AN: IF YOU CAME STRAIGHT TO THIS CHAPTER, GO BACK AND READ CHAPTER 15!
I replaced the author's note in chapter 14 with the actual chapter 14 and so chapter 15 is new material in addition to this chapter…uh, got that? Anyway, two chapter update this time folks, so back up and read chapter 15 then come back. See ya in a bit…
Episode reference: episodes 9 through 20.Still Grows the Lilac
Part II of The Lilac Princess trilogy
Wait for me…
~~ Private cabin aboard a river trolley, Kingdom of Cinq~~
"I look like a dork."
"You look like the heir to the throne of Cinq. A symbol of peace."
Relena Peacecraft, newly discovered princess of Cinq, shot a dubious look over her shoulder. Lieutenant Noin smirked. "Well…the knee breeches are a little dorky."
"See? How come you get a cool uniform and I get to look like I should be driving Cinderella's pumpkin?"
Relena giggled, her face softening into a warm smile as she said, "Yes. 'From those who are given much, much is expected.' Father used to say that all the time. He said we had to make sacrifices to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves." She caught Noin's eye in the mirror and added wryly, "I just never expected that the 'sacrifices' he mentioned would include my impeccable fashion sense."
"Now, now. Chin up. We must honor tradition."
"Said the girl in the cool uniform."
"This uniform may look cool, but I assure you it is just as uncomfortable as yours." To prove her point she squirmed in her boots. "I'd give just about anything to get out of these boots for a while." Noin grit her teeth, "I loathe shoes."
"Darn. And here I thought having a female body guard meant I could go shopping whenever I liked."
"Shopping, sure. Just don't take me along on a hunt for the perfect evening pumps, 'kay?"
A few more adjustments, a few more jokes and they were ready to face Romefellar, ready to herald the rebirth of Cinq Kingdom. They left the room together, guardian and charge, leader and protector…
Less than half an hour later, Noin was quite literally dragging Relena back to the boat.
"I can not believe you did that. No, wait. You're a Peacecraft. Of course you would leap up onto the stage and berate the whole of Romefellar's governing council. Recklessness is in your genes." Noin sighed in disappointment as they boarded the riverboat. "Relena, you said you would behave yourself."
"I said I would behave in a manner befitting the pacifist leader of the Cinq Kingdom. From what you've told me about the Peacecrafts, that's just what I did."
"Your parents would not openly insult a roomful of world leaders to make their point."
Relena fidgeted at that, then petulantly tossed her hair. "You're just mad because I embarrassed you in front of that cute guy."
Noin grunted in irritation. "That cute guy was Duke Treize Kushrenada, OZ's commander in chief. My duty may be to you now, but that doesn't lessen my respect for the man. You shouldn't have slighted him like that, if for no other reason that out of respect for your family."
"It isn't as though I pulled a gun on anyone this time. I just wanted the opportunity to speak my mind."
"You keep pissing those people off, they're not going to leave you with a mind to speak 'cause they'll blow your head off. This isn't a game, Relena. These people are dangerous. They may act as though knowing when to curtsey and which spoon to use for the escargot are the most important things in the world, but if you threaten their station, they won't politely look the other way. They will come after you with everything they have."
"Is that what happened to my father?"
"Yes." Noin answered slowly. She considered her next words carefully, debating how much of the past she should mention. "As a matter of fact, that is what happened to both of your fathers."
Relena looked down, a troubled frown creasing her forehead. Noin sighed at the younger girl. It was really too much for one so young. True, Noin had been given command responsibilities at the same age, but nothing to compare to ruling an entire country, especially one with such a tragic past. Plus, that was little Rena sitting there in that old-fashioned uniform. The little, giggling sprite who followed her around making mischief when they were children. Noin smiled softly at the memory of the girl's lisping speech, toothy smiles, chubby hands. She was still just a child.
"This was my fault. I should have realized you weren't ready for this responsibility. I shouldn't have brought you here."
Relena looked up with an offended glare, "You think I'm too immature for this."
"I think this is a lot to handle at your age."
The young princess crossed her arms with a bit of petulance, but she spoke with an even tone. "What were you doing at my age?"
"I was in my last year at Lake Victoria Military Academy."
"Had you fought in any battles yet?"
"What was it like?"
Relena's demeanor suggested she expected more of an explanation and Noin sighed in the face of the girl's tenacity. Wearily she continued.
"What do you want me to say Relena? War is ugly. Perhaps fighting is necessary sometimes, but war is not what those people back there want it to be. It is not beautiful."
They fell silent at that, Noin turning away to watch the scenery as the river trolley slowly made its way down stream. Yes, war was ugly, even those fought with the best intentions. War was the plague of mankind, inescapable. The further humanity progressed, the further back they fell into the cycle of destruction and rebirth. Everything torn down only to be built up again according to someone else's vision of paradise. But perhaps things would be different this time. Perhaps this would be the end of the cycle and the birth of lasting peace. Perhaps the Peacecrafts' ideals could finally be realized through their youngest child.
Noin shot a puzzled glance back at Relena. "Huh?"
"You don't use a spoon with escargot," Relena replied seriously, "it's a special little fork. More like spikes with a handle really."
The dark haired woman stared at the honey-haired girl. Then, Noin rolled her eyes and laughed.
"Actually, Your Highness, I did know that."
"They teach etiquette in the military?"
"At Lake Victoria Academy, they do. His Excellency is very strict with regards to his officers' general behavior."
"Humph. That's one thing that has always irritated me about the aristocracy. They have this veneer of good manners, but it covers hollow hearts. They spend a great deal of time teaching their children how to appear noble and kind without actually teaching them the values by which to live."
"I wouldn't make such a sweeping generalization, but I would have to agree with the gist of what you are saying."
Relena appeared deep in thought and didn't answer for several moments. "Maybe that's it."
"I've been trying to figure out what I could do, as the new leader of Cinq. I mean, we both know how little influence I have at present. Those who have accepted me have done so out of sentimental reasons. I'm the only daughter of their dead monarchs. They don't really look to me for guidance, do they?"
"No, but you are still young. The country has only just been liberated."
"Yes. We are rebuilding and I think the rebuilding of the country itself parallels the rebuilding of the Peacecraft beliefs. True change can't be brought about through bombs and mobile suits. If it could, the Alliance would still be in power, wouldn't it? That's what they tried to do thirteen years ago. They destroyed the country, they destroyed the king, but…"
"But they couldn't destroy the hope in the hearts of Cinq's people."
"Exactly!" Relena agreed earnestly, "A true revolution must begin inside each person."
Relena stood as she spoke, pacing calmly as she began to form her plan to rebuild her father's kingdom. Not just the physical aspects, but the spiritual ones as well. Noin couldn't help a burst of pride as she watched the young girl blossom into a princess of Cinq. In her, Noin could see Mrs. Katrina. They shared the same passion of conviction, the same kindness of spirit. Yet, at the same time, Noin saw much of Zechs in the younger sibling. Noin could see the same determination, personal integrity and conviction in Relena that Zechs himself possessed, though Zechs would be certain to argue should the topic ever arise. Lately, Zechs could see very little in himself worth even mild praise, let alone admiration.
Relena's plan was a good one and very possibly the best idea on how to maintain the tenuous peace that prevailed at that moment. They stayed up talking and planning until quite late, but eventually Relena was convinced to get some sleep, leaving Noin to make a call.
"How is she?"
Zechs sat bold upright in his command chair as he watched Noin on the screen. The reception was particularly fuzzy that evening, but clear enough for him to determine that Noin was calling from Captain Damon's old office in the palace. Well, it was Noin's office, but she insisted on referring to it as Damon's office, as though she were a trespasser on hallowed ground. Zechs, on the other hand, could think of no one more worthy to step into the captain's long empty shoes.
"You mean how is your sister?" Noin answered with a labored sigh.
Uh-oh. That didn't sound good. Visions of a two-year-old Relena toilet papering Trieze's private jet sprang to mind. "What did she do?" Zechs asked warily.
"Well, as I told you, we attended the Romefellar reception."
"Everything was fine. I even checked her for weapons before we went in, just in case, …then…Her Royal Highness leapt on the stage and proceeded to slam every member of Romefellar present, their mothers and the horses they rode in on." She paused and they blinked at each other in silence for a moment before Noin conceded, "Okay, so I exaggerate for effect, but not by much."
"She really stepped in it," Zechs said with genuine concern.
"Hip deep. Thankfully, not everyone took her seriously. Treize actually looked rather amused. "
Zechs pondered this for several moments. Treize had been quite surprised when Relena's identity was made public. It had been an open secret between the two that Zechs was indeed the lost Prince Milliardo, but Treize had had no knowledge of any other Peacecraft survivors until Noin had revealed Relena's relationship to the Lightning Count. They had not spoken of it openly, and Zechs doubted they ever would. It wasn't their way. They sidestepped, backhanded, avoided all together, but they never openly discussed the past. It was a relationship far different from what Zechs enjoyed with Noin. For all that Zechs looked up to the duke with an almost brotherly loyalty, he knew Treize would sacrifice whomever necessary to accomplish his ultimate goals and betraying a fifteen-year-old princess wouldn't cause much more than a brief pang of guilt, if anything. The restoration of the Peacecraft monarchy was not in Treize Kushrenada's plans.
