Title: Can't Not

Summary: I think perhaps the only thing worse than failing as a Gundam pilot of the resistance, is failing as a human being. Both of which, it still seems, I have much to prove.

Disclaimer: Gundam Wing is the property of its creators. I do not own this franchise and no infringement is intended or profit gained by the writing of this fanfiction.
Pairing: 3x4
Spoiler Warning: I rely heavily on Episodes 1 through 5 for canon events and dialogue. I also refer to Episode Zero here and there. Everything else is my wild imagination.

Alternate Warnings: Rating MA is for violence, swearing and adult sexual situations, which include, but are not limited to, homosexuality. Also contains characters dealing with serious subjects like war so standard angst warnings apply.

Author's Note: Whew! FINALLY have this one finished. I was inspired to write Quatre after re-reading The Last Samurai for the, I don't know, hundredth time? I really, super hope you enjoy this, because I had a freaking blast writing it! And give me feedback—I generally think its bad form to demand it, but as a character study drabble, I would really, really appreciate feedback on this! Oh, and I put Part I there just because I have ideas for drabbles later...buuuuut, this took quite a bit of effort and time, and I am not sure how much energy I would have to make more—unless it would be for a different character's POV. Enjoy!

Yours,

Gloria

Can't Not

Part I

AC 195

"There are people who think contraception is immoral because the object of copulation is procreation. In a similar way there are people who think the only reason to read a book is to write a book; people who call up books from the dust and the dark and write thousands of words to be sent down to the dust and the dark which can be called up so that other people can send further thousands of words to join them in the dust and the dark. Sometimes a book can be called up from the dust and the dark to produce a book which can be bought in shops, and perhaps it is interesting, but the people who buy it and read it because it is interesting are not serious people, if they were serious they would not care about the interest they would be writing thousands of words to consign to the dust and the dark.

There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom."

~The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.

~*~

"This is 04, Ground Control," I say, carefully maneuvering my shuttle, berating myself silently for the awed flush that steals across my chest. Earth at such close proximity is breathtaking. "I am in altitude and ready for entry interface."

"Very good, sir," is the ambiguous response. Gruff-voiced and stern, I can recognize Rashid's voice anywhere. "You are cleared for E.I."

I thought I might be nervous, but I'm not. Steady, collected; even so, it feels strange. Maybe it wasn't just lip service. Maybe I am meant for this. "Ground Control, 04 descending through four hundred thousand feet, coming upon entry interface."

"04, this is Ground." A pause, a seedy rustle of static. "You sure you're ready for this?"

"Can't not," I tell Rashid, too detached to register the fleeting pull of irritation that makes me frown. "I promised I'd be stronger."

Another pause, this one longer. I imagine him sighing, eyes closed. Then: "04, we see you in good entry config."

"Roger, Ground Control." Gravity is already pulling me in. I let it. Streams of yellow and white and red wrap me in an electrical cocoon as my shuttle enters the atmosphere. The metal around me trembles, I fear only the jostling might disrupt Sandrock. "Advise," I say. "I'm seeing those plasma trails now."

"Alright. Mark twenty-four and a half."

"Roger." I breathe in deeply, let it out through my nose. "A minute to air."

"Confirmed."

The shuttle shakes even more violently, ablaze in white and gold plasma as I plummet to Earth. The jostling settles, my stomach lurches to my throat, the nose of my shuttle steeps downward, pulls downward. The plasma fades away. I've broken through the atmosphere. I've lost the comm.

The comm restores in a cackle of static and shrieking. "Ground Control," I say quietly, very quietly. "Guidance shows on energy and on course. However, I am not above the Rift." At least not where I'm supposed to be. H had me do the simulation two hundred seventy-four times. I would know.

"Roger."

I grind my teeth, my cool morphing to a freezing block of ice in my chest. "Please advise," I say very slowly.

"04, this is Ahmed."

"Ground Control," I say. My shuttle is free falling through the air; my heart is in my throat. "No names, thank you. Please advise."

"Roger. 04, there's a scouting party of OZ mobile suits two clicks southwest of base," Ahmed says somewhat breathlessly. "We had to adjust guidance."

"I understand." I reach for the goggles. Gravity is heavy on me; my body feels weaker than usual under the pressure. I'm very tired already. "Where am I?"

