Still Grows the Lilacs

AN:  PLEASE READ FIRST. A few notes about this story. First, this is a sequel to 'The Lilac Princess.' You need to read it (all of it) before beginning this fic, as I have referred to events in that story. Also, for the purposes of my story Treize, Lady Une and Sally Po are all the same age, meaning 6 years older than Zechs and Noin (Z & N are 12 when the story begins, T & U are 18). I have incorporated selected bits of the Episode Zero mangas, but it is not necessary to read those if you have not. If you would like to read those, there are two links on to sites with translated Episode 0 mangas. Heero's and Relena's are important to this installment, the rest later. For Treize and Une fans, there will be smidges of their relationship scattered along as well. They are my second favorite GW couple, so I had to throw them in somewhere. I'm not sure that I managed to keep Lady Une in character, but I honestly tried. Very long chapter here, so get comfortable and do not attempt to read on your lunch break. Got all that? OK...let's begin…

Still Grows the Lilac

Part II of  'The Lilac Princess' trilogy

By Lady Dante

Chapter 1: The Road to OZ

The long line of new Alliance cadets ran the length of the sterile gray hallway, winding through the corridor in an uneven chain of unhappy children. One by one, they presented themselves to the officer at the registration desk, sullenly giving vital statistics and picking up their new uniforms and bunk assignments. A young dark-haired girl, about twelve years old, stepped forward.

"State your name, last first," a bored young officer ordered blandly.

The girl fidgeted a moment before responding. "Noin, Lucretzia."

The rest of the registration process passed quickly. After the initial orientation, the cadets were allowed to retreat to their bunks to settle in for the night. Noin walked into the girl's barracks and took a cot next to the only window in the dreary room. No one questioned her choice or attempted to fight her for the spot. Some of the girls had witnessed Noin's rather hot temper earlier that afternoon. Those who hadn't were warned before another incident developed.

On the bus to the Alliance orphanage, an older girl decided to try her hand at bullying the delicate looking girl sitting at the back. A few moments later, the older girl was lying sprawled in the isle with the younger girl sitting on top. Noin did enough to ensure that the girl got the point, but refrained from actually hurting the other child. She hated to hurt other people, but her life in the streets of Rome had taught her the importance of self-defense. For a while, it seemed as though all she could do was fight. Then Sister Marguerite found her again.

Noin sadly gazed out the window, letting the events of the past year replay in her mind. Her life with the nuns had been nice. It was a safe place with plenty of food and a soft bed. There was even a small garden for her to tend. Best of all, she was with Sister Marguerite again. They sang and talked, just as they had when Noin was a small child. It would have been perfect if not for the circumstances of their reunion. Noin bowed her head a moment, breathing deeply to dispel the tears welling up in her violet eyes. If she had only been a little faster, maybe…

The voice of a female officer announcing lights out shook the girl from her reminisces and she quickly stowed her bag under the bunk, stretching out on the scratchy green blanket. She silently said her prayers, just as she promised Sister, and made a feeble attempt to sleep, but soon gave up and resumed stargazing. Noin thought wondered to herself at how a person's life can change in a matter of moments. Four hours ago, she was at a small convent in Rome, living peacefully with the nuns. Now she was on her way to being transformed into another Alliance soldier.

Noin was once again pulled from the safety of Sister's house and forced to a life she did not want…and once again the Alliance was responsible. Sister Marguerite had managed to hide the child in the convent for almost a year, tending to the brilliant girl's education personally. Eventually, however, Noin had been discovered and, per Alliance regulations claiming guardianship of any orphan under the age of fifteen, the girl was sent to a military school. Marguerite did everything but take up arms against the group to keep Noin, but without success. The child was forced to live among the very people responsible for the constant upheaval in her young life. The same people responsible for her best friend's capture and possible execution. Noin shook away that last thought. She wouldn't allow herself to believe her friend was dead. They caught him, but that didn't mean they killed him. For a surname, she chose the secret nickname her friend had given her, hoping the boy might hear it one day and know she was still alive.

The girl sighed sullenly. The stars had always offered her comfort but tonight the night sky did nothing to ease her troubled mind. Noin had considered running away again. She had actually formulated several plans on the way here, but the thought of running away alone terrified her. She couldn't do it alone. Going back to the convent was not an option, either. It was too dangerous for the nuns. This was the second time the Alliance came for her. The last time, Sister Marguerite scuffled with an Alliance soldier to protect her and the nun had almost gotten herself killed. Noin wouldn't risk that again. Sister Marguerite was better off never seeing her little "wild child" again. The last time, the soldiers had come specifically for her and only Sister's interference had saved the little girl. This time, thankfully, they only seemed interested in adding another orphan to their new recruits roster. The girl reluctantly accepted her fate, at least for now. The Alliance had the right to keep her until she was 15. After that, she could leave.  Three years. Noin only had to put up with this for three years.

The girl bent over the edge of the bed and retrieved an ornate wooden box from her bag. She cautiously unlatched and lifted the lid, careful to catch the music box key before the music started and attracted attention. She surveyed the contents of the box. It was full of childish mementos and small gifts she had received over the years. A tiny bible, a small stuffed toy, and a variety of trinkets cluttered the interior of the carved box. Noin gently fingered each piece in turn, allowing a new memory with each. Usually, she didn't like to remember--it hurt too much--but tonight she needed to remember. Her fingers paused on a small bundle of cloth. She had dutifully preserved the little bundle for almost two years. She never opened the bundle to look at what was hidden inside. It wasn't her place. It belonged to someone else. She was merely keeping it for him. Underneath the tiny package was a yellowed scrap of paper, carefully preserved. She retrieved the paper and unfolded it to gaze at the hand drawn image. It was a sketch of an old woman, a tow-headed boy and a dark-haired girl. It was a rather good likeness of the three, or at least as well as the little girl could remember. It was the only image she had by which to remember her foster grandmother Ingrid and her best friend, Zechs. She folded the paper and returned it to its place in her treasure box. Noin closed and latched the lid. She unwillingly fell asleep, clutching the box to her chest.

The dreams came, just as the girl knew they would. The old familiar images from her childhood interspersed with new, more horrifying nightmares prevented any useful amount of sleep. She tossed on the worn blanket as faces and voices burned across her brain, painfully reminding the girl of all she had lost in her young life. A garden of people slowly turning to stone. Noin walked among them, cold and alone, gazing up at the familiar faces. Mrs. Katrina, Captain Damon, baby Rena, Nana Ingrid. The last statue was of a boy. As her dream-self gazed up at the stone boy, he suddenly sprang to life. She felt her heart leap and ran to the boy, arms open wide. Just as she reached him, the boy burst into flames, screaming in pain. Noin tried to pull the boy out of the flames but he disappeared. She looked around. The garden was gone and the little girl found herself in a forest, alone. Always alone. She was cold. There were voices behind her…angry voices…popping noises…she stumbled and fell across something soft. The girl pushed herself up and stared into the face of a little boy dressed in white, his long brown hair spread around him like a blanket. She gaped in shock as the face changed. It was now the face of a little boy with sky-blue eyes and hair as pale as a cloud. Suddenly she and the boy were engulfed in a sea of blood and swept away.

