This is a work of amateur fiction and does not intend to infringe on the rights of Sunrise, Sotsu Agency, Asahi TV, and Bandai Visuals. No profit is being made.
Warmest thanks to my beta reader CC, for spotting all the British spellings that sneaked their way into this story, and for bravely sticking with me over the four months that it took me to complete this fic.
Warnings: implied 13x6, implied Sx11
This story is set approximately half a year past Endless Waltz
"Nobody would be foolish enough to store explosives down here," Noin said, maneuvering through the forest-like stalagmites that had grown from the floor of the cave to a rather impressive height. "They could never get them through the narrow tunnels."
Zechs nodded in agreement, raising a hand to tuck his hair back behind his ears again and to adjust his night vision goggles. He loathed to wear the things, though it was not because of the weight - his mask had been worse - but because everything was tinted into different shades of green and looked so entirely artificial. Besides, his nose was itching like crazy where the goggles touched it.
"Let's just have a look into the next cavern, then we can go back," he suggested, ducking his head barely in time to avoid a stalactite.
Noin was a few meters ahead of him, moving more easily thanks to her smaller built. Exploring a cave wasn't something Zechs really felt he had been born to do; it just seemed wrong to him to crawl through the darkness beneath millions of tons of rock when he could as well soar through the air in a surveillance shuttle. But he couldn't really say no to an order of Une that he should join Noin in checking a hint about an underground weapons depot.
They reached the entrance to the next cavern rather quickly, and Zechs wasn't surprised at all to find it empty. Noin was right; nobody in their right mind would ever dream of bringing weapons down here. The effort really wasn't worth it.
"Seems that our search is over anyway." Noin walked a few more steps until she reached the bank of the underground lake that dominated most of the cave. Coming to her side, Zechs knelt down and took off his right glove. Cautiously he held his hand into the clear water, and pulled back almost immediately.
"We can't get across that lake without proper equipment, the water is far too cold." He was careful not to let his relief show too much, but he suspected that Noin knew nevertheless just how he felt about this mission.
"So we are officially finished?" Noin asked, sitting down on a boulder and taking off her backpack. "Then you could contact the headquarter and tell Sally to pick us up." She reached into the bag and took out a water bottle. Unscrewing the cap, she took a drink, then offered it to Zechs.
"Thank you." Coming over to her, he took the bottle and drank too, frowning a little at the plastic taste of the water. Returning it to Noin, Zechs took out his comm unit and pressed the buttons to get a connection to the nearest Preventer base, where Sally was waiting for their reports.
After some crackling the line was established, and the woman's voice could be heard. "Water here."
"This is Wind speaking," Zechs said, sitting down next to Noin. "Fire and I have completed the mission, we'll be waiting for pickup in an hour at the agreed point."
"I'll send someone to collect you. Did you find anything?"
"Nothing." Zechs struggled to put his glove on again to warm his icy fingers, but it was impossible with just one hand, until Noin had mercy and helped him, smiling in return to the grateful look he gave her, even though it probably had been hard for her to notice any change of expression with the goggles hiding half of his face. But she probably had experience from the time when they both had still been in OZ.
"Good to know. See you in an hour then. Over and out."
Zechs switched off the comm, noticing the tiny red light blinking at the top of the device. The battery was running out of energy, he'd have to reload it soon. The units could stay on standby for almost forever, but once the battery warning was flashing they could only handle some more minutes of connection time.
Well, there was no need to talk to Sally again before they would be picked up. And Noin had her comm with her too. Zechs stored the thing away in the pocket of his jacket, then adjusted the straps of his backpack a little before standing up again.
"We should be able to make it back in forty minutes or so," he said, waiting for Noin to get ready too.
"Yes, there's plenty of time for us." Noin got up as well, then passed him to lead the way back through the labyrinth of caves, a map of the area in her hands in case the marks they had left on the walls were not clear enough for them to be certain of the right way back.
They walked in a comfortable silence for some minutes, and made rather good progress. Zechs estimated that they would probably be outside again in less than thirty minutes, and he was glad for that. The night vision goggles were starting to really drive him crazy. Sure, they were practical and all, but he was developing an intense dislike for them.
"It's romantic here, don't you think?" Noin said as they crossed an area with countless stalactites growing down from the high ceiling of the cavern. Water trickled on the surface of a few of them, transformed to bright green lines by the goggles.
Zechs murmured an agreement, not really caring much about his surroundings apart from making sure that they were safe. Maybe he would have thought the cave system beautiful some years ago, but not now. After the war, all those things had seemed so shallow in comparison to how they had been before. Ever after Treize...
Don't go there.
He firmly banned those thoughts from his mind, and concentrated on the signs along the walls. They had marked their way with fluorescent paint that the goggles could pick out and enforce easily.
"Being on a mission with you is almost like being back in OZ." Noin was apparently not planning to give up on small talk, and Zechs didn't have the heart to tell her that he really did not feel like reminiscing in old memories. She was making the effort to talk to him, so he should probably treasure it. But he was just too weary of it all to really play along.
"OZ is gone," he said curtly, hoping that she would not insist on continuing with this. The topic came too close to triggering painful memories, thoughts of times long gone, of persons who were irrevocably lost to him.
They turned around a corner into a tunnel that would eventually lead them back to the surface. "You really should-"
He'd never know what she had meant to say, because the sound of a gun being fired cut the air apart.
Zechs was already down on the ground, dragging Noin down with him before his mind consciously registered what had happened.
"Freeze!" a rough voice ordered, and Zechs did not dare reach for his weapon. If he had been alone, he might have done it nevertheless, but he had to consider Noin. And getting her into possibly unnecessary danger was unthinkable.
Cautiously he tried to see where the voice had come from, but when he raised his head a little, another shot rang through the air and hit the ground just centimeters in front of them, causing stone shrapnel to fly. Zechs heard a soft gasp from Noin, and when he looked over at her he saw a shallow gash along her cheek where a splinter had to have hit her. The blood that was slowly welling up from the cut was an eerie neon color through the goggles, a sharp contrast to the rest of her face that was a mere pale grayish-green.
"Hands where I can see them!" the voice ordered, and Zechs slowly complied, seeing Noin follow his example.
Once their hands were touching the ground in front of their faces, a movement made Zechs look to the side cautiously. Two men stepped out of a side tunnel, pointing flashlights at them that were blindingly bright due to the enforcing goggles. Their drawn weapons were aimed at him and Noin. Zechs mentally catalogued them as soldiers, not only because of their military-style clothes but also because of their stances. They both moved in a way that made it clear that they were used to fighting, and that they also had no problems with holding guns in their hands and firing them at other people.
"Preventers," one of the two, a tall, heavily built man, barked. He had been the one who had spoken before. "Damn it!" he shouted, adding some words in a tongue that Zechs couldn't identify, but that were clearly curses.
"I told you we were getting too obvious," the other one remarked. He was smaller than his companion, but he too had that thoroughly trained look about him that just screamed danger at Zechs. Unconsciously he shifted a little to his right until he felt Noin against his side, hoping to calm her, and to find some reassurance himself through the touch. If she was shivering, then he could not feel it; but Noin was a fighter, she was strong, wasn't she?
The tall one took a step forward, aiming at Noin now while the other one kept Zechs in his line of fire. "Out with your weapons. The girl first. And no tricks, or I'll shoot her."
No need to look at his face to know that this wasn't an idle threat. Noin seemed to have sensed it too, since she slowly reached for the gun in her thigh holster and lay it down in front of her. For a moment Zechs contemplated trying to surprise the men while they were at least a little distracted, but it would have taken too long for him to draw his weapon, and he'd have had to get out two good shots before either of the men had the chance to fire at Noin. It didn't really occur to him that they might shoot at him too, or rather, it did occur to him, but it did not matter.
Hunching down in front of them, the man picked up Noin's gun, then withdrew again. "And now you," he ordered, the barrel of his weapon pointing at Zechs.
There wasn't any choice left, really, so Zechs surrendered his gun to the man as well. Hopefully they would be satisfied with having disarmed them, and not consider it necessary to kill them. Maybe they'd just want to take a hostage until they could flee safely... in that case all he had to do would be to make sure that Noin was left alone. He couldn't stand the thought of her getting harmed. Nobody should ever again get hurt because of him, because of a mistake he made.
"What are you going to do with us?" he heard Noin ask, and was glad that her voice sounded steady. She seemed to be alright so far. But he should have known that she would not easily be frightened.
No answer came from the men immediately, but as far as Zechs could interpret the looks they shared, they weren't entirely certain themselves. At least they weren't set on shooting them yet in order to defend whatever they were hiding down here. Maybe there had been more to that lead about a weapons and explosives depot than they had thought...
"Hand over your backpacks," came the command. "The girl first again."
Zechs heard a resigned sigh, then Noin shifted away from him to take off her bag and put it in front of her just like she had done with the gun. When the man took it away and then looked at Zechs, he copied her actions, knowing that there was no choice.
The two soldiers, mercenaries or whatever they were, shouldered the backpacks, keeping their guns trained on them the entire time. They really were experienced, Zechs thought as he and Noin were approached again, this time by the smaller man.
"Off with the night vision devices."
This made Zechs tense. Being disarmed was one thing, but that... a glance at Noin told him that she was thinking the same.
"Don't you hear? Off with them." The man gave them an angry look, and with one fluid motion was next to Noin, the barrel of his gun pressed against the side of her head. Zechs heard her sharp intake of breath at this, though she stayed quiet otherwise.
"Alright," he said, raising his hand cautiously to take off his goggles. The sudden change from green-tinted artificial vision to the real one so dimly illuminated by the flashlights was startling, and he had to blink a few times until he could focus properly again.
Noin's goggles were taken away as well, and the two men stepped back. The tall one looked decidedly unhappy.
"I still say we should kill them," he said grumpily.
The other one shook his head. "That would be stupid. They're Preventers, killing them will send the rest of that bunch after us. But if they get lost in this cave, nobody can pin the blame on us, and we'll be gone long before they're found."
Lost... Zechs froze at those words. The men meant to leave them here, without any sources of light, without a map of this veritable labyrinth. They'd have no chance to get out of here alive!
"Surely you can't mean to do that," he attempted to plead with them. Maybe he could at least convince them to let Noin go.
"We can." The smaller man grinned at him for a moment. "And we will."
A gesture towards the other man, and they disappeared around the corner from where they had come, taking the precious light with them. Immediately Zechs was on his feet, hearing Noin do the same, and grabbing her hand attempted to follow the men, but once they had turned around the corner, there was no light to be seen anymore, leaving them in entire darkness.
After some seconds Zechs stopped running, not wanting to risk hitting a wall or stumbling down a precipice that he just could not see. There lay no sense in that; they could not possibly catch up with the men, and getting themselves hurt would not help at all.
"Zechs?" Noin was still holding his hand tightly, and he could feel her trembling now; the control that she had shown before was wearing off.
"I'm here," he tried to assure her. "I'll get you out of here."
"But how?" Her expression couldn't be seen, but her voice told him just how she had to feel right now. Stranded in a cave system, without any means to see and no food and water left... A remote part of Zechs' mind knew that he should be close to a panic, but somehow he just couldn't bring himself to care about it at all. It was not hard to think clearly, there was no despair to fight for him.
"Do you remember anything about the way back?" he asked, looking at where he supposed Noin's face had to be. "We are not that far from the exit."
For a long while Noin was silent, and it made him worry that something could be wrong with her. There was no way that he could see whether she was alright or not, and it made him feel strangely insecure to be unable to assess her condition.
"Noin? Are you alright?" he asked the darkness.
A tug at his hand gave him some measure of relief. "I can't remember," he heard her say quietly. "There were too many turns... we should take a tunnel somewhere to the left next, but that's all I know. And the paint we sprayed is not glowing strong enough for us to see without the goggles."
The complete and utter darkness around them proved their words right; they had left marks every few meters along the walls, but none of them could be seen. Maybe once their eyes adjusted better to the blackness their vision would improve. Zechs did not want to think of the possibility that they already were in a wrong tunnel.
"Left?" he asked, then stepped cautiously forward without waiting for her confirmation. Holding out an arm, Zechs moved until he touched the wall, then walked along it, not taking his hand off the rock. He could hear the sound of Noin's boots as they touched the stony ground, felt her fingers tighten their grip on his wrist.
For a moment Zechs thought that he had seen something, a faint glimmer in the darkness. Maybe Noin had been wrong about the brightness of the fluorescent paint? That the wall suddenly was gone certainly seemed a good sign that they had reached the tunnel they were supposed to take. The shimmer had to be their mark.
"I think this is the right way." He turned to the left, holding up his hand for a moment to see how high this passage was. His fingers only touched the air, so the ceiling had to be high enough for them to walk without hitting their heads at least for now. From what Zechs remembered, most parts of the cave were rather spacious. They had only had to duck once or twice on their way inside, and had already passed those narrow tunnels on their way back. A low passage would definitely be a wrong turn now.
"Maybe we should wait here until Sally sends a team to come looking for us," Noin said, tugging at his arm a little. "They know we're supposed to meet them in less than an hour."
Zechs considered this, but then shook his head, not caring that she couldn't see the gesture. "That will give those soldiers enough time to disappear along with whatever they have been hiding down here." And he would not forgive himself if that happened, if anything threatened peace when he could have prevented this danger. Not after all that had been sacrificed for attaining this precious balance. He figured that this was as good a driving force as any; after all he knew just too well what a war could do, what it could take away. What it could make people do.
"So you are convinced that the rumors about the weapons depot were true?" Noin didn't sound as if she really expected an answer to her question, so Zechs refrained from saying anything. "But that would mean that we overlooked it completely."
"There are side tunnels that we did not check." Zechs took a cautious step into the new passage, and was relieved when the ground seemed even and stable.
"They were too narrow to get anything through." Noin's steps were making small crunching noises on the rocks as she followed him slowly. "Unless there is another entrance that we didn't know of."
That was a possibility that had crossed Zechs' mind before, that the map of the caves might not have been complete. All the mountains in the area were limestone, and he knew that water could work its way through the chalk relatively quickly. There probably were tunnels everywhere that had been washed out by the rainwater over the centuries. And during their mission briefing, Une had mentioned that the caves had never been entirely explored. She had told them to stay in the main areas that were already marked on the map, because the others were too dangerous to move in, if Zechs remembered correctly.
The ground was beginning to slope a little, and they moved more slowly so they wouldn't stumble. It was impossible to say how far they had walked until Zechs' hand suddenly encountered another opening in the wall.
"Noin, do you remember the next turn?" he asked. "There seems to be another tunnel here. Either that, or the one we are moving in is making a sharp turn to the right."
There was no answer from her, and Zechs started to worry a little. It was a relief when she finally talked, though her words were less than soothing.
"I don't know," she said quietly. "There were simply too many turns to keep them all in mind. I am sorry... "
Zechs squeezed her hand for a moment. "You are doing fine," he told her, then released her hand.
"Zechs!" There was barely controlled fear in her voice.
"Don't worry, I am here. I just want to see whether the niche at the right is a new tunnel or just a bend in the one we are already in."
He walked forward, hands outstretched and hoping to touch a rocky wall within some moments. The thought that their way might fork again was more than just unpleasant; maybe Noin had been right and they really should have waited up there. But he would never have forgiven himself if those men had escaped just because he had not managed to get out of the cave in time to stop them.
Finally there was solid rock beneath his fingers again, but it ended once he took another step forward. Turning slowly, Zechs tried to determine just what his surroundings looked like; the combination of wall and nothing was hard to interpret, but in the end he came up with a solution he really had hoped not to get.
Three tunnels. Maybe four, he wasn't entirely certain. Impossible to say which was the right one.
"Yes? Zechs, where are you?" Her voice came from the right, somewhat unexpected. He had thought he was facing her again.
"I am here. Keep talking, I am heading back to you." Zechs took some slow steps in the direction where she had to be.
"Alright... how many passages are there? Just one, or more?"
"More. We'll have to go back, I think we're in the wrong tunnel here."
"Wrong tunnel?" He heard a sharp intake of breath. "But why? How do you know?"
"Do you remember that we ever passed a fork of more than three tunnels?"
"No, there was none. Mostly side tunnels, but never that many at once." He was getting closer to her; she seemed to be rather close already. It was unnerving him that he could not see her, that he might run past her without noticing. "Keep talking, I'm almost with you again."
"I'm holding out my hands, but you aren't near yet. I swear I'll never let Une send me on a mission like this again... but if we're lucky she'll declare us incapable of doing it properly anyway. She'll treat us just like she did back in OZ, she'll just be a little more polite about it all."
Zechs shook his head a little. "I thought you were getting along with her?" Now where was Noin? He reached out with his hands, but found only walls and thin air.
"Oh, I am, but sometimes she can be so unnerving. It's almost as if the old Lady is back again when she is annoyed about something. You should see her when somebody made a stupid mistake... Zechs, where are you?"
"Right here." Zechs moved his hand, and finally touched something that he assumed was Noin. The startled gasp coming from her direction confirmed this. "Sorry."
"It's okay." There was relief in her voice, almost as if she had expected him to leave her behind. It stung a little that she believed him capable of doing that, but Zechs reminded himself that they were in a rather extreme situation and that Noin would never think he would leave her behind deliberately.
Searching for Noin's hand, Zechs tried to orientate himself again. He was quite certain about the direction they had come from, and there had not been any tunnels branching off the passage they had been using; at least he had not noticed any. But he had only been checking the left side; the right had been too distant to touch as well. It did not seem too big a problem to him though; as long as they kept to what would be the right side on their way back, they should be fine.
"We'll go back to where we started and then decide what to do," Zechs told Noin, then took cautious steps forward.
He could hear her follow him, keeping a tight grip on his hand. She wasn't trembling any longer; at least he could not feel it through the gloves anymore. Apparently she had calmed again, something for which he was glad. He just had no idea what to do if she happened to panic; it seemed impossible for him to understand just why to be so afraid. But then again, Noin had something to lose, had a life to go back to, while all he had left right now was the fight to keep peace safe, a fight that simply did not seem to end. And he was beginning to grow weary of it all. Peace was an important goal, he knew that only too well, and he valued it highly in face of the sacrifices made for it. But there had been so many personal dreams he had had about this area when the bloodshed would be over, and they could not come true anymore because the one he had wanted to share them with was no longer with him.
Damn it, Treize... why did you have to do that?
Hearing the beloved voice for the last time had shocked him back into reality, had made him see what monstrous thing they all were doing. But that had been what Treize had been hoping for, no? To use his own death as a tool to make people see the horrors of war...
"Zechs?" Noin's voice ripped him out of his thoughts. "Why have you stopped? Is something wrong?"
He turned towards her out of habit, even though there was no way she could have seen the unmoved expression he wore. "It's nothing. We should soon be back on the mapped way."
Noin didn't say anything in response, but she kept moving with him when he continued to walk back through the tunnel slowly. They'd have to try something else once they were back on the main way; maybe Noin would agree to staying there on her own and wait for the rescue team while he continued searching for those men. He remembered into what tunnel they had disappeared, and perhaps he could retrace their movements and find out just where they were headed for.
The only problem Zechs saw with that plan was that Noin probably would not stay behind. She was just too concerned about his well-being sometimes, and he was afraid that she would insist on risking herself for him when there was no reason to do so. Sometimes it puzzled him that anyone would bother looking out for him that much. To him it never seemed that he was worth the effort.
Somehow he would have to convince Noin that it was for the best to stay there, Zechs thought as he felt his way through the darkness. He was almost getting used to moving like this, relying on his sense of touch, on all his senses apart from his eyes. Water was dripping down from the ceiling somewhere to his left, a rhythmic noise that cut through the darkness. A faint draught could be felt which had to come from another tunnel, most likely an opening to the outside world. Perhaps they could follow it... but it seemed too risky to drag Noin into something like that.
Zechs stopped to determine where exactly the breeze was coming from. A moment later, Noin walked straight into him, making him stumble and fall after a frantic struggle against it. He knew he'd have been able to keep his balance if he had just seen the ground; but without that it was just impossible. And to make things worse he instinctively held onto Noin's hand in an attempt to stabilize himself, which tugged her down with him.
"Noin? Are you alright?" he asked, not quite daring to pat her down for injuries in the dark in case he touched areas he should rather keep away from.
"Yes, I'm fine," came the confirmation. "What happened? Why did you stop?" There was a faint ring of panic in her voice, so Zechs hurried to reassure her.
"We're not lost, don't worry about that." Should he tell her about the rush of air he had sensed? It probably would be better not to keep information like that from her. "I felt a faint draught and tried to determine where it was coming from."
"So you believe that it is coming from an entrance somewhere?" Hearing Noin's voice was almost as good as seeing her face, as long as he paid attention to the modulations. Right now there was a shimmer of hope in it.
"Maybe." Although he'd definitely prefer it if she waited on the safe route; there was no way to guess just where that current of air had come from and if it was even possible to use that way, let alone find it.
Noin untangled herself from him, and he heard her stand up. "I can feel it too... and there is no way that the air simply moves around the cave without a reason. Zechs, we really should follow it, maybe it even leads us to those men."
Without weapons, and without a chance to see anything. But they could worry about that once they got there.
"Give me your hand," Noin almost commanded, apparently eager to get moving again.
Zechs complied after getting to his feet, and they set off into the tunnels once more.
Sally glanced at her watch, then looked back into the direction where Zechs and Noin would be coming from. It was not yet time for them to show up according to the mission parameters, but she hadn't expected them to take more than maybe fifty minutes after Zechs had contacted her and asked for a pickup. Apparently she had underestimated the distance the two had to cover. Yes, it had to be that. Noin and Zechs were far too experienced to simply get lost somewhere. And there was no reason yet to worry. They still had ten minutes left before they would be officially late.
A noise behind her made Sally spin around, falling into a defensive position immediately and raising her arms to block any blows.
"Easy, Miss Po," the helicopter pilot said, taking a step backwards just in case.
Sally shook her head, then a smile crossed her lips. "You should know better than to sneak up on me like that."
"I really should." The girl grinned, then brushed black bangs out of her face. "Duo floored me a few times when I surprised him while we were working together."
"He was a terrorist, and those reflexes aren't easily forgotten." Sally walked back the few steps to the helicopter and sat down on the skid, leaning back against the bulk of the machine. All the time she kept her eyes on the dark line of the forest, waiting for the familiar figures of Zechs and Noin to appear.
Hilde settled down next to her. "Thanks for letting me pilot, by the way. Did the Lady decide yet whether she'll let me join?"
Sally shrugged. "Not that I know of. But considering your reputation and your abilities, there is nothing speaking against it." The only reason Sally could think of for not recruiting Hilde was that the girl was young still, maybe too young in Une's eyes. Strictly speaking, the Preventers had orders not to accept anyone who was younger than eighteen, but of course there were exceptions to the rule, the former Gundam pilots being the most famous of them. Hilde had proven that she was good, there was no doubt about that. OZ had enlisted her, a sure sign for the girl's qualities. And Une would probably not ignore something like that.
"I just wish she decides soon so I know. Do you think I can work with Duo occasionally?"
"He usually operates in a team with Heero," Sally said diplomatically. No reason to disillusion the girl completely; she'd find out soon enough. It was impossible to overlook the glances those two frequently gave each other when they thought nobody was looking. Sally found it terribly cute.
"Yes, I know." Hilde placed her elbows on the metal bar below the cockpit to support her weight as she leaned back. "But Noin and Zechs don't usually work together either."
Perceptive girl, Sally thought, a smile on her face. "I didn't have the time to partner Noin this time, so Lady Une assigned Zechs to the mission. They have worked together before." Besides, Noin had done everything possible to subtly point out that Zechs was the best choice for the mission, and that none of the other agents were suited. Sally had supported her friend as much as she could without letting it appear suspicious; Noin loved Zechs so much, it was only fair that she got chances to be alone with him. And Zechs was so withdrawn lately that Sally figured it would hardly do him harm if somebody talked to him and tried to make him take an interest in something.
"I have helped Duo before, and I get along with him well. Surely that counts for something with the Lady." Hilde cast a look at her wristwatch. "When are they supposed to be here?"
Sally looked at her watch as well. "In about five minutes." Noin really seemed to be trying to make the most of the time she had Zechs for herself.
"They're probably not going to be early if what I heard of them is true." Hilde's thoughts apparently had gone in the same direction.
Raising an eyebrow, Sally looked at the girl curiously. "And what did you hear?" Rumors were always interesting, especially when one knew the truth as well and could compare just how vivid the creativity and imagination of others were.
"Oh, nothing special," Hilde said, grinning a little at the memories. "But back when I was with OZ everybody told stories about the Lightning Count and his girlfriend. They both had already left then, but there wasn't much else that was interesting to talk about in terms of gossip about the officers." She smirked a little. "Apart from certain stories about the Lady and General Khushrenada, of course. But those were always floating around."
"I can assure you that those were not true, at least," Sally commented calmly.
"Really? How do you know?"
Sally smiled. "Doctors hear things other people aren't told." Especially when they were in a relationship with the Lady in question...
Hilde pouted for a moment, but then returned to her more cheerful expression. The girl was quite obviously enjoying the unexpected trip; she wasn't a Preventer yet and therefore shouldn't be on a mission. But Sally had been looking for a pilot, and Hilde had just been handing in some test results on mobile suit flying that had almost reached Noin's level. As it looked, the girl would end up with the Preventers anyway, so Sally figured that she could as well claim her for her own department before any of the other officers found out just how good the new recruit was.
Besides, she liked the girl. There were just too many agents who were dead serious, so it was refreshing to see a more casual approach for once. They probably would have to observe ranking a little more once Hilde was enlisted, but until then Sally saw no reason to follow stiff protocol guidelines.
They chatted for some more minutes, until Sally glanced at her watch again and determined that Zechs and Noin were officially late. It did not really worry her yet; delays happened rather easily, especially on missions like this one. If they had underestimated the length of the way back, it was very well possible that they would take a little longer to arrive. There were no particular signs of danger in the area; the weapons depot inside the mountain was most likely a wild rumor without any real basis. There had been mining activity near the caves during the war, that was probably the origin of it all.
Once Zechs and Noin were ten minutes overdue, Sally shook her head and stood. "This is too long. Even if they were walking slowly they would be here by now."
Hilde watched her with interest as she reached for the comm unit in the helicopter cockpit. "Do you think something happened to them?" the girl asked.
Dialing Noin's number, Sally shrugged lightly. "I hope not, but we cannot be sure. Normally they would have contacted us once they became aware that they would be late."
She did start to worry when there was no reply from Noin after the comm had been beeping for a minute. Under normal circumstances it was impossible to overhear the things, and they also vibrated to make themselves known. Either Noin had switched her device off, or she was unable to answer the call.
A frown on her face, Sally switched to Zechs' number and again listened to the crackling of the line building up.
The rush of air was becoming easier to follow the further they got, and it let Zechs hope that they were closing in on its origin. If they were lucky, it would lead them to an opening large enough for them to get outside. He didn't want to think too much about the possibility that they perhaps would be unable to pass through.
Talking to Noin about his worries was out of the question; he didn't want to bother her with it. So far she was holding on, but Zechs could tell that her nerves were getting strained. He couldn't fault her for it, she was just showing a natural reaction to the situation, a reaction he should be displaying too. Her training as a soldier prevented her from losing her head, but there was a distinct level of apprehension about her. Zechs knew the feeling, the rush of adrenaline that accompanied tense moments and heightened the senses as the survival instincts kicked in.
They were making rather good progress so far. Noin still was in the lead, walking at a slow but determined space. It had become evident that she felt the breeze more easily than he did, although by now the current was strong enough to move Zechs' hair a little. He figured that it probably came from outside and then dissolved in the many tunnels. They had been lucky that they had noticed it at all, that it had still been strong enough to sense for them.
"How much time do you think has passed?" Noin asked, slowing down for a moment before she picked up her previous space again.
Zechs shrugged. "I don't know. Forty minutes since we completed the exploration maybe." It was hard to say without a watch, or rather, without being able to see the watch. The reassuring weight around his wrist was there, but the display was not fluorescent. He'd really have to talk to Une about investing into better models.
"They should already be looking for us." Noin sounded hopeful, making Zechs wonder whether she really believed they would find an exit themselves. "Sally must have tried to contact us on the comm units by now."
That sounded reasonable. There was a standard procedure for looking for lost agents, and the first step always was comm contact. After that, the officer in charge was free to take other steps. And considering that this would be Sally who held the highest rank in the area, Zechs had faith that it would not take too long for the Preventers to discover that something had gone wrong. Hopefully Sally would not waste time looking for them and rather search the area thoroughly for possible disturbances. She should be able to discover those men along with the weapons.
And until that was done, maybe they would have found the exit. The breeze was strong enough to puzzle Zechs a little; small currents were fine, but this one was beginning to become too forceful to be a reason of simple differences in the air pressure.
A quiet beeping shocked him out of this thought.
"What's that?" Noin asked, stopping immediately.
Zechs' heart skipped a beat when he identified the noise.
A comm unit.
His comm unit, since the beeps came from the breast pocket of his jacket. He frantically fiddled with the button, scared that whoever was trying to call him would give up before he managed to reply. It seemed to take ages until he finally managed to get it out and accept the call.
"Wind," he said, a little breathless still from the surprise.
"Water," came the immediate response, loud and clear. "Where are you?" Something suddenly wrapped itself around him, and it took Zechs some moments to identify it as Noin who was hugging him out of relief. He awkwardly patted what he thought had to be her shoulder.
"We are in the cave still. The rumors about the area were right, we were intercepted by two men."
"Are you alright?" Sally sounded concerned.
"Yes, but we are without equipment." Zechs paused for a moment. "They disarmed us and took our goggles, so we were unable to take any steps against them."
"I'll send a team immediately to rescue you."
Zechs hesitated a little. He really wanted to get Noin out of the cave, but the men could escape in the meantime, and then the whole effort would have been futile.
Noin spared him the decision. "Water? Fire here. We'll be fine for now, take care of those men first, it's more important that you get them than that you come looking for us right now. Neither of us is hurt, so we'll last for a while." Zechs squeezed Noin's hand gratefully for that.
"Alright," Sally said after a brief silence. "Don't take any risks now, and contact us in case you encounter difficulties, then we'll come for you."
A little red blinking light that stabbed brightly through the dark made Zechs' blood run cold. Of all the times to run out of power... "Water? My comm is low on power, and we don't have Fire's unit here. Emergency contacts only."