"04, you are now one-two-niner miles off course." Ahmed, still. I wonder where Rashid is.

"Adjusting," I say, keeping my right hand firmly on the stick and flipping switches with my left.

"04, will you be able to land the bird?"

"Can't not," I say. "I am one-five thousand feet. I have maybe two minutes of gliding time left."

"Very good, sir. Follow the beacons."

"Roger. Can they be trusted," I ask, albeit a little sourly. "Or should I expect them to change course again thirty seconds in?"

"We're on route."

Of course, that didn't really answer my question. But, oh well.

"04, this Ground Control." Rashid again. "There is a small strip by the sea."

"Excellent," I say, thinking it would be a rather messy business landing the shuttle on sand dunes at three hundred knots. "Do you have coordinates for alternate landing site?"

"Computers are still plotting."

"Give them to me," I order.

"04, twenty-eight point fifty-five north, one eighteen point thirty east."

My hands fly over my computer as the words crackle over my comm. "Roger," I say, doing the math in my head as well as allowing the computer to back me up. "Turning right, heading one-seven-five."

"Roger, 04. Expect visual contact with strip in five seconds."

"I see it." I reach overhead, leaving a trail of red lights blinking in my wake. "I've figured the L over D max. I should make it if I can bring her straight in."

"Roger, 04. Please be careful."

"Coming in high and hot. Two-ninety feet; three-twenty. Two-seventy, three-oh-five—arming gear now...gear in transition..." Wheels down, nose down, straighten-out, baby, straighten-out...

"04, we see you."

"Hello," I say pleasantly. "Two-forty feet, two-ninety." I'm coming in way too fast. This is not going to be subtle. "Two-ten feet, two sixty." The sandy, abandoned airstrip was rushing at me. I see the Maganacs coming in from the west. "Ground Control, this is 04. Please hold back until the bird has landed, thank you."

"Negative, 04."

"That was an order, not a suggestion." If she explodes upon landing, no use killing anyone other than I. She straightens, too much, nose up now—I lurch against my harness as the shuttle crunches against the pavement end-down, mangling my thrusters. "Derolate," I mutter, reciting the crash course because my life depends on it. "Inward. Rotate? Can't rotate." Her nose comes down with a painful, rushing thud, gear speeding us forward on the stretch. "Two-thirty. Two ten. Speed brakes." I pull the lever. "One hundred percent." I'm way too fast, the end of the strip is mutating to this massive, gritty golden thing. I deploy the chute. It helps, a little. She's not going to slow. I'll hit the dune. I'll hit the dune. I have to lose the gear, try sliding onto the sand with the belly. If I lose the gear, I lose steering. I grip the stick even tighter; press two fingers under the red switches. "Gear up now." She drops another few feet with a horrible grinding noise, jostling me violently against my harness, and I'm turning, she's turning, I hear Sandrock groaning against her fastenings in the back, the screech of metal against the strip. She turns and turns, she turns and she slows. She hits the dune, but it feels comical because the turning took the last of my speed, and all the dune got was a puff of sand on the nose. I start laughing, but it hurts my chest too much. I end up coughing instead. And then I choke, and retch, and tremble.

I suffer being handled, pulled from the shuttle, helped out of my suit. Rashid is there, his face morphed and twisted with exasperated concern, other frantic faces exclaiming "Master Quatre!" this and "Master Quatre!" that. I muster as much of my dignity as I can and pull away. I order them back to their mobile suits. I go to retrieve mine, ignoring the jelly in my knees, the extraordinary heat on the back of my neck.

Rashid follows me. Sometimes I think he labeled me as a leader just for the elation of my pride, but not in actual technicality. I am rogue, now. I cannot play these games. I would very much like to rest, and know I will not be able to do so with OZ so near my base. Yes, my base. Because I am leader now. I make a point of pulling the goggles over my head, letting them hang about my neck, and turn to face Rashid as the hangar to my shuttle opens.

"We will dispose of the scouting party and return to base."

"Master Quatre," Rashid begins. "I think perhaps—"

"Tell me when they're within range."

He nods stiffly. "Yes, sir."

Sandrock groans around me, settling as we wait, sand and dust and heat swirling around my gundam, my army, on our maiden voyage. I smile as my left screen goes alight, flashing once and blackening to a square, white letters blipping across as H inquires about the status of my descent. His message is in Greek.

