Treize sighed wearily as he closed the glass door to his shower cubicle and stepped under the powerful spray, tilting his head back to allow the water to soak into his hair and massage his scalp. With a bit of luck, the gentle thrum of the water on his skin would be enough to ease away the headache that had been throbbing behind his eyes on and off for the last few days.
As his body relaxed in the hot spray and the clouds of steam, Treize let his mind wander where it wanted to, shutting down the ruthless hold he’d kept on himself whilst he tackled the latest crisis. He wasn’t particularly surprised to find that his mind wanted to consider Zechs, and with another soft exhalation, he gave in, knowing he couldn’t put it off forever.
Learning from Jean-Michel Rena just what Zechs had unwittingly committed the Specials to take part in had infuriated Treize, and he had turned the force of that anger onto the younger man, unable to comprehend how he could have been so careless. Surely Noventa’s games were obvious?
In trying to explain to the pilot what had happened, though, Treize had realised that, just perhaps, they weren’t. Zechs had been utterly clueless as to what he’d done, and the dawning horror in his beautiful eyes as the general made a point of telling him in the cruellest fashion he could come up with had been painful to watch. Zechs genuinely hadn’t known how those vultures had used him.
With hindsight, Treize could admit that it hadn’t been at all fair of him to expect that the younger man would be able to stand up to Noventa and his cronies. The pilot was barely eighteen years old, and had a self-admitted lack of interest and ability in politics. Zechs had none of the older man’s natural aptitude for shell games, and the rigorous training Treize himself had received at the hands of his family Zechs had never had. In conjunction with the distraction his understandable concern for his lover had caused, the blond had been easy prey for a pack of wily old wolves.
Treize had drawn these conclusions as his temper cooled and had found himself ashamed of the way that he’d treated his lover. He’d asked far too much of the younger man and then had turned on him when he couldn’t deliver to perfection. Given everything that had been working against him, Zechs had actually done a better job than could have reasonably been asked.
Thinking back over the nasty little scene in his London office, Treize shivered despite the heat of the water. Angry or not, some of the things he’d said to Zechs that evening were far beyond the point of decency – it was no surprise at all that pilot didn’t appear to want anything to do with his commander anymore.
Swamped with his efforts at damage control, stressed beyond bearing and exhausted by the strain, Treize had all but ignored Zechs for the remainder of their time in London. He’d watched from a distance as the younger man gradually lost the sparkle that seemed to light him, without knowing what to say or do to fix things and without the opportunity to try. He’d wanted to go to the pilot, to apologise and attempt to make things better, to make Zechs understand that he hadn’t done anything wrong after all, but before Treize got the chance Zechs was gone, returning to his command in Egypt in the early hours of the morning without ever telling Treize that he was going.
The unspoken message was clear to the older man – Zechs wanted nothing more to do with him – but then he’d never been one to do as he was told.
The move back to Luxembourg, when it came, had been a blessed relief to everyone involved, and now, three weeks later, Zechs had flown in to deliver his periodic progress report and to take care of some other basic administrative nonsense. The younger man didn’t know it yet, but Treize had arranged to take that report himself, forcing the pilot to be in the room with him, to talk with him.
If Treize had his way, they wouldn’t be talking about duty for long.
Stepping from the spray a little, Treize reached out for his shampoo, poured a small amount into his hands and began to work it through his hair, pressing his fingers into his scalp rhythmically. It was such a pleasant feeling to be able to do this properly again.
Over two months of not being able to use his left hand had left Treize with a new appreciation of how capable his body usually was. Simple tasks had been difficult, if not impossible, and one of the things he had missed most was the ability to wash his hair as thoroughly as he usually did. For a man concerned with his personal grooming to the point of obsession, having his hair less than perfectly clean was annoying in the extreme.
The week he’d spent in the hospital following the injury had been the most trying, overall. A civilian facility to begin with, the hospital had been swamped by the number of casualties they’d received from the base, and out of their depth with the nature of the injuries those casualties were suffering from. The staff, even with the support of the Specials medical unit that had flown in, was stretched to their limit and even for a patient of Treize’s rank they didn’t have time to do more than was necessary. Though Treize couldn’t fault the care they’d taken of him or any of his troops, he could wish wholeheartedly that he’d been allowed to wash a shade more often than he had.
Once installed in his London house, the general had found that Zechs was only too willing to assist him with his bathing, whether that meant simply hovering around to pass the older man things as he needed them, or going as far as getting in the bath with Treize to hold him whilst the heat of the water soaked out some of the pain he was experiencing.
After their argument, though, with Zechs gone back to Egypt, Treize had been forced to manage alone and he was only grateful that he had already healed well enough to make the switch to the much less cumbersome, waterproof brace.
Glancing at his left arm as he reached next for his soap, Treize allowed a rueful little smile to touch his lips. A fortnight ago, his doctors had allowed him to switch the support for his arm again, and this latest, and hopefully last, of the three devices was also the most tolerable of the lot. Light and almost comfortable, it was little more than a reinforced sleeve kept in place by adjustable straps. Treize’s physiotherapist had actually admitted in the session the general had just come from that he was being made to wear it more as a way to remind him not to stress his arm too much than out of actual necessity.
It would be a surprise for Zechs, at least, to see his commander seemingly recovered. Although the blond would certainly learn the truth if Treize got his way, until the general removed his shirt the new brace was undetectable, perfectly concealed by his heavy uniform.
Treize realised suddenly that his hands, prompted by thoughts of the younger man, were lingering on his body more than washing it, adding tiny flares of physical pleasure to the tension his mind was creating in him. Despite one or two occasions of rather creative thinking on their parts, there had been almost two months were Treize had been able to touch his love properly, and combined with a nearly a month of not seeing Zechs at all, with the uncertainty of their relationship casting a pall over his mind, it was enough to leave the older man more than a little eager for what he had planned for the evening.
Treize hesitated for a moment, taking a deep breath as he let himself sink into the light haze of pleasure he was feeling, wondering whether or not to let it go any further. An admitted hedonist, he was normally the last person to advocate self-restraint over something as trivial as masturbation, but on this occasion, with his plans for the evening firmly in his mind, he let himself drift for a few seconds and then forced himself to turn off the shower and go about the business of drying off and getting dressed, suppressing the urge ruthlessly. Practiced as he was in making himself feel good, there was no comparison between that and what he felt when he was with Zechs.
His body humming pleasantly, the headache banished completely, Treize slipped into his uniform and made his way to his office to wait for the younger man.
On the far side of the base, Zechs forced his face into stillness as he stepped down from the plane that had brought him in from Egypt and came face to face almost immediately with Lady Une.
Wondering what she was doing here, he sincerely hoped it wasn’t more than her customary greeting to an incoming officer. If it turned out that he was supposed to deliver his update to her, the pilot thought he might be forced to scream. Une wasn’t the easiest of superiors on a good day but after a month of frontline action and a five-hour flight she would be intolerable. And that was if she’d recovered from her amazing bitching streak in London.
He saluted her neatly as his feet touched the solid concrete of the hanger floor. “Lady Une?”
“Major Marquise, welcome back to Luxembourg. I trust the flight was comfortable?”
“Perfectly, Lady, thank you,” Zechs agreed, responding to the empty pleasantry in like fashion. He extended a hand as Une offered him the small paper wallet that contained the details of his stay at HQ.
“Your room assignment and schedule until you return to your squadron, Major,” she told him unnecessarily.
“Thank you again. You wouldn’t happen to know when the first debriefing is scheduled, by any chance?” he asked, praying for it to be in the morning so he could fall into bed and sleep for twelve hours before he had to have his wits about him.
“19:00 this evening, Major. I assume that won’t be a problem?”
“No, of course not,” Zechs agreed, but he groaned internally. Had Une done it deliberately? He was well aware that scheduling debriefings was her responsibility, and he wouldn’t have put it past her to try to catch him out by not giving him chance to rest first. If she had done it on purpose, where had she found a Staff officer willing to work after dinner to take a Major’s routine report? Unless Une was taking his report herself…
“Lady, forgive me, but would you know which officer is conducting the debriefing?”
Behind her glasses, Une’s eyes flicked to the envelope she’d given the pilot, as much as saying ‘look it up for yourself!’ but she merely smiled tightly as she answered, “Mr. Treize, I believe. He insisted.”
“Ah. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Any other questions?” Une asked, but didn’t give him time to reply before she carried on, “No? I assume you remember your way around then? Good.”
Zechs watched in wry amusement as she turned on her boot heel and stalked away.
A glance at his wristwatch when Lady Une disappeared from his sight had been enough to jolt Zechs into action. He had just a little more than an hour before he had to report for his debriefing and if he couldn’t have the night’s rest he’d been hoping for, then he at least needed a long shower, a pot of coffee to try to wake himself up and a chance to look over his notes again. With luck, Treize would keep it short and wouldn’t ask too many awkward questions.
Flicking open the envelope he was holding in his hands, Zechs scanned the first page until he found the room he had been assigned and began making his way there with a swift stride. He found the room rather easily and unlocked it with the code printed next to the room number. Pausing only briefly to look around before dumping his duffle onto the neatly made bunk, Zechs headed into the bathroom to turn on the shower.
With the water warming, he made his way back into the main room and found the coffee machine, setting it to brew as he pulled his uniform off and dug into his bag enough to find the case he’d packed his toiletries in.
Half an hour soaking in the shower left Zechs feeling something close to human again, and he dried his hair with practiced ease before sitting down on the edge of his bunk with his coffee to read.
After the first quick glance through of his notes, though, he couldn’t make himself concentrate any more and he sighed as he tossed the file aside and flopped back onto the pillows. In his mind he could hear Lady Une’s voice replaying over and over again, ‘Mr. Treize, I believe. He insisted.’ and he shook his head a little, trying to banish the emotions her words had called up.
If there had been one officer he wanted to take his report even less than Une herself, it was Treize. The unrelenting nature of his duties for the past month had left Zechs with very little time to think about what had happened between the two of them – something he’d been grateful for at the time – but now it meant that his own feelings on the subject were no more resolved than they had been in London. Despite Noin’s assurances to the contrary, it seemed as though Treize could and did hold Zechs responsible for what had happened. In the week following the argument in Treize’s office, the general had barely spoken to the pilot and he’d made no effort at all to contact Zechs during his time in Egypt.
From a man who, two months before, hadn’t been able to go 24 hours without at least an email back and forth, Treize’s silence was an effective way of making sure Zechs knew how things stood between them. Clearly, Treize wasn’t about to tolerate someone as useless as the pilot had proven himself to be as his lover. It was still up for debate whether there was anything of their friendship to be salvaged.
Seeing Treize hadn’t been on Zechs’s list of tasks to be accomplished in this brief stay at headquarters. In fact, it had been his sincere intention to avoid the older man altogether so that Treize wouldn’t be able to confirm everything Zechs was suspecting. However self-deluding it might be, the pilot wanted desperately to hold onto that last shred of hope he had that he hadn’t ruined things completely. Hearing Treize tell him things were over would tear that away.
It appeared, though, that the general had other plans and Zechs supposed he shouldn’t be too surprised – Treize had never been one to shirk away from a task that had to be faced.
It remained only to be seen whether Zechs could hang on to his composure long enough to get through this meeting without making a total fool of himself.
The beep of the reminder he had set on his watch forced him to pull away from his thoughts and he began to dress methodically, taking the time to make sure his appearance was as close to perfect as he could get it.
Zechs hesitated for a full fifteen seconds before he knocked on Treize’s office door, waiting for the second hand on his watch to tick down so that he would be precisely on time. His rap was answered almost immediately by that so-familiar voice bidding him to come in and Zechs obeyed, taking a deep breath meant to calm his nerves and feeling suddenly grateful for the mask hiding most of his expression.
Treize was sitting behind his desk, the chair half turned away so that he could tilt his head to look out of the window, balancing a cup and saucer between his hands. Zechs was both surprised and relieved to see that his friend seemed to have the full use of his left arm back, with no sign of any support or restraint to be seen.
He drew himself to attention as Treize turned the chair and set the cup down on the desk. For a moment, his sharp, stern expression made his eyes hard as he scanned over the younger man, and then the general came to his feet, smiling affectionately and his gaze gentled. “Hello, Zechs,” he greeted quietly.
“Sir,” the pilot returned formally, wondering what was happening. The warmth of Treize’s tone was surprising, not at all what Zechs had been expecting and he couldn’t help but feel the first edges of panic as he tried to work out why the older man would behave this way. “I have my report for you, sir, if you…?”
“Yes, of course. Do put it on my desk – I’ll read it later.” Treize waited until the younger man’s move to obey put them level, then he reached out and brushed his fingers across one red sleeve, feeling the heat from the other man’s body even through the heavy fabric. “How have you been, Zechs? You didn’t write to me….”
The fleeting touch and the almost wistful tone of Treize’s question made Zechs freeze, his head snapping round so he could look at his commander. “I didn’t imagine you wanted me to, sir and I had no wish to make a nuisance of myself.”
The soft smile touched Treize’s mouth again. “Zechs…” he chided gently. “How could you ever be a nuisance? Of course I wanted you to. Don’t I always?”
“Yes, but…. I didn’t think you were talking to me, sir. You made it rather clear in London that you didn’t want to see me.”
“By asking you to leave me alone after the meeting? I am sorry about that but I rather needed the space for a few hours. Losing my temper like that was quite embarrassing enough without you seeing it. I didn’t mean for you to avoid me altogether.”
Zechs frowned, beyond confused. This really wasn’t the conversation he’d been expecting to have. “No, sir…I know that,” he admitted, “but it…. Well, it looked as though you were avoiding me.”
“I was busy, Zechs. Nothing more.”
“I’m sorry, sir. It didn’t look that way.” Zechs stopped, caught his breath and spoke without thinking. “Treize, if that’s really all that was going on, why didn’t you write to me?!”
To Zechs’s surprise colour touched the older man’s face.
“Ah,” Treize murmured, “you see, I rather thought it was you that didn’t want anything more to do with me. I didn’t want to seem… pushy, I suppose. I hoped that if I let you be for a while that you might… forgive me.”
“Forgive you? For what? I thought I was the one who….”
Treize shook his head. “For the way I spoke to you in my office.” The general let the words linger for a moment or two, and then, seeing that Zechs didn’t understand, he sighed. “Zechs, sit down. And take that damned mask off.”
The pilot began to obey without thinking, and then stopped himself, realising that he had almost slipped back into the habits that had formed so naturally in the months since his relationship with Treize had changed. In the weeks leading up to the Dover bombing, almost every evening the two men had spent together had started in Treize’s office, with Zechs complying with those same two instructions as the older man moved to pour them both a drink much as he was now.
“Sir – this is meant to be a debriefing….”
Treize turned his head at Zechs’s words, wondering at the mixed tones of confusion and chastisement in the pilot’s voice. “I’m aware of that,” the general replied, before hesitating briefly and smiling ruefully at himself. “So much for my grand strategy,” he quipped. “Shall I confess that I forced the Lady to assign me this debriefing? And that I made her schedule it out of hours?”
“I knew you’d insisted upon taking the debriefing – Lady Une told me so – but I thought she’d picked the time to spite me. I haven’t been off the plane more than an hour and I would have preferred to do this in the morning.”
“Ah. You should blame me for the poor timing, not the Lady. I insisted and I apologise if it’s causing you problems.”
Zechs shook his head. “Not problems, precisely, sir. It’s not important.”
The older man tilted his head, analysing. “I’m sorry,” he murmured after a moment or two. “You’re jet lagged and I should have realised you would be. I was going to offer you a glass of wine but would you rather have coffee?”
“Actually, water. If you have it,” Zechs added quickly. “I’ve already tried coffee and I think alcohol would just about knock me out,” he explained.
“I have tonic water, if that will do?” Treize asked, waited for Zechs to nod and went to the familiar cabinet. “Sit down, will you? It’s giving me neck ache looking up at you! And take off that mask!”
Surprised into chuckling, Zechs dropped down onto the couch, removing the helmet with a little sigh of relief and watched as Treize fussed with bottles and glasses.
“If we were in my rooms I could ice this for you, but alas…” the general teased as he handed one of the glasses to the blond and sat down next to him.
“This is fine, sir.”
“Well, rather you than me, but each to their own.”
Zechs didn’t reply other than to take a sip from the glass and then scowl slightly. “You said something about a strategy, sir?”
Treize smiled. “I did, yes. Not one of my better plans it appears. You’re here under rather false pretences, I’m afraid. It’s not very professional of me,” he admitted, “but I scheduled this meeting deliberately to force you to talk to me. I never had intention of discussing Egypt with you. It would be more than a little pointless anyway.”
Zechs fixed his gaze on the floor. “I… thought that might be the case, sir. Before we talk about… other things… could I have ten minutes to discuss Egypt with you, please? It wouldn’t be pointless. I don’t think you realise how bad things are there and…”
“You can have as long as you like if you feel the need, Zechs. You should know that.”
“Thank you, sir. I wouldn’t insist but….” Zechs swallowed hard. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, sir. I know it’s not what you want to hear but, quite honestly, I need help and I don’t think I can afford to wait until the next debriefing to ask for it.”
Treize, in the middle of leaning back against his desk, paused and stood straight again. “Oh? What makes you say that? From what I can gather you’re doing a more than commendable job.”
“I’m not, sir,” Zechs denied, wondering what on Earth had given Treize that impression. “Before I left for Dover, sir, we were making some progress in expanding the border. Admittedly, it was slow going, but still….” He frowned. “Sometime in the months I was away the Arab Independent States have found a troop strength we never expected they could have. They’re using mobile suits of a type we’ve never seen before and our Leo’s just aren’t up to it. They aren’t strong enough to counter the A.I.S.’s numerical superiority. We’re holding the line for now, but….”
“But not for much longer. I know, Zechs, I have been reading your reports. I didn’t mean to sound as though I was dismissing your concerns for your command by saying that your debriefing wasn’t necessary.” Treize smiled sympathetically, and then allowed the expression to tighten a little as something occurred to him. “Why is it that you think you need help? I realise it must be an exhausting post but you’ve seemed to be doing quite well. Is it too much for you? Should I find a replacement for you and bring you back here?”
Zechs’s head snapped up. “What? No, of course not! I didn’t say the post was too much for me!”
Treize raised an eyebrow, forcing the smile down so that it was internal only. “Yes, you did. You’ve just told me you need help.”
“I do. I can’t hold the line without more troops. I know you trusted me to… but….”
“Ah, I see. You meant to say that your squadron needs help. That your squadron is under-strength for the task assigned to it. Not that you, personally, couldn’t cope.”
“Forgive me, sir, but… that’s what I just said!” Zechs spluttered, wondering what the hell Treize was drinking to have this effect on him.
The general shook his head. “No, love, it really isn’t,” he said softly.
“Surely you knew what I meant?” Zechs demanded. “Or do you not trust me at all anymore?” he added quietly.
“I trust you absolutely,” Treize confirmed. “And, yes, I knew what you meant. Consider this your first lesson in politics – semantics can be critically important, as we’ve just seen. What you intended to say and what you actually said were two completely different things. No politician who wants to survive ever lies directly but we’re all very good at linguistic misdirection.” The general waited a breath or two. “As you discovered with Noventa, I think.”
Zechs tensed. “I don’t think he had to be very good. I was just too stupid to realise what he was doing.”
Treize snorted and shook his head. “Too inexperienced, yes, perhaps. You’ve never been stupid, Zechs. May we come back to this?”
The pilot nodded mutely, wishing with everything that he was that the subject of the Horse Guards meeting never had to be raised again.
Treize took a sip of his drink and looked at the younger man inquisitively, noting the sudden misery in every line of the blonde’s body. The older man had to cringe a little at the thought that his own behaviour was at least partly responsible. “As I said,” he began, forcing his mind away from that idea. “Your debriefing was mostly unnecessary. I have been reading your reports and I agree with your assessment of the situation. Your squadron won’t be able to hold the line for very much longer.”
“Then, you’ll give me the reinforcements I need?”
“Not… precisely,” Treize corrected. “When you go back at the end of the week, I’m coming with you.”
“Excuse me?” Zechs asked, confused. “You’re…?”
“I’m coming with you,” Treize repeated. “Along with about half of our fighting strength. Your squadron will be retired from the theatre, stood down for three weeks and then sent to China.”
“Hush,” Treize interrupted. “You’ve been reassigned. I have a job I need you for, if you think you can stand to stay in Egypt?”
“If you want me to.”
“That’s good. I would hate to have to lose you when you’re doing so well. You’re proving to be a brilliant commander. I doubt I could find anyone else who could have held out even this long.”
“I can’t complete the task you assigned me and you say I’m doing well? I’d love to know how you work that out,” Zechs murmured, his tone bitter. “I think you would have been better to leave me as a Captain. I don’t think I’m suited to higher command.”
“Such a shame that I disagree with you, then, isn’t it? Or would that be fortunate for your career?” Treize got to his feet, pacing restlessly. “Twice in recent months I’ve asked you to take on tasks beyond the scope of your rank and your experience. Both times you’ve performed to your absolute best, and well beyond anything I should ever have expected of you. If you haven’t succeeded in completing those tasks as they were written, the fault doesn’t lie with you.”
Zechs was watching the older man with something twisting in his eyes that Treize wasn’t sure he wanted to understand. If the general hadn’t known how ill he’d used the pilot already, he would have had clear evidence of it now – and it was no wonder that Noin had seemed to be gritting her teeth every time she’d spoken to him. She must be absolutely furious but it wasn’t done to read one’s Commander-in Chief a riot act.
“I thought it did,” Zechs replied eventually. “And you certainly appeared to think it did last time.”
“Yes, I did, and I was wrong to.” Treize sighed and came to stand in front of Zechs, looking down levelly. “I can only ask you to forgive me for that.”
“What am I supposed to be forgiving you for, Treize?” the younger man suddenly demanded, dropping the façade of formality he’d kept up so far. “Pointing out what I’d allowed to happen? I’m furious with myself, so I can hardly blame you for being angry with me!”
“I’m not angry with you. Myself, perhaps. Noventa and Septum, certainly. Whichever fools on L5 thought all this was good idea in the first place, but not you.”
“But you should be!” Zechs insisted. “I did exactly what you’d told me not to. I let them use me and my concern for you to get their own way! I didn’t listen to you when you warned me what sort of people they were and it nearly meant the deaths of all those colonists! If you hadn’t stopped it…”
“Which I did. But Zechs, I never should have put you in that position in the first place. It was completely unreasonable of me to expect you to be able to stand up to Noventa!” Treize shook his head tiredly. “The man’s a master politician. He’s been manipulating people for almost fifty years. Ventei’s the same and everyone else in that room was a pawn. They were all following a well-rehearsed script, and you didn’t even have the title of the play. All things considered, you did remarkably well!”
“You didn’t think that in London.”
The flat, lifeless tone of Zechs’s voice communicated nothing and everything to Treize about how the pilot was feeling. That the other officer was still upset and angered by their argument was obvious, but there was nothing to tell the general where in the wide range of possible emotions Zechs was falling at the moment. “I’m not particularly convinced that I was thinking, so much as reacting,” Treize replied quietly. “It’s no real excuse but I wasn’t at my best and I’m afraid I let it get to me more than I should have. I’m aware that my behaviour was unacceptable both on a professional level and on a personal one, and that I said things you would be within your rights to be utterly infuriated with me for. I used things about you that I was told in confidence and that I knew would wound in a way I never should have.”
Zechs was looking up at the older man steadily and he gave a half-hearted little shrug as Treize dropped into an expectant silence, completely lost for what to say. The general’s almost dispassionate recitation was unsettling in a strange way.
Treize waited a moment or two and then dropped his eyes away from Zechs’s to focus on the empty glass he still had in his hand. “As I’ve said,” he murmured, “I can only ask you to forgive me. Only you can decide whether you can or not.” The general matched Zechs’s little shrug as he turned away slightly. “If you can’t, then I accept that. Allow me to say good night to you now and I’ll meet you at breakfast tomorrow morning to begin preparations for Egypt.”
“And if I can?” Zechs asked, voice soft, knowing there was no real question about it.
Treize looked around sharply, his blue eyes flashing a little. “Then, I…” He stopped, shrugged again and smiled apologetically. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I had it all planned but none of that seems important. Stay with me?” he asked.
The younger man had to smile at the touch of uncertainty in that question. Treize this off-balance and unsure of things was a rarity. It was a slightly unkind part of Zechs that found pleasure in seeing it but it was a pleasure nonetheless. “If you’d like me to,” he replied.
“I’d like you to. I’ve missed you.” The general turned back to face his pilot fully and smiled again.
“I can say the same about you,” Zechs confessed, standing up so he could close the space between the two of them. “I honestly thought you’d arranged to see me so you could tell me you wanted nothing else to do with me.”
“Silly of you.”
“Possibly,” Zechs agreed. “Are we staying here, or…?”
“I have no idea….”
Zechs chuckled softly, wondering how long it would be before one or the other of them moved. The heat and the want in Treize’s eyes were only a match for those in his own, the pilot knew, yet the two of them were standing barely inches apart, gazing at each other fixedly and without either of them making any attempt to touch the other.
The younger officer reached out with one hand just as the general let his weight shift. It was enough that Zechs could catch hold of Treize and pull the older man against him, closing the gap between them.
“Mein Gott,” Treize breathed, letting his forehead rest on Zechs’s shoulder as his arms slipped around the pilot’s waist. He sighed and it sounded almost shaky to the younger man.
“Did you change your cologne?” Treize asked quietly and his breath was warm and slightly damp on the skin above the pilot’s collar. “I don’t think I recognise this one.”
“You wouldn’t. It’s something Noin sent to me from L4. Do you like it?”
“It could grow on me, I suppose. It’s certainly nothing like the other one,” Treize noted, inhaling again slowly, familiarising himself with this new facet to the scent he identified with the younger man. The heavy smoky perfume Zechs’s classmate had chosen for him was a far cry from the light, citrusy cologne’s the blond seemed to lean toward himself.
“No, but I think I was tired of that one anyway,” Zechs replied.
Treize nodded, deciding he liked the new scent, at least at the moment. Whatever else it was, it was certainly more seductive than the old one.
“Why are we talking about my new cologne?” Zechs asked and Treize shook his head.
“I have no idea,” he murmured, brushing his lips across the soft skin of Zechs’s throat.
“Oh!” the blond gasped. “Do that again, will you?”
Treize hummed an agreement, doing as he was asked and then lifting his head when Zechs’s fingers caught in the neatly trimmed strands of hair at the older man’s collar and tugged gently. The unspoken request was hardly difficult to understand and the general leaned in, having to tilt his head back a little as well as to one side as his mouth met Zechs’s and lingered.
The kiss deepened quickly, the chaste pressure melting into the taste of the other man, layered flavours of mint tooth care products, smoky Cognac and bitter tonic water tinted with the ginger extract Treize had flavoured it with. The general’s hands were tangled in Zechs’s hair, petting the silky lengths as slowly as the pilot’s own fingers were stroking over the clothing wrapped lithe muscle of Treize’s back, digging a little when they hit the occasional point of tension.
This type of kissing – Treize had distinctly different ways of going about it, Zechs had learned, depending on the mood he was in – was a familiar cue to their bodies. Though this kiss stayed lazy where others had quickly gotten rushed and a touch desperate, the rising need eventually forced Zechs to pull his mouth away from the general’s.
“Treize, here or…?” he asked again, when he’d got enough breath.
The older man shrugged, panting. “I don’t know,” he gasped. “When I asked you to stay I didn’t mean you had to come to bed with me.”
“I don’t care what you meant. Answer me. Here, your rooms or mine?”
Treize just shook his head. “You decide….”
Zechs blinked. “What was in that Cognac?” he teased. “This is most unlike you.”
“Is it?” Treize's expression was determinedly unconcerned. “I don’t care.”
“All right. Your rooms then. They’re more secure and the bed’s bigger. Come on.”
Treize nodded, turning away from the younger man and freeing himself from the hold Zechs still had on him. “Sound enough reasoning, I suppose.”
“I thought so.” Zechs turned to head to the door and Treize stopped him with a touch.
“A moment, if you will. We’re both a little rumpled – it wouldn’t do for anyone to see us like this.”
“Probably not. Not that anyone’s likely to hit on the truth, but none of the reasons people could decide upon for our state would do our reputations any good,” Zechs agreed.
A few seconds spent straightening ornate uniforms and smoothing mussed hair back into place left the two men looking almost as pristine as they normally did, and finally Treize pronounced himself satisfied that they’d pass inspection. “As long as we don’t dawdle,” he added.