Noin woke with a start, her heart pounding and breath ragged. She turned on her side and curled up in a ball, staring out the window at the stars. She had to start over again. Alone again. Noin was surrounded by hundreds of people and yet felt as alone as the night she woke up in that forest. Seven years and Noin was no closer to having a home than when she began her trek through the wilderness. All she had now was a cot, a uniform and a scratchy green blanket that reminded her of a painful past. Noin closed her eyes and held her treasure box as tightly as she could, crying silently. This was her life now.

The next day, the group's initiation into military life began in earnest. The emphasis was on combat and battle techniques, but the academic courses were challenging as well. Noin was glad that she would be able to continue her education, even if it was in this dismal place. She, as expected, excelled in all areas, achieving first place in the class rankings very quickly. The daily martial martial arts training was welcomed by the young girl as well. She had a natural affinity for the grace and discipline needed in such study. Her only problem was finding a worthy opponent…or any opponent for that matter. Noin had quickly acquired an unfair reputation for fighting dirty and most cadets avoided her. Most lessons, she ended up sparring with one of the instructors. She didn't mind, really. It was lonely sometimes, but she wasn't interested in making new friends. Having friends meant the possibility of losing them and the young girl decided she had lost enough. So, she immersed herself in her studies to compensate.

Her excellent grades caught the attention of the commandant of the school and Noin's name was submitted for officer training. The girl was not particularly overjoyed with the prospect. The Alliance was the Alliance whether she was a foot soldier or an officer. Noting the girl's reticence, Noin's astrophysics instructor pointed out that, as an officer, she might have the opportunity to train for space duty. The idea of finally making it to space intrigued the girl and she found herself becoming anxious to enter officer training.

She loved space, though she had never been there. At least, not that she could recall. Noin couldn't explain what it was exactly that attracted her to space. Maybe it was the idea that it was peaceful up there; maybe some memory buried in her subconscious compelled her to seek her family there; or perhaps it was due to the simple fact that stars were her first memory. All Noin knew was that she needed to go to space some day and if the Alliance could get her there, then she was willing to bear her present circumstances. She threw herself into her studies with a new sense of anticipation.

Noin was transferred to the Officers Candidate School in Paris a few weeks after her basics were completed. It was a large school, but Noin noticed right away that there were few females. She was one of only a handful of female officer candidates in her class, a fact that made the other girls nervous. Noin, who had spent a significant amount of time masquerading as a boy, was not disturbed. The other cadets again kept their distance from the driven girl. She was consumed with one goal. Space. Occasionally, when she saw a group of girls giggling in the hallway of the women's dorm, Noin would feel a pang of loneliness. She was not a natural loner, but isolated herself anyway, convinced it was the best way to achieve her goals…and to protect her fragile heart. Her aloofness had one advantage. None of the other girls wanted to room with her and, since there was an odd number of female cadets, Noin enjoyed the luxury of private quarters. That one consolation to her self-imposed seclusion was not to last, however.

The day Lieutenant Une arrived at the OCS changed young Noin's life forever, though neither could have recognized that fact at the time. There was a housing shortage for female instructors and Une, being the youngest, was forced to room with the cadets. She was also the only Specials member on the base and the rivalry between the elite group and the regular military establishment was well known. Her superior officers were anxious to make certain that the young lieutenant learned her place quickly.

The only available bunk was located in Cadet Noin's room. From the moment she arrived, Lieutenant Une treated her young roommate like a servant. Noin was expected to clean the entire room, not just her side, and act as Une's personal maid. The younger girl resented the treatment she received at the hands of the officer, but she tolerated the situation as best she could. Une was an instructor and an officer. Noin would not jeopardize her chance to go to space just to get back at a haughty instructor. Besides, Une was a good instructor and Noin recognized that she could learn a great deal from the lieutenant. Noin also reminded herself, sometimes several times in the course of a day, that it was only for three years. Three years and she could leave.

The first time Une struck the young cadet was during flight training. The slap itself was not an unusual occurrence. Noin had witnessed other cadets meet with the back of the lieutenant's hand for various reasons. Sometimes it was for alleged improper conduct, sometimes for perceived insubordination. Most of the time, Noin suspected, Une just thought the cadets needed a whack to teach them who was boss. She was a bully in a gold-buttoned uniform, berating her students for mistakes and unable to accept anything less than perfection…and Une would not tolerate defiance. Noin made the mistake one day of questioning the lieutenant's reasoning in a battle simulation. The younger girl had an analytical mind that had been well honed by years of playing chess. She suggested a different strategy--one that would not risk as many pilots--and was rewarded with a sharp slap.

Noin's first instinct was to put her fist through the instructor's teeth, but restrained herself just in time. Une was looking at her with something akin to a smirk plastered on her face. It was a challenge, a dare to fight back. Noin struggled with herself for a moment, fighting to maintain her composure. Striking a superior officer was grounds for dismissal from OCS. Not the Alliance military, just officer training. A mistake like that could result in Noin being sent to a less reputable academy and life as a common foot soldier. After the incident, Noin spent two hours in the gym beating the stuffing out of a punching bag. Two years, eight months and twenty-six days, the young girl reminded herself, and she could leave.

The other cadets were lucky. At the end of the day, they could retreat to the safety of their rooms and leave Une's constant criticism behind. Noin was not so fortunate. Every evening the younger girl was expected to bring Une a meal and clean up, before feeding herself. Sometimes Noin was not able to make it back to the cafeteria in time to have her dinner at all. She started squirreling away food in strategic places. The cadet's years in refugee camps and living on the streets worked to her advantage in the situation. Someone unaccustomed to hardship might have washed out of officer training after a few weeks of such treatment, but Noin did what she always did--survived.

A few months of this routine, however, significantly weakened Noin's ability to turn the other cheek. The stress of her normal duties combined with the constant barrage of verbal and physical blows from Lieutenant Une took their toll on the girl. She grew more frustrated every day, the anger mounting to an unbearable level. Noin was almost at the breaking point. One particularly grueling evening, the cadet gratefully left her room to deliver a file for the lieutenant to the commandant's office. She walked slowly, relieved to be away from her tormentor, if only for a short time.

"Wait for a reply, cadet," Une ordered tersely as Noin saluted and left.

Une began to ready herself for bed, unbraiding her long chestnut hair and brushing it methodically. One hundred strokes every night. It was a routine the eighteen-year-old had adhered to for as long as she could remember, but did not know why. She imagined that her mother had passed on the tradition, but she had no memory of the woman, just a faded photograph kept carefully hidden among her things. She had made up some fictional report for the cadet to deliver and was glad to have the little brat out of the room for a while. Une enjoyed solitude, but her life as a Specials officer allowed her very little.