In retrospect, meeting H was a wholesomely absurd affair.

To Rashid, he said: The gundanium encounters octahedral complexes of the transition metals, and, of course, resembles very common six-coordinate copper complexes.

Rashid eyed me warily. H's assistant was eyeing me too.

Of course, I thought.

Electrically, H went on to say, the ion gives three electrons in the two degenerate orbitals, leading to doubly-degenerate—

Pas devant les enfants, the assistant said, her voice a hitch higher than proper.

Parlez-vous français? I inquired sweetly. How delightful.

Rashid closed his eyes and breathed in deeply through his nose. The assistant favored me with this most spectacular frown. H looked at me full in the face.

Or, I said, you could probably continue in Bengali. My Bengali isn't very good at all. I apologize, but I'm afraid Arabic, Swedish, English, Spanish, German, Italian, and as you know, French, of course, is out. I just picked up Swahili, but it's rather a bit easier than I thought it would be. Japanese is tricky, but I've memorized both syllabaries from the alphabet, about twelve hundred of the characters from the Chinese derivation, and a scattered handful of the older characters. It's very probable that I won't be able to hold a conversation in Japanese for more than, say, an hour; but just in case, you should probably stick with Bengali -- or. And I looked up at Rashid, who would not let me out of his sight. Or, I said, send me from the room.

H grinned at me. H said: Do you understand the math?

I: You're talking about complexity distortion, along single molecular fourfold axis. Z axis.

H: And what does that mean?

I: Lowers the energy, by removing the orbital and electronic degeneracies.

H: Very good.

H: Have you ever piloted a suit?

I: Not yet.

Rashid covered his face with one large, burly hand and sighed. My face still hurt from when he slapped me, sore along the bone.

I: My Greek isn't very good either.

I reply in Greek: Initial descent relocated. Base is compromised by OZ unit. Debrief as scheduled.

I was barely thirteen at the time. My very first adventure, held hostage by the army that protected me now. Rashid humbled me, yes, reproachful when I spat at my father. He gave me an army after I took a bullet for him, fired upon the head of Maganac by the traitor Iscariot. My shoulder, to this day, is still a bit stiff.

H, however, was the first one not to ignore me without proper scandal. I asked him why.

"Master Quatre, they've changed course."

"Yes," I say quietly. "I see that. We'll use the dunes for cover, intercept them."

"Aye."

H said: A dies at time t of aneurism and B dies at time t + n of strobe torture which caused a seizure which caused a massive hemorrhage. I think we can both agree that B's life was not improved by the additional n minutes whereby he was captured and tortured by strobe.

I: Yes.

I: So, why?

H: Can't not.

I roll my shoulder, ignoring the pull of strained tissue. I pull the goggles over my head. It occurs to me, as I watch the OZ unit inch closer, that I am still in my school uniform. It occurs to me that it is rather early in the day, according to how Earthers measure time. It occurs to me that it is rather too early in the day to be killing entire scouting parties.

"What the hell is that?" shouts an OZ pilot, as we rise up from the sand, effectively surrounding them. Crude, yes. I am not sure what I was expecting from OZ soldiers; the individual not the entire representation. Surely they are not all meager?

Much too early in the day for killing.

"Give up your weapons and surrender," I say tiredly. "And I'll spare your lives."

The leader, the one second from the left, gives the frantic order to fire. I act immediately. Sandrock uncoils, so smooth and fluid, it is a wonder that she is actually a machine. I destroy three, and then four, and the last two are picked off by Hasmid and Anni.

I open the transmission for H and the Corps, relieved that it is over, heartbroken that I had to kill to make it so. It is garish, glaringly real to me now. There is no way around it. No way to polish it. I am here to kill—no matter how early it is in the day.

"Quatre reporting," I say. "Destroyed the leader."

I am angry that the man was meager. I am angry that the man was not wise enough to listen. I am angry that because of one man's lack of wits, I had to kill. It is not lost on me that every single man and woman I slaughter will have left behind grievers, and their grief will spawn more hate and more soldiers and more evil and even more witless soldiers that will command units to fire on an adversary that was willing to show mercy. It is not lost on me that I expect too much of my fellow man.

A dies at time t of spontaneous combustion. B dies at time t + n of ruptured power tank caused by Gundam attack caused by unknown anomaly caused by H. It stands to reason that B's life was not much improved by the additional n minutes whereby he was besieged upon by the colonial guerilla and his army.