“I don’t think there’s any danger of that, Treize,” Zechs replied dryly.
The general smirked as he opened his door. “Oh, admittedly. But one never knows what will happen next. Une could be lurking just around the corner for all we know. She’s been impossible enough recently without her seeing this. Lord alone knows what she’d slip into my coffee tomorrow morning!”
“Short of a love potion, nothing,” Zechs snorted.
The older man shot the pilot a slightly rueful glance and shrugged. “Your coffee, then. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and all that. You aren’t her favourite person at the moment, I’m afraid.”
Both men absently returned the salute of the guard at the end of the corridor and turned, as in step as if they’d been on a parade field, to make their way down the flight of stairs that would take them to the sweeping lobby of the building. It was a walk they had made together dozens of times but, somehow, the tension in the air made it unfamiliar. The anticipation between them was palpable, reflected in the little glances they kept throwing one another and the casual, seemingly accidental way Treize kept brushing against Zechs as they walked.
“I’m never Une’s favourite person, Treize,” Zechs pointed out as they turned from the bustle of the lobby out into the courtyard.
“I know.” Treize shook his head. “Can we discuss the Lady another time, please? Thoughts of her don’t really go with my current mood.”
Zechs smirked. “I’m glad to hear it.” He turned automatically for the door that would take them into the Staff Officers Block and stopped in surprise when Treize didn’t turn with him. “Where are you going?” he asked as the older man carried on walking.
Treize stopped, looked back over his shoulder and gestured imperiously for Zechs to rejoin him. “That’s right, you won’t know,” he murmured when the blond was back at his shoulder. “I should have told you this earlier, probably, but I don’t have rooms on the base anymore.”
Zechs blinked. “You don’t?”
“No. Working from home in London inspired me, so I bought a house.”
“You… bought a house?” the pilot quizzed, taken a little aback. “You hardly need another one,” he quipped. Zechs was used to Treize doing things that surprised him, but this was on a slightly different scale than he was used to.
Treize gestured with a hand, dismissing that comment, and let an impish little smile touch his lips. “I do seem to have a surfeit, I have to agree. But although the Lady agreed that my staying off base when I wasn’t working would be safer, she also agreed that an hour’s flight to get here each morning would prove problematic. Since that counted out the Paris apartments and I don’t own anything closer I had little choice but to find somewhere new.”
“Oh. Is that where we’re going then?”
“If you don’t mind. It needs some work still – some of the modifications I have planned are quite drastic – but the residential areas are already finished and my rooms are quite wonderfully comfortable.”
Zechs shrugged. “You’ll have to allow me time to sign out of the base, but of course I don’t mind.”
Treize smiled. “I’ve already taken care of that – Une marked you down originally as being seconded to my command for the duration of your stay so you will be assumed to be wherever I am.” The general watched what he could see of Zechs’s face beneath the mask he had replaced before leaving his commander’s office, waiting for the surprise that showed to fade away before he spoke again. “And, I’m glad you don’t mind. The house really is far more comfortable, and definitely more private. Always a good thing, wouldn’t you agree?”
Zechs appeared to still for moment, then he nodded. “Always…”
Smut warning - Just sayin'....
Treize felt the hard wood of the door pressing into his back, the lines and swirls of the ornate carving on it clear through the thin fabric of the shirt he was wearing. Zechs had barely allowed Treize to get through the door of his bedroom and shut it behind him before he had caught the older man in his arms, lips eager against the general’s skin and his mouth, and hands working at his clothing with almost feverish intensity.
Treize had found himself with his back against the door as Zechs stripped him of his uniform cape and coat without quite knowing how he had got there. All he knew was that the blonde’s mouth on his own was threatening to send him dizzy and that his own hands were pulling Zechs’s clothes from him with as much enthusiasm as Zechs was pulling at Treize’s.
If absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder it certainly seemed to have an effect on something.
Zechs’s fingers were tugging at the last of the fiddly little decorative buttons on Treize’s shirt, the pilot’s breath hissing in frustration when it wouldn’t come loose as quickly as the others had. He tugged harder and Treize was forced to catch at the younger man’s hands to keep him from simply yanking the button loose from its stitching and, most likely, tearing the shirt when it did.
“Steady, love,” the general soothed, dealing with the button himself and shrugging out of the shirt to let it drop on the floor at his feet. “We have all night. There’s no need to rush things so.”
Zechs shook his head violently, then moved in to trail kisses along Treize’s throat and the line of his collarbone still hidden beneath the long sleeved t-shirt he was wearing as an undershirt. “I haven’t even seen you in a month. I haven’t touched you. Don’t tell me to slow down,” he murmured, “because I can’t… I want you too much….” The pilot lifted his head just enough to pull his own t-shirt off over his head and then he was dragging at Treize’s. “Why must you wear so many damned layers all the time?” he demanded, obviously irritated.
Treize shrugged, easing the undershirt off over the brace on his wrist and then dropping it with the rest of his clothes. “Habit, mostly,” he answered, standing on the heel of each boot in turn to get them off and then bending to tug his socks free. His feet sank into the thick, soft carpeting and he flexed his toes, relieving the ache in them that came from wearing the boots he was still breaking in all day.
Treize saw Zechs look up from taking his own boots off and scowl, and then gentle hands were closing on the general’s left wrist.
“I thought this would have healed by now,” Zechs wondered. “You seem to be using it normally….”
“I am; it’s fine,” Treize replied. “The brace is a precaution, that’s all. I’ll be wearing it till I complete the physiotherapy.”
The younger man released his grip and bit his lip, gazing at the older man with worried eyes. “Treize, maybe we shouldn’t do this…” he murmured. “I’m not sure I can be gentle with you right now and I don’t want to hurt you.”
Treize raised an eyebrow. “My wrist is fine, Zechs, and I don’t particularly want you to be gentle.”
Zechs was still looking down at his commander with hesitant eyes. “Still, I’m bigger than you now and…”
Treize made a noise in the back of his throat that sounded very much like a growl to the blond, and then the general’s hands were in the pilot’s hair again, twisting into it and pulling the younger man down so they could kiss.
“If I wear too many clothes, then you talk too damned much,” Treize hissed. “I asked you not to rush things, not come to a complete stop! You aren’t going to hurt me, for God’s sake!”
One long fingered hand untangled from the hair it was holding and slid down the younger man’s neck, scratching lightly across his chest and stomach, pausing only to brush lightly over a nipple and make Zechs jump in reaction before it came to linger at the waistband of his trousers. One fingertip played back and forward, teasing as Treize leaned forward to nip at Zechs’s jaw line and speak into his ear. “Have you forgotten what you know about me? You won’t hurt me, meine schönheit,” he murmured, feeling the tension in the pilot growing under his hands, “not when I’m this worked up. You can’t.”
Zechs shivered as the older man talked. He’d only seen Treize in this sort of mood once or twice before, and the pilot was embarrassed by the realisation that he had forgotten what the general was like when he was this way out. Treize’s endearment, ‘my beauty’ , stole Zechs’s breath away for a second and the light pressure of that lone finger was frustrating beyond belief.
“If I’d wanted romantic lovemaking I’d have gone to the trouble of setting the mood,” Treize continued, the words liquid warmth against Zechs’s ear, punctuated with fleeting little kisses. “I don’t. Bruise me, bite me, scratch me, bleed me. You can’t hurt me, but I’d love it if you’d try to. Whatever you do, I want you naked and on that bed and soon!”
The older man pulled back a little, enough that he could meet the pilot’s gaze with his own, and the heat, the need, the challenge in those sapphire eyes was intoxicating for Zechs. There was a clear demand in Treize’s words and Zechs had never been able to say no to him.
Not that he wanted to this time.
Remembering an evening in Treize’s office and an afternoon in Salzburg; a razor blade in the lodge bathroom in Sweden, and a long, hushed conversation against the pillows in Dover, Zechs locked his hands firmly around Treize’s wrists, making sure he had leverage, and brought his mouth down on his commander’s.
The older man struggled against the grip, opening his mouth to Zechs’s at the same time, a bizarre mix of resistance and submission to the younger man. The pilot found it maddening and before he quite knew he’d done it, Zechs had shoved Treize back up against the door, hard.
The carving of the door bit into Treize’s spine again and he tore his lips from the younger man’s, panting. “Oh, God! Yes!” he gasped out, twisting his hands from Zechs’s grip until they were free, ignoring the burn of skin on skin as he slid his arms around the pilot’s neck and pulled him in harder. Zechs’s own hands, suddenly empty, settled on Treize’s waist and one knee slid between the general’s until their bodies were touching along their full length. The younger man’s body weight was warm and solid, holding Treize in place pressed into the door, his hair soft and heavy next to the backs of the older man’s forearms.
Zechs felt Treize’s body go pliant, all the resistance melting out of him, to leave his movements liquid as he rocked and writhed against the blond. In a matter of minutes Zechs could feel the pool of heat gathering in his stomach, tightening his body and he had to pull away for fear of ending things before they’d really started.
Treize whimpered his disappointment, his hands locking on the pilot’s shoulders as he tried to prevent Zechs moving away. “Don’t stop…” he pleaded.
“I have to. I’m sorry, but I can’t keep that up, or I’ll...”
Jewel-hued eyes flickered open, clouded with sensation but still bright with curiosity. Treize looked at his companion for a moment, and then smiled slowly as he took the single step needed to press his body to Zechs’s again. “Still don’t trust my powers of resuscitation, then?” he asked softly, letting his perfectly kept nails bite into golden skin a little.
Zechs shivered at the sharp flickers of pain. “What?” Treize pressed down a little harder and he tensed. “That’s not helping, Treize!”
“Depends on what you mean…” Treize murmured, letting go of Zechs’s shoulders to score his nails down the blonde’s spine slowly, smiling and sighing when the younger man flinched away, then let his eyes close as he whimpered. Even white teeth nipped at Zechs’s mouth. “I want you,” the older man whispered, teasing the blond with the warmth of his breath as his hands found narrow hips and tugged, pulling Zechs back against him.
Zechs jumped at the contact, fighting to draw away again, succeeding only in making the general tighten his grip. The older man held him still for a moment, then began pushing him across the room, guiding him the few steps it took for the back of Zechs’s knees to hit the edge of the bed as easily as he would have a partner on the dance floor. Zechs almost lost his balance and Treize steadied him with a small smile before letting go of the younger man completely and moving past him to climb onto the neatly made bed.
The older man settled himself against the pillows and held a hand out. “Come on,” he encouraged. “You aren’t going to stand there all night, surely?”
Jolting himself from watching Treize’s long-limbed, graceful sprawl across his pristine sheets, Zechs crawled onto the end to sit next to the general, wondering why he suddenly felt so awkward.
Treize shook his head slightly and reached up slowly with the same hand he had extended to pull the blond down into his arms. They kissed for a minute or two before Treize rolled the both of them so that he was flat on his back with Zechs pressed into his side, half on top of him. The pilot looked down at Treize with a mix of heat and confusion in his eyes and the general, his own eyes soft with affection, ran caressing fingers across the younger man’s cheek.
“Where were we?” Treize asked quietly. “I was quite enjoying that.”
“So was I… that was the problem,” Zechs murmured back, sliding his hands across the lean body next to his without thought.
“Hardly a problem, love,” Treize countered, yielding to the blonde’s touches with a soft murmur of pleasure. “Do you really think I would have minded?”
“You said you didn’t want things over so fast.”
The general smiled, letting his fingertips brush over soft skin, tracing curves and lines, feeling the way Zechs’s muscles shifted as he moved. “Zechs, if you thought that would have ended things you really have forgotten a lot about me…”
“Maybe.” Zechs shrugged. “I don’t think my uniform trousers would have appreciated it much, either.”
Treize chuckled. “Perhaps you should take them off then.”
Zechs tilted his head, looking down in amusement. “Just perhaps,” he replied dryly, moving to comply. As he dropped his clothes on the floor at the side of the bed and rolled to lie back on the sheets again, he was pleased to find that Treize had taken the chance to get rid of the remains of his clothes too, and had sat up to root in the top drawer of the chest positioned by the bed to act as a night stand. He closed the drawer a moment later and settled back onto the bed, looking at Zechs with amusement in his eyes as he tucked whatever it was that he’d found under the pillow without letting the younger man see it.
“Much better,” Treize murmured, looking over Zechs slowly. The weeks in the desert had deepened the faintly tanned cast the younger man’s skin normally held, and he looked toned and healthy if a touch thinner than he really should have been. That was probably due to the stress of his posting, Treize mused, and the doubtless poor quality of the food.
The general made a mental note to get some decent meals into the younger man before they both shipped out to Egypt and reached out to pull Zechs to him again. The sigh that broke from him was one of mixed relief and pleasure as the pilot’s body settled against his own, pressing him down into the support of the mattress. In the right mood, as he was now, this first full contact was one of the things Treize loved most.
Zechs was delightfully heavy, his skin smooth and pleasantly warm – Treize couldn’t resist wriggling a little and his breath hitched in surprise as the younger man brought his hands up and caught Treize’s shoulders to hold him still.
“Zechs…?” the general asked softly.
The pilot didn’t reply other than to dip his head enough to press his lips to Treize’s, once again quickly deepening the kiss, teasing at his commander’s mouth, invading with his tongue, until he broke away to grant them both needed air and to trail fleeting pecks across Treize’s face, following the line of one high cheek bone.
Zechs dropped one light kiss just under Treize’s ear and carried on his path, interspersing the kisses with tiny licks as he tasted clean skin, occasionally lingering long enough to redden the area before moving on.
Treize had closed his eyes drowsily, letting the younger man go where he would without trying to direct him, content to linger in the haze of feeling Zechs’s light play was creating. The first sharp sting of a bite from the blond startled him and those eyes snapped open at the same moment as Treize’s breath jumped. Zechs chuckled low in his throat and bit again, harder this time – hard enough to raise a mark just on the junction of neck and shoulder – and Treize shivered. “Zechs!” he hissed, his voice caught between a moan of approval and a snap of protest.
“You told me to bite you, sir. I’m only following orders,” Zechs whispered in reply, all innocence. “Have you changed your mind?” he enquired, concern clear in his tone even as he rocked his body down and into the older man’s, prompting a quiet moan.
Treize let his hands close on the bedding for a moment as he waited for the wave of sensation to wash through him, and then he shook his head. “Do you remember what else I told you to do?” he demanded.
“I… believe so, sir. I’ve always been told my memory is exemplary.”
“Ah, good….” Treize bit off another moan as Zechs shifted his weight again, and freed one hand from its clutch on the sheet to slide it under the pillow. Long fingers found the item he had hidden and pulled it free. “I’ll leave things in your capable hands, then, Major,” he sighed, opening his hand and offering the small bottle revealed to the younger man.
Zechs glanced down at the bottle, blinked in surprise, and then stared. Though the bottle Treize was offering him wasn’t his customary elegant and ornate vial of custom-made rose-scented oil – was instead a plastic tube with a brightly coloured label and a flip-top lid filled with clear, thick liquid – the purpose of it was obviously the same. “Treize?” he quizzed, confused. “What…?”
The older man gave him a slow smile. “I know it’s not as nice as the rose-oil, but the bottle I had of it was destroyed in Dover and it takes a while to blend properly so I haven’t replaced it yet.” He shook the bottle a bit. “This will do the same job just as well, so I was told. Take it.”
Zechs snagged the bottle from Treize’s fingers automatically as he registered what his lover had said. The first thing that occurred to him was to question where the older man would have gotten this from and who could have told Treize it would work ‘just as well’ as the rose-oil, implying that they were more than familiar with it themselves.
The second was to wonder why Treize was handing the bottle to him instead of asking him to move – and the possible explanations for that drove every other thought away as Zechs stared at the general in something close to shock.
Treize watched the stream of emotions play through icy-blue eyes, reading the surprise, the doubt and curiosity, the flash of violent jealousy, and then the dawning realisation replaced by a flare of heat and astonishment. “I told you,” he breathed, before Zechs could speak. “I want you.”
Zechs stared. “Do you… do you mean…?” he trailed off, not quite sure how to finish the question.
Treize shrugged lightly. “Would you like me to?” he replied. “It was what I was intending but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I seem to recall you were quite fond of the idea, though?” he asked, tilting his head against the pillow as he watched his words register. The sudden spike of possessive want in the younger man’s face answered for him before he’d come up with the words, and Treize had to bite back his smile as he let himself react to it.
Watching the pilot these last few months, professionally and personally, had been more than enough to convince Treize that Zechs wasn’t going to be happy taking the same role in bed forever. His reasoning had very little to do with how well the blond had taken to his increased command responsibility – the general wasn’t foolish enough to believe the two were in any way related – and had, instead, been based on the vibe that seemed to come from him occasionally.
Treize had been wondering for a while when to suggest this switch in things, knowing Zechs would be startled by it and knowing that it would have an effect on how the two of them interacted day to day. He hadn’t really intended for it to happen tonight, but as with so many things in their relationship, events had conspired to force his hand. The general could feel it in himself, the need to submit for a while, to let his control go.
“Treize, I….” Zechs started. “Are you sure?”
Treize let his eyes drift half shut, and brought his hands up to rest them on the pillows either side of his head. “Of course I’m sure,” he replied softly. “If you want it.”
His answer came in the form of a breathless kiss and strong fingers tangling with his own, pinning them into place on the pillows. Faint calluses on both hands pressed together – the marks of hard-won piloting skills that would linger for the rest of their lives no matter what. As Zechs shifted his mouth from Treize’s and began to trail a path down his body, the general turned his head to look at their intertwined hands, and let all the tension drain out of him. Perhaps it was merely a reflection of his curious nature but for Treize, the weight of Zechs’s body on his, the sight and the feel of those capable, careful, controlling hands locked with his own equated only with security. It was an end to the loneliness he had never managed to explain adequately to the younger man, a feeling of complete safety most people never experienced again once they grew too old to believe their parents could protect them from everything. Only with one other person had Treize ever felt a glimmer of the same sensation and that had been nothing to this.
It was the final confirmation, had Treize needed it, that what he and Zechs were doing was right – the regulations could go to hell.
A moment later, Zechs twisted one hand free of the clasp and slid it down the older man’s body, tracing his fingers over milky-pale skin and pausing to tease sensitive spots with light, flickering caresses. Treize caught his breath as the pleasure of those touches roiled through him and he began to shake his head, groping with his own free hand for the cold plastic of the tube Zechs had abandoned somewhere to one side.
“There’ll be time enough for you to play later,” he gasped, pushing the bottle under the pilot’s fingers. “Fuck me.”
Zechs’s body jumped a little at the words but he shook his head, though he took the bottle. “A little patience, please.” He lifted his head. “I’ve been waiting for you to say that for a while now,” he admitted quietly, the expression in his eyes a touch impish.
“You might have asked me,” Treize murmured. “I wouldn’t have said no.”
“I didn’t know how.”
“Ah.” Treize nodded and wriggled his body against the younger man’s. His fingers tangled in loose blond hair again as Treize bent his knee until he could put his foot flat on the surface of the bed.
Zechs shivered at the change in pressure caused by the movement, moaning softly at the feel of the general’s erection against his own. He began to rock his weight, creating friction, and grinned when Treize closed his eyes and dropped his head back against the pillow.
“You’re a damned tease, Milliardo!”
“And you say I talk too much!” Zechs retaliated, a touch breathlessly. “Fine!” he huffed. “No more teasing, I promise.”
Treize almost missed the soft click that marked the pilot flicking open the lid of the bottle but a moment later, Zechs pulled his other hand from the general’s and sat up, shifting with unconsciously lithe grace to sit on his heels.
He stayed in place for a few seconds, letting his eyes soak in the sight of Treize sprawled across the midnight sheets in front of him, exposed, vulnerable, and utterly uncaring. Even the brace supporting his left arm didn’t seem out of place – the black straps crossing the pale skin managed to look like some sort of ornate, gothic jewellery. Zechs had a sudden flash of memory – of Noin and Treize discussing nightclubs and music one afternoon in London and of an evening when the pilot had still been a cadet and had caught his teenage instructor as he was leaving his rooms to go out for the evening.
Red hair black-streaked and sapphire eyes kohl-lined, that Treize had been all smoky sensuality. Dressed in leather and silk, all of it skin tight, he’d managed to give Zechs material for years worth of fantasies – and most of it had ended with him in much the position he was in now. Resolving to ask the general if he still had those clothes at some point, Zechs took a deep breath and tipped the bottle, squeezing with one hand.
The liquid was cool and slippery as it coated his fingers, making him fumble the bottle a little as he closed the lid. Dropping it somewhere, he rested his clean hand on one narrow hip and then bent down to kiss the flat stomach as he brushed against the little opening to the older man’s body with one finger.
Treize caught his breath, hissing as Zechs let the tip of his finger slide past the tight muscle and going completely rigid for a matter of a heartbeat. Then the general was writhing, using the leverage of his foot against the surface of the bed to thrust down and drive that finger deep inside him.
“Treize!” Zechs protested, shocked – the older man had just done the one thing he was forever warning Zechs not to do when they were together. “You’ll hurt yourself!”
“Hush!” Treize bit his lip. “God! I’d forgotten…!” He inhaled sharply. “I know what I’m doing, love. Admittedly, it’s been a while but some tricks are easy to recall.” He closed his eyes. “Keep going.”
Zechs stared down at him, unsettled and unsure. Touching the older man like this was strange – it was hard to believe that it was happening at all, and harder still to make his hand co-operate with the command to pull back a little, enough to slide the second finger as well into the damp heat of Treize’s body.
The general moaned softly, twisting himself and pushing down with his foot for purchase as he made his muscles yield to the invasion. Zechs recalled all the tricks Treize had used on him over the past couple of months and began moving his hand, parting his fingers and rubbing gently at delicate tissues until the tension gripping them eased away and the redhead was panting for air and beginning to sweat.
“Zechs, for God’s sake!” Treize hissed. “I’m ready – more than ready!”
The blond nodded, swallowing past the sudden dryness in his mouth. “I know,” he answered quietly. “I’m just… making sure. I don’t want to cause you any pain…”
“You won’t. Milliardo…!” Treize shook his head. “Gott!”
Zechs couldn’t quite keep from smiling at the desperation in Treize’s voice. He didn’t think he’d ever quite seen or heard his friend sound so… wanton. The pilot slipped his fingers free, shivering a little at the noise of protest Treize made as Zechs picked up the bottle again, squeezed more of the slippery liquid onto his hand and quickly stroked it over his own body.
Biting his lip, Zechs took a deep breath to try to fight the nerves that were making themselves known and gazed down at his general with appreciative eyes. Slowly, he lay down full length again, sliding his arms under the general’s back, holding the older man to him and bracing his weight on his forearms to keep from suffocating him.
Treize, whimpering at the renewal of the warmth and weight of the younger man’s body against his own, locked one foot around Zechs’s ankle and reached down with his hand to help guide the pilot’s erection into him.
Zechs cried out softly at the new, unfamiliar sensation, stilling as his length sank into slippery, silky heat, and then giving into the instinctive command of his body as he began to move.
In honour of the fact that I have *finally* finished the 7th story in this series - some six and a half years after I started it! - have another chapter!
Zechs sighed softly as he pulled the heavy covers back over himself and rolled onto his side, propping himself up on one elbow and looking down at the man sharing the bed with him with gentle fondness.
The only illumination in the room was seeping through from a gap in the heavy drapes covering the wide, high windows and in the thread of moonlight Treize’s skin was milky white against the darkness of his sheets, his hair appearing almost black where it wasn’t directly in the glow.
The general had been asleep for nearly an hour, the slow, easy regularity of his breathing the only sound disturbing the stillness of his newest house. Zechs had found it a comfort to listen to the quiet rhythm as his body cooled and his mind settled.
Slipping his free arm carefully around the smaller man’s waist, Zechs stretched his body out behind Treize’s and smiled a little when the redhead snuffled softly and snuggled into the offered warmth without waking. It felt good to hold Treize like this, unconsciously protective of him, the pilot putting his own body between his lover and the open shadowiness of the bedroom.
Zechs dropped a fleeting kiss on the curve of one smooth shoulder and settled against the soft pillows, letting his mind drift absently as he noted the position of one or two faint freckles – darker splashes against that pale skin. They were the last remnants of the one thing Treize had hated more about his appearance as a child than his vividly red hair, and adolescence and three years of intense desert sun at Lake Victoria Academy had taken care of both for him, bleaching his skin clear and his hair to it’s current honey and cinnamon tones. Of course, Zechs still didn’t know exactly when those locks had taken on the curls they were beginning to fall into at the moment – the general’s hair had been as poker straight as Zechs’s own before he’d become a cadet.
The pilot sighed again, and let his thoughts drift to where they really wanted to be.
He’d never really expected Treize to offer to switch things round as he had, despite knowing that the general had with other partners, and despite everything that had been said between the two of them on the subject. The other man was older and more experienced, dominant in nearly every other area of their lives. It seemed entirely natural that he was, and would continue to be, here, too.
Zechs hadn’t really minded, and would have been content to let things remain like that for the rest of their lives. He’d liked the feel of having Treize inside him from the very first and had learned over the weeks and months since then to positively love the experience, but he could admit that he had still been… curious.
Tonight had proved conclusively that if Zechs would have been happy with the order of things, Treize would not. The general hadn’t been kidding when he’d confessed to the pilot that he rather enjoyed being taken.
The older man was as close to perfect in bed as Zechs imagined was humanly possible, able to play the pilot’s body with all the ease of a master. Barring a few memorable occurrences, every encounter between the two of them had ended with Treize sweeping Zechs away in a wash of passion and pleasure that the blond always swore couldn’t get any more intense. He’d been proved consistently wrong on that count, but he’d also learned that Treize’s flawlessness came with a price. As Treize had proven time and again in his life, for something to be perfect, it had to be precise and such precision required absolute discipline.
It was, Zechs supposed, a facet of Treize’s self-confessed obsession with the nature of control that made it so, but the younger man had found that his lover paid for his skill in bed by way of a lack of personal enjoyment. The general seldom seemed to relax completely into what he was feeling, often showing very little in the way of external reaction. Where Zechs would struggle, squirm and thrash about, frequently so noisy that Treize had more than once shushed him for fear of ‘waking the dead’, the general made very few unnecessary movements, and was almost never vocal in any way.
If Zechs hadn’t shared the occasional exception to that rule with him, and if Treize hadn’t come out of every climax Zechs had seen him have shattered by it, stunned and vulnerable and often trembling in reaction, the pilot would have long since begun to wonder whether there was something wrong with his own performance in bed.
There had been no sign of Treize’s customary reserve tonight. From the moment they’d first touched in the general’s office, the older man had been acquiescent and responsive, and in bed he’d let go completely, abandoning restraint in favour of passion. The man Zechs had made love to had been everything the pilot had thought his friend was capable of being, everything the general had hinted he could be.
Dropping another gentle kiss onto Treize shoulder, Zechs sighed softly, understanding finally, he thought, what his friend had been trying to tell him for months, and knowing that Treize had just proved beyond a doubt that he didn’t just trust the younger man, he trusted him absolutely and with everything he was. What it must have taken for the older officer to yield as he had didn’t really bear thinking about too closely, but the results were worth it.
Zechs knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would be able to recall this night with crystal clarity until the day he died. The feel of Treize moving under him, one long leg thrown around the pilot’s waist and his nails scoring marks into Zechs’s skin, abandoned and for once uncaring of anything other than the moment he was in, felt as though it had been branded on the younger man. The general’s cries of pleasure, sharp with desperate need and breathlessly ragged were still ringing in Zechs’s ears.
With all the build up that had come before – the frustration and the high-running emotions of their separation and reunion – and with Zechs’s inexperience and Treize’s lack of recent practice not helping matters, it was no surprise that their first attempt had been over in a matter of minutes. The both of them had been too caught up in what they’d been feeling to slow it down, and the whole thing had been a frantic, and rather awkward, drive for physical release. Cursing himself for his lack of control and his clumsiness, and staggered by the firestorm that had swept through him, Zechs had started to pull away from the general as his body softened, and had been stopped by Treize’s gasped ‘stay there…just… just don’t move.’
Still panting for breath, and shaking, Treize had pulled Zechs down to him, kissing the younger man and running teasing, caressing fingers over his body until Zechs felt himself begin to harden again. They’d both moaned at the feeling, and Treize had laughed delightedly, his eyes dancing with approval and happiness as he’d begun wriggling under the younger man a little, encouraging Zechs to move and starting things all over again.