The young woman finished her evening grooming and stood from her dressing table, knocking off a container of lipstick in the process. The gold tube rolled under the Cadet Noin's bunk and Une scowled as she knelt down to retrieve the item. As she fumbled blindly for the lipstick, her hand brushed against something rough. The lieutenant grasped the object and pulled it from its hiding place. It was a wooden box, intricately carved and fitted with fine brass hardware. Une surveyed the box suspiciously. What was a nothing little cadet doing with such a finely crafted heirloom?

The young woman decided the other girl must have stolen the box and decided to ascertain the true owner. She struggled with the complex latch and lifted the lid. A sweet, tinny sound drifted from the box and Une noted that a music box cylinder had been added to the hand carved box. It was nestled into a corner with a small figurine crudely attached to the winding key. The figurine depicted a quaintly dressed couple engaged in a waltz. As the key wound down, the couple rotated, seeming to dance. It was actually quite a clever idea. Une was rather impressed.

The young woman closed her eyes and listened to the gentle melody. The rhythm was the quarter time of a waltz, lilting and elegant. It was a familiar refrain, a popular piece played at the royal balls she attended in her early teens. Her duties as a member of the nobility required she learn to dance, to be gracious and elegant. In truth, Une detested the trappings of her class. False charm and gracious manners were not enough to rule the world; the aristocracy should have realized that by now. Strength and dedication. Those were the characteristics of true nobility and they had little to do with one's birth.  Yes, she was Lady Une, a baroness and loyal member of Romefellar, but she preferred to be Lieutenant Une, the warrior. She commanded more respect as a Specials officer…she respected herself more.

As much as Une disliked it, being a member of the Romefellar Foundation was necessary. The organization was the only political outlet for the bulk of the dispossessed aristocracy. After the Alliance consolidated power and effectively took over the planet, the former ruling class found itself in a dangerously unstable new position in the political arena. Only by banding together and presenting a united front in the form of Romefellar were they able to salvage what was left of their former glory. The foundation courted favor with Alliance leaders by providing new technology and weapons, all the while plotting their own return to power. The Specials Unit was actually a front for a carefully planned rebellion called OZ.

The pleasant sound of the music box faded out as Une allowed her mind to wander. She rewound the key and lost herself in the vague impressions and bits of memory the music brought to mind. She remembered little of her life before being taken in by her aunt, a German countess. Memories were not something she sought to recover, but occasionally the young woman felt the need to give in to the obscure imagery and unintelligible voices that crowded into her brain. In those moment, she felt a change in herself, a calmness descending upon her, displacing the harshly disciplined soldier, if only briefly. It was that calmness that enveloped her now as she watched the tiny couple spinning, locked in an eternal embrace.  

"That's MINE!"

Une turned her head sharply to see an angry Noin standing in the doorway, fists clenched. The two stared at each other intensely before the cadet spoke again.

"I said that's mine," Noin hissed through gritted teeth, "put it back!" The girl took a threatening step forward.

"What are you trying to hide, cadet?"

Une's voice was frigid. The lieutenant didn't really care about the contents, but she would not brook such insolence from a mere cadet. The young woman held the girl's gaze steadily, still holding the music box. Une idly ran her fingers over the interior, fingering a small bundle of cloth. The moment Une's fingers brushed against the soft cloth, Noin seemed to lose control. The younger girl lunged forward and made a grab for the box. The lieutenant easily eluded the furious cadet and stood.

"Who did you steal this from, cadet?" Again, Une's voice was completely devoid of emotion.

"It's mine!" The suggestion infuriated Noin even more, "It's mine and you don't have a right…"

"I have every right, cadet!"

With a growl, Noin flew at the lieutenant, grasping for the box. The lid slammed down on Une's fingers and she jerked away, accidentally flinging the box across the room. Noin watched in horror as the box smashed into the wall, scattering the contents across the cold concrete floor. Une flexed her injured fingers, angered by the younger girl's defiance. The young lieutenant lashed out, striking the cadet with full might. Noin hesitated only an instant before making a tight fist and swinging. Her fist connected with Une's jaw with enough force to send the taller lieutenant staggering backwards. Noin took advantage of Une's shock and took another swing, but her anger robbed her of reason. She did not put her martial arts training into play, instead reverting to her old street fighting techniques. Une recovered herself quickly and just barely ducked the blow, catching Noin as the girl spun around. The lieutenant held the younger girl in place as the child kicked and growled in frustration.

The commotion attracted a small crowd in the corridor. The other cadets watched from the doorway, unsure whether to cheer for Noin or call for help. Une, noticing her audience ordered the other girls back to their rooms, threatening all manner of punishments for those who did not comply. Noin stopped struggling and Une released her grip on the smaller girl, giving her a small shove. They glared at each other for several minutes, a silent battle of wills that neither was willing to forfeit. Une finally stalked out into the hall, heading for the washroom to clean up and tend to her fingers. She casually called back over her shoulder, "Have that mess cleaned up by the time I return."

Noin stood her ground until the lieutenant was out of sight then set about frantically collecting the strewn mementos of her childhood. The girl picked up the box first and was relieved to see that it seemed relatively undamaged. The hinges had been knocked loose and the latch bent, but Noin knew she could fix both easily. It was upon peering inside her treasure box that the girl's breath caught in her throat. The music box was broken. The tines that created the lovely music were bent and the figurine that had adorned the key was missing. It was ruined. Noin exhaled slowly, choking back tears. Everything always got ruined.

Noin anxiously began gathering her treasures, crawling around the floor desperately seeking the small porcelain figurine. She retrieved each and every item she had stored in the box, one by one returning them to their special place. Every item except the figurine. Noin crawled along the floor, passing her hands along the gray concrete in the event her eyes missed the precious object. She moved furniture, upturned bedding, not caring what state the room was in when Une returned. The girl's only objective was to find that figure.

She finally gave up and sat on the edge of her bunk. Noin held her treasure box on her lap and stared at the floor, willing away the tears she wanted so desperately to shed. Une would return any moment and Noin would not allow the lieutenant to find her crying. She concentrated on her breathing, mentally following it on its path through her lungs and out again. Breathe in, breathe out. Two years, five months and twelve days and she could leave.

Lieutenant Une returned and paused briefly to survey the state of the room. For some reason, the young officer chose to ignore the mess and went to bed. She turned her back to the cadet sitting rigidly on the edge of her bunk. Noin was glad the lieutenant turned away. If she had to look at the older girl's face all night, she wasn't sure what would happen.

Noin clutched her box and scooted back onto her cot, leaning against the small window over her bed. It was a clear night and the stars were visible. The stars were always there. The constellations shifted, the clouds sometimes hid them, but the stars were always there. The only constant in the girl's life. Noin felt the first tears begin to trickle down her cheeks, but did nothing to allay the stream. Une was asleep, no one could see her now. It was safe to cry.

