not go well if the soldiers ache all over because their cockpits cause cramps."
"Madam, I can see what you mean, but it is the pilot's duty to adjust to his suit."
"Not beyond any biological limitations. You can alter a suit's configuration faster than the best geneticists nowadays can change joints and muscle alignments." She smiled at Tsubarov. "Surely it cannot be a problem for you to adjust those angles, Engineer, can it? Not for someone as talented as you are."
Treize watched with some amazement as the hint of a blush crept across Tsubarov's cheek. He hadn't thought it possible that the man could be embarrassed. It really served as a reminder that no matter how little interest his mother had in playing politics, she definitely knew the tricks of the game.
"We will see about it, Madam. But if you think it is necessary, then I shall listen, of course." Tsubarov seemed to remember that he was talking to the sister of his biggest supporter in the Romafeller Foundation. Dermail had always had a talent for picking up strange men, and the engineer was a prime example for that.
"Good. Would you please excuse us now? I must talk to the Lieutenant about some affairs concerning the mission in private."
"Of course, Madam. Thank you for taking the time to do this right now." Tsubarov rose to his feet quickly and walked over to the door. Treize had politely risen too while his mother had remained seated on her chair, apparently judging Tsubarov not worth the effort.
"I believe we will be seeing each other again, Engineer," she said, then breathed a deep sigh of relief when he closed the door behind him. "What an unpleasant little man."
Treize smiled at her. "No disagreement from me."
"I thought so. How are you?" she asked, giving him a worried look. "You are looking strained."
"It's not too bad," Treize waved off. "Merely a headache, and I do not think I will want to move much in the next few days."
"So the cockpits really are as bad as you said?"
Treize nodded. "The Tauruses are good, but as long as they do not become more comfortable, I cannot see that there will be much use for them."
"Well, Tsubarov probably got the message. After all he knows that I'm the one to decide whether he gets the funds he needs or not. And I want useful Suits. But enough of that. You look like you could use some sleep."
"You are probably right about that," Treize admitted. He was not really feeling tired, but the headache that had been lingering for the last few hours was becoming more prominent.
"When does your shuttle leave?" his mother asked, loosening her collar a little.
It took a moment for Treize to remember. "At five in the afternoon. It is going to be close, but I should reach Kiev in time." And spending some hours of Zechs' birthday together with the younger man was worth any effort, even if it meant a flight on a shuttle with obnoxious Alliance officers.
His mother raised an eyebrow. "You do realize that you missed it, don't you?"
Treize froze. "What?"
"It's past six already. You have not even been back at the base until half past five."
"But... but that cannot be. The chronometer in the Suit..."
Had obviously not worked. Because Tsubarov probably had not considered it necessary for anyone to actually know what time it was when the flight recorder would keep track of it anyway so all the computer systems would know.
By now Treize really felt like strangling the man. It was bad enough already that he had put lives at risk just because he didn't think it necessary to consider humans when it came to Mobile Suit design. Two of Treize's men were in hospital because of that, and the rest too would ache all over for days. And now this.
No shuttle back to Kiev. No way to see Zechs on his birthday. And Treize had promised his lover that he would be there. They had not seen each other at all during the last two months; Zechs had been in space for combat training most of the time, while Treize had stayed at several bases to 'give that clueless Specials brat some insight in troop management', as one of his Alliance superiors had called it. They had been planning to meet in Kiev and try to at least spend some days together before both would have to return to their duties again. And it would have worked out so well if Tsubarov's ignorance had not left Treize stranded on the other side of the world.
He wanted to go and see Zechs. He needed to make sure that his lover was fine after all the time in space, that nothing had happened and that everything was as it should be. It was more important to Treize now than ever before because he knew that he was the one who was supposed to watch over Zechs. The younger man trusted him, and for Treize that meant that he had to keep Zechs safe and content. He had always felt protective of the blond man, ever since Zechs had been brought to their home after the attack on the Sank Kingdom.
"I cannot have missed that plane," he said, even though he knew that it was so.
His mother shook her head. "You did, so face it," she told him. "You can always call Zechs and tell him that you will not be able to make it home in time this year."
"But I promised him." There was no way that Treize could tell the younger man that it would be impossible for them to see each other. It would be the first of Zechs' birthdays that they would spend together as lovers; it was something they both had been looking forward to for a long time already.
"Treize, there is nothing you can do about it if a mission takes longer. It's hardly your fault."
Bowing his head, Treize sighed softly. "I know. But it does not change the fact that I am breaking a promise."
He could feel his mother's eyes on him as she considered this. It made him wonder whether he should tell her why it mattered so much to him. He had not told her yet about his relationship with Zechs; in the beginning he and Zechs had agreed to wait, and somehow they had never gotten around to tell anyone. And considering that there were hardly a lot of people where it would be safe to say, they had stayed quiet and treasured their relationship in private. Dorothy knew - she had seen them kissing - and Treize suspected that Dimitry, his father's personal secretary and manservant, had guessed by now. But apart from them he doubted that anyone was aware that he and Zechs were lovers.
"Is it really so important that you get home?" his mother asked, her voice gentler than before.
Treize looked up again and nodded. "It is," he said simply.