"Roger that. Over and out." The line was disconnected, and the blinking vanished again.
Red blinking light... Zechs concentrated on remembering the guidelines for the comm lights. Blinking meant five more minutes of contact as far as he could recall. And once the light turned completely red and stopped flickering, one minute. Not much... he had already seen that it was low on power when he had contacted Sally before, and that had to have been the point when he had pocketed the unit instead of packing it into the backpack.
"Zechs? We should try to find that exit, then we can save them the trouble of rescuing us." There was an undertone of humor in Noin's voice. "And there's going to be less embarrassment for us."
"Lead on then," he told Noin, beginning to walk again when he felt the tug of her hand. Embarrassment was not something he really worried about; nobody had dared tease him for anything for quite some time. Well, maybe not nobody. Noin used to taunt him good-naturedly occasionally, and Dorothy's comments occasionally could be like the stings of a needle. But those two were the only exceptions he wanted to think about.
"Give me that mug please." Sally held out her hand for the requested item and got it immediately. It was nice to have everybody jump at her command for once, something she could very well get to like. She had never before worked at the top of such a large team; in the Alliance medical officers had not held much power, and terrorists normally had no distinctive hierarchy. It was only with the Preventers that she was beginning to understand the appeal that commanding an efficient team held.
Using the mug to weigh down the corners of the old, torn map so it would not roll up again, Sally leaned on the folding table in the middle of the tent that served as a makeshift headquarter. It all had some sort of makeshift charm about it, as long as nobody stumbled over the molehills that were littering the entire meadow they were using as their base.
"Does anybody have ideas to offer on how we are going to find people who don't want to be found in a labyrinth like that?" she asked, staring down at the map. They had gotten it from a farmer in the area, who in turn had received it from his grandfather. The caves apparently had once been highly popular here, even though there was nothing valuable to be found in there. Apart from whatever those men were hiding there, of course.
One of her staff members, a former OZ officer from what Sally remembered, cleared his throat. "Blocking the known entrances would be a beginning," he said. "That way we can at least keep them in a limited place."
Sally nodded at him. "Good idea. But there might be other openings we don't know about."
"A helicopter surveillance could take care of that," one of her old subordinates from the Alliance suggested. "If they try to escape on foot we won't be able to do much about it, but if they are hiding something in there they might be using a truck, and those are easy to spot from the air."
"Alright." Sally reached for her comm and pressed the shortcut to her second in command. She didn't like him overly much, but Une valued him highly and Sally trusted her judgment. He was capable, that could not be denied, but sometimes Sally had to fight the urge to throw things at him. "Nichols?"
"Yes?" The line crackled, and loud noises of some machine or a helicopter made it almost impossible to understand him even though he was shouting. They lessened a bit after some moments, as if he had stepped away from the source.
"I want you to arrange air surveillance for the area." Sally glanced at the map. "Concentrate on the paved roads, but don't ignore the smaller streets either."
"Anything special we should be looking for?" he asked, then shouted something at someone else that was impossible to understand with all the noise around. There seemed to be an answer, equally unintelligible. "The copter and one of the small planes can take off in two minutes." The efficiency was shining through at the moment, it seemed. Sally occasionally had trouble with the former OZ members; some of them carried a certain arrogance about them, and Nichols was a perfect example for them. The special treatment that unit had gotten during the war had gone to their heads and was still clouding their view occasionally. On the other hand, the status of an elite force had not been without reason, and they now formed the backbone of the Preventers.
"Search for trucks, that's the most likely target." Sally paused for a moment. "And while you are at it, get somebody to arrange a roadblock so they won't slip through our fingers. There are only two roads out of this area anyway."
"Three," Nichols corrected with a certain pettiness that made Sally want to kick something, then continued in a more professional tone. "We'll work as quickly as possible."
"Good," Sally said. "Contact me once everything is set up." She disconnected her comm, then returned her attention to the team around her in the tent. "I guess you heard everything, so I don't have to explain it to you. Wide range coverage is taken care of, so it's up to us to have a closer look at everything."
Some minutes later she had divided her team up into smaller groups and assigned an entrance to each of them. For now they would just guard their posts; taking a more aggressive stance didn't make sense yet, they had no idea what they were up against. Zechs and Noin had only reported two men, but that did not mean that there couldn't be more.
She wasn't quite ready to worry about Zechs and Noin yet; they were capable of dealing with a situation like the current one on their own for the moment until Sally could dispatch a rescue team. That neither of them was hurt was a great relief for her, both personally and as the head of their team. They were alright and not in immediate danger as long as they stayed calm, and all the resources could be focused on calming the situation first.
For a moment she was tempted to call Zechs again and tell him that the Preventers were handling the problem and that there was no reason for them to be worried, but she dismissed the thought. They surely knew that very well, and there was no need to waste the energy of Zechs' comm unit for something like this. Noin was strong enough not to lose her nerves because of something like this, and Sally highly doubted that Zechs would panic either. He was so cool, if not downright cold, about almost everything lately. Maybe being trapped in a dark cave with Noin would shake him a little more awake. And who knew, perhaps they could get a little closer even...
With a soft smile, Sally checked the team lists one last time, then set out to inform Lady Une of the current situation.
"Zechs?" Noin stopped, and he almost walked into her at the abrupt halt. "Be quiet for a moment please."
She had to be talking about the sound of his steps and the rustling of his clothes when he moved, since he had barely said a word since they had spoken to Sally. That he had forgotten about the comm unit was making him feel guilty and strangely incompetent; he really should have remembered that he had the small device. It could have saved them so much trouble and, more importantly, would have been a possibility to tell Sally about the men far sooner. If they managed to escape, it would be his fault.
Another mistake to add to the countless ones he had made in his life, and this one could cost lives like some of the others had done. He would be responsible for any deaths, any wounds that were caused by those men.
"Are you listening to me?" Noin's concerned voice brought him back to the present. "Zechs?"
"I am alright," he hurried to assure her. "I was just lost in thought for a moment."
"Good," she replied, sounding relieved, and he felt a small pang of guilt for worrying her when she really had to concentrate on her survival.
"What were you saying?" he asked, trying to bring up enough interest for what she had been telling him so she would not be disappointed. Noin was kind enough to grace him with her attention when he really did not deserve it anymore, so the least he could do was listen to her.
"Be silent and then tell me whether you hear a noise."
Zechs did as he was told. For a moment there was nothing but the darkness, the regular breaths of Noin and his own slightly slower ones. But then he noticed it too, a deep, faint humming that he felt more than he heard it.
"What is this?" The noise sounded familiar somehow, but he could not place it at all. The only thing he was sure of was that it definitely did not belong into a cave. Absolutely out of place.
"I have no idea," Noin told him. "But if I have to guess, I would say that it is some kind of machine."
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Here?" But when he listened to the noise again, it was the only possible explanation. "Noin, we have to be careful. It could be those men again."
"Yes, but it could also be something that the Preventers use," Noin objected. "Perhaps a generator to provide enough energy to light out the tunnels?"
What she said did sound reasonable, and Zechs hoped that she would be right. It would make getting her out so much easier if Sally and the others were already searching the caves near them. But still he couldn't completely dismiss the possibility that the machine sound meant problems and that they would walk into a trap if they continued their trek. If he had been alone, he would not be worrying about this at all, but with Noin here he had to consider potential sources of danger.
Noin tugged at the sleeve of his jacket. "We should keep moving," she said determinedly. "Whatever is making this sound, we are still rather far away from it, and it really might be Sally."
Zechs wanted to ask her whether she was certain about this, if she really wanted to take this risk or if she just felt she had to do it in order to prove that she was not scared. But he stayed silent; it seemed unfair to question her motives, and it would make him look as if he doubted her ability to make decisions, which he really did not. Noin was intelligent, a trained soldier, she knew what was at stake here and what could happen. So he just started to walk again, trusting her to find the way.
By now the ground was rather even, probably washed out by the water over the centuries. Maybe there had been a torrent in this tunnel once that had made its way into the rest of the cave; the sand and the small stones could easily have smoothed the ground and the walls to this degree. Zechs no longer felt jagged rock beneath his hands when he touched the wall, but an almost polished surface that occasionally was criss-crossed with deep lines. Amazing what nature could do; the tunnel almost seemed like it had been cut into the stone by a fraise.
For a moment he entertained the thought that this indeed was an artificial passage, but it made no sense that anybody would make the effort to drill holes into the rock in the middle of a cave. Unless they were getting closer to the outside... but there had been no mention of mining activity in the briefing he had read on the way to the cave.
The further they walked, the louder the humming got, and the current of air that had been barely noticeable at first was now strong enough to bring tears to Zechs' eyes. If he hadn't known that it was impossible, he would have thought that they were walking towards a hangar where Mobile Suits were taking off; the sounds and the wind would have fitted. But the characteristic smell of kerosene and metal was missing. Besides, there was no way that anybody could have built a hangar in this mountain without anybody noticing.
They turned around another fork in the way, choosing the tunnel where the noise was louder, when suddenly bright lights came on.
Zechs let go of Noin immediately and shielded his eyes from the light that was blinding after the darkness they had walked in for so long. He hadn't had a chance to see whether anybody was around, or where they were.
"Can you see anything yet?" he asked quietly, hoping that he would not draw any attention to them. Somebody had to have switched on the lights after all.
"No... it's all too bright still."
Slowly removing his hand from in front of his face, Zechs forced himself to open his eyes. For seemingly endless moments he only saw red and black spots, but his vision gradually cleared again.
They were standing at one end of a large, longish cavern with even walls and an arced ceiling. After a quick survey of the area, Zechs noted with quite some relief that they were alone, and that it was impossible for anybody to hide in a niche.
But that was not what was really important.
"Noin? I know where that sound and the wind came from." Zechs watched as she slowly uncovered her eyes, blinked a few times and then noticed the ventilation systems that dominated the other end of the cavern.
Four rotors blew air in their direction, their motors humming loudly along with the sound of the generator that had to be hidden somewhere. The steel that surrounded the shafts was blank and looked as if it were freshly polished, although it would have been hard for rust to form in the dry air.
"Maybe we are beneath a manufactory and this is the cooling system," Noin said, moving forward slowly. She seemed alright as far as Zechs could see, apart from the cut along her cheek. Now that they had real light instead of the night vision goggles, Zechs saw that it had bled quite a lot, and that she'd probably need stitches.
"I should call Sally and tell her about this," Zechs said as he followed her. "She might know where we are."
"Does your comm have enough energy still to send out its signal?" Noin asked, turning to look at him. "They could locate us easily with that."
"No." Zechs sighed deeply. "We have maybe two minutes of connection time left, that's all." He really should have reloaded it, but when they had started this mission the energy had seemed sufficient. So stupid to not be prepared for this...
"Doesn't matter. We can try that door over there." Noin pointed at something left to the ventilators, and when Zechs looked closely he saw fine lines that defined a rectangle in the steel, with a little terminal at the side. Hopefully they really were moving beneath one of the factories in the area. The other possible explanations for this all were making him uneasy.
They had crossed maybe two thirds of the cavern when suddenly a claxon started wailing somewhere behind the steel wall, the sound clearly audible through the ventilation openings.
"Damn it!" Noin shouted. "We must have tripped an infrared alarm or something!"
"We should get out of here!" Zechs grabbed her arm and turned to run back into the tunnels and hide there until they knew what would happen next, but when he looked at the dark entrances to the caves his heart skipped a beat.
Massive sliding doors were cutting off the exits, too fast for them to get through before they were locked. Nevertheless he kept running, saw Noin slightly in front of him, but when he looked at the doors and then the distance that they had to cover he knew that they had no chance.
They crashed against the metal barrier seconds after they had closed, panting heavily from the frantic sprint. Zechs leaned against the wall, trying to catch his breath again while keeping an eye on the ventilators. But nothing moved there, and after some moments the klaxon stopped again. Had the alert been switched off by someone? Or was it an automatic system that stopped once the intruders had been trapped?
"What now?" Noin asked, still a little breathless. She too was leaning with her back against the wall, her eyes almost closed. "Somebody should show up here rather quickly."
Zechs nodded. "We can't hide anywhere," he said after another searching glance, still cursing himself for being so careless. Security systems had to be expected in a place like this.
"I'll try that door." Noin pushed herself away from the wall and determinedly crossed the room. Zechs followed her, not willing to let her get too far away from him in case they had to fight. That she was not giving up was a relief to him, but then he should have expected it from her. She was too tough to let something like this discourage her.
When they crossed the room this time, nothing happened. No klaxons, no reaction of the sliding doors; a sure sign that the security system was aware of their presence in the cavern. Either that, or the sirens and the doors had been triggered by something other than them.
The door was plain, without a handle or a visible lock. Just a little keypad at its right side where codes could be entered, and where the override mechanism should be located. It all looked as if it were in perfect working condition. There even was a tiny green light right above the keyboard of the terminal.
They found out rather quickly that the light did not mean that the door was unlocked. Pressing the main button to open it did cause a reaction, but it was just a synthetic voice telling them to enter the last assigned code sequence.
"Do you have any idea what the code could be?" Noin asked, a hint of hope on her face as if she expected Zechs to really know it.
He shook his head. "We don't even know who owns this all."
"I know." She sighed softly. "I was just trying to be optimistic. Let's try the override then, that should not be a problem."
Getting off the latch really was not a problem; easy to unlock, the hinges well oiled. Whoever had designed this had not invested into inferior material, and had wanted the devices to last. It could only be of help that everything was in a good state still; they would not have to deal with corroded circuits and rusty switches.
But that would not make it any easier to trigger the mechanism, Zechs thought as he peered at the immense amount of wires that ran behind the panel. Every single one was insulated with a black material and had a small alphanumeric sequence printed on it. Easy to identify when the person building the override had a plan of the circuits, but otherwise impossible to trick.
"We won't get out of here that easily, will we?" Noin knelt next to him and stared at the cables too. Slowly she reached into the hole to finger one of the wires, then frowned. "Without a knife we can't even cut them open and short-circuit it all."
"Do you think that would work?" Surely they would be able to find a way to take off the insulating plastic, Zechs thought. But it would be a big effort, so he'd rather know whether it would be of any use.
"It worked with the old Leos when the starting mechanism was frozen."
"But you never tried it with a door."
Noin shook her head. "No. And I wouldn't know which wire to start with. I can't even see where they come from, that makes it a trial-and-error procedure. And with the forty plus wires we have in there it would take us years to find the right combination. If there is a right combination at all."
Zechs nodded; she was right, of course. The trigger could be any combination of two or more wires, that left them with countless possibilities unless they were tremendously lucky. And Zechs no longer believed in luck, had stopped believing the moment Treize had died.
"We will have to try something else," he said, trying to push the image of the exploding Tallgeese II away from his awareness. Right now he needed to concentrate on getting Noin out of here.
"Maybe this is a military base?" Noin suggested, standing up again and stepping to the panel. "We could try our old codes, they might work."
He stood up too and looked over her shoulder as she rapidly typed in a sequence on the keyboard. For a moment the green light went out, and Zechs just began to hope that the code had been correct when it came on again and the computer voice told them that the code had been incorrect.
Noin sighed. "Try yours," she said. "You were with the military longer than I was, your codes are newer."
"I wouldn't be so certain that this reacts to them anyway." But he nevertheless typed the last code he had ever received, only to be greeted by the computer voice again.
"White Fang codes maybe?" Something in Noin's voice told him that she was reaching for straws now.
Shaking his head, Zechs stared at the keypad. "They had no bases on Earth. I should have known about them." But even as he spoke the words he started to doubt them. Quinze had never completely trusted him, or rather, had never thought him entirely capable of leading the White Fang on his own. The white-haired man had always been in the background, but he had been the one to create the entire organization.
"Can you try it nevertheless?" Noin requested. "It's not as if we have anything else to do."
"You are right." Zechs closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating on the last code he had ever issued, right before leaving the Libra to fight with Heero Yuy.
Again the computer voice spoke. "Third code submission incorrect. The officer in charge has been informed and will escort you into the base. Until your identity and access clearance are confirmed, you are a prisoner of OZ."
Zechs stared at the terminal, unable to believe what he had just heard. An OZ base? Here? But he had never heard of this place before, there had never been any mention of it, and surely he would have known about a base. Wouldn't he?
He became aware of Noin looking at him with wide eyes and so much surprise showing on her face that it was practically a confirmation that she had not been aware of this place either.
Nevertheless he took a deep breath and turned towards her. "Did you know about this base?"
She shook her head slowly in denial. "Did you?"
"No. There was never any talk about a base here."
Noin quietly sat down on the floor as if she didn't quite trust her legs to support her, and leaned against the steel wall. "They would have told at least you, wouldn't they? You were one of the top officers after all..."
Sitting down as well to make talking easier, Zechs pondered this. He had held the third-highest position in OZ, that he had not been informed about a base was simply ridiculous. And Treize had never mentioned it, he was certain of that. Surely he would not have held something like that from Zechs, would he? There had never been secrets about the resources among the top officers, they all had known about what was available because they could all be trusted to keep silent about it.
Had Treize had a reason to suspect Zechs would pass on this information? Was that the reason why they had never spoken about it? Maybe he had only told Lady Une because he had not had enough faith in Zechs...
That thought hurt, perhaps because part of Zechs' mind knew that it was irrational while another tried to convince him that it might just be true. He had always known that Treize would have trusted him with his life, but the sake of OZ was another matter. Zechs had left the organization, had turned against its remnants in the end, and maybe Treize had seen it coming.
A hand settled on his shoulder, startling him back into awareness.
"Zechs? Are you alright?" Worry was plain in Noin's eyes when he looked at her.
He nodded. "Don't concern yourself about me."
She didn't seem entirely convinced, but thankfully did not press further for the moment. "Do you think Une knew about this?" she asked instead.
"We will have to ask," Zechs answered. Deep inside he hoped that she was not aware of the base either, because if anyone in OZ had known apart from Treize, it had to be her. But for their current situation it would be better if the woman knew, because then she would have the codes to get them out of here.
Noin ran a hand through her hair. "Those men must have known. If this really is an OZ base, there will be weapons and machinery. They were probably trying to get those things." She paused for a moment. "We should call Sally and tell her about this. If the Lady knows about the base, she'll also know the layout and where they can intercept the men."
And if not, they at least would be wary about the possible security systems, Zechs thought as he took his comm out of his pocket once more. The light still was blinking and not permanently red, so they should have at least more than one minute of connection time left. Enough to tell Sally about their discovery.
Sinking back on a chair and closing her eyes, Sally tried to savor the five minutes of rest that had suddenly offered themselves. All the teams were on their assigned posts and covered the cave exits. Nichols and his helicopters were hovering over the area and had already stopped two suspicious trucks in a very impressive maneuver. That they had been carrying the finest export potatoes the region could offer had not really managed to dampen his mood.
The backup from Brussels should arrive soon; Lady Une had assured Sally that she would send the best agents available, and enough of them to be prepared for almost any possible turn of the situation. So far everything was working smoothly, even though Sally looked forward to the end of this mission nevertheless. There were too many unknown factors about it still for her to be entirely comfortable; the number of the offenders, whether they were professionals or just some guys who had decided to deal in weapons, what kind of equipment they had. And while she was confident that the Preventers would be able to keep the situation under control, she still would feel better once it was all over.
And of course there was the matter of Noin and Zechs being lost in those caves. There was no reason to doubt that they could not handle a few hours in there, but still Sally felt guilty whenever she thought of them and that they had to wait until the main mission objective was completed. She would have to send a rescue team as soon as she could spare some people.
"Madam? I think you should look at this." Sally opened her eyes again and found that one of the few Preventers who were still here in their makeshift base was waving a piece of paper in front of her.
"What is wrong with it?" she asked, taking the sheet and glancing at the columns of numbers on it. "What is this?" The numbers did not really make sense to her at the moment.
"Lady Une sent this. A printout of the data from the apparatus that counts the passing vehicles at the road that leads up into the mountains."
Sally raised an eyebrow. "They count something like that?"
"Toll purposes, I guess." The agent, a young man with short auburn hair, shrugged. "We didn't even know that there was a counting station, but apparently they collect the data in Brussels."
Again Sally looked at the numbers, then gave him an expectant look. "You have figured this out by now, haven't you? Save me the time of poring over this and just tell me the main points please."
He nodded happily, then pointed at one of the columns. "These are the numbers of cars and trucks that passed the apparatus six years ago." His finger moved a little. "Five years. Four. Roughly the same numbers. It gets interesting in AC 194."
A surprised expression crossed Sally's face. "That's more than fifteen times the normal amount!" she said, earning a satisfied look from her subordinate. "Is there any explanation for that yet?"
"I've asked one of the villagers that are helping with building up the comm station, and he says that he never saw more traffic than usual. That's when the other columns become interesting."
Sally smiled. "Tell me." It was so good to have an efficient team that could work out things for themselves.
The young man pointed at another column. "That's a list of the amount of cars during each hour of the day. Check AC 193 first, there most cars pass in the morning and then during the late afternoon. Day trips into the mountains, according to the locals. They seem to get quite some tourists here who want to go wandering up there."
Raising a hand, Sally gestured for him to continue. "I'm not particularly interested in the tourism details."
"Ah, okay." The man cleared his throat. "Well, in AC 194 the frequency is highest between midnight and three in the morning. Almost all traffic happened in that time."
"And nobody noticed?" Sally asked, intrigued by now.
He shook his head. "There aren't any houses near the road, they all center along the river. They're too far away to notice an increase in the traffic if it happens in the night."
"But whoever went up that mountain would have to drive without lights or they would have noticed anyway," Sally commented, getting up from her seat. "Good work," she said, careful to put enough appreciation in her voice. "How did you notice it anyway?"
"Lady Une's office sent all files on the area that they have, and I had nothing else to do at the moment so I started looking at the statistics and..."
The sound of Sally's comm unit interrupted him. Taking the little device out, Sally saw Zechs' name and number on the display, and an icy wave shot through her. Had something happened to them?
"Water," she said, gesturing for her subordinate to wait. There were some other things she wanted to confirm, and she would have to find out his name so she could give him a commendation for his discoveries.
"Wind." Zechs sounded alright, and Sally breathed a sigh of relief. "I'll make this short. Fire and I are trapped in what seems to be the air condition system of an OZ base. We need the right codes to get out of here, and ours don't work."
An OZ base? Sally unconsciously looked at the sheet of paper in her hand.
All that traffic during the night...
"Are you and Fire alright?" she asked, mind working feverishly.
"Yes." A short pause, then Sally heard him curse. "My comm is no longer blinking, less than a minute left. Be careful, there will be security systems around. Over."
With that, the connection was shut down again.
Sally took a deep breath and tried to process this new bit of information. An OZ base up there in the mountains. She had never heard of a base here, but that didn't have to mean that there wasn't one. Especially when she considered those traffic numbers...
Damn it. Those guys had always been good at hiding their agendas.
She didn't even want to imagine the effort it had to have been to keep it all silent, but if she had learned anything over the years, then it was that the military could be extremely efficient if they wanted to be. And they had the resources to pull off something like that; the Alliance had already had considerable financial funds, and OZ had always been able to afford anything they wanted.
Looking up, she saw the young agent still expectantly waiting for her orders. "Send out a general warning to the whole team to watch out for top level security systems," she told him. "And then go and talk to some of the locals and find out whether they know anything about building activity in the mountains in the last three years."
"Yes Madam!" He sprinted off, and Sally watched until he had disappeared in the direction of the communications station before reaching for her laptop and typing in the commands to establish a connection to her superior.
It only took some moments until Lady Une appeared on the display, appearance immaculate as always. She was wearing glasses, Sally noticed, so she had probably been reading some printouts, that was the only reason for her to use those things.
"I didn't think you would report so soon," Une said, giving her a brief smile before returning to her professional air.
"We had some interesting developments." Sally watched as Une gave her an expectant look. "Did you know about an OZ base here?" she asked, searching the expression of the other woman for any signs that could give the answer away.
All that showed on Une's face was absolute surprise. For a full minute she did not say anything, until Sally began to worry for her.
"Are you okay, Une?" she asked concernedly. "I did not mean to startle you."
"There can't be a base. I would have known." There was a hint of doubt in Une's voice at this, though. "What makes you think so?"
"Zechs just contacted me and said that he and Noin got caught in the security system of a base. And we have some statistics here hinting that something big was being built or done in the mountains, not far from the area where Zechs and Noin probably are."
Une shook her head slowly, then ran a hand through her hair. "I have never heard of a base, and I was with OZ until the end. It's impossible that they planned and built this during the time when I was in space, it takes more than a few months to construct an entire base." She paused for a moment, taking a sip of water from a glass on her table. "Besides, I was the second highest officer there, and I took care of all of Treize's paperwork. I would have known," she repeated.
"I thought so too, and Zechs didn't sound as if he had known anything about it either." Sally was beginning to feel seriously puzzled by this. She had hoped this would be a neat mission without any surprises.
"It's impossible that neither Zechs nor I were told. There was no reason for that after all, Treize never had a reason to distrust us." Sally wondered a little about this display of solidarity, but chose not to comment on it. Everybody knew about the tension between Une and Zechs, even though it had decreased greatly since they were working together in the Preventers. Zechs' lack of caring about things probably had to do a lot with it, though.
"So you think there is no base?" Sally probed carefully.
"There cannot be." Une hesitated a little. "Unless... there were rumors about a top secret project, but nobody ever heard details. But... Sally, I will get back to you on this. I need to check some things."
"I will wait." Sally smiled warmly, wishing that she could tell Une that she would be home soon and that she loved her. Official communication lines were not suited for something like that, unfortunately.
Une smiled back. "I will contact you as soon as I have more information. But be careful. If OZ had anything to do with this, you must watch out."
Nodding, Sally closed the connection and started to lightly rub the bridge of her nose. This was getting bigger than she had ever imagined.
A cluster of blackbirds scattered from the muddy spot where they had been pulling worms out of the earth at the sound of the two approaching horses. One of the horses snorted when the birds took to the air right in front of it, but stayed calm when its rider patted the long brown neck soothingly. The birds circled in the air for a moment, unwilling to let go of their spot, and waited until the riders had passed before they settled down again and continued with their search of nourishment.
"You're making really good progress," Treize told his daughter proudly as he surveyed her stance. "Just remember to keep your heels down, it will be far easier to stay in the saddle then."
Mariemeia nodded, then adjusted her heels carefully in the stirrups. She really was becoming better at horseback riding, and Treize was sure that she enjoyed it, but he hadn't thought that it could be so hard to teach a small girl the right way of holding the reins. Still he loved spending time with her, show her all the things that Dekim Barton had deemed unnecessary for her to know.
Her grandfather had really brought her up with the goal of having a perfect marionette in his hands, Treize thought as he spurred his own horse to a slow trot that Mariemeia's pony could keep up with. She could memorize endless speeches and repeat them word by word, could sit still far longer than a child of her age should have to. But she had never even learned how to ride a bicycle, to climb trees or do other children things.
"Can we gallop a little, Father?" Mariemeia was looking up at him with an expectant expression on her face. "I need to practice."
"Only for practicing?" he asked, not making any move yet to increase the speed.
A thoughtful frown crossed her face, then she shook her head. "And because I like going fast."
This time Treize nodded, silently delighted at the happy smile she gave him. Sometimes she was far too likely to hide behind purposes and duties to get what she wanted. "You go first then. I want to see how you are doing." He slowed the pace of his horse slightly to let her overtake him, trusting his mare to easily catch up with her pony in case there were any problems.
"Slow down again when you pass the old birch trees," he told her, hoping that she would listen for once. Generally she was very obedient, but when it came to such things as riding or wearing raincoats she could be amazingly deaf.
"Yes, Father!" Mariemeia called as she urged the gray pony forward. Her short ponytail of red hair that peeked out from beneath her helmet bounced along with the moves of the horse. Soon her hair would be long enough to gather all the strands together; right now she could only get about half of it in a tail, the rest had to be tucked behind her ears. She had been rather firm on letting her hair grow after seeing Une, Relena and, most influential, Dorothy with their long manes. Treize had eventually decided that hairstyles were not part of his parental duties, and was leaving the issue to his niece. Mariemeia appeared rather content with the arrangement.
Treize let his mare run as well, enjoying the feeling of the powerful muscles moving beneath him. In front of him, Mariemeia leaned forward to make her pony go faster, not very successfully though. They would have to pick another horse for her once she got better at riding, Treize mused, but for now the good-natured and patient pony was matching her abilities rather well.
Of course Mariemeia showed no inclination of slowing down when she passed the trees, so he let his mare overtake her and then tugged at the reins to reduce the speed, gradually forcing her to slow as well.
"I must have overlooked the trees," she told him, an innocent look on her face that she had certainly learned from her cousin. "It's good that you were watching out for them, Father."
"Be more careful the next time then," Treize replied, shaking his head in loving exasperation. He suspected that he let her get away with too much sometimes, but he really didn't have the heart to restrict the girl. "Promise me?"
After considering this for a moment, Mariemeia nodded seriously. "I promise," she said in a solemn voice, and he knew that she wouldn't do it again. Promises were something she always honored.
"Thank you." Treize smiled at her warmly. Sometimes it amazed him to no end that he actually had a daughter, and that he could get along with her rather easily. Children had not really been one of his strengths before.
"You are welcome." The smile was returned as she stopped in front of the gate that led into the paddock surrounding the stables.
Leaning down and to the side, Treize reached to open the latch and let them through, careful not to let the other horses in the paddock escape through the gate. They had been searching for a runaway filly only yesterday, and he really didn't want to repeat the experience, even though Mariemeia had enjoyed the excitement.
They rode up to the stable doors and dismounted, Treize first so he could hold Mariemeia's horse steady. Patting the neck of her pony, she stood on her toetips to unbuckle the saddle, then handed it to the stable boy before taking the reins from Treize and leading the horse around a little to cool it off. Treize left his own mare in the care of the stable boy; trudging through the mud of the paddock wasn't something he particularly enjoyed most of the days, so he preferred to have other people do it. Stable boys were employed for reasons like that, after all.
"I will be up at the house," he told Mariemeia when she passed him on her next round. "You really did well today."
The small face wore a happy expression at the praise. "Do you have time to go riding again tomorrow?" she asked, holding her pony still for a moment so she could talk to him. "You could teach me how to jump over obstacles."