Zechs had pinned the older man to the surface of the bed, bending his head and nipping with his teeth, and scratching with his nails as he’d been asked to, all the while keeping the pace of their lovemaking slow and intense. Mutual completion had built gradually and steadily until Treize had thrown his head back, keening softly and arching his back as he spilled himself over the hand Zechs was stroking his erection with and onto his flat stomach. It had been enough to sweep the pilot into his own climax.
If Zechs could have changed anything about the night, it would be to have delayed his release for another minute or two, or to wish that he hadn’t closed his eyes as he came. For a moment, Treize had been looking at him with something in his gaze that Zechs had never seen before, and the younger man was almost, almost sure that there had been a well of moisture against the rich sapphire hue.
If there had been tears in the general’s eyes, they’d been gone with no trace by the time Zechs came back to himself. Treize had pushed at him then until the pilot had moved off him and onto his back, and then the older man had rolled onto his side and buried his head into the blonde’s shoulder, squirming and tugging at the sheets until he’d freed them and drawn them over the both of them. He’d been asleep minutes later.
Zechs had held him indulgently for a time, and then shifted him gently and climbed from the bed to pad into the adjoining bathroom and clean himself up a little. He’d slipped back into bed a few minutes earlier, tucking himself up against his lover carefully.
Now, on the edge of sleep himself, Zechs lifted his head from the pillows a little, enough to brush his lips over tumbled ginger hair and the curve of one ear. “I love you,” he whispered softly, and smiled gently as he closed his eyes.
Zechs woke gradually the following morning, surfacing from a dream he instantly forgot just long enough to pull the sheets more closely around himself, turn over and drift off again. A few minutes later he came to awareness once more, and this time opened his eyes drowsily as he realised that strong spring sunlight was streaming through the gap in the curtains and that he was alone in the wide bed.
Digging one hand out of the nest he seemed to have made of the covers, he pushed his tangled hair out of his face and blinked blearily as he looked around the room for Treize, frowning as he caught the time on the face of the small clock on the bedside table.
The sight of a small, folded square of paper, propped against the foot of that clock and marked with his first name in Treize’s flowing hand, stopped his mad dive from the bed before it really started, and Zechs reached out instead to bring the note to him, unfolding it carefully.
My Dear Zechs,
Did you have sweet dreams?
Before you rush about like a madman in the fear that you are late, I suppose I should tell you that I’ve cleared your schedule for the day – not a challenge since most of your appointments were with me! – and apologise for the interference.
I apologise too for not waking you when I left, but I thought you would be the better for the rest.
You should stay abed until whenever you feel like rising, and then you will find that your bags have been brought to you, and that the house staff is under orders to provide you with whatever you would care to eat for breakfast.
Come and find me when you are ready – Lady Une will know where I am to be found if I am not in my office – and I shall be most displeased with you if I see you much before eleven!
Zechs found himself smiling at the note as he settled back into the warmth of the bed. Given that it was just turned ten, there was absolutely no chance he was going to be able to obey all of Treize’s instructions and still be over at the base in time to risk the general’s displeasure.
Though, the pilot realised, he must have been far more tired than he’d thought for Treize not to have disturbed him whilst going about his morning routine some five hours earlier, and only jet-lag explained how the blond had managed to sleep almost twelve straight hours. Zechs couldn’t honestly remember the last time that had happened.
Sighing happily and stretching the kinks out of his muscles slowly, Zechs levered himself from the bed and set about getting ready for his day.
Though Treize had driven the pair of them from the base to his newest house the evening before, Zechs had turned down the offer to have a car brought round for him. He’d made the impulsive choice to walk the distance instead, digesting the excellent breakfast he’d been furnished with as he followed the white gravel road through some lovely woodland and then out into the open fields that flanked one edge of the base.
Although probably not much more than a mile in a straight line, the road meandered with the vagaries of the countryside and the actual distance was a little over twice that – something Zechs covered in just under an hour at a lazy stroll. He smiled to himself occasionally as he walked, contemplating absently just how many times Treize must have traumatised Lady Une by choosing to do the same thing, and how long it would be before he really shook up his guard detail by making the trip on horse back. With the promise of a glorious summer already in the warm air and in the riotous colours of the wildflowers, and knowing his friend as well as he did, Zechs couldn’t imagine that it would be long.
As he signed the base log book at the main gate, Zechs wondered what it would take to convince Treize to dig out his riding gear and duck an afternoon off work sometime before they went to Egypt in order to show the pilot round the house grounds he had glimpsed from the bedroom window as he dressed. They seemed quite extensive, ideally suited to a pleasantly challenging hack and from the looks of things Treize had already made a start on the obligatory rose garden. Zechs was sure he could lose himself in there for an hour or so as he tried to identify which varieties of his favourite flowers the general had planted.
Zechs forced the smile that was threatening down as he strode into the lobby of the base, losing the track of his thoughts as he was forced to concentrate on not walking into other personnel. The place was bustlingly busy – a symptom, Zechs was suddenly sure, of the massive scale deployment to the Egyptian border Treize had told him about the night before. Locating the general directly proved impossible, but finding Lady Une to ask where the older man could be tracked down was simple enough. Following the directions she had all but snapped at him, Zechs wound his way through the base corridors until he came across the room number he had been given.
Hearing the murmur of voices beyond the door, Zechs pushed it open and slipped through it, stopping when he noticed that most of the room was in shadows. Looking round in surprise, the pilot took in the rows of tiered seating and was reminded of nothing so much as a lecture theatre.
Realising that he must be in one of the big assembly halls used for full UESA meetings, Zechs turned his head as his sharp ears caught the sound of booted feet on the nearest flight of stairs, wondering who would be running about in the dark like this.
“Looking for the General?” a clear voice asked, as the small, neat figure of a woman cleared the last step and headed towards the door Zechs was still standing in front of. “He’s down at the front,” she added helpfully.
“Thank you,” the blond answered automatically, finally placing the woman as one of the Specials tactical experts, and that more from the details of her uniform than from personal recognition.
“You’re welcome,” she answered warmly and smiled up at him as he held the door open. She ducked though it into the corridor and Zechs let it close behind her before he began making his way down the flight of steps on silent feet, wondering if he was intruding on something he shouldn’t see, or interrupting some sort of meeting.
He was almost halfway down the hall and about to turn on his heel before he identified Treize as one of the two figures leaning over the only source of illumination in the room. The massive light-box turned out to be a holo-projection map of what Zechs recognised immediately as the Arabian border lands, complete with markings for known positions of troops on both sides, supply bases, civilian settlements and a rough attempt at the details of the terrain.
“I’m still concerned about the strength of the left flank,” Treize said suddenly, the precise acoustics of the room carrying his voice clearly to the pilot despite the fact that the general hadn’t been speaking especially loudly. “If Zechs’s report is correct then they could be facing more opposition than they can comfortably handle. I fail to see the point in taking along so much of our fighting strength, if we exhaust a fraction of it and leave the rest sitting twiddling their thumbs.”
The second figure nodded. “That’s true, but Tactics doesn’t agree with you. The data from Intelligence suggests that the bulk of the Arabian fighting strength will attack here,” there was the flash of a red-sleeved arm across the map, hand gesturing elegantly at something, “and if that’s the case, then reinforcing your left will leave you vulnerable.”
The voice was melodic, a little deeper in pitch and lighter in weight than the general’s rich tenor, and carried just the slightest trace of an accent on the vowel sounds. If Zechs hadn’t already from the uniform coat, it would have been enough for him to place the second figure as Kai-Huang Lian, the Lieutenant-Colonel who held official command of the Luxembourg HQ for the Specials.
“Well,” the base commander continued, “I already know you’re going to trust your own analysis over Tactics’ – and well you should – so it comes down to whether you trust Marquise’s information over that supplied by Intelligence.”
Treize nodded. “Yes,” he agreed. “I rather thought it might.”
“It was somewhat predictable,” Kai-Huang snorted. “Do you?” he asked eventually. “I’m not doubting the boy’s ability, sir, but he is awfully young. He doesn’t have a great deal of command experience and he could very easily have misread the situation, or missed something important.”
“You’re asking me whether I trust Zechs?” Treize raised an eyebrow at the smaller man, a little smile playing around his lips. “Of course I do. He isn’t any younger than we were when we were providing this type of information to General Catalonia and I’m perfectly certain that he hasn’t misread, or missed, anything.”
“Well, if you say so,” Kai-Huang acquiesced quietly. “I’d still like to question him before I rely solely on his input. I don’t know him as well as you do,” he added at Treize’s surprised expression. “And blind faith disturbs me.”
“Fair enough. You can have at him until you’re satisfied when he turns up. But,” the general continued, “it isn’t just a case of trusting Zechs. I’d take the impressions of any competent field commander as accurate over Intelligence’s figures any day. There are things about any combat zone that can’t be reduced to paper statistics, and you know it.”
“Admittedly,” the Chinese officer acknowledged and then turned away from the map with a sudden wicked grin on his face. Leaning one hip against the edge and looking up at his commander with dancing eyes, Kai-Huang waited for Treize to return his attention to the map before he opened his mouth. “Speaking of Zechs,” he began softly. “Now that we’re alone, may I just say that you look thoroughly fucked this morning, sir.”
Zechs almost gave his presence away as he choked on nothing but the breath he had just drawn at the Chinese officer’s statement. How did the older man dare speak to Treize like that!? Zechs wouldn’t have dreamed of blurting something so… so vulgar in such a fashion!
Below him, Treize’s head snapped up from the map and the second eyebrow joined the first as he stared at the other officer. “Lian!” he protested, clearly as taken aback as Zechs felt.
Kai-Huang laughed gently, making his neatly plaited raven-wing hair shift against his collar. “What? You didn’t expect me to miss it, did you?” He shook his head. “Come on, Treize, I know that look in your eyes. It would have been obvious you’d been up to something with someone even if you hadn’t come borrowing supplies from me yesterday!” He laughed, the sound bright in the shadowy stillness of the room. “You may as well confess.”
Treize straightened from the table slowly and half turned so he could look down at the other officer, resting his weight on his back foot and folding his arms. “May I?” he asked softly. “Perhaps. What do you imagine Zechs has to do with the subject?”
The older man tilted his head to one side, meeting his commander’s chilly gaze without effort. “You tell me. It’s rather coincidental that he flew in to give his update report yesterday evening, don’t you think?” He smiled again, the expression gentle this time. “If you wanted to hide the identity of your so-mysterious lover, you should have talked to me earlier this week, and you shouldn’t have made such a thing out of refusing to give me any details.”
“I’ll remind you that co-incidence proves nothing,” Treize commented coolly, then coloured a little as he looked at the floor. “If you aren’t careful,” he teased, “I’ll decide you have a facility for information gathering and transfer you to Une’s Intelligence unit.”
“Don’t you dare!” Kai-Huang shot back. “I know co-incidence proves nothing, Treize, but I also know you. You’ve been pining after that boy for years. You were half in love with him when I first met you, and he would have been what, twelve?”
“Thirteen,” Treize corrected automatically. “I can’t tell you anything, Kihu, you know that. You’ll have to… make your own assumptions.”
“I already have, my friend,” Kai-Huang murmured as he reached out and put one gentle hand on Treize’s sleeve. “I’m …aware… that he’s been your lover for a few months now, but let me ask you this: was last night a first for anything?”
Treize smiled slowly, his eyes warm as he relaxed his posture, unfolding his arms and putting his hand over the other officer’s. “Yes, it was,” he replied quietly.
“I thought so.” The smaller man’s free hand lifted and he brushed the backs of his fingers across Treize’s cheekbone. “Do you feel better for it?”
Treize closed his eyes, leaning into the touch a little. “Yes. I…”
“Shh.” One small finger pressed across the general’s mouth. “No more. I’m glad for you.”
The two men held the pose for a moment and then Kai-Huang stepped back a pace. “You know where to find me if you ever want to share a bottle of wine,” he added brightly.
“Yes… Thank you, Lian.”
“You’re welcome.” The smaller man held his smile for a moment longer and then his face dropped back into the neutral lines Zechs was used to seeing from him. He glanced down at the neat little watch he was wearing around his right wrist. “How long do you think Zechs will be? I would like to talk to him about all this, but I have an appointment at 13:00.”
Treize shrugged. “I don’t know. He could be…” He stopped suddenly, and looked up, sapphire eyes narrowing as he stared almost straight at Zechs.
Realising that he must have made some movement or sound that had given him away, Zechs bowed to the inevitable and stepped out of the shadows that were concealing him as he continued down the bottom half of the stairs.
Kai-Huang looked up at him, faintly surprised, and Treize raised one eyebrow and then lowered it again as he straightened up from the table and smiled affectionately. “Zechs,” he greeted softly as the younger man stepped off the staircase and made his way towards the giant map.
“Good morning, sir,” he returned formally, then nodded his head at Kai-Huang. “Colonel.”
“Major,” the Chinese man returned smoothly.
“I take it you got my note?” Treize asked, his voice warm. “And I trust breakfast was to your liking?”
Zechs nodded slowly. “Yes, thank you, sir.”
“Ah, good.” Treize flashed him another dazzling smile. “You should have come back to base with me this morning, strictly speaking, but I thought you needed the sleep more than you needed to sit in on this meeting.”
“No, I…appreciated it.”
“Good.” Treize let his smile turn a little impish as he flashed his gaze across to the third officer. “You have excellent timing, Zechs. The Colonel and I were just talking about you.”
Zechs felt his temper flare sharply but he fought to keep his face in neutral lines, grateful that the shielding presence of his helmet made his task that much easier. “I heard,” he retaliated quietly and let the lack of a name, or a title, or even the required minimum of a ‘sir’ added to his statement communicate his opinion of what he had witnessed to Treize. Behind him and off to one side slightly, Zechs felt, rather than heard, the Chinese officer tense, catching the movement out of the corner of one eye as the smaller man straightened his posture to a formal stiffness.
Treize’s smile faded in favour of an expression of concern, a frown only present in the two small lines that appeared between his eyebrows as the rest of his face settled into perfect dispassion.
He held Zechs’s heated gaze levelly for a minute, then gestured dismissively with one hand. “Well, either I’m losing my touch in my old age, or I need to have you transferred to a reconnaissance wing,” the general began, forcing his voice to a teasing lightness. “I don’t know how long you were standing there but I certainly had no idea there was anyone else in the room.”
Zechs tilted his head to one side, in a gesture that was a flawless imitation of the one Treize used immediately before he gave the order or delivered the blow that would destroy an opponent. “That much was obvious. What were you saying about politics last night? Weigh every word for it’s meaning before you say it.” Zechs paused and allowed himself to also copy the empty smile Treize could summon. “Just imagine how that little heart to heart could have been taken,” he added quietly.
Confused, Kai-Huang watched as Treize’s face closed completely, his eyes shuttering almost fast enough to disguise the flare of pain in them. Whatever meaning Zechs’s cryptic reply had between the two men, it had been intended to wound – it was perfectly clear that the younger man was not happy with what he had seen pass between his two superiors – and it had achieved it’s goal. “Mind your tone, Major,” he snapped reflexively.
“Quite,” Treize added softly. “And perhaps you won’t need so much political training as I thought. You certainly seem to have picked up a formidable grasp of it overnight, Major.” He held Zechs’s eyes with his own for a moment, flicked a glance at the base commander and then gathered himself up. “Now, I believe the Colonel had some questions for you, Zechs, and I have far too much work waiting for me to be loitering with no purpose, so I shall leave the two of you to it. Good morning, gentlemen,” he added as he strode past them both and began taking the flight of stairs two at a time.
Zechs stared after him, taken aback by what he had seen hidden under the coolness of Treize’s sapphire eyes, then jumped a little as the Chinese officer cleared his throat sharply.
“I hope for all our sakes that you show better judgement on a battlefield than you do in your relationships, Major. His Excellency is basing his combat strategy on your information and I hate to think of the trouble we’re going to be in if you don’t.”
Zechs blinked, registering from the icy tone to Kai-Huang’s words that the smaller man was angry with him for some reason. “I… beg your pardon, sir?” he asked.
The older officer turned his attention to straightening one already pristine glove as he spoke dismissively. “I know what happened between you and Treize last night, Major, and given that I was there the first time he let anyone have him that way, I know what effect it will have had on him. If you were looking to hurt him, you couldn’t have done a better job than to come that attitude with him this morning.”
The Chinese officer let his words register for a moment as Zechs stared at him in shock and then raised velvet eyes and smiled gently. “He won’t tolerate jealousy, Zechs. He’ll take it to mean that you don’t trust him. Now,” Kai-Huang gestured sharply at the still lit map, “look at that. Are you right, or is Intelligence?”
Zechs turned his head automatically, fighting his emotions down so he could think clearly, and glanced at the map. “I am, sir,” he answered a moment later. “I don’t know where the hell Une is getting her data from but…”
Kai Huang cut him off with a quick nod. “Good. Excellent, even.” He smiled again. “Now, Major, redeem my opinion of your intelligence and break every bit of military protocol you’ve been trained in.”
“Salute me,” the base commander instructed. “Apologise for abandoning our meeting. And go the hell after Treize before he locks himself in his office all afternoon, convincing himself that he deserved whatever it was you just said to him.”
The pilot simply stared for a moment, then, stunned beyond his anger at the older man and his confusion at his behaviour, he snapped off the required salute, stuttered something close to an apology and ran up the stairs after the general as the knowledge of just how badly he might have hurt his lover began to sink in.
The knock on his door startled Treize from the funk he had fallen into, making him look up sharply from the folder he’d been staring at for the last few minutes without actually reading a word of it. He opened his mouth to command the person to enter, wondering absently which of his many officers had decided they needed him for some doubtless pointless quibble now, and found himself closing it again into a frown as the door opened anyway. “I don’t recall giving you permission to come in,” he advised coolly.
“I know. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
Treize raised an eyebrow as he took in Zechs’s distinctive figure, vaguely registering his apology. “Come in, close the door,” he bade quietly. “Kai-Huang was done with you so quickly?” he asked.
Zechs shut the office door behind him and came to stand in front of Treize’s cluttered desk. “No,” he replied. “At least, I don’t think so. He asked me whose information I thought was right, mine or Une’s, and then told me to come after you. I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I didn’t mean to…”
Treize cut him off by raising one hand. “What did you tell Kai-Huang?” he quizzed, looking genuinely curious.
“That I was right, of course. Treize…” he started again.
“What makes you so sure?”
Zechs blinked, then shook his head in frustration. “Because… I am. I trust myself to be. Une’s Intel people are good, and I can see exactly where she got her conclusions from, but she hasn’t been on the ground in the region the way I have. She doesn’t know what these people are like to face, and I do. It gives me an… advantage in understanding them I suppose.” He shrugged. “It’s up to you whether you rely on that, of course. Kai-Huang seemed to believe you were going to, but….”
“He was right,” Treize confirmed. “I trust you. I’d have preferred it if you felt the same in reverse,” he added calmly.
“I beg your pardon?” Zechs asked, frowning and feeling a little caught off guard. “What do you mean by that?”
“Only what I said.” Treize replied coolly, turning a little in his chair to look out of his window. “I had hoped we were past this,” he sighed softly. “With last night…” He shook his head. “I knew you believed that I didn’t trust you. Somehow, I missed that you don’t trust me. The first I had ways of fixing – I hope. The second…” He trailed off and shrugged lightly. “Well, I can’t make you.”
The younger man stared at his commander in surprise. “You think I don’t trust you?” he demanded heatedly.
Treize shrugged. “It certainly seems that way, Zechs.”
The pilot shook his head, scowling angrily beneath his mask. “I would have thought the uniform I’m wearing would have demonstrated the opposite, Treize!” he snapped. “I joined the military on your advice, after all! You said it was the best way! You said you were going to need me, and I believed you!” Zechs bit his lip suddenly, taking a deep breath. “I do trust you,” he insisted. “You… and Noin – you’re the only people I do have any faith in anymore!”
“Really?” Treize gestured airily without looking around. “Do you even know what that means? To have faith in someone? You say you have faith in me and in Noin, but I doubt either of us has the complete picture of you. You censor what you tell us, hold some things, some secrets, to yourself. Sometimes, I wonder whether the two of us even have all the same information.” The general stood up from his chair and paced to the open window, leaning out of it slightly. “Would I find that, if I were to compare notes with the lovely Noin? That you tell the one of us one thing and the other something else, so that neither of us knows you completely?”
The blond looked at the slim figure of his oldest friend, stunned, wondering what had happened to provoke this line of questioning from Treize. How had the man gotten from discussing Zechs’s little fit of jealousy, to this?
A moment later, it occurred to Zechs to wonder if Treize had already had that conversation with Noin. The pilot felt his heart rate jump and his breath begin to shorten, coming a little faster as adrenaline flow was triggered by panic. What would he do if they had talked about him? Because what Treize was saying was true… Zechs did censor what he told the two of them. They did know different things about him, about his past and his plans, his dreams and hopes for the future. Treize knew about his ambition for revenge, Noin knew that Relena was still alive and Zechs had worked very hard to make sure those bits of information weren’t discovered by the other person. For them to swap notes on those points would be a disaster, and they were merely the tip of the iceberg.
He had his reasons for editing what he told Treize and Noin, Zechs knew, and they were good ones but, somehow, he didn’t think either party would be convinced of that. He sighed, reaching up to remove his mask as Treize turned around, one eyebrow raised, looking at the pilot speculatively, shrewdly, as though the truth of the matter was already known.
Zechs felt his panic flash into a wave of irritation. If anyone should comprehend why he had to be so careful about what he said, it ought to be Treize. The general had to understand that it wasn’t as if Zechs didn’t want to tell him everything – there were times that the pilot would have given almost anything to be able to talk freely with someone – but that there were other factors that made him hold his silence. After all, it wasn’t as if Treize told him everything, either. The man had his own share of secrets and confidences.
Zechs opened his mouth to say all of that to the older man, and what came out surprised even him. “What about Lady Une, then?” he snapped. “Would I find the same thing? What about Kai-Huang? He was certainly quick to tell me what you would be thinking a few minutes ago.”
Treize blinked, caught off guard. “That doesn’t mean he was right, Zechs.”
“It certainly seems like he was! And why shouldn’t he be? I said it back in October – that bloody assassin seemed to know more about you than I do!”
Treize narrowed his eyes, his own temper sparking. “And I told you at the time,” he spat, “all they had to do was read my medical records!”
“Well, should I hack your medical records then?” Zechs took a few steps forward, so that he was standing beside Treize’s computer and reached out a hand to turn the thing round to face himself. “What else will I learn about you if I do?!”
Treize’s fingers clamped onto the pilot’s wrist, holding the younger man’s hand in place inches above the keyboard. “Don’t you dare!” he hissed.
They stared at one another for a few tense seconds and then Treize let Zechs go, bringing his arms up to fold them across his chest. “Yes, you probably would find things you don’t recognize. And, yes, both Une and Kihu do know things about me that you don’t. I discuss a lot of military and political strategy with them that you just wouldn’t be interested in and they’ve both, Une especially, been close friends for years now. What else would you expect?”
“I can say the same thing about Noin,” Zechs answered sharply. “She’s a pilot, just as I am, so I talk to her about things you wouldn’t care about. She’s been my friend for a long time, too. What would you expect?”
Treize shrugged. “There are differences, Zechs.”
Zechs glared, gesturing angrily. “You’re right, there are. I don’t carry on with Noin the way you do with Une and Kai-Huang, for a start. And what secrets I keep from you, I have real reasons for. If there are things I’ve told Noin and not you, it’s because I’m trying to keep everyone else involved safe!”
“Generally speaking, what secrets I keep from you are to keep you safe, too. Une and Kihu both do things for me – things that are necessary – that I would never dream of exposing you to.” Treize shrugged lightly again. “If using the two of them to spare you means that I sometimes seem… too close to them, perhaps you should learn to turn a blind eye to it. I’ve asked things of Anne, in particular, that no-one should ever be asked to do and I will again before this is done. That woman has sacrificed a lot to restore a crown she hardly knows exists, simply because I’ve asked her for it. Forgive me if I find such unswerving devotion appealing.” The general levelled his gaze with the younger man’s. “I am only human after all.”
Zechs spluttered, swallowing hard. “That doesn’t mean you have to act as though you’re going to marry the woman, or that you have to treat Kai-Huang as though the two of you were still sleeping together!”
Treize closed his eyes and seemed to… wilt suddenly. “Milliardo…” he sighed. “Why must you do this? Why can’t you simply take what we have as the gift that it is and be grateful for it, as I am? I give you what I can of myself – more, I think, than I’ve ever given anyone else – why do you have to own me?”
“I’m not trying to…,” the pilot spluttered.
“Yes, you are. You wouldn’t be jealous if you weren’t. If you were content with what we have, if you trusted me, you wouldn’t feel threatened by Une or by Kihu no matter what we did.”
“You’re saying that if you’d found Noin and me as I found you and Kai-Huang you wouldn’t have cared? You wouldn’t have been at all suspicious?” Zechs snorted and shook his head. “I don’t believe that!”
“What would I have had to be suspicious about? Wasn’t the conversation between us self-explanatory? The man is my friend, Zechs. Of course he’s concerned about me. He, more than anyone, knows what last night meant to me….”
Zechs watched, something inside of him twinging painfully, as the older man turned away again to look out of his window. “He said that to me, you know,” he murmured. “That he knew.”
Treize shrugged. “He does. God knows, he listened to me ramble on about you often enough.”
“Actually, he said it was because he saw you the first time you let someone do that.”
Treize raised an eyebrow. “There is that, too. It’s certainly true enough that he was there,” he added with a flicker of a smile.
Zechs frowned. “Should I take it from your expression that he was the one who…”
Treize interrupted him. “Do you really want to know, Zechs?” he asked quietly. “If it will make you happy, I’m perfectly prepared to give you a complete list of every person I’ve been to bed with and exactly what happened with them. I can’t see what use you’d have for it beyond a certain cheap thrill but if you want it, it’s yours. It won’t change anything, after all.” He gestured with one hand. “It’s what I meant when I said there are parts of me you can’t have. You can know what happened between Kihu and me but there’s nothing you can do to make it not have happened. No more than you can alter the fact that I lost my virginity to Leia and not to you. Are you jealous of her too?”
Zechs felt himself blushing at the images Treize’s words were giving him but he forced himself to answer the older man’s question levelly. “No,” he admitted honestly. “But she’s not here.”
“She might well have been,” Treize pointed out softly. “I was about to ask her to marry me, if she hadn’t disappeared as she did. Given how you’ve acted around Kihu and Une, I dread to think how you would have carried on around a woman who was my wife!”
The thought of it made Zechs flinch. “Not well, I don’t think,” he confessed. “Your letters about her made me so envious. I resented every moment you told me you’d spent with her and I barely knew why at the time. I’d only just realised I was in love with you when you started waxing lyrical over her.”
“Oh, ouch,” Treize commented. “I didn’t know that. I am sorry!”
Zechs shrugged. “It hardly matters now but at the time I would have quite happily stood on the girl with a Leo. If it makes you happy, I’ve never – quite – had the same impulse about Une. Of course,” he added, unable to resist, “you’ve yet to start going on about her like some bad poet.”
“Admittedly,” Treize acknowledged. “I have thought about the possibility of a marriage between us though,” he continued gently. “I’m fairly sure that if you’d settled on Noin rather than me, Une and I could have been very happy.”
Zechs blinked a couple of times, forcing his mind around that little statement. “You’ve thought… You told me Une was nothing more than your friend!” he protested.
“Inasmuch as she’s not my lover and I’ve no intentions of making her so, she isn’t more than my friend,” Treize confirmed. “That hardly means I don’t care for her or even love her, in a fashion. I told you, I have a great deal of respect for her and the kind of devotion she’s shown me is hard to resist. She understands me in many ways that very few other people can claim to. If I was going to marry someday anyway, then why not Une? Better her than some society nitwit I know nothing about and can’t hold two minutes of conversation with.”
Treize smiled slightly at the look on Zechs’s face and stood up. “There’s still no need for you to be jealous of her, you know. At this point, if either of us marries, it will be you, not me. You’ll need a Queen someday. All I ask is that you choose one that won’t mind you sleeping with me on the side.” Treize grinned suddenly. “I quite fancy the idea of being your mistress.”
“I beg your pardon?!” Zechs choked. “Treize!”
“Yes?” Treize asked, all innocence, then shrugged. “Master?” he offered a moment later. His smile turned coy and he looked up at Zechs with veiled eyes. “Or should that be the other way round?” he suggested softly.
Zechs blushed. “Oh, you’re impossible!” he dismissed crossly.
“Thank you. I do try.” Treize tilted his head. “I know who you should marry too, now that I’ve thought about it.”
The pilot couldn’t help but ask, though he was dreading the answer. “Oh? Who?”