"Do you think we should find a safe house, put her under guard?"
"No, I don't."
"You don't think she will be targeted?"
"I didn't say that. If Romefellar doesn't think her a threat yet, they will when they hear her plans. I just mean that I don't think she should go in hiding right now. The world needs to see her."
"What are her plans?"
"She wants to set up a special school in Cinq. One based totally on the teachings of Stefan Peacecraft and Hiro Yuy. It will be open to all, but she intends to recruit the daughters of world leaders in particular. A generation of young leaders taught to believe in pacifism and diplomacy over war."
Zechs remained quiet for a long time, a smile of pride slipping into his expression. He knew he, of all people, had no right to feel proud of the young girl, but he couldn't help himself. If for only a moment, Zechs felt as though his sacrifices were justified. He had allowed himself to become a monster for revenge, but also for the hope that his sister could carry on where he could not, live up to their family's legacy where he could only wallow in blood. Relena. He had been right to leave her to grow up in love, protected from her brother's pain and anger. She had become the very person their father would want to succeed him to the throne.
His throat suddenly felt tight with emotion and all Zechs could manage to say was, "That's good."
Noin smiled, her head tilted in that way she had, making her look every bit as young as her ward. Zechs returned her understanding smile, admiring the relaxed expression on his friend's face. It had been a difficult few months. They were all under a strain, Noin doubly so as she struggled to fulfill her duties to OZ as well as assist Zechs in his personal missions. He felt a pang of guilt. At times, Noin had been little more than a glorified gofer for him, but she never wavered in her support. Sometimes he wondered what he did to deserve such loyalty when he himself was becoming more and more rebellious.
Shaking those thoughts away, Zechs asked, "Aside from the tongue lashing, how did the reception go?"
Noin made a comical face. "Dermail's speech was the usual load of hooey canonizing Romefellar while vilifying the Alliance. Then he harped on the Alliance's lack of proper control mechanisms within it's hierarchy and pointed to this as a sign of the fundamental problem with their rule: the fact that they were not equipped to lead because they forced their way into power rather than being born to the ruling class. Blah, blah, blah. Then he segued into a lesson in the superiority of the aristocracy and promised a return to the gentle traditions of the pre-colony days, introducing His Excellency as the so-called 'standard bearer' for the new resurgence of the old world order."
Zechs chuckled lightly at Noin's gestures and the last roll of her eyes. Clearly she had no love for Romefellar society. "And what did Treize say?"
"That we need a government to control our human tendencies." She grinned, shaking her head in disbelief. "You should have heard him, Zechs. He actually said that the world needs a leader who is beyond God."
"And you were surprised by this?"
Noin Shrugged. "No, I guess not. I mean, I know he doesn't really believe half the things he says in his speeches, he's just trying to play to the audience, but that was a little over the top, even for him." She paused there and gave Zechs a searching look. He watched her pink lips purse together a few times, open, then close. Noin might be more observant than he was, but Zechs did know her moods and expressions very well himself.
"Noin?" he prompted. "What's wrong?"
"There's something else. About you."
"Dermail questioned His Excellency's dependence on you and he mentioned a rumor that you are rebuilding the destroyed Gundam."
"I see." He nodded, trying to ease Noin's concern with his own disinterest. "So people in high positions know about Gundam?"
"Apparently Romefellar's command council was shaken by the incident in Siberia more than we were led to believe."
"What was Treize's reaction?"
"He agreed to destroy the Gundam if Romefellar found it necessary, but Treize seemed against the idea."
"I'm sure he was, but even he has to answer to someone."
Noin nodded, peering at him intently. "Are you going to do it?"
Zechs held her gaze through the glass of his visor, wondering if she could actually read the answer in his eyes, or if the glass obscured her view. He decided to change the subject and avoid a question he did not fully know the answer to himself. "What is Relena doing now?"
Noin grinned suddenly. "I finally convinced her to go to bed, which was no easy task I'll tell you. She is very…energetic. It's hard to protect her."
"What does she know about herself?"
"Her foster father, Mr. Dorlian, told her a little bit before he died. She had been raised with the knowledge that her mother died when she was young, but was never given details. Mr. Dorlian passed himself off as a widower and there was a string of governesses to help out, though none lasted for very long. She knows now, of course, that her real parents were Stefan and Katrina Peacecraft." Noin paused, scrutinizing her friend's demeanor before adding, "and I mentioned you." Zechs stiffened visibly and Noin rushed on, raising a placating hand. "All I said was that you are a loyal soldier from Cinq Kingdom and that you were the only person who saw the 01 pilot self-destruct. Because you are rebuilding the Gundam, she wonders if the pilot is still alive."
Zechs felt more than a little alarmed. "Why would that interest her?"
"Well…" Noin took a deep breath, then blurted out the answer. "She's met him."
Silence. Complete utter silence for several minutes. Zechs' felt the muscles in his jaw clench and twitch as he ground his teeth as the implication imbedded itself into his brain. When he spoke, it was in a low, strained voice.
"How in bloody hell did that happen?"
Noin appeared to be unfazed by his reaction. "Actually it happened the same day you met him. He made it to shore after 01 crashed and Relena found him unconscious on the beach. How's that for incredible coincidence?"
Zechs ignored the latter comment. "How well does she know him?"
"Not that well. He was briefly enrolled at her boarding school. He goes by the name, Heero Yuy, spelled with two e's."
"Heero Yuy," he said with a mirthless smile. "How ironic." A violent rebel fighting under the name of the Colonies' peace-minded leader. Zechs, at least, had the decency to change his name before taking the bloody path to destruction. All that boy did was change the spelling. Why would those people feel the need to sully the name of a legend such as Hiro Yuy. Zechs only wondered for a moment before his brain switched back to protect-his-sister mode. "Are they still in contact?"
"No," Noin replied with confidence, "though I sense she wishes that were different."
Underneath the safety of his mask, Zechs allowed an expression of dubious curiosity. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I think she has a little crush on the boy," Noin said mildly.
Zechs felt a hot stab of annoyance. "Damn it to hell…"
He would have said more, but Noin waved down his objections before they fully materialized. "I know, Zechs. He's a dangerous rebel. I'll make certain he doesn't have an opportunity to harm Relena in any way. I don't believe he would see her as a threat, though. Her adopted father was strongly connected with the colonies. It's been widely publicized that she is truly Princess Relena, daughter of Hiro Yuy's greatest supporter on Earth. That makes her his ally, not enemy. Nothing is to be gained by threatening her and he won't get close enough to try. Besides, he had the opportunity to hurt her that day on the beach as well as at boarding school, but he didn't. She is obviously of no interest to him."
"I suppose..." conceded sullenly. Noin's serious expression softened to a knowing smile. Zechs frowned.
"Well, it's cute don't you think? Your little sister has her first crush. Isn't that adorable?"
Zechs shook his head, letting out a slight sniff, which might have passed for a chuckle. His sister had a crush on a violent, well-trained killer. Yeah. Real cute. "Thank you for your report, Noin."
"Zechs…are you ever going to tell Relena the truth?"
Her answer was a moment of silence before Zechs once again changed the subject.
"Noin…I'm sure Treize will make good on his word to Romefellar soon. I'll have to put on a good show and I don't have much time to prepare."
"You are planning a rematch with that pilot. I knew it."
"If we can find him." He paused briefly. He didn't want to ask this of her, not after all she had done for him so far. She was a decorated officer, after all, not Zechs' little messenger girl. But there was no one else. Well, no one he could trust with what he needed. "Noin, I don't want to ask this of you, but you're the only one I can trust."
"Consider him found, sir."
~~ Secluded Warehouse, Northern Germany, three days later ~~
Sirens blared in the small German town, OZ soldiers scrambled from one end of town to the other while the citizens of the tiny hamlet wondered at all the fuss for two teenaged boys. Those boys, however, were not merely teenagers on a joyride. They were well-trained rebel agents from the colonies. While the authorities ran themselves ragged, the boys stood inside a vast warehouse, discussion what to do with the rather large mobile suit in their possession.
"It's impossible to transport this by land," Trowa commented as he glanced outside. Heavy Arms had been well-hidden within the circus caravan, but now that he and Heero were on their own, the task of moving such a large transport vehicle unnoticed was a bit more difficult. Just a bit.
"By ship?" Heero suggested absently.
"By ship will also be difficult since they are already looking for us
at the port."
From across the warehouse, a third, more feminine, voice broke in, "You can use my airplane."
The pair whirled on their eavesdropper. The gun was out before he turned fully, safety off, aim true, then he stopped. The boy who called himself Heero Yuy stood perfectly still, eyes upon the intruder and ready to kill. Then he flinched. Anyone observing the trio would not have noticed even the slightest movement, but Heero, accustomed as he was to having total control, still could not help but react when he saw her. She stood framed in the doorway to the abandoned warehouse, the bright mid-day sun creating a harsh backdrop for her slender form. The light behind created a dark shadow in front, obscuring the woman's face, but not completely. He could still see her eyes.