"Stella, stellina..." she whispered quietly.

Across the room, Une stared at the plaster wall. She heard an occasional sniff coming from the direction of the cadet's bed and tried her best to ignore it. She wasn't sure why, but for some reason, Une was beginning to feel sorry for the earlier incident. The box obviously contained what few personal possessions the younger girl owned and Une knew it was wrong of her to have meddled with them. It was the type of intrusion she herself would have punished severely. The lieutenant frowned at her weakness and closed her eyes, attempting to sleep. The tune she heard earlier began to replay in her head and her mind's eye supplied the familiar fragments of memory that had haunted Une since childhood. Places and people far away, voices just out of hearing.

Une rolled over and looked at her roommate. The child--and for the first time, the lieutenant saw Noin as a child, not a brat---was sitting curled up with her music box, staring out of the window. The girl often stared out of the window at night in an almost trance-like state. Une tried to recall what her own life had been like when she was twelve. It had been her first year in OZ, her first year away from her aunt. The life of a soldier was harsh at any age, but exceptionally so for someone who should still be enjoying the nurture of a family. Une sat up and quietly walked across the room, picking up a handkerchief from her dressing table as she passed. The young woman sat on the end of Noin's bunk and offered the pristine linen cloth.

"Here…blow your nose. The sniffing is keeping me awake."

Noin glared at the older girl, expecting to see an expression of annoyance. Instead, Une looked a bit concerned. Confused, Noin took the handkerchief and obeyed, eyeing the older girl suspiciously over the scrap of cloth. Une began to shift uncomfortably as the younger girl watched her carefully. Noin had never seen the lieutenant act nervous before. She wasn't sure whether to be amused or run.

"That is a lovely music box."

"It's mine," Noin snapped, tightening her grip on the precious box to punctuate her statement.

"Yes, I know…I was just making an observation."

Noin frowned at the older girl. An understanding, even sympathetic, Une was a bewildering sight…not to mention unnerving.

"Did your mother give it to you?"

Une asked the question with genuine interest. Noin scooted away from the wall and sat the box in her lap. She ran her fingers over the delicately carved lid, now sitting askew atop the lower portion. A mother had given her the box, but not her mother. She didn't know her mother.

"No," Noin finally responded, "a friend…when I was very young." Her voice was quiet, heavy with seven years worth of suppressed emotion.

"I see…where is your friend now…"

"She's dead, ok? They're all dead!"

 She whirled to face Une, her tone just short of a shout. Noin didn't know what game Une was playing, but she was not in the mood to humor her. The young girl had been pushed beyond the limits of tolerance and would not allow herself to be pushed around anymore.

"I'm alone…just…" Noin looked away as her voice quivered, "just let me be alone."

Une frowned a bit and, for a moment, Noin thought the lieutenant might try to hit her again, but the anger that momentarily flashed in the officer's eyes was replaced with something else. Something almost kind.

"I know it must be difficult for you here, but you should really watch your behavior with officers. The Alliance doesn't tolerate…"

"I don't give a damn about the Alliance and I don't give a damn about you, so just…leave…me…alone!"

Noin spat the words out through gritted teeth. The last thing she wanted just then was a lecture on proper military etiquette from a woman who took perverse pleasure in bullying her students.  The young girl didn't care anymore what the Alliance would or would not tolerate. Noin had put up with enough. She decided in that moment to run away, after all. The thought of being alone frightened her, but anything was better than this. She would find a place somewhere. Perhaps she could stow away on a shuttle…

"Why do you hate the Alliance so?"

Une's question and the gentle tone with which it was asked caught Noin off guard. "They killed my friends…all the Alliance knows how to do is destroy…" The girl's voice trailed off in a whisper.

"Then why have you tried so hard to succeed in officer training?"

"So I can go to space." Noin blurted her answer out without thinking.

"Why is space so important?"

Noin paused this time before responding. She wanted to go to space because she believed the answers to the riddle of her past lay there. Her future and her past were there, among the stars. She dared not tell Une any of that so she responded as simply as she could.

"It's peaceful up there."

Noin looked away again, unwilling to elaborate. The officer nodded and remained silent for a short time. When Une spoke again, it was with a more commanding air.

"I believe it is far past lights out, cadet. Go to bed"

The lieutenant rose as she spoke and stood over the cadet as Noin scooted under the covers, holding her box the way a small child holds a doll. Une uncharacteristically reached down and straightened the girl's blanket, pulling it up to Noin's chin in an almost sisterly manner. Noin watched the older girl walk back to her own bed and settle down to sleep. Une's behavior was unpredictable on a good day, but tonight it bordered on the bizarre. Noin had never seen the stern instructor behave so…nicely. As she drifted off to sleep, the cadet wondered what species of alien she had been talking to and who kidnapped Instructor "Uney Buns."

The two unwilling roommates never discussed their altercation. Une seemed not to remember the incident at all…at least she did not retaliate as Noin expected. Both forgot the fight and Une's later kind behavior as they slipped back into their familiar routine of put-upon student and hated instructor. Noin received an unexpected, but all too brief, reprieve when Une was summoned to the Specials command in Brussels. She would be gone for 8 days. Noin plopped down on her bunk with an audible sigh of relief.

"Freedom," she murmured to herself as she drifted off to a well-deserved sleep.


Lieutenant Une scanned the report in her hands, checking for accuracy, as she walked towards the Specials' main office. She was on her way to meet His Excellency, the newly appointed leader of the Specials and her direct superior. In her hand, the officer held a list of names, candidates for Specials training. The Specials corps, a front for the OZ movement, was populated with only the best and the brightest of the best and the brightest. Anyone considered for OZ training had to be beyond reproach and intensely loyal to the cause…and hate the Alliance with a vengeance.

Special preference was given to members of the nobility, though the group's membership was not restricted as such. It was, however, very difficult for someone of common birth to rise above the rank of lieutenant. Even Specials uniforms served to provide an easy visual clue to a soldier's status. Alliance uniforms were olive drab, one cut for everyone from the lowliest private to the most decorated general. Specials uniforms reflected the ancient ideals of birthright through complex trimmings and specific color designation. Higher ranked nobles wore blue or white, lower nobility were identified by the use of red. Commoners and cadets wore forest green uniforms of a simpler cut.

The new young leader, Duke Treize Kushrenada, took a personal interest in recruitment and all new recruits were approved or rejected by His Excellency. He insisted that all candidates be orphans. Anyone with a family was rejected outright, regardless of their other qualifications. The young duke did not want to compete with a loving family for the loyalty of his officers. The new candidates were also expected to be disciplined and highly intelligent. Most members of OZ scored at genius level or higher. Finally, and most importantly, they must have a personal motivation for rebelling against the Alliance. As a result of these new rules, most new OZ members were war orphans with huge chips on their shoulders. A sea of dispossessed children, looking desperately for something to believe in…and OZ gave them just that.