The general began to chuckle. “What? It’s perfect. Come on,” he added, stepping around his desk and heading for his door with a backwards glance.
“Where are we going?” Zechs asked, following. “And why is it perfect?”
“We’re going out,” Treize answered. “And as for why Dorothy is perfect…Well, she’ll love being a Queen, she won’t care two hoots what you do with me and you’re about the only person who can stand her, anyway. The two of you would make a stunning couple visually and your children would be guaranteed to have masses of fabulous hair. It’ll be all the excuse I need to take up houseroom at your palace, too. I’ll just play ‘Uncle Treize’. Perfect,” he finished dryly.
“You’re scheming again,” Zechs commented as they stepped out into the sunshine.
“Yes,” Treize admitted impishly. “Didn’t you say you liked it?”
“Well, yes, but…”
“Oh good,” Treize replied, smiling. “Because I had another thought on my way here this morning. What do you think Une would do if I came to the base on a horse tomorrow?”
“…. It’s not used to playing in Cathedrals!”
The lieutenant grinned up at his taller companion. “You can laugh, sir,” he teased. “I promise I won’t report you.”
Zechs glared at the smaller man walking next to him, then shook his head ruefully. “Dare I ask where you heard that one?” he asked.
Otto shrugged, still grinning. “Oh, it’s an old one that. I just assumed you wouldn’t have heard it before.”
“I hadn’t. And I’m perfectly certain that I could have lived the rest of my life none the worse for the lack,” Zechs pointed out, then he smiled a little himself. “Although, His Excellency seemed to find the one about women on the battlefield quite amusing.”
Otto, in the middle of inputting the door-code to his barracks room, froze with one hand on the door handle and looked round in slow horror. “You’ve been telling my jokes to the General ?!” he spluttered.
Zechs tilted his head to one side, innocently. “Yes, of course. Why, shouldn’t I have?”
“Jesus Christ, I’m a dead man!” Otto moaned. “He’s going to string me up by my belt when he sees me!”
Zechs let him stew for a moment, then gave in to chuckles. “I doubt it, Otto. He genuinely does find them quite funny. Although he did suggest that you don’t let Lady Une hear that particular one.”
“Hell, no! I don’t even want to think about her reaction. That woman can freeze my nuts off with a look when she’s in a good mood!”
The blond gave a bark of laughter, then shook his head again as he began walking away. “Goodnight, Otto.”
The door of Otto’s quarters closed behind him with a dull thud as the lock re-engaged, the sound echoing in the corridor behind Zechs as he turned the sharp bend that took him into the second wing of the Officer’s barracks. Ignoring his own room, he headed straight down the central passageway, making for the flight of steel steps that would take him up and out of the underground bunker.
He sighed in relief as he emerged into the evening air, grateful for the desert climate that dictated that the nights were almost freezing, despite the rapidly approaching summer. Having most of the base installations in heavy concrete bunkers five metres under the sand did a lot to make them proof against air strikes and shelling, but it also made them all hellish heat traps and the Specials uniform, designed for the cooler climes of Western Europe and made from heavy wool and cotton weaves, trimmed with leather and brocade, wasn’t doing a lot to help ameliorate that fact.
The whine of jet engines cycling up grabbed Zechs’s attention and made him glance down the length of the concrete runway, squinting against the glare of the harsh floodlights. Grimacing, he ducked behind one of the anti-aircraft placements for shelter against the backwash from the plane’s engines, listening to the whirring and clicking the automated turret made as it identified the carrier aircraft thundering into the air as friendly. As Zechs straightened, the plane climbed into the darkening sky smoothly and banked as it began its flight, returning empty to its home base.
Made wary by his near miss, the pilot looked across the base at the suit hangers in the distance, checking that there were no more planes about to take-off. The suit sheds, some of the storage areas and the maintenance bays were about the only above-ground structures aside from the defences, something made necessary by the sheer size of the mechas manoeuvring in and out of them, and they stood out, squat, square and ugly in the vastness of the desert, blocking the view of the horizon and the setting sun.
Turning his attention back to what he was doing, and sure now of a clear path, Zechs crossed the width of the runway in swift strides, aiming for the square of shadow marking the hole-in-the-ground entrance to the command bunker and the Staff Officers barracks beyond it.
Taking a deep breath, Zechs ducked under the steel door frame and walked down the stairs into the narrow corridor, feeling the renewed heat hit him like a wall and knowing it would only get worse as he went deeper into the bunker. Doors wedged open in a vain attempt to get some air circulation going revealed starkly functional briefing rooms and darkened workstations until Zechs stepped out of the corridor and into the nerve-centre of the base proper.
The large hexagonal room took up most of the centre of this first command bunker. It was crammed with consoles and holo-maps that threw hazy, vividly covered light into the general gloom, and with paper-strewn workstations and tables. Giant servers, locked into steel-and-titanium cages to protect them against damage if the bunker was destroyed, stood against one wall and hummed in the background, feeding reams of data to individual stations and giving off waves of heat to raise the temperature even further. As always, the whole room was heaving with personnel, from the technicians at the consoles to the high-ranking commanders huddled over one of the tables at the back of the room.
To the pilot’s senses, as he crossed the room, the place stank. The air was stuffy, tainted with ozone from the electronics, stale with the lack of ventilation and heavy with the smells of too many people exposed to temperatures well beyond comfortable for too long. In the couple of minutes he’d been in the building, Zechs had begun sweating enough that he could feel it gathering in the small of his back and under his arms – it was no surprise to him that everyone who worked in here finished every shift with their uniform wringing wet from perspiration and in serious need of a shower.
Zechs doubted, though, that any of the personnel in here noticed the smell anymore. The Staff officers were quartered in one adjoining block, the intelligence techs in another and few of them had either the opportunity or the motivation to venture outside. Zechs knew for a fact that the vast majority hadn’t seen the outside of the bunkers in the two weeks since they’d arrived, and likely wouldn’t for quite some time to come.
One of those people was Lady Une, who looked up from the map she was studying in time to acknowledge Zechs’s greeting salute.
“Good Evening, Major,” she murmured.
“Lady,” Zechs returned. “Has His Excellency gone off-duty already?” he asked. He’d been expecting Treize to be a part of the Command-huddle and was rather curious as to why he wasn’t.
To his distinct surprise, Une smiled a little as she straightened up fully and turned around to look at the pilot properly. “He has. I banished him about half an hour ago. He was in my way,” she added, sounding almost impish.
Zechs tilted his head. “Oh?” he enquired, letting his voice show his curiosity and his willingness to play along with her sudden bout of good humour. “Might I ask why?”
“He was micro-managing, of course. What else?” Une offered the blond a small, rare smile. “I sent him to catch up with his paper-work before Kai-Huang has his head for not signing off his supply requisitions, but,” she took a step closer and dropped her voice so that no-one but Zechs would hear her over the ambient noise, “I’m rather hoping he’s simply gone to bed.”
Zechs let himself smile a little in return, amused by Une’s mother-hen-like bullying of their commander and reflecting again that concern for Treize was most definitely something the two of them had in common. He nodded his understanding and then came to attention again. “I’ll go and find him, then. Thank you, Colonel.”
“Major.” Une turned back to her table and Zechs stepped past her to make his way through the connecting corridor into the Staff Barracks.
Unlike Zechs, who was quartered with three other Squadron commanders – sharing desks and storage space and sleeping in narrow bunk beds – Treize and the other Staff Officers at least had individual rooms, although even Treize’s wasn’t really big enough to be called more than a glorified cupboard. The metal-framed bed might well have been big enough to be comfortable but it also took up more than half of the room, and the desk – an absolute necessity, Zechs had rapidly learned – ate up almost all the rest of the floor space.
With typical efficiency, Treize had brought along some plastic boxes and was using them as impromptu drawers, storing personal items, his toiletries and casual clothes in them, tucked in the space under the bed. Books were crammed onto the shelves he’d personally fitted above the desk and the headboard of the bed when he’d first arrived, and the general’s uniforms hung from a rail fixed along one wall, protected by stiff, plastic covers, with shoes and boots arranged underneath them. Like almost every one of his officers, Treize was using the couple of metal hooks affixed to the back of door to hang his bath-towels and the light robe he wore to go back and forth to the shower rooms.
For Treize alone, the room was cramped; with both Treize and Zechs in the room, it was almost unbearable, even if Treize stretched out on his bunk as he normally did, leaving the desk chair to the younger man. It had, however, one notable advantage over most of the base in that it was private. The door could be locked, the room was soundproofed and there were very few people who would dare to knock on Treize’s door directly.
Mindful of Une’s hope that Treize might have retired for the night already, Zechs took the liberty of overriding the lock with the code Treize had given him and opening the door as quietly as he could. “Treize?” he called softly as he leaned around the door, pitching his voice not to wake the older man if he was asleep.
Treize looked up from where he was sitting at his desk, his back to the doorway. “Zechs? What are you creeping around for?”
Seeing that the older officer wasn’t just still awake but was also still in full uniform despite the heat, Zechs let go of the door and came to attention.
“Oh, never mind all that,” Treize protested, waving the salute away with one hand. “What were you doing?”
The general gestured Zechs into the room and the pilot took the opportunity to settle himself on the edge of the neatly made bunk before he answered. “Lady Une suggested you might be sleeping, sir. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Sleeping?” Treize glanced down at his wristwatch. “At this time? Why on Earth would I be sleeping?”
Zechs shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. That’s merely what she told me – that she’d sent you to do your paperwork but that she hoped you might have taken the opportunity to rest.”
Treize stared at the younger man for a few minutes and then chuckled dryly. “Is that what she was planning? Scheming minx!” He shook his head and looked at Zechs. “Did she tell you she all but threw me out of my own command centre?”
“She said you were ‘in her way’, sir.”
“I was merely questioning one of her Intelligence reports. I wasn’t in her way at all.” The older man laughed again, softly. “I should have known she had an ulterior motive.”
“Probably,” Zechs admitted. “I take it you are actually catching up with your paperwork then?”
“I wasn’t behind to begin with, but yes. Unfortunately.”
Zechs got to his feet. “I’ll leave you in peace then. I didn’t intend to disturb you.” He reached up and under his jacket, pulling something from one of the small pockets sewn into the lining and offering it to the older man. “Here.”
Treize took the offered data-disc case with a curious expression. “Zechs? What’s this?”
“The flight data from this morning’s Taurus run.” Zechs smiled. “I created a back up copy and saved it to that disc. Thought I’d save you the bother of hacking the engineering server to get it.”
Treize blinked down at the case a couple of times then returned Zechs’s smile with one of his own, soft and genuine. “Thank you,” he murmured. “I appreciate it.”
“I thought you might. It’s the entire Squadron’s data, mind. Not just mine.”
“Even better, though it is mostly yours I’m interested in.” Treize opened the case and slid the disc it contained into the drive on his laptop, closing the files he was working on and calling up a number of programmes Zechs didn’t think he’d ever seen before.
Suddenly realising he was lingering without any real purpose, Zechs took a step towards the door.
“You don’t have to leave, if you don’t want to,” Treize murmured, making the younger man stop where he was. “I’m merely setting this to run. It will take the programmes a good two or three hours to complete their analysis of the data on that computer. It doesn’t have the power of the mainframe I usually do this on.”
“Oh. Well if you want me to stay…?”
“Don’t I always?” Treize replied, without looking up from his screen. His fingers were dancing over the keyboard, inputting something in the boxes that had appeared on the screen.
Curious and wondering if he were finally going to see something of what Treize wanted all this flight data for in the first place, Zechs let his eyes skim the lines of text, hoping to make sense of them.
He was disappointed to realise that Treize seemed to be typing some sort of code that made no sense at all to him, and he sighed unconsciously.
“You might just ask me, you know,” the general pointed out, chuckling a little. “I’d be dying of curiosity too, in your place.”
Zechs started guiltily. “I didn’t… You’ve made it clear a few times you won’t tell me and I didn’t think….”
“Oh, I’m not going to tell you why I’m doing this, but I can tell you what it is I’m doing to this particular data right at this moment, if you like?” Treize spared Zechs a glance up from his screen. “I’d have thought you’d have recognised the programming language from your Academy classes on the subject?”
“Oh….” Zechs blinked, recognising the code easily now that he knew what he was looking at. “I thought it looked familiar,” he admitted.
“It should,” Treize confirmed. “At the moment, I’m simply instructing the programme to recognise that the data it’s being fed is from you and from a Taurus suit, flown in the desert this morning. I’m setting parameters – temperature, humidity and the like, that’s all. I couldn’t be bothered to create an interface when I wrote the programme, so I’m having to do it manually. It’s certainly nothing you couldn’t do.”
“Probably,” the blond acknowledged, nodding. Like every suit pilot trained at the Lake Victoria Academy, Zechs had been given a fairly intensive grounding in programming as part of the knowledge he would need to understand the workings of the suits he would fly. The mecha were heavily dependant upon the operating system installed into them and one of the first things Zechs routinely did when he was assigned a new suit – along with most experienced pilots – was to make changes to it, personalising the command response and the exact details of the suit’s operation. For Zechs, his primary goal was to remove the inbuilt cutouts that were programmed in at what the designers had considered the edge of human tolerance. It took away his safety cushion and made it possible that merely flying the suit would prove dangerous, but it also made it possible for him to fly his suits in ways that no-one else seemed to think was possible.
It wasn’t an easy bit of computer work, certainly, but it had become routine for the pilot, simply something he did, and since he so rarely used his programming skills in any other way he’d honestly all but forgotten that he had them.
Now, watching Treize type line after line of code into his laptop with barely a pause, Zechs was forcibly reminded – by the fact that he could follow most of what the general was typing – that he did have those skills, and was equally reminded that Treize’s own ability in the area far outstripped his own.
The older man had always been fascinated with the hard sciences – numbers and logic conundrums had been something of a hobby for him as child. Where Zechs had sweated through the maths problems set by his tutors, Treize had seemed to relish them, regularly delighting in showing his surrogate younger brother some trick of equations or higher mathematics that he’d recently discovered. The tendency had carried through into his Academy days, so that where Noin had chosen her Unconventional Warfare classes as her final year elective course and Zechs had taken something of sidestep into Military History for his, Treize, in his turn, had happily sat through the hours of advanced physics, maths, computing and engineering needed to earn him his MS designers certification.
Zechs, personally, thought him halfway to crazy for it but he couldn’t deny, watching the general ply the keyboard for a final few seconds before hitting the Enter key and closing the lid down, that it seemed to have paid off for the older man.
Treize turned his chair around, so that he was looking up at the blond, and smiled. “Well, I can safely let that run for a few hours. Would you care to go for a walk with me? The air in here is stifling.”
Returning the smile, Zechs nodded willingly. “I’d love to.”
For anyone interested, I have, somewhere, a VERY badly drawn map of the base.
My beta-readers all called this one 'the calm before the storm'. I called it 'Treize and Zechs behaving something like that age they ARE'. Either/or is pretty apt.
If anyone saw them, Zechs mused as he walked beside the older man, he was going to get stopped and shot for sneaking a stranger onto the base. The pilot was instantly recognisable in his full uniform and trademark helmet but he was sure no one was going to know who Treize was until it was too late.
The general had delayed the start of their walk long enough to strip out of his heavy uniform and douse himself in a cold shower, redressing in casual civilian clothes made from the neutral hued cottons and linens ideal for keeping cool in the punishing climate. He’d pulled a comb through his hair but hadn’t bothered with it further, so that now the warm evening wind was picking up the glossy strands of it and tossing them about his face playfully.
Zechs smiled at the picture he made and wished he were half as comfortable in his uniform as the general looked.
“You could just take your jacket and cravat off, you know?” Treize commented, returning his smile. “It would be better than sweating all evening.”
Zechs snorted. “And you could just order someone to design a summer-weight uniform for the Specials, so your officers wouldn’t have to break dress-regs to be comfortable. All this wool and braid is daft – even our bloody Elite Academy is in the middle of a desert!”
His outraged tone made the older man smile indulgently at him. “So you’d have me dress you all the way the European troops used to then?” Treize asked, then shook his head, chuckling. “We’d never be taken seriously again.”
Zechs blinked. “Sorry?” he asked, registering that his friend was in something of a whimsical mood and bracing himself accordingly. Treize was…unpredictable when he was this way out and that, in Zechs’s experience, could be either a good thing or a very, very bad one. They’d gotten into most of their shared childhood scrapes whilst Treize showed that particular glint in his eyes
“Shirts and shorts?” the redhead asked. “Knee socks and assault boots? Little berets and cloth caps? With the average age of my officers?” Treize shrugged lightly and gestured dismissively. “Christ, Zechs, we’d look like public schoolboys, Une would look pre-adolescent, and the whole world would laugh itself silly at us.”
“I’m sure you could think of something that doesn’t have that effect if you tried,” Zechs pointed out, rolling his eyes.
“Probably, but I like my uniform the way it is, thank you,” the older man returned. “And I like you in yours,” he added, his smile turning a little wicked. “I have no desire to see you in khaki’s and camo gear.”
Zechs glowered. “So I’m suffering so you can eye me off?” he asked archly.
“Of course. Would you rather I eyed up Une?”
“You do,” the pilot grouched, “when you think she isn’t looking.”
“Ah, but not with any intent, I promise,” Treize laughed softly. “I save that for you.”
“Not bloody recently,” Zechs huffed, mostly to himself and the older officer chuckled.
“Frustrated, my love?” Treize asked, taunting gently.
“Somewhat. You haven’t laid a hand on me properly since we got here and I have to share a bedroom and bathroom with three other officers. There’s not a whole lot I can do about your teasing.”
“Poor you.” Treize’s voice dripped false sympathy and Zechs glared at him. “Oh, now, there’s no need for that!”
“It’s alright for you!”
“Hmm.” Treize turned his head as he looked round swiftly. “Not really. I share a bathroom too, and my room is far too hot to do anything without risking heat stroke.” The general caught Zechs’s hand in his own and tugged. “Come over here,” he murmured, pulling the younger officer off the road they’d been walking down and towards the maintenance and suit sheds.
“Treize, what are you doing?” Zechs demanded.
“Taking advantage of my longer military service,” Treize explained. “These bases are always laid out according to the same map.”
“That’s poor strategy.”
“It is,” the general agreed, “but right now it’s very handy. Over here,” he encouraged, ducking between the back of one of the support hangers and the side of the Leo shed.
Zechs followed his friend into the shadowed space, feeling the sand shift unsteadily underneath his feet as he walked. The arrangement of the buildings had left a narrow corridor not quite three feet across and the width of the hanger long. It faced no doors or guard posts, Zechs realised quickly, and so was totally unobserved and the high walls of the sheds almost completely blocked the glare of the flood lights, leaving the space in near-total darkness.
If he’d been an enemy infiltrator, the corridor would have been a dream come true, an easy place to plant bombs that would destroy dozens of suits and planes and kill hundreds of personnel. Knowing the base he was stationed on had such a design flaw sent a shiver down Zechs’s spine – the memories of Dover suddenly all too close again. “Treize, this is….” he started and was hushed.
“I know,” Treize soothed. “I thought the same thing at first, but it isn’t so great a risk. There’s no way to get here without crossing open, guarded ground or coming through the minefield. And it’s a very useful little space,” he added impishly, “being as it’s dark and we can’t be seen….”
Zechs blinked at him. “Oh?”
Gentle fingers traced a line up the side of the blonde’s neck and tapped the surface of his helmet lightly. “Take this off,” Treize murmured, settling his other hand on the pilot’s trim waist.
Zechs obeyed wordlessly, giving his head a shake to make his bangs fall back into place.
“Better,” the older man approved, his long fingers fanning out across Zechs’s jaw as he stretched up the little he needed to kiss him.
Zechs hummed low in his throat and smiled as the kiss broke. “Feeling playful, Treize?” he asked quietly.
“It’s possible,” Treize agreed. “I thought you wanted me to be?”
“I’m not going to complain,” Zechs said, jumping as the general’s other hand began tugging and pulling at his belt, undoing the Specials-logo shaped buckle.
With the belt out of his way, Treize slid his fingers under the close fitting white fabric of the pilot’s breeches and freed the concealed clasp and zip. “Never sleep with a civilian,” Treize murmured as he worked. “There’s not a one of them will be able to get you out of your uniform.”
Zechs bit off a laugh as he reached to return his general’s favour, finding the simple zip fly of his casual linen pants much easier to deal with. “You speak from experience, I assume?” he asked.
“What do you think?” Treize replied. “Lose the jacket, will you? I’d like to be able to touch some of you.”
“I think…” Zechs began sharply, and stopped as his breath left him a rush as Treize’s hands got under the clinging cotton of his regulation underwear. “Christ! Treize! I think you’re touching quite enough of me!” he choked, but he moved to obey, dropping the heavy coat onto the sand at their feet and unwinding his cravat.
Treize glanced over the pilot and hummed his approval of the thin, snug-fitting scarlet t-shirt. “You might have had something with that summer uniform idea…” he teased, then jumped in his own turn as Zechs returned his hands to getting past the general’s own clothing.
Treize’s lack of underwear aided that task somewhat.
“You were planning this!” Zechs accused, squeezing his eyes shut as Treize began stroking his erection with knowing fingers.
“Of course I was,” the older man agreed. “Do I seem made of ice? I’ve missed this just as much as you have.”
“You haven’t… ah, God!... acted like it much…”
Treize chuckled darkly as he grabbed the pilot’s hand with his free one and pressed it firmly to his own hardened need, catching his breath at the contact. “Have I mentioned you talk too damned much?” he demanded.
“You might… might have… yes.”
Zechs found himself abruptly shoved back against the cold concrete wall of the support hanger, pinned in place by a hand gripping hard on his hip and a merciless, heated midnight gaze. “Shut the fuck up, then!” Treize hissed and kissed him ruthlessly.
Zechs gave into the twinned assault on his body and his senses completely and then gave back as much as he was getting, working his hand on his lover’s erection with as much skill as he had and letting his other arm wrap around the general’s narrow waist to give them both support.
The whole thing was harried and hasty, their hands rough on each other and dry apart from their own fluids, a clumsy, fumbling mutual masturbation worthy of Zechs’s age and lacking any splinter of Treize’s customary finesse. It had been prompted solely by physical need, it was insanely risky in the circumstances – if they were caught the consequences didn’t bear thinking about – it was nothing but necessary stress relief but, for both of them, it was something they desperately, urgently, needed.
Zechs felt his orgasm build in him and overtake him in a matter of a few – a very few – minutes and he tore his mouth from his lovers to drag air into his screaming lungs. “Fuck! Treize…!” he gasped, every inch of him tensing as he hovered on a teetering knife edge.
Treize’s answer was no more than an inarticulate growl but his hand picked up its pace and Zechs felt his body shatter into blinding climax, fire flashing through his nerves as his mind went completely blank for a fraction of a second.
He came back to himself to find that the general had clamped his free hand across his mouth to smother Zechs’s howl of completion, and just in time to see Treize bite down hard on his lower lip as he went rigid. Hot liquid trickled over the pilot’s fingers as the older man let out a little high-pitched keening whimper.
The two of them stayed locked in that tableau for a moment and then Treize slumped forward, letting Zechs catch him even as the pilot leaned back against the wall behind him for his own support. They were sweating and breathing in heaving, ragged gulps, the aftershocks of release flickering through both of them.
Zechs’s panting started to steady as Treize began to tremble in his hold and they clung to each other for a minute more then began to move apart, prompted by some unspoken cue, freeing their hands from each other. They cleaned up quietly – Treize using a handkerchief from his pocket and Zechs, his discarded cravat – wiping away sticky, chilling fluids and the sheen of sweat, then looked at each other and smiled as they straightened tumbled clothing and mussed hair.
Zechs gave his neckwear a rueful look, scrunching the stained fabric into a ball in his hand. “The laundry is going to be thinking I have a fetish for these things,” he commented. “Every damn time we do something like this, I end up having to use my cravat as a towel.”
Treize snorted softly. “As good a reason as I can think of for including them in the dress code, then.” He grinned a little. “Take it in the shower with you and let it rinse out if you’re worried about it. It’ll dry well enough if you turn your hairdryer on it for a few minutes.”
Zechs cast him a knowing, speculative look. “Speaking from experience again?”
“Yes,” Treize laughed, “and no. Something I learned from Kihu. My mother’s insistence on my always carrying a handkerchief has proved very useful.”
“I’ll bet,” Zechs sighed. “I’ll have to get into the habit.” He met his lover’s eyes and offered the older man a gentle, slightly embarrassed smile. “Thank you,” he murmured.
Treize returned the smile, slipped his handkerchief into his pocket and reached up to kiss the pilot, running his hand through soft, silvery hair. “What’s to thank me for?” he quizzed when he moved away again. “We both got the same thing out of it, didn’t we? And even if we hadn’t, I would have been glad to do it. I do like being able to make you feel good, you know.”
The general waited for Zechs to nod his acknowledgement of that and then stretched slowly, bent down to retrieve Zechs’s helmet and jacket and handed them to him as he looked around. “I feel thoroughly awake now,” he commented, letting an impish smile touch his face. “Come and fence with me?” he asked.
“Why not now? We haven’t duelled in months, I could do with the exercise and it might be fun? Yes?”
Treize’s sudden enthusiasm was catching and Zechs found himself grinning back as they began walking down the little corridor and stepped back out into the light of the base.
The ring of steel on steel was broken only by the rough, ragged-edged gasps of their breathing, the rustle of clothing and the whispering sweep-and-thump of their feet across the sprung floor of the gym.
Even on a temporary base such as this one, Treize insisted his designers pay attention to the facilities that would keep his officers entertained, amused and fit for combat. The gym was one of those facilities. It managed to look and feel no less well equipped or appointed as the one at the Luxembourg headquarters – was so much like it in fact that, for a time, Zechs had managed to forget where exactly he was as he lost himself in the rhythm of his fencing match with his friend.
They’d started slowly, testing each other and the calibre of their borrowed sporting foils – neither man was inclined to risk injury by using the live-edged sabres both owned and wore as part of their uniforms – and relearning subtle cues of stance and expression.
As they’d loosened up, muscles warming and minds sinking into focus, their speed had increased in stages until they were moving back and forward fluidly, almost dancing their exchange.
As was typical for him, Treize had held himself tightly in check, keeping a close defensive posture. His movements had been small and unhurried, mostly from the wrist and elbow and full of feint and misdirection. He was conserving his energy, refusing to extend himself and take risks, relying totally on technique and reaction time to protect himself and on his ability to read his opponent’s intentions. Subtle cues and psychological trickery made his challengers attack, expending their own energy in bringing the fight to the general.
It was the way Zechs had expected things to go, the way Treize had always fenced, and so going on the attack had become second nature to him over the years. It was the only stance he could take and have any chance of winning.
Treize had always been that little bit older and more advanced – taller, too, until the past few months, and so possessed of the greater reach – his skill with his blade just that little bit superior to his friend’s own. Zechs had learned quickly that his only way to win was to overwhelm the older boy – to drive him back into a corner or onto the edge of the mat and turn his lightning reaction time into a series of attacks so fast and so powerful that Treize couldn’t meet them all cleanly. Sometimes, it worked. Treize would make a mistake, wouldn’t be able to move quite fast enough and Zechs would get under his guard to score a touch. More often, Zechs left himself unguarded for a fraction of a second or over-extended and the point would go to the general.
It had never occurred to Zechs to reflect on how much of their preferred attitudes on the fencing mat spilled over into the rest of their lives.
Sliding past his hand in a trick of the wrist and shoulder that Zechs had never, quite, mastered, Treize touched the blunted tip of his foil to his lover’s heart and smiled gently. “I believe that would make it three to two, love,” he murmured. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Zechs agreed, dropping his blade to his side in a gesture of surrender. “Your match,” he conceded.
“Thank you.” The older man lowered his own blade. Then grinned suddenly. “Very close, though. Very close. Best two of three?” he offered. “I quite enjoyed that.”
“My point, I believe. If this were tennis, I’d call it ‘game, set and match….’”
Zechs saluted the older man with his blade, smiling a little at the comment. “I don’t like tennis much – but you knew that.” He sighed, a touch ruefully. “One day, I’ll beat you….”
Treize laughed quietly. “You beat me several times, Zechs, if I recall correctly. You just need a more consistent tactic and a lot more practice.”
Zechs snorted, turning to put his borrowed sword back in its locker. “That’s your answer to everything, isn’t it? Practice! Fencing, the piano…. When do I have the time?”
Treize waved a hand at him. “You can’t pretend that it’s a lack of time that stops you,” he retorted. “I’ve seen you work yourself to the point of exhaustion to get something right too many times to believe that your lack of effort is anything other than sheer disinterest.”