"We'll see about that." Sometimes she could be so incredibly eager to learn new things and to practice them that Treize had trouble keeping up with her. He hadn't planned to introduce her to obstacles in the next month, but when he thought about it he had to admit that she should be able to deal with them by now. And she sure showed every intention to do so.
Treize watched her a little longer, then deposited his helmet in the room where the saddles, bridles and other tack were stored, and walked along the small paved path that led to the main building. He was quite looking forward to a shower and more comfortable clothes than riding pants and boots could ever be. Peeling off the white gloves, he held them in one hand while he ran the other through his hair, trying to smooth the strands that had gotten all ruffled beneath the helmet. Yes, a shower would really be a good idea.
And maybe a short swim, Treize thought when he passed the pool with its inviting cool water. His niece had quite obviously had the same idea; or maybe she was just planning to catch some sun. Lounging in a canvas chair, Dorothy looked like a lazy cat that had found a conveniently warm spot. She'd only have to start purring for Treize to believe that she really had feline genes somewhere in her.
Dorothy had become a rather frequent guest at his estate ever since the war, and he did not mind at all. She was one of the few people who knew that he had survived, and Treize strongly suspected that he owed his survival to her, although she never had said anything about it. Whenever he asked, he received one of her mysterious smiles and a raised eyebrow before she would tell him that he should not think about those things. It did not really matter, though; he was happy about her company, and Mariemeia had really taken to her at their first meeting.
At the moment Dorothy was the official custodian of Mariemeia, which made it easier for Treize to have his daughter with him. There had not been any real problems in arranging it all; Dorothy was the only officially living relative of Mariemeia, so the old-established law firm of the Khushrenada family had had no trouble in arranging for transfer of custody from Une to her. Treize was planning to eventually make his survival known so Mariemeia could officially be his daughter, but the moment didn't seem right yet.
"Uncle Treize?" Dorothy was peeking at him across her sunglasses before she moved them up into her hair. "Was your ride pleasant?"
"Yes, thank you for asking." Treize passed her, hoping that she wasn't planning on making him keep her company right now. He really wanted that shower.
"Good..." A lazy stretch. "I was hoping that you would be back soon."
Treize raised an eyebrow. "I take it you have missed me?"
"Hmmm... of course. I was beginning to feel bored." Dorothy winked at him, then shook her head slightly. "But also because I have to show you something interesting."
"And what would that be?" he asked somewhat warily.
"That is something you will have to explain to me." Dorothy sat up and gestured towards the small laptop on the low table to her right. "I am certain you remember telling me to keep an eye on certain files in your old networks a while ago."
Nodding, Treize waited to see what she was getting at. She was rather direct for once, and Treize knew her well enough to be aware that it had to be important.
"I tagged them with alerts because I thought it would be easier to monitor them. Some of the Preventer agents really are wizards with computers, and they love explaining tricks to innocent girls like me." Dorothy smiled, making Treize wonder how anybody could possibly think of her as innocent. It was the last word he'd use to describe his niece.
"Surely you did not want to tell me that you have installed those alerts, did you?" Treize sat down on the foot end of the canvas chair, careful not to unbalance it, and looked at the monitor of the laptop that right now was exploding in the bright green and blue of a screensaver.
Dorothy shook her head gracefully. "Of course not. What I thought would interest you is that one of the alarms went off while you and Mariemeia were gone."
Treize froze at this. The files Dorothy had been tagging were the core data of the old OZ networks, with all the information on access codes, available resources and also the financial accounts. Whoever had the data contained in those files could use all that was still left of OZ, and that was a considerable amount, enough to start another war and come out as the winner, considering the current state of the Earth's defense system.
There was no way to completely get rid of those files, so Treize had appointed himself the guardian of the remnants of the organization that he had once been so proud of. Right after the war he had not been able to do so himself, so Dorothy had taken care to monitor the files and in emergency cases inform Lady Une.
"Uncle Treize?" Dorothy was looking at him curiously. "You are planning to do something about this, aren't you?"
Slowly he nodded. "Tell me which files they tried to access please." Whatever he did now depended on what had been disturbed, and who had done so.
Dorothy typed a short password, and the screensaver gave way to a file browser. "You will have to look for the information yourself," she told him, reclining back on her chair again. "I have many talents, but computer networks are not necessarily one of them."
He didn't say anything in response to this, instead he concentrated on looking at the files. It had been a while since Treize had done anything with the old network, but he found that it was all coming back to him rather quickly. Most of the data looked untouched, but anybody trying to access it would have had to have a very concrete idea of what he was trying to do. The security measures of OZ always had been the best, and even the Gundam pilots had hardly ever managed to get into the network, at least not into the more sensitive areas.
Once he was through with the technical briefs, Treize allowed himself a sigh of relief. Nobody had tried to access the data on Mobile Suits, and also the blueprints of the Gundams that OZ had managed to capture were untouched. The idea that anybody could have tried to build a second Epyon was disturbing him more than he cared to admit.
All the bank accounts were still there too; he hadn't really worried about those anyway. One of these days the money would be transferred to programs to repair the damages caused in the two wars. Treize had already made cautious inquiries about the different programs to decide where to direct the remaining OZ fortune. A large part would go to the Preventers, that he was sure of, but the rest would have to be distributed as well.
Treize quickly worked his way through the different sections until he came across the project listings. Almost everything was fine here, but there was a small irregularity in one of the files. Closing his eyes, Treize concentrated on remembering the procedure of bringing up the network protocol. He had only done it himself once or twice, usually one of the OZ computer experts had taken care of such things.
There it was. Leaning towards the screen slightly, Treize scanned the file names for anything recognizable. It puzzled him a little; those files were nothing but briefs and progress reports. But then he saw what project they belonged to, and couldn't help frowning.
He really hadn't thought that anybody would ever find out about that base.
The attempt to get the files had not been really successful, but whoever had looked for them had approximately known what to search for. Quickly Treize looked through the protocol to see who had fussed around in the network. And when he saw the IP number and matched name, his surprise couldn't have been greater.
Why would she be searching for something like this? He had never breathed a word about the base to her, no information whatsoever had crossed her desk. It had been a top secret project, nobody but him and some of the inner circle of the Romafeller Foundation had known about it, so why, and more importantly, how had she gotten to know?
A possibility presented itself, and Treize paused to think about it. If she had known, it would be possible that somebody had discovered the base. And if that base had been discovered, whoever had done so was in deep trouble now. It would make sense that the Preventers would be looking for information on it, even though it was strange that Une could do such a detailed inquiry. But maybe the project hadn't been as secret as he had always thought.
"Dorothy?" Treize's elbow nudged her knee lightly.
"Yes, uncle Treize?" came the response, accompanied by a quiet rustling as she moved into a different position.
"You wouldn't happen to have any contacts within the Preventers at the moment, would you?"
His niece looked at him inquiringly for a moment. "Maybe I do. Why are you asking?"
Treize turned further towards her. "I need to know whether there is an operation going on in the Pyrenees right now."
"And why would you want to know that?" She sounded quite intrigued, and tried to look at the screen of the laptop. Treize let her, knowing that the files wouldn't make sense to her.
"If there is a mission right now, I might have to do something about it."
That earned him two highly raised eyebrows and a look of total surprise, something very rare when it came to Dorothy. "I thought you did not want to get involved again."
"I may have to." Treize gave her a vaguely pleading look. "Can you please try to find out?"
Dorothy nodded slowly, then reached for the laptop. "I will have to make a few calls for that. Come back in ten minutes."
Considering himself dismissed, Treize stood up and headed for his room to have his shower.
The humming of the air condition system was the only noise at the moment, steady and almost comforting in its continuity. Zechs wondered where the energy was coming from; there had to be generators somewhere hidden beyond the walls that they could not pass. The computer terminal could maybe run on batteries, but never the ventilators.
It still puzzled him that there could be an entire base in front of them, a base neither he nor Noin had ever heard of. There was no reason for OZ not to make use of those resources; they would have needed them when the organization collapsed. Unless it really had been unknown to everybody.
But that was impossible. At least Treize would have had to have known, and probably Lady Une as well. Otherwise this couldn't be. Nobody would build a base, even if it was not complete, and pretend that it belonged to OZ without a really good reason. And considering that OZ had served as a target for the Romafeller troops, it would have been a stupid decision to try and use the name of OZ as a shield against them. It would have been like sending out invitations to attack.
"Zechs?" He looked up when Noin called out his name, and saw that she was still examining the door that would lead into the base. "Help me here please." She was lying on the ground and apparently trying to see through the small gap beneath the door.
He crossed the small distance between them and crouched down next to her on the floor. "What do you want me to do?" he asked, watching as she got her hand into the narrow gap with some difficulties.
"Try if you can get a grip on the door too, maybe we can tear it off the hinges." Noin maneuvered her other hand into a similar position as the first, and Zechs saw the muscles of her shoulders and upper arms tense beneath the tight jacket when she started pulling.
"I don't think my hands are small enough for this," he said, but took off his gloves nevertheless. It wasn't as if they had anything else to do, and Noin seemed to really think that they could get out of there like this. There was no need to dampen her enthusiasm.
"Just try in the middle, the gap is widest there." She shuffled to the side a little to give him enough room.
Nodding, Zechs did as she said, and indeed managed to get his hands into the crevice. The door was amazingly thin and probably wouldn't stand a chance against a serious attacker with the proper tools; maybe it would even be possible for Noin and him to get it open.
"Do you have a firm hold?" He could feel Noin's fingers brush against his as she adjusted her grip a little.
"Then pull, now!"
They strained to tear at the door, and for a moment Zechs really thought that they could do it when he felt the metal beneath his fingers dent slightly under their efforts. He leaned back to get better leverage, and the almost inaudible creaking from the hinges of the door was giving him the energy to keep it all up. Next to him he could hear Noin draw a sharp breath that sounded almost pained, but she didn't withdraw.
Zechs' hands were beginning to hurt, and the edges of the door were cutting his fingers, but he didn't care about it. They really had a chance to get out of here without Sally having to waste time and resources on them, and he was not going to let the opportunity pass easily. Noin seemed to think the same; her hands had to be as bad off as his own, but she was not giving up either. And the door was gradually moving, but only a millimeter at a time.
"Warning." The computer voice was talking at a sudden. "Attempts at damage detected. Connecting wall section to electricity network in five seconds."
He froze as the meaning of this sank in, then tried to pull at the door once more, but it was useless. They would need far more time than they had, according to the computer, and the last thing they could afford now was risking an electric shock. He thought about making Noin step back and continuing on his own, but that didn't make sense in his mind. She'd react badly if something happened to him, and even though he knew he wasn't worth it, he didn't want to cause her any more distress.
With some difficulties he removed his hands from the gap, but then he saw that Noin wasn't copying him yet. Instead she moved towards the middle of the door to get a better hold, and Zechs could see the metal move slowly as she pulled at it once more.
"Noin!" he shouted, trying to get her attention. "You have to get away from there!"
But she shook her head and kept tearing at the door. "I am almost through..." And the gap was truly getting larger. "Some more moments..."
"You don't have some more moments!" Zechs wrapped his arms around her waist and dragged her away, ignoring her protests and gasps.
They tumbled backwards together, and landed on the floor, a tangled heap of bodies and limbs. Zechs gasped when he hit the hard ground and tried to cushion Noin's fall a little, getting the air knocked out of him when she landed on his chest and stomach. For a moment they just lay there, then Noin carefully scrambled away and sat next to him on the ground.
"Are you okay?" she asked quietly.
Zechs nodded, still trying to get his breath back, and winced a little when he sat up. His back felt bruised, but it wasn't too bad. At least it didn't keep him from moving.
"This was foolish of me." Noin looked at him, her expression one of apology and contriteness. "I'm so sorry, Zechs, I should have pulled away too... "
"You were just trying to get out." His voice wasn't quite back to normal yet, but breathing was easier again. "Are you alright?" She didn't look hurt, but that didn't have to mean much.
"More or less, yes." She grimaced a little, then looked down at her hands and moved her fingers, and Zechs could see the raw spots where the edge of the door had left cuts. "I shouldn't try to hold anything fragile right now, though."
His own fingers hurt too, but they didn't look nearly as bad as Noin's; Zechs felt a pang of guilt when he thought that the wounds probably had been caused when he had forcefully dragged her away. The logical part of his mind told him that he had prevented greater harm from happening, but that didn't help to lessen the guilt at all.
Noin reached for her gloves that were lying on the floor next to her and put them on slowly, and Zechs saw her small winces when the soft material slid over the raw spots. She didn't make a sound though; surely she knew as well as he did that it was better to cover the wounds with the clean and smooth gloves than leaving them open where they could become dirty and infected. And Sally would be here soon to take care of her anyway.
If they could get out of the security system, that was.
That OZ had never hesitated to invest in security was something that Zechs knew very well, although usually he had been glad about it. The only successful assaults on bases had always had the backup of at least one Gundam, and without the Mobile Suits it would have been close to impossible. That fact had provided him with a source of comfort normally, because it meant that he didn't have to worry that those he cared about would get hurt.
Right now he wanted to curse the engineers for their thoroughness. They couldn't get back into the caves, and the wall in front of them had turned into an impossible barrier. And most likely there were some more enforcements and security systems around them that they hadn't discovered yet. The air condition was one of the prime goals of any assailants after all, so the barriers would be especially strong here.
As things looked, they would just have to wait until someone came and rescued them.
In fresh clothes that smelled of the lavender satchels the maid placed in the closet to ward off moths, Treize returned to the pool after the time Dorothy had requested. His hair was still slightly damp from the shower, but for once he did not care about it. Right now his mind was occupied with more urgent issues.
When he approached, he could see Dorothy holding her cell phone still, and judging her expression, she was in the middle of a very pleasant discussion that was amusing her to no end. But with Dorothy that didn't have to mean all that much; the slightly sardonic smile she wore now was practically her trademark. Treize knew just how well she could control her mien, had seen many examples of it over the years. When she had been a little girl, she'd been fleeing from him and Zechs after taking a picture of them while they had been kissing, blissfully unaware of her. On the way down from the terrace she had stumbled and scraped her knees badly during the fall down the stone steps. But when they had caught up with her, she had been sitting in the grass at the bottom of the steps, clutching her camera to her chest and still grinning madly while just looking at her knees had made Treize feel faint. The girl could gloat like there was no tomorrow.
Treize waited until Dorothy finished her call, politely staying at a distance that made it impossible to hear what she was saying. When she put down the phone, he came closer and gave her a questioning look.
"Well, Uncle Treize, there are some very interesting things going on at the moment," she commented, adjusting her sunglasses and reaching for her drink, a dark green liquid of which Treize didn't even start to speculate just what it might be.
"Interesting things?" he repeated as he took a seat on the chair next to her at her gesture to do so. "Would you care to specify that a little?"
Dorothy smiled slightly, stretching out her legs some more in the sun. "There is some excitement about a mission that Doctor Po is leading. The agent I have been talking to was so kind to tell me that she is getting massive reinforcements at the moment." The young woman raised an eyebrow. "Which reminds me that you owe me a favor. I will have to go out for dinner with that boy to keep him happy and informative. And he is so undistinguished..."
"My poor niece, you have my full sympathy," Treize commented dryly. "Why the backup? It's not like the Preventers to miscalculate the needed number of agents."
The comment earned him another smile. "I know that you have a very high opinion of Lady Une. But this time it seems that somebody has not done his or her homework." Dorothy took another sip from her drink, then put the glass back down on the table. "You were right, by the way. It all centers in the Pyrenees."
At hearing this, Treize couldn't help sighing. So they had indeed discovered the base near Andorra, or there wouldn't be such an uproar among the Preventers right now. He really wished that the OZ soldiers in the area would remember just what the old security systems had been like so they wouldn't do anything foolish, like trying to escape once they got trapped. Hopefully they had avoided getting caught so far, that would make things much easier.
"Does your friend already know why they have an emergency?" Treize asked, reaching for the pitcher of ice-cooled water that was placed discretely on the table and pouring himself a glass. He didn't trust Dorothy's green liquid; could be broccoli juice for all he knew, or milk with basil. She had some strange habits when it came to food.
Shaking her head, Dorothy watched as he took a sip of water before she spoke again. "Nothing substantial yet, they will be receiving their briefings on the way there. All he knew was that the basic mission was to catch some people who were trying to steal weapons from somewhere, but things went downhill from there."
This was slightly better news; there were weapons stored in the base, of course, but if those men had tried getting them, all that Lady Une's agents would have to do was pick them up and probably take them to the nearest hospital.
"So the situation is not too bad for the Preventers, is it?" he asked, drinking some more.
Dorothy shrugged. "Apart from what another acquaintance told me about Zechs Merquise and Lucrezia Noin being trapped in a security system, everything is fine."
A violent cough shook Treize when the water he had just been swallowing went down the wrong way as he took a sharp breath at the same time. His eyes were filling with tears at the effort of getting his breathing under control again.
"You did that on purpose," he gasped, still coughing and glaring at his niece as she innocently rose and patted his back.
"Ah, but why would I want to see you suffocate, Uncle Treize?"
Treize did not bother to answer the question; instead he proceeded to ask one of his own once the coughing had stopped. "What do you know about Zechs and Noin being trapped?"
Reclining back in her chair again, Dorothy looked at him for a long moment, apparently searching for something in his face, and eventually spoke. "They have been the first agents on that mission, and they got lost in a cave system there due to an unfortunate meeting with soldiers, mercenaries, dealers or whatever those men were. Milliard," she smiled a little as she put particular emphasis on the name, "and Miss Noin tried to escape, and wandered quite determinedly into what currently is thought to be the fringe security system of an unknown OZ base."
Raising a hand to his face, Treize rubbed the bridge of his nose firmly, a habit he had never truly managed to get rid of. How could they have gotten trapped? They shouldn't even have been able to find the base, especially not if they had come through the tunnels. All the engineers and architects who had designed the place had expected that natural labyrinth to be enough of a security mesh, and had also placed markings on the walls to keep people from coming too close. Why hadn't they taken the signs about dangerous passages, collapsed caves and toxic gases seriously? It didn't make sense.
And now they were trapped in the security system, one of the best that OZ had ever had... Treize tried not to think too hard about the comment of one engineer who had said that whoever got caught would have to sit still or face the consequences. Zechs would hardly wait until rescue arrived, and neither would Noin. They were just too self-sufficient usually, and wouldn't heed any warnings.
He frowned when the implications of that sank in. Those warnings were there for a reason after all, and the systems had to be taken seriously. What if Zechs had gotten hurt already? The Preventers would hardly be able to get them out of there, not without using something of the caliber of a Mobile Suit. And that was close to impossible in that specific location, if they were trapped in the security system of the air vents as Treize suspected. Half the mountain would have to be blasted away in order to just get to the place, and then there was the matter of the Gundanium-Neotitanium alloy that formed the walls. They'd need Wing Zero's rifle to cut through that.
Treize felt closer to cursing than ever before in his life. He'd thought that it would be enough to just keep an eye on the old properties and buildings, and that the security systems would take care of any unwelcome intruders with the intention to pillage resources and technology. Never had he expected that Preventers would be foolish enough to get caught there, especially not Zechs!
It had been such a surprise to find that Zechs had survived the war, even though Treize should have known better than to think him dead. When Dorothy had told him, on the day of Dekim Barton's attempt at attacking and conquering the Earth, he had hardly been able to believe it. That day had brought so many changes... the knowledge that the one he loved was still alive, and also that he had a daughter. It had become Treize's personal turning point, when he had started to place single persons above the world when it came to relative importance.
Mariemeia was safe now, and he was trying to do everything that was necessary to be a good father to her. But he also had responsibilities towards Zechs, duties that he had not fulfilled. The younger man would have had the right to know that his former lover was still alive, but the moment had never been right to tell him. First Treize had not known, then Zechs had left for Mars, and it had seemed so wrong to have a discussion of that importance over a video link. And when Zechs had returned again, one and a half years had passed since they had fought each other, and Treize had not known what to say anymore. So he had said nothing.
And now Zechs could die. No, Treize corrected himself. Not could. Would. Would die. The systems had never been designed to allow for survivors. Romafeller, or rather, his uncle, had seen no real need for prisoners in their bunker-like refuge.
Lady Une would not be able to get her agents out in time, no matter what she tried. She would need the codes. And he was the only person on Earth who knew them.
Treize had not shown himself in public ever since the war, first because he had simply been unable to do so due to his injuries, and later because he had been unwilling to risk causing a revolution just by his appearance. There were too many of his supporters around still, and there was no way to tell what they would do if they found out that he had survived. Before the war, he would have trusted himself to keep them under control and have them follow his orders, but now his main driving force was gone. Peace had been achieved. There was no need anymore for him to work towards it; now it was time for others to maintain the balance. Relena Peacecraft had risen to the challenge marvelously, as had Lady Une. But there no longer was a place for him in this world.
But when Treize had decided to stay back, he had not thought he would be in the situation that his continued invisibility could cost a life. Especially not the life of Zechs. No matter what they both had done in the war, Treize still cared about him, still loved him. He could not let him die.
There was no real decision to make. Unthinkable to remain silent and just watch, to remain neutral.
Some people would have to find out, there was no way to avoid it. But there was no need for the world to know. Lady Une and some other Preventers would be enough.
The artificial storm caused by the helicopter's rotor blades tore viciously through Sally's already ruffled hair as she stood at the fringe of the marked landing place. She could have waited inside the tent, but the air in there was getting stuffy. And she also didn't want to give her team the impression that she expected them to do all the work while she just sat around and waited to be told about progress. Sally figured that the term field leader definitely did not include comfortable offices; it sounded like trekking through swamps and climbing mountains. So she was trying to live up to her own expectations, and felt as if she were back with the freedom fighters in China.
Gradually the rotor slowed down, and Nichols emerged from the helicopter, clutching a wad of papers to his chest with one hand and carrying a heavy laptop in the other. He ducked to present a smaller target to the wind as he approached Sally, and shouted what she assumed was a greeting, although the words got completely lost against the background noise. Sally tried shouting something back, but gave up after the first sentence, grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and dragged him away from the landing place.
Behind the sheltering bulk of a truck loaded with equipment they stopped, shielded enough from the noise to be able to talk at a normal volume again.
"Any news from the road blocks?" Sally asked, impatiently watching as Nichols tried to get his paper sheets in some semblance of order again.
Her second in command shook his head. "Apart from some locals getting angry about the searches and car scans, nothing. But if anybody tries to smuggle something out of the area, we will catch him if he uses the roads."
Sally nodded. "Good. Did you have time to do those scans that I asked you to do?"
"Of course." Nichols sounded vaguely offended that she even dared ask. "Otherwise I'd be in the air still." He handed the stack of papers over to Sally without a word, apparently expecting her to hold them. "I think the result will interest you, unless Lady Une has given you the same information already."
He looked around for a platform to set down his laptop, and after some moments put the machine onto the backside bumper of the truck and started calling up some programs. When Sally stepped up to his side, the computer just started to build up an aerial photograph of the area that basically showed a mountain, some rocks, a little river and a road that twisted its way in serpentines along the one side of the mountain.
"There is nothing visible from the air," Sally commented after studying the image for a while.
Nichols turned his head to shoot her a brief glance. "That's the purpose of that base. If you had ever seen images of the OZ base that was in Toronto, you'd know the layout of our underground bases. The Alliance never knew about those, though, so I doubt you ever saw a plan of them."
Fighting the urge to kick his shins, Sally shook her head. "No, I haven't. But that's not the point. What did the scans show?"
Typing some commands, Nichols overlaid the photograph with a transparent diagram that extended across about two thirds of the original picture. Bright red dots marked some spots, and a yellow line confined a rectangle that covered about two thirds of the screen.
"That's the data we got from scanning for metal structures," he said, pointing at the lines. "The yellow one is the outline of the base, or at least the boundaries of metal structures."
"Why such a complete metal wall around it all?" Sally asked, frowning thoughtfully. "Normal bases never had those, the walls were normal concrete."
"To be honest, I have no idea." It was refreshing to hear that from Nichols for once. "My best guess would be that somebody was very intent on shielding this base. Look here," he said, shuffling through the stack of papers for a moment and then pulling out one sheet. "That's a detailed analysis of that metal."
"An alloy of Neotitanium and Gundanium?" Sally asked, still staring at the printout. "But that can't be. Even OZ couldn't have afforded that."
Nichols nodded in agreement. "That's why I said that I don't know what this all is about. There's a massive amount of Gundanium down there, more than enough to build some Gundams. I really wonder how the engineers got hold of that."
"Me too..." Giving him back the paper, Sally looked at the screen again, at the yellow line. A rather small base for normal OZ standards, but still, to think that it was all shielded with an alloy like that was almost frightening. How had OZ managed to obtain such amounts of the metals? Somebody would have noticed... but apparently nobody had known anything, or everybody had chosen to stay silent.
"Now look at the red spots." The comment got her mind back to the screen. Nichols looked at her expectantly, and when he was sure he had her attention, he continued. "Those are the places where we think that the entrances are. See that one?" He pointed at a spot in the upper right corner. "That's where I think that Lieutenant Noin and Colonel Merquise entered. They should be somewhere around there."
That Nichols used the old ranks of Noin and Zechs instead of the Preventer titles didn't pass unnoticed. Sometimes Sally wondered whether the apparently still rather intact OZ structures within the Preventers would present a problem eventually. But for the moment it worked out; people tended to obey their former commanding officers, so Lady Une had no problems in leading them all. Still Sally couldn't deny that it irked her sometimes that she was seen as something of an outsider because she had been a soldier of the Alliance.
"What makes you think that they are caught there?" Sally asked. For her, there was no indication that the two lost agents were in the spot Nichols believed them to be. "All we know is that they are in an air condition vent, there was no mention of a gate or anything."
She smiled a little when she saw Nichols' expression turn unsure, but he caught himself again rather quickly. "It's the only entrance that is anywhere near the caves. And it's impossible to get into a base through any other openings apart from the gates."
Sally couldn't help laughing, which earned her a puzzled look from her second in command. "Believe me, I've broken into OZ bases more than once, and never used the entries. Do you really think that any rebel groups would have been so stupid and tried to get in where most guards are?"
Nichols seemed somewhat offended. "The security always was the best," he said.
"I don't deny that," she replied, making a dismissive gesture. "But there are ways into bases apart from the gates, I know that from first hand experience." She fixed Nichols with a firm look. "So we won't ignore Zechs' words, and we'll work with the assumption that he and Noin are in the air duct openings. Where would that be on your map?"
"One moment..." Nichols typed some more commands and overlaid the current graphic by some more lines, but deleted them almost at once again. "We don't have accurate scans of the base here, but I think it might be quite similar to some of the other ones. So if we apply the layout of the air condition... " He typed some more. "Here."
A new bunch of lines had appeared on the screen, blue ones this time. They criss-crossed most of the area within the yellow rectangle that signified the base, and broke through the yellow lines in some places. Nichols pointed at one of them, near the entrance he had indicated before.
"That would be the closest one."
Looking at it, Sally nodded. "They'll be there. I am certain. Can you do some scans for life signs in the area?"
"Second-guessing yourself, Madam?"
Sally shot him a quick hard glance. "It is never wrong to confirm things, even if you are absolutely certain about them." At least it wasn't wrong now that she had all the resources necessary and didn't have to worry about wasting a helicopter that could do more useful work in other places. One of the advantages of doing work for the government again.
"We'll be scanning for them then." Nichols closed the laptop again and picked the machine up, handed his stack of papers to Sally, and left for the helicopter without any other words.
Not waiting for the machine to take off, Sally turned around to check the comm again. Hopefully Une had found some information about the base; and even if she hadn't, Sally still was looking forward to some much-needed moments with her lover.
Zechs was staring at the display of his watch, where the seconds were dripping away one by one in a rhythm that would never be disturbed. It had a soothing regularity about it all, this flux of time that would keep continuing without any regards to what would happen. Watches were something that had always calmed him; when he had been a little boy unable to sleep, he had stared at the fluorescent hands of the alarm clock on his night table until his eyes had fallen shut. At the academy he had done the same with the glowing red numbers of the digital clock, though the one he had possessed in his childhood had been preferable by far.
In his mind he was calculating the time they had been here. They had entered the cave two hours before Sally had been supposed to pick them up again, and that had been almost five hours ago. Seven hours in here, in those small confined spaces. But still he felt lost, lost in a space too wide for him to see the boundaries, and with no landmarks to help with orientation. And this feeling of being lost had lasted much longer than a mere seven hours. Sometimes it seemed to him as if it had been there for all his life. And he feared that it would never go away again. There had been times when he had been un-lost, when he had been able to find his way. But those were irrevocably gone.
He looked up when Noin passed his sitting spot on the floor in her pacing, studied her face for signs of panic and discomfort. But so far she was doing well, although she had been walking along the walls for almost an hour now. Zechs figured that if she felt like she had to get rid of something, walking was always better than screaming or panicking. He was grateful to her that she did not force him to deal with having to soothe her, because he felt unable to perform such human gestures. They had never been his forte, not before and certainly not now.
Five hours; surely Sally's team was in full action by now. They had to have caught at least the soldiers and confiscated the weapons or whatever else they had been trying to smuggle out of the area. By now Zechs was practically convinced that they had been after the weapons in the base, but there was no chance that they would have gotten in there. Maybe they had been trapped as well, then Sally would only have to collect them.
It bothered him still that he had let those men get away, even though he knew that there had not really been a chance for him to stop them. Still, if he had been paying more attention to their surroundings, maybe things could have been different, and Sally would not have to devote so many agents to correcting their mistakes. He would have to apologize when he saw Sally again.
Once more he pondered the mystery of this base. It was just so strange that nobody had ever heard about it, and that there had not been any official documents on it. If there had been rumors, nobody had spoken to Zechs about them, but he had not really had much contact to gossipers. Usually his unofficial information had come from either Noin or Treize, but neither had mentioned this base. Noin very obviously hadn't known, and Treize had remained silent. If he had known at all, Zechs thought. But it was impossible that the leader of OZ wouldn't have been aware of a base, was it? That just did not make sense at all. No, it really seemed as if Treize had decided not to trust him with this bit of information.
And it hurt to think so.