It started with a vague buzzing in his ears. Then a sharp pain in his head. Then the flash of memory, fleeting and false. It wasn't a memory of his own, it never was, but there was always that fraction of a second in which the false memory felt so solid, so real, that Heero could almost believe it was. But it wasn't, and knowing this made it easier to quash the false memory and regain his composure before he faltered. Had he not been caught off guard, the false memory would not have been triggered, that was how well he learned to control his thoughts and the processes in his brain, but seeing her standing in that halo of light…it was too much. For that instant, but only that instant, the false memories raged to the surface, beyond his barrier and begged to be heard. Denied, of course. He never allowed his defect to control him. Indeed, he had become so skilled in repressing that part of his mind that Doctor J assumed the problem had been solved. He also learned long ago that, though his loyalties lay with the Doctor and his colony, there were things that they need not know. It only brought trouble upon himself.
He stood still and silent, his companion likewise, staring at the young woman. And then it happened again. Not to him. To her. A flash of confusion and something else darkened her features and disappeared almost as quickly as it came. Her eyelids fluttered as she blinked back whatever it was she felt. Here breath quickened slightly. There was a spark of pain in her eyes and, what was that? Recognition?
Her reaction, unfortunately, was also fleeting. All this took place in the span of a few moments, or as they say, quicker than the human eye, but Heero's eyes were not human. They were better. Beside him, Trowa tensed. Heero sensed his new comrade's reaction more than saw it, but he knew that the older boy was scanning the perimeter, looking for any sign of soldiers surrounding them. There were none, or so it seemed, other than the woman.
Heero hadn't mistaken that moment of recognition. As soon as her eyes cleared, the woman smiled. It was one of those damned 'all-knowing' smiles women tended to get and it was one of the few expressions he was unable to fully decipher. He hated that kind of smile. Relena smiled at him like that the night he rescued her from certain death and it confused the hell out of him. But this woman wasn't a sheltered, innocent school girl, she was a soldier of OZ. If she knew something he didn't…well, it just wasn't a good thing.
The woman's expression softened to mild amusement as she stooped to pick up the apple Heero dropped in favor of his sidearm. She polished it slightly between her glove-clad palms and said, "Your ability to survive amazes me. It's an honor to finally meet you face to face, Heero Yuy." She smirked at the mention of his name and generally gave off the impression that they shared some private joke. Another image flickered through his mind and Heero was tempted to push it aside until he realized this memory was actually from his own experience. A hospital cafeteria, a violet-eyed girl in a green jacket and a big plate of brown stuff.
"Who the hell are you?" Trowa demanded, taking it upon himself to break the brief but tense silence. "What do you want?"
Stepping forward and executing an elegant bow, she replied, " I am Lucretzia Noin, I serve with Colonel Zechs Merquise."
"Who is Zechs?" Heero asked quietly, his voice even and devoid of any emotion.
"He is the pilot you fought in Siberia."
Trowa, looking and sounding terribly unimpressed with the entire situation, said simply, "I won't allow myself to be captured."
The woman, Lucretzia Noin, smiled that smile again, this time pissing off Trowa as well. "If I intended to capture you, young man, I would have shown up with a battalion of mobile suits. I'm only here to deliver an invitation." Her eyes met Heero's. "Zechs wants to meet you."
"To meet us?" Trowa sneered. "He thinks he can get information from us?"
Noin's eyes hardened a bit as her gaze returned to Trowa. "Don't misunderstand me. He wants to meet you, not as a soldier of OZ, but as a mobile suit pilot. He wants to continue your duel under more honorable circumstances."
"He wants to duel?" Trowa sniffed sarcastically, eyes never leaving Noin as if issuing a silent challenge of his own. "What a great man this Zechs must be."
Noin scowled faintly but dangerously, however her voice was as cool and even as before. "It's up to you if you believe it or not. I am here to escort you should you accept the invitation."
Heero, who remained silent throughout the exchange, finally lowered the gun and asked, "Where is he?
"You believe her?" Trowa was obviously shocked. Heero couldn't blame him really. It was a foolish thing to do. That battle was over and it was time to move on. One never retreads old battlefields. The objective is either met or not. There is only failure or victory. No do-overs. But he had to admit, too, that the Siberian battle left him feeling empty. That other prototype Gundam had been quite a match for his Wing. Armaments comparable, weight even, maneuverability similar. He had been interested to find out which suit was superior, but the battle had been cut short by that lackey of Kushrenada. What if the battle had been allowed to continue to its inevitable conclusion? Who would have been victorious? The fact that the other pilot had backed off and allowed Trowa to intervene spoke of Zechs' wish to find the answer to that question himself. Heero paused, studying the strange woman carefully before responding. "He's not the kind of person who resorts to such tricks."
That seemed to be enough for Trowa and he finally relented. "I see. Then you can use Heavy Arms."
"Trowa…you don't have to…"
"Yes I do."
With that, it was all settled. Noin had arranged for the remaining OZ troops in the town to follow a false lead towards the port while, the pilots drove the transport to the airstrip. Within half an hour of their meeting, they were en route to Antarctica. Heero thought with some amusement that it was an appropriate place to fight. After all, he had fought on every other continent on the planet, might as well make it a sweep. During the first leg of the journey, he and Trowa became aware of the fact that Noin's group was on the look out for other OZ aircraft in the area. It made sense that Zechs would have to make secret arrangements for such an unconventional duel, but Heero suspected there was much more to it than that. He shrugged it off, though. It wasn't his problem if these people got themselves in trouble with their superiors. His only goal at present was to fight Zechs Merquise…and win.
During the longer second phase of the trip, Trowa and Heero occupied themselves with Heavy Arms. It was very different from his Wing, but could be just as effective in the upcoming fight. What it lacked in flight capability, it more than made up for in sheer fire power. He could compensate for the lack of maneuverability, but bearing the extra weight could be a problem, particularly with unhealed arm. They spent several hours working with the suit's systems, both aware that Miss Noin was nearby watching. They tried lapsing into different languages, each could speak several, but it proved to be a useless tactic. Lieutenant Noin, according to the personnel file they hacked into when she wasn't paying attention, could speak twenty-seven languages. Heero raised an eyebrow at that bit of information. Language wasn't the easiest area of study for most people, but she seemed to excel. Just as he did. Trowa had learned the languages necessary to survive his early life as a mercenary. Heero, on the other hand, simply had an innate gift for foreign dialects and was able to master any language in a matter of days. He knew his penchant for language was part of his special 'training,' and finding someone else who could pick up such things was a bit of a surprise.
As time began to run out, both pilots dropped their concerns about the unusual escort they acquired and returned to the task of readying Heavy Arms for battle. About three hours before they were due to land, Miss Noin interrupted and pointed out the rather large bloodstain spreading over his shirtsleeve. Somehow—he was still trying to figure out how—Heero suddenly found himself in a cabin having his arm bandaged by the woman. It was certainly odd. He definitely remembered saying no when she offered, but there he was, so he made the best of the situation.
He leaned back and allowed his arm to be tended by the dark-haired woman but he watched her carefully. He agreed with Trowa that the woman was an good soldier, even if she was with OZ, and both boys wondered how she ended up being chosen to ferry them to an illegal battle. There was something about her that still disturbed him. No, it wasn't that she was with OZ, that she seemed a formidable opponent, or even that she was hovering over them with what appeared to be concern. No, it was something else.
When Miss Noin stood and removed her green jacket, it hit him. He stared up in wonder at the face of the little girl who had introduced him to chocolate when he was a child. He tried to retain as little frivolous memories as possible, but for some reason, that little girl's memory had stayed with him. Now, she sat beside him, grown-up and once again treating him with motherly care. Heero was not a person who believed in coincidence and the realization that this was the same girl he remembered did nothing to ease his sense of suspicion. There was more to it, though. She brought up disturbing feelings that he didn't understand. He dismissed it initially as being associated with that brief meeting from his childhood, but he knew that wasn't it, not really. It was because of the other memories. The false memories. And the voices, speaking that language he never learned and yet understood completely. Another dark haired woman, standing on a beach…
"How do you feel, caro?"
Heero jerked slightly. "What?" he stuttered, clearly startled.
Noin eyed him in concern and repeated, "I asked how you were feeling, Heero." Frowning at him she lifted a hand to feel his forehead only to have her wrist caught by the boy.
"I'm fine," he grunted, pushing her hand away.
"No you're not," Noin muttered as she stood and gathered the med supplies. "But I suppose there's no arguing with you about it, so I'll leave you be for now. The liquid stitches will keep the wound from opening up under normal movement, but try not to do anything strenuous tonight. It's probably a waste of breath to suggest this, but get some rest, kid." She paused at the doorway and tossed another comment over her shoulder, grinning smugly, "If you're a good boy, I'll see if I can find some hot chocolate."