The pilot chuckled. “Yes, well, that might also be true.” He shrugged. “Sorry,” he added, unrepentantly.
Treize shook his head, returning the chuckle. “You aren’t, but that’s alright. I’ll civilise you one day.”
“I am civilised!” Zechs protested. He waited a beat, then added, “I’m just not as painfully foppish as you are!”
Treize raised his eyebrows in a gesture of astonishment. “Excuse me?!” he spluttered, his voice caught between surprise and outrage. “I am not foppish ! I’m polished. Elegant, even.”
“So’s an antique coffee table,” Zechs fired back, pale eyes dancing with merriment. “I’ll stick with being uncouth and vaguely masculine, I think.” He shot the older man a wicked grin. “I should have known you were gay,” he added.
The older man choked. “I’m not gay!” he protested. “I’ve had my share of women, thank you very much!” He shook his head. “Which – may I remind you – is more than you can say!”
There was a moment’s silence and then Treize smiled slowly. “But I do find it amusing to be told I’m effeminate by a man with waist length platinum hair,” he said. “After all, I’m not the one that has to carry designer hair products in my duffel.”
Zechs felt himself blushing, but he rallied well. “Only extra strength gel to keep the ringlets at bay,” he retorted, then smirked. “Only one of us has worn make-up, Treize!”
“For the television cameras!”
“Pfft. That’s not the only time,” the pilot teased. “You used to wear it to go out in! I saw you!”
“When?!” Treize demanded. “I demand you back up your assertions, sir!” he added, putting one hand on his hip and bringing the sword he was still holding up with the other.
Zechs couldn’t help but start laughing; the general was such a perfect caricature of some of the mincing noblemen they’d run into over the years, it was uncanny. “At the Academy one evening,” the blond answered, when he had the breath. “You were wearing leather trousers and a silk shirt. You’d used kohl round your eyes. You’d even dyed your bloody hair!”
Treize dropped his affected posture and let his eyes half-close. “Ah, yes,” he said slowly. “I’d quite forgotten I ran into you that night.” He smiled leisurely. “My play-clothes… I haven’t worn those for years.” The smile turned a little evil. “What did you think of them?”
“…What?” Zechs asked, caught off-guard by the shift in mood. The look in Treize’s eyes kicked his pulse-rate up a notch. “I, ah….”
“Did I look effeminate dressed like that? I shan’t do it again if I did.”
Zechs swallowed suddenly, wondering what had provoked the older man into this mood so unexpectedly. “Not… effeminate exactly, no,” he admitted.
“No? That’s good.” The general shifted his weight, settling one hand on his hip. It was his customary posture this time, as he tilted his head, looking at Zechs speculatively. “I’ll have to take you to one of those clubs one day. You’d be fun to dress up and I’m sure the lovely Lucrezia would be willing to help me.”
“I’m not a bloody doll!” Zechs protested. “I’m not dyeing my hair and I’m not wearing paint – not even for you!”
Midnight eyes ran over Zechs analytically as the older man smiled wickedly. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of touching your hair. It’s quite striking all on its own and just as it is. And it’s not ‘paint’,” he corrected, “its emphasis, and completely within the norm for the setting.” Treize nodded to himself. “Yes, definitely an idea for future consideration. I’ll have to see where Noin suggests we go. Can you dance?”
“What?” Zechs demanded reflexively. “Treize, you know I can! You taught me!”
“Oh, not the formal ballroom stuff. Can you dance?”
Zechs scowled. “If you mean that sort of wriggling thing Noin does at parties, I don’t know. I’ve never tried.”
Treize smiled again. “What a shame – I’ll have to teach you, then.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “But not right now. It’s getting late. Come on – since I’m apparently a delicate little thing, you’ll have to walk me home.”
“I would have done anyway,” Zechs responded lightly. “You can’t really blame me for wondering about you sometimes, though. You have just spent the last five minutes threatening to dress me up and do my make up. Even you can’t make that sound anything other than completely camp.”
“No, I suppose I can’t at that,” Treize laughed. “Ah, well. We’ll have to settle for being a pair of bitching queens in our old age I suppose.” He picked up Zechs’s helmet and handed it to him as they headed out of the door.
“I’m still not going to let you dress me up,” the younger man insisted as they walked. “You and Noin together are just down right sadistic and I’m not that much of a martyr.”
Treize shrugged. “Well, being sadistic would be half the point – as I think you’ll find – but I’ll sweeten the deal for you. You agree to spending an evening with me in a club of my choosing – including going along with whatever preparations I feel are necessary – and I’ll return the favour at the next opportunity. I’ll spend an evening doing whatever you choose, without protesting. How does that strike you?”
Zechs bit his lip, thinking, weighing the certain knowledge that he was going to hate every second of Treize’s club against the idea of having the older man entirely at his call, committed to doing whatever Zechs wanted him to. Slowly, the pilot nodded. “Alright.”
“Excellent. I’ll start planning then.” The general stopped as they reached the entrance to the command bunker and gestured inside. “Come inside with me and I’ll give you that letter from Noin.”
Zechs typed the code in the door-panel of his room fluidly and pushed the door open, his eyes on the folded paper in his hand, the print-out Treize had given him of Noin’s email, his thoughts centred on the older man.
The general had teased Zechs mercilessly with so-called ‘ideas’ for what he was going to make the younger man wear for their planned club visit as they’d walked through the command bunker and whilst he’d rustled up the copy of Noin’s letter. He’d stopped finally only a few minutes before Zechs had left him alone – because Zechs had pushed him back against the bed the older man had been sitting on and proceeded to leisurely kiss him good night.
It had been a perfect way to end a pleasant evening, even if Treize had been falling asleep by the time Zechs had let him go and stood up to leave.
The pilot had thrown the light blanket over his commander, watching affectionately as he turned on his side and settled into his pillow with a sigh. Then he’d made his way back across the base and to his own, shared rooms.
Only one of his fellow officers was still awake when Zechs entered the suite – the man who had the bunk immediately below the blonde’s, Major Mortimer. The sandy-haired officer was in full uniform and appeared to be checking the neatness of his shave in the small mirror affixed on the wall but he spared a moment to offer Zechs a quick smile as he stepped into the room.
“Evening, Marquise,” he greeted, his voice low and soft in deference to the two other officers sleeping on the other side of the room. “The general keeping you busy again?”
Zechs nodded absently as he began tugging at the collar of his jacket, eager to shed the thing’s restrictive warmth. “He wanted to discuss the Taurus,” he replied.
“I’ll bet.” The Major gave Zechs another quick glance. “Is it likely they’ll be phased in generally soon? I’d love to get my hands on one.”
“I’d rather have the Leo,” Zechs answered, shrugging, “or the Aries. The Taurus is hard work. But, yes, it’s going to be brought in. His Excellency said something about the next cadet class out of Victoria commencing instruction on it in the next few weeks.”
“That was fast. You must have impressed him.”
“Perhaps. I think the fact that His Excellency was responsible for half of the design of the Taurus has more to do with it.”
Mortimer flicked Zechs a surprised glance. “He helped design it? Really? Well, you learn something new everyday.”
“Indeed. Are you going somewhere?” Zechs asked as he bent over to tug his boots off.
“Nowhere fun I’m afraid. My squadron has the Alert watch for the night, so I have to be over in the Ward room. At least you won’t have to put up with my snoring for once. How’s the weather?”
“Warm,” Zechs replied.
“Ah, what a surprise. I was hoping for snow.” The man stepped back from the mirror, straightened his shoulders and shot Zechs another smile. “Well, I have to go. See you in the morning!”
Zechs nodded his response and waited for the man to lock the door behind him before he stripped out of the rest of his uniform and hung it back in the metal locker by his bunk. His cravat he slung into his laundry bag along with his socks and underwear.
Despite the fact that he was still too warm in the stuffy air of the room, he slipped into thin cotton trousers – mindful of the fact that he was sharing the room and could, technically, be woken at any moment – and dimmed the lighting in the room right down to minimum.
Grateful for the fact that he’d washed his hair before he’d gone to dinner, and so didn’t have to bother now, he climbed the metal ladder to his bunk, flopped onto his back on top of the covers and pulled the folding fabric privacy screen across, flicking on the little reading light built into the ceiling above his head as he did so.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he took a series of deep breaths, letting the tension of the day wash out of him as he relaxed all his muscles from head to foot in sequence. Wriggling a little to get comfortable, he tucked one hand behind his head, and unfolded the print-out of the letter with the other, skimming his eyes across the time and date stamp and noting that, even with Treize’s belligerent insistence on efficiency in the communications lines, it had taken Noin’s email almost a week to be routed through all the various servers to catch up with him.
The letter was typical Noin though, from cheery informal greeting, through chatty style, to the affectionate ending.
How’s things in sunny Egypt?? Hot as hell, I bet. Hope you’re all having fun sweating in your uniforms!
L4 turned out to be really good fun, and I think I’m going to like this command thing. It’s soooo much nicer not having to take orders from complete idiots any more. I think I’ve been useful, too. Treize seems pleased with me at least – and he hasn’t seemed to mind all the evil looks I’ve been giving him on your behalf. Have the two of you patched things up yet? I know you said in your last letter that you thought you had but it’d be nice to know for sure.
And now onto my new, exciting news! By the time you get this letter, I’ll be not as far away from you as you think I am. His Excellency *must* be pleased with me, because I’ve been given a new job!
Commandant Kersey died in his sleep last week, and Treize has asked me to be the new Senior Instructor at Lake Victoria! How’s that for a shock? I know he’d asked me what I thought of the place and the teaching regimes there once or twice, but I had no idea he was considering anything like this! Mind, I don’t think he was expecting to have to do it so suddenly. I only have three days to get up to speed before the new cadet classes come in. And I’m expected to start training all the students on the new Taurus models in a few weeks! I’ve never even seen one close up yet! You’ll have to drop me hints.
Well, I think that’s it for now. Let me know how are – and congratulate me on my new job, of course! – soon.
Lots of love,
Zechs smiled to himself, finding he could almost hear her voice, bright and bubbly with her excitement as he read her words. It looked like Treize had been right to choose her for the job, though the pilot had been given no hint that the two of them had ever discussed the Academy with each other. Trust Treize to lay his groundwork early, though.
Happy for his friend, and relaxed by his evening, Zechs flicked off his light, rolled onto his side and curled up a little as he closed his eyes again, this time intending to sleep.
Just before he drifted off, a flash of memory jolted him, shattering his contentedness thoroughly. Treize’s voice, low and trusting in the silence between the two of them, came back to him: ‘ Around – oh, the middle of April or so, the current Senior Instructor is going to have a heart attack in his sleep.’
Zechs felt himself go cold. He’d known at the time, of course, that Treize was talking about assassinating the old Commandant but, somehow, he’d managed to dismiss the idea, to convince himself that his commander wouldn’t actually go through with something like that.
He had though, unless this was an amazing co-incidence, calmly and efficiently, just as he’d said he would – and Zechs didn’t know quite what to do with the knowledge.
Shuddering as he found himself trying to work exactly how Treize had accomplished his murder, Zechs fisted his hands into his bed sheets and lay on his bunk, staring into the darkness and trying to contain the sudden boiling rage inside him, and the overwhelming feeling of betrayal.
Who was Treize that he could do such a thing? How well did Zechs really know him? And, what else was he really capable of?
For the first time in his life, Zechs found himself doubting his oldest friend, his lover – and that feeling was devastating.
Restless and disturbed by his doubts, the pilot fell finally into an uncomfortable sleep, and wasn’t at all shocked when his nightmares came to stalk him.
Blaring alarms shattered the darkness, jolting Zechs from his uneasy rest, the muffled thud and shake of explosions mixing all too readily with those in his nightmares. For a moment, he couldn’t remember where he was – Sanc, Dover, L2, Egypt – and haunting visions of his dead parents, of his sister, of Treize’s lifeless, bleeding body, followed him from his dreams into the waking world to throw him into a sick panic.
He flailed blindly, desperately, seeking for something that would let him identify where he was, *when* he was, and his fingers caught on the stiff fabric of the screen around his bed. Breathlessly, he scrabbled at it, yanking it back and rolling out of his bunk to land in a crouch on the hard floor of his assigned room.
A hand on his bare shoulder made him start and whirl, his hands coming up automatically to throw off his attacker and defend himself, and steely fingers caught his wrists, stopping the movement.
“Easy, easy!” someone snapped at him, reaching past him with a shift of warm cloth against Zechs’s body to slap the lights on in the room. “Stand down, Marquise!”
Zechs stared blankly at one of his roommates for a moment, then shook his head as recognition dawned. “Sorry,” he murmured softly, as the man’s identity registered.
The man let him go and grinned up at him briefly. “Jumpy thing, aren’t you?” he commented as he ran his hands back through his sleep-mussed hair and reached past Zechs again to grab for his uniform.
Zechs scrambled for his own clothes, hearing the third officer in the room hit the floor with a vicious curse.
“They couldn’t leave their bloody surprise attack till a civilised hour, then?” he snarled, his Scottish brogue overlaying the words.
“Doesn’t look like it,” Zechs returned, throwing himself into his underwear and breeches, undershirt and jacket automatically, long practice making the process smooth and extremely fast. His hands pulled his hair back into a tail at the base of his neck and secured it with a twist of ribbon taken from his pocket at the same time as he shoved his feet into his boots, and the dropping of his helmet over his face had him fully dressed and ready in a matter of seconds – and not looking all that much less presentable than he did when he had an hour to get ready.
A quick glance over his shoulder showed that the two other officers were almost as ready themselves and he ran for the door, unlocking it and heading out into the corridor without waiting for them.
All along the passageway, hastily dressed officers, male and female both, were stumbling through the doors to their rooms. Some looked utterly awake, others exhausted, giving Zechs a rough idea of the time as he realised they must have been coming up on the watch-change.
The one thing they all looked, though, was alert and determined and Zechs nodded to himself. He turned the corner leading to the exit at not much less than a dead run and raised his voice to shout at the press of men and officers trying to climb the short flight of steps.
“Wait!” he barked, gratified to see that he was obeyed almost immediately, even by those one or two officers in the press who technically outranked him. “You,” he snapped, pointing at a Lieutenant randomly, “check the area. Carefully.”
The dull rumble of explosions and impacts was louder and much closer here, sand sifting down from the doorway with each set of vibrations.
“Marquise, those are the attack alarms!” someone shouted at him. “We have to report to our suits!”
“No-one leaves the bunkers until we know the status outside,” Zechs corrected. “Take a breath, and think, please.”
The Lieutenant interrupted the positively venomous glare Zechs got from the officer for that, by sticking his head back through the hatch and shaking his head. “It’s not good up here, sir. We’re being bombed and there are suits pushing for the fencing…” The boy’s voice was shaking, but he delivered his report without stumbling over his words.
Zechs nodded. “Are the suit hangers still standing?” he asked.
“Good.” He launched himself up the steps, ducking as he reached the ground and pulling the Lieutenant out of the way of the other officers as they followed him and then began to run for the suit sheds. “What’s your name?” Zechs asked.
“Walker, sir!” The boy saluted crisply. “Lieutenant Walker. I’m an Aries pilot, sir!”
“And a good one, I imagine. First combat?”
“Yes, sir,” Walker admitted. “I graduated last month, sir.”
“Well, you’re a credit to your training, Walker. You’ve got more about you than most of those officers had.” Zechs offered the boy a quick smile and let it broaden when the boy found the nerve to summon up his own in reply. “I need you to do me a favour, Walker. Will you?”
“Yes, sir! Of course, sir!”
“I know you’re eager to get to your suit, but I need you to run across to the command bunker, find either Mr Treize or Lady Une and tell them their pilots will be available in 120 seconds and under my command if they need it. Can you do that?”
“Good lad! Go!”
Zechs watched the boy scramble away across the sand and began moving himself, keeping low as he ducked and weaved across the base. The air was hot, thick with smoke and the dust that had been thrown up from the continuing bombing. The explosions made the ground vibrate under his feet, and underneath the deafening impacts, the shrieking whine of more incoming shells was ear-splitting. By the sides of the runway, the anti-aircraft turrets were whirring and turning in their emplacements, tracking an abundance of radar signals as they obeyed their programming and flung a storm of red-hot tracer into the night sky.
In a way it wouldn’t have a year before, some impulse made him halt in his tracks for a moment and turn his eyes to the sky. It went against all the training he’d had drilled into him as a cadet, but he couldn’t suppress the need to know what was up there. Squinting, Zechs fought to see past the streaking AA shells, trying to catch a glimpse of a silhouette or the curve of an engine or wing to tell him what their suits would be facing when they got off the ground.
It took him precious seconds to realise that there was nothing to see. The explosions continued and the turrets continued to frantically track targets, but there was nothing in the air. It dawned on him slowly that what Walker had mistakenly identified as bombing was really shelling and he flinched involuntarily. Short of a direct assault on the gun batteries, there was nothing, with the resources currently available to them, that could be done to counter such a bombardment.
Zechs turned to run again and concussive force made him stagger and almost fall. He regained his footing just about in time to throw himself flat, covering his head with his hands instinctively as a hail of bullets tore through the space he’d been standing in.
He rolled to one side, his hair whipping around him and pulling free from his hurried ponytail as he was caught in the engine wash of some sort of mobile suit. It thundered past him, making for the suit sheds, guns rattling off round after round of heavy ammunition.
Panting, Zechs scrambled into a low crouch and stared at the suit in open disbelief. “Where the fuck did that come from?!” he swore to himself. “How many new suit types have the bastards got?”
The heavy, low-slung, wide body of the mecha immediately put Zechs in mind of the rarely-used Tragos suit. Like that machine, this one had clearly been designed to serve as a mobile gun-platform – an attempt to fuse the mobile suit with the old-fashioned tank – and in a further design echo, possessed nothing to resemble the conventional ‘legs’ of a suit, relying instead on an ability to hover above the ground provided by jet engines directed vertically downward.
Suddenly wishing he’d kept little Officer Walker with him a few minutes longer before sending him on his errand, Zechs abandoned all thought of stealth and cover and settled for pure speed as he sprinted across the space remaining between himself and the shed housing his Taurus. This was information Treize *was* going to need. What Zechs had thought was something of a fool’s attempt at a raid against the base was proving instead to be a well thought-out, well informed and potentially devastating all-out surprise assault. The hover-capacity of these new mecha rendered the carefully laid defensive minefield surrounding the base a problem only for their own Leo’s and all the air defences were doing against the shelling was putting more flying lead into the air.
Feeling himself grow cold as he wondered how long it would be before their opponent switched from light-weight ground artillery to heavy-duty bunker-busters – and thereby put all the command staff, including Treize, in immediate and deadly danger – Zechs pushed himself faster and barely left himself time to skid to a halt as he rounded the doorway of the hanger.
In utter contrast to the methodical and precise atmosphere that had preceded every other time he’d flown the Taurus these past weeks, the hanger was awash with noise, bright lights and frantic activity. Engineers and mechanics scrambled to get their suits operational and off the ground, and pilots either paced frenetically, waiting to be given the go to take control of their mecha, or were leaning out of their cockpits, shouting for instructions or hollering at their support crew to hurry things up.
Zechs slid straight past the hands of his ground crew, ignoring their exclamations of dismay and shock, grabbed for the hoist line someone had conveniently left down and let himself be pulled off the concrete floor and into mid-air.
He jumped the last few feet to the hatch of his suit and scrambled into the pilots chair, flicking in sequence the switches that would power up his cockpit and give him, amongst other things, both his radio communications with his support team and the other suits in his unit, and the command frequencies that would tie him directly to the Operations bunker and, he hoped, Treize.
Sparing no mind for the protesting squawking of his chief engineer, Meiser, despite the fact that the two of them usually got along very well, Zechs sent a prearranged signal to his squadron, demanding they be ready for take-off immediately, and leaned hard on the button that put him through to Command.
He was greeted by the calm face and steady voice of one of the traffic control technicians, who immediately launched into what was obviously a standard message, her voice so flat over the words that Zechs wondered just how many times she’d had to say them already.
He put that thought from his mind and cut her off almost mid-word with a snarled, “I need to speak with His Excellency.”
The girl didn’t miss a beat and didn’t look up from her console as she shook her head. “I’m afraid all requests for further information or to speak with the senior staff have been denied. You are to follow the instructions I have just detailed and await further orders when in your assigned position.”
“I *am* senior staff, sergeant,” Zechs bit off. “Please inform either His Excellency, or Lady Une if he isn’t available, that Major Marquise needs to speak with them and has information they need.”
The girl lifted her head and her eyes widened at the sight of Zechs but she still began to shake her head. “I’m sorry, sir, but my orders….” She stopped abruptly as a white-gloved hand came to rest lightly on her shoulder for a moment.
“Thank you, sergeant,” someone said, and the voice was utterly distinctive for all that it was right on the edge of the microphone pick-up. “Would you be so kind as to shift along one station?”
The technician nodded wordlessly and the image on Zechs’s screen blurred as she stood and moved, leaving the pilot to a visual of the controlled chaos the command bunker had become, before Treize settled himself into her vacated seat and offered him a smile that seemed more than a little forced.
“Good morning, Zechs,” Treize sighed softly. “You had something you needed to tell me?”
To Chris and the Dave's, who took the time to lend me their knowledge and experience in all things military.
Treize’s face closed as Zechs relayed his news, his eyes going distant as he absorbed the information and tied it in with everything else he already knew.
“I have no idea where they’ve come from,” Zechs told his commander, his tone of voice half-apologetic. “I led the recon run this morning – yesterday morning,” he corrected, “and I saw nothing suspicious.”
“Not your concern now,” Treize answered him with a shake of his head. “I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting this. It’s exactly what I would have done in our opponents place.” He shook his head again. “How long before you’re ready for take-off?”
“Now, if you need me,” Zechs replied, watching his fuel gauges top out and his pre-flight procedure appear on his console. Turning in his chair slightly, he put his hands on the recessed keyboard and began overriding the lengthy check-list. Experimental suit or not, they didn’t have the time.
“That was fast,” Treize commented approvingly.
“I wouldn’t be use any other way.”
Zechs glanced back at the screen as Treize bit off a dry little chuckle. “You have your moments,” the older man murmured, then sobered immediately. “I’ll tie into your on-board system and feed you all the information we have. I want you to go after those gun batteries, Major.”
“Take the squadron. I’d back you with Aries but I need them here to counter the suits you saw.” Treize shrugged a little. “I can’t send out the Leos until the shelling stops. They’d be sitting targets.”
The blond looked up again as Treize hesitated for a second, lifting his head to meet sapphire eyes with his own through the screen. The older man’s face was utterly still, his expression determined – only a spark of something in the back of his gaze gave him away.
“I need those batteries silenced, no matter what. I’m crippled here until they are.”
Zechs froze for a heartbeat, then nodded sharply. “Understood, sir,” he said softly.
“Thank you.” There was another moment of silence, then, “I’ll have Une tie your radio signal directly into my command console. Keep me posted.”
The screen went black, leaving Zechs to draw a deep breath to clear his mind and then send another signal to his squadron. Decisively, he reached for the straps of his restraints and snapped them together, before closing his cockpit door and hitting the switch that would warn his ground crew to stand clear.
“Major?” His screen blared to life again as the signal sounded. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
Meiser was leaning into his end of the feed, a smudge of oil across one cheek and his eyes narrowed angrily.
“Obeying my orders,” Zechs told him calmly.
“Are you out of your bloody mind?!” the engineer snarled. “That thing’s a prototype! We haven’t a clue what will happen if you….”
Zechs cut him off. “We are here to test the suit, so test it we shall. Besides, the current circumstances leave us little choice.”
“You’re a madman, Major!” Meiser began signalling his crew to stand well clear, leaving Zechs free to force his suit to whatever he chose.
Trusting to pilot’s instincts that had saved his life a dozen times over and reassured by the blind faith he had in Treize’s design skills, Zechs hit the switches that would kick his suit into an engine cold-start, ignoring the not-so-slight possibility that might it not take the strain of the sudden pressure he was subjecting it to and blow up. The mecha shuddered, engines whining as they came on-line abruptly, gauges and warning lights flaring all over the cabin.
Master-caution alarms begin shrieking at him and Zechs overrode them all with a sweep of his hand as he pressed his foot pedals down hard and opened up his throttle. Holding the suit on the ground almost through sheer force of will, he walked it to the hanger doorway and then released it and let it explode into the air, g-forces robbing his lungs of breath for a moment before he adjusted automatically.
A heartbeat later, the second of the suits in his squadron streaked into the air and fell into formation next to him. The markings on the suit allowed him to identify his wing-man and he permitted himself a little smile. Whatever else Zechs thought about the other pilot – and there was a fair bit – he could acknowledge that Treize had been right when he’d assigned the two of them to work together.
Twin incoming signals distracted Zechs from the task of keeping his suit clear of all the debris in the air, and he hit the acceptance button without looking away from his screens.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Marquise, there’s more flak up here than….”
“Major Marquise? His Excellency asked me to….”
Zechs winced as he jinked his suit to one side sharply to avoid an incoming shell. “Acknowledged, Ops. Standing by,” he snapped, flicked to the second channel, and allowed himself a wolfish grin at his fellow pilot. “Can’t handle it, Valder?” he asked, baiting the man.
“Get bent, Marquise,” the dark-haired man snarled back. “I was thinking of the poor bastards in the Aries!”
Zechs chuckled. On the ground, the two pilots cordially hated one another and couldn’t exchange five words without wanting to knife each other, but up here, in the middle of a storm of fire and with their lives and the lives of their comrades on the line, they were more alike than they would ever admit. More closely matched in ability, too. “Point taken, Valder,” Zechs commented. “Provide cover until I signal. I’ll see what I can do.”
“You do that. Go bark at your master and leave the real work to me.”
Zechs snorted at that, watching as the other Taurus turned into a spinning, tumbling dive and began firing its main weapon at both enemy suits on the ground and incoming shells proving a hazard to the scrambling, suffering Aries units.
“Marquise to Ops. Your Excellency?”
There was a moment of staticky hiss, then Une’s voice. “Major? His Excellency is unavailable. What did you want?”
“I need someone to override the AA turrets and turn them off.”
“Negative on that, Major,” Une replied. “That would leave us vulnerable to air assault.”
“What air assault, Une? There are no enemy suits in base air-space. Shells only.”
There was a silence. “Still negative, Major. Tactical advises against.”
Zechs opened his mouth to tell her what he thought of Tactical’s opinion, and closed it again as he hauled on his controls, bringing his suit into a diving bank as he avoided fire and aimed his laser cannon at one of the hovering units. It exploded in a mushrooming black cloud and a shower of shrapnel, leaving the Taurus it had been assaulting free to take to the air.
“Lawson to Taurus Leader.” The inter-squadron frequency crackled to life again as the new Taurus’s flight levelled off. “Thanks for that, Marquise. I was in rather a spot there.”
“You’re welcome, Taurus Four. Any damage, Graham?”
“Nothing I can’t compensate for. Has anyone else got up here yet?”
“Farkill in Taurus Two. He’s providing cover fire. Can you join him and stand by for my signal?”
“Acknowledged, Taurus Leader. Standing by.”
Zechs waited for the third Taurus to peel away and then climbed back to his original position. “My apologies for that, Une,” he said to the waiting Lady.
“Not necessary, Major. His Excellency wants to know how much longer?”
“Tell him I’m still waiting for three of my Squadron.”
There was another staticky silence and Zechs used the break to sweep across the base and take out two more of the hovering mechas. The anti-aircraft turrets were still throwing their rounds into the sky uselessly and the air space above the base was becoming downright dangerous to fly through.
“Taurus Six to Taurus Leader – I’m airborne. Awaiting orders.”
Zechs issued the same orders to the newest of his squad as he had to the first two and turned for his holding position.
“Une, waiting for two now. Repeating request to cancel AA’s. It’s getting quite thick up here.”
“Still negative on that, Major. Sorry.”
Zechs let himself smile ruefully. Une actually sounded almost genuine in her regret.
“Roger that, Lady. Do we have any further information on the gun batteries?”
“Our best guess at their position should be feeding though to your console now, Zechs,” Treize’s voice broke in. “You’ll have to use your own instruments to pin it down more narrowly than that when you get closer.”
The screen above his keyboard flickered to life and data began scrolling across it. Zechs watched it long enough the get the suspected co-ordinates, ran some calculations in his head and then began feeding the data to the rest of his unit. “I’m estimating two minutes, fifteen seconds flight time, your Excellency,” he said.