Lieutenant Une had yet to meet His Excellency, and was looking forward to the opportunity. His reputation as a charismatic leader preceded him and Une was anxious to judge the man for herself. OZ was her life, her mission. If its new leader failed to live up to the organizations standards…

"Come in, Lady Une."

Une stood in the doorway, hand poised to knock. The young man standing behind the antique oak desk did not look up as he spoke. He busied himself, not with paperwork as would be expected, but with a vase of roses adorning the credenza behind him. Une took the opportunity to glance at the papers on His Excellency's desk. On top of a stack of paper, right in the middle of the desk was her personnel record. He had been checking up on her. It was expected, of course, but Une found that she was slightly irritated anyway.

The lieutenant returned her gaze to the young man. She watched as the duke carefully removed and replaced several blooms, his broad shoulders slightly hunched. She stared at his back, unaccustomed to being kept waiting in favor of a floral arrangement. His Excellency fussed over the elegant hothouse flowers, arranging them to his satisfaction before turning to face Une.

Duke Treize was every bit as handsome as his picture, the young woman noted, but he was much taller than she expected. The ornate trappings of his uniform caught the sun streaming through the picture window, creating points of light that seemed to radiate from the man himself. His ginger-colored hair glittered in the morning glow, setting off his sky-blue eyes perfectly. All and all, he was a remarkable sight. The youthful duke would have impressed any woman. Lieutenant Une was not just any woman. She decided to reserve her judgment of the young man. Standing at attention, she executed a crisp salute.

"Please, Lady, I prefer that this meeting be free of such formalities." His voice was rich and smooth, fitting his appearance perfectly.

Treize walked around the large desk, extending his hand. Une responded to the unfamiliar gesture hesitantly. Most high-ranking officers, Alliance and OZ alike, were sticklers for protocol. It did not surprise the young woman that His Excellency had used her aristocratic title rather than her military rank--most members of OZ preferred the reminder of their noble status--but his expression puzzled her somewhat. The young man was peering at her intently, a slight smile brightening his handsome face as he gestured to a pair of chairs by the picture window. Une shook off her curiosity and sat across from the duke, handing him the file folder she brought.

"These are my recommendations for new recruits. They have all completed first level training and are fully prepared for battle testing."

Treize glanced over the contents of the file and asked, "You selected these cadets personally?"

"Yes. Each has demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities and piloting skills. I've listed them according to class standings."

His Excellency flipped through several papers and frowned. "The name at the top of the list…this cadet's history seems incomplete."

"Cadet Noin doesn't have much of a personal history, sir."

Treize looked up, smiling, "Please, call me Treize."

"As you wish, Mr. Treize." The young man's smile broadened at Une's insistent formality, then looked back at the list. Une continued.

"The Alliance found her hiding in a convent a year ago. Before that, she was living on the streets of Rome. No family to speak of."

"And no title…"

"I believe in such situations, a minor title can be conferred upon promotion to lieutenant."

"And that is your recommendation?"

Lieutenant Une paused briefly. She didn't actually approve of conferred titles, either one was a member of the aristocracy or not, but the cadet in question did indeed demonstrate great potential…assuming the girl could overcome her discipline problems. There was a deep seeded prejudice among the members of Romefeller against the initiation of cadets of low birth. The new commander could prove to be one of those narrow-minded men. Une admitted to being an elitist herself, but the young lieutenant truly believed Cadet Noin would prove to be an asset to OZ.  Une was, however, unwilling to jeopardize her own career in the organization on behalf of a street rat with an attitude problem.

Une understood Lucretzia Noin well enough to know the cadet would not remain with the Alliance willingly, certainly not fight for them. The girl hated the Alliance military. Noin might not accept an appointment to OZ, either, but it was worth a try. The old adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," crossed Lieutenant Une's mind. Common foe, mutual goal. The cadet might welcome the opportunity to fight the Alliance. Une was not certain of any of this, however, and that made Noin a bad choice. The logical choice was to recommend the girl be transferred out of officer training all together, so the lieutenant was at a complete loss to explain why she was willing to risk her own reputation to help the other girl go to space. Sometimes one must act on instinct, not calculation. Une cautiously responded to the duke's question, choosing her words carefully. 

"I believe talent should be recognized where it is found. OZ's ultimate goals are paramount." She locked gazes with the young man across from her, "If we do not recruit her to our cause now, the Alliance will have another formidable soldier for OZ to contend with…it defeats our purpose."

"And what is our purpose?"

"I believe, sir, that the purpose of the Specials is to identify the brightest, most capable cadets and train them to serve Romefeller, is it not?"

 "One purpose, yes." The duke crossed his legs and leaned back in the overstuffed chair. He regarded the other officer a moment before speaking again. "I'll consider your recommendations and get back to you. I'm preparing to leave for space soon and…"

"Yes, Mr. Treize, I'm aware of your mission to colony x-18999. That is actually why I requested this audience."


Une was relieved to see that His Excellency was not irritated by her interruption. "Yes, sir. I believe the cadets should accompany you on your training mission. Experience in routine colony defense would be the perfect opportunity to test their skill and worthiness."

"A trial by fire of sorts?"


"With the fate of a new colony in the balance?"

"The cadets in question are currently considered Alliance recruits, sir. Should they fail to live up to expectations, it is the Alliance who will bear the shame. If they succeed…"

"If they succeed, we make certain the public knows they are Specials recruits…brave young soldiers defending the new colony. Romefellar will have a public relations goldmine."

His Excellency looked at Lieutenant Une for a few moments as he considered her request. The mission to x-18999 was a routine defense exercise, or so he had been told. His personal sources on the colony informed him several hours ago that a coup attempt was eminent, most likely within a day of his scheduled arrival. It would indeed be quite an accomplishment for his Specials recruits to put down a rebellion. The noble knight of Romefellar leading brave young soldiers in defense of a colony. Even his uncle would be pleased. The young woman across from him shifted uncomfortably under his continued scrutiny. He had read Lady Une's file earlier and it was impressive, but Treize had to admit he would have been quite impressed with the lovely young lieutenant regardless of what her file stated. She was obviously an ambitious young woman, but idealistic as well. Just what an OZ officer should be…a zealot. The almost fanatical devotion of its members was what made OZ such a strong organization. Uncompromising devotion was what he expected of all of his officers, yet could not produce in himself. Lady Une seemed to have a surplus.

"Very well, Lady Une. I accept your recommendations. Have the cadets report to me three days from now, gear packed."

"Wouldn't you like to review their performance records first, sir? Discuss my selections?"

"I'm afraid I don't have the time. You have obviously given your choices a great deal of consideration, Lady, and I'm willing to take a chance with your recommendations. I believe in heeding the advice of my officers…especially officers of your caliber."