"Then meet me in the hangar in fifteen minutes."
"Ah... excuse me?"
"I have just decided that there are some files at the Crimean base that I need here. And that they are important enough for me to handle personally. Of course I will need an adjutant, and you are the first one available. No need to rip anyone else out of their missions." She smiled at him. "Understood?"
Treize gave her a look of pure gratitude. "Thank you..."
"Don't mention it. I've been looking for a good excuse anyway to get away from here for a few hours. So go on, get packing."
Twenty minutes later they were aboard one of the shuttles reserved for the use of Specials Officers and headed west. Nobody had shown any reaction to decision of traveling so far just to fetch a few files; nobody would question a Colonel, and the Specials had a reputation for being eccentric anyway.
Treize had tried to reach Zechs in Kiev once more to tell him that he would arrive two hours later than planned. But the younger man had not been home, so Treize had asked Dimitry to inform him. Out of some reason he was feeling uneasy about this, though he could not quite tell where it came from. Zechs often went out on his own, roaming the grounds of the estate or just finding a quiet spot to spend some hours. It was not unusual that he would do something like this now too.
Telling himself not to worry, Treize leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes for a moment in an attempt to relax. He could still feel the shadows of the controls against his hands, the strain of the pressure against his wrists that had made steering so difficult. But the Suits would be altered now, and the pilots would only have to worry about the enemies. That thought in mind as he listened to the humming of the engines, he drifted off into a light sleep.
He couldn't say how long he had been resting. Maybe some minutes, or perhaps longer. The world outside the small windows was dark, and there were no lights of settlements visible.
"Feeling better?" Treize heard his mother's voice ask. Looking up, he saw her sitting in a chair opposite his. A small lamp next to her was giving off a soft yellow light, bright enough for her to read through what looked like reports.
"Yes, thank you." His body felt stiff, but it was nowhere nearly as bad as he had feared. And the headache was gone, fortunately. "When will we land?"
"In about an hour." She put the folder she was holding aside and uncrossed her legs, settling into a more comfortable position. "I was meaning to ask you something."
"Of course," Treize said, sitting a little more upright. "What is it?"
"I have been wondering about something. Why is it so important that you get home? You were not so eager to be there when it was your grandfather's birthday last month."
Treize looked at her, not quite sure what to say. It was true that he had not cared much lately to arrange stays in Kiev; Zechs had not been there, and somehow that made it seem less worthwile to go there.
"Grandfather does not mind if I am present," he said. "For him it is not so important."
His mother nodded in agreement. "I know. But it is important for Zechs?" There was genuine curiosity in her voice, and it put Treize at ease.
"Yes," he answered, wondering whether he should explain further.
"And why is it important for him? He is not so young anymore... and I am sure your father would have mentioned it if a party was planned."
Treize hesitated a little at this. He could just say that he had promised his younger friend, and it would be enough. But somehow there did not seem a reason to skirt the topic. It was his mother he was talking to, not some stranger.
"There is no party," he confirmed, looking into her eyes. "But it is important to Zechs, and it is important to me too. I have given him my word that I will be there, and I cannot break that promise. Especially not after making it to him. It would hurt Zechs, and I do not want that."
Raising an eyebrow, his mother studied his face. "If it was a girl you were talking about, I would think that you are in love."
"I don't think I could talk about a woman like that," Treize said softly. "But I can when it is about him."
"What do you... Oh." His mother blinked. "You mean you are..."
Treize bowed his head in acknowledgement, not saying anything just yet.
"I definitely did not see this coming."
He watched her, unable to entirely fight off the anxiety. He had not doubted that she would be understanding, but fear and uneasiness never were rational things. And hearing that your son was interested in other men rather than women certainly had the potential for causing disturbances.
"I am sorry I did not tell you sooner," he said, more out of the need to fill the sudden silence somehow than because he really felt he had to apologize.
"No need to be. After all we never asked..." His mother looked somewhat confused. "You are sure about this?"
Treize nodded. "I am. I have thought about it long enough." Ever since realizing that girls were nice and that they could be pretty, but that they would never be a match to the boy he had come to consider his soulmate. He had liked the few girlfriends he had had, but it was Zechs whom he loved. There was no question about that.
"And here your father and I were worried that you and Zechs would eventually start fighting over girls..." There was a hint of a smile playing on his mother's lips, but Treize could tell that she was still trying to figure out what to think.
"I do not think I could fight with Zechs over anything," he said, attempting to find words to explain. "He is... it makes him sad to fight. And I do not want to be the cause for that. He has had so many things in his life already to be sad about. I wish for him to be content."
"So returning to Kiev today is part of that?"
"It is. I have given him my word, and he would be disappointed if I broke that promise." Treize was on safer ground here; talking about Zechs was fine, but talking about himself was making him somewhat uncomfortable. It just was not a topic he wanted to be discussing with his mother, even though the rational part of his mind told him that his parents really deserved to know.
"Zechs surely has had enough hardships already." His mother too seemed a little more comfortable with this slight change in topic. "But what does he think about this?"
"He feels the same," Treize replied, conviction in his voice. There really was no reason for him to doubt Zechs' love.
"You sound sure. Why?"
Treize smiled a little. "He said so."