They had been close for so long, friends and, later, also lovers, that Zechs had believed they could talk about anything, that there was no need for secrets. But he had been guilty of keeping things to himself too. Relena first and foremost, to protect the girl from being drawn into his world of destruction and bloodshed. He wasn't sure if it would have made a difference if Treize would have known about her, but he had not wanted to take any risks at all with her. And maybe Treize had been doing the same in this case. And since they had been enemies in the end, Treize would have been right.
The beeping of his comm prevented Zechs from following this line of thought once more. Quickly he reached for it and answered the call just when Noin had come to stand at his side to listen to the talk.
"Wind," he said, hoping that whoever called would be quick about it.
"Water. Are you two alright?" Sally sounded quite matter-of-factly, and she was talking rather quickly, a relief for Zechs.
"Yes. Why the call?"
"We will need at least five to seven more hours to reach you, it could be even longer."
"Acknowledged." Zechs cast a quick glance at Noin, but she seemed not overly disturbed by this. "Call us again in twelve hours if it takes longer."
"Understood, over and out." The connection was closed once more, and Zechs pocketed the comm again.
Noin frowned slightly as he looked up at her. "They must have encountered difficulties," she commented. "Surely they just had to set priorities, and Sally knows that we are fine."
Zechs nodded, watching as Noin settled down next to him, leaning against the wall too. Somehow he was glad about her closeness, it was comforting in a way he could not quite name. Not like when he had been with his parents, or his lover. But having Noin at his side had always felt good, during the lonely days at the Academy, and also now.
"Do you remember when we got locked in that hangar by accident?" she suddenly said, and when Zechs glanced at her, he saw that her eyes were closed and that she wore an almost dreamy expression.
He couldn't help smiling. "How could I forget that?" They had been preparing for an exam, and had sneaked into one of the hangars at Lake Victoria to study the vernier adjustments of the Aries suits. None of the mechanics had seen them, but they had gotten locked in when the hangar had been closed for the night, and they had been forced to wait until the morning crew arrived.
"I don't think I have ever been so scared again as I was back then." The corners of Noin's mouth curled upwards too. "But in some way it was fun."
"It was the first time that I sat in a mobile suit cockpit," Zechs mused. They had found an open Aries, and he had climbed up into the cockpit. For some minutes he had been able to indulge in the fantasy of flying; now that he thought back of it, he remembered the excitement he had felt then.
Noin opened her eyes again and looked at him. "I was so worried that the hatch would not open again and that I'd be completely alone." She smiled softly once more. "When you came back, I was so relieved I just wanted to hug you."
Zechs raised an eyebrow. "You didn't do it though."
She laughed softly, shaking her head. "I was afraid I'd get wrinkles on your uniform or something. Silly, I know..." A wistful look crossed her face, as if she had touched a memory that she would rather have avoided. "Do you wonder sometimes about lost chances?" she asked, her voice serious and almost sad.
Lost chances... Zechs suddenly had to fight down tears that were threatening to fill his eyes. There were too many missed opportunities in his life, times when he had taken the wrong way. But he only knew it now, had not known when he had made the decisions. And each of those errors hurt, and some hurt more than others.
"Yes," he said slowly. "I do."
A soft sigh came from Noin. "Me too. I often wish I could go back and change some of the things I did. Or did not when I should have done them."
Nodding slightly, Zechs closed his eyes, tried to imagine what would have happened if he had not joined the White Fang, if he had not turned his back on Treize. But there was no point in thinking about it; the past could not be changed. Nobody could do that.
Taking a deep breath, Treize closed his eyes and mentally went through the words he would have to say. This whole thing was making him more nervous than any speech he had ever made in front of the entire Romafeller, even more nervous than the times when the entire world had been listening to him. To think that he was feeling like this when all he had to do was make a simple call was ridiculous.
He hesitated a little longer, then he determinedly reached for the comm unit on his desk, dialed a number and waited. The line beeped once, then twice, and he just began wondering whether he should try again later when the connection was established.
A moment later Lady Une's face appeared on the screen, her expression somewhat annoyed until she really looked at her comm. Treize could practically see her freeze when she recognized him, and sighed inwardly. He had known that it would not be easy.
"Lady, it is a pleasure to see you again," he said, not quite sure about how to start this. The lines he had rehearsed before were gone out of some reason, so he had to improvise. That Lady Une was still staring at him without even blinking was not making things easier at all, quite the opposite. It was positively unnerving.
"Y-Your Excellency..." she finally managed, her voice shakier than he could ever remember hearing it before. When Une did not say anything else, Treize figured that she was waiting for a confirmation from his side.
"It is me, Lady," he told her carefully. "Please, don't be upset."
"But... Your Excellency, you are alive..." She was moving again, at least a little. One hand was raised to her temple as if she had wanted to adjust glasses that were not there anymore. With her hair down and her glasses gone she looked a little strange to him; it reminded him of her weak personality, the one he had not managed to get along with.
"That is right, yes." Treize smiled at her, genuinely feeling happy about being able to speak with her again. It had been more than a year since they had talked via a comm for the last time, and before that she had been lying in a coma. He had worried about her then, but he should have known that it would take more than that to stop her.
Une seemed to get a better grip on herself. "How is this possible?" she asked, eyes still wide, but the shocked expression was more or less gone.
"I will be glad to explain it to you, Lady, when I can talk to you personally." He began feeling more at ease with this talk, now that Une had apparently gotten over the initial surprise. She seemed to be quite willing to just accept his survival.
"Of course, Sir." She sounded like she was forcing herself to take even breaths. "But, Your Excellency, why are you calling me? Not that I don't appreciate it, of course," she hurried to assure him. "I am so glad that you are alive..."
Treize couldn't help feeling amused about her flusteredness. It had always been a rare sight to see Une unsure about something; usually she had had an admirable self-control. But this was hardly a normal situation for either of them, so he probably should be feeling sorry about shocking her like that. It was just so hard not to appreciate the fact that she could be puzzled.
"My dear Lady, I will be glad to answer all your questions," Treize assured her. He truly felt like he owed her an explanation about his survival, and why he had not contacted her. And Zechs deserved the same, if not more. Une was a dear friend, but Zechs was his lover. Had been his lover, Treize corrected himself with a soft sigh. He could not know how things between them were now before he would have talked to Zechs.
"Thank you." Une looked at something to her left side suddenly, and he saw her gesturing for somebody to go away. "I am sorry, one of the Preventer agents was coming in," she explained when she saw his questioning look.
He nodded in acknowledgement. "I appreciate that you did not let them see that you are talking to me. For the moment I prefer to keep people from finding out that I am alive if possible." He hoped that for now she would not want an explanation; it would take a longer time to make her see his reasons, and right now he did not have that time. Besides, he really did not wish to have that discussion with her over a comm unit.
"I understand." Une bowed her head slightly, and some strands of hair slid into her face. Quickly she reached up to tuck them behind her ears again, making Treize wonder if she missed her braids. She looked younger like this, and also, he had to admit, prettier. It was just that if he pictured her in his mind, he still saw her with her glasses and plaited hair.
"Lady, I am calling you for a particular reason," he began carefully, uncertain about how she would take it that he was not speaking to her because he had wanted her to know about him, but because there was another cause. "I have heard that the Preventers are involved in a mission in the Pyrenees that is turning out problematic?"
The young woman nodded. "You are right, and I won't ask how you know about it," she said with a tiny smile that disappeared again almost immediately and gave way to a concentrated expression. Still it surprised Treize a bit; he could not remember ever seeing her smile before. "But, Your Excellency, what does that have to do with your call?"
Treize hesitated for a moment, trying to think of how to explain this best without giving away too much. Une had said already that she would not question him about his knowledge about the mission, but that did not mean that she would not wonder how he had gotten to know about so many facts.
"Your agents have discovered a base near Andorra that belonged to OZ," he said eventually, and saw Une nod slightly in confirmation. "And two of your agents are trapped there."
Une sighed softly. "I suppose you also know that the ones who are caught there are Zechs Marquise and Lucrezia Noin." She paused for a second. "They are both fine, Your Excellency. Their team leader has just spoken with them to confirm their condition."
Closing his eyes for a moment, Treize inwardly breathed a sigh of relief for that bit of news. "Thank you, Lady. I am glad to hear that." He looked at her again. "Lady, you will not be successful if you try to force your way into this base. It was designed to make something like that impossible."
"I see," she acknowledged. "But we have no other way to get them out of there."
He took a deep breath. "Now you do, Lady."
"What do you mean?" she asked, clearly confused.
"That base was a secret project. I have known about it, and I still have the access codes to the systems," Treize explained quietly. He did not feel overly good to tell her about it, though not because he had not been allowed to do so before. It was just that maybe he should have spoken to her before, should not have waited until it became necessary. Une could have been trusted.
Une looked shocked for a moment, as if she could not quite believe what she was hearing. Treize couldn't fault her for it, he would have been surprised too if he had been in her situation. Once he saw her personally, he would have to explain to her why she had never been informed about the base. He had wanted at least his top officers to be aware of the building, but the Romafeller Foundation had decided against it. And at that time Treize had not been in a position to openly oppose Duke Dermail yet. And when his uncle had lost his life, there had not been an opportunity anymore to inform them all.
"Your Excellency, can you give me those codes?" she asked, urgency plain in her voice.
"That would not be of much use unfortunately. The computers use a voice verification system, so you will need my voice speaking my code." He had not been happy when this security system had been chosen, but the Romafeller core had outvoted him on the matter. They had been strictly against retina scans; Treize suspected that they had been too lazy to take off their glasses every time they wanted to access a computer or a restricted area.
On the screen, Une once more ran a hand through her hair that looked rather tousled by now. "I don't think that we can transmit your voice directly to a comm at the location," she said slowly. "There are disturbances when I speak to the team there over the normal communication frequencies, and agents Marquise and Noin are inside a cave."
"You are right, the signal would be too weak." He hesitated a little, trying to find the right words. "Lady... if you could arrange for transport to that base, I could transmit the codes directly."
A thoughtful expression settled on Une's face. "That depends on where you are right now."
"My estate near Kiev."
"I don't have any agents stationed in or near Ukraine at the moment," Une told him. "And I assume you prefer not to travel by commercial flight." Treize nodded at this; he could not risk discovery and the subsequent delay right now. It were moments like this when he really missed the old days when he had always had an OZ jet at his disposal. Traveling had been so much smoother and easier.
"Surely there must be another solution, Lady Une," he said, trying to sound more hopeful than he really felt.
"There might be one." Une seemed to ponder something, judging the slightly absent look on her face. "The Preventers are testing some plane models right now to find the appropriate one for us. We have received a new high-speed shuttle today that has to be tested still."
"Do you think that this test could be combined with a quick flight to Kiev and from there to Andorra?" Treize asked, a soft smile settling on his face.
Une smiled back, amazing him once more. She really had gone through some profound changes since he had seen her the last time.
"I believe that would be possible, Your Excellency," she answered, then looked down at her watch. "I can be at the military airport south of Kiev in two hours. Does that give you enough time?"
"That will be sufficient, Lady," Treize told her. It was such a relief to see that she still was as competent as before. Something nudged his mind. "You will be flying yourself?"
She nodded firmly. "I would not delegate this to one of my agents, Your Excellency." Her expression softened. "Besides, I need to confirm with my own eyes that this is really you."
Treize blinked a little at this. His dear Lady had definitely turned more communicative.
"I am very grateful that you will do this," he thanked her warmly. "And I am looking forward to seeing you too."
"In two hours I will be there," she repeated, probably to remind him of it once more. "Goodbye until then."
The screen went black as she closed the connection, leaving Treize to wonder just what she had done during the last one and a half years. The changes about her were evident, and though he could not say yet whether they had been for better or worse, the general impression he got from her was good.
Standing up from his chair, he left his study to prepare for the trip, and to tell Mariemeia that he would be gone for one or two days. Hopefully she would understand that he had to go, though he doubted he had to worry about that. She could be very reasonable about such things. The more difficult issue would be convincing Dorothy that she would have to take care of his daughter for the time he was gone. Treize knew with absolute certainty that his niece liked Mariemeia, but still she insisted on making it difficult for him every time.
Maybe he would be lucky for once. He could always hope for it.
"Colonel Po! Urgent call from headquarters for you please!"
Quickly swallowing the last bite of her sandwich and brushing the crumbs off her uniform, Sally headed for the comm unit. The agent who had called her, a young woman with brown hair and green eyes whom Sally really could not recall having seen before, was looking at her nervously. She had to be new, Sally thought as she sat down in front of the monitor and saw that Une herself was calling. The Preventers' leader occasionally tended to make some agents nervous, especially those who had been on opposite sides with her before.
"Lady," Sally said as a greeting, adding a silent 'Hi love, miss you' with her eyes. She really wanted to get back; this mission was interesting, she couldn't deny that, but still it was not her normal area of expertise. And when she was honest, she had to grudgingly admit that Nichols could probably have handled it by himself.
"Has there been progress in your mission?" Une asked without any preambles, making Sally wonder a little. Was there something wrong? The other woman did look shaken, Sally noticed; her hair was all mussed, and her cheeks paler than usual. Was she falling ill? But she had been alright when Sally had left the previous day...
"We have located agents Fire and Wind," Sally said mechanically, still trying to find out whether there were signs of sickness about Une. Apart from her pallor she looked alright, though. Maybe she was just overworked and stressed; Sally made a mental note to send her on sick leave for one or two days if that suspicion was confirmed once she got back to Brussels.
Une nodded once. "And the men you were searching for?"
"No traces yet," Sally admitted. "Nichols has been leading that part of the operation, he is still in the air and looking for signs of them."
Another nod, as brief as the first. "Good. He can be trusted to do his work." Une sounded matter-of-factly, but still Sally was getting the impression that she was thinking about something entirely different. There was something about her expression that was positively unnerving.
"He has been very helpful so far," Sally commented, trying not to think too hard about his attitude for the moment.
There was no reaction on that. Une was just looking at the screen, giving Sally the feeling that the other woman was seeing right through her. This definitely was not alright; something was going on, and it made Sally uneasy. It was hard to unsettle Une, so whatever had happened had to be big. And apparently it was nothing that could be discussed over a normal comm link.
"Lady? Are you not feeling well?" Sally finally asked, trying to sound like merely a concerned doctor. She had no problem with other people knowing about her relationship with Une, but it was not a good idea to make it too public. In their job, things like that could only too easily turn into a liability, and they could not risk that. Private life and work had to be kept apart.
"I am alright, thank you." Une reached for something off-screen, and after a moment Sally saw her hold a glass of water and take a sip. Brown eyes closed while she drank, and met Sally's gaze again when she had put the glass aside. "Do not concern yourself about me."
"If I may give you a medical advice, Lady," Sally said carefully, "then you should take the afternoon off and rest." That would really be the best; she knew that the other woman was chronically overworked. And rest would not do any harm.
But Une shook her head. "That is impossible. I am testing the Lockheed shuttle in ten minutes."
Sally could not manage to hide her surprise at that. "Isn't that the duty of the pilots?"
"It is my duty to know what we are paying for." Une put up a determined look. "And I am more than qualified for this." Her expression softened a little. "You don't have to worry. I know what I am doing."
"Yes, Lady," Sally murmured, a little unhappy about it all. But she knew that her lover was right about her abilities. The Preventers probably had hardly any pilots who were more skilled than her, apart from Zechs and Noin.
"There is something else we have to talk about." Running a hand through her hair, Une managed to smooth her mane a little. "I need a helicopter at the airport north from you in five hours."
Sally raised her eyebrows. "Why that?"
"I will be bringing additional backup with me."
"You personally? And what backup? We already have more than enough agents here." Frowning in confusion, Sally tried to make sense of this. Une coming here was a Good Thing, but it also was highly uncommon. Something was going on here, if the other woman was first taking out a test jet and then involving herself personally in a more or less standard mission.
Une gave her a serious look. "Sally, you must not mention anything about that backup. And I need a pilot you really trust to stay silent, preferably from OZ. Maybe Nichols will be available by the time I arrive, or you can come yourself."
Nodding, Sally tried to read more from Une's face, but she couldn't see anything there but the signs of shock and stress she had noticed before.
"I will try to pick you up myself," she answered with a small smile. "No need to involve Nichols in this." And she really preferred to keep him at a safe distance from Une; he was far too fond of her lover for Sally's taste. She couldn't fault him for his taste, but it bothered her to see him obeying anything Une ordered and getting so enthusiastic about it all.
"Thank you." There was a hint of relief in Une's voice, making Sally wonder even more. Just what sort of backup was this going to be?
A little commotion at her left made Sally look to the side, and she saw one of her agents gesture wildly towards her. "Can you wait for a moment?" she asked Une, and when the other woman nodded, she hurriedly went to join the man. It was the one who had pointed out the street use frequencies, she noticed.
He looked more agitated than he had been back there, though this time he was not waving wads of paper in her face.
"Madam, Lieutenant Nichols has captured the men we were looking for!" he told her excitedly. "He just called."
"That's great news," Sally commented, smiling at the exuberance. "Tell him to bring them here so we can deal with them. Did he say anything about problems?"
The young man shook his head. "No madam. All he told me was that he had seized them and that he is waiting for your orders now."
Nichols waiting for her orders... she'd have to make this day in her calendar. "Well, as I said, I want him to take them here and then store them somewhere. Tell him that please."
Saluting, the agent sprinted off, leaving Sally to wonder about the energy he could still show after this day that already was turning too long. It sometimes was amazing to her to see the young ones, fledgling agents who had not been in the wars. So full of idealism still, their souls free of the bruises the older agents carried. She really hoped that the young ones would be able to keep their spirit, but she was realist enough to know that it would not last forever. Sooner or later they would realize just what it meant to fight for peace.
Shaking her head slightly, she returned to the comm unit and gave Une an apologetic smile. "Sorry to leave you waiting, but I have good news. We got the men we were after."
A satisfied look crossed Une's face. "Very good. Keep them somewhere safe, I will question them personally." The glint in the other woman's eyes was almost enough to make Sally feel sorry for those men; when Une put her mind to questioning suspects, she could be frighteningly efficient. It was almost as if the old OZ colonel were showing through, although Sally knew very well that the Une from the past could not be compared to the woman she now was. But it could not be denied that she knew how to get information, and how to get it fast.
"I will keep them ready for you," Sally assured her. "And I will have that helicopter for you too."
"Thank you," Une said once more. "Over and out."
The connection closed, and Sally glanced at her watch. Five hours, then she'd see her lover again and also find out what the secret of this mysterious backup was.
Slowly Zechs stretched his legs out in front of him when keeping them drawn up to his chest was beginning to hurt. He had been sitting in similar positions in Mobile Suits, and had not had problems there even after hours of not moving at all, but the seats there had been designed for at least some measure of comfort. Most pilots had complained about them being too hard and uncomfortable, but right now they seemed heavenly to Zechs compared to the concrete floor he was sitting on.
He was beginning to feel cold; the air condition system was constantly showering them with a cool breeze that had been pleasant during the first twenty minutes. But now, after several hours in there, the cold torrent had found its way into his clothes and was giving him chills despite the warm uniforms. Noin didn't seem to suffer from the same problem, but she had resumed her walking again almost an hour ago. Her blood circulation had to be better at the moment than his own, Zechs reflected matter-of-factly; she'd stay warm, but she also was burning up her energy with it and would be the first one to be exhausted, hungry and thirsty.
That was another problem that bothered him. Sally had estimated that her team would need five to seven hours to get to them, and Zechs knew that the assumption was a rather optimistic one. They would most likely be stuck here for a day, if not more. Hunger would not be a problem, but dehydration could become one if they were stuck here for more than one or two days. They wouldn't be able to last for more than three or four days here. And there was no guarantee that Sally could trick the security system within that time period.
Noin would eventually realize that too, he thought, sighing inwardly. She was no fool, and she knew very well just how thorough security systems were. Thinking of what her reaction would be made Zechs uneasy; he didn't think that he could really calm her if she happened to panic. Not that he expected it from her, but he couldn't rule it out either.
If only they hadn't followed that draught, then they wouldn't be here now. He shouldn't have told Noin about it, should have stopped her before she got too enthusiastic about the possibility. It was hard for him to understand now just why he had not done anything to prevent her from entering unknown tunnels. But it had happened, and now they were facing the consequences. And that alone was making him feel miserable. If it had been him alone, that wouldn't have mattered so much. He wasn't needed anymore. But Noin was important, she had goals she still needed to achieve. Hopefully Sally would come in time so her life would not be wasted down here.
The inability to do anything to improve their situation was nagging at his mind. There was nothing that Zechs could do to change things in the least. Apart from getting himself killed by walking into the live wall and getting electrocuted, but that would not bring any improvement. If they had suffered from air shortage, it would have made sense, but air was the only thing they had in masses right now.
He frowned at himself for those thoughts. Not very productive, the way he was thinking, but he could not help it at all. It was just a reaction to what was happening. Maybe he was the one who would panic, and not Noin... but he could not do that to her. No, he had to stay strong and support her through this. Even though she did not need his support at all, she was tough enough to stand this through on her own, without what little backup he could provide. Noin had always been the stronger of them, she had never given up her ideals, had always had a goal when he had been adrift in life without anything left to achieve.
It felt strange for Zechs to be left alone with his thoughts for once, without anything to concentrate on. Usually there was work, or there was improving Tallgeese III. But here he could not do anything to distract himself from thinking about so much that he had tried to forget. But forgetting had never really been possible, and now the memories were invading again.
Zechs wished that Noin would maybe try to draw him into a conversation again to keep his mind occupied with other things. But he had brushed off all her earlier attempts after some moments, so there was no reason for her to do it again. He regretted his unresponsiveness now; the silence was surrounding everything, and it was becoming oppressing. And nothing kept back the memories.
Perhaps it would have been best if he had died in the explosion of the Libra, then he could not have dragged Noin into this much trouble. It would not have made a difference if he had died then; the Gundams could have stopped Mariemeia's army without him, and there were more than enough Preventer agents who could have taken the missions he had worked on ever since he had joined. But until the first Eve war he had had a purpose, and if it had just been to present a counterpart to Treize.
And he had not even managed to do that right. He should have accepted the challenge to a duel, then they both would not have had to fight with substitute enemies who had no place in their fight. Yes, he should have accepted, and the worthier would have won. A trial by ordeal, just like the fights of all the knights whose stories Treize had read to him when they had been mere children. The worthy would win, because God would be on his side.
Treize would have won that battle. By refusing to face him, Zechs had killed him. No matter that it had been Treize who had launched himself at Altron's beam saber. That fight had been a substitute for the one that should have been fought, for the one that would have been between him and Zechs.
If it had really been necessary for one of them to die, it should have been him, Zechs was convinced of that. He heard of little breakdowns in peace every day; nothing too serious, but it could not be ignored either. Complete peace still was so far away. But there were people who could make a difference. People like Relena, who was doing all that she could to maintain the idea of pacifism. Treize would be needed in this world, with all the influence and knowledge he had held. But that was impossible now, impossible because one duel had been refused.
At least Relena was here, and Zechs was glad about that. She had survived, even though he had done nothing to protect her during the final battles. But she was strong, and nothing could get to her this easily. It was good that she had resurrected the Sank monarchy; with her strong beliefs and her ideals she was perfect as the leader of a pacifist nation. She had offered the throne to Zechs when he had returned after being lost for more than a year, and he had declined. There was nothing he could give the nation by leading it, because as a warrior he felt out of place there. Sank as his home had been lost with the attack of the Alliance, when he had accepted to become Zechs Marquise and leave Milliard Peacecraft behind.
The dark stain that he was in the country's peaceful history would perhaps be deleted now, Zechs thought after another glance at his watch. Drawing his legs up again, he tried to keep his body warmth from seeping into the surrounding cool air. Maybe he should try to sleep a little, that would conserve his energy. But when he closed his eyes, sleep would not come.
The Preventer jet was already waiting when they arrived at the airfield. A sleek dark gray machine that reminded Treize a lot of the high-speed shuttles OZ had been using. Probably a further development of those crafts; surely the producers wouldn't have stopped designing and improving planes just because the large military was gone. There always was a need for new models, and someone would always be willing to finance the development. Although it did make Treize wonder just how high the Preventers' budget was if they could afford to buy jets like this one.
Lady Une apparently had taken care that the landing strip would be deserted upon their arrival; there were no refueling crews or mechanics to be seen anywhere near. Treize was thankful for that, right now he really was not feeling like being careful around people. He had found that wearing sunglasses and clothes that were not similar to his former uniform helped greatly, but there always was risk involved, of course. In time it would probably lessen, but for now the memories of the people were still too fresh. Besides, if they did not recognize him, they'd definitely know who the girl at his side was just by looking at her.
Mariemeia had insisted on coming to the airport with him, refusing to stay behind. It sometimes was really puzzling Treize how easily she could manipulate him into getting her way; he had planned for her to stay at the mansion together with Dorothy. But his niece had tagged along as well and was now watching the aircrafts around with a pleased expression on her face. Hopefully she had just wanted to see some military crafts once more and then take Mariemeia home again, because Treize did not want them to come along with him and Une. No matter the situation in the Pyrenees, it was a delicate and dangerous mission that was taking place there, with absolutely no place for children.
"OZ airports were much neater," Dorothy commented, wrinkling her nose in disappointment. Treize couldn't help agreeing with her; the airfield didn't look as if it had been in much use lately, with the grass growing wild on the sides of the landing strips and occasionally even breaking through the asphalt. But it had really been the best choice to meet with Une here. The main airports would have been far too crowded.
"I don't believe that the Preventers often use this one," Treize said, looking around to see whether he could spot Une somewhere as they approached the plane. "It probably is mostly for private flights now."
"Still it's a shame. I remember how it looked a few years ago, and it was all in top condition."
"That's what a budget crisis can do," he stated, but didn't elaborate any further when he finally discovered a person coming out of the plane. After some moments he identified Lady Une, still looking so unfamiliar without her glasses and braids. But he would just have to get used to her new appearance.
Next to him, Mariemeia had seen the woman as well, and began to wave. "Aunt Une!" she called, obviously happy to see her, but still she stayed at Treize's side. If she wanted to run and greet Une, then she was keeping herself remarkably restrained. Treize inwardly sighed; his daughter was getting over most of the conditioning rather well, but some things just sat too deep still. And her sometimes cold demeanor was part of it.
Une was waving back for a moment, making him wonder once more how profound the changes in her personality were this time. The Lady he had known for the longest time would never have waved at a child, not even for publicity purposes. And the saintly woman would have been too shy to try and attract attention that way. But the current personality appeared to be a balance between the two extremes; maybe the woman really had managed to stabilize.
The thought crossed his mind that in the past he had been responsible for her split personalities, and that his return could cause her to fall back into the old problems. Hopefully that would not be the case; Treize had no wish to plunge her into that deeply troubled state again, but right now he had no choice but to work with her. But this time their relationship would be different than before, wouldn't it? He was no longer her superior, and couldn't give confusing orders anymore. And as far as he knew, that had been the cause for her psychological quirks.
Walking up to them, Une gave Mariemeia a warm smile. "Hello, Marie. It's nice to see you again."
"I'm happy to see you too," the girl replied promptly, with so much true feeling behind her words that it almost made Treize jealous. He was grateful that Une had taken care of her during the chaos that had followed Dekim's coup, but still she was his little girl. And the thought that perhaps he could be replaced in her life was frightening him more than he had expected.
"Good afternoon, Lady," he greeted her, and held his hand out to her. Une shook it promptly, another change. The old Lady had not liked to touch or be touched at all. How very fascinating... he really had to get to know this stranger with the familiar face.
"Your Excellency..." She was looking at him for a moment before she blinked and shook her head. "I am sorry. I still have trouble believing that you really are alive."
"You should trust your eyes, Lady Une," Dorothy interjected before Treize could say anything in reply. "I assure you that you are not seeing a ghost."
Une gave her a polite nod. "Miss Catalonia." Nothing else, just acknowledging her presence.
Dorothy mimicked tipping an imaginary hat. "It is nice that you remember me too after all this excitement," she said in a voice so silky that Treize started worrying whether she was up to something. Whenever that girl was planning something, she started to sound smooth.
"Lady Une," Treize said after shooting Dorothy a glance, "I hope your flight was pleasant." He really wanted to get going, but was hesitant to press the issue. Une had only just arrived, it would be inconsiderate to press her to return so quickly. But maybe, if there still were remnants of the old Une left in her, she would guess that he was growing restless inside.
"The jet is up to my expectations." Une turned a little to look at the slim gray craft. "Pleasant is not the word I would use, but it will serve our purposes."
Treize smiled a little. "I am sure that it will. But, if you allow the question, how can the Preventers afford machines like this? I was under the impression that your budget is rather limited."
"We have a few sponsors who are backing us up in this matter," she explained. "They agree with me that we must not let our guard down completely, and so they finance some of our operations."
"I see..." Treize turned this statement over in his mind. Those sponsors had to be companies, because no government would let itself become too closely associated with a military organization right now. So there were some people who saw that there would always be threats; a relief to him. The approach of Relena Peacecraft and her followers had become disturbing when they had begun to advertise the destruction of all weapons. A slight dampener on their enthusiasm had been provided by Dekim Barton's attempted revolution, but that had not stopped them completely. It was good to know that there were persons who had no wish to be entirely helpless towards aggression.
"The president is allowing us to accept private funds, so we make use of them." Une sounded almost as if she were defending her point of view, and Treize suspected that she had had to do that too often for her liking lately. "It would be foolish to let down our guard now that peace is a possibility."
"You have my full agreement," Treize hurried to assure her. "And people like the Preventers will always be needed, so you should have everybody's support."
A smile hushed across Une's lips, another mien that was so unfamiliar on this face. "Maybe you and I, and some other people think so, but that's not enough."
"Sad but true, Lady." He became aware that Mariemeia was still standing at his side, and even though she looked completely calm, it had to be boring for her to listen to them. Treize could still recall the times when he had accompanied his father to occasional business meetings, and how hard it had been to sit still and be quiet. And he had been older at the time than Mariemeia was now.
When Treize looked around to see whether Dorothy was ready to return to the estate yet, he saw that she had wandered off and was examining the jet. She had always been interested in military machinery; not surprising at all, considering her family background. It had amazed everybody that she had not shown any inclination to join OZ.
Well, no distraction for Mariemeia to expect from that side right now. But Treize was not planning to stay here for much longer anyway; with every passing minute his wish to leave here was growing.