“We have two-twelve, Zechs. Close enough.”
“Yes, sir. Plus time for attack run and return flight.” Zechs scowled suddenly. “Sir, are you absolutely sure this is the correct course?” he asked, lowering his voice despite that fact that it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference if Treize had his end of the communications feed set to general speaker. The pilot didn’t like questioning his superior’s orders but – as had been true in every situation where he’d had issue with the commands he’d been given – what he was seeing wasn’t tallying with the information the Command Staff had in front of them.
“Of course His Excellency is sure!” Une snapped. “Obey your orders, Major!”
“Une.” Treize checked the Lady’s outburst with one word and in his mind’s eye, Zechs could see the restraining hand he’d have put out. “What are you seeing, Zechs?”
“It’s a mess out here, sir. My unit is currently your only effective air cover.”
“Yes, we were truly caught on the hop. The Aries should begin launch in a matter of moments.”
“Yes, sir, but the air is….” Zechs broke off as another of his Taurus squadron rose into the air. “Waiting for one now, sir, and…. Oh, Christ!”
Without stopping to think, Zechs threw his own Taurus forward, trying to prevent what he already knew he couldn’t. In the middle of its first powerful upward thrust, Taurus Five had been caught in the spray of one of the AA guns. The tracer rounds had punched straight through the graceful curve of one of the shoulder-mounted boosters.
As Zechs watched, the engine exploded, sheering away from the main fuselage of the suit and sending the mecha into a flat spin the pilot didn’t have a prayer of pulling out of.
Eye judging the path the other Taurus was going to fall along, Zechs swore again and then pulled up, knowing there was nothing he could do. The damaged suit crashed straight into the pristine desert sand, tearing a gouge through it as it lost speed, shedding scraps of wire and armour plating as it went. Smoke rose in a steady spiral as the suit came to a stop and though the landing should have been survivable, heavy as it had been, Zechs could only pray that the pilot, Captain Sentwali, was already dead.
A moment later, the pressure of the wrecked suit triggered the hidden minefield surrounding the base and the night sky turned as bright as morning for a moment as it was torn by chaining explosions.
The downed Taurus disintegrated into so much scrap metal and was thrown into a debris field dozens of metres wide. Zechs valiantly fought not to think about what would have happened to Sentwali’s body.
“Zechs, what was that?!”
Treize’s voice, more than a little sharp, snapped Zechs away from his thoughts and he realised that the noise of the explosions must have fed through the radio. In the background of the feed, he could hear more blaring alarms and frantic voices.
“Zechs, we read the minefield detonating below your position. What is going on?!”
“Taurus Five is down and destroyed. Pilot presumed dead,” Zechs reported, keeping his voice clinical and level. “The minefield was tripped by the suit as it landed.” He took a deep breath. “Suit was downed by friendly fire. I repeat my request to cancel the AA’s.”
There was another of the weighted silences that were becoming so familiar to Zechs this night and then Treize’s voice, muffled as though he had turned away from his pick up. “Override them.” He sounded tired and more than a little unhappy.
A woman’s voice protested the order, high pitched and sharp.
“Turn the damned things off!” Treize snarled. “As you should have done when you were first asked. Do you want to write to our pilots’ families and tell them we shot down our own?!”
“Thank you, sir,” Zechs said softly.
“Major Marquise, why are you still here?” Treize snapped at him suddenly. “I gave you a job to do almost ten minutes ago. I suggest you go and do it. I have a counter-attack to co-ordinate and no more time to be pandering to your whims!”
Stung, Zechs recalled his squadron to him, including the just launching Taurus Three. He waited for them to form up and then hit the switch that would transform his suit to flight mode and led them roaring across the base.
As the unit reached the horizon line, a massive explosion rocked the night sky, the concussion wave jolting their suits even with the distance they’d travelled.
Holding on to discipline with everything he had, Zechs recalled the bite in Treize’s voice and refused even to turn his head to try to place where on the base it had come from.
Une heard Treize say the words almost under his breath as the man turned away from the microphone he’d been speaking into and bent over the command table again. Quick flashes of his fingers brought up icons that indicated Zechs’s Taurus squadron on their attack run and Une breathed a sigh of regret that there were only five.
Behind her, Une could hear the tactical officer suppressing sobs as she turned off the base’s AA turrets, and it made the Lady frown unhappily, as she acknowledged that she could have overridden Tactics’ advice when Zechs first made the request.
She dismissed the thought a moment later when Treize gestured at her sharply. His deep eyes were scanning the table repeatedly, assimilating all the data he could as he formulated the best possible counter-offensive.
“We’re going to lose the base,” he murmured as she stepped to his side.
“Sir?” she asked, stunned. That was one hell of an opening statement.
“We’re going to lose the base,” Treize repeated, speaking directly to her this time. “Even if Zechs gets to those assault batteries before they start using heavy shells – and he won’t, if the enemy commander is anything like as good as I suspect he is – and even if we repel tonight’s attack successfully, we’re taking damage. They’ve breached our defences without even trying. They could hit us again anytime in the next few days and swamp us with no real effort.” He flicked her a glance. “We’re going to have to retreat, even if the base is still standing in the morning. Would you begin the emergency withdrawal procedures, please?”
Une stared at him, not knowing what to say for once. She realised it after a moment and shook herself. “Yes, sir!” she agreed smartly and made to step away.
As she did, there was a thundering rumble and she felt someone catch her around the waist and haul her to the floor under the command table. She hit the rough floor hard, the wind driven out of her, and covered her head with hands instinctively as the rumbling continued.
The room seemed to jump and tilt around her as dust and chunks of plaster and concrete began raining down, and Une closed her eyes as she fought her body’s instinctive panicked attempts to inhale, knowing it wouldn’t do any good until the shocked muscles in her chest had chance to relax.
The roaring faded away gradually, leaving Une’s dulled hearing to adjust slowly to the scream of emergency alarms and the moans of stunned personnel. She lowered her hands from the back of her neck to the concrete floor under her shoulders and pushed herself up to her hands and knees, shaking her head as she took a first, painful, wonderful breath.
Beside her, between herself and the rest of the room, she could sense someone else doing almost the same thing but she only registered who it was when she heard Treize’s voice quip, “Well, doesn’t this just bring back memories!”
It made her turn her head to stare at him incredulously.
She watched him roll out from under the table and push to his feet and then reached out to take the hand he extended back down to help her up, too. He met her eyes with his, smiled at her as he reached out and brushed a loose strand of her hair back and then turned away to scan the damage.
Une swallowed as she looked down at the tactical display, sweeping the screen clear of dust with her gloved hands. All over the room, techs were finding their feet and their posts, some staunching blood flow from cuts and scrapes with handkerchiefs or torn bits of uniform, others flexing wrists or shoulders that had taken bruises and sprains. Almost all of them, Une noted, flicked at least one glance in the direction of the command group and she realised, when she saw each gaze steady in turn, that Treize was deliberately making eye contact with as many of them as possible.
It was a lull of no more than a few seconds and then the reports and the data were streaming in from the various consoles again and Treize himself was back at her side, scanning it right along with her.
“Heavy shell?” one of the other command officers asked, and Une shook her head.
“Our sensor data says no…” she began and was cut off by an alarmed shout from one of the communications techs on the other side of the bunker.
Treize snapped his head around. “Yes?”
“Sir, the hangers… I’m talking with one of the Aries pilots. She says the suit hangers just… exploded!”
Zechs had one eye on his instruments and one on the information scrolling across his screen when his radio signalled.
“Marquise, I hate to tell you this but I think the general’s got a screw loose somewhere.”
Valder Farkill’s voice was an expected but entirely unwelcome distraction for the blond. He’d been relaying all the information he had over to his second in command since the unit had left the base and had been counting down the seconds until the man protested ever since. “I suggest you watch how you speak of your Commanding Officer,” he replied tightly, military training prompting the words even if personal instinct hadn’t. “His Excellency knows what he’s asking of us.”
“He does?” the other man’s voice came back, clearly surprised. “I take it back then,” he continued. “I don’t think he’s lost his grip, I bloody well know he has! What the fuck does he think we’re going to accomplish here?”
Zechs spoke through clenched teeth. “His orders, Captain, were to silence the gun positions, regardless of the cost.”
“Well, that’s lovely of him.”
“He didn’t ask it lightly,” Zechs snarled. “Do you think you could stop fucking around now? We don’t have a great deal of time!”
There was a weary sigh over the radio and then the other pilot’s voice, stripped of all the mocking humour. In a matter of a heartbeat, Farkill had switched from the cocksure bastard he presented generally day to day to the outstanding officer he was when it was called for. “Two choices, as I see it. Six gun batteries, six AA positions that we know of – we’re already beginning to take flak from some of them – and no clear line of attack. They’re nicely in defilade in that valley.”
Glancing between his instruments and the data again, Zechs found himself nodding his head in agreement. The enemy had positioned their batteries at the bottom of the near side of a narrow valley. The batteries fired their shells through an arc, aimed by targeting computer rather than directly at their targets, and so didn’t actually need to be able to ‘see’ the base, whereas Zechs’s Taurus beam cannons needed a direct line of sight to hit. The slope of the valley created a ‘dead space’ in front of the batteries and prevented him from achieving that line of sight except at great risk.
It was well thought out on the part of their enemy and a real headache for Zechs and his unit.
“I concur,” Zechs replied. “We either go right at them, drop over the valley edge and straight down on them as we fire, or we swing out now and come up the valley from one side or the other and try to enfilade them.”
“It’ll be quicker to come straight at them,” Farkill commented. “And the Taurus is manoeuvrable enough to pull it off – which the Aries and the Leo aren’t, I don’t think – but, Christ, Marquise, the black paint job on these suits is going to make us skyline beautifully for them against all that sand. If they’ve got anything heavier than those flak guns we’ll be perfect targets on the drop.”
“I know,” Zechs said, well aware of the way the sand was glowing white under the moonlight. “But if we try to flank, we’ll have that against the walls and floor of the valley anyway. They’ll swing the AA’s round and we’ll being pulling our approach run through a hailstorm of flak. The valley is too narrow; we’d have nowhere to manoeuvre. At least going straight over we can spread out and we’ll have some room to jink.” He glanced at his displays again. “And we have about 45 seconds to decide in,” he added.
“Bloody wonderful!” Farkill swore viciously, then sighed. “Your command, your call, but I’d….”
He was drowned out by the scream of alarms as Zechs’s suit detected incoming fire.
Acting on pure instinct and experience, Zechs hauled on his controls, slamming his suit down and to one side steeply, watching as the tail of the missile streaked past his cockpit by a matter of metres. He slapped his controls, opening a radio channel to the rest of his unit and yelling a warning but the roaring flash and juddering concussion wave as the missile impacted with another of the Taurus’s told him he was too late.
The suit detonated with a crack like thunder and careened to the desert floor below them blazing brilliantly like a comet. As it crashed into the sand, the light it threw off acted like a flare and Zechs could see small, scuttling figures.
“Taurus Six,” Farkill said softly. “Johansen. No response to my calls.”
“Noted. I’m relaying the information back to base.” Zechs tapped the necessary codes into his suit and hit ‘send’. “Shoulder-fired S.A.M,” he told the other three pilots, though he was well aware they’d most likely have noted that for themselves. “They anticipated our flight path so stay alert. Unit will switch mode in 15 seconds and clear the leading edge of the valley in 20. Taurus Three will target AA positions and provide cover. Two, Four and Lead will assault batteries right to left in that order. Two each. Destroy your targets, signal and get out.”
Valder chuckled over the radio. “Guts and glory, eh, Marquise?” he asked. “Just the way I like it. I suppose the good thing about suicide missions is you only have to do one of them!”
Zechs hit the switches that would transform his suit from flight mode back to its vaguely humanoid configuration. “Oh? So how many are you up to now then?” he asked idly.
“Christ und Sien Engel, schützen uns!”
Une stared at the blaze lighting the desert sky with horrified eyes, knowing that she should be putting a better facade on it for the junior officers around her – it was never good for them to see their commanders looking as rattled as they felt themselves – but completely unable, in the face of the destruction in front of her, to make herself do it.
“Amen,” Treize murmured beside her, and she turned to look at him instead, surprised when she realised he’d been completely serious in his response to her reflexive plea to a heaven she wasn’t actually sure she believed existed. “It might well take more than Christ and His angels to protect us tonight, Lady,” he added a breath later. “At the very least, we’re going to have to give them a real helping hand.”
He turned away from her, catching the arm of one of the aides that had scrambled to the surface of the desert with the two senior officers to look at the reported explosions in person, and issuing the man with swift instructions.
Une flinched as shells landed close to where they were standing, blasting their little party with heated, sulphurous air and raining fragments of metal down on them. Treize had insisted on coming to look at the damage done to his hangers in person, but why Une didn’t know. It was hardly the safest thing to be doing at that moment.
He gestured at her curtly and she followed him back into the bunker, almost colliding with him when he stopped on the stairs. “Sir?”
Treize gazed at her levelly. “By my calculations, Zechs’s unit will have the shelling stopped in less than three minutes,” he told her. “The moment it does, I’m going to take everyone we have here that’s trained in piloting and make a run for the hangers. I’m not doubting that we’ve lost a good number of our suits, not with the extent of those explosions, but I’m also certain that there won’t be enough personnel left to handle the remainder. If we’re to make a successful retreat, we need those suits to provide cover.”
Une nodded her agreement automatically, and then scowled as she really registered what he was saying. She opened her mouth to voice some protest and was prevented from speaking when Treize carried on.
“I need you to continue coordinating our evacuation efforts,” he ordered. “We have no choice at all about that now and it’s urgent that we get away. Give priority to the computers and to our supplies, of course, but try to allow people the time to gather their things. They could very well be surviving on whatever they carry with them for the next few days. If you have the opportunity and the personnel when everything critical is loaded, have the support staff clear the pilot’s bunks.”
“Yes, sir,” Une agreed, wondering why he was taking the time to go over plans that deviated very little from the standard procedure. “Sir…?”
He ignored her again. “Don’t delay unnecessarily but I need you to save as much of everything here as possible. The last thing you should do before you leave the bunker is dump all the servers to Luxembourg. If we start to take heavy shell and the bunkers take damage, then abandon everything else and get out but make sure the servers are transferred.” He smiled at her suddenly, a strange expression given what was happening all around them and the gravity of what he’d been saying. “I don’t intend to leave behind a full base for our enemies to walk into, Une.”
He held out his hand and the Lady felt her eyebrows rise as she saw what he was offering her. The little remote detonator was an unassuming thing for what it represented.
“You intend to destroy it?” she asked softly, and he nodded.
“Yes, of course.”
“Forgive me, but there’s no mention of destruction charges on any of the plans….”
“I know.” Treize leaned forward and pressed the detonator into her hands. “At your discretion – when you think we’re as clear as we’re going to be. I trust you not to allow our enemy to take the base.”
Une nodded slowly, closing her fingers around the small cylindrical shape. “Sir!” she started, daring to reach out and catch his sleeve as he turned away. “Do you mean to fly yourself?” she asked, as he glanced at her in surprise.
“If necessary, Lady, then yes,” he confirmed, his expression showing clearly that he didn’t understand why she was delaying him like this.
The Lady set her shoulders immediately. “I have to protest that course of action, sir,” she said quietly, her voice firm. “With respect, you are too valuable to lose. I request permission to take your place.” She raised her chin. “It’s my tactical opinion that a loss of firm command in the current situation would be disastrous.”
“Yes, it would be,” Treize agreed. “That’s why you’re staying here.” He held up a hand before she could protest again, smiling cryptically. “Would you agree with me that everyone will have to perform to their best if we are to survive the night?” he asked, putting his head on one side as he looked down at her.
Une scowled at the question but she had no choice but to nod her agreement.
Treize nodded back at her, accepting her answer. “Then you must realise that your proposal is flawed.” He let his smile soften, become reassuring. “I’m a soldier, Lady, a front line officer. A pilot when we desperately need pilots. I was trained for combat above everything else. My first and greatest strength is battlefield command.”
Une let her surprise show on her face. “Sir, I mean no disrespect, but you haven’t participated in active combat for….”
Treize shook his head, cutting her off. “I’m aware of that,” he interrupted. “Une, we have precisely one goal in the coming hours, and that is to withdraw from this base as swiftly and successfully as possible. In order for that to happen, the attacking forces must be held back for as long as possible and then the retreat must be covered. Do you see that?”
“Yes, I realise that, but…”
He interrupted her again. “There are two focuses of command, Une. Do you believe that you can direct our defence as well as I can?”
Une spluttered. “Of course not!” she protested. She was more than well aware that she didn’t have anything like His Excellency’s talent for command.
Treize smiled. “Thank you,” he said softly, then looked at her squarely. “Do you think I can co-ordinate our retreat as well as you can?”
The bunker shuddered around them again, dust sifting down from the stressed concrete. “…No,” Une admitted unwillingly, wishing it weren’t true.
“No,” Treize confirmed. “You may not have my combat experience, but I do not have your organisational skill. I cannot clear this base and formulate our retreat in the way that you can – and that is the more important goal. To each, his – or her – own. We cannot afford mistakes tonight. You will complete one goal and I will complete the other and between the two of us we will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat once more. Yes?”
Une blinked at him, then drew herself up, feeling surety flow into her, banishing the shock that had come with seeing the damage the base had already taken. “Yes, sir,” she snapped.
Treize smiled at her again, his eyes shining. “Yes.” For the second time in one evening he reached out and touched her, brushing glove wrapped fingers across her cheek. “I trust you to keep my soldiers safe, Anne,” he told her softly. “There’s no one else I would rescind that duty to.”
Une froze, looking up at him, her eyes wide behind her glasses. Treize held her gaze for a heartbeat and then turned away, heading down the rest of the stairs at a pace a hair less than a run.
Une was behind him a moment later, shaking herself from her daze. If His Excellency trusted her so, she would not fail him, but how she wished Marquise could have heard that!
Zechs resisted the urge to swear viciously and loudly, knowing his comm. frequency was open to the other suits in his unit. From Treize he had learned that a commander did not give vent to personal feelings, no matter what – that his job was to stay cool and utterly in control – but that didn’t stop him wanting to spit and hiss as he jinked and rolled his suit to avoid the absolute storm of incoming flak.
Their opponents were serious about not yielding this gun battery; Zechs didn’t think he’d ever flown through worse. He was suddenly grateful for the afternoon’s simulation Treize had thrown him through. The older man might have done it to make a point, but Zechs had learned from it. He knew what this new suit class could do, and he was bloody glad he did. He’d be dead now if he’d been flying anything else.
His heart was pounding in his chest, sweat soaking into his hair beneath his helmet as he wrenched on his controls, feeling the skin on his hands tear under the pressure.
Flicking his eyes back and forward across his screens, he noted grimly that Taurus Two was copying his flying, Valder Farkill having learned damned fast just from watching. Between them, Lawson in Taurus Four was still using standard evasive manoeuvres, his suit shuddering every so often as he took hits from the flying tracer rounds.
Even with the shielded position Zechs had given the least experienced of his unit, the blond had the horrible feeling that it wasn’t going to be enough.
He wasn’t in much of a mood to lose another of his command. 50% casualties was bad enough, and it had become that when Taurus Three exploded under the hailstorm of flak less than ten seconds into their drop, the suit blasting into its component atoms when its power pile ignited. The scream of the pilot, a young Captain called Nirmala Mahon, had torn across the radio, cut off abruptly. Zechs could still hear it echoing in his ears.
Valder had reported the death back to command, softly adding the words, “Poor bitch,” on the end of his report.
Adrenaline was singing through Zechs, sharpening his senses and speeding his reactions. He spiralled his suit, g-forces ripping at him, and took aim at the first of the gun batteries on the valley floor.
The Taurus thrummed as the gun charged and fired, blinding light streaking through the night sky to hit precisely on target and start to even the score. The battery detonated with a shockwave that bucked his suit hard and Zechs had to lock every muscle in his body to keep from colliding with the valley wall.
There was a triumphant yell down the radio, a second of the batteries shattering into superheated air and flames a second after his.
By the light thrown from the destroyed positions, Zechs could see mad scrambling around the other positions as their crews saw what was coming. There was moment’s cease-fire and then the sound of the shelling changed.
Zechs cursed out loud, forgetting his intentions of a moment before. He smacked the button that would give him HQ and didn’t wait for acknowledgement before snarling, “Incoming heavies!”
He’d flicked his frequency back before anyone had chance to reply, just in time to hear Valder howl madly as he streaked across the valley floor and targeted the second of his assigned targets.
“Die, you fucking bastards!”
Almost before his weapon had fired, Farkill was whipping his suit around and up, switching his direction and blazing back through the explosion he’d created as it bloomed.
“Two to Lead,” he snapped a second later. “Targets destroyed. You’re getting slow, Marquise!” he taunted.
Zechs resisted the urge to tell the man to go fuck himself. He bared his teeth in a vicious smile instead. “Acknowledged. Aid Taurus Four; he’s taking damage.”
He registered the man’s drippingly sarcastic acknowledgment only dimly as he focused all of his attention on his own second target. Closing down to everything but his goal, Zechs lost himself in his union with his suit, his body sinking into his pilot’s chair as he narrowed his eyes. Every sense primed, muscles coiling as he swooped in, coming in below a shell as it was fired, close enough the to the ground that sand scoured the air in his wake and the Arabic features of the gun crew were clearly visible through his view screen. His gun fired again and the battery disintegrated.
Zechs hauled on his controls, tearing his suit into a vertical climb up the valley wall that drove the air from his lungs and made the suit flash caution alarms at him all over again.
“Very nice!” Valder gloated down the comm. His voice was cut off by the echo of another detonation – Lawson hitting the first of his targets – and it came back mid-word. “… going for the last one!”
Zechs signalled his acknowledgement, his attention on the weakest of his pilots. Lawson’s Taurus was smoking from one engine, the paint scored and the metal torn. “Graham?” Zechs asked down the radio. “Status?”
“I’m alright, Lead. The damage is minor.”
“Certain? You have smoke.”
There was moment’s silence as flak continued to scream around them and Zechs continued to duck and weave his way around it.
“Certain. I’ve nothing on my alarms.”
Zechs felt himself frown. That just might be a problem with the alarms. “Noted. Get clear anyway. Back to base. We’ll follow.”
Lawson’s suit began lifting into the night sky, paint dark against the sand, and Zechs sent himself hurtling across the valley floor towards the final gun.
The AA positions were focusing directly on the suits now, desperate to protect their last battery. Zechs felt and heard something scrape against his suit, sparks flaring off the titanium armour.
He and Farkill fired at the final gun at the same moment, neither of them able to tell whose shot detonated the battery.
“Thank Christ for that!” Valder sighed across the radio.
“Seconded,” Zechs admitted. “We’re not free and clear yet,” he reminded.
“We fucking well will be in a minute!” the other pilot snarled, his suit streaking into the air.
Before Zechs could think either to follow him or to call him off, the man had reached the lip of the valley and opened up on the AA turrets, his gun blazing in a sweeping arc across the sand.
Zechs saw the positions flare into destruction in a chain across the desert, the sand beneath them crystallising into a swathe of burnt glass. “Valder, stop!” he shouted, a heartbeat too late. “I’m ordering you to stop!”
There was a dark, sardonic laugh. “Aye, sir,” Valder acknowledged. “You’re soft, Marquise. Does your general know that?”
“Avoiding unnecessary destruction is not softness!” Zechs hissed back at him, outraged by the way the man had presumed his course of action, and at the sheer bloodthirstiness of it when it came.
“Yes it is, Lightening Count,” Farkill mocked. “Yes, it is.”
Zechs felt utter fury rise, but before he could scream at the other pilot, his console began signalling an incoming call.
There was another chuckle through the airwaves. “Back to base, sir ,” Valder said scornfully. “Your master is whistling for you.”
“Fuck you, Valder,” Zechs spat, turning his suit and speeding across the sand.
Treize flung the Leo he was piloting out of the way, almost losing footing for the heavy suit on the shifting sand as he narrowly avoided incoming fire.
Zechs’s breathless, snarled warning still ringing in his ears, the general had ordered the immediate evacuation of all personnel from the bunkers, leaving himself with no choice but to deploy his Leo’s to protect the personnel as they ran and scrambled to stash and store belongings, supplies and equipment in trucks and containers. The first heavy bunker-cracking shells screamed into the base seconds later, shattering the night air as they impacted and threw up gouts of flame and sand.
Shockwaves downed foot personnel, tossed Aries’ off flight paths and destabilised the heavy Leo’s, presenting pilots with impossible choices: Stay still, take fire and be destroyed or move, provide cover and risk toppling the suit into the ground. Reaction time was the only defence, and Treize scrambled with his controls to keep his Leo on its feet.
His eyes flickered back and forth between his view screens and his displays, his mind constantly reassessing and re-evaluating their position and the success or failure of manoeuvres he ordered. Agile fingers set his cockpit recorder to logging the name and serial number of every pilot whose suit vanished from his displays in a little flare that did nothing to show the devastation of the real thing.
In one ear, Treize had a constant feed to Une, the two of them relaying information backwards and forwards between them as she co-ordinated their withdrawal. In the other ear he had the static of the emergency channel he’d requested to Luxembourg. Whatever else happened tonight, the crisis plans he’d prepared with Kai Huang before he’d flown to Egypt were going to be needed.
Even as he absorbed all the incoming input, one small part of Treize’s mind was thinking furiously, formulating. He could admit it was because his pride was stung, his temper roused, but if their enemy commander thought he was going to take this assault lying down, he was sadly mistaken. That worthy, whomever he was, was not the only one who could arrange unexpected and utterly underhanded attacks. Metaphorically speaking, the gloves were coming off – this wasn’t a fight for gentlemen anymore.
Une’s sudden hiss of triumph directed Treize’s attention back to his tactical feed and he smiled sharply as he saw one, then another, then another of the shelling batteries vanish from his screens.
There was a pause, then the final three batteries vanished as well; a few moments later the concussive whomp and boom of the incoming shells ceased, leaving the air over the base stunningly quiet and still.
Treize found that his ears were ringing despite the filters on the sound provided by his suit. He felt triumph bloom hot and fierce in his chest, driving more adrenaline into his body as the shrieking terror he’d been ignoring since Zechs’s suit roared over the horizon faded away.
Twice, there had been calls that informed HQ about a suit loss from Zechs’s unit. Treize had been dreading a third that told him his lover was dead.
Hitting his control panel with more force than it strictly needed, Treize signalled the younger man. “Taurus Leader, this is Command Thirteen. Are you receiving?”
There was a moment of static flare across his view screen, and then Zechs’s face snapped into focus. The younger pilot’s face was, as always, half hidden by his helmet but the tight line of his jaw and the burning intensity in his eyes spoke of anger and focused adrenaline.
“Command Thirteen, this Taurus Leader,” Zechs replied, flicking his eyes to look directly into his pickup. “Mission Successful.”
Treize couldn’t help but smile. “I’d noticed. Congratulations, Major.” He took a breath as he was forced to jink his Leo again to avoid fire from an enemy mecha. “What’s your e.t.a. at base? We could use your help here.”
There was another flick of icy eyes. “One minute thirty. One fifteen at a push. We’re down two and have another damaged. What’s the status at your end?”
The general fought down a grimace. “We’re withdrawing from the base,” Treize replied. “Mobile suits are providing cover for ground personnel.”
“You’re retreating?” Zechs asked, and the surprise in his voice was obvious. “Has the base taken that much damage?”
Treize snapped his attention back to his controls as an enemy suit closed on his position, seeming to single out his Leo directly. He pivoted to avoid the first round of fire, and opened up himself in return. “Enough,” he answered shortly. “We lost the suit hangers and some of the bunkers have been damaged.”
There was a sharp sound of shock from the other end of the feed. “You lost the suit hangers! What happened?”
Treize winced, exchanging another round of fire with his annoyingly persistent opponent. “They were bombed,” he said shortly. “Explosive charges against the walls.”
“Jesus Christ!” Zechs swore. He shook his head, then frowned, looking into his screen closely. “Are you in a Leo?” he asked incredulously.
Treize snorted. “You needn’t sound so astonished!”
He saw Zechs shake his head in disbelief, but lost whatever the younger man said to the roar of the enemy mecha exploding into a shower of scrap metal and sparks as Treize opened up into it for a third time.
Quickly, he scanned his eyes across his other screens, taking in the rest of the situation. To his relief, he saw that Une was close to completing her withdrawal of their equipment and ground personnel – something that couldn’t come a moment too soon. Within the confines of the base, it wasn’t easy to manoeuvre the number of suits that were currently fighting. It would be much easier to co-ordinate effective and organised defences when they had space and it wasn’t such a melee.