Heero glared at her back as her laughter faded down the narrow hall. He fell heavily onto the cot, clutching his arm and squeezing his eyes shut. Another wave of dizziness washed over him and this time, he was either too tired or too confused to fight it off easily. He struggled against the confusion, ignored the pain in his head and remained cool. It had been literally years since he had such an experience and it surprised him that this woman brought it back with such force. He told himself that it was just the surprise of being found and the coincidence of being found by the very same girl who introduced him to chocolate cake all those years ago. He told himself that, but that vague insistence in his mind told him that the false memories he worked so diligently to suppress had something to do with that Miss Noin, but what he had no idea. The buzzing was louder, the whisper of long repressed voices calling him into a mental image he refused to acknowledge. He quashed the false memory before it took root and quickly regained control of his thoughts. Long years of training had taught him how to push the false memories away, back to that corner of his brain that belonged to someone else where they would remain locked up and inaccessible to his conscious mind.
With a groan, Heero forced his body to relax. He was beginning to wish he had never come to Earth. Not only was he being babied by a woman who set his mind reeling, he was on his way to what could very well be a trap. Every fiber of his well-trained being screamed as much, but something else inside Heero told him his destiny lay on that frozen wasteland. He told Trowa to live by his emotions, and now he found himself drowning in his own. He was risking everything on a feeling. Just as he had with her. The girl. Relenena. Logic, his training, and every inborn instinct for self preservation bade him kill her upon their first meeting, but he couldn't. Whether it was because of her eyes—so much like that other little girl so long ago—or maybe it was…or…what? He had no reason. There was no reason. Only a feeling. Whenever he was around Relena, he had a vague feeling settled in his stomach. She represented everything he was fighting against, yet at the same time, everything he was fighting to protect. An incongruous mixture of hatred and longing swelled within him along with uncertainly and determination. He felt like he wasn't good enough to be on the same planet, but with her honey-colored hair and her reassuring smile, Relena made him want to be good enough. She made him want to be human, live a normal human life…but that was impossible. He was not a normal human. He was a soldier, bred for death so that others might live in peace. For others. Peace was not for his kind.
Against his better judgment, Heero slept a bit before they arrived. Miss Noin, as promised, supplied them with a good cup of chocolate along with their heavy winter gear. They landed roughly in the dry, cold air and came to a stop at the far end of the base. Noin ushered them out as she barked a few orders to her men. They stepped off the plane and started towards a small group of men on the far end of the tarmac. Noin called out to the group as they approached.
Out of the corner of his eye, Heero caught the smile that spread across
the woman's face, confirming what he and Trowa had theorized the night before.
It had struck both he and Trowa as odd that an obviously elite officer would
drop everything to ferry them across the world for an illegal duel. If it had
been her fight, maybe they could understand, but Miss Noin was doing this on
behalf of another officer, one who seemed to be in serious trouble with his
superiors. A lot to risk, even for a friend. That look, though, explained it all.
Miss Noin obviously lived by her emotions, too.
~~~ Lake Victoria Base ~~~
"I'm sure you know where Miss Noin is, I don't understand why you won't tell me. I've explained who I am and that Miss Noin is a personal friend."
"Yes, miss, but I've been given strict orders."
Relena Dor—no, Peacecraft. She really had to get herself used to that. Relena Peacecraft stood looking at the young man. He couldn't have been more than a couple of years older than she was. It occurred to her that she could probably engage in a bit of careful flirting and eventually get him to tell her what she wanted to know, but then it also occurred to her that Miss Noin might have very good reasons for keeping her whereabouts secret. With a sigh, the girl looked out the observation tower window towards the wreckage of Heero's Gundam.
Pagan had been the one to tell her that the suit's remains were to be destroyed, his hope being that she would give up her foolish pursuit, but it had quite the opposite affect. With all that was happening to her, with all that was out of her control, this was one thing she could do for herself. She could follow her conscience, follow Heero. Her best lead lay in a heap of Gundanium outside the tower, so she wracked her brain for some clue. Zechs Merquise had been the last one to see the younger pilot alive. Perhaps he could help. Surely, he couldn't refuse. From what Miss Noin had said, the man was not only a native of Cinq, but had served her parents faithfully before their deaths. As the last Peacecraft, he would be honor bound to help her, right? Right.
"Very well. Then tell me where I can find Lieutenant Colonel Zechs Merquise."
The man stuttered pathetically until the long range communications panel beeped. With obvious relief, the man stepped to the next room to answer. Relena rolled her eyes. Well, there when that idea. Obviously, Mr. Merquise was also 'on special assignment.' The situation was beginning to irritate her to no end. Something was happening, something important, and she had no idea what. She had clues that led no where and allies who disappeared with no trace. It was like having the pieces to a puzzle, but no picture as a guide. Miss Noin was off on assignment, Heero disappeared after having trekked all over Europe, Colonel Merquise was unavailable until further notice. Something was going on, but she couldn't piece it together.
Until she overheard the message from Antarctica.
~~~~Secret OZ Base, Antarctica~~~
"She and her personal assistant took off in a private jet a few moments ago, ma'am."
"Pagan's flying her back to Cinq, correct?"
"Uh…no, ma'am. I don't think so."
"Well, what do you think?" Noin asked slowly and with supreme patience.
"Ma'am…I'm sorry, Lieutenant Noin, but I think she overheard a message I received earlier and that she's…on her way…to you…"
Noin pinched the bridge of her nose. She should probably be furious at the officer as well as Relena's guard detail, but somehow she couldn't blame them. That girl was tough to keep up with on a good day, but when she was truly determined, Relena Peacecraft was impossible to stop. Noin smiled. It was one of the things that made her such a good leader. Peacecraft stubbornness.
"Geez…" Noin chuckled to the vid screen, "…even Relena knows what's going on. I assume Romefellar knows now? Great…." She let the poor officer off the hook and deactivated the screen, leaning heavily on the table. "Lovely," she said to the empty room, "everyone is going to be sucking up to Romefellar now and doing what ever they can to get noticed. Exposing Zechs, Romefellar's hero, as a defender of the Gundams would certainly earn someone major points in Duke Dermail's camp. Hopefully we'll be finished here before anyone has the chance to crash the party….but…if we have to hide this in the first place…" Noin rubbed her forehead roughly, as though to blot out the next thought. "…maybe Zechs is about to make a big mistake?"
Noin stood upright and straightened her uniform coat. Turning to the door, she came to an abrupt halt. Standing, leaning casually on the door frame in a posture Noin always thought both charming and arrogant, was Zechs Merquise. Having been caught, he peered at Noin for several moments before casually apologizing.
"I am sorry, Noin. I didn't mean to eavesdrop."
Noin suppressed a snort. Of course he didn't mean to eavesdrop, she thought wryly. "Colonel," she said in way of a greeting.
"I might have a partial answer for your questions," Zechs continued gently as he turned to face her. "In all my years in OZ, I thought I figured out what it meant to be a soldier, but I was wrong. Those Gundam pilots are the true warriors. They're desperate, willing to die in defense of their cause. I, on the other hand…"
There was a slight pause as Zechs allowed the implication to hang in the air. Noin shook her head. She wasn't going to sit back and allow him to do this to himself.
"Heero and the others know what they are fighting for! Zechs, you have something to fight for as well. Someone to fight for."
"I don't have the right to protect anyone. My reasons for fighting were never about protecting anyone, not really. I became a soldier for one reason. Revenge…and now that reason is gone…"
Noin felt her heart breaking as it had a dozen times since O'Neguil met his end. "Zechs…"
Zechs shook his head, halting her attempt at comfort. "No…Noin…if I am incapable of finding a legitimate reason to continue, then it is best that I am defeated here. Some lessons can only be learned by risking one's life."
Noin nodded silently, considering his last statement. Perhaps he was right. She had done all she could to show Zechs he had a purpose beyond vengeance, but it was up to him now.
"You know she is on her way," Noin started carefully, "The search party will find us eventually."
"I understand. I'm counting on you to keep them at bay until this is finished. "
"Don't worry. I'll keep everyone out of the way. You needn't concern yourself with the search party."
Zechs turned to leave, but stopped and peered back at her. "My only concern is for the young Princess of Cinq…my dear Imperial Guard." His voice was softer than usual, his tone carrying a rare hint of affection, for her or for Relena she couldn't tell, but those final words carried an unspoken request. 'Protect my family.' Noin had her purpose now, to guard the Peacecrafts. Both of them. But could Zechs truly find purpose in a useless duel?
"You may not realize it now, Zechs," she whispered to the empty doorway, "but you do have a purpose. If fighting Heero out there makes you realize you are worthy of protecting Relena, then I'll do my best to help."
~~~ OZ headquarters, Luxembourg ~~~
Une entered her suite in the same solid, almost arrogant, manner she had when she walked into any room. It was a walk born of self-confidence and long years of devout military training. She gave no thought to her posture. There was no need. She was who she was and that was reflected in her movements. At that particular moment, though, she was simply tired. She had been getting tired more frequently lately and found this increasingly annoying. She had work to do. There was no time for rest when His Excellency was on the verge of realizing his dreams.