"I believe we should leave, Lady," he eventually said, trying to sound not overly impatient but merely as if he were suggesting a possibility.
Une nodded. "The jet has been refueled already, we can take off immediately." She looked down at Mariemeia and smiled at the girl. "I will bring your father back as soon as possible."
Treize saw the slight frown forming on his daughter's face at the mention of his leaving, and had to sympathize with her. He was reluctant to leave her behind, but it really was for the best. Dorothy would take care of her in the meantime, and he would hopefully not be gone for more than a day anyway.
"I know that, Aunt Une," Mariemeia said politely. "Thank you."
Wondering a little just when Une had turned into Aunt Une for Mariemeia, Treize met the girl's gaze and picked her up when he saw the small nod of permission. It was another rule they had laid down rather soon; while Mariemeia did like to be carried occasionally, she tended to be reluctant about it in front of other people, so Treize was only allowed to pick her up with her consent. But since she disliked having to look up to people, he could indulge in his parental duties rather often.
"Perhaps you can come and visit us when this is over," Treize offered Une, shifting his stance a little as Mariemeia's arms came around his neck to stabilize herself.
"I would like that very much," Une said, but he was getting the impression that she was weighing her words rather carefully. Perhaps she wanted to see first how the mission went.
"We will surely agree on something." Treize noticed with some relief that Dorothy was coming back again, a rather satisfied expression on her face. Apparently she liked the jet; hopefully she was not planning to see it from the inside as well.
Une briefly smiled again - either at him or at Mariemeia, he was not certain - then seemed to wait for him to say or do something. Treize was grateful for that; he did not want to spend more time here than necessary when he had something important to do.
"Well, Uncle Treize," Dorothy drawled as she joined them, "I hope your trip will not be boring. And give my regards to Milliard when you see him. I am sure he will be surprised..."
Hopefully surprised will be all, Treize thought. He had no idea how Zechs would react to his survival. Une had been startled, but had taken it rather well; still her reaction could not give any indication as to what Zechs would do. If anybody should have been told, then it would have been him, and Treize couldn't rule out that the younger man would be taking it badly. Considering that the last time they had spoken had been as the leaders of two opposing armies...
"I will miss you, Father," Mariemeia interrupted his thoughts. No questioning whether he really had to go; when he had told her that he had to leave for a short while, she had just nodded and asked when he would be back. So much like Zechs had been at that age, accepting something like this without any complaints.
Treize hugged her close for a moment. "I will miss you too," he told her, then carefully set her down again. "And watch out for your cousin, don't let her get into trouble."
Dorothy raised a wildly forked eyebrow at the statement. "Aren't you supposed to say that to me?" she asked, not really sounding piqued. It would take a lot more than that to even begin to annoy her.
"Let's see how you do during my absence, and then we can discuss this point," Treize replied. He knew very well which of the two girls was more likely to cause problems. The only reason why he left Dorothy to take care of his daughter was that he trusted Mariemeia to stay away from potential trouble, and that Dorothy had enough sense to watch out for her. Besides, Treize had also asked the servants to keep an eye on them, and to call him if anything unusual happened.
Somehow going on a trip had been far easier in the past...
Une had already boarded the plane again and was waiting for him. With a hug for Mariemeia and a smile at Dorothy, Treize followed her, waving at his daughter one last time before the hatch closed.
Once again Sally found herself hurrying towards a helicopter, her head lowered to protect her face from the artificial hurricane, her hair being ruffled wildly by the wind. Somehow she felt she was doing this rather often lately; but it was probably part of being a ground mission commander for once.
Nichols got out of the machine, a more than smug look on his face as he approached her. Sally couldn't blame him for that; he had successfully accomplished the main target of their mission, so he probably had to be allowed to gloat a little. The prisoners were still inside the helicopter; she could see them through one of the small side windows. Two agents were watching them.
"Commander Po!" Nichols shouted as a greeting against the noise of the rotors. "Where do you want the prisoners?"
Sally thought about this for a few moments while she waited for the roar to die down. "Put them into one of the trucks, and have some agents watch them," she said, still having to raise her voice a little. "We will have to store them away for the moment."
This earned her a frown. "But why not question them? We could find out more about what happened to Lieutenant Noin and Commander Merquise. They might tell us where to find them."
"They might, you're right about that," Sally conceded. "But I have orders from Lady Une to keep the men locked up and not interrogate them."
"But why?" Nichols looked downright miserable, and Sally could almost sympathize with him. Almost. "What is Lady Une planning to do?"
"She wants to question them herself when she comes here," Sally explained, then cast a quick look at her watch. A little more than four hours until she would have to be at that airport.
Nichols gave her a disbelieving glance. "The Lady is coming here? Personally? For what reason?"
That was exactly what Sally had been wondering about for the last hour. The only thing that vaguely made sense was that Une had discovered something that would be of help in this situation but had to be treated with utmost secrecy. Otherwise there would not be a reason for the head of the Preventers to take matters into her own hands. Une only rarely participated in field missions anymore; the administrative work was weighing her down too much for that.
Whatever it was that Une had discovered, it had to be important enough to warrant her personal attention. It couldn't be about additional information, Sally was certain about that. Information could be transmitted via the comm channels, there were enough secure ones around to make this a safe procedure. No, it had to be a physical form of backup that she had been speaking about.
But why would Une be requesting that a trusted agent from OZ should meet her at the airport if Sally couldn't go herself? Surely she couldn't have been implying that she had more faith in the former soldiers of that organization than she had in the other Preventer agents... Une had never made any distinctions between the agents depending on their backgrounds. It would have been difficult in the Preventers anyway, considering that the organization at the moment was a veritable pool of former members of OZ, the Alliance, the White Fang and the Earth Nation. And some agents had been part of several of those armies before.
Sally became aware that Nichols was looking at her, expecting an answer to his question. "She has her reasons," she said, hoping that this noncommittal response would be enough. Une had implied that Nichols could be trusted, but that was no reason to tell him more than necessary.
Apparently he seemed to be satisfied. "Should I arrange for transport?"
"No, I will meet her on the airport myself," Sally answered firmly, knowing only too well that this was another irregularity.
Nichols' momentary frown showed that clearly enough. "Are you certain that this is a wise decision? You would be gone for at least half an hour."
"Well, that is why you are my assistant. Surely you are capable of managing this for thirty minutes without letting everything turn into chaos." Sally smiled at him briefly. "Lady Une has requested that I meet her personally." That should hopefully be enough; Sally was rather certain that Nichols would not go against Une's orders concerning this matter. As far as she knew, he was still trying to get over the last time he had disobeyed Une.
Still she couldn't help frowning a little at the thought of that incident, even though it was almost two years past. It could have turned out badly if Trowa hadn't decided to stage a brief private mutiny at that moment. And Sally might never have met her if it had not been for that, would not be able to call this highly intelligent and wonderful woman her lover now. Strangely enough Sally owed it to Nichol that she had discovered that her feelings for Une were being returned, but that was an entirely different story.
"I want you to be here when Lady Une arrives," Sally informed Nichols. Whatever Une was bringing, it would probably be best if Nichols was within reach as well. "She might want to speak to you about the mission."
"Yes Madam. Should we prepare anything for her arrival?"
Sally thought about this. "No, nothing apart from making sure that the prisoners are not touched or questioned until she comes. She won't want anybody trying before she gets a chance to do so."
"In that case those men should better be willing to talk if they value their well-being," Nichols commented, more or less voicing Sally's feelings about the matter. "She has never taken it easy when information has been held from her."
Nodding, Sally turned to look at the helicopter Nichols had arrived in. "I will need to borrow your machine."
"Why? You arrived in one yourself, what's wrong with that one?" He sounded downright defensive, and Sally remembered how uneasy pilots were about letting other people touch their crafts. She had never quite understood this, but had figured that it was probably just one of those foibles that came up in persons who occasionally were under too much stress.
"I am having one of our pilots pick up medical supplies from the nearest town. There is no way to tell in what condition Zechs and Noin will be."
"But our pilots are all here, so whom did you send?" Nichols wanted to know.
"A future agent who will be joining our department once Lady Une has approved of her." And in the case of Hilde, that surely was not going to be much of a problem. Rather a mere formality.
Nichols looked incredulous. "You sent a civilian?"
"No." Sally gave him a firm glance. "I sent a talented pilot who was a former OZ cadet and who has proven herself in the first Eve War."
"Well, in that case..." Hearing that OZ had approved of the girl seemed to pacify Nichols on the matter, leaving Sally to wonder once more just to what extent the differences between the different factions in the Preventers were really gone.
Sitting in the copilot seat, Treize tried to refrain from touching any switches or buttons around him, even though he truly itched to try his hand at flying again. He hadn't been able to do that in years, ever since he had assumed leadership of OZ. Out of some reason the unspoken rule existed that once officers had reached a certain level of rank and importance, they were not allowed to do such lowly tasks like piloting anymore but had to leave them to their underlings. Treize had never quite understood that; he had gotten to top rank thanks to being a good pilot in the first place, among other things. And suddenly everybody had seemed to think that administrative work was weighing down his abilities.
Lady Une was flying the plane skillfully, bringing it up to a sufficient height. She had first wanted to bundle him off to staying in the small passenger compartment, but he had resisted that idea firmly. There really was no need for her to play his chauffeur once more; the days of being subordinate and superior were gone. Besides, it would be a flight of at least two hours, and there were some things he wanted to discuss with Une. And he figured that she had questions herself, and that it would be only fair towards her to answer them.
So now he was sitting to her right, glancing out of the window at the thick wads of clouds they were currently passing on their ascend. They would have to take the plane to a rather high altitude to utilize its greater speed without endangering the normal planes on the lower levels of the atmosphere. A change compared to the days before the wars, when military crafts had always had the right of way and the civilian shuttles had often been forced to alter their routes.
It felt strange to Treize to know that he was on a military plane once again; he had figured that if he ever happened to board a jet that did not belong to a commercial airline, then it would be the one to bring him to his trials in court. The possibility could never be ruled out considering his role in the war, even though it was not likely. Neither Une nor Zechs had encountered any legal trouble afterwards, and they were redeeming themselves now by working to maintain the fragile peace, together with so many others who had fought, alongside or against each other.
Yes, only those who had been in the fights could really know how precious peace was, and how much it had to be protected. They knew what true sacrifices were, and what the alternative to peace looked like. And thanks to the conflict that had spread so far in the end, almost everybody had come in touch with war. Treize had never known if it would be enough to make mankind realize that peace was something to be treasured. Not until the attempted coup d'etat of Dekim Barton, when people had indeed stood up against him and had defended their rights. And it had been a relief that all the efforts had not been wasted and that he did not have to step in once more.
Somehow Treize did not feel like retiring just yet; but his role in life was fulfilled, was it not? Peace was here, was within reach, so there was nothing left for him to do anymore that would have an impact on public life. Rather the opposite, considering that his survival probably was the biggest danger for the newfound order at the moment.
But he was needed still. Mariemeia needed a father, most of all. Someone to take care of her until she would grow up, who would make sure that she could live the life she deserved. Of course, other people could have done that too, but it was Treize's duty first and foremost, and he had no intention whatsoever to shy away from it. It still was bewildering for him to look at the girl and think that she was his daughter, but he was slowly getting used to the idea. Almost funny; before the war he would never have thought that he would ever have a family of his own.
That he had not known the girl's mother better made him sad, but when he thought rationally about it, he had to admit that their relationship had never really deserved to be called that name at all. One day he would have to explain to their child that her parents had known each other for a total of three days. Or maybe she already knew that she owed her existence to a meeting of chance, and that her parents had used each other to fight pain and loneliness. Treize had not yet spoken with her about it, the time had never seemed right.
"We have reached flight altitude," Une informed him, interrupting his thoughts.
Treize nodded and leaned back in his seat, watching the controls and displays of the jet. "How long will it take us to arrive?"
"About two hours." His former aide slowly pushed one of the many regulators towards the front of the cockpit, and Treize felt himself being pressed into his seat as the craft accelerated steadily.
"And what are your plans once we arrive?" he inquired further, needing to get a clearer picture of the situation that would await him there. All he knew so far was that they would land on an airport in Andorra somewhere, and that the rest of their transfer would be taken care of by the Preventers.
"A helicopter will be waiting for us so we can directly continue our way." Une checked some displays, then stopped accelerating and stabilized the speed. "Colonel Sally Po will most likely be coming for us, or she will send Lieutenant Nichols."
"So it will be one of your top officers to meet us."
"I did not want to take any risks, and those two can be trusted completely." She sounded certain of that, and Treize was not going to really doubt her judgment. Nichols had always been a good soldier, though occasionally a little overzealous as far as Treize remembered. Still he had to be credited for bringing as many survivors back from Baruji as he could. As for Sally Po... the first time Treize had really taken notice of the woman had been when she had rammed Peacemillion into Libra to prevent the battleship from using its beam cannon. Definitely a strong spirit.
"A very wise move, Lady. Thank you." It was a relief to know that she had understood the need for secrecy. If some of the Preventer agents found out about his survival, it probably wouldn't matter overly much, but if the media happened to get hold of this... it was something Treize did not really want to imagine. The war was still too fresh in people's mind; to know that he was still alive would needlessly scare them. Maybe in a few years he could carefully take up a more public life again, but not yet.
Looking at the displays in front of her, Une made a slight alteration to their course. "We should be able to shield you from most of the agents," she said, her gaze still directed at the altimeter. "Clearing the area around the comm center for a few minutes should not present a problem."
Treize nodded slightly. "I see. Have you informed Colonel Po yet about our plans?"
"Not yet." Une seemed to hesitate for a moment before continuing. "I prefer to speak to her personally about this."
"How do you expect her to react?" he asked. It would be helpful to know just what would await him. "I remember that she was on the side of the Gundams in the war, so she might not be too favorable towards me."
Une glanced at him quickly, then shook her head. "There is no need to be wary around her, Your Excellency. She can be trusted entirely to treat this in a professional manner." Her voice carried so much conviction, it was almost amazing.
"So you think that she will be able to disregard past occurrences?" Treize inquired further. He had no intention to get into a quarrel with someone who had reservations towards him because of his role in the war. Not now, not when he had more important things to do.
"I am certain, Your Excellency," Une said. "Doctor Po has understood what your goals were ever since you... since you supposedly passed away."
"Ah, I understand." Hearing this certainly made him look at this Sally Po in a more friendly way. If she had really understood... there was no way to confirm this unless they spoke about the issue, but for now Treize was willing to trust Une's judgment on the matter. She sounded as if she knew the other woman rather well.
He became aware that Une was still looking at him, a somewhat hesitant expression on her face.
"Lady?" he asked, trying to sound encouraging. It was pleasant to be speaking to her once more, and to get to know this new aspect of her personality that seemed to have settled firmly. The impression he had gotten so far was that she had not lost any of her competence, but that she seemed to be less determined occasionally.
"Your Excellency, I..." Une broke off, then cleared her throat quickly. "I was wondering how you... how you survived that battle. Everybody thought that you had to be dead..."
Treize closed his eyes for a moment, trying to think of what to say now. He had known that this question would come eventually, but had not really prepared an answer for it yet. There hadn't seemed to be much sense in rehearsing this talk. Besides, Une was one of the persons who deserved to know the truth in its entirety. Except for some parts of his most private reasoning, but those did not concern her at all so Treize figured that it was alright if he remained silent about them.
Une appeared to interpret his momentary silence as an indication that he did not want to talk about it. She fixed her eyes on the displays once more, concentrating on absolutely stable and unimportant numbers and figures with fierce determination. For a second Treize was tempted to stay quiet despite his resolve that she had a right to know, simply because she was not pressing him to tell her yet. But that would not have been fair towards her.
"It was a very fortunate concatenation of events," he said slowly, watching as she turned her face towards him once again, silently waiting for him to say more. "When Tallgeese exploded, the cockpit remained hermetically sealed despite all the damages. And I was found in time."
He did not like it overly much to remember those moments, the fear that he had felt when he had regained consciousness for a while and had found himself trapped in an immobile suit. Death had seemed inviting during the battle, but afterwards it had held no appeal whatsoever anymore. And Treize had clung to life desperately, his instincts not allowing him to give up. He was glad that things had turned out the way they had, even though it meant that ultimately he had betrayed his own plans of sacrificing his life so the battle would end. But the strangest thing had happened - the battle had ended nevertheless, had completely ignored his continued existence.
"There never were any records about you in our documents about the rescued pilots." Une did not seem particularly surprised, but there was a hint of sadness in her voice. "And the sweeper groups only found fragments of Tallgeese..."
"I am not holding you responsible for not knowing that I survived, Lady, if that's what you are thinking," Treize tried to assure her.
"This is not what I was thinking." Something akin to anger blazed in her eyes for a moment, but was replaced by a gentler expression quickly. "I wish you had had enough faith in me to let me know."
"Lady..." he began, trying to think of an explanation, but he was interrupted by her. For the first time ever.
"There is no need to rectify yourself, Your Excellency." She bowed her head slightly, looked down at her knees before she concentrated on piloting again. "I am sure that you had very good reasons to remain silent."
By now Treize was no longer so sure about it all. Staying hidden, invisible, had seemed the most sensible thing to do for him. But in doing so, he had hurt those close to him, he was coming to realize that more and more. Une had seemed so angry for a moment, upset because Treize had let her believe that he had died.
And if she reacted like this, there was no way to tell how Zechs would be taking it. After all, he had been so much closer to Treize than Une had been, and would have had a far greater right to know than her. Then again, they had parted in anger at their last meeting, both resolved to end what they had begun.
The thoughts of Zechs were invading his mind right now, thoughts he had tried to keep at bay for the last months. It had been easy to mourn his lover, to loathe the twist of fate that had allowed Treize to live and that had at the same time killed Zechs when it all had been supposed to happen the other way round. Yes, grieving had been comforting in some way, because it had allowed Treize to remember his lover like he had been before everything had dissolved into wild chaos.
But then, in the whirl of events surrounding Dekim Barton's attempted coup d'état, he had learned that Zechs had survived too, that his eternal friend was still alive. The desire to speak to him, to let him know that Treize had not died either, had been so strong sometimes, but still there had been reasons not to do it. They had separated, had faced each other on the battlefield as the leaders of two opposing armies. There was no way to tell how Zechs would react to the knowledge that Treize was still in this world as well. And with every passing day, it had become harder to think of this, because every hour he hesitated would mean a betrayal towards Zechs, a proof that Treize did not trust him enough to speak to him.
Treize knew that the younger man could only too easily turn and twist facts so they would suit his own interpretations, and that Zechs had the unfortunate tendency to look at himself as the source of all problems. He would perhaps think that it was his own fault that Treize had never approached him again, that after the events of the war Treize could not want anything from him any longer.
That was one possibility. But there were other things that had made Treize hesitate, first and foremost the risk that Zechs would still harbor hatred for him, the same loathing that he had seen in the blond man's eyes when he had approached the Libra and dared Zechs to fire the cannon at him. It had been the final proof for Treize that he had lost his lover, that Zechs had indeed renounced their friendship. So as long as he did not speak to Zechs, did not see the confirmation of his doubts in his beloved friend's eyes, he could always pretend that things were not over, that they could go back to what they had been before the war had turned everything upside down.
For the last months Treize had been concentrating on Mariemeia, on being a good father to her, and it had proved to be a way to ban the thoughts of Zechs from his mind for most of the time. During the days he could focus on his daughter, be there for her when she needed something. But there always were those small moments when a word, a sight or some other sensation would bring back the memory of Zechs so fiercely that it would cause pain. And at night, when sleep would not come and the silence turned so oppressing, the loneliness and the feeling of missing an integral part of himself were always there.
Still he preferred the uncertainty about everything to the certainty of knowing that Zechs was gone from his side forever, that the younger man would never come back. But it seemed that now he was not really given a choice in the matter any longer. Zechs would find out, and Treize would have to face the judgment he saw fit to pass on him.
The small airport was almost deserted when Sally landed the helicopter, cautious not to get any bumps or scratches into the machine. Nichols would be examining it in minute detail later, she was certain of that, and she had no intention of giving him anything to complain about.
Looking around, she decided that there would be no need to have the airport cleared from any personnel; all the air traffic controllers seemed to have withdrawn into the radar tower. At least that was where most of their little yellow vehicles were parked. Sally couldn't blame them; she too was unwilling to get out of the cockpit and into the biting wind outside. Not quite a storm yet, but it could turn into one eventually. Hopefully Une would be able to land the jet safely. Although considering that the woman was one of the most capable pilots around, there was hardly any reason to worry. Une would hardly risk whatever valuable backup she was bringing. Whether she'd risk her own health was a slightly different matter, but Sally was confident that her lover had become more caring about herself lately.
Sally leaned back in her seat and watched the surroundings for any signs of an incoming plane. She was beginning to feel a little impatient, out of more reasons than just one. Mainly she wanted to see her lover again after almost two weeks of working on field missions away from the headquarters in Brussels. Being in a relationship with the Preventer leader had definite disadvantages sometimes, and on occasions like this one Sally was very aware of them.
She also was curious about that mysterious backup. Even now she had no idea what it could be, only that it had to be something important. And Sally also looked forward to seeing that new plane that Une had taken. The Preventers sorely needed new equipment to replace their current machinery that consisted mainly of crafts left over after two wars. Naturally those were not in a good condition, and they sometimes spent more time in repair than in use. But with the newly secured resources the Preventers really should be able to get decent jets and shuttles.
A glance at her watch told her that Une should be arriving in the next ten minutes if her flight had gone according to plan. Not that she expected anything to go wrong; surely she would have known by now if something had happened. After all she was second in the Preventer command chain now that Noin had asked for a less administrative position. Her friend had never felt too comfortable with the representative side of the job, and so Sally had taken over when Noin had moved to the group of top-level agents with a big sigh of relief.
Maybe Noin was regretting that choice right now, Sally mused. If the other woman had not returned to fieldwork, then she would not be in her current predicament. Would not be in danger with whatever threats were down there where she and Zechs were caught.
It bugged Sally that she did not know more about the situation, but they could not waste precious comm time with assessments of their surroundings. Zechs and Noin both had assured her that they were alright, and there was not really anything Sally could do if it were not so. A team had been sent into the caves to find out where the two missing agents were, but all their efforts had been thwarted by the security systems down there. It was a downright fortress that they were facing here. And none of the reports had been given way to optimism at all.
Still Sally refused to even begin to acknowledge the possibility that they would have to admit defeat in this matter. She was not willing to even think about how the chances stood that they could break their way into that base. Right now they all were still waiting for information, assessing data and looking for weak points. Nichols had called her some minutes ago to tell her that they had put together a complete map of the compound by now; with that, they should be able to make some progress at least. There were enough people in her team who had experience with breaking into OZ facilities; surely they could manage it this time as well. And they wouldn't even have to be careful about not being discovered, no, they'd have all resources they needed.
Compared to the times in the past, it should be easy.
And even if they could not manage to get Noin and Zechs out on their own, they could always call the Gundam pilots as a last resort. Sally had seen them accomplish so many things that had been deemed impossible in the past, so she was sure that they could make a difference here as well. It simply was a matter of believing in their abilities, and she had seen often enough just what they were capable of.
Yes, if everything else failed, this would still be a possibility. If anybody could break into this place, then it was them.
Once more Sally checked the small radar screen in the helicopter, but there were no signs yet of Une. Not overly surprising, though. If that plane was worth just half the money the aircraft designer demanded, then it really should be able to stay hidden from a system as simple as the one she was using right now.
Nevertheless she'd have liked to see an incoming jet on the display right now. But it seemed that she would have to wait still, and keep an eye on the landing strip.
The floodlights around her were activated, pushing the approaching dusk back away from the airfields to ensure safe landings. Evening already; the last remnants of daylight would have disappeared in an hour or so. Sighing softly, Sally closed her eyes for a moment to shield them from the stinging light. Hopefully they would be able to get things done during the night; every hour they wasted meant increasing danger for Noin and Zechs. She knew that there was no reason yet to worry about them, after all they both were in a very good physical condition. But still she couldn't deny that the sooner they got out, the better.
A sharp beep made Sally open her eyes again and look for its source. It hadn't been the radar or any of the other instruments' alerts, those would have sounded differently. Another beep, and this time she identified it as the sound of the cockpit comm system.
Of course Nichols couldn't set it to some normal tone, Sally mused as she checked the number of the caller, but she could not identify it. She only was certain that whoever called was doing so from a Preventer line. Maybe her team was trying to contact her.
"Sally Po," she answered the call, ignoring her titles. She had never felt overly comfortable even with Doctor, and the more military ones like Major and now Colonel always made her feel like she ought to be wearing some sort of starched uniform and plot battle strategies.
Une's face appeared on the tiny display in the middle of the console. "Colonel, how convenient that it is you to come and meet us." Firm and neutral as always during official communications, even though Sally had her doubts about the official nature of this particular part of the mission.
"You did say that you want an experienced and trustworthy pilot," Sally returned, allowing a smile to hush across her face. Maybe not entirely professional, but nobody could really blame her for being friendly towards her superior.
Nodding, Une did something at the right side of the screen, probably adjusting some controls or something like that. "I am glad that you have come alone, that will save us a lot of trouble now. We will land as close to you as possible."
Sally frowned slightly. "We? I thought you would be coming here alone. Who is with you?"
"I cannot discuss this on a comm link, no matter how secure." Une's voice had turned stern as she said this. "You will know once we land. And I want to stress once again that secrecy is an absolute must in this case."
What was going on here?
"Very well." Again Une looked to her right. "The tower has given permission to land. We will be with you in some minutes. Over and out." With that the line was closed.
Just whom was Une bringing here that his or her presence made such precautions necessary? It didn't make sense, hardly anybody would need to be hidden from a group of Preventer agents. And besides, Une had promised backup, so apparently she had meant the person coming with her. Sally simply could not figure out what this all was supposed to mean.
She could think of some people who preferred not to be noticed when they traveled somewhere. But mostly that were persons like Relena Peacecraft or Sylvia Noventa, and surely those could not be of use in an operation like this. No, they would not know anything about OZ bases, would they?
The Gundam pilots perhaps? It would make sense to bring them, but there was no need to hush up their presence. They were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and besides, nobody would really dare to assault the closest thing this world had to heroes. No, it could not be them either, unless Une was worried about the Preventers losing face for having to call for help. But she had never been overly concerned with that. Sally suspected that it came from being part of a military organization that had been disliked and even hated during most of its existence.
Maybe somebody who had been in OZ before? That would make sense as well. But all the top officers who had survived the war were now working with the Preventers, and the lower ranks would hardly be of use here. And not even Une had known about this base, so it did not seem logical that somebody who had been lower in the hierarchy than her would have known more.
It just was so strange.
Sally looked up when she noticed movement outside, and watched as a graceful gray jet approached the runway. A sleek craft, hopefully it was suited for the Preventers too. From the outward appearance Sally sure would not have minded to use this plane. Far more elegant than the bulky old machines they were using right now. The landing was very smooth, and Sally could not see any problems at all. Almost as if there were neither the wind nor the twilight; but with Une it really should not surprise her.
The plane came to a stop right in front of her helicopter, and Sally got out of her machine to approach the jet, ducking against the biting sting of the wind, natural for once and not caused by a rotor. With a last whine the engines were killed, and some moments later the hatch at the side of the craft was opened and the customary steep little stepladder descended from the gap.
Taking position at the spot where the steps touched the rough, dusty asphalt of the landing strip, Sally prepared to salute in case Une had brought somebody important with her who had to be impressed by formal procedures. It did not happen often, but it would be better to be prepared.
Une was the first to come out of the plane, and Sally watched as her lover climbed down the steps. She was wearing her field uniform, skirt exchanged for pants to give greater mobility. Not to mention that the overall visual effect could not be ignored either. The tight black pants accentuated slim legs in the most enticing way, making Sally regret that Une did not wear them more often. They suited her far better than the skirt. Which was nice in its own way as well, of course...
But then a movement at the hatch made Sally look away from her lover and at the person who was now leaving the plane.
Breathing was becoming difficult, until she remembered to exhale. This wasn't merely strange, this was absolutely eerie.
No way to mistake this face, the ginger hair and that stance... maybe the uniform had been replaced by gray pants and a plain white shirt, but that did not alter the overall fact that according to common knowledge this man was supposed to be dead since a while. And yet he looked rather alive to Sally as he came down the steps and stopped in front of her.
"Do you understand now why I have to insist on secrecy?" Une's soft voice came from her right.
Sally nodded slowly, not trusting her voice to be steady right now.
Treize Khushrenada. Alive.
Well, at least some things were making sense now.
"Colonel Sally Po, I assume." Treize held out his hand and smiled when the young woman in front of him reacted just a little too late to make the handshake appear smooth. Apparently Une had really kept silent about his survival, and had not even deemed it necessary to tell her direct subordinate.
Releasing his hand again, she nodded. "I won't be asking who you are, or how you can even be here." She turned towards Une. "So this is the support you were speaking of?"
There were a lot of unspoken questions in the look that she gave Une, making Treize wonder whether he should try to answer them himself or leave it to his former aide to take care of this. But right now he felt no particular urge to volunteer information about what had happened since the war. It was a sensitive issue for him, and not something he felt comfortable to discuss with a veritable stranger.
"His Excellency will be necessary for the success of this mission," Une said with a firm glance at her subordinate. Something else was being passed along in this look, but Treize could not even begin to guess what the two women were communicating.
Sally raised a narrow eyebrow at him after a moment. "So you have known about this mission?" she asked, wariness showing in her voice.
"Yes," he confirmed, hoping that she wouldn't want to know just how he had found out. Dorothy valued her sources of information, and she wouldn't be pleased if her admirers in the Preventers were forbidden any further contact with her. And if Dorothy was displeased with something, then usually her surroundings had to suffer for it.
The two women shared another look, and after a moment Une shook her head slightly. "I did not know. And I did not tell him."
Immediately the expression on Sally's face changed from caution to relief; had she thought that Une had secretly been feeding him information? It probably would make sense from her point of view. Treize was inwardly pleased that the young Colonel was taking it all rather calmly and did not overreact; hopefully this was not an exception to how other people would take it to learn about his survival. Right now he was getting the impression that Sally was more concerned about why he was here than how he had managed to be here.