It is not lost on me that guidance was faulty from the very beginning of my mission to Earth. It is not lost on me that this may be a terrible omen.

"Told you," I tell my first phantom. "You should have surrendered."

~*~

"It made me nervous to have these rages and sardonic laughs just waiting to gallop off ventre à terre, it was easier not to say anything or to say something quiet and banal. And yet if someone is very clever and charming you would rather not say something banal, you resolve instead to say something perfectly calm & in control—"

"There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom."

~The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

~*~

It is hot, but I am tired, and it has a rather lulling effect. Nice--dangerous, because I am still in the cockpit of H's masterpiece--but certainly nice. I have the gut open, so the sounds of the sea can filter in, the ripples dancing light over my drooping eyes. The diagnostic is almost finished, the results static now as it bounces off this satellite and that radio wave until it reaches the good instructor at my father's house on L4.

Rashid is glowering at the end of Sandrock's left foot, surrounded by, according to my last count, no less the seven other anxious Maganacs. The nerves more guilt than any absurd rush to take responsibility for my delicate welfare, the incident with guidance no doubt at the core of it. Makes them nervous, makes them anxious, makes my dear Rashid glower. I am in a cocoon of sleepy affection for all of them. I will not speak of it, because my anger was a slow simmer and spent thoroughly on Sandrock's first kill, so early in the mission, sated—even though I do not agree that my anger alone requires satiation through killing, nor should it ever, under any circumstances. However, because I do not speak of it, because I do not reprimand them, or note it, or reference to it with some dower inflection, their fear of my disappointment in them is even more potent.

Ridiculous.

I finish the diagnostic, wire a list of repairs to make to my gundam to the hangar inside, and exit the cockpit. Rashid is staring at me expectantly. Dazmir is there with a glass of water. I smile at all of them and reach for the drink. "I think I will nap out here until supper is called."

Rashid uncurls his crossed arms, all thick muscle and curling, wiry black hair. "Master Quatre," he says with stern resolve. "I must insist that you come inside to rest. The heat is new to you—"

"And as I will often be fighting in it," I say with my steady smile, "I should acclimate myself to it immediately."

"You will burn." Ominous, that; but I understand his meaning.

"Well, of course we can procure a tent," I say.

Rashid frowns at me. I look around, into each of their faces. Anin bobs his head and immediately jogs into the mansion to belay my request.

My father is a Spacer, even though he was born on Earth. His heart, my sister Yasmine would say, belongs to the stars. My father was born in the lush northern province of Jordan, descendant on my grandfather's side of the Al-Fayez tribe, and on my father's mother's side the proud tribe of eight of Wadi Araba, the Al-Rashaideh. A powerful union, they said. A purifying tie on the precipice of a changing world, that is spawning infidels with eyes only for the sky, and none for the earth beneath their feet, they said. Unfortunately, my father's father had his gaze on the sky, and not the earth beneath his feet. Unfortunately, this union only bore one child, one son, whose gaze was fixated on the stars from the moment he slipped from the womb. Unfortunately, my father's father moved his prestigious little family to a half-completed colony and funded its completion.

How outrageous! They said, when my father's father took the family fortune and returned it to the sky, finishing projects forgotten in the void of space, completing a colony and funding resource satellites. How outrageous! They said, when my father's father brutalized his name and translated it to English that his business would flourish with understanding and peace. How outrageous! They said, that my father's father would dishonor them so.

My father's father lived a very long time. My father's father told my father to always give the other side a chance. My father's father said this was the road to live a full life. Because the Winner Corporation had become so prestigious in space, it is natural to understand that the Winner properties on Earth and its staff felt rather neglected. So when my father came of age, my father's father told him to give the other side a chance and go to Earth, go to Earth and appease them, inspire them. It is not that my father did not particularly want to give the other side a chance; he just did not particularly wish to go to Earth. My father also did not wish to disappoint my father's father, so he went to Earth to give the other side a chance.

While giving the other side a chance, my father visited his father's estate in Algeria. While in Algeria giving the other side a chance, appeasing and inspiring the staff of his father's estate, my father was accosted by a man who claimed to be an archeologist. The archeologist exclaimed that the West Wing of the estate must be torn down so that the ground beneath can be excavated. My father did not know what an archeologist would want with the dirt beneath his father's West Wing, but in the interest of giving the other side a chance, he said very patiently: Why?