"Thank you, sir."

The officers stood. Lieutenant Une raised her hand to salute again, just as His Excellency offered his hand. Treize smiled as he reached up and pulled the young woman's hand down, grasping it in a handshake.

"It was a pleasure to finally meet you, Lady Une. I look forward to seeing you again."

Une noted that odd expression again and was embarrassed to realize she was blushing. Releasing his hand, the lieutenant excused herself and quickly exited.

Lieutenant Une scowled as she left. The duke had accepted her proposal, but made it clear that he did so on her word alone. Her reputation as an officer was now on the line. If her recruits failed, her career faltered. She would not have her ambitions damaged by the incompetence of a cadet…nor could Une stand the idea of having Mr. Treize think badly of her. The cadets simply had to succeed. She had three days to ensure the cadets would not fail her. Three days to double their assignments and increase their hours in flight sims. Une picked up her pace as she made her way back to the return shuttle. She had cadets to train.


After Lady Une vacated his office, Duke Treize Kushrenada once again perused the list of names in his hand. They seemed to be perfect candidates…on paper. Treize had learned long ago that the true test of a soldier lay in the battlefield. All of the simulations in the world could not prepare one for the realities of war. Add to that the extreme youth of the candidates and the potential for disaster was great. The average age was fifteen. Treize was an experienced soldier by the age of fifteen, but he had been raised to it. His uncle, Duke Dermail, took over the youngster's political and military training upon the death of the boy's mother. Treize had been twelve. The same age as his young ward, Zechs Marquise.

Treize shook his head in amusement as he considered the boy's chosen pseudonym.  Zechs Marquise. Sixth Marquis. Clever. The young duke rose and walked back to his hopelessly ornate desk, pausing to summon his assistant on the intercom. The young lieutenant scurried in, listened dutifully to His Excellency's orders concerning transportation for the new recruits and scurried away. Treize glanced at the grandfather clock across the room and noted the time. He was late for fencing practice.

His Excellency ordered his car and returned to the Eighteenth Century mansion he inherited along with his antiquated title. It was an expansive structure, but not something he would call "home." His ward certainly would not. Treize entered the vast dwelling and went to his suite to change into his fencing outfit. The young man made his way through the impeccably furnished rooms and pristine marble hallways to the fencing room. Zechs was already hard at work, putting his unfortunate sparring partner through quite a workout. Treize remained in the doorway to watch the match…if it could be called that. The young count's opponent was certainly not his equal.

The boy had made a great deal of progress over the past year. His frequent mood swings and violent outbursts had become less frequent. His manners had certainly improved, due, Treize supposed, to the fact that the boy merely needed reminding. The two never discussed the boy's true identity or anything pertaining to the fall of Cinq Kingdom, but the subtle reminders were there. The boy's manner of speaking, his bow, all indicating the culture he was born into. All in all, the boy was progressing nicely. He was becoming every bit the charming young aristocrat he should be. In addition, he was already beginning to attract a great deal of female attention. Any nobleman visiting the estate was sure to arrive with a granddaughter or pre-teen niece in tow, all graciously welcomed. The boy played the part well, but Treize knew Zechs used his aristocratic façade to hide an obsessive need for revenge.

From the moment Zechs began his new life as Treize's protégée, his goals were made dangerously clear. He wanted to learn to fight, grow strong and destroy the Alliance. Every action, every lesson, every moment of the boy's life was dedicated to that one goal. If that meant enduring the nauseating chatter of bored aristocrats, he would do so without complaint. If becoming a skilled warrior meant playing the role of elegant nobleman to a host of blushing debutantes, Zechs would do so. No price was too high to pay for his revenge.

Zechs was passed off as a cousin of the young duke, a minor count from an obscure principality. It was a comfortable charade and the boy mastered it well. The natural grace and charm the boy inherited from his lovely mother were carefully cultivated. He played the dutiful ward to Treize at balls and parties, enduring the incessant and inane conversations common to such events. There was a constant flutter of young girls around the boy count--moths to a flame, as Treize put it—all politely attended to. Aside from the fact that the boy refused to take dance lessons, he was proving to be quite the little gentleman.

"You have the match, sir." Exhausted, Zechs' sparring partner, held out a congratulatory hand to the boy count and left with relief.

"You favor your right."

Zechs looked up to see Treize standing a few feet away, blade in hand. "You're late."

"Forgive me, but I was in a meeting with a particularly lovely lieutenant...punctuality didn't seem as important at the time."

Zechs rolled his eyes. He hated being paraded out for Treize's latest conquests. He was expected to play upon their maternal instincts, pointing out what a good man the duke was to take in a lonely orphan. Treize's lady friends adored the idea of the generous benefactor caring for the sad little boy. It was crap, but Zechs played along out of a sense of obligation. Treize had taken in the runaway, promising the resources and training necessary to become a soldier.  The young duke lived up to those promises and the boy was genuinely grateful. Zechs was learning everything he needed to know in order to defeat the Alliance. The former prince did, after a time, come to look upon the young duke almost as an older brother. He trusted Treize to a point, though Zechs could never bring himself to confide in the young man the way he had with Noin. The boy swallowed at the unexpected thought and gritted his teeth against the anger stirring inside him. He could never trust anyone like that again or allow anyone to trust him in turn. It would only get someone else killed.

"So will I have to meet this 'lovely lieutenant' or is she temporary?" Zechs gripped his epée, anxious for another match.

"Don't be rude, Zechs," Treize responded as he took up position, "Besides, you know I don't fraternize with my female officers."

"No, just noblemen's daughters...or wives."

"You're a bit young to make such an crass observation, don't you think?" Treize retorted in amusement. "En garde."

The verbal sparring ceased in favor of the actual duel. They fought for a while in silence, each concentrating on the movements of the other. Treize moved with the ease of a man accustomed to courteous duels, fluid and graceful. The younger boy, though equally graceful, showed none of the ease that marked his opponent's demeanor. He took everything much too seriously, Treize thought as they sparred. Zechs' only goal was to defeat his enemy. Fencing wasn't an exercise to the boy. It was a serious mission. What he lacked in gracious sportsmanship, Zechs made up for in intensity. Treize possessed superior technique and a height advantage. The younger boy had speed and focus in his favor, but in the end, Treize won the match…as usual.

"Good match, Zechs."

Treize smiled at the younger boy and offered his hand. Zechs was annoyed at yet another loss, but took his guardian's hand and complimented the duke's skill. Manners first. It was the mark of 'good breeding,' as Treize always insisted. It was one of the first and most repetitive lessons Zechs was required to learn under the duke's tutelage. Zechs had never enjoyed the inane ceremonies essential to royal life. Having spent half of his life free from such concerns, it was difficult to return to the old habits once adhered to so diligently. He preferred the life he had in Italy. There he was just like any other boy, or at least he had pretended as much for as long as possible. Zechs knew now, that he was not fated to a quiet life in a quiet town. He was destined for something much different. He rubbed his palm roughly, gazing down at the hand that had been too slow to save his best friend…the hand that had taken a life. He wished he had understood his true purpose sooner. Fate might have spared Noin if Zechs had not been part of her life. If only he had realized it earlier. His destiny was stained with blood.