"I see," she said thoughtfully, then shook her head slightly, a smile appearing on her face. "Sorry for jumping to conclusions, Lady."
Une actually smiled back, startling Treize once more with her behavior that was so unfamiliar to him still. "Never mind. This is not a normal situation at all."
"We will have to discuss this as soon as we can."
Treize cleared his throat to get their attention again. Somehow he felt that they had all but forgotten that he was still here too, and that made him uncomfortable. The situation felt eerily familiar out of some reason, but he could not quite say why.
Turning her head sharply to look at him, Sally broke the eye contact between the women. "We should leave here. I suppose you don't want people to see you, Your Excellency?"
"I'd prefer not to," he replied, thankful about the suggestion. "But please, I no longer warrant that title." It had come with his position in OZ, and since that organization did not exist anymore, that particular status had turned obsolete. His rank in nobility had not been affected, but those titles had always felt a little stiff to him, so he wasn't about to suggest them.
She nodded briefly. "Very well. Lady, can we leave the jet here or do you need a pilot to take it somewhere? I can call one of the agents if you want."
"That won't be necessary," Une said with a dismissive gesture of her hand. "Nobody in his right mind would steal that jet."
Treize wasn't so sure about it, but this was Une's domain so he kept quiet. But perhaps she had installed a positioning system or a remotely controlled self-detonator. He certainly would not put it past her.
"How was its performance anyway?" Sally was scrutinizing the craft. "Is it worth all the money?"
Une shrugged. "Probably. But I will tell you later, it is not an urgent matter." She took a few steps towards the helicopter, then stopped to wait for Treize and Sally to follow her. "Colonel, there is no need to stay here any longer. Please, Your Excellency..." She gestured for the helicopter.
"Lady, what I said about that title was also meant for you," Treize told her as he complied and climbed into the machine. "It is no longer accurate."
"I don't believe I can get used to the change," Une said as she settled down in the seat next to him. "It's almost traditional to address you that way. And didn't you say that tradition has to be valued?"
For a moment Treize wasn't quite sure if he had heard right. Une openly refusing one of his requests? She had never, ever done that before... just how deep was this personality change this time? He was seriously beginning to wonder whether he still knew this woman at all.
But then he couldn't help a smile crossing his face as he bowed his head slightly, admitting defeat. "Touché, Lady Une."
Sally had by then taken her place in the pilot seat and was looking back at them. "Once we are at the base, what are you planning to do there? Just so I know which areas to clear."
"His Excellency will need the comm station," Une answered before Treize had a chance to do so. "Can we still establish contact to Agents Fire and Wind?"
Treize inwardly flinched when he heard this. He hadn't considered that maybe communications might become impossible with time... and a direct commlink would be absolutely necessary to achieve his plans. There was no other way that he could think of right now to get Zechs out of there... And he knew he would never forgive himself if it did not work.
"So far it is possible, but Zechs' comm is running low on energy," Sally reported, and Treize breathed a sigh of relief. "We will have less than a minute of connection time."
"That will be sufficient," Treize said. "All I need to do is transmit the code and tell the computer to disarm the security systems."
"You are almost making it sound simple," Sally remarked. "Once we land I'll have Nichols make sure nobody is near the comm. You just stay in here and wait until I come to get you."
There was no time to reply to this since she started up the rotors as soon as she fell silent again, but it was reasonable to do what she had said. So Nichols was around as well... Treize had never had much to do with that particular Lieutenant back then, but from what he remembered the man was quite competent. Besides, he had brought back the injured Lady Une from Baruji, and deserved some respect for that.
The noise became louder, and Treize gratefully took the protective headphones that Une handed him. Leaning back in his seat, he closed his eyes and tried to block out the world for a moment to think about what he was going to do.
Disabling the security measures should not be a problem; those systems were programmed to react to his voice. As long as the commlink could be kept operational for ten seconds, there would not be any reason to worry about Zechs and Noin any longer. But that was not what was making Treize uneasy; it was the prospect of seeing Zechs again that was haunting his mind right now.
Zechs would know that he was alive, that much was certain, simply because Treize would have to give his name to the computer. It wasn't that he minded that the younger man would know; he should have told him long ago, so he was only making up for past mistakes now. What was weighing on him heavily was the chance that things had not changed between them since the war.
He spent the short flight brooding over this possibility, grateful that neither Sally nor Une attempted to talk to him. They spoke among themselves via the headsets, probably discussing how to proceed now, while Treize sat still and watched the now complete darkness beneath them, occasionally interrupted by bright lights where a house was.
They arrived at the makeshift base without any problems, and a few minutes after landing a little away from the tents and trailers that housed all the equipment, Treize found himself following Une and Sally into the tent that served as the comm station at the moment.
Nobody was near, just like Sally had promised; the agents were probably resting or out on reconnaissance missions. Energy generators were humming in the background, creating a strange blend of sound together with the cicadas that chirped somewhere in the darkness.
When Sally closed the flap of the tent entrance behind them to shield them from any persons who could happen to pass them, Treize felt absolutely trapped. The uneasiness he had felt ever since leaving Kiev had steadily grown until he was certain that he had never before been so nervous in his life. Just the prospect of taking that microphone and opening a channel to contact Zechs was making him tremble.
But there was no way back now, was there? Not after he had come so far, after he had already involved Une and Sally in this.
Besides, there had never really been a question of whether he would do this or not. That choice had never had to be made, simply because the answer had been there from the start. Zechs needed help, and Treize was going to give it to him. It was that simple.
If only his hands would stop shaking.
"I can open the line whenever you want, Your Excellency." Une's words shook him out of his thoughts and almost made him flinch.
"Ah... thank you, Lady..."
"You will have to say the code rather quickly," came Sally's voice from his other side. "We have calculated that there are only about thirty seconds of connection time left."
"That will be more than enough to disarm the systems," Treize tried to assure her, and also himself. Enough to deal with the immediate dangers that came from the security. But not for other things that would also have to be said, words of a more personal nature.
"You remember the code?" This was the third time Sally asked that particular question, and Treize sighed in exasperation, wishing that she would stop making him even more nervous.
"I do. Just like I did five minutes ago." Not quite snapping, but as close to it as he was ever going to get.
Une handed him the commlink. "Here. It's the best microphone we have here, so your voice should be recognizable for the computer."
"Can I open the line?"
Treize took a deep breath, once more going through the password sequence and the commands he had to give to the security system. Then he nodded, and watched as Une dialed the number.
Once more Zechs stretched his legs carefully before drawing his knees up again and resting his elbows on them. He had found a somewhat bearable position to sit by now, even though it was far from comfortable still. But at least it did not make his muscles cramp or cause any other aches.
He was cautious not to move too much; Noin had her head resting against his shoulder and was apparently asleep, or at least dozing. When she had settled down beside him he had not protested; the small reassurance that it had brought to have her near was welcome, even though he knew that he did not quite deserve to use her as a source of comfort. But she had not minded at all, and he had not said anything, had only shifted a little to fit against her more easily.
It amazed Zechs that she could get sleep now; sure, it was late and they had had an exhausting day, but despite that he could not rest. There were too many things on his mind right now that kept him awake and made him uneasy. And as long as he could not settle those thoughts, there would not be rest until exhaustion grew too strong. He had experienced this too often over the years to have any illusions about falling asleep quickly any longer. The precious few times when he had been able to just close his eyes and drift away had been long ago, in what seemed like another life when he thought back to it now.
A light vibration at his chest made him frown, and he quickly took out the comm before it would beep loudly and wake Noin. Not that he really believed she would continue sleeping; she would be alert at the smallest disturbances; part of the extensive training as Specials.
Frowning a little at the call, Zechs flicked the comm on. If this was Sally, she had to have something out of the ordinary to report, because her next regular call would only have been due in some hours.
"Wind," he said, certain that she would remember the limited time they had left. Hopefully this was not another call to reassure them, they just could not afford wasting the comm's energy for those.
Nothing could have prepared him for what happened next.
"Milliard, this is Treize speaking."
What? He had to be hallucinating... this could not be! Somebody had to be making a joke here, and a cruel one too. What was the meaning of this?
At his side, Noin raised her head and gave him a questioning look. Zechs wasn't quite sure if she had woken because he had tensed, or because of the talking.
"Milliard, please. I will explain later. For now I need you to take the comm over to the computer terminal."
The voice was the same... Zechs met Noin's wide-eyed gaze, saw the same confusion and shock there that he was feeling.
"Are you at that terminal yet?" the voice asked.
"No..." Zechs managed to say, still trying to comprehend what was happening. His mind simply could not wrap itself around the absurdity of this situation. Had Sally found a voice modulator? But why, for what reason?
"I have no time to explain now, Milliard. Please, just do as I say."
Still stunned, Zechs got to his feet and rushed over to the comm. Whatever was happening here, he was going to play along for now. Maybe this was one of Sally's ideas to get them out of here... she could have found old records of Treize's voice, couldn't she? Surely Une had to have access to those things. He only wished that they had informed him about what they were planning to do. But perhaps there had not been enough time for that. For the moment he ignored the small voice in his head that protested against this logic.
"I am at the computer," he said. "What now?"
"Hold the comm to the voice receptor. Done that?"
"Good. Computer, this is Treize Khushrenada. Acknowledge."
Zechs couldn't help gasping when he heard Treize's voice say his name. It brought back so many memories, and he had to close his eyes against the rush for a moment.
"Voice verification confirmed," the machine said. "Submit the last assigned code."
"Laurin Delta Four Point Blue."
A moment of silence followed, and Zechs stared at the small green light at the terminal that suddenly began to blink. Where had they gotten the code from? And the voice recordings to create this transmission?
In his mind, an explanation started to form that would have made sense, but it simply could not be. He knew that it was impossible, he had seen that explosion over and over again, on recordings and in his nightmares...
"Code submission correct. Match with voice recording detected. System is on standby."
"Disarm security. Full clearance for Zechs Merquise and Lucrezia Noin. No codes required."
"Alteration of security status confirmed. System is on standby."
A loud noise from behind them made Zechs spin around, all muscles tense in the anticipation of a possible attack, and he saw Noin do the same. They wouldn't have had to worry, though; what was causing the noise was the retraction of the barrier that had prevented them from retreating into the caves. Zechs did not quite react to it yet, his mind was simply occupied with other things right now.
"Milliard, this should be enough to enable you to get out safely."
"Yes..." Zechs tried to find the right words. He had questions, but somehow he did not know if he really wanted them answer. So many possible explanations for this all, and he prayed for a certain one to be true, but he was afraid to see this hope disappointed.
"A Preventer team will collect you in some minutes. Just wait for them to come to you." The voice sounded like Treize, there was no artificial feeling about it... besides, what reason would Sally or anybody else have to keep using it now that the computer had been tricked? It would not make sense, unless somebody was trying to torment him with this.
"Who... who are you?" he eventually managed to ask, craving an answer to that question and dreading it at the same time.
"Treize... Milliard, I can imagine how this must seem to you, but believe me please. We will speak once you are out of there."
Could it really be? The faint glimmer of hope in Zechs' heart was growing stronger with every word that was being said. He so wished for this to be true, had prayed for this miracle during all the sleepless nights when he had stared up at the dark ceiling of a room that was not home because something essential had always been missing. To think that it could be back now...
"Don't leave again..." he whispered. "Please stay..."
"I will. I am here and-"
With a last loud beep the comm unit ran out of power. Zechs stared at the device in his hand for a moment, not wanting to accept that it was all over now, that he could no longer listen to that voice that was so recognizable, to the reassurances that it had spoken that meant so much to him. For a moment he felt like tossing the comm away to watch it hit the ground and shatter into pieces, but then he shook his head slightly and pocketed it again. There was no reason to damage equipment.
His mind was still trying to come to terms with the enormity of what he had just heard. It was just so hard to believe, this prospect of seeing Treize again, of being able to talk to him, to touch him. To ask how he had survived, and why he had never told Zechs...
"Zechs?" Noin tentatively touched his upper arm, making him flinch. "What was this?"
He turned to look at her. "I pray that it was Treize," he answered, slowly regaining control over his voice again. "I have no other explanation."
"You think he could have survived?" Noin did not sound as if she believed this, but there was a flicker of doubt in her eyes despite her words. "That would be incredible..."
"I know, but can you think of another way to explain what just happened?" Zechs still was not entirely certain just what was going on, but he was willing to accept it all if only it meant that he would be given a chance to repent his past mistakes.
Noin shook her head in response to his question. "No. But I want to see him with my own eyes before I can completely believe it."
Zechs nodded slightly in agreement. "Me too... What shall we do now?"
"Wait for that team to pick us up, I guess." Noin shrugged. "And I suppose that later they will want to examine whatever is past that door. We should be able to get through there with our new security clearances."
Once again he nodded, not answering aloud. There was so much going on in his head right now; the fact that Treize might indeed be alive was settling more firmly in his mind, and it gave rise to a myriad of questions.
It was possible that Treize had survived - Zechs had been in the same situation after all, so he knew just what the chances of a rescue had been and how it had to have happened. A helper had been necessary. In Zechs own case it had been a White Fang soldier who had brought him to a near colony, where he then had gotten lost. The man now worked for the Preventers as an outer space agent. But who had it been in Treize's case? Somebody loyal, that much was for certain, or his survival would not have remained a secret for long. The media would have paid a high price for news like that... Either somebody loyal or somebody dead, and Zechs could not imagine that Treize would have killed for this.
Was it possible that it had been Une? He couldn't rule that out completely, and it would make sense. Although she had never shown any signs of it, and had sometimes seemed almost melancholic when Treize had been mentioned in her presence. But then again, Zechs had not paid much attention to her ever since he had returned from oblivion, so he might have missed some finer signs. But no, somehow this theory seemed wrong to him. It had to have been someone else.
But why had he not been told? Wouldn't he have had the right to know that he had not killed his friend and lover? Treize had been alive all this time and had never informed Zechs; there had not even been the slightest hints for him. To think that he had spent more than one year with the certain knowledge that he had killed the one person who had ever truly cared for him, who had been watching out for him... there would not have been any reason for those feelings if Treize had just breathed a word about his survival. But no, apparently he had deemed that impossible.
Anger rose in him at those thoughts, but it was quickly replaced with resignation as he realized that Treize would not have had any reason to tell him. After all they had been enemies in the end, had fought each other and had been willing to take each other's lives. By firing the Libra cannon at Treize, Zechs had lost all rights to claim that the other man was his friend, his lover. With that shot he had ruined it all. Treize really had not had any obligation any longer to inform him of anything.
Still he had been here tonight, had saved them. Zechs was realist enough to know that the security systems would have been close to impossible to disarm without the codes. So what had motivated Treize to step in?
The thought flickered up inside him that it had been to save Noin, but Zechs dismissed this. Treize had never particularly cared about the young woman, even though he had never been anything but friendly towards her. But that was not enough to explain why he would go as far as making his survival known for that special reason.
Hope was growing in Zechs once again; could it be that Treize had come back for his sake? That would just be too good to be true, but still he prayed that it was like this, that Treize had not forsaken him despite all the wrongs Zechs had done him in the past. He would do anything to be granted a chance to make amends, and that possibility seemed so close now, as if all he had to do was reach out and touch it.
But what if Treize did not want him to do that? What if the other man had only come here to help because two agents had gotten caught in an OZ base, and not because it had been Zechs and Noin? What if he did not want any further contact with him? No, he had said that they would talk once Zechs was back on the surface again, and surely Treize would not lie to him, would he?
Zechs did not quite dare to answer this question to himself.
The connection dissolved into static noise when Zechs' comm ran out of energy. But from what she had gathered, everything necessary had been said, so it was only a matter of entering the caves and collecting Zechs and Noin. And that really should not present a problem; Sally had sent some agents to take sonographic measurements some hours ago, and by now they had a rather good map of the cave system inside the mountains here.
She watched as Treize laid down the commlink on the desk in front of him. There were some questions going on in her mind concerning what had been said between him and Zechs. It had sounded so private towards the end, even though they had barely managed to exchange a few words. And Zechs had been pleading with him to stay... that alone was strange. Sally had really not expected to hear something like that from the normally so stoic agent. She had known that the two men had been friends at one point; both Une and Noin had mentioned it occasionally. But considering the events during the first Eve War, Sally had assumed that their friendship had been over at that point. By now she was no longer so certain about that.
When she looked over at Une, she saw a bittersweet smile on the other woman's face, reflections of relief and regret. Sally went to her side, ignoring Treize's presence for once. The former General seemed lost in his own thoughts anyway, and would hardly protest if she had some quiet words with Une to discuss what to do now, and also what the meaning of all of this was. She really wanted to have some answers, even though she had to admit that it was partly to satisfy her own curiosity.
Une smiled a little when Sally touched her arm slightly. "Sally, can you please send a team down there to bring Zechs and Noin here?" she requested quietly, not turning her eyes away from Treize. "They will be waiting already."
Nodding slightly, Sally returned the smile. "Of course. I will go myself, that way I can check if they are hurt. Zechs never mentioned anything, but you know how he can be..."
"A good idea." Une took a small step backwards and leaned against a table that was set against the tent wall there. "And once you have them checked and out of the cave, bring them here." She looked at Sally for a moment before returning her gaze to Treize. "At least Agent Wind."
Sally raised an eyebrow questioningly, waiting for Une to maybe explain this, but the other woman made no move to do so. By now Sally was certain that there was something going on here that she did not know about, and it bugged her a little. Une obviously knew, but had not told her; certainly her lover had had a good reason to stay quiet about it, whatever it was, but still Sally would have liked to be told as well.
"I would like to talk to you later," Sally said, and when she saw Une's nod of agreement she turned towards the tent entrance to go and put her rescue team together. Three or four other agents should be enough, she thought as she reached to push the flap aside.
And practically collided with Nichols, who seemed to be in a hurry to talk to her.
"Madam!" he gasped, breathless from running. "The security systems in the cave have shut down without any... apparent... reason..." He trailed off, his gaze fixed at something just above Sally's shoulder, and it was not hard to guess just what, or rather, whom he had seen.
Reaching out, Sally grabbed his arm and dragged him inside the tent. Une and Treize were watching with disapproval respectively resignation on their faces.
"Lieutenant Nichols, whatever you see and hear in here is top secret and will be treated as such." Une sounded absolutely matter-of-factly, the coldness in her voice a sure promise of unspoken horrors if her order was not obeyed.
Nichols nodded slowly as a signal that he had understood, but did not react in any other way. He just stared at Treize, and Sally was sure that he would have rubbed his eyes if he had not been in the intimidating presence of Une.
Sally watched the scene, unwilling to intrude right now. She was not quite sure what to do, and waited for either Une or Treize to react. Surely those two had considered the possibility of a situation like this and had previously agreed on a course of action.
Or maybe not, she thought as she watched Treize close his eyes for a moment before putting up a smile that seemed almost genuine.
"Please allow me to wholeheartedly congratulate you on your truly commendable achievements in this mission so far, Lieutenant," he said, smooth and secure enough for Sally to feel a pang of envy. She wished she were able to make up lines like this without having to think about it.
Snapping to attention, Nichols saluted. "Your Excellency." Just that. No questions, nothing. He did not even sound puzzled, but simply seemed to accept the fact that the man in front of him had come back from the dead after more than a year. Sally made a mental note to ask Treize for pointers if the possibility ever presented itself. She was sure that if it had been her who had returned from supposed death, Nichols would be interrogating her by now and then lock her up for improper conduct in public or something.
"I am sure that I can trust you to treat this matter with the necessary discretion." Treize looked rather at ease by now, and Une too seemed pacified at least a little.
"Of course, Your Excellency."
"Very good. But do not let me detain you from your duties, Lieutenant."
Nichols saluted once again, then turned back towards Sally. "Madam, what do you want us to do about the new situation? We could go in and bring Commander Zechs and Lieutenant Noin out now."
"And we'll do just that." With a last glance at Une and Treize, Sally decided that she should better get going. They were wasting time, and Noin and Zechs had to be waiting impatiently already.
Two minutes later she was on the way to the caves, Nichols and two other agents in tow. They all carried backpacks with standard equipment for missions like this, and Sally had also brought along an additional medical kit, just in case either of the two missing agents was injured. She really did not think it likely since neither of them had mentioned anything, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Stop and turn. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Stop. Turn around again. One. Two. Three...
"Zechs, you are making me nervous," Noin remarked, shaking her head as she watched him. A little warning signal rang in his head at the tone of her voice; if even Noin sounded like that, then he should probably be cautious.
"They should have been here long ago," he said, stopping his pacing in front of her. "I hope there are no further problems." Because he was not sure how much longer he would be able to take the unrest and the uncertainty of knowing just what expected him up there. Even though he dreaded possibly facing Treize, he simply had to see with his own eyes that the man was truly alive.
Demonstratively Noin held out her wristwatch to him. "It has only been twenty minutes since the call. They will at least take this long. But they can be here any moment now." She smiled a little, then put a hand on his shoulder. "I know you want to get out of here..."
Zechs sighed softly, trying to withdraw from her touch and be subtle about it. "I wish I knew whether this was real. It was his voice, I am sure about that, but it could have been a recording..." He tried not to think too hard about that possibility, but he could not just ignore it either, that would have been foolish.
"I don't know it either. But you said yourself that it would be possible..."
Nodding slightly, Zechs closed his eyes, resisting the urge to massage his temples. "It could be, yes."
Noin patted his shoulder a final time, then removed her hand. "I am not sure how to feel about the possibility that it really is him," she said, and there was something sad about her voice. "There is a lot that he did for me, but sometimes..." She trailed off, then shook her head, her smile seeming a little forced now. "But never mind me."
Not quite sure how to react to this, Zechs settled for silently pondering her words for some moments. He could not think of anything that she could hold against Treize, but then again, feelings like that were never rational. Besides, he was not all that certain himself about how to react to the potential news. The chance that Treize truly was alive was making him deliriously happy, but at the same time he also felt cheated because he had not known before.
"What will you do now?" Noin asked quietly. "If it really is true, I mean."
Zechs shrugged. "I don't know." Beg for his forgiveness most likely, his mind supplied, but he did not want to say that to Noin. She would not have understood the motives he had for doing something like that.
They fell silent for a while, not really looking at each other but instead at the darkness of the cave that opened before them. Zechs found himself wondering once more when the flashlights would appear from the blackness; with every passing minute his agitation was growing. But he did not dare resume his pacing right now because he knew how impatient it had to look. There was no reason to show his unrest to somebody he did not know. Noin could understand, but he did not know how the other agents would react to seeing him like this. It was not that Zechs cared all that much for their opinion, but it did not feel right to let them get a glimpse of him in such a state. He occasionally was their commanding officer after all, and their faith in his calmness could be valuable.
It actually helped him a little to just stand there and stare straight ahead without really seeing anything. His mind calmed down fractionally, resigned itself to the fact that he could not prepare on any course of action before he was not entirely sure of what really was the truth. Of course it did not stop him completely from thinking through a few scenarios, but at least it helped to get a more distant approach to it all. Even though Zechs was absolutely sure that if Treize was not waiting for him for a talk or at least a glimpse of his face, he was going to be more than disappointed. Shattered could be a good word to describe what his state of mind would be then, but it had a too melodramatic ring to it.
"I knew." Noin's words shattered the silence and startled Zechs badly enough to make him flinch.
"What do you mean?" he asked when he had found his voice again.
Noin looked at him, sadness evident in her eyes. "About you and... and him." She lowered her head, dark hair falling to shield her face from him. "I figured it out after a while."
"Noin..." Zechs did not quite know what to say. He hadn't thought that anybody had known, considering that he and Treize usually had tried to be discrete about it and keep their private lives separated from work. But apparently he had been living an illusion in this regard.
"You don't have to say anything, Zechs," Noin said, gesturing dismissively. "I just... I just want you to know that I'm happy that he might be back." There was sincerity in her voice despite the ruefulness.
Zechs could not think of any words to reply to this, so he moved closer to her and tentatively slipped an arm around her shoulders. He felt her lean into the touch ever so slightly, but after a few moments she pulled away again and looked at him, her eyes a little too bright to really match the small smile on her lips.
"Don't worry, I never told anybody," she said quietly. "And I won't do it now either..."
Once again Zechs did not know what to answer, but this time he was saved by the appearance of the bright peg of light that could only come from a torch. And indeed, a few seconds later he saw Sally step out of the darkness, accompanied by a few other agents. Frantically he checked their faces, but did not find the one he had been looking for.
It would have been unrealistic to think that Treize would come down here, rational thought told him. But it would have been so good nevertheless to know for certain now, and to stop this terrible insecurity that was turning him upside down inside.
"Noin! Zechs!" Sally came towards them, a big smile on her face. "It's so good to see you. Are you alright?"
"Yes, don't worry." Noin seemed to have recovered again, her voice was back to normal once more. "You were here quick, I didn't think you would be so fast. But I'm glad that you are here."
The other agents were spreading out in the cave, and Zechs watched as they examined the cavernous room that had been their prison for endless hours. They were moving expertly as they scrutinized the air conduction vents and the door over there, but Zechs could not help feeling a small pang of disgust at seeing them scrutinizing all those things so mechanically. They had nothing to worry about, nothing at all...
"That cut will need stitches," he heard Sally say as he returned his attention to her. She was examining Noin's cheek carefully. "And I'll bandage your hands once we're back at the base."
"Thank you," the dark-haired woman said quietly. "I'm sorry to cause you so much trouble, Sally."
"Don't mention it." Sally dismissed the apology and turned towards Zechs. "What about you? Any injuries?"
He shook his head. "I am alright."
Sally raised an eyebrow. "You know, I have heard that approach from you before. It won't work a second time. Hands out."
Reluctantly Zechs complied, knowing that it was better to do as she said. If only she wouldn't fuss so much about such little things... the last time she had tried to keep him in the med enter for more than a day just because he had hit his head and gotten a tiny little bruise. Doctors were just prone to exaggerating in his eyes.
And they never were as careful in their prodding and poking as they should be, he thought as he winced when Sally touched his hands. Strange, they hadn't hurt at all before...
"You'll live," the young doctor finally said cheerfully. "But promise me that you'll sit still long enough to let me disinfect the cuts and bandage them up."
Bowing his head, Zechs nodded. He knew when protesting would not help. And with Sally it normally was better to let her have her way and then sneak out of her sight once she got distracted with assaulting somebody else with her first aid kit.
"Here." She handed him a plastic bottle of water, passing one to Noin as well. "I want to give you both a check-up when we are back. You should be alright, but it's better to be safe."
Zechs unscrewed the cap cautiously and took a little sip, relishing the feeling of the cool liquid moistening his mouth and throat. He had been becoming increasingly thirsty during the last few hours, but only now did he really realize how much he had wanted the water. Another sip, this time a little more, and the dry feeling lessened even more. Zechs slowly continued to drink until half of the contents of the bottle were gone, then he screwed it shut again. It would not be good to drink too much at once, he thought. There was no way he would risk feeling unwell, now that there were so many things he had to take care of.
"Can we go back?" he asked, trying not to sound too impatient. In his eyes there was no need to stay in the cave any longer. The other agents could take care of it for now, he would return later.
"Sure." Sally nodded, then looked around, apparently searching for something or somebody. "Nichols, map this place and then meet me in the main tent. I'll be taking Zechs and Noin back to the base." She turned to him and Noin again. "Come on, you two. Unless you want to stay here..."
"No, thank you." Noin shook her head quickly and came to Sally's side. Zechs followed her, and together they started the way back through the dark labyrinth of the caves.
Une had left after assuring herself that he would be fine; Treize had not wanted to detain her any longer, considering that she surely had work to do here. Besides he was rather glad to have some minutes to himself to think about the last few hours, and about what to do next.
It had been so unsettling to hear Zechs' voice again, even through the white noise of the comm unit. Somehow it was the final confirmation that the younger man was indeed alive; until now Treize had only been told about it, and it had been a somewhat abstract idea. But proof had been delivered, and there was no doubt about it any longer. Zechs was alive.
And from the sound of it, cautious optimism was in order.
Zechs had seemed stunned throughout their talk, but Treize knew that this had to be expected. Most of the few people who knew about his survival had reacted like this, and he could not blame them at all. But with Zechs there had been something else apart from the surprise. The pleading tone in the younger man's voice when he had been asking Treize to stay... Treize had no intention at all to leave and he wished that he could have assured Zechs of this before the connection had broken. He was not entirely sure how much of what he had been saying had gone through before the comm on the other side had run out of power, but he hoped that it had been enough.
That Zechs appeared to really want to meet him was both a relief and a source of discomfort at the same time. Of course it would be wonderful to see him again, but Treize dreaded the questions that this meeting would undoubtedly bring. He should have spoken to Zechs before, should not have waited until it became inevitable. It would have saved him the trouble that were sure to come now. Treize knew Zechs well enough to take an educated guess at his reaction; if the younger man was not blaming himself somehow, then the end of the world had to be near. And Treize had no wish to see him hitting himself for something that was not his fault.
Still, maybe he could keep Zechs from doing this; it would all depend on how their talk went. Perhaps it would be possible to avoid the topic of his survival for the moment, until they both had calmed down and were a little more rested. Midnight was past already, and in Treize's eyes it was simply too late to speak about something this significant without getting overly emotional about it. Not after all the stress the day had brought so far.
Casting a glance at the display of the comm unit, Treize checked the time. Sally should have reached Zechs and Noin about ten minutes ago, and if everything was alright they had to be on the way back already. The young woman had estimated that it would take her twenty minutes to get there, and Treize calculated that they would be a little slower on the return.
It was strange to see how fast time was passing right now, too fast for him to feel comfortable about it. There still were so many decisions to be made, about what to say to Zechs, what to do. What would happen after their talk. There were so many unknown variables about the whole thing that Treize was beginning to get lost in the confusion of it all. But, he admitted, it basically burned down to two possibilities. Either Zechs accepted his apology and explanation, or he did not. Everything else could only be decided once this question was answered.
Treize leaned back on the small folding chair, wrapping his coat around himself a little more tightly. It was summer, but that did not seem to have much of an influence on the temperatures at this altitude, and the air had cooled further since sunset. Spending the night in the tents like the Preventer agents did could not be pleasant; Treize did not look forward to it either, but he was not sure if he would get any sleep anyway, no matter how tired he felt.
From outside he could hear a male voice shout something, and laughter answered the call before a car was started and drove off. It was strange to be in the middle of a base without being part of it, but also comforting in some way. Right now solitude felt good, it offered the possibility to think and to gather his nerves for what was to come.