Archeologist: The Berbers, man! The Berbers! My sister and I have reason to believe we can actually prove that the Berbers acquired a written language before 2000 B.C.!

My father: I apologize, sir, but—

Archeologist: Tell me you've at least heard of the Berbers.

My Father: I'm afraid I cannot.

Archeologist: How rude! And your mansion sits right over the land the Berbers tilled since 6000 B.C.!

My father: I apologize, sir, but—

Archeologist: I understand, I understand. I'm not sure what I expected. But I'm sure you can appreciate the gravity of this history.

My father: Sir—

Archeologist: You can at least appreciate the anthem Imazighen! Mazices! Amajegh! Free men, Winner! Free men!

Very patiently, my father: Yes; I can appreciate the demand for freedom.

Archeologist: So, we have it then.

My father: Pardon?

Archeologist, after a very rude sigh: The rights to the west quarter of your estate for excavation, man! Have you not been listening?

My father, in the interest of giving the other side a chance: Allow me the knowledge of these reasons you have to believe that there is proof of a written language of this Berber civilization, and I will certainly consider it.

Archeologist: Wonderful. I must find my sister; she can explain it better than me.

And so my father went with the very rude, but fascinatingly committed archeologist in search of his sister. Upon finding her in the market arguing quite furiously with a vender she was convinced was not selling her tools worth the prices the vender demanded for them, the very rude but excited archeologist introduced my father to her, who eyed him warily.

Ah, the Spacer, said my mother.

I awake from my nap in high spirits. The carpet is soft beneath my belly, the late-afternoon heat warm on my hands, the shade of the tent cool on my back. Someone very thoughtfully placed a set of binoculars by my head and I use them to peer across the beach at Sandrock, delighted at the flock of odd, pink-feathered birds resting along her glossy, gundanium surface.

"Master Quatre," Madir says, entering my tent with a tray. "I brought you some refreshments."

"Thanks a lot," I say, craning my neck to smile up at him. "You can place it down over there." I wave ambiguously to somewhere beside me, and I'm glad when he grins because it means he understood my humor, and was not insulted by it.

"How are you finding the Earth?" he asks.

A wonderful question, I think, because I am giving the other side a chance. "It's beautiful," I say firmly. "Very, very beautiful."

I peer through the binoculars again, mostly to hide that I am suddenly troubled. There are several colonies in space and all of them under the repression of the tyrant Alliance. It is natural to assume that H was not the only one with an operative like Operation Meteor, even though he was very reluctant to discuss the matter with me. It is unsettling to wonder how many others have missions like mine, and how many of those others are willing to give the other side a chance. And how many are not.

"Beautiful," I say, but mostly to myself. "Do they know how beautiful Earth is?"

I resolve to find out precisely how many there are like me. I resolve to be like my father's father and persuade them to give the other side a chance.

~*~

"So far, not wildly exciting, and yet so much could be said, all fascinating, about the Library and Alexandria and the mad people who lived there, for the writers alone must be the most perverse and willful the world has ever known...They loved to rifle through works of the past (conveniently available in a Library built up by ruthless acquisitions policy), turn up rare words which were no longer understood let alone used, and deploy them as more interesting alternatives to words people might actually understand. They loved myths about people who went berserk or drank magic potions or turned into rocks in moments of stress; they loved scenes in which people who had gone berserk raved in strange, fractured speeches studded with unjustly neglected vocabulary; they loved to focus on some trivial element of a myth and spin it out and skip the myth—they could make a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of any Hamlet."

"There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom."

~The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

~*~

There is nothing but love and affection in my heart of hearts for Rashid Al-Maganac. However, there are some instances where our relationship is often like an unstoppable force meeting an immoveable object. And, frankly, it tries the binds of my habitual mild manner and steady patience.

I make mention to him, as casually as I thought I ought to, over breakfast that I intend to leave for Corsica at dusk. He immediately launches into a very passionate argument that he believes, quite fervently, that the Corps should train for an offensive at Victoria.

"The Leo factory at Corsica is rumored to have another suit of certain specifications," I tell him quietly, sipping at my tea.

"Victoria," he says, "is closer."