She allowed her ladies maids to remove her uniform and replace it with a silk dressing gown, then noticed how nervous they all seemed. Generally, she paid little heed to her private staff. Having such attendants was simply one of the oddities of being born of noble blood, something she took for granted from her childhood. But there were times when the swarm of young girls were more a nuisance than anything, and this was one of those times. She sent them away abruptly and sat at her dressing table to tend to her own hair for once. She began to pull it at the thick brown braids that remained coiled behind each ear. She made a small pile of hair pins in a glass dish reserved for that purpose and pulled the loose braids over her shoulders. The colonel reached for a lovely ivory handled brush her aunt Letitia sent for her last birthday, which sat at the right end of her neatly ordered dressing table. Just as her fingers brushed the smooth handle, she stopped.
Lady Une's hand remained in mid-air as her eyes fell upon a small box sitting amidst the other items on her vanity. Every piece of her grooming set had its place and was returned to that place as soon as she was finished, but that box was out of place. That box was not hers. She was, by nature, a curious person, but her training had also made her a cautious one. With the world still recovering from the recent chaos, it occurred to Une that the box could very well be some sort of bomb, an assassination attempt against His Excellency's right hand. That would explain her maids' behavior before they left. She sat still, considering her options until a deep voice startled her from her thoughts.
"Will you not open your gift?"
Rather than turning towards the voice, Une glanced up to her mirror to see the person standing a few feet behind her. To her amazement, she found Mr. Treize smiling back at her from his perch on the corner of her canopied bed. He wasn't wearing the customary indigo uniform coat bedecked with gold braid and brass buttons. Instead he sat there in his white trousers, patent boots and the crisp white cotton shirt he normally wore underneath the Romefeller uniform. He looked quite…well…he looked like the cover of one of the romance novels her maids insisted on hiding about the place and Une could understand completely why the girls had been nervous earlier. The sight of a man like Mr. Treize sitting on a bed with his shirt half open was enough to make even the likes of Colonel Une nervous. How long had he been there? Why was he there? Questions whirled through her mind faster than she could voice any of them. Obviously, the questions also played across her features, prompting His Excellency to chuckle slightly, softening his already handsome features into a charmingly boyish expression.
"Forgive the intrusion, Lady…"
"Your presence is never an intrusion, Excellency."
The young man smiled. It was a smile of pleasure laced with something slightly devious. It was a smile she was becoming accustomed to as of late. His Excellency had been looking at her with just such an expression more often. It reminded her of his first attempt, so many years ago, at seducing her. She had refused him then, quite wisely, but years in his company, at his service, left her resolve weakened. Not that he had made any other such overtures, but she could feel that he wanted to and Une wasn't certain that she could refuse him a second time. It was difficult to maintain ones sense of propriety when faced with such a powerful presence.
"I convinced your maids to let me in earlier so that I might deliver my gift personally."
Une's eyes returned to the box by her hand. She gingerly lifted the delicate item and placed it in the middle of the small table. It was obviously an antique, its intricate filigree design indicating the work of an eighteenth century artisan. She lifted the lid and was rewarded with the gentle sound of a music box symphony. A lovely light melody drifted from the delicate box, gently breaking the still air surrounding Aneke Une.
She stared a the box as the music played, not bothering to glance up again as Mr. Treize stepped behind her. She didn't respond when he asked if she liked the gift, only smiled down at the small box. She didn't even move when Treize's hands began to delicately pluck apart her braids. Aneke leaned into his touch as Treize drew his fingers through the freed chestnut locks. She whimpered slightly when his hands disappeared. A moment later, her glasses vanished from their perch.
Her thoughts faded and drifted, her eyes clouded and suddenly, she was in a misty courtyard. The music box sound was replaced by the distant sound of a string quartet…and she was dancing. Everything continued to change, just beyond the mist, moving like liquid poured from a cup. Laughter, muffled voices, clicking heels on a cobbled walkway. Aunt Letitia in her youth…and another girl. A girl with long brown hair, gentle dark eyes and a smile that spoke of wisdom beyond her years…
"Don't you believe in such things, Lettie?"
"I know it sounds nice, Aneke dear, but I do not think it will ever come to pass. It is foolish to think so."
"It is foolish to dream?"
In an instant, the hazy vision vanished and Aneke found herself in the arms of a ginger-haired man. There was a moment of confusion as Aneke struggled to remember her situation, but as Treize smiled, she gave in to the moment. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to be twirled about the room in a breathtaking waltz, their movements accompanied by the sweet tinny sound of the simple music box. Round and round, her steps matching his perfectly, just as she fit perfectly against him as they danced.
The music ran down and stopped, just as their hectic pace slowed and ceased. Smiling and suppressing a giggle, Aneke opened her eyes and found Treize staring down at her with an intense, penetrating look. She rarely saw such depth of emotion on his face, such genuine passion. The utter honesty in his look left her feeling dizzy and little frightened.
"Do you like my present, Aneke?"
"Yes, of course. It's lovely, but…?"
"What is the occasion?"
"It is a going away present."
The last statement was met with a shocked stare, laced with hurt. Treize smiled and touched her cheek. "Now, now, Lady. It isn't like you to jump to conclusions. I have a special request to make of you. OZ is in a very delicate position at present. If I am to step into a more sweeping leadership role, I will require the support of the Colonies. However, I'm sure you understand that it is impossible for me to leave Earth at present. Tuberov and those like him are skewing Romefellar's objectives to suit their own purposes and I need to be here to stop them. That is why I am asking you, Aneke, to represent me in space. Will you take my message of peace to the Colonies?"
Aneke considered his words for several moments before responding. Part of her rebelled at the thought of leaving Treize's side, particularly with the opposition arising against him in Romefellar. The other part agreed that His Excellency needed a representative among the Colonials. With their support, the Gundam threat would be neutralized and there would be no more obstacles to His Excellency's rise to power. With a curt nod, Lady Une stepped back and said, "Of course, Excellency. I will organize a support unit and leave immediately." She raised her hand to salute, only to have her hand captured by the young man.
"Lady, I don't intend to send a military detachment to space. That is just what the Alliance did. I wish the Colonies to see OZ as an organization that promotes peace and harmony through cooperation and strong leadership. I wish for you to meet with the colonial leaders in your capacity as a member of Romefellar. As a diplomat, not an officer of OZ."
Treize drew her hand to his lips as he finished, never breaking eye contact. Lady Une felt her military instincts slipping back in favor of embracing the softer nature she displayed only rarely. She curtseyed gracefully, every bit the noblewoman, and said, "As you wish, Treize."
~~~ Secret OZ base, Antarctic base ~~~~
Noin tossed restlessly in her narrow cot, kicking away layers of blankets despite the cold air seeping into the gray room from every door and window crack. Her body shivered instinctually against the sub-freezing weather, but her dreams were even colder. Years had passed since those dreams plagued her last, but they returned with a vengeance a month earlier. Once again she was a lost five year old, weeping over the dead body of a boy she did not know, yet could not live without.
That night's dream was different. The woods were the same, the painful sensations of pain and chilled skin, but there was something out of place. Noin's brain entered that odd state between consciousness and total oblivion in which one can be aware of dreaming, yet incapable of affecting that dream. Her dream self crawled over familiar wreckage, inching her way to the dead boy. She leaned over his blood soaked body, stared at his pale face.
He wasn't supposed to die. He was Noin. He was part of her. She reached out, moving aside a rope of damp hair and stared. She tried to remember what it was about his face that seemed wrong, why the round face and chocolate brown hair seemed strange. Tentatively, she touched his frigid skin. The boy's eyes few open and Noin screamed.
She awoke with a startled yelp. She flew out of the bed, shaking off the last bit of sleep and gasped for air. What was that? What woke her with such a jolt? The dream faded even as Noin scrambled to pull it back. As her mind cleared and her pulse calmed, she realized what must have startled her so. The alarm clock on her night stand was blaring obnoxiously. She slapped at the offending object and cursed through clenched teeth. She was late. Hopefully the battle hadn't started yet, but she doubted she could be that lucky. Damn. Of all days to oversleep.
Noin threw on a uniform, still buttoning the shell coat as she dashed into the command room at the top of the observation tower. As suspected, Heero—in his newly restored Gundam—stood facing Zechs in Tallgeese. They were ready. The boy calling himself Trowa Barton, turned slightly and acknowledged her entrance with a scowl.
"This is a stupid waste of time," he snapped, "for some reason, OZ is after you people. What is the point of two sides with a common enemy fighting each other?"
Noin joined him at the console and glanced at the read outs as she responded. "You're right, but this is something they both need to do. They need to realize fighting each other is a waste of time on their own."
Trowa wasn't satisfied with that one. "So, in the meantime, the true enemy has the opportunity to grow stronger. We don't have time to wait for them to figure out why they're fighting. Soldiers fight. That is their fate."
Noin had to admit she was growing to like the kid. His head was in the right place, if not his heart. "No. A soldier's purpose is to protect. Ideas, countries, people. There is always a purpose to fighting. Even if it is not one we agree with, there is still purpose."