Treize gave the frustrated boy a friendly pat on the shoulder and suggested they partake of some refreshment…wine for Treize, juice for Zechs. As they sat in Treize's study sipping their drinks, Zechs thought, not for the first time, how much the room reminded him of his father's study. The imposing desk, the impossibly valuable chairs…even an antique chess set in the corner. It wasn't his father's study, though, nor was this his country or his home. He had no home. He was a prince without a country. No…he was not even a prince. It had been many years since he thought of himself as a prince and he refused to do so now, despite his surroundings. At heart, in the darkest corner of his soul, Zechs knew he was nothing better than a murderer. Even if it were safe to do so, the boy couldn't possibly take up his title again. He couldn't bear the honor of the Peacecraft name. He deserved no such consideration.

"Would you like to have a game of chess?"

Zechs looked up, a bit startled. "Pardon?"

"You were staring at the chess set," Treize nodded to the hand carved game pieces lined up on the pedestal across the room, "I assumed you wanted to play."

"All right."

As they moved to the game table, Treize watched his young ward with concern. The boy always had an air of melancholy about him. Zechs never spoke of his life before Treize rescued him from an Alliance prison, nor did the young duke inquire. It seemed too much of an intrusion. In any event, the events of the boy's past were just that, past. He had a new destiny. Treize was grooming Count Marquise to be his right hand, the sword he would wield against the Alliance. Zechs was an apt and willing student, devoting himself to his training with a ferocity that seemed misplaced in one so young. Most children his age, on the other hand, had not had to give up a kingdom.

The boy's nightmares worried Treize the most. He was a tortured little soul and the young duke felt helpless to aid his young friend in banishing the ghosts. Treize knew those ghosts. They had haunted him as well on occasion.

During the day, Treize could convince himself that his sometimes unconscionable behavior could be justified. There was a greater good at stake. Might makes right and all that. Nighttime was different, especially those last moments of darkness just before the break of dawn. In the cold gray, the ghosts of those he had destroyed made their presence known. Five hundred and twelve lives. That was the number. At least, that was the number he took responsibility for personally. There were others of course, deaths that he had contributed to indirectly, but those five hundred and twelve lives were his burden alone. So far, Zechs was only responsible for one death--that young cadet named Karl—but Treize was certain the boy held himself accountable for the death of his family and the friend Karl killed.  It was too heavy a burden to be born by one so young.

They began the game and talked about the day's events. Zechs was in the process of preparing for his entrance exams to the Lake Victoria Academy, the only military academy operated exclusively by the Specials. Lake Victoria was the breeding ground for OZ's new young leaders and Zechs would soon join their ranks. The boy's tutors were complimentary of his work and indicated that the boy would soon be beyond their instruction.

The young count received special praise from his art instructor, who felt the boy had extraordinary talent. Treize encouraged the boy's art studies, believing that his artistic tendencies curbed the overwhelming feelings of repressed anger that Zechs struggled to contain. Earlier that day, Zechs had accompanied his art instructor to a special exhibition at the Museum if Fine Art in the city. Zechs relayed his opinion of the exhibit as they played. He and his tutor had gotten into quite a debate over the symbolism in a particular piece, resulting in an assigned essay detailing his opinions and reasoning. Treize was pleased to see the boy excited about his assignment. He generally showed little real enthusiasm for his studies. He was simply too anxious to begin his military training.

"Check" Zechs announced as he placed his knight.

"Well done…but not good enough I'm afraid…checkmate." Treize moved his bishop and smiled at the expression on his ward's face.

"Aw, heck," Zechs mumbled.

"What was that?"

"Nothing…when do you leave for space?"

Treize looked incredibly amused by the timing of the question as he answered, "Three days."

"How long will you be gone?"

"Three months."

Zechs nodded. One could almost hear the wheels in his head spinning. He was growing annoyed with the fact that he had yet to defeat Treize in anything. Fencing, chess, billiards…Treize won at everything. The boy scowled at the chessboard, replaying every move in the game to determine where he went wrong. Three months to improve his skills. He would play everyday—against the computer if he had to. The next time he faced Treize in a chess match, Zechs was determined he would be the victor. Treize kept putting off Zechs' entry into Lake Victoria Academy on the grounds that the boy still had much to learn. Zechs was convinced that once he managed to beat Treize at something—anything—he would allow the younger boy to enroll and begin his life as a soldier. He had to beat him next time. He had to.


"The following cadets remain behind after class…Becker, Rolf, Lothian, Provsky, Noin. Everyone else, DISMISSED!"

The five cadets stood nervously, wondering what they had done to be detained. Noin knew, better than most, that Lieutenant Une was likely to have just chosen their names at random and singled them out for underserved punishment. Whatever Une had planned, Noin wouldn't have to put up with it much longer. She finally formulated a workable escape plan and had been preparing for the last two days. The cadet had stockpiled food and managed to use her scavenging skills to 'acquire' a few items to sell. She should be able to raise enough money to make it back to Rome. A few stolen wallets later and she might be able to make it to a spaceport.

"Follow me," Une commanded and the cadets dutifully fell in line behind the stern instructor. She led them around to her small office and lined them up, at attention, in front of her desk.

"These are your new assignment schedules."

Une walked down the row and handed out stacks of papers. Noin glanced over the schedule, noting the increase in flight training and battle simulations. According to the list, she and the other unfortunate cadets would be in classes from sunup to sundown and beyond. Twenty-minute breaks were allowed for meals, six hours for sleep and bathing. "That's it," Noin thought angrily, "this time she's gone too far."

"Look over your new assignments carefully and report to me tomorrow morning at five a.m. You will be reassigned to a new training facility in three days. Your orders are in your files. Until that time, you are still mine, cadets! Don't forget it! Dismissed!"

Une followed the bewildered cadets back out into the hall and walked towards the officer's lounge. She paused upon noticing Cadet Noin standing rigidly in the corridor. The cadet looked furious, her hands clenched the new orders tightly. She looked as though she wanted to say something…shout something, actually.

"Questions, cadet?"

Noin hesitated, deciding whether to have it out with the officer once and for all. Maybe she should just wait until Une was asleep and spike the officer's lipstick with red pepper. She wisely decided to let the matter drop, fearful that the instructor would confine her to quarters and preventing Noin's escape.


"Then I suggest you read your orders and get some sleep. You have a long day tomorrow and it will start sooner than you think."