Zechs’s voice faded back in as the sound of the explosion died away. “…are you?” he demanded.
“Repeat last?” Treize asked instantly. “I didn’t copy.”
“We’re approaching the base perimeter,” Zechs told him. “Where the hell are you?”
“Irrelevant information,” the general replied smartly. “I have you on my screens. I need you and your unit to….”
“The only thing I’m doing is finding you and covering you until you’re free to step down from that Leo!” Zechs’s jaw had tightened further and his eyes were spitting fire at the older man. “What in God’s name were you thinking?”
Treize raised a cool eyebrow. “Taurus Leader, you will copy and obey orders,” he bit off.
Zechs shot him another icy look through the comm. link. “Yes, sir,” he agreed, but the response was grudging and it was a heartbeat too slow.
Treize lifted the other eyebrow to match the first and glared at his friend until the blond glanced away. He let it soften a moment later and shook his head as he scanned his tactical feeds again. “I appreciate the concern, Zechs, but it isn’t necessary. As I told Une, I am a pilot, and we were desperately short of pilots. Someone had to command the defence, and it couldn’t be her.”
“Admittedly not,” Zechs allowed. He grimaced at something. “Over your position, now, Command Thirteen. God, it’s a mess down there.”
“Yes,” Treize agreed. “We’ll be withdrawing soon. Leo’s will provide ground cover, Aries aerial defence. Will you run skirmish diversions for me? Your Taurus’s are about the fastest suit on the field from what we can tell of the enemy’s abilities.”
“Acknowledged.” There was a pause, then a quiet, “Signal for me – I can’t locate your suit.”
Sighing under his breath, Treize reached to hit the button that would flash his running lights off and on once. Immediately, he heard the rumble of a closing suit and a pivot by one of his optical feeds showed him Zechs setting his Taurus down in the sand next to the Leo.
“I need permission to leave Taurus Four with the Aries, Command Thirteen. He has engine damage.”
“Granted,” Treize said at once. He looked at the black-painted Taurus closely, shaking his head. “A few near misses, Taurus Leader?” he quipped, noticing the scratches and chips in that paint.
There was no response from the other pilot but a dismissive sniff as Zechs threw his suit into the fierce ground fighting, spinning and jinking away from both arriving fire and direct assaults almost too fast for Treize to follow him. Smiling in appreciation, Treize turned and put himself back to back with the newer suit, opening up with his rifle again.
For a time, both men were absorbed by the intense combat, exchanging nothing more than the occasional instruction or warning. Treize found his skills merging with his lover’s as they moved, playing to the different strengths of their suits and adapting effortlessly to each other’s fighting style. Despite the circumstances, despite the disaster the night had been so far, Treize could feel his body singing, coming alive in a way he hadn’t experienced for years.
Receiving Une’s signal, Treize began giving the orders that would form the fighting retreat by the Specials forces, unconsciously adjusting his earlier plans to anchor it around the team he and Zechs were making. From somewhere, he registered that a second Taurus was flanking him on his other side, hovering a few feet above the ground to offer a third arc of fire.
The combined weight of their weaponry was devastating. As repeated attempts by enemy suits to approach were rebuffed, Treize found himself hearing wild, triumphant laughter from over the comm. channel. It took him a moment to realise that he was hearing Zechs’s communications with the other Taurus second hand through his own feed.
“Well, hell, Lightening Count! Would you look at that?”
“At what, Valder?” Zechs replied, and his voice was arctic in its chill.
“Your master can fight! Colour me stunned!”
Treize shook his head, dryly amused and wondering whether Captain Farkill had managed to annoy Zechs beyond toleration yet. The other pilot was frighteningly talented, dangerously, burningly ambitious, and utterly ruthless. Zechs might be the Specials top pilot, but Farkill was forever biting at his heels, forever seeking the next challenge and the next thrill. Treize had hopes for him, if he could be tempered into his full potential.
“I’ve warned you once tonight, Valder. Watch how you speak of your superiors!” Zechs snarled, slapping his wingman down verbally. “This is not the place or the time for your flippancy!”
“I wasn’t being flippant, Marquise,” Farkill fired back. “I was genuinely reassessing my opinion of our esteemed leader. Tell me, is there anything of substance behind the lace and silk?”
Zechs growled wordlessly and Treize raised an eyebrow, wondering. His attention firmly on the fight in front of him, he spared one part of his mind to smile slowly. “Taurus Leader,” he began quietly, “tell your pilot that he’s welcome to come and find out anytime he thinks he’s ready.”
The look the blond shot at his pick up was full of astonishment. “Sir?”
“Tell him,” Treize repeated, then changed his mind. “Better yet, I’ll tell him myself, if you’ll be so kind as to tie me into his suit frequency.”
There was moment of silent disbelief before Zechs shook his head and disappeared. His image was replaced by that of his wingman, who was looking rather startled. “General?” he asked, taken aback.
“Captain Farkill,” Treize acknowledged. “What is it my soldiers call you – the Dark Knight of Destruction?”
“Yes, sir,” the other man answered, having little choice when faced with his commander in chief.
“Hmm. You and my Lightning Count, my true aces. Do you both believe that you’re the first to be called such? That’s a folly of youth, I’m afraid.” Treize smiled. “There’s substance behind the silk and the lace, Captain. And when you’re ready, you’ll be welcome to find that out for yourself.”
The other man blinked, obviously surprised. A moment later, he returned Treize’s smile, and the similarity between the two expressions was remarkable. “Gladly, sir,” he answered.
Treize broke off their exchange to turn his gun on another closing enemy suit, watching with grim satisfaction as it blew apart under the hail of hot lead. “You’ll come and see me in Luxembourg when we’re done here,” he continued. “I have a job I believe you’d be perfect for.” He locked his gaze with the other pilot’s. “But before you do, I suggest you apply yourself to learning a little something, Captain.”
“Sir? What, sir?”
“What my soldiers used to call me,” Treize purred, and cut off the feed. Immediately he reopened his connection to Zechs, noting the signs of repressed temper in his lover’s face. “Check him, Zechs,” he snapped. “Check him hard. Break that attitude and get him under your control, or he’ll forever dismiss you as not worth his notice.”
“Yes, well, that would be rather easier if you weren’t encouraging him,” Zechs snarled. “He’s difficult enough already!”
“The challenge will do you good,” Treize retorted, dismissively.
There was another wordless growl, and then Zechs shook his head. “Command Thirteen, I’m requesting permission to begin skirmish runs,” he bit off.
Treize nodded. “Permission granted.”
His signal went dead again. A moment later, the two Taurus suits rose into the air and streaked away.
Une started as shells landed all too close to the bunker she was in, fighting to suppress the reaction so she didn’t present the wrong image to her subordinates.
Clearing the base in the kind of time frame Treize wanted to allow her was proving difficult. Conditions were hellish, there weren’t enough available personnel, and the ever-present danger of a heavy shell blowing open one of the bunkers didn’t make her task any easier.
Although Treize had told her he was going to wait for the shelling to stop before he ran for the hangers with those pilots he had rounded up, he had rapidly changed his mind as the tactical situation worsened with every second he delayed. Fearing that he would soon be in a position he couldn’t recover from, he had made the choice to risk his dash some few minutes before.
Une had breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief when she’d heard his voice echoing over the radio frequencies, clear and cool as he snapped orders and offered encouragement. He’d directed the suits under his command to form a line between their enemy and the areas Une’s personnel needed to access and had held it at all costs.
The Lady could only be grateful that she was nearly done. The vital equipment had been seen to first, then the excess stores, and now her staff was working to clear out the pilot’s bunkers.
She, like Treize, heard Zechs’s gasped warning of incoming bunker cracking shells. Immediately, she ordered her troops to get back above ground before they were caught in a bunker taking a hit and killed.
Glancing around the Command Bunker as the staff scrambled for the stairway and the door, she pressed the button that would begin the automatic dump of the base servers to their backups in Luxembourg and made for the exit herself.
She gained the open air not a moment too soon. The heavy shell screamed through the night sky, piercing layers of steel and concrete and sand with the devastating force of its weight and speed. The sharp nose sliced through the bunker’s casing like a knife through butter.
A heartbeat later, the delayed explosive was triggered, and the shockwave ripped through the opened bunker, destroying the structure and anyone and anything left inside it.
Une ducked as she scrambled away from the wreckage, dodging falling shards of support beam and blazing shrapnel. She swung herself aboard one of the open-backed troop transports and snatched the radio out of the hands of communications tech operating it.
As she fought to find Treize’s signal again, the shelling stopped and, a second after, the whine of powerful engines above her made her look up and she saw the shadowy shapes of Zechs’s Taurus’s – what was left of them – come roaring over the base.
She got her commander’s frequency back in time to hear him exchange heated words with Zechs about the sensibleness of him being in his Leo, and then cut in to give the older man the all-clear signal.
Fighting back-to-back, she saw Treize and Zechs anchor the defensive retreat but her attention was snatched from them by the driver of her transport asking where he was heading.
The various trucks, vans and lorries fell into a loose column as she steered them out of the main gates of the base and out into the desert.
At the last possible second – when she was sure Treize’s suit was off the base and out of range – Une triggered the self-destruct he had put into her hands and felt the Earth rumble as the base was destroyed completely.
‘Any landing you can walk away from is a good one’ was a pilot’s maxim that was as old as the profession. Zechs had first heard it when he was a cadet at Lake Victoria Academy, and though he had never subscribed to it until now, today he was fervently hoping it was true.
His suit touched down in the burning desert sand clumsily, the contact heavy and off-balance as Zechs was forced to correct his approach at the last second to keep from crashing the mecha face first into a dune.
Killing his engines, Zechs let go of his controls and just hung in his seat restraints for a moment, his breathing heavy and wheezy as he closed his eyes and tried to summon energy into his limbs.
In the sixteen hours since the base had been abandoned, Zechs had pulled his Taurus from the defensive line holding back intermittent waves of attacking enemy suits only twice. Following the quickly established protocol, he had set the mecha down behind the advancing column where it would be shielded from attack, achieved his goal as quickly as possible and gone back to the fight.
The first time he had stopped, it had been to wolf down a couple of ration bars, the entire of a bottle of nutrient drink and to use the moistened wipes from his little emergency kit to wipe off his face and clean his hands. The second time it had been for nothing more than a chance to relieve himself and to wash down a mixed handful of caffeine and glucose tablets with half a canteen of warm, brackish water.
This third time, his stand down had been the result of a direct order from Treize, relayed through Lady Une as their retreating forces halted in the middle of the open desert.
Mindful of the fact that his commander was waiting for him, Zechs forced himself to release his safety harness and hit the button that would open his cockpit hatch. The air that flooded into the cramped space was blisteringly hot, but it was clean and fresh, washing out the stuffy stench that had built in the time he’d been fighting.
Taking a moment to balance himself, Zechs climbed from his cockpit and grabbed hold of the hoist line to make the drop to the floor.
The wind teasing at him on the descent, Zechs became aware of the fact that his hair was limp and damp down his spine, his uniform plastered to his body where he’d sweat straight through the heavy fabric. He’d long since yanked his cravat from around his neck, discarding it God knew where, and his gloves were spattered with spots of blood where his hands had blistered from the constant pressure of his controls. He didn’t want to think about how he must smell.
Longing for nothing more than the opportunity to drown himself under a cold shower and collapse into a comfortable bed, Zechs looked up as his boots touched the white sand and bit back a groan when he saw Lady Une waiting for him.
The woman was dishevelled and dusty, her hair yanked back into a functional ponytail rather than her usual twin buns but her uniform was intact and she managed to at least look clean and awake.
Her eyebrows rose at the sight of him, her nose wrinkling to confirm his suspicions about his aroma. “Major,” she snapped as he sketched some attempt at a salute. “His Excellency wants to see you immediately.”
Zechs nodded wearily. “Do you know why?” he asked.
“I have some idea,” Une replied. She extended one hand to him and the blond took the small metal flask she offered him with clear surprise marking his features. “I thought you might appreciate it,” she told him, falling into step next to him as they began to walk.
“Thank you,” Zechs said gratefully. “I do.” He unscrewed the lid and took a slow mouthful, finding that the canteen held nothing but water, crisp and somehow cool. It tasted wonderful and the urge to gulp was nearly overwhelming but the pilot resisted, knowing that his stomach would protest such a move and mindful of the fact that it wasn’t his water in the first place. He took five slow sips, then screwed the lid back into place and tried to pass it back to Une.
She waved him away immediately. “Keep it. I can replace it later and you look like you need it more in any case. Water isn’t something we’re short of, thank God. We got both tankers clear, so as long as we’re re-supplied within a week we’re in no danger of running out.”
“That’s good,” Zechs agreed, and meant it. There were many, many things their troops could have lived without for a few days but a water shortage would have been a disaster in the punishing desert heat. “Well?”
“Well, what?” Une asked.
“What does His Excellency want?”
Une shrugged. “Ask him,” she replied, gesturing to a small group of people huddled under a hastily erected canvas awning. They were leaning over something spread out in the back of one of the trucks, talking animatedly amongst themselves.
Une cleared her throat sharply and the group looked up. A moment later, Treize pushed his way from the middle of them and gestured to dismiss them all.
Zechs ran his eyes over his lover, looking for any injuries the man might have taken whilst he was piloting. Like Une, Treize’s uniform was creased and smudged, the customary sheen of his boots lost under a film of sand-dust. He was certainly a far cry from his normal pristine appearance, but he still looked orders of magnitude more put-together than Zechs did. His blue coat was buttoned and belted perfectly into his place, his skin, gloves and cravat looked clean, and his hair bore the marks of a recent combing.
Zechs drew himself to attention, trying not to wince as it stretched muscles that had been stressed and cramped for far too long.
Treize must have caught his grimace because he waved the formality away quickly. “Dare I ask how you’re feeling?” he began, looking Zechs up and down intently.
“I’m alright,” Zechs responded automatically. “Tired, mostly. Lady Une said you wanted to see me, sir?”
Treize nodded. “I did, but having seen you I think I’m changing my mind. Have you stopped at all today?”
“As much as anyone else.” Zechs shrugged. “As much as I had time to.”
“I’ll believe that last.” Treize gestured idly at the back of the truck. “Would you care to sit down?”
Zechs shook his head. “I’ve been sat down all day. I’ll stand – unless you’re going to offer me a reasonably comfortable corner to fall asleep in.”
There was such a tone of wistful hope in Zechs’s voice that Treize couldn’t help but laugh at him affectionately. “No corners, I’m afraid. I can offer you something that pretends to be food, enough water to wash in and a clean shirt, if any of that sounds appealing?”
Gratefully, Zechs nodded. “It might,” he confessed, and won himself another fond chuckle.
Treize gestured absently at Une and the woman began walking away, heading for another truck piled high with the distinctive white shapes of Officer’s standard issue duffels. Zechs watched her go until Treize tilted his head and caught the blonde’s attention again.
“Une will sort you out,” the older man explained casually. “How are you feeling, really?”
The tilt of his head had changed the play of the light across Treize’s face, revealing both the shadow of a darkening bruise marking his left jaw and the first, faint reddening of incipient sunburn across the bridge of his nose and his cheekbones. “I have sun block in my duffel,” Zechs said, seeing it, and didn’t really register that his words made no sense as a reply until the redhead raised a startled eyebrow.
“I beg your pardon?” the older man asked, sounding somewhere between bemused and concerned.
“Sun block,” Zechs repeated, then sighed. He gestured at his friend. “You’ve been under this sun too long - you’re burning,” he added, hoping it would explain.
Treize blinked in surprise, one gloved hand going automatically to his nose. He blinked again as he felt the heat in his skin, then smiled ruefully. “So I am,” he replied. “You’d think three years at Victoria would have made it habit, but I hadn’t even thought of sun block. Silly of me,” he admitted. He shook his head again. “You haven’t answered my question,” he prompted.
“What question?” Zechs asked, focussing now on the bruising.
Treize’s gaze sharpened. “How are you feeling? And be honest – I need to know the truth, not what you think I want to hear.”
Zechs pulled his eyes from their inspection of his lover’s form and shrugged again. “I told you, I’m tired, mostly. Stiff, achy, dehydrated. Nothing that wasn’t predictable given how long I’ve been in my cockpit for. I’m alright.”
Sapphire eyes swept over the blond, coolly assessing. “Good,” Treize said briskly. “I have a mission I want you to fly for me.” He turned on his heel in the sand and beckoned Zechs over to look at the map spread out in the back of the truck.
The blond stepped under the awning, moving close enough that he could read the map and no closer, mindful of the way he smelt. “Go on, sir.”
Treize glanced back over his shoulder, then gestured again, imperiously. “Stop hovering and come here. You need to look at this properly.”
Obediently, Zechs yielded and stepped up to his commander’s side, looking down at the map curiously.
Treize immediately traced his fingers over the crisp paper. “I’ve decided we’re going to set up a temporary base here,” he began, tapping a spot on the map. “It’s only about five miles, give or take, from where we are now, but it’s further into Alliance-held territory than the A.I.S has ever dared to encroach. Kai-Huang is on his way from Luxembourg with emergency relief and once he arrives I’ll begin the counter-offensive but for the moment the priority is to get the rebels to stop harassing our lines long enough for us to establish our base.”
Zechs nodded his understanding, and Treize moved his fingers to another spot on the map. “Attack being the best form of defence, supposedly, I want to give the rebel commander something other than us to worry about. If we can sufficiently distract them for a few hours we’ll be able to regroup into a much stronger position. Our pilots would be able to rest properly and we could begin making some order out of the chaos we have at the moment.”
The blond looked more closely at the markings Treize was resting his forefinger on. “What is that?” he asked.
“Some sort of small settlement,” Treize replied. “Intelligence believes it’s a staging point for the rebel troops attacking us – a smaller version of the base we’re looking to set up, in effect. I think it’s a little more substantial than that, myself, but either way, it’s valuable to the rebels and it’s perfectly positioned for a couple of fast suits to go in, destroy it and get out again without too much fuss.”
“Those suits being my Taurus unit,” Zechs realised.
“Exactly. Can you do it?” Treize asked, looking up. There was a genuine question in his face – the only thing that made his request acceptable at all on top of the day Zechs had already had. The general knew what he was asking of his friend, knew it was above and beyond the call of duty to ask it at all, but he’d managed, with the inborn sixth sense that made him such an outstanding commander, to find so exactly the right balance of request and expectation that Zechs not only would, but wanted to, accept the mission.
It wasn’t the first time the younger man had felt Treize push him so – the older man had actively honed the skill on his blond houseguest when they’d both been boys – but it never failed to work. Without any outside help, without even conscious thought, Zechs felt some of his weariness drop away, felt his spine straighten. If his commander thought him capable of this last achievement, then Zechs would be.
He wasn’t unique in his reaction; the pilot knew that. He’d seen Treize work his touch on many of his soldiers and seen them react in the same way, going on to give more than they thought they could, achieving things no-one thought were possible. There had been one or two occasions in the early years of his career, when Treize was nothing more than his Wing Commander, that Zechs had seen the older man snatch victories from impossible odds, holding his troops to his goals with nothing more than his voice over their comm. ringing with his faith in them.
The effect was more pronounced in person. Zechs could no more have said no to his lover at that moment then he could have pulled his gun and shot him. He wondered absently for a second whether he was more susceptible because Treize was his lover, or whether others felt it more intensely because it was as close to the man’s flame as they would ever get.
Knowing Treize had already read his answer from his stance and his face, Zechs brought his heels together and nodded anyway. “Yes, sir,” he said.
The smile Treize gave him in acknowledgement was blinding in its intensity. “Thank you,” he murmured back, straightening from his map and reaching out to rest one hand lightly on the battered sleeve of Zechs’s jacket. “I’ll give you time to eat and get changed. I want your suits checked over in any case.”
Zechs winced. “Well, I don’t envy the techs having to crawl around in my cockpit right now,” he said and the older man laughed softly.
“Perhaps not,” he agreed, “but it’s what they’re paid for and even I don’t expect my pilots to fly for most of a day without a break and still be parade ground perfect.”
Treize turned and folded his map up, then pushed it to one side as he put one hand flat on the tail of the truck and one on the steel frame side. “Take your gloves off,” he commanded, hopping into the truck with commendable athleticism and straightening easily to step into the shadows of its interior, “and let me look at your hands.”
Zechs peered after him, trying to see what the redhead was doing as he carefully peeled the stained fabric from his hands, wincing when it stuck to the broken skin underneath it. He worked it loose slowly and tossed the ruined gloves onto the tail of the truck as dusty boots reappeared.
“Ouch,” Treize said sympathetically, catching one hand in gentle fingers as he went to one knee on the boards and set the armload of stuff he was carrying down next to him. He turned Zechs’s hand into the light and hissed at the damage.
The constant hours of flying had wreaked havoc on the blonde’s hands. His neatly kept nails were broken from hitting buttons too hurriedly and too hard, back past the quick in two cases, and the unrelenting pressure of the control sticks and levers of his suit had rubbed the skin at the base of his fingers and across the palms of his hands raw. Sheering forces when Zechs had fought against gravity with brute strength had torn the forming blisters wide open, so that dried blood smeared his skin and fresh welled with clear fluids from the wounds.
Cadets often formed blisters during their training and every pilot in the Specials had the calluses left behind when those blisters healed, even Treize – who fought them with expensive lotions and pampering care to keep his hands soft and graceful, those of the politician he also had to be. Unfortunately, for Zechs, the stress of the day had obviously gone beyond that hard-earned protection.
“I’m sorry,” Treize murmured. “Can you really fly again like this? I think you should be seeing a doctor.”
Zechs shook his head. “I’m fine,” he insisted, belying his own words with a wince as he flexed his fingers. “It hurts but it’s not too bad. Let me tape it and I’ll be good to go.”
Treize sighed and shook his head but he reached into the pile next to him and closed his fingers around something. “Alright. Hold your hands out flat.”
Zechs cooperated without asking why and had to bite his lip when Treize twisted the top off a bottle and poured the contents over the blonde’s hands. The liquid was blessedly cool on first contact but it quickly began to sting like crazy as it soaked into the open wounds. It cleared the dried blood away too, leaving the pink tinged run off to trickle into the desert sand and be absorbed almost immediately.
The first bottle Treize upended completely but the second he only used half of, setting the rest down as he leaned in to inspect the damage more closely now that it had been properly revealed.
Zechs had recognised the bottles before Treize had used them. They were a part of the standard field emergency kit, the liquid they contained a specially formulated mix of alcohol, antibiotic and topical anaesthetic suspended in deionised water that was intended to be used exactly as Treize had. When speed was of the essence in combat and conditions less than ideal, almost any open wound – from bullet wounds to burns – could be treated by drowning it thoroughly with the solution and covering it with a clean dressing. It cleaned, numbed and provided some protection from infection, it was a lovely bit of invention that had been quickly copied by all emergency services and hospitals all over the Earth Sphere, but it stung like a bitch and the smell was evil.
“You might have warned me!” Zechs hissed.
“You had the same first aid training I did,” Treize replied calmly. “What did you think I was going to do?”
“You’re supposed to irrigate any wound with plain water first!” Zechs returned, pulling his hands away from his lover to close them into balls in an attempt to soothe the burn.
Treize looked up, eyebrow raised. “Really? That’s a change from what I was taught. Perhaps I need a refresher course.” He shrugged. “I don’t think it would have hurt any less in any case.”
“Still!” Zechs protested, gathering his hands close to himself protectively.
Treize reached out again. “Alright, I’m sorry,” he said soothingly. “Now, let me finish or you will be seeing that Doctor.”
Zechs glowered stubbornly. “What are you going to do?” he asked warily.
There was a moment of silence whilst Treize made a grab for Zechs’s hands, missing when the blond snatched them out of the way again, and then the older man rolled his eyes and pinned the younger with a stern gaze. “Zechs, behave,” he chided.
Zechs held his defensive posture another second, then relented, holding his hands out again reluctantly. “Sadist,” he accused softly.
“Yes, amongst other things. Don’t pretend you don’t like it.” Treize tipped some of the remaining solution onto a soft cloth and began dabbing at the worst of the damage, ignoring Zechs’s flinches and soft swearing. “And stand still or I won’t kiss it better when I’m done,” he added dryly.
He looked up with a knowing smile a heartbeat later as Zechs began to splutter incoherently.
“What?” the redhead asked innocently. Dark eyes met light through the filter of the mask and both men held still, Treize crouched on one knee and Zechs stood in front of him, his hands curled in his commander’s.
Zechs’s eyes took on a shade of amusement as he shook his head slightly in disbelief. “You’ll get us both shot,” he warned.
“No-one would dare,” Treize returned smoothly. He waited a moment, then put down his damp cloth and reached back into his pile of supplies for a small metal and plastic tube. He shifted his grip on his friend’s fingers long enough to unscrew the little white cap.
Zechs, recognising the tube as a concentrated form of the liquid, only sighed and gritted his teeth as Treize smeared the smooth paste across the broken skin and then began covering the damage with protective padding and strapping tape.
The general leaned back a little when he was done, checking over his work. Zechs had to admit it was as neat a job as he could have done himself and probably more secure. The anaesthetic was beginning to work, as well, and he sighed softly as some of the stinging heat began to fade away.
“There,” Treize said, satisfied. “Better?”
“Good.” The redhead pushed to his feet, and then put one hand on Zechs’s shoulder for balance as he leapt down from the truck again. The blond braced against the brief pressure, catching Treize’s arm to support him as he completed the move.
“We have got to stop getting ourselves into these positions,” Treize continued as he straightened up, missing Zechs’s sudden scowl. “We’re making a habit of having to patch each other up. Now, Dover….”
He let himself come to a stop as Zechs’s grip tightened on his lower arm.
“Are you wearing your arm brace again?” the younger man asked, frowning, sure that he could feel the familiar shape beneath the heavy fabric of Treize’s sleeve.
Treize waved away his concern with a quick smile and a dismissive gesture. “It’s just a precaution. The doctors insisted.”
“Treize,” Zechs began and was stopped with another firm smile.
“Only a precaution,” Treize repeated, then looked over the blonde’s shoulder at the approaching figure of Lady Une.
Zechs gazed at him for a moment more, sure there was more to it than that and equally knowing that he wasn’t going to get an answer, no matter how he pushed, with Une closing on them rapidly. Wondering if she knew anything about it, Zechs dropped his hold on his commander and turned to face the woman as she drew to a stop a few paces away.
“Your duffel, Major,” Une said as she handed Zechs the canvas bag. “I have to warn you that it’s probably rather a mess,” she added. “Clearing the pilots’ bunks was done in rather a hurry. I doubt the sweep teams took the time to fold anything neatly.”
Zechs nodded his understanding. “I’ll settle for not having to replace everything twice in six months. Creases press out.”
Une offered him what, from anyone else, would have been a warm smile. “Engineering crews are working on your suit and estimate they’ll be through with their checks in an hour and a half. If you go the medical trucks, someone will find you enough water and some soap so you can wash. I took the liberty of collecting your ration packs for you.”
The blond saw Treize quirk an eyebrow at his assistant’s customary efficiency and had to hide a smile of his own as he took the foil wrapped packets from her little hands. “Thank you, Lady,” he said.
He bent to slide the packets into a spare pocket in his duffel and to see just what state it was in, and felt Treize’s fingers brush lightly against his spine as the older man stepped past him to exchange swift words with Une as they both looked to the map Treize re-spread in the back of the truck.
Points for spotting the Dr Who ref....
Une had been right when she predicted his things were in a mess – the duffel had been thrown together, clothing clearly ripped from hangers and out of drawers and stuffed into the bag any way they would fit, with his toiletries and other personal effects tossed into the mix for good measure. It was barely a moment’s looking before Zechs concluded that the only way he was going to find anything would be to upend the whole damned thing out onto the ground and sort as he repacked.
Swearing softly to himself as he began to do just that, he missed the quiet chuckle from behind him and so jumped half out of his skin when another pair of hands joined him in his sorting.
Otto laughed at him again for his trouble and earned himself the pleasure of having some of the cursing directed at him personally.
“And here I thought I was doing you a favour by offering to help with this mess,” he teased back, an impish light in his eyes.
“And I’ll be grateful, I’m sure, when I haven’t just had five years taken off my life!”
Otto laughed at him again, shaking his head as he began to refold clothes and separate out personal items. “It’ll do you good; get your blood flowing,” he replied, ignored the disbelieving splutter, and sighed. “Well, at least everyone’s things are in the same mess,” he said, folding and setting aside a shirt that Zechs, after looking at it twice, realised wasn’t his own. “It’s going to take weeks to sort this lot out. People will be handing back misplaced items next year!”