Noin's words affected Trowa a little and the two fell silent as the battle started. Noin occupied herself with directing support crews and overseeing the crews sent to watch the base perimeter. The search party would show up eventually, of that she had no doubt, but she hoped to have enough warning to meet them well outside of the base's airspace, giving Zechs and Heero time to finish their duel. The interruption came much sooner than anticipated and in a form even Noin couldn't expect.
Relena's helicopter* was crossing the first lookout post and Noin had to scramble to order the Aries to stand down instead of intercept as she had previously ordered. She knew Relena was en route, but had expected the trip to fail long before she reached the polar region, but once again the girl proved much more tenacious than anyone thought. Noin felt both a bit of pride in her ward's spirit as well as a stab of annoyance at the unforeseen complication. Especially given the fact that Relena proceeded to incite Heero to kill Zechs.
"Heero! You have to stop this! It won't mean anything if you allow yourself to be killed here! It won't change anything."
"Princess!" Zechs desperate voice crackled across the open comm. Link. "You must leave at once."
Noin was about to butt in, but remained silent as Relena spoke directly to Zechs. It would be the first time the siblings spoke since they were small children.
"Are you Zechs Merquise?"
"Then I order you as a subject of Cinq to stop this at once." Noin almost smirked at the regal tone in the girl's voice. She certainly learned fast, that one. Or, more likely, it was just in her blood.
"I can't do that, your highness. I must avenge my men!"
"You do this for revenge?
Zechs didn't respond verbally. Instead, he took advantage of the distraction to sidestep the helicopter and strike out at Heero. This very effectively pissed Relena off, but Noin could see that was pretty much what Zechs wanted. He wanted her to see the senselessness of what was happening around her. Relena uttered something that might have been a curse but was muffled by the noise of battle. Noin took the opportunity to contact the pilot and convince him to take Relena away, but the princess would have none of it.
"Miss Noin said you have dedicated your life to protecting the Peacecrafts, that you were a true knight of Cinq. What kind of knight participates in a foolish, pointless duel? You are no knight of Peacecraft!"
"Relena!" Noin hissed, using her best instructor's voice. "Stop saying such things!"
"Miss Noin. I'm disappointed that you would allow this."
Noin sighed, suddenly feeling very tired and fed up with the whole situation. "I deserve your contempt, Your Highness, but I'm not about to abandon Colonel Zechs right now. Please understand and leave at once."
"No, I won't! All right, Heero, if you won't walk away from this fight, then defeat him and end this now!"
"Relena! Stop it!" Noin shouted in shock.
"Why? He has disgraced everything Cinq stands for! You told me we were pacifists, that my father died for the pacifist ideal and now you stand by and watch while this man destroys it? How could you?"
Noin managed to regain her composure and responded more calmly, but with no less strength. "I believe in him. I know why he is doing this and I must support him."
"He's with OZ! For all I know, he was part of the plan to kill my father! Heero, Zechs is an embarrassment to Cinq. Kill him!"
That was the last straw. It was time to end the girl's selfish tantrum. "Stop it, Relena!" Noin screamed, for the first time allowing her anger seep into her words. She made fists to calm her fury and leaned heavily on the communications vid screen. "I understand why you hate OZ and I'm not going to explain away Zechs' mistake with his love for Cinq, but whatever tragedies you've suffered, you have no right to wish for the death of your own brother!"
"Yes," Noin replied quietly, regretting the method of her revelation, if not the revelation itself. With a sigh, she tried to explain as quickly as possible. "Ever since Cinq fell—since your parents were killed and the two of you were separated—your brother has had his heart set on revenge. OZ was the means by which he exacted that revenge. Now…he's lost the purpose that fueled him all of these years and he's searching for the will to continue. Right now, he thinks fighting the Gundams will lead him to a new purpose. He believes he is too tainted to take his rightful place on Cinq's throne. He believes you are destined to take your father's place and, whether he realizes it yet or not, it's really you he is fighting for. Whatever else you may think of him or his tactics, your brother has never stopped trying to protect you from all of this, even protect you from himself. You have no right to hate him for that."
Relena stared through the video link, stunned. Noin watched as a myriad of emotions played across the younger girl's face. Shock, regret, anger, acceptance…understanding. She cocked her head and studied Noin as the older woman continued.
"I'll keep believing in him. I want to stay by his side and help Zechs find himself again."
"You love him, don't you?"
~~~ Safe house, southern Australia ~~~
The commander watched the satellite feed with only mild interest. He had only pursued the pair out of curiosity anyway, so he felt no need to interfere. The search parties would most likely stumble upon them soon, so why meddle? It would have no real affect on his plans. After all, he had all but given the boy up for dead. The fact that Zechs Merquise had repaired the boy's Gundam was surprising and, if nothing else, that silly demonstration of chivalry would reunite the pilot with his weapon, but the outcome of the duel itself would do no more to hinder the commander's over all plans than they would help. It did make for entertaining viewing though. Watching the soldiers scramble as the two massive mobile suits fought was rather like watching one of the old Super Bowl tournaments he watched as a young child.
Most of his countrymen had preferred sports such as soccer, but as a child, the commander had always had a soft spot for American baseball and football. Major league sports such as those had been dissolved decades ago, but there were still the occasional broadcast sports tournaments and he could never pass up the opportunity to watch. Particularly if he was at home with his daughter. The commander sighed. Once again his thoughts turned to the only person in the universe who could still affect him on such a deep emotional level. He tried to reverse that even as he acknowledged the impossibility. She had won what was left of his heart the day she was born, which was why it hurt so to have her turn away from him now. It was better that she did so, he could acknowledge that both as a father and a soldier, but it still hurt.
He half listened to the miscellaneous communications shooting back and forth between the many operatives on the base. Most were high-strung orders from one end of the base to the other. Some were updates from the observation tower. A few were comments exchanged between the pilots themselves. There was a conversation between Lucretzia Noin and her young ward, Relena Peacecraft. The older girl was wisely trying to convince the younger one to leave the area, but somehow she ended up defending her comrade Zechs Merquise. He had to admit. Getting Zechs to turn on OZ might prove worth the effort, but if he turned, Lucretzia Noin was sure to follow. The commander smiled unconsciously at the sound of the girl's voice, impressed by her intense sense of loyalty and friendship. It was foolish on her part but…
The commander all but leapt out of the chair when he heard the girl's last comment. She and the little princess were arguing over Zechs Merquise, The girl was defending her friend and then…what did she just say? Oh, hell. Please somebody tell him that the girl didn't just broadcast that across the whole base. If she wasn't a target simply by association with Zechs Merquise, a revelation like that certainly bumped her to the front of the line. The last thing he needed was for Merquise's enemies to start poking around in that girl's past…
~~~ Secret OZ base, Antarctica ~~~
"Yes…I do love him," Noin's voice was quiet, but firm. Loud enough to be heard over the din outside, the communication glitches and static on her commlink. Her open commlink set to broadcast on all channels. Zechs sat stunned. Tallgeese was frozen in a posture of attack, facing the equally still form of Gundam 03. His instincts called for him to continue, to show his sister exactly how horrible people like him could be so that she may never be seduced by the promises of OZ or Romefellar or anyone else who claimed to know the road to peace. That road was in her heart and it was his duty to show her how wrong he was. But the rest of his mind, the conscious part that was currently controlling his actions, sat silent and still as he listened to the conversation between Relena and Noin. Whether or not she was aware that her conversation with Relena was being broadcast over every open channel had yet to be determined, Zechs was fairly certain that Noin was unaware of the fact that he could hear everything she said. Or maybe she did know and she didn't mind that he could hear. The battle still remained deadlocked as Relena's aircraft hovered between the two combatants. Trusting that Heero would be too honorable to strike her down just to continue the fight, Zechs took the opportunity to listen and think.
"Miss Noin, please watch over my…my brother. Always."
Zechs felt his heart contract at those words. She accepted the fact that he was her brother. She shouldn't. She shouldn't even know she had a brother, but she did and she accepted him.
"Hm." Noin's voice caught his attention again, "It won't be easy to watch over him. He's a little reckless."
Relena laughed. "Must run in the family."
Reckless. Yes, he could admit to recklessness, but he couldn't allow that in Relena. Her position was still so tenuous. She was still so fragile. Relena couldn't afford to be reckless with her life, it meant too much, and his life…well, if someone had asked him the worth of his own life a few hours before, he would have said, 'nothing,' without hesitation, but now? Now he was beginning to understand what Noin said earlier. She tried to make him comprehend the meaning of his life, but he was too obsessed to see.
Zechs' attention was wrenched back to reality as sirens began blaring the intruder alert. The search party finally caught up with then all. He remained immobile for a few minutes, but it was enough for a profound change to take place in his heart. Suddenly, everything was so clear. He understood now what she had been trying to say earlier. He understood now what it was he had to fight for. Quickly powering down his beam saber and activating his long range weapons, Zechs took flight.