The memory of the last time he had seen Zechs came to his mind, that comm transmission that had shattered even the last bit of resolve to survive that he might have had left. Nothing had seemed strong enough to dissolve the hatred in Zechs' face, in his voice at that time, and it had been the same with peace. In that moment Treize had truly believed Epyon's predictions, that with his death all the loathing and the fights would disappear. And he had been right about it. Nobody could hate a dead man, and the war had ended as well.
Afterwards he had found out that it would not have been necessary, at least in regard of the war. The fighting between Earth and the Colonies would have ended anyway once enough blood had been shed. But he was not sure if the anger in Zechs' eyes would have vanished along with the conflict.
Well, he would find out how much his survival was going to change things between them, if they could go back to their friendship or even the love that had been between him and Zechs once. Treize hardly dared to wish for it, but in his dreams he had heard Zechs speak words of forgiveness, and in the few moments between sleep and awareness it had all seemed possible.
Sighing softly, Treize stood up, folding his arms to keep himself warm. Part of him wished that he were somewhere else, far away from here, maybe back in Kiev with Mariemeia. It would be nice to be home in the familiar surroundings of the old family estate, to maybe sit in the parlor with a good book, or to watch his daughter sleep. It was something that always helped to calm him when he had woken in the middle of the night with this horrible feeling of loneliness that always seemed to come when he closed his eyes.
He would have to bring a present for Mariemeia when he returned, he thought as he walked over to the desk with the comm unit. And of course send a picture postcard before he left. She loved to get them from Dorothy, and also Une and Relena had gotten into the habit of sending them lately. Mariemeia collected them, and whenever a new one arrived - which was rather frequently by now, since her postcard suppliers got around a lot - she would come with a world map to look up the place together with him. It were moments like that for which he lived right now.
In the back of his mind he registered the sound of footsteps outside, but did not pay them any attention until he heard the quiet rustling of the tent flap being moved. It made him turn towards the noise, wondering a little if Une had returned to tell him something. But then he recognized the familiar figure, and all rational thought seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye.
Zechs. Paler and thinner than Treize remembered him, but unmistakably his Zechs, his Milliard, standing there, barely inside the tent and looking at him, azure eyes full of questions and what Treize hoped was wonder and not anger.
Treize did not know what to do, could not persuade his body to move at all. He felt closer to panicking than ever before in his life, simply because this was so much out of his control that it was frightening him. No way to prepare for this, no clever speeches to be made. No, nothing like that at all.
And during those endless seconds Zechs was looking at him, face almost as much a mask as the one of metal had been. Until he blinked and the slightest shadow of a smile ghosted over the pale face.
Taking a tentative step forward, Treize hesitated once more. Then instincts and emotions took over, bundled all rational thought off into some distant corner of his mind, and he flung himself at the man who was both angel and nemesis to him, catching him in a tight embrace, unwilling to ever again let go.
The arms around him felt so real, and Zechs leaned into the embrace, too startled for the moment to do anything else. He hadn't quite been able to believe it, not even when Sally had assured him that it indeed was true, that Treize really was alive and waiting. But when he had finally seen the other man, all doubts had vanished. And things had blurred when he had suddenly found himself being held tightly, until all he was aware of was that this was Treize, and that he really was back. Nothing else mattered right now.
Zechs hesitantly returned the embrace, not quite sure if the other man would pull away, but Treize only shifted a little closer still. It felt so good to be held like this, to smell the familiar scent again that had not changed at all. If he closed his eyes, Zechs could pretend that things were just like they had been before, that nothing had ever happened to damage the contentment that he felt as he held the lean body close.
Silence reigned as they stayed like this for long minutes. No words were spoken, and right now none were needed. Zechs had rested his head on Treize's shoulder, relishing the feeling of the other man's cheek against his hair. Everything seemed alright and good, and there was no need to think, to spoil this moment of perfection. A hand began to slowly stroke his back, regular movements that were meant to soothe, and Zechs relaxed beneath the touches. It was so easy to imagine that nothing was wrong, that they never had been apart.
That Treize indeed was back was becoming clearer and clearer to Zechs; this was not a dream, nothing like the images that haunted him during the night. The other man was alive, was holding him without a word of reproach, and Zechs could do nothing but listen to the sound of his breathing and feel the steady pulse where his cheek touched the side of Treize's neck.
"Milliard..." he heard Treize whisper, almost too low for him to hear. It was only because the sound of his name was familiar, otherwise he wouldn't have picked up the word at all. Nobody ever called him this now, not Noin, not Une. Even Relena used his other name, had gotten into the habit after he had asked her to think of him as Zechs.
"You are back..." He raised his head to look at Treize, studying his face for a moment and searching for changes but not finding any. "I did not think I would ever see you again."
Treize nodded slightly at this, acknowledging that he had heard Zechs' words, but he did not react on them. Instead he slowly raised a hand, and Zechs closed his eyes for a moment as slim fingers brushed against his cheek tentatively.
"Will you... will you leave again?" he asked, looking into sapphire eyes that he would never be able to forget. Please don't go, he wanted to plead, don't leave again. I need you too much. But somehow it did not seem right to say those words, not when he could not even know how things were between them now.
"If you want me to go, I will," came the reply, quietly spoken, and a shadow seemed to cross the handsome face, almost as if the other man were anticipating a particular answer.
Zechs shook his head. "I could never want that."
But even as he said this, he knew the words to be a lie. He had wanted it once, had wished to see the death of the man who was now standing before him. It was not just that Treize should be asking him, when all the right Zechs might ever have had to make such a decision had vanished the moment he had declared war, when he had turned against Earth. And against Treize.
"I see." Treize seemed hesitant, making Zechs wonder just how much of his unease was showing on his face right now. He concentrated on putting up a neutral expression, but was not sure if he had really succeeded with it. The older man had always been able to read him so easily, so he was probably just fooling himself if he thought that Treize did not know what was going on inside him.
The whole situation felt so awkward to Zechs, and he really wished he knew what to say to ease things at least a little. He wanted nothing more than to embrace Treize again, to hold him close and never let go, but the moment when he could have done that seemed past now. Once again he had missed a chance that had been offered to him... there was so much he wanted to say, so many questions he wanted to ask. That he had missed Treize, that he was so glad he had survived. What would happen now. But somehow it seemed impossible to say those words. He had no right to do so, not after deserting the man who had been friend and lover to him once.
"I am making you uneasy," Treize almost murmured, closing his eyes and turning his head away slightly. "I apologize, Milliard. Intruding in your life was not my intention when I came here." He took a step backwards and Zechs released him, unwilling to take any risks right now by restraining him.
"You saved us," he replied, his eyes downcast. There had been few moments when he had wished for his mask to be back, but this was one of them. It had been so easy to hide behind it. "You didn't do anything wrong in that, Treize." Apart from saving his life, and Zechs was not quite sure whether it had been worth all the effort Treize had to have made. But Noin had been rescued as well, so it probably leveled out.
Sighing softly, Zechs raised a hand to tuck a few errant strands back behind his ears. He was feeling tired, but there was no way he was going to rest before he did not know just where he and Treize were standing right now.
"Milliard, I wish this all had never happened. I am just glad that you did not get hurt during this ordeal."
Zechs gave him a slightly puzzled look at this; Treize had not asked him how he was feeling, so how could he know? But then he remembered a conversation between Sally and Une on the way back to the cave, where Sally had briefed the other woman on their conditions. Surely Une had been the loyal aide she always was and had informed Treize. Strange how some things never changed.
Treize was looking at him again, his eyes full of something that Zechs believed had to be sadness, though he was not sure about what.
"I wish that things had turned out different, Milliard," the other man said, regret in his voice, and Zechs could only nod in agreement. "We made so many mistakes that were unnecessary." Sapphire eyes met his own. "Tell me, Milliard. Do you think it was worth it?"
He couldn't help it, he had to close his eyes again to shield himself from that gaze that seemed to read his soul. Treize had always been able to do that, had known his thoughts better than Zechs himself had done sometimes. It had unsettled him in the past, and it was unsettling him now.
"There is so much I regret," he said softly. "And so much that is lost. But peace is here now."
"Yes," Treize agreed. "But was it worth the price? I used to think that there is nothing more valuable than the chance to end all wars. But now that I see the tragedies behind it, and the pain that it brings, I question myself."
"Surely you did not come here to discuss that with me?" Zechs asked. He was feeling too tired for discussions on that philosophical level right now, and he really was not in the mood for it either. What he wanted were answers to some of his questions, mostly to find out how Treize was, how he had survived and why he had never told Zechs.
Treize bowed his head slightly. "You are right, of course. I have come here for two things, to offer my help with that situation you found yourself in, and to see you again." His expression softened at a sudden, turned more open, more vulnerable, something Zechs had rarely seen with Treize. "Milliard, I am tired of watching and waiting, of staying away from you just because I don't know how you will react. I need to know if you can forgive me for what I did wrong, and if you think that we can overcome the differences that were between us in the wars."
"If anybody should ask for forgiveness, then it's me." Zechs sighed, then took a step towards Treize. "I have so many questions, Treize, but I don't think I could understand the answers right now." Not if they were anything like the explanations Treize had given in the past, and Zechs really was not going to risk misunderstandings now. Not when there was a real chance to make amends, and to maybe even fix what had broken between them in the past.
"Of course... I am so sorry, I should have realized how exhausted you are..." Treize seemed genuinely upset about it, so Zechs hurried to assure him.
"It is not so bad," he said, trying to look more alert and awake than he felt. As long as he avoided blinking too much, he should be able to keep his eyes open. "Will you be here still in the morning? Because otherwise I'd rather talk now..."
"No, Milliard, you rest first. I won't leave." Treize stepped closer, and Zechs suddenly found himself in the other man's arms again. This time reacting was easier, and he returned the embrace almost immediately. "I could never leave if you don't send me away."
"Treize..." Zechs whispered, not sure what to say. It all seemed so right now, as if they could really go back to what they had been in the past and forget about all that had happened. Treize was holding him, was not shying away from him in disgust at his desertion. Zechs did not quite understand that, but then again he had never been able to quite comprehend how the other man had ever been able to think him worthy of all his attention and love. The thought that perhaps they could go back to being friends and maybe even lovers was dazzling, but Zechs did not dismiss it. He really wanted things to be like before, and he vowed to himself that he would do anything to make that happen. If only Treize were willing too...
"You should be resting," the ginger-haired man whispered softly, stroking his hair in slow movements. "Is there any place where you can go?"
Zechs thought about this as quickly as his tired mind could manage. "My tent should be alright... there is not much room, but nobody comes in there uninvited so you won't be seen there." He gave Treize a somewhat shy and insecure look. "That is, if you were planning to stay with me... otherwise I am sure there must be other places..."
"I only want you to get some rest, that's all." Treize's hand stilled for a moment before resuming its movement. "If you would allow me to be there too, I will be."
Nodding, Zechs leaned against him a little more. He would go anywhere as long as he did not lose sight of Treize again. Not after more than a year of believing the other man dead, of holding himself responsible for it. He wanted an explanation for all of this, but pushed all beginnings of anger away. There would be time tomorrow. Treize had said so, and Zechs trusted him.
It probably was her own fault for believing Zechs when he had said he would stay long enough for her to check him for injuries, Sally thought as she marched through the base and attempted to spot a glimpse of her runaway patient. She really should have known better, then she would not be out in the dark right now, trying to avoid stumbling over anything.
Noin was safely bundled away; Sally had bandaged her hands, stitched up her cheek and then sent her to bed without any problems. But her friend had always been obedient when it came to such things, and Sally had never had problems with her. It was just Zechs who had this strange aversion against everything that had to do with medicine. Sally couldn't quite understand what the problem was; he surely was not scared of needles, that would just be ridiculous. Still, maybe she should try promising him candies as a reward the next time... it worked with six-year-olds, so it might be applicable to a stubborn ace pilot as well.
Shaking her head at this thought, Sally continued her search, but without any success. Some minutes ago Une had joined in, saying that she had to speak with Zechs about some issues. Sally strongly suspected that it had to do with Treize; it certainly would be what she would discuss with Zechs if she were Une.
They had divided the common tents between them, each searching one side of the base. Sally was on the way back to their previously agreed meeting point by now, and she hoped that Une had been more successful than she had been herself. Once Zechs was found, everybody would be able to get some rest, and Sally definitely looked forward to some calm and - most importantly - private hours with her lover. So if this stubborn blond kept hiding, he'd be in trouble.
Une was already waiting in front of the main tent, her expression less than pleased. Sally gave her a questioning look. It did not appear as if she had found Zechs either.
"Any success?" she asked, stepping up to the other woman.
"No." Une shook her head and folded her arms in front of her chest. "You neither, I suppose."
Sally sighed. "Right. I really wish he weren't that good at making himself invisible. Once I find him, I'm going to run some extra tests on him to make up for this..."
Raising a delicate eyebrow, Une watched her, curiosity in her eyes. "I did not think that you would purposefully annoy a patient."
"Only if he annoys me first. And our dear Mister Merquise has a definite talent to do that." Sally frowned for a moment, then let go of her anger and smiled instead. "He can't run from me forever."
"Too true," Une remarked. "I have a clue regarding his whereabouts, though."
"Oh yes? What did you find out? He didn't leave a note, did he?"
Une smiled for a moment, then turned serious again. "No. But a certain someone is no longer in the comm tent."
This made Sally blink in surprise. "He is gone? But why?" She hesitated a little, the memory of the first Eve War coming back to her mind. "You don't think that Zechs has anything to do with that... should we be worried?"
"No. At least I do not think so. Zechs would not be able to take him away without his consent."
"You seem very certain of that," Sally commented, looking at her lover inquiringly. She knew that the other woman had far more insight in Treize and Zechs than most people in this world, but she had never been quite certain just how much Une really knew about them. One day she'd have to ask for details; so far all that she knew was that Treize and Une had never been involved, and that it had not been Une who had shied away from the possibility of a relationship.
"I am certain," Une assured her. "And I am convinced that if we find one of them, the other cannot be far."
"Consider me intrigued." Sally looked around in the irrational hope that she might spot some hints of blond somewhere in the darkness, but then returned her attention to Une. "You think they would be arguing, or something else?"
The only answer she got to that was a momentary suggestive smirk, an expression that normally was firmly restricted to private surroundings. Une took care to never appear casual in public, claiming that she had an image to maintain, so seeing that look right now was a little startling. But the implications behind it were practically stunning.
"You don't mean..." Sally trailed off, then took a deep breath. "Okay, that's something I'd never have suspected."
Tilting her head slightly to the side, Une smiled at her a little ruefully. "Hardly anybody suspected. They were rather careful. But when you see somebody everyday..."
Sally shuddered a little as these words sank in. It meant that Nichols probably was imagining all sorts of things about her and Une. Or maybe not, considering that the man definitely lacked the ability to be creative and put together clues when they had nothing to do with a mission. Besides, Une had worked so close to Treize, it probably really was impossible to not notice something like that after years of cooperation. Still it was more than a little stunning for Sally to think that he and Zechs might have been involved once. And it also presented her with some relief in regard of what Treize's sudden return might cause Une to do. If that man had no interest in women, then Sally had no reason to be jealous. Not that she had been jealous in the first place anyway.
"So you believe that they took off to some quiet corner?" she asked, focusing on the situation at hand again and pushing her wondering back in her mind.
"It's the most likely explanation," Une answered, but she did not look completely convinced. "Zechs knows that he is here after all, and there must be a lot of unresolved issues between them."
"You could say so," Sally agreed somewhat gloomily as she remembered that tiny little fact that the two men had been fighting each other the last time they had met. "And you are certain that it's safe for them to be on their own?"
"I am planning to check on them." Tucking her hands into the pockets of her pants, Une closed her eyes for a moment. "Don't be surprised, Sally. If you had known them as well as I do, then you would have seen it as well."
"Do you think Noin knew?" Sally asked. She didn't think so, after all the dark-haired woman still had such a crush on Zechs that it made Sally shake her head in exasperation sometimes. But if Une had known... Noin was a close friend of Zechs after all...
"She might have." Une shrugged, her cool demeanor returned. "I did not see any need to discuss the private life of my superior officer with her."
And probably also no need to tell her that she was trying to get a man who was already taken, Sally added silently. She was aware that Une and Noin did not get along too well, and that it had been even worse in the past. But she had made sure to stay clear of their difficulties with each other. After all she was a close friend of one woman and the lover of the other, so Sally really had no wish to get caught in the middle. Still, maybe somebody should tell Noin...
"Does Zechs have a place here somewhere?" Une asked, startling Sally a little. She hadn't been aware that she had been drifting off.
"Well... a tent as far as I know."
"One on his own? I would have thought that he would be sharing with someone." Une was right about this, it was standard procedure.
"You know how he has been behaving lately. Nobody was particularly happy about the idea of coming too close to him." Nobody except Noin, and he had kept her at a distance.
"Then we should check that tent," Une decided. "You know where it is?"
"Yes." Sally nodded, then walked off into the darkness, trusting Une to follow her.
Zechs and Treize... she really would not have thought that those two men could ever be lovers. Even friends seemed unlikely to Sally. But she had to admit that she did not know Treize personally, and that Zechs had been more than a little withdrawn lately. Nevertheless the thought was strange. It wasn't the fact that they were both men that bothered Sally - she was in a quite solid and healthy relationship with Une after all - but their public images had been so contrary that it seemed impossible. The smooth politician and the ace pilot... that would be like thinking of Relena and Heero as a couple.
Well, maybe Zechs and Treize were slightly more likely to get involved.
Sally decided to be kind to Zechs during his checkup; in the current situation it was understandable that he had more urgent things on his mind than some cuts and bruises. Somehow it was almost cute to think of him as in love... it just was hard to imagine. But that had been in the past; there was no way to tell how those two would get along now. Although Treize had practically returned from death to help in rescuing Zechs. And the blond man had been agitated all the way back from the cave, and had disappeared at the first chance he had gotten, and had gone directly to Treize.
Hopefully she would get a chance to see how things developed. It would be good for Zechs; his attitude of not caring about anything at all had been worrying Sally for a while, and she had only been waiting for him to get seriously hurt. But nothing that she had said had made any impression on him. Perhaps that would change now. She certainly hoped so.
She and Une had crossed the areal of the base by now and had reached a tent that had been erected a little apart from the rest, not near the center of the areal like the quarters of most of the agents. Zechs had gotten into the habit of doing that, and Sally could not say whether he was consciously avoiding the others or just did not care about their company. Right now it was fortunate, though, since it meant that it was less likely that somebody would spot Treize. They would have to make sure that he disappeared from the base as soon as possible if he wanted his survival to remain a secret. Maybe Nichols could fly him back to Andorra early in the morning.
"Zechs?" Sally called quietly once they were in front of the tent. But there was no reaction, and there were no noises coming from inside either.
After Sally had tried again, and with Treize's name as well, Une stepped forward and cautiously pulled the tent flap aside to take a peek inside. Sally restrained her curiosity for a moment before doing the same. And she couldn't help smiling when her gaze fell on the scene in front of her eyes, dimly illuminated by the moonlight that shone through the open flap.
Zechs and Treize were both sleeping on the narrow cot inside the tent, lying on their sides and facing each other, their foreheads barely touching. They apparently had been trying to keep at least some distance for the moment, but not overly much. It wouldn't have possible anyway to keep more than a few centimeters apart if they wanted to share the cot without risking to fall off.
Zechs had curled up beneath the blanket, looking more relaxed than Sally had seen him lately, and to his right Treize had wrapped himself in his coat.
Sally watched as the blond stirred slightly and shifted closer to Treize, murmuring something incomprehensible as the other man slowly slid an arm around Zechs' waist in his sleep. Neither of them seemed to be about to wake, and Sally was not going to interrupt them either. She would have ordered Zechs to rest anyway, it would be foolish to wake him now.
A hand gently touching her shoulder made her withdraw from the entrance. Une let the flap slip back into place, and when she turned to leave, Sally saw the soft smile on her face.
"I think we should follow their example," Sally whispered, and when she had assured herself that nobody would be watching, she leaned closer to Une and brushed a fleeting kiss across her lover's lips before leading her back to her own tent.
Treize woke to the feeling of something tickling his nose, and he turned his head a little to the side. He was not quite willing to open his eyes yet; there had been no nightmares to disturb his sleep, and he felt warm and not alone. Too good to simply interrupt this by facing the new day just now; as long as he kept his eyes closed, the warmth and comfort that surrounded him would surely not disappear.
He was too rested to really keep dozing, though, and the memories of last night came back to him. Seeing Zechs again, speaking to him after more than one year... it still did not feel quite real to him that it had truly happened, but there was no way to deny it now. He remembered that they had talked a little, and that the younger man had looked exhausted enough to fall asleep on his feet. Treize's suggestion to rest before continuing their talk had been accepted, and Zechs had let him come along when neither of them had seemed overly willing to let the other out of sight.
Cautiously Treize did open his eyes, but closed them again when he saw what he had hoped would be there. Zechs' face so close to his own, the expression calm and at ease as he slept. Treize was aware that one of his arms was wrapped around the blond man's waist; when they had lain down, they had tried to keep a gentlemanly distance between them, but it seemed that in sleep such precautions were easily discarded. Zechs had curled against him as if in search of warmth, wrapped tightly into a blanket.
For a moment Treize contemplated getting up - there was no way to know how Zechs would take it to find that he had spent the night in the arms of a man whom he might see as an enemy now. Treize was not quite certain about his current status in Zechs' eyes, although the events of last night were giving him some hope. Zechs had let himself be held, and had even returned the embrace. Besides, Treize thought, the young man would hardly have agreed to share the cot with him if he had felt uncomfortable about it. No, there was no reason to leave this comfortable position right now. And it would have meant to wake Zechs, and that seemed a sin.
It had shocked Treize a little to see his friend again after all this time. Zechs looked so different from how Treize remembered him, pale and thin as if he had been sick. Almost frail, as if he would break if the strain got too strong. Only in his eyes had been remnants of the old tenacity that Treize knew so well, that will that had always pushed the young man.
Somehow it reminded him of his own feelings, that pain of missing something essential in his life. Treize had known that for him it was the need to have Zechs at his side that was plaguing him; the younger man had been so much to him, friend, confidant, lover, and when he had left, that feeling of emptiness had come. Mariemeia had lessened the hurt somewhat, but with her it was different.
Could it be that Zechs was suffering from the same? Treize had known him for so long, and he was certain that there had been times when Zechs had truly been happy at his side. Perhaps Zechs wanted him back as well... the possibility was there, could not be denied, and Treize fervently hoped that it might be true. It would make so many things easier if Zechs too was willing to try and fix what had been broken between them.
But there would be time enough to find out if this was possible; once Zechs woke too, this quiet moment would shatter and they would have to face it all, willing or not. Treize attempted to let his mind drift away from concrete thoughts, tried to concentrate only on Zechs' scent, the solid body that lay curled against his own and that radiated such familiar warmth. There had been a time when his goals had been a future for Earth that followed his ideals and his command; now Treize's goals had turned more humble, but not easier to achieve. To wake like this every morning, to know that despite everything that had happened, he was not alone. That his nemesis that was Zechs would accept his apologies and his regret over what had been done in the name of his ideals.
It was something to aim for, Treize mused as his body relaxed further. Without really being aware of it he shifted closer to Zechs, searching the warmth to keep the morning chill at bay. It had been years since he had slept in a tent, and now he remembered why he had gone to such lengths sometimes to avoid it. Maybe he could be back in Kiev this evening... and maybe he would not go there alone.
Treize couldn't say how much time had passed when he felt Zechs begin to stir. Slowly he opened his eyes to look at the beautiful face, saw the slight frown appear on the younger man's brow as he tried to bury his face against the bunched up sweatshirt that had served as a pillow. The tension in his body seemed to disappear again, and for a moment Treize thought that he had drifted off to sleep once more. But then Zechs blinked once, sleepily, then a second time before his eyes focused, and Treize found himself falling, unable to turn away from that azure gaze that seemed to hold him and drag him down into its depths.
He could feel Zechs' body tense again, ready to react to whatever he was going to do now. But that was just the problem, Treize thought. He had no idea what to do, had never made plans for something like this. Silence stretched between them as they looked at each other, and Treize could see the same question in Zechs' eyes that he wanted to ask too.
Where do we go from here?
"I hoped that this wouldn't just be a dream," he heard Zechs whisper almost inaudibly. "I dreamed about this far too often." A hesitant hand rose to brush against his cheek, and Treize leaned into the touch until it disappeared again some moments later.
"Milliard, I..." Treize scratched the polite response he had meant to give, knowing that it would have been out of place now. "I can't tell you how glad I am to be here." To have you in my arms, to be able to hold you near, even though I have to fear that at any moment you might shy away.
"I missed you so much..."
Zechs' eyes had never left his face while he had spoken, but now they closed for long seconds until the azure gaze returned. "Please, tell me that you won't disappear again, no matter what..."
Treize nodded. "If that's what you want, I promise." Inwardly he felt warm all over at hearing Zechs' request, and the promise was made without any hesitations. It was what he wanted, after all, and he would have been a fool to reject this. He was tired of contemplating what to do for the greater good; it was time to be selfish and think about single lives for once. There had been so many lost chances for Zechs and him, but he was not going to let this opportunity pass.
Slowly Zechs was leaning closer, and Treize saw the hint of uncertainty in his face, the certainty that if he turned away now, Zechs would be lost to him. But there was no need to force himself to hold still; Treize knew that he couldn't have moved even if he had wanted to do so. Not when facing that turmoil in Zechs' eyes, that mingling of doubt and growing hope. He was not going to ever again take that from the younger man. Not if he could help it.
Their lips touched, the kiss light and cautious at first, full of hesitation and insecurity until they both gave in to it. Then nothing else mattered anymore; it was as if time had been turned back for them, as if the last two years had never happened. Treize slowly tangled his hands in long platinum hair as he gathered Zechs closer, and all tension vanished as their kisses grew more secure, more passionate, reminders of what had been and what hopefully would return again.
Zechs shifted them slightly, his arms coming around Treize, who suddenly found himself almost beneath the younger man, but he could not have cared less. The old needs for control were still in the back of his mind, but this was not about dominance any longer, this was only about closeness and hope and the need to feel each other close to assure their reality.
"I won't ever let go of you again," Zechs told him between kisses. "Never, unless you tell me so."
"Why should I?" Treize returned, raising a hand to rest it against Zechs' cheek. "I'd have to be crazy to do that."
"Good, keep thinking like that..." the younger man purred.
They got lost in each other again, abandoning themselves to kisses and caresses, but when Treize's hands found their way beneath Zechs' shirt, the blond shook his head slightly.
"Not here..." he said, both regret and desire plain in his voice. "This is too fast..."
Treize nodded, withdrawing slightly from Zechs and trying to get his control back. "You are right, Milliard. My apologies."
Zechs frowned at him for a moment, then shook his head. "Don't apologize," he said, placing a gentle kiss on Treize's forehead. "I just think we should talk about some things first."
Nodding, Treize sighed softly. "That was my plan too, but I got a little... distracted." A last brush of mouth against mouth before he withdrew completely from the other man's arms and stood up. He felt cold all over immediately, and not even his coat seemed to work much against it. "Is there any place where we won't be disturbed?" he asked softly.
Zechs gave this some thought, then shook his head. "Not here. Somebody would see you sooner or later."
Treize watched as Zechs got up as well, and he felt a pang of dismay as he once more looked at him. The expression in the beautiful face had improved, but Treize couldn't help feeling fiercely protective at the sight of his beloved friend. Zechs had always been slender, but this simply was too much.
"Lady Une will probably want to have you safely away from this place as soon as possible," Zechs said, putting on his uniform jacket and zipping it up. "I could fly you to the airport..."
"And then what?" Treize wanted to know. The feeling of insecurity had returned at Zechs' words; was the younger man in such a hurry to have him leave again? He had thought that things looked good, but maybe he had been wrong about that.
A hesitant look settled on Zechs' face. "Maybe I could come with you?"
"Are you sure you can do this?" It would just be perfect, but somehow it seemed too good to be true.
"Sally said something about a few days of sick leave to recuperate when we were on the way back here." Zechs scowled for a moment, and Treize suspected that his dislike for doctors had surfaced once more. "I don't think that it's necessary, but it would give us some time."
Nodding, Treize tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. "If you can do that, it would be wonderful."
A smile played on Zechs' lips. "Sorry for just inviting myself along like this."
"Never mind that. Would you come to Kiev with me? We can go somewhere else too, but I promised Mariemeia not to be gone for too long..."
Pale eyebrows rose. "I thought that Dorothy is taking care of her? But yes, of course I will go there with you."
"I am sure Lady Une will lend us that jet," Treize said, smiling as he watched Zechs start packing immediately. "She said that she is only testing it, but certainly she'll value a second opinion too."
Azure eyes brightened in sudden excitement. "The SR-73? You came with that one? I wonder if it really is so fast as everybody says... You will let me pilot, won't you?"
Treize looked startled for a moment at this sudden outburst of enthusiasm. Maybe he should have mentioned that plane before, it certainly had lifted Zechs' spirits to hear of it. Ah, some things just never changed... But it was good to see Zechs like this again.
"Of course I will let you," he said softly as he stepped closer to Zechs again and embraced him, his heart beating faster with happiness when the hug was returned immediately, the familiar figure settling in his arms. "I suppose we'll just have to wait for Lady Une to come looking for us..."
Zechs nodded, then kissed him briefly, teasingly. "I am sure we can find ways to pass the time."
So good to be back in Treize's arms, to feel his warmth when holding the slim body close. Zechs sighed in contentment as he lightly nuzzled the side of Treize's neck, relearning the unique scent and taste of the other man's body. There still were a lot of issues between them that needed to be addressed and discussed, but right now Zechs was happy to have his former friend and lover back.
Or maybe 'former' was no longer necessary, he thought as he relished the reality of the moment. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend that they had never separated, that the war had not happened. That there had not been a time when to him the one person who had held his trust had turned into a mortal enemy. Shooting at Treize had been wrong, no matter what had happened between them. There had not been any reason to do it... but the anger and the frustration that Zechs had been feeling at the time had made it look like a solution.