Zechs shook his head. “When we get a base more organised, or when we pull back from this campaign, I’ll simply send the whole lot to the laundry and let them return anything that’s not mine to its rightful owner. I’d suggest you pass that idea around – it might save some time. Right at the moment, I’m only interested in finding a change of clothes and my soap. I have another mission to fly in an hour.”
Otto’s face showed his surprise but he was too well-trained to ask a superior officer for details of his orders, so he set himself simply to rooting through the piles of stuff until he and Zechs had located a clean set of clothes between them.
Zechs sighed as he took the bundle from Otto and began shoving the rest of the mass back into his bag, looking up with a grateful smile when Otto stopped him and said, “Leave it with me, sir. I’ll have it straight for you by the time you get back.”
“It’s no trouble.” Otto took the bag from Zechs and slung it over his shoulder easily, noting that it was a good bit lighter than his own. “You made little Walker’s day, by the way,” he commented.
Zechs looked at him, scowling. “Walker?”
Otto nodded. “The pilot you sent to the command bunker last night?” he reminded, making Zechs smile as he recalled.
“Ah, yes. The little Aries officer. He’s a brave lad.”
“Yes, sir. Good pilot, too – he’s in my unit. You made his day, speaking to him the way you did. All he’s talked about all day was what you said to him and how you sent him to talk to His Excellency. He’s star-struck. It’s absolute hero-worship.”
Zechs shook his head, trying to fight away the blush he could feel threatening. It wasn’t that he hadn’t known his pilots, for the most part, looked up to him, but that was going a little far. “I barely talked to the boy. I was trying to steady him – he said he hadn’t been in combat before.”
Otto shrugged. “Well, whatever you said worked. I don’t think he’s actually noticed anything else all day.”
“As long as he’s alright.”
“Perfectly. Driving my Squadron commander mad, as it happens. Walker’s only been out of the Academy three weeks; we were all expecting to have to nursemaid him through today but he’s bouncing off the walls, he’s so happy.”
The imagery Otto’s words called to mind made Zechs chuckle in genuine amusement. “I’m glad he’s not hurt,” the blond admitted. “He seemed a nice boy.”
“Earnest and eager as a boy scout,” Otto replied. “If it weren’t for the big puppy-dog eyes and the fact that he’s actually quite the talent, he’d be irritating as hell. He’ll be better when we’ve had chance to season him a bit.”
Zechs canted the other man a sideways look, remembering far too clearly what that meant from his own first days in an active unit. Fortunately for the sake of his dignity, Treize had been his Squadron commander from day one and had made it clear that, whilst he didn’t mind a bit of light hazing, the more rambunctious and embarrassing practices that new pilots usually had to suffer didn’t meet with his approval and any behaviour unbecoming to a gentleman was strictly forbidden.
“Don’t be too rough with him,” he warned Otto, recalling how grateful he’d been for his older friend’s rules. Noin and his other Academy mates had written him some real horror stories.
Otto shrugged. “Oh, we won’t be. We won’t need to be, once we get through this. A few drinks, his first woman… he’ll be fine, I promise.”
Zechs shot him another look but settled for shaking his head ruefully as the two of them approached the large trailers at the centre of the hastily thrown together formation. The large red crosses on the sides and roofs of the vehicles marked them as medical stations in the time-honoured international convention.
The inside of the trailers was chaos, but Zechs could see on first glance that it was organised chaos. Doctors and nurses scurried about with the brisk pace unique to military medics performing triage, dressing wounds, dispensing advice and discharging those men fit enough to leave with a supportive clap on the shoulder.
It took one of the nurses a few minutes to spot Zechs and Otto where they were hovering just inside the door. He came hurrying over when he did, offering an apologetic smile.
“Sorry to leave you standing there, Major Marquise. What can I help you with? You’re not hurt, I hope?”
“His Excellency sent me,” Zechs replied. “I’m supposed to ask you about water to wash in and….”
The nurse cut him off mid-word. “Ah!” he interrupted. “Of course. I’m sorry, yes, we did get that message. Apparently you’re in for a quick turn around?”
Zechs exchanged a glance with Otto before nodding. “Somewhat.”
“Right, then. This way.” The nurse led the way across the inside of the first trailer swiftly, pulling back a flap in the canvas walls and showing both pilots into a little ante-chamber section off the main body. They were intended, Zechs knew, to house critical patients or for performing emergency surgery and it pleased him to see that this space was empty, clearly having not been used.
The nurse offered Zechs a quick smile. “A doctor will be in to look at you in a moment,” he said.
“That’s not necessary,” Zechs demurred. “A basin of water will be enough.”
“His Excellency’s orders, sir, sorry. He was very specific about wanting you looked over properly. He said something about you ‘overdoing things again’ and asked if we could do anything to compensate.”
Zechs sighed. “Thank you.” He waited until the nurse had stepped back out of the small space and then, with Otto manfully smothering chuckles at his side, swore softly. “Manipulative bastard.”
“His Excellency?” Otto asked. “He just knows you too well, sir.”
“He’s just spent ten minutes taping my hands for me, purely to throw me off the scent! Doesn’t he have better things to do?” Zechs demanded.
Otto had no idea whether he was expected to answer or not, but he did so anyway. “Well, would you have come here with an open injury?” he asked, wondering what Zechs could have done to his hands of all things. “Or would you have avoided the medics, treated yourself, changed clothes and gone on your next mission?” He shrugged knowingly. “He saw you in Dover, after all. You don’t even feel that you’re hurt when you get a bee in your bonnet about something.”
Zechs, privately acknowledging the truth of the words, still glowered at his friend, annoyed even more when Otto simply laughed at him.
He was saved from any other commentary by the appearance of a doctor, who in time-honoured military fashion, ordered Otto outside the canvas screen and Zechs to strip to the waist without so much as pausing to say hello.
Half an hour later, poked and prodded at, jabbed with needles and dosed with pills, Zechs found himself making the grateful acquaintance of a pre-packaged, self-heating bowl of stew, a couple of mugs of instant coffee and another bottle of concentrated nutrient drink.
Those wolfed down with the speed of a man that hadn’t eaten for most of a day, Zechs turned his attention to the rest of his refreshment. He sluiced his body with tepid water and liberal amounts of soap, applied his razor and his toothbrush cursorily, and brushed a dry chemical shampoo through his hair to pull the dirt and the sweat from it. It wasn’t a replacement for washing and conditioning it properly but it did keep him looking presentable in the short term and as long as he caught his hair before it became truly bad, it would work for a good few days.
Treize always had wondered how a career soldier managed waist length hair in the field.
After swiftly buttoning and buckling the clean uniform he and Otto had found into place, the blond slid his helmet back over his head and made his way from the medical trailers over to the open area of desert the engineers and mechanics had claimed as their own.
His Taurus suit was standing in the middle of a hive of activity, its twin sister next to it as their maintenance crews scurried around them. Valder’s Taurus looked like it had been grounded for a while, its service hatches closed and its fuel leads disconnected as the last few of its techs moved around it. His own, on the other hand, was still half in pieces as Meiser commanded his crew to do in an hour what should have taken a day. Zechs knew he’d both taken damage to his suit in his long combat stint and caused it himself with his aggressive, unceasing piloting.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he greeted politely, as he drew level with the engineers. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
The look he received from his crew chief would have been frightening, if Zechs had been one to be easily rattled. “Yes, sir,” Meiser replied shortly. “You can stay out of the way.”
Zechs felt his eyebrows lift underneath the mask. “I beg your pardon?” he asked mildly.
“You can stay out of the way,” the chief repeated. “Unless you want to tell me what you’ve been thinking all day. Was there a point to pushing an experimental suit like this, or were you just feeling suicidal?”
The man’s tone was well past the bounds of respect. Zechs should have hauled him over the coals for it, berating him for the lack of deference at the very least. Even without the fact that Zechs was a Major to Meiser’s Lieutenant, the Special’s de facto second in command to a simple Mechanic, no crew chief that wanted to keep his job ever spoke to his pilot that way. Pilots were the thoroughbreds of the organisation, and anyone in any support role learned early in their career to handle them accordingly.
This crew chief, though, thought nothing of yelling at his pilot when he felt it warranted. That might well have been why Zechs liked him. Certainly, Treize had been taken with the man’s bluntly challenging nature when they’d met.
Considering the engineer’s words, Zechs tilted his head to one side, rocking back onto his heels in the desert sand. “I was thinking it would be wise for me to do everything I could to keep as many personnel alive as possible,” he replied, stating the obvious somewhat. “As for pushing an experimental suit – I had little choice and I hardly considered it ‘suicidal’. And, now we know how it holds up to full combat conditions.”
“Yeah, we do,” Meiser agreed. “Three suits out of six down and destroyed, one badly damaged and inoperable, the other two needing extensive maintenance. They’re going to be an expensive business, these Taurus’s.”
“Probably,” Zechs agreed quietly. “How soon will the suit be ready? I regret having to push but I’m scheduled on another mission in just under twenty minutes.”
Meiser cracked a grim smile. “You don’t regret it at all,” he retorted. “If you have to fly in just under twenty minutes, your suit will be ready for you in just under fifteen. Time enough for you to run through a proper pre-flight check and engine start, sir,” he added pointedly.
Zechs smiled in acknowledgement. “Thank you, Meiser. Are you certain there’s nothing I can do?” he asked again, knowing what he would be told.
“Positive,” the engineer growled. “Here, sit there,” he all but ordered, gesturing at his own little folding stool, “and read this.” He picked up a handwritten file and shoved it into Zechs’s hands. “It’s a list of modifications made to the suit in the last half hour.”
The smile he offered this time was warm, genuine. “One good thing about you flying like that – at least I know where you’re straining the suit. Usually takes months to start seeing that kind of data.”
“Taurus Two to Taurus Leader, I am clear for take off. Awaiting orders.”
Zechs heard the words of his squadron second as he brought his own suit into the air in a launch that was far more graceful and controlled than his first of the day.
“Acknowledged, Taurus Two. Please match heading and speed to Taurus Leader and stand by for further instruction.”
Meiser had been good to his word, presenting Zechs with a fully functional Taurus just five minutes before he was scheduled to fly out of the temporary base. It had been none too soon, because Valder Farkill had strolled up a moment later, looking rested and relaxed.
As the second Taurus suit came into position above, behind and to the left of Zechs’s, the radio crackled again. “And here we are again, eh, Marquise?”
Farkill’s voice was just as smug and annoying as it had been when they’d last spoken that morning. Zechs counted it as a blessing that he hadn’t had to deal with the other man all day.
They’d taken the mutual decision to fight independently very early on, knowing they could do more good apart than together. Combined, their combat abilities were overwhelming but there was no point in focussing all that force in one small area when the entire line of the retreat was under attack – they were better using their individual skills to fire fight any particular spots of concentrated enemy action or weakening defence.
“Yes, Captain, here we are again. I trust you have no objections to your orders?” Zechs challenged, all but daring the other man to complain.
He received a droll chuckle in response. “Tell me what they are and I’ll let you know,” Farkill replied. “Our lord and master didn’t deign to tell me what he wanted me to do. He just ordered me to report to my suit.”
Zechs raised an eyebrow, smirking to himself. Treize had the most roundabout way of apologising for things the blond had ever encountered. He’d annoyed Zechs with his approach to Valder that morning and this – leaving the other man in the dark whilst briefing Zechs fully – was his way of compensating. By allowing the blond to have superior information, he was also allowing him to regain the superior position.
“You were given your orders before I was available for command discussion,” Zechs commented. “We’re conducting a hit-and-run raid on a nearby A.I.S. outpost as a diversionary tactic, drawing fire whilst the main force digs in and prepares to counter-attack.” As he spoke, Zechs tied his command computer into the systems on the other Taurus and began an information dump that would give the other pilot the details of co-ordinates and attack vectors he was going to need. The data also included the sketched out details of Treize’s plans for the counter-offensive, information which had arrived by medium of a disc in Lady Une’s hands just before Valder himself showed up. Zechs hadn’t really had chance to read it himself yet, but it would gall the other pilot to no end that Zechs was privy to such high-level tactics when he wasn’t.
There were a few minutes of silence, and then a stunned whistle echoed over the radio. “Jesus Christ, Marquise. I take it all back!” Valder exclaimed.
Zechs didn’t reply to the comment immediately. “Prepare to switch mode,” he instructed, seeing from his heads-up display that the two suits were far enough from the main lines. “In three…two…one…and…mark!” he counted off, and hit the controls that would take his Taurus from its humanoid shape to that of a sleek fighter craft. His readouts showed Valder doing the same, and Zechs gave him just enough time to complete the exchange, then began relaying more orders. “Set course and speed according to program on my mark.”
“Acknowledged. Standing by.”
Fluidly, both mobile suits banked to come to the heading that would bring them over the outpost Treize had designated, both pilots letting one foot push heavily on the pedal that controlled engine output as they simultaneously let one hand pull back on the control it held to tilt the nose. The suits banked so tightly they almost pivoted in place, and then both men bore down hard with their feet, straightening their noses and accelerating so suddenly the suits seemed to jump forward.
Twin sonic booms shattered the still desert air – the reason that Zechs had waited to clear the camp before coming to full speed – and the momentary turbulence of approaching the sound barrier died away. The two Taurus’s had just crossed into realms that had been previously reserved only for true planes.
“Mach speed achieved,” Zechs noted into the pick-up for his ‘black box’ recorder. “What were you saying, Valder?” he asked his radio.
There was a dark chuckle in answer. “I take it the general was a touch annoyed at being caught on the hop like that?” the other man asked.
Zechs scowled. “What do you mean by that?” he demanded.
“These counter-attack plans.” There was another low whistle of appreciation. “Vicious, Marquise. Beautiful, but fucking vicious. I didn’t think he had it in him.”
Had what in him? Zechs wondered, feeling suddenly chilled. Quickly, letting subconscious thought and muscle memory take over the piloting, the blond pulled up the file and skimmed his eyes over it. He frowned at plans for a series of surgical strikes against the towns and bases in the region, a run of leapfrogging, unceasing hits in an expanding wave deep into enemy territory, especially at the intended attacks on some of the bigger civilian areas but he didn’t see what Farkill was calling ‘vicious.’
“I really do take it all back,” the other pilot continued, his tone of voice menacing. “The bastard’s a genius. No fucking wonder they called him the Oncoming Storm.”
I'm sorry about this.... I really am.
“Valder,” Zechs snapped, “what the hell are you talking about?”
Farkill’s voice echoed back over the radio feed between the two Tauruses a moment later, dripping with sinister appreciation. “The ‘Oncoming Storm’,” he repeated. “It’s what the pilots used to call your master, Lightning Count. Didn’t you know?” he asked, falsely sweet.
Zechs hadn’t. By the time he’d joined the Special’s Academy, Treize had been an active soldier for more than two years and was already climbing the ranks. By the time Zechs graduated, Treize was a full Wing Commander, a Major prized for his tactical acumen rather than his piloting skills. Zechs had seen him actually pilot before the previous night, but not very often. It was easy to forget that the older man had once held the same position in the Special’s ranks that Zechs himself did now, and would have been named accordingly.
“And your point?” he snarled, not willing to admit to that fact.
“The trooper I asked – I do occasionally obey orders, Marquise – said he was so called because facing him in a Leo was like standing in the path of a hurricane. Looking at this, though…. The A.I.S. commander is gong to regret pissing him off, I think.”
Zechs let his eyes scan his data feeds, tallying the information they showed in his head. “Three minutes to target,” he said. “Prepare for full military power.”
His voice changed as he switched back to the conversation he was having with his wingman. “His Excellency doesn’t make tactical plans because he’s ‘pissed off’,” he corrected coldly. “There will be a sound, logical reason for every decision on here.”
There was another derisive chuckle. “Oh, I don’t doubt that. He’s not about to let himself be made a fool of twice, after all. But I know the tactics he’s been using until now and I know what these amount to, and there’s a whole world of difference between them.” Valder’s sudden mocking grin was obvious just from his voice. “I’m surprised you agreed with this, Marquise. You’ve always seemed too much the bleeding heart to countenance this kind of collateral damage.”
Collateral damage? What collateral damage?
It was a phrase Zechs had always hated, the kind of insidious double talk coined by politicians and military theorists to whitewash the truth of a situation. Having once been classed, along with his entire family and every citizen of his home nation, as collateral damage to allow the commander of the assault on Sanc to escape accusations of war crimes, Zechs felt he had grounds for his hatred.
He’d had several heated discussions on the topic over the years, especially when he was still a cadet, learning the international conventions and policies that were supposed to govern warfare, and though he’d learned, grudgingly, to accept that sometimes armed forces did unintentional damage, he still didn’t agree with the notion of making it an expected thing, complete with its own polite euphemism.
He’d been under the impression that Treize agreed with his stance, especially after their conversation regarding the port of Aden and the attack the general had refused to countenance. The older man had made it clear that he was rejecting the proposal because of the predicted numbers of civilian casualties and the loss of property – or so Zechs had thought. In fact, as he recalled the conversation, looking over the files in front of him again and feeling his world reel for the second time in less than a day, the pilot suddenly realised that Treize had said nothing of the sort. His concern had been for the punishment his troops would take, the impracticality of sending forces into the area and not for any civilian losses at all. Zechs had thought his exact phrase, “…in terms of troop loss it doesn’t really bear thinking about, even if one discounts collateral damage…” had meant Treize was dismissing the notion as just too awful to consider but in truth he’d simply been dismissing it, not considering it a factor in his decision making at all.
As Zechs did more than skim over the files, Valder’s assertion that Treize’s plans were ‘beautiful, but vicious,’ began to make a sickening kind of sense. There was nothing explicit on paper – Treize’s plans were deceptively simple in design, weaved through with all of the older man’s internalized intelligence and his love for elegance – but once Zechs began to read between the lines, the true nature of the proposals was all too clear.
Despite Zechs being the one who’d made the formal study of military history and the changes in warfare over the centuries, he knew Treize was at least as well read as he was on the subject, and that the redhead knew and knew how to apply a great deal more theory besides. Even more than five years later, Zechs could clearly recall sitting in a classroom at Lake Victoria Academy, listening to his friend’s voice as the officer lectured on any number of topics. Zechs might have been taught and drilled in such techniques as Bounding Overwatch and Centre Peel by his combat instructors but it was in Treize’s class that he’d first what the terms were and when they’d been developed.
He’d heard far more in that class, too, than just a few technical terms. It was from Treize’s class that he’d learned what was to become the corner stone of Specials operations under his friend’s command – the idea that if one could think, decide, act and react faster than one’s opponent, then victory was guaranteed. The fact that he could apply that more effectively than most was a good part of the reason he was the Special’s top pilot.
Treize was applying that principle now, and in some style. In the space of just a few hours, whilst also overseeing and participating in their running retreat, Treize had completely abandoned all the battle plans they’d brought with them, discarding hundreds of hours of discussion and computer simulation without a second thought. He’d redesigned their whole campaign on the fly, holding all the data in his head until he’d relayed it to Une for dispersal to his troops, and whatever his goal had been before, there was no doubting his intent now.
Zechs read through the files a third time, feeling his stomach curdle as though he’d swallowed sour milk. Saturation bombing of the local population centers, time-on-target shelling with high velocity rounds of the hydroelectric plants on the Suez Canal and the Nile delta, and wave after wave of direct assaults by both foot and suit troops, Treize had spared no part of the force he could call to hand to exact his revenge. The region and its people would be smashed to dust, left without power, slaughtered by the hundreds in the assaults and finally drowned in the resulting floods when the Nile dam collapsed, the massive river washing back into its natural flood plains for the first time in decades.
It was almost made worse by the fact that everything Treize planned was a legitimate target. There were strategic assets in every town he was planning to bomb, the power plants had always been destined for destruction and the assaults were aimed at known centers for rebel activity. What he was planning would cripple the region for years, leaving it broken and bleeding, and would probably find him hailed a hero.
“…Marquise?! Jesus Christ, man, don’t freak out on me now!”
Zechs blinked back to reality at the voice of his wingman screaming over the radio. “What?” he snarled.
“We’ve got incoming hostiles here!” Valder spat. “Three of them, dead ahead. You can cry over your boyfriend’s nasty side later.”
Zechs growled wordlessly, all the adrenaline that had flooded his body whilst he was reading igniting into blazing anger at the taunting. “He’s not my ‘boyfriend’, you bastard!” he hissed. “Concentrate on your orders and keep your fucking mouth shut, or the shot that rids the world of your worthless carcass won’t be coming from the enemy!”
Valder merely laughed at him coldly. “Oh, baby,” he purred. “You and your master both, hmm? You’re both so beautiful in a temper!”
The first shots from the three enemy suits shattered the air around the two Taurus’s and Valder opened up with a vicious return salvo without waiting for Zechs’s permission. “Come on, then, Lightning Count. Let’s see which one of us can get his attention the most!”
Valder’s Taurus peeled out of their formation and disappeared into the glare from the sun. Zechs merely bared his teeth and opened his throttle up more, relying on the sheer speed only he could control to give him the edge he needed.
If Farkill wanted to challenge him, so be it. And if Treize wanted bloody murder from him, so be that, too. The older man had simply better be ready for what Zechs was going to demand in return. If revenge was the concept that the Specials were working from these days, then Zechs had been its student for years longer than either his Wingman or his lover.
It was time they saw how a master played.
A bare hour later, Zechs dropped his Taurus into its marked spot in the worst landing he’d made in his career, topping even the one he’d made earlier that day and not giving a damn. He flung off his restraints, grabbed for his hoist line and jumped out into the burning desert air.
Five feet from the ground, he let go of the line, fell the remaining distance and landed on his knees, bending over immediately to heave the contents of his stomach into the sand.
The return of the two Taurus’s had gotten attention and his landing had drawn more. Zechs was dimly aware of movement around him and the hum of concerned voices but he couldn’t make himself care as he retched a second time.
Booted feet stopped in the sand next to him and a rough hand scraped his long hair back, gathering it up in a careless ponytail behind him. Zechs thought for one wild moment it was Treize, and then the owner of the hand spoke.
“Jesus, Lightning Count,” Valder sighed softly, before raising his voice. “What? None of you ever see someone spew before? Fuck off back to work and give the man some privacy!”
Zechs couldn’t help but chuckle weakly, bitterly as he glanced up and he was rewarded for the effort with a firm shove to the back of his neck.
“Keep your damned head down.” Valder got a grip on Zechs’s shoulder with his free hand and used it to brace the other pilot against the violent convulsions. “You’re no rookie, so don’t fucking act like one,” he ordered. “I swear to God, if you faint, I’ll leave you where you fall!”
That was more in character, Zechs thought hazily. Farkill’s heavy-handed consideration had been starting to worry him. It wasn’t like him at all to show concern for another human being, much less the hated Lightning Count.
Then again, it was possible he was just showing professional courtesy, thinking he knew what the problem was. Few were the pilots in the Specials who hadn’t made themselves ill at some point in their training and most of those would never fly the way Zechs and Valder did. Zechs had been in the cockpit for the better part of the last twenty-four hours and had pushed himself beyond all sense of reason during their last mission. He’d stressed his suit and his body beyond bearing. The physical reaction he was caught in had been all but inevitable.
Valder had no way to know that Zechs was reacting more from self-loathing at what he’d allowed himself to do, from the furious anger he was feeling, from the series of emotional shocks he’d been taking all day, than from any physical strain. He probably wouldn’t have understood it if he had known.
Farkill gave him another minute or two and then sighed again. “Christ, Marquise, enough. I’m not going to stand here all fucking day.”
Zechs drew a shaky breath, dragging the back of one hand across his mouth. “Shut up, Valder,” he replied. He pushed to his feet unsteadily, grateful in spite of the fact that he’d never have admitted it in a million years for the firm grip on his arm the other pilot kept.
“Charming,” Farkill drawled. He kicked sand over the mess Zechs had left and dropped his grip, holding his hand out instead. His gloved fingers made a little, mocking, beckoning gesture but his handsome face was completely serious. “Give me your pistol,” he said tightly, his voice low.
Zechs considered for a moment, and then began to chuckle again. “Finally decided to shoot me, Valder?” he enquired casually.
Farkill merely looked at him. “Where are you planning to go now?” he asked, apparently changing the subject at random. When Zechs went still, tilting his head in a way that betrayed the glare Valder couldn’t see, the other pilot merely repeated his beckoning gesture. “Exactly. Give. You can send Otto for it when you’ve calmed down.”
The blond pilot shook his head. “I am calm,” he growled.
“That’s the fact that worries me, Lightning Count,” Valder returned. He set himself more firmly on his feet, his posture making it clear that he wouldn’t allow Zechs past him still armed. “The gun?” he prompted and Zechs yielded, un-holstering it with a snarl of frustration before smacking it into his wingman’s hand hard enough to sting and stalking off across the desert.
Farkill watched him retreat, shaking his head at the way the blond brushed away his crew chief when the man scurried up to him. It had been so nicely surprising to discover the Lightning Count’s capacity for enraged destruction – almost a match for his own – and so terribly, predictably disappointing that the man couldn’t sustain it. If Zechs ever managed to tap his potential without needing to puke his guts afterwards, then he might become someone worth Valder’s time.
Hovering in the corner of his eye, though, was someone who already was. Turning on one booted heel, Farkill crossed the space between them and bowed elegantly from the waist as he reached her. “Good evening, my Lady,” he greeted smoothly, sliding Marquise’s pistol into a concealed pocket in his flight coat.
Une looked up at the tall, dark-haired man and smiled affectionately. “Thank you for that, Valder,” she said softly. “I’ve warned His Excellency about Zechs’s temper more times than I can count but…” She shrugged lithely, making Valder return her smile as he watched her.
He and Lady Anne Une had met on their very first day at Victoria Academy and Farkill had wanted her almost from the moment she’d returned his polite greeting with her eyes glinting determinedly. He’d had her, for a while, and then, in their second year, some softer, not-yet-expunged girlishness in her had seen her fall for their newest instructor, drawn to his dapper, dandyish appearance and admittedly sharp mind. She’d begun trying to impress him immediately and her friendship with Valder had taken a backseat.
It was a slight Valder had never quite forgiven Treize for, tempting the young woman away from him with no effort, only to ignore her completely unless he needed her for something. Though he and Une were friends still, close ones, and though he knew she was fond of him, he also knew that she felt for him nothing compared to the burning passion she had for Treize.
“Marquise is soft, Anne,” he replied. “The worst he’ll do is throw a tantrum. Khushrenada can handle himself.”
The Lady didn’t look convinced. “I hope so,” she said softly. “I just have a feeling….”
She shook her head, unable to finish her thought.
He should have reassured her more, he knew, listened to her worries, but he couldn’t be bothered. Instead, Valder set himself to making her think of other things as night closed in.
Leaving Farkill’s side, Zechs strode across the base at a pace just barely less than a run.
Meiser, when he tried to approach his pilot to find out if it were something wrong with the suit that had caused Zechs’s dodgy landing and explosive reaction afterward, was given a bare second of Zechs’s attention, most of it comprising a growled, “Fuck off!”
Zechs’s heart was pounding in his chest, his breathing harsh and rapid in the thin air, driven that way by anger and adrenaline as he approached the command tent.
Treize was in conference with other officers, Zechs could see that from the shadows cast inside the tent as the men and women moved and shifted. The pilot knew he should stop, should not interrupt, should wait until the older man was alone, for the sake of military discipline if not for any personal loyalty owed, but he was too driven by his fury, by his sense of betrayal to pay the idea any mind.
He tore the tent flap aside and strode through it like a force of nature, causing the assembled officers to stop in the middle of their conversation and turn to face him with chilling looks of shock and disapproval.
Only Treize, seated behind a table at the far end of the tent showed anything else. As Zechs thundered through the door, he lifted his chin steadily, gazing at the younger man quellingly.
It should have been enough – always before it would have been enough – but Zechs had reached a breaking point neither man had known he had. Somewhere out in the desert sky, as his powerful new suit tore swathes through a rural village, killing, maiming and destroying, something had triggered a side of Zechs that had lain dormant for the twelve long years since the slaughter of his family, unleashing a half-mad and demonically possessed version of the child-Prince he’d been.
In those first stunned moments, only Zechs knew that it would turn now to tear the hand that had caged it all that time.
Treize seemed to recognize the same a heartbeat later, because he came to his feet slowly. “Major Marquise?” he asked politely, and his voice was as cold as the snows of the arctic.
Zechs answered him with a single blazing word.
“Murderer!” he snarled.