"Noin, evacuate the base and get Relena out of here. I'll hold off the search party." With a last look back, he added, "Glory to all the Colonies!"
"No!" Heero shouted, his voice frantic and shocked.
"We'll meet again, Heero."
"Colonel Zechs," Noin broke in, "We're prepared to join you, sir. Launching now."
"No. Take Relena and evacuate the base."
"Zechs, you can't!"
"Once everyone is a safe distance, I will surrender."
"Then I'm going to fight too! I'll order the other troops to escort…"
"Noin! Please," his voice became calm, resolute. "Please, let me protect the promising new leader of the Cinq kingdom. Allow me to protect her."
"Understood," Noin answered softly, "Colonel…take care."
Off he flew into a battle that would last only long enough to ensure his sister's safety and Noin's complete evacuation of the base. Then he surrendered. He was taken into custody and Tallgeese impounded. He was detained, rather honorably considering the circumstances and then sent to a large carrier in the middle of the South Pacific. Zechs paid little heed to what was going on around him at that over the days that followed. He had some serous thinking to do.
Strangely, Zechs Merquise was more at peace than he had been in years. His life had meaning again. One admission, one declaration, and everything was as it should be. He understood what Noin had been trying to tell him the night before his duel with Heero. His personal vendetta was complete, but his duty was not fulfilled. He made a promise, almost fifteen years prior. A promise to protect his sister. He could finally do that. Free of the specter of Zechs Merquise, Milliardo Peacecraft could once again take on the duty left to him by his mother. He could not sit upon the throne, but he could protect the girl who would. He could work for her goals, their father's goals, in space. Twenty years before, Hiiro Yuy and Stefan Peacecraft worked together for peace. Where they failed, Milliardo and Relena Peacecraft would succeed. He would, eventually, redeem himself of his past sins and become worthy once more to call himself her brother.
But for that to happen, Zechs Merquise had to die.
~~~Sweepers salvage ship, South Pacific ~~~
The crew of the salvage ship went about their merry business and totally ignored the old guy sprawled, half naked, on the deck. Howard had been their 'captain' for about three years, so most were quite accustomed to his daily sunbaths, the blaring music coming from the ship's external communication system—who the heck were the Beach Boys anyway and why were they singing about a little old lady?-- and the huge pitcher of marguerites slowly growing warm in the harsh sun. Yup. Howard was a weirdo, but they loved him anyway.
Well, they loved him until faced with the consequences of disturbing his afternoon naps in the sun.
"Don't get pissy, ya old fart." The unofficial second mate gave the old man a little kick, "You got a call."
"Who is it?" Howard's mood brightened and he sat up, "Oh, maybe it's that waitress from the Tiki Lounge…whasser name…Lola! Yeah, Lo-oh-la!"
"Not unless Lola's got a quarter inch cut and five o'clock shadow. Go answer the call, Howard."
"Well, help me up, numb nuts." The younger man gave Howard a hand up and watched him shuffle back below deck in his flip-flops and shorts. He shook his head and went back to work, glad that he still had a few years before senility hit. Working for Howard was a hoot though. How many Sweepers teams could boast a fully equipped mobile suit repair facility below deck?
Meanwhile, Howard plopped himself in front of a vid screen and connected to the open link. The sight that met him took away what little buzz he had left from the marguerites.
"Why the hell are you calling?"
"Now is that any way to greet an old friend?"
"We were never friends," Howard ground out, grateful for the sunglasses hiding the worried look in his eyes.
"Why Howard, I'm wounded."
"What do you want Commander?"
"I have some information for you."
"I'm not interested in the kind of information you deal in."
"Oh, I think you'll be interested in this." The commander's smug look set Howard's nerves on end. "It's about a certain pilot you expressed interest in at one time."
Howard looked puzzled, then suspicious. He never did know what to think of the Commander's little schemes and announcements. The old bastard might be having an acid flashback for hall he knew. The commander smiled and continued.
"Oh you remember, doctor. I believe your comment was something to the effect of, 'if all pilots behaved as honorably as that young man, then we might just survive this mess.'"
"Zechs Merquise? What about him?"
"He's no longer with OZ."
Howard had to admit, that was interesting, but he still didn't see where the commander was going with this. "……that so…?"
"Yes, that's so."
There was a brief silence as each man measured up the other. Howard's mind began picking at the information. A rogue, ex-OZ pilot, arguably the best pilot in the world. And if he could come away with the Tallgeese…oh, it would be nice to see Tallgeese again after twenty years. Especially since he never had a chance to see the mobile suit in it full capacity.
"So…commander…would you happen to know where I can find this Zechs Merquise?"
~~~ Cinq Kingdom, Peacecraft mansion ~~~
Three weeks. Lucretzia Noin was beginning to feel each day drag on longer than the last. She trudged upstairs to her suite in the Peacecraft mansion and slumped against the door. The duties as Captain of the Imperial Guard of Cinq were no more or less strenuous as those she performed in OZ, but emotionally, it was all more draining. She stripped on her way to the bathroom and stepped into the shower. She stayed in there a good hour, she was sure, allowing the hot water to wash away her fears along with the daily dirt.
With a sad sigh, she reached for an ornate purple bottle and squeezed out a thick liquid. It was a foolish indulgence, but she couldn't help herself. The smell of lilacs brought her as much comfort at nineteen as it had when she was five. It was well worth the expense of importing custom blended shampoo just for the feeling that enveloped her when she washed her hair in the rich mixture. She lathered and rinsed, then finally decided to get out before her skin turned to prunes.
She dressed in simple slacks and button down shirt and sat on the foot of her bed toweling her hair as she mulled over the events of the last few weeks. The news had been spread a month ago that Colonel Zechs Merquise, hero of OZ, was allegedly killed in a huge battle off the coast of some obscure Polynesian island. The reports made it sound a noble death, but Noin knew it was Romefellar's way of saving face.
Noin understood why. She really did. Zechs defied Romefellar, yet he was still a hero in the eyes of the public. He couldn't be publicly tried without embarrassing all of OZ. His Excellency couldn't simply dismiss the insubordination without compromising his position as the leader of OZ. As Zechs said, even Treize answered to somebody and overlooking such a blatant disregard for orders was simply not possible. Sending him out to fight fifty Ares and twenty Cancer, in effect sending him off to be executed in a mock attack, would seem to be the only option. Romefellar could openly mourn a lost hero, Treize played nice with his superiors, and Zechs would no longer be a threat to their damned precious sense of control. She understood that. Really.
Understanding did nothing for her worried heart. It had been three weeks since Zechs sent her off with Relena while he turned to fight to protect them from the search party. Three weeks since that last, hazy communication between them. She practically begging to fight by his side, Zechs asking for the chance to protect his sister. It was a brief conversation, one that would not hold much meaning to anyone else, but Noin understood what Zechs was really saying and it did more to lighten her heart than even her own confession of love. In asking to protect Relena, he was accepting his role as Milliardo Peacecraft once again.
Not long after, he surrendered to what was left of Inspector Acht's team and was ferried back to Romefellar. She had tried to speak to him, made quiet inquiries, but found that he was being kept in solitary confinement. A few days later, news was spread of Zechs Merquise glorious death in battle. Fifty Aries and twenty Cancers, seemed much to her, but she had to admit it made good press. She was stunned at first. Horrified that it was indeed true, but she received an odd communication from Treize himself that left her convinced Zechs was still alive. He hadn't come out and said anything specific about Zechs, but his method of offering condolences seemed a little left handed. She again made a few calls, pulled in a few favors, and discovered that neither Tallgeese nor a body had been recovered from the battle. Strange, she thought, that they would not attempt to salvage Tallgeese. This information only brought up more questions. However, she dared not press further, especially given her own precarious position. She had failed to report for duty after her lengthy leave. She was officially A.W.O.L. In another week she would be a deserter and branded such by her former comrades within OZ. She did not regret choosing Cinq's Imperial Guard over that of OZ's elite mobile suit corps, but there was still a sense of loss. She spent almost half of her life in service to OZ and suddenly it was gone.
She sat up straight and tossed the damp towel across the room, finger combing her damp hair into some semblance of order. It was then that she caught sight of a small white envelope on the floor near her door. She padded over on bare feet and retrieved the it curiously. Inside the envelope was a lilac bloom, obviously freshly picked. Noin removed it carefully, smiling at the familiar scent and checked the envelope. Nothing else. No note, no card. Noin was about to go downstairs and ask the servants, when she caught sight of writing on the inside flap of the envelope itself. There, written in pencil, in an even handwriting she knew better than her own, was written one word.
Noin stared at the word for all of ten seconds before dropping the paper and making a mad dash downstairs. She ignored the servants practically diving out of her way, shook her head at the concerned glances from her Imperial Guards and flew around the corner to her office. She paused only long enough to open the window before hopping through and running down the stone steps just outside. She skidded to a stop just inside the hedge maze, panting, mind reeling and wondering if her fatigue had conjured up a ghost.