Zechs had just raised his head to take another kiss when the sound of footsteps just outside the tent made him freeze. There was no way to prevent Treize being seen by whoever decided to peek inside, and Zechs knew that this would definitely be a bad thing. He was not quite sure how many people knew that the former OZ leader was alive, but he was certain that it would not be good if things got out of control.
Releasing Treize, he moved to the tent flap, trying to think of what to do now. After assuring himself that Treize had turned his face away so he would at least not be recognized immediately, Zechs poked his head out and found himself nose to nose with Sally. Well, nose to forehead more accurately, but to Zechs she had always seemed taller than she really was. A trick that she seemed to be sharing with Une and Dorothy.
"What is it?" he asked as soon as he had taken a reflexive step back.
"Good morning to you too," she said, favoring him with a bright smile. "I was certain I'd have to wake you. Very thoughtful of you to be awake already." Sally glanced into the tent briefly, and nodded with satisfaction when she saw that Treize had not disappeared.
"Sally, what do you want?" Zechs repeated his question, hoping that she would deem him worthy to have it answered. He liked her, really did, but sometimes she just could go on his nerves with the cheerfulness that surfaced when she didn't worry about anything.
"Lady Une wants to make sure that our... guest," she hesitated slightly before settling on a word to describe Treize, "is safe from discovery."
Zechs felt a hand settle on the small of his back for a moment, indication enough that Treize had come to his side. Unconsciously he shifted close to the other man in search of body contact to assure himself that Treize had not disappeared in the twenty seconds since Zechs had let go of him.
"I am grateful for her concern." Treize smiled at Sally politely, looking absolutely sincere even though Zechs was sure that he could not be that happy about the interruption either. Sometimes he really envied the older man for the control he had over his body language. It reminded Zechs of the mask that he had used to wear for years, only that this one was a far more durable one that would hardly shatter under the pressure of g-forces.
"What is Une planning to do?" Zechs wanted to know. He was not quite happy that she had taken the initiative in this case; sure, she was concerned about Treize's safety, but still Zechs felt that it was his own responsibility to protect his friend from being seen. After all Treize had come here for him, and not for Une.
At least Zechs hoped that it was like that.
Sally turned back to him again. "I'll be flying over to the airport in Andorra and pick up some supplies from there. And Lady Une suggested that it would be a good opportunity to sneak His Excellency out of here again."
Frowning, Zechs looked at Treize and saw the same dissatisfaction in the sapphire eyes that he was feeling himself. They had agreed on leaving together, and Zechs really wanted to take the chance to return to a calm place to think things over. But if Sally took Treize back now, it would become harder to do so. Once the ginger-haired man left here, he would be out of Zechs' reach once more, and that was not acceptable any longer. Not after all that had happened, all the wasted time.
"Do you think that I could speak to Lady Une about this?" Treize asked. "I must admit that I have some... objections to her idea."
Raising an eyebrow, Sally gave him a curious look. "What objections? I thought you did not want to be seen here."
"True," Treize conceded. "But I have not finished everything that I have been intending to do here. I can't leave before accomplishing a few more things."
"Consider me intrigued." Sally crossed her arms in front of her chest, an expectant expression on her face. "Well, Your Excellency?"
Treize shook his head slightly. "I told you that this particular title is no longer appropriate."
Of course not, Zechs thought. It had come with the leadership of OZ, although he had some doubts that anybody else would have been addressed like that. Somebody had started with it - Zechs was not sure who it had been, but it could have been Une - and the rest of OZ had adapted to it until it had turned into something like an honorary title for Treize. Zechs had always thought of it as a wonderful distinction compared to addressing Treize as General.
"Treize then." Sally sighed softly, obviously not content with being corrected like that. Or maybe it was being delayed and sidetracked that she did not like. "I still would like to know what you have to do still. And if it could also be done somewhere else. Lady Une would certainly agree to give you the resources that you need. She'd really prefer to know that you're somewhere safe from discovery."
"I did not know that my dear Lady is this concerned about me." Treize looked rather pleased by the thought as far as Zechs could tell, and it bothered him a little. But maybe that was just a flashback of old jealousy over Une; right now there really was no reason to feel like that. But emotions were never rational.
Sally's expression softened a little. "She worries for your safety, that's all."
"In that case I do not wish to cause her any more distress," Treize returned. "What I have to do still does not require any of your resources really. But if you prefer me to leave, then I might need to borrow Agent Merquise for a while." He turned to Zechs, a little smile on his lips. "Or do you prefer Preventer Wind now?"
Zechs smiled back tentatively, the gesture feeling a little awkward. He realized that he had not been smiling much lately. But he had never felt the urge to do so, not like now.
"Anything is fine with me," he said quietly. Names no longer mattered much to him; Milliard and Zechs no longer were at war in his mind. Pacifist and Soldier were in balance at the moment, and he was each of them. With Treize he would probably always prefer to be called Milliard, simply because it brought memories of carefree and beautiful days. But now he was also at peace with the aspect of his personality that was Zechs.
Sally cleared her throat to get their attention again. "As I see it, Zechs is due for two or three days of convalescent leave anyway. I already sent Noin home for the same reason."
"Noin?" Zechs inquired, ignoring the idea of being on sick leave for the moment. "How is she?" He hadn't really thought about her, and it made him feel guilty that he had forgotten about her so easily.
"She's okay," Sally assured him. "Her cheek had to be stitched, but that was the worst. Some cuts and bruises that had to be fixed up, but no reason to worry. I just wanted her to take a breather for some days after all the stress. And the same goes for you," she said, fixing him with a firm glance. "If you promise to rest, then I have no problem with letting you two go off on your own."
"You have my word," Zechs hurried to confirm. As long as she did not get any other ideas... resting was fine with him.
"I'll hold you to it. And you," she turned to Treize, "are going to make sure he really takes a break. He needs it, so don't get any silly ideas."
"And what ideas would that be?" Treize inquired, amusement clear in his voice. Zechs doubted that he really expected an answer to that question, and Sally seemed to have gotten the same impression. She just shot him a quick grin, then shook her head.
"Never mind. Zechs, I'd like to give you a quick check-up before we leave."
Zechs scowled. He really had hoped that he would get around it this time, but apparently that particular wish had not been fulfilled. In his eyes Sally was just paranoid with her constant examinations. He'd know if he were not alright after all.
"If you really think it necessary," he said without much enthusiasm. "But I am fine."
"Of course, Doctor Merquise," Sally replied. "And since when do you have the qualification to make a diagnosis?"
He frowned at this, trying to ignore the look on Treize's face. The ginger-haired man seemed far too amused in Zechs' eyes. But of course it was easy for Treize to laugh, after all it was not going to be him who would be poked and prodded and stung with needles. Zechs simply did not see the need for all of this fussing.
"I promise that I'll be quick," Sally said. "Sit down on the cot." She pushed him back inside the tent and moved in as well.
"You already brought your kit?" Zechs asked when Sally opened a small bag that she had been carrying. This was going too fast for his peace of mind.
"I was planning to check you anyway," she answered calmly as she stuck the stethoscope into her ears. "Shirt off."
With a sigh Zechs complied, and he shot a desperate glance at Treize, who had settled down behind Sally and was watching the proceedings with an expression of faint interest. He flinched when the cold metal plate touched his chest, but obeyed Sally's commands to take deep breaths. Hopefully she would at least be quick about it all, now that he had no chance for escape left.
"I'm still not sure if it is a good idea to let you have this jet," Sally said doubtfully as she watched Zechs' expression change from happiness to sheer bliss as they approached the craft. It was good to see him like this, there was no arguing it, but the grin that was slowly appearing on his face was beginning to make her feel uneasy. A delighted Zechs was something she had not seen before, and she wasn't quite certain whether she should be searching for cover or not.
"Why not?" Zechs asked, sounding a little hurt. "You know that I am a good pilot. Don't you trust my abilities?"
She held up a hand in defense. "I never questioned your capability, I just..." she trailed off, not quite sure how to tell him what really was on her mind. He looked like a boy who had gotten his favorite toy after months of waiting for it; only in this case the toy cost hundreds of millions, and Sally had a feeling that Zechs wouldn't restrict himself to merely flying directly to their destination.
Treize smiled at her warmly, his face mirroring some of her apprehensiveness. "Surely he knows that you are just concerned about our safety... don't you, Milliard?"
The man in question turned away from the thrusters that he had been admiring and back to Treize and Sally, blond hair flying from the spin. "Of course I know, and I appreciate it. But," he tilted his head lightly to the side, "you really have no reason to worry. I am a good pilot."
Sally laughed quietly. "I don't doubt that. Just don't get overly enthusiastic about the jet, that's all I ask. Lady Une wants it back in one piece." Zechs gave her a slightly piqued look at this, and Sally made a mental note to watch out over her words for now. She just wasn't used to Zechs being so responsive, and his reactions to some things had changed dramatically over the last hours. Strange how much the return of one person could do.
She would have to ask Une about details on this. They had talked a little last night, but there were still a lot of things that left Sally wondering how close the two men really were. There hadn't been any outward hints of it during the war, and Sally was certain that if any of the opposing sides had known that Zechs and Treize had been lovers, it would have been used against them. But it seemed that the two had been careful enough about it.
"Has the plane been refueled yet?" Zechs asked, his expression back to a business-like one as he inspected the belly of the craft.
"Yes, we had that done yesterday." Sally left Zechs to his investigations and turned to Treize. "Where will you be going? Just so we know where to pick up the jet again." She wasn't entirely sure whether he would tell her or not, but she had to ask. No matter what Une had said and how trusting her lover was when it came to Treize, Sally was not going to let him out of her sight until she was absolutely certain about his motives.
"I will make certain that it is ready to be taken back again," Treize said somewhat evasively as he watched Zechs. "Lady Une probably has arranged for this already anyway."
Sally sighed impatiently at this answer. "Assuming that she didn't, where can we find that plane? It doesn't belong to us yet."
"Ah, Doctor Po, don't worry about your pretty machine." Treize smiled at her once again, but she didn't let it get to her this time. "I am not planning to hide it anywhere." He wouldn't have a reason for that anyway, Sally thought, considering that he could probably easily afford to buy a plane if he wanted one.
Shaking her head with some exasperation, Sally fixed him with a glance. "How direct will I have to get? All I want to know is where you will be going."
Treize gave her an amused look. "Why didn't you say so then?"
"Will you answer my question?" Sally was by now close to wringing his neck a little. Not even Nichols could put so much strain on her nerves. It was clear that Treize did not want to tell her, but she was determined to find out where he and Zechs would disappear to, if only to prove to herself that she could pry information out of the ginger-haired man.
Forked eyebrows rose slightly. "Home, of course." He smiled when Sally glared at him. "Surely you know where that is for me, don't you?"
Resigning herself to this, Sally decided to play along for now. It might be the easiest way to get what she wanted. "No, I don't. Studying your private life never was high up in my interests."
He shook his head slightly, the sardonic smile still in place. "I should have thought that you would have paid attention to those things. Correct me if I am mistaken, but according to my sources you were part of more than one group that opposed the organizations to which I belonged. Is that correct?"
Sally nodded, and against all intentions to stay annoyed she was beginning to become curious to see what he was getting at.
"Very well." Treize seemed pleased that they agreed on this. "And as such I was your enemy to some extent. You really never considered catching me off guard when I was home? It is something I find hard to believe."
She frowned slightly. "No. For us you never were important enough to assassinate." With satisfaction she saw the genuine surprise in his face, even though it only lasted a moment before the more familiar calm expression was back.
"I suppose I should be grateful for that," Treize said. "Although it makes me wonder what it would take to be considered a serious threat by you."
"You don't want to know," Sally returned firmly, keeping herself from saying that if he continued in his vein, she'd happily strangle him just to shut him up. "You still haven't answered my question."
"Such persistence," came the calm comment. "Admirable, Doctor Po. And it should be rewarded, of course, though I don't quite see why it is so important of you to know." Treize's tone implied rather clearly that he was toying with her, and that he was enjoying himself so far. By now Sally was beginning to become glad that her assistant was Nichols and not him. Nichols was a little annoying occasionally, but Treize would drive her crazy if he were constantly around.
The sound of the jet engines being started kept her from asking once more; it seemed that Zechs was not intending to stay here for longer than necessary. Strange how eager he was at a sudden to get away from this place... but certainly there were things that had to be settled between him and Treize. Or maybe they just wanted to have some time to their own. When she remembered seeing them rest in each other's arms during the night, she still found that image a little hard to believe. The two men had been trying to kill each other not so long ago, and yet they were acting as if nothing had happened.
"Kiev." Treize's voice startled her, and she shot him a somewhat confused look at this as her mind slowly registered that he had finally replied, and that he had not evaded her question this time. "Surprised, Doctor Po? You wanted to know where we are going, and this is my answer. Does it satisfy you, or will you require more details?" Asked in full seriousness, but still Sally was getting the impression that she was being teased in some way.
"You couldn't have said that immediately, could you?" she returned, inwardly basking in the knowledge that she had made him back down first on this matter. Even though it was something as trivial as their destination, it made her feel good to know that she had won this round.
Treize gave her another of those slight smiles. "I could, but it was far more interesting to have this little dispute with you."
Frowning a little for a moment, Sally shook her head. "Glad to amuse you, Your Excellency," she said, putting some emphasis on the address. She'd have preferred to have a simple answer instead of this twisted dialogue.
"I seem to have annoyed you," Treize remarked after a moment. "Please accept my apologies."
He sounded sincere enough, Sally decided. Although with someone like him, one could never be sure. But still... "No need for that," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "Just do me a favor and give me the answer immediately the next time." She had her doubts whether he'd do that, but one could always hope for the best.
They watched as Zechs emerged from the plane again and stepped up to them. Quickly Sally glanced at his hands, but couldn't see any spots where blood had seeped through the bandages that covered most of his fingers. It had taken much persuasion and even more threatening to have him sit still enough for patching him up, and she was glad that she didn't have to do it once again.
"Has Une arranged for somebody to pick up the jet again?" Zechs asked, tucking errant strands of blond hair behind his ears. They immediately were blown free again by the wind, but he didn't seem to care much about it.
Sally shook her head. "I don't know of anything, but I suppose we'll get it back somehow," she said, smiling a little when she saw Zechs' expression brighten a bit at the prospect of having the machine around for a longer time. Noin had mentioned occasionally that he had been close to obsessed with his Mobile Suits, but this was the first time that Sally saw his affection for machines in action.
"Lady Une surely will be informing us what she wants to do with the plane," Treize interjected. "I don't want to rush you, but still..."
Zechs looked at him for a moment, then nodded briskly. "We really should be on our way. Sally," he turned at her, his expression softening a bit. "Thank you for everything."
"You are welcome," she replied warmly. "Have a good flight." So good to have him actually react to his surroundings again; it took a worry from her that had been a constant companion when she had thought of Zechs.
She watched as they entered the plane, and she wondered a little what they would talk about during the flight. It would be something interesting to witness, that was for sure... but she also had respect for privacy, since it was something she wanted to have as well. With that in mind she observed as the sleek jet turned around to face the runway. It accelerated at a sudden, all roar of the engines and clouds of dust as it gained speed and took to the air. Within a minute it had disappeared from view, and Sally returned to her helicopter to head back to the base with the supplies that she was supposed to bring.
Keeping his eyes on the altimeter, Zechs took the jet upwards to reach the proper air corridor. The craft moved smoothly, its reaction time even better than he had expected, and he felt almost content to be able to fly once again. He hadn't realized how much he had been missing it; none of the other missions had required piloting skills, but he was satisfied to see that he had not forgotten anything. Although he'd probably have to practice to get his reaction time up to previous levels again. But that was only a matter of time and training.
"The jet seems to be well-developed," came Treize's voice from the copilot seat. "It would be worth the money."
Zechs nodded in agreement, flicking some small switches to his left to engage the stealth mode. If this plane could disappear from radar, then he wanted to try it out. He would have to check later whether it still could be seen or not.
"Lady Une will surely agree," he said in a carefully neutral tone. Right now the question of whether they'd get this plane or not was not really the most important one on his mind, but on the other hand he was glad about the topic. He was quite at ease now in Treize's presence, but a lot of unspoken things were hovering between them, and Zechs wasn't quite sure if he was ready to discuss them yet.
Treize reached over to switch on the additional engine cooling. "The temperature was increasing," he explained when Zechs shot him a surprised look. Zechs darted a quick glance at the display, and indeed the engine heat was growing slowly. He waited for some moments until the cooling took effect and the numbers decreased again, then looked at Treize apologetically.
"I should have noticed," he murmured, not happy at all that he had not seen this, especially after assuring Sally more than once that he was a capable pilot.
"Don't worry about it. The temperature was barely above the normal numbers." Treize was leaning back in his seat again, his posture seemingly as relaxed as Zechs wished to be himself. "I know you would have noticed it the next time you had looked at the display."
"But I should have seen it," Zechs insisted somewhat stubbornly. He was piloting, so he was responsible for their safety, and insufficiently cooled engines weren't something that could be ignored. It had been his fault for not paying enough attention, and he had put them both at risk, no matter how small it had been at the moment. He checked all the other displays in order to make sure that he wasn't overlooking anything else, and corrected the direction of the plane a little to avoid coming too close to one of the air corridors that were reserved for commercial flights.
They both stayed silent for some minutes, Zechs concentrating on flying while Treize was watching with a look of idle interest on his face. But things were building up, all those unvoiced questions and unspoken explanations that were only waiting to find a way out. There was so much that Zechs wanted to say, that he needed to say, and with every moment that he waited, the atmosphere was becoming more and more uncomfortable. He did notice some signs of uneasiness on Treize as well, tiny movements that he only spotted because he knew the other man so well.
But had he really known him? Ever after the Eve Wars Zechs' doubts about this had steadily grown; he had not expected Treize to go as far as sacrificing his own life for his ideals, and it had come as a shock to him to hear Treize asking him to fire. And when Zechs had failed to kill him, Wufei had stepped in... but fortunately they both hadn't succeeded. Whenever he thought back now to the moment when he had pressed that button, Zechs could no longer understand what had made him want to fire. All he was sure of was that it had seemed the only possible solution at the time. And this lack of understanding, the inability to explain his reasons, was what made it so difficult to cope with. How could he justify an action that was appaling to him by now?
Treize was the first to break the silence between them. "It is strange to be here with you, Milliard," he said quietly, and when Zechs looked at him, sapphire blue eyes were studying his face. "I had not thought that it would ever happen."
That statement made Zechs frown slightly. So Treize had not been planning to meet him ever again? Sure, there were enough reasons for the older man not to want to see him. The problems Zechs had been constantly causing, his defection when Treize had needed him, the final battle... every single one of those reasons was enough to justify a wish to stay away from him. But still, some part of Zechs was not willing to accept it like this. There had to be other reasons apart from his own mistakes. And he wanted to know what those reasons were.
"Why have you been hiding for so long?" he asked, trying not to sound reproachful. It was one of the main questions that had been on his mind ever since he had heard Treize's voice over the comm.
Bowing his head slightly, Treize broke eye contact for a moment before looking back at him again. "Can you imagine what might happen if the world finds out that I am alive?" he asked in a soft voice. "There are so many people who could take it as a reason to start to fight again. And they might want to use me as a figurehead."
Zechs sighed softly. "You are right about that," he admitted. It truly was something that had to be considered; there were some influential people who had a lot to gain if Treize returned. Mostly the remnants of the Romafeller Foundation, and they could get the idea that if the former OZ leader was back, they would again have a chance to seize the control they craved.
"But that wasn't what you were asking about, was it?" Treize was studying his face and finally looked into his eyes. Zechs refused to avert his gaze even though the urge to do so was there, and instead simply returned the scrutiny.
"No, that wasn't what I meant," Zechs agreed. He was still looking at Treize, tried to find differences to how he had looked before everything had broken apart. The fading white line of a scar on his forehead, ginger hair a little longer and more tousled... but the look in the deep blue eyes was still the same, had not changed at all.
Shifting in his seat, Treize turned a little more towards him. "When I woke up after the battle was over, nobody would tell me what had happened to you," he said quietly. "I was always told not to worry about it. And after a few days, Dorothy told me that you had died in the explosion of Libra." Treize closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head slightly as if to will a thought away.
"You should have had more faith in Epyon..." Seeing that they had reached their air corridor, Zechs engaged the autopilot. He didn't quite trust himself to pay enough attention to their flight right now, and he was not going to take risks. Not now.
Treize smiled slightly, but there didn't seem to be much real amusement behind it. "Yes, I should have known better. After all I have seen all the tests that the suit went through. But there were no traces of you... in the end I had to reach the same conclusion as everybody else."
"I see." Zechs concentrated on keeping his thoughts focused on the here and now; the memories of the hours after the battle were coming back, and he did not want to think about them in this moment. There would be time for it later. "But what about that attempted coup of the Barton Foundation?"
I was there, everybody saw me... why didn't you say anything?
There was no immediate answer from Treize. Zechs watched him, trying to decide whether to repeat his question or to give him more time. It was strange to see Treize actually contemplate an answer instead of simply voicing words that he had prepared in case they would become necessary.
"Too much happened on that day," Treize eventually said. "Mariemeia, the attack on Earth... It was so incredible to see that you were alive still." He hesitated, running a hand through his hair in what Zechs decided was a definitely nervous gesture. "I wanted to contact you. But once everything returned to normal again, you had already left for Mars, and you were out of reach for me."
Zechs nodded to show that he had understood. It was true that the circumstances of his return had been rather chaotic, and that not much time had passed until he had left for the red planet to participate in the terraforming project.
"You could have called me," he said, and this time there was some reproach in his voice. He just couldn't help it; the thought that Treize had been alive all this time while he had been blaming himself for the other man's death was being more than a little unpleasant.
Treize seemed to have noticed as well. A small frown touched his face for a moment before he turned away and stared at the panel in front of him, although Zechs was willing to bet that if he asked Treize now what he was seeing there, he would not get an answer. In some way it was reassuring to know that he was not the only one who had difficulties with coping with the situation appropriately. But it was not Zechs' intention to make Treize feel bad about this. He wanted to have answers to his questions, but not some sort of strange revenge by causing Treize to feel guilty. Besides, it appeared that the ginger-haired man was managing that rather well without him anyway.
"Treize?" he said, wondering whether he had gone too far in some way. Zechs couldn't really think of anything else that would make Treize fall silent right now. It was making him uneasy to be sitting here without any idea of what he should be doing, whether he should apologize or say something else. Usually it had been Treize who had taken care of situations like this one, and Zechs found himself quite without a clue of what to do.
"You are right, I should have called you," Treize said at a sudden. Zechs had just been about to reach out and touch him in order to get some sort of reaction, but it didn't seem necessary now. "I should not have waited for so long, Milliard..." He sighed softly. "It was a mistake."
"Why didn't you do it?" Zechs asked quietly. "Surely you must have had a reason."
And maybe it was not because of me... please, let it be something else than my own mistakes.
Another moment of tense silence passed between them, then Treize met his eyes again. "I could never find the right words," he said, his voice nowhere as stable as Zechs was used to. "I did not know whether you would want to know, and if it would even be fair towards you." Treize hesitated a little. "I was afraid to see that I had driven you away completely. So I thought that if I did not contact you, then I could go on pretending that you were lost to me out of any other reasons but because of my actions."
Zechs wasn't quite sure what to think of this admission. To hear that Treize had been insecure enough about something to not know what to do was strange, and Zechs found himself wondering whether he was to blame for it or not. But maybe it was not his mistake, and neither was it Treize's. It was difficult for Zechs to imagine what he would have done if their roles had been reversed in this. He wished he could have said that he would have spoken to Treize, but he knew that he would be lying to himself then.
"Maybe it was a mistake, Treize," he told the ginger-haired man who meant so much to him. "But you have come to help me, and we are talking now, so it does not matter."
It didn't matter? How strange it was to hear this coming from Zechs. But Treize could not deny that he wanted to believe in the words of his friend and lover, wanted to believe that they truly could overcome whatever mistakes they had made in the past. It would take time, he knew that very well, but having everything like it had been before would be worth the effort.
They both fell quiet once more, but this time it was a far more comfortable silence; a lot of the tension was gone now that a few basic points had been cleared up. That Zechs was not angry because of his hiding was a great source of relief for Treize; anger would have been bad, but what could have even been worse would have been sadness. And miraculously neither of these emotions were reflected on Zechs' face. Treize was rather certain that he'd notice any mood shifts in the younger man; he had been able to do so for years, it would be unlikely that he should lose this ability
No, Treize thought as he studied his companion once again. This was not what anger looked like, not at all. It might be thoughtfulness, that was far more likely, and dangerous too in case Zechs suddenly decided that he had made some obscure mistake and proceeded to brood over it for a while. Treize had seen a lot of those dark moods in his lover over the years, but had never found a definite method to counter them. Therefore he was glad that right now Zechs seemed merely lost in thought.
"How much longer will the flight take?" Treize asked eventually, more out of a need to say something than because he really wanted to know. But he needed to hear Zechs' voice again, and maybe try to get him out of his contemplations before they could take a darker turn.
Zechs studied the instruments panel for a moment. "About thirty minutes," he answered. "Une has cleared all landing permissions for us already." Turning his head, Zechs looked at him once more, a hint of uneasiness on his face. "Can I ask you something?"
"Of course," Treize said, trying to not let the wariness that this question made him feel echo in his voice.
"What will happen now?" Studying his face, Zechs hesitated for a second before he continued. "I still don't know where we stand right now..."
Treize took a moment to contemplate the answer. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, but the words didn't seem to fall into place like they used to do.
"I would like to have a chance to spend some days with you," he said, more or less voicing his thoughts when the sentences he could come up with seemed too awkward. "There is a lot we should talk about..." Treize trailed off, unsure for a second whether to continue or not, but then decided to go ahead. "And forgive me if this makes you feel uncomfortable, but I would like to see whether we can make things right again."
"You mean, like before?" came the question in return.
He nodded, not quite certain whether he had gone too far or too fast with this. There was no reason any longer for him to think that Zechs might loathe him, but a few embraces and kisses did not have to mean that the younger man was willing to give their relationship a second chance. Inwardly Treize frowned at himself, knowing that he was doing Zechs injustice by thinking so, but somehow the thought couldn't quite be suppressed.
"And do you think that it is possible?" Zechs asked quietly. Such a laden question...
"Yes." This time Treize did not hesitate to answer; the doubts he had were not whether it could work, but whether Zechs too would want it to work.
A smile slowly spread on Zechs' face, taking away the tension that only was noticeable now that it was disappearing. "That would be perfect," he said, with enough feeling resonating in his voice to make the last of Treize's doubts about this disappear. Zechs wanted this as much as he did, it seemed.
"I am glad that we agree on this." What Treize truly wanted to do this very moment was embrace his friend, but the security belt was effectively trapping him in his seat; besides, in the narrow cockpit there wasn't really enough space to perform such a maneuver without brushing against some switch. It was better not to risk it, but knowing this did not make it easier to stay seated.
Just thirty more minutes... maybe less...
He noticed that Zechs was looking at him with a strange expression on his face; Treize could see some relief, but there was something else that he could not read at all. Zechs' face usually was a good indication of what was going on in the younger man's mind, and over the years Treize had learned to interpret what he saw there. But right now he was more or less at a loss.
However, Zechs' next words clarified things. "I don't understand how you can want me back with you after all that has happened."
For an instant Treize wasn't entirely sure whether he'd heard right. But the words sank in eventually, and there was no denying that Zechs really had voiced them. Somehow it made sense that Zechs might wonder about something like this; they had not exactly parted on good terms the last time they had met. But Treize had never even mentioned that he blamed the younger man... but neither had he said that he did not blame him.
Treize barely suppressed a sigh. He should have settled this issue far sooner; after all he knew Zechs, knew how prone his friend and lover occasionally was to viewing himself in the worst way possible.
"Milliard," he tried the name tentatively, relieved when he saw Zechs react to it. "What happened does not matter. The world went crazy, and we both did things that we maybe should not have done." Treize paused for a second to gather his thoughts, and to find a way to phrase what he wanted to say.
Zechs seized this break to speak again. "It was me who fired at you," he stated.
"And it was me who told you to do so," Treize returned calmly. "Besides, you missed."
"Only because Une was there," Zechs said darkly.
Treize shrugged. "Maybe. But that is not the point." Pale blond eyebrows rose as he said this, but Zechs remained quiet and let him continue. "The war happened. Let's leave it at that for now, because it really has nothing to do with me wanting you to come back." Treize waited to see Zechs' nod of agreement, although the slight frown on the handsome face told him that they would have to discuss this point eventually.
"You are serious..." It wasn't really a question from Zechs, but more of an acknowledgement, and Treize relaxed the slightest bit. If Zechs at least accepted that he was saying the truth, then there were a lot less things to worry about already.
"Yes, I am," Treize confirmed, just now realizing that things had turned far more complicated than they would have had to be. "Milliard, I love you," he said softly, smiling at the change of expression on the younger man's face, from the beginnings of a scowl to first surprise and then a hint of hope.
"I would really like to seize this second chance that we got here," he continued, trying to voice all the things that were on his mind. Suddenly it seemed so easy to say them, to tell Zechs all that he wanted him to know. And maybe it would be enough to convince him that Treize meant what he said. "When we made plans for the world, we forgot about ourselves... I thought that making all those ideals real was what would be important in the end, and that it would depend on us and therefore it would be justified that we should lose ourselves completely there." He met Zechs' eyes, trying to emphasize the message he was trying to get across. "But I was wrong to think so. You and me, we aren't needed for the world to keep turning. Peace has come despite the failure of all those great plans."
He was aware that Zechs wanted to say something, but for once Treize decided to ignore manners. The words just kept coming, and he needed to say them, needed to make Zechs understand.
"Perhaps the world doesn't need you and me. But I need you, because my life would be missing an essential part if you aren't there. I have known you for so long... Life doesn't have much meaning anymore without you." Treize paused for a second. "I love you... and if you would agree with giving us another chance, then it would make me very glad."
Zechs blinked when he stopped talking. "You are done with what you wanted to say?" the younger man asked.
Treize thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes."
"Good. Because if you were trying to persuade me, then all this wasn't necessary. I was convinced as soon as you said that you love me." A small smile ghosted across Zechs' face, making him look his age for once, and not old beyond his years. "I love you too, Treize. And I do want this chance."