"Indeed," I agree. "And H and I both agree there is reason to believe—"

"Victoria trains the pilots to pilot the suits at Corsica," Rashid interrupts. "If we destroy Victoria, there will be no one ready to pilot the Leos."

"—this suit is the prototype Gundam," I finish calmly. "And OZ has pilots aplenty. Attacking Victoria is like tossing a wrench into a sandstorm, relatively useless."

"I disagree," Rashid says.

"I know you do," I say, meeting his eyes as gently as I can. "However, listen to my reasoning: Romefeller, under Trieze Kushrenada, has agreed with the militia empowerment of OZ and Specials, to launch the Combat Army Corps. There is a ceremony effective tomorrow morning to commemorate Corsica's MS development. A pilot, my dearest Rashid, is merely a human without his mobile suit, and an official ceremony gives me reason to believe there will be certain high-ranking officials present. Even if Kushrenada does not present himself in the flesh, I highly doubt he will not send the Lightening Count to represent him." I smile at Rashid, watching his face crumple. "No, I do not think the Lightening Count will be at Victoria. I think he will be at Corsica, collecting the prototype."

"Commander Bonaparte will not let the Lightening Count anywhere near a prototype of the Gundam, if," he said, enunciating to make sure I knew he did not believe the existence of a Gundam within OZ, "there is a prototype at Corsica. Bonaparte disdains Romefeller violently."

"Do you think," I ask him, holding his gaze sternly. "Do you think I am the only soldier with friends?"

Rashid scowls, hiding his clenched fists beneath the table.

"The Lightening Count is a favorite, even if he is Kushrenada's pet, Rashid. I am certain he will find at least one contact among the ranks of Specials at Corsica. And I am certain Kushrenada will send him there to collect this prototype during the confusion of the ceremony."

"What proof do you have that this prototype even exists?" he demands through clenched teeth.

"H's word," I answer simply. "And even if it is a phantom, I would rather run the risk that it is, than to let it disappear indefinitely within OZ. The only leverage we have, Rashid, is Sandrock's progressive technology. If they acquire the same, my coming here may become, frustratingly, futile."

He is giving me a hard look.

"And," I continue. "We can certainly regroup at base afterwards, and then continue south to Victoria."

"It will take too long. Do you understand how far away Corsica is? Victoria—"

"The distance does not concern me."

"You're telling me you want to attack a highly protected mobile suit factory clear across the Mediterranean! The fuel alone—"

"Sandrock does not run on fossil fuel. If this mission is too much of a hindrance to you, Rashid, the Maganacs can stay in Jordan."

"It is too dangerous to go alone!" Rashid exclaims, throwing up his hands and coming to his feet. I watch his performance mildly. "Don't even think—"

"What is it you thought I came here to do, Rashid?" I rise slowly, finishing my tea and setting the china down delicately. "I refuse to choose missions dependant on how easy they are, or how much more of a convenience it is. I will choose them according to their strategic value. I am going to Corsica. You do not have to."

I leave the dining hall with Rashid fuming behind me. At dusk, he is in the hangar with the rest of Corps, ready to travel west.

It will take longer, with the Corps, to travel. We will have to hug the southern coast as often as possible before dipping north across the sea to the island. We use the cover of darkness to slip across the Great Rift Valley, following it in and out of Egypt, in and out of Libya, and into Algeria, the land of my mother's fanatical search for proof, the soil of two lands on either side of the Sea swimming in my medically engineered veins. We set out across the water.

Corsica rises up out of the sea like a hidden paradise, gleaming in mid-morning. I am anxious because traveling with the Corps cost me hours, and I fear we've missed the ceremony altogether, which is the distraction I needed to attack the factory. The factory is already under attack, hovering, black Specials suits out in force with Bonaparte's blimp to cut off the assailant from the rear. I give the order to prepare fire as we rush forward, several monitors doing a frantic search for the OZ vessel I knew to be somewhere, waiting to carry off the prototype.

Bonaparte goes up in flame, but seconds later, the Specials counterattack stills. The assailant is slowing. "Fire," I command.

Corsica is ablaze with battle. The assailant is a Gundam—

A Gundam. Another Gundam.

Surely this is not the prototype. Surely...