He was standing calmly behind the shelter of the overgrown maze walls, his red OZ uniform discarded in favor of the pristine white uniform of Cinq's royal family. Relena had complained about the old fashioned garb, but seeing the same gold embroidered finery on Zechs Merquise, presented a totally different picture. She stood still and silent, staring, making her brain comprehend the vision before her. The mask was gone, the crimson coat was gone, and most importantly, the dead look in his eyes was gone. When she didn't move to greet him, Zechs instead walked to her, stopping less than a foot away.
Noin reached out hesitantly, half believing that this was a dream or just wishful thinking. She started to withdraw her hand, convinced that the vision would evaporate at the slightest touch. The apparition caught her wrist. He bent over her hand, clasping is firmly within his own, and pressed his lips to the soft skin. Noin bit her lip to quash a gasp of relief as Zechs remained hunched forward over her trapped hand. She lightly brushed aside the long platinum locks that obscured his face and she kissed his forehead. They lingered there, frozen in that moment of relief and affirmation, before pulling away slightly.
He stepped back, tugging her along with him as they made their way further into the maze. He led her to one of the stone benches placed throughout the maze and they sat looking at each other for a long time. Noin was afraid to speak. She had believed in her heart that he was all right and that he would come back to her just as he had whenever they were parted, but the reality left her a bit stunned. So, there they sat for a long while, silently holding hands and looking at one another. It would have been an uncomfortable situation for two young people less acquainted, but Zechs and Noin were not the average teenage couple.
"I heard what you said to Relena."
Zechs had spoken so softly, Noin wasn't certain she had heard correctly and so decided to remain silent.
"I wasn't certain you knew that I could hear you or not…if you wanted me to know or not."
Noin smiled. Zechs was a confident man when it came to his skills as a pilot and commanding officer, but when it came to emotions, he was still the squeamish boy who got embarrassed at the slightest show of affection. He was actually blushing as he spoke, looking more the young gentleman than the seasoned officer.
"I'm glad you heard," Noin finally said. She fought to keep her voice light and free of the stronger emotions tumbling through her heart at the moment. "I wanted to tell you so many times, but it never seemed," she paused, struggling to explain and choosing her words with care. "It never seemed appropriate…and I wasn't certain if the declaration would be welcomed."
Zechs looked at her with a mixture of intense longing and complete understanding. He squeezed her hand and his expression softened into a gentle smile.
"Noin…" he murmured. He cleared his throat and sat straighter, turning to fully face the girl next to him. "The situation is still dangerous, both here and in space. It will take quite a while to resolve things, but with you and Relena working here on Earth, me in the Colonies, I'm sure we can stabilize the situation and bring my father's dream to fruition."
"You're going to space?" Noin tried not to sound desperate, but it was difficult. He had only just returned.
"I've made arrangements to meet with the officials on several Colonies. I'll be working as an ambassador for Cinq Kingdom. Zechs Merquise is dead now, but Milliardo Peacecraft still has much to offer."
Noin nodded and looked down at their clasped hands. Zechs reached forward with his free hand and caught her chin, tilting her face to meet his. The look on his face took her breath away.
"Noin, I'm not sure how long I will need to be in space….and I know I have no right to ask…"
"Yes you do. You have every right."
Her gentle voice and smile seemed to renew Zechs. He smiled, and before Noin could comprehend what was happening, she found herself caught up in a tight embrace. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, turning her face into his neck. She breathed in, memorizing his smell. The linen of his shirt, mixed with the warm smell of his skin. The spice of his aftershave mixed with the perfume of her shampoo, leaving them both surrounded in their mingled scent.
Zechs nuzzled her hair and whispered, "Lilacs…the smell always makes me think of you…"
Noin raised her head enough to kiss his cheek, murmuring softly, telling him of her fears for him and the happiness she felt in his arms. Soon the whispered endearments gave way to sweet kisses. The kisses growing in intensity and passion. Zechs tangled his fingers in her damp hair, cradling her head as he began to explore her mouth. Noin was scarcely aware of the little sighs and whimpers drifting from her throat. She was too absorbed in the feel of Zechs. His platinum hair slipping through her fingers, his strong hand supporting her back, the feel of his chest pressed against her own. She ran her fingers over the back of his neck, scoring the warm flesh of his scalp with her fingernails as one hand explored the expanse of his back. Zechs answered with a low, vibrating grunt and deepened the kiss. In a very brief moment of lucidity, a miniscule part of Noin's mind wondered how she ended up on his lap, clutched to his chest and…whoa, where was his hand going? But her rational self gave way just as quickly, gladly submitting to the pent up passions of a lifetime and the crushing embrace of a man she had loved since she was five years old.
Their passionate embrace was interrupted by a voice calling from beyond the hedge wall. The couple recognized Pagan's aged voice calling a soft warning. They pulled apart reluctantly, panting and staring wide eyed at each other. Neither wanted to move, but both knew it would be better to do so before things got out of hand. Noin slipped off Zechs' lap and back onto the bench only to be caught in his arms again. It wasn't the heated, crushing embrace of a few moments before, but rather a sweet gentle hug of reassurance.
Zechs kissed her neck and whispered, "Wait for me."
It sounded more like a command than Zechs probably intended, but Noin understood and remained quiet while the man she loved spoke his heart. "When this is all over, we can start over again, here, in our home. Things can be the way they should have been. Just a little longer, Noin, I promise." Noin squeezed him tightly and nodded, her breath catching a bit. She was on the verge of tears and she did not trust her voice, but Zechs understood and she felt his relieved sigh against her ear. They sat like that for a few more moments.
When Noin was sure her voice was steady she asked, "So does this mean I have to call you Milliardo now?"
"Do you want me to call you Lucretzia?"
She crinkled her nose and giggled, "Why don't we just stick to Zechs and Noin."
Pagan called again and the pair reluctantly rose, putting a good foot of distance between themselves before exiting the maze and greeting the older gentleman. They needn't have bothered if Pagan's grin was any indication, but their promises to each other were still too new to share. Zechs bid Noin farewell with a smile. Not the way he wanted to say goodbye, but it would be a while before they continue what was started in the hedge maze, so he thought it best to simply express his affection with words. Pagan bowed to Noin, gave her a wink and escorted Milliardo Peacecraft to the car. They started down the long drove towards the gate and Zechs slumped back against the seat with an audible sigh. Looking up, Zechs caught Pagan's amused glance in the rearview mirror and grinned.
"She loves me."
Pagan nodded. "Yes she does, Master Milliardo."
Zechs' smile softened as he leaned back against the seat. "…and she's going to wait," he murmured to no one in particular. He just felt the need to say it all aloud. "She loves me and she's going to wait for me." He leaned back against the seat and raised a hand to his heart. His fingers brushed a lump underneath his shirt. His mother's locket. The Peacecraft family heirloom intended as wedding present for his future bride. He had considered giving it to her in the maze, but there wasn't enough time. They still had so much work and so little time to consider their personal feelings. It was best if he waited for the right moment. After everything was settled between the Colonies and Earth. After Relena's position as Cinq's queen was solidified. Then he could do it right. Zechs turned in his seat as the car turned out of the drive. He caught one last glimpse of a raven head as Noin went back inside. Smiling, he turned his thoughts to the future.
Back at the estate, Noin returned to her suite, her progress much slower this time, but no less distracted. She was certain she had a goofy grin plastered across her face, but couldn't seem to make it disappear. Not that she really cared about that as her mind was still firmly planted in the maze. Her thoughts and heart were still with Zechs. With his gentle hands and soft kisses. With his smell and his smile. She closed the door of her room behind her and noticed the discarded envelope on the floor. She picked it up along with the small lilac bloom, grateful that she hadn't crushed the latter in her haste to see Zechs. She twirled the small flower between her fingers, sniffing at it absently as a smile played across her face. Walking to her dressing table, she opened an ornately carved box and retrieved a small book. Her fingers brushed over the other objects in the box. Drawings, trinkets, an empty scent bottle. The remains of a young life contained in an ornate box. Opening the small child's Bible, Noin carefully tucked the lilac bloom between the pages and returned the book to its place among her thoughts and dreams. She closed the box and smiled at herself in the mirror. It would be a long journey, but she had a light at the end of that journey. A life and a future with Zechs.
====================== End Chapter 16 =============================
*Yes, I know that Relena was in an airplane when she interrupted the fight, but I've always thought it was stupid to have her hanging out of an airplane. I thought it made more sense to have her hovering between the two in an aircraft capable of just hanging in mid-air like that, so I changed it to a helicopter.
I hope the gushiness with Zechs and Noin was worth the wait. And actual kissage this time! WooHoo! Um, would that qualify as lime? They only kissed, I know, but I got a little carried away with the image, so, if it's a little too limey for you, I'm sorry. But then, I thought it might make up for the long wait. So I'm forgiven for that, right?…right? What did you think of Howard? I couldn't resist making him an ageing hippy with a dirty mind. It's the glasses and the Hawaiian shirt.
Disclaimer: Uh…let's see…hmm, what to say, what to say….howz about…I DON'T OWN IT SO GET OFF MY BACK!!! WAAAA! HAVEN'T I SUFFERED ENOUGH?!?