Une turned on her heel and walked away as Noin began flipping through her papers. The lieutenant turned the corner and stopped abruptly as she heard a girlish squeal of delight behind her and the patter of cadet boots running towards the dorms. Une shook her head at the undignified episode and walked on, relieved that she would finally have private quarters.

"Space!" Noin burst out of the building and yelled into the night air, "I get to go to space!"

She stopped and leaned heavily on a nearby tree, out of breath. The girl looked over her orders again, confirming what she thought she read moments earlier. Training mission. Colony x-18999. Leave in three days. Noin looked up at the star field above her and laughed. "I did it, Nana…I'm going to see the stars." She walked on to her dorm room, more lighthearted than she had been in almost two years. Free passage to space. Once there, she could run away, just as she had intended. She wouldn't have to wait now. She could find a place to live in space, make a home, grow up and come back for him…when she was old enough. She was sure she could find her best friend. She just had to grow up…they could go back to space together, where it was safe…no wars, just stars.

The next three days passed more easily than the previous three months for the young girl. Though her workload was now twice as heavy, she made it through relatively unscathed. As Noin packed her few meager belongings in her duffle bag, she tried to imagine what it would feel like to be weightless. Was it like floating in the bathtub as she had when she was a small girl? She had heard some people suffered from nausea in low gravity environments, but Noin was certain she would not be afflicted. As the girl walked to the plane, her mind churned with questions, all of which were about to be answered.

Back in the dorm room she once shared with Noin, Lieutenant Une sat at her dressing table to apply a fresh coat of lipstick. As she peered into the mirror, her eye caught the reflection of a tiny object lodged in the loose baseboard behind her. She rose and walked to the wall, kneeling to retrieve the object. Une held it up to the light. It was a tiny figurine…a couple dancing. How odd. The young woman closed her eyes, removing her glasses as she squeezed her eyes closed. She was beginning to feel strange. There was the hint of a song playing in her mind, a vaguely familiar tune…a waltz. Where had she heard that melody before?

Just as quickly as the feeling washed over her, it faded. Une stood and replaced her glasses. The figurine was not hers, so, logically, the lieutenant assumed it belonged to Cadet Noin. She left the room and walked to the tarmac, hoping to return the tiny porcelain figure to Noin before the girl left.

Cadet Noin was standing in line with the other cadets, waiting dutifully to board the plane to Brussels. As Une approached, the cadets all quickly turned their gazes to the pavement at their feet. No one wanted to risk the wrath of Une at the very moment of their escape. To the relief of the other cadets, Une called Noin out of the line. The younger girl walked rigidly to her instructor, jaw tight. It would be just like Une to hold out the hope of space to Noin, only to snatch it away at the last moment.

"I believe you left this in the room, cadet."

Une extended her hand and Noin stifled a gasp. It was the figurine from her music box. She quickly took the figure from Une.

"Thank you ma'am…I thought," Noin paused and glanced up at her instructor, "I thought I lost it."

"You have been given a rare opportunity, cadet…don't disappoint me, Noin." Une glared at the younger girl.

"Ma'am." Noin saluted.

"Back in line, cadet." Une turned and walked away, Noin's curious gaze following her. Instructor Une acting nice twice. Weird.

Noin boarded the shuttle and took her seat. She looked at the porcelain ornament in her hand, running a finger gently over the tiny couple before stowing it in her uniform pocket. She took a breath as the plane departed. Excitement, fear and curiosity melded together in her mind as she peered out of the window, watching the base grow smaller. The cadet had given little thought to her new duties, her main concern was the trip into space. It didn't matter to the girl what the Alliance expected her to do on this mission, she wasn't planning to stay long. Noin just wanted to bide her time until she could make her escape. She was on her way.

A few hours later, Noin and the other cadets disembarked in Brussels. They were met by a young officer in a Specials uniform who quickly gave them instructions and herded them to the temporary barracks. They were all given bunks in a row, no one seeming to notice that Noin was a female. There didn't seem to be separate quarters for female cadets and Noin made the best of her awkward situation. She waited patiently for the other cadets to shower and finish readying themselves for lights out before making her way to the communal bathroom. She showered quickly and changed into her uniform for the next day, reasoning it would save time and embarrassment to sleep in her uniform.

The girl straightened her shirt and hung the uniform jacket by her bunk. They had been given new uniforms for this assignment. She and her fellow cadets were expected to wear the green and white uniform of the Specials unit. Noin had heard of the Specials, all cadets had, but she did not know that much about the group. The Alliance regulars seemed to detest the Specials, a good reason to for Noin to admire them. Une was a Specials officer…a better reason for Cadet Noin to hate the entire unit. She didn't want to be part of an organization that would commission a woman like Une. Noin dismissed her idle thoughts. She was on her way to space. If she had to masquerade as a Specials recruit for a few hours, no big deal. It wasn't like she was staying.

Noin once again found it impossible to sleep, though it was a result of her excitement instead of nightmares. The night passed slowly and she filled the hours by running over her escape plan. She would stay with the other cadets until they received their duty station assignment. There would be time during the transfer for her to sneak away. If she timed everything correctly, she could blend in with the crowd at the spaceport and stow away on an outgoing shuttle to another colony. Home free…freedom. That's what drew her to space. The idea that she could be free of war and poverty, pain and loneliness. The stars were constant, space was peaceful. She would finally know what it meant to go home.

+++++++++++++++++++++ End Chapter 1 +++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I fully expect to get flamed for the "Uney Buns" thing, but the Evil Chibi thought it was funny, so I left it in.

WooHoo! I'm back! Thank you to everyone who sent suggestions for titles. I'm sending everyone a cyber lollipop (as soon as I can) because most of your suggestions will be used as chapter titles. I really appreciate your ideas. They were great! I appreciate all of the great reviews of the first part of this budding 'epic' and I hope you like part II just as much. The next chapter reveals more about what Zechs has been going through and introduces a new character.

Special thanks to Evil Chibi (stop reading this and go do your homework!), The Major and Johnny Rage for letting me bounce ideas off them and/or letting me rant. It helped a lot to brainstorm and get your opinions. Thanks!

And thanks for the coffee, Dwayne…@-@

The title I chose comes from a poem by Henry David Thoreau and here it is:

Still grows the vivacious lilac

a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone,

unfolding its sweet scented flowers each Spring,

to be plucked by the musing traveler,

planted and tended once by children's hands in front-yard plots,

now standing by wall-sides in retired pastures and

giving place to new-rising forests,

the last of that strip,

sole survivor of that family.

Now, I ask that perfect or WHAT? Go Uncle Henry! Impress your friends by quoting that.

Disclaimer: Yeah, great. More disclaimers. Gundam Wing and its fab characters do not belong to me [sniff...why, oh, why can't they be mine?]. This fanfic [all 15 to 20 chapters, I haven't decided on the length yet] is for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. So keep your slimy lawyer hands to yourselves...[sprtttt!]