Sandrock destroys the Specials leader at my beckoning. "Sorry," I murmur, because I did not give him the option to surrender, because I am too distracted by this new Gundam to give the other side a chance. If A dies at time t of--

"Master Quatre—" Rashid, again. Again and again and again and again—

"I don't need any help," I mutter, charging through the Specials, two, three at a time, looking everywhere for the shuttle, looking everywhere for the Lightening Count. This distraction is unfortunate. And B dies at time t + n of--

"It seems he's used up all of his bullets," says Obvious, and I'm too distracted to tell who it is.

Sandrock is registering this new Gundam as an enemy; I feel her turning to face it even as I am looking this way and that, this way and that. Where is it?! No choice now, I can't not face this new predicament. I think we can agree--

"That pilot isn't relying on any sort of firearms," I say, because it's true. Because I know this pilot because I am one too. Because I understand enough of him because enough of him is like me. Don't be hasty, I think furiously. There is still time—but the Gundam attacks me. I block and throw a swing, the Gundam blocks and we are deadlocked, gundanium groaning loudly between us. I see, to my left, an OZ craft taking off. I think I might have swore, but I am so frustrated, even if I did, it did not register. –that B's life did not much profit from the additional n minutes--

This is stupid. "This isn't right; it's not!" In the interest of giving the other side a chance, I shut down Sandrock on a wild gamble. I unbuckle my harness and push my goggles up onto my forehead. I open the gut and leap out onto the platform. I've never felt so furious.

"You and I shouldn't be fighting each other," I shout, body trembling, voice trembling. Understand, I will the other pilot, because this is stupid, this is an extraordinary waste of time, this is ridiculous. A mission failed because an enemy of my enemy did not count me as a friend. The other Gundam becomes still, dims with a whine, and the cockpit opens.

A boy steps out, his hands raised up in a placating gesture. A rush of hilarity seizes me, because I do not think, even with a Gundam, that I cut a very fearsome figure. He is incredibly thin, but tall, much taller than me. His face is hidden beneath his hair.

"Put your hands down," I say, trying very hard not laugh, not to submit to the hysteria curdling in my chest. "I was the first one to come out and surrender, remember?"

A breeze catches the pilot's hair; I see his dark eyes staring at me with this incredible severity. Slowly, very slowly, he lowers his hands. I breathe in deeply and let it out.

"Rashid," I call over my shoulder.

"Yes, sir," he answers promptly, his gut creaking open to reveal which suit he is in. The boy's eyes flicker to him and then back to me.

"Finish the MS factory, and then let's go home."

"Yes, sir."

The Maganacs scatter to complete what this new pilot was too overpowered to, and the boy stares at me.

"You will come with us?" I ask hopefully. "I think, perhaps, we have much to discuss."

The boy's eyes flicker again, watching the Maganacs. "Am I your prisoner?" he asks me. He has a very quiet voice. Everything about him is quiet, muted, barely there.

"Only if you want to be," I answer with a smile.

He gives me a strange look, running his hand through his hair to expose more of his face.

"Whatever makes you feel more comfortable about coming back to base with us," I clarify gently. "At the very least, we can re-armor your suit." He does not return my smile, but he waits with me until the Maganacs are finished.

~*~

"—so the first thing I did when I got back was listen to the Messiaen which is about, well basically it's about the dying sound. You know, the hammer strikes the string and then it bounces away again and you just have the string vibrating until it stops, and you can just let that happen or you can prolong it with a pedal or and this is where it gets interesting you can have the fact that other strings will vibrate in sympathy with certain frequencies & you can just let that happen or you can come in with a pedal at one place or another as it dies—"

"There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom."

~The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

I'm not entirely sure why Rashid was so concerned about having fuel. There was plenty of it to...acquire...at the factory. Which we did, in a remarkably timely fashion, and set back off for Jordan. We arrived much after nightfall, but our guest did not seem very keen on resting as he set out straightaway to procure a fresh supply of bullets for his Gundam, Heavyarms he called it, which I think is rather fitting, and ran diagnostics on his suit until the early morning. I sat inside Sandrock and watched.

My sister Nihra inspired in me a love for music. She said firmly that anything can be made to an equivalent of a sonata, or a prelude, or to the heart of percussion. She said it could be mathematical, or scientific, or easily equivalent to a life lesson. I could play Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor by the tender age of five. She told me that the ability to make music gives a person a soul; she said every person is equipped with an organic instrument, and the more we accompany that instrument, nourish it, the more soul we acquire. I played Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor anytime I was out of sorts with my father, which was rather often. When I was six, my father moved the grand piano to a disjointed part of the mansion, so I could play Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor anytime I wanted without disturbing the rest of the family and, namely, my father. When I was six, I picked up the violin so I could play anywhere I wanted.

I would play Bach partitas until my fingers bled, and then I would play Beethoven sonatas and when visitors would come to speak with my father about this construction project, or that bill, or this resource satellite, they would say how wonderful and my father would say he would rather I recite the Arabic alphabet and they would say keeping a sense of proportion is always key when raising a child, but not that they meant to interfere because obviously my father already had quite a bit of experience already with his daughters; and I would go to the grand piano and play Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor. I asked my father if my mother had natural talent in making music and he said no.

Of a sudden, my guest is finished and staring expectantly up at me from the foot of my Gundam. I ask him if he would enjoy some breakfast and he very quietly inclines his head. I think I quite like the way his eyes follow my every move as we enter the mansion. His body language suggests, arms crossed tightly over his middle, that he is a little overwhelmed by the grandeur of the estate my father's father left behind, but he does not comment on it, and I think I like him better for that.

Dazmir served us breakfast in the dining hall and left so as not to seem obtrusive. My guest looks at his food and then looks at me. And because I have a burning desire to know if he is here because he wishes to give the other side a chance, I lean forward and take a segment from each portion of his plate and eat it. Satisfied that it is not poison, my guest very quietly eats his meal as I nibble on dates and sip chilled wine and watch him.

He is gazing past me to the open window where the sea spreads glittering beyond by the time I work up the nerve to ask him: "Are you a colonial?"

My guest lifts one shoulder and lets it drop, deep green eyes flickering to my face and back again. I know he can speak, so I rationalize that he merely does not want to. I decide it is rude to force conversation on a guest in my home and rise to step into the adjacent room. Very quietly, my guest follows and I can feel his eyes on me now, his curiosity for who I am perhaps just as burning as mine for him. I open the veranda behind the grand piano to let the breeze in because I think he enjoys looking at the ocean as much as I do. I pluck up a violin and begin a Bach partita. My guest leans against a wall and gazes very quietly at his knee.

I finish the partita and launch into a Beethoven sonata. My guest looks very quietly at his knee. I close my eyes, finishing the sonata, and decide to practice the caprice I wrote in space when I was twelve, having dropped music in favor of learning how to fly and fight and build a Gundam with H. A resounding creak echoes through the veranda and my eyes blink open, my fingers nearly stumbling over the neck. My guest selects a flute from the cabinet and raises it very quietly to his lips.

It's pretty, lilting, the addition of the flute; I never thought to implement the flute to my caprice, novice that I am. I wonder if he is trying now to give the other side a chance. The caprice ends and I merge into Prokofiev's op. 94a and dimmer out as he takes over the flute sonata in D. I enter with my sonata, and the music is lilting again. I think, of all times, of my mother, and that my father said she had no natural love for music. He senses that I am troubled and lowers his flute. I look at the sea and wonder, if I play Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor, if I will feel better. I'm not sure I will. My guest reaches for the cabinet but pauses when I raise my hand to him.

"Keep it," I say.

He opens the cabinet and puts the flute away.

I am too tired to smile. I stare at the ocean. I say: "Dazmir will show you to your quarters. I'm sure you would like to rest."

I do not see if he inclines his head at me, or lifts one shoulder to let it drop, or very quietly looks at me with burning curiosity, but I sense Dazmir at the door, having heard the sound of his name. I step out into the veranda and launch into the Bach partita that made my guest look quietly at his knee with furious vengeance.

~*~

"At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; and all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there's a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you're in the middle of Over the Rainbow, swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain't No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you only have to imagine...hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley."

"There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom."

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

~*~

I think perhaps I was rude to my guest, despite my best efforts. I think perhaps I might be called upon to continue being rude to my guest to see if he has come to Earth to give the other side a chance.

I think it is important to continue this venture now as Vice Foreign Minister Darlian, the last voice for the colonies--who's spent a lifetime giving the other side a chance--was just assassinated. It is burning in me to know that I am not alone in this.

It is dark, but I am surefooted as I make my way to my guest's quarters. I open the door and step inside. I keep my hands over the door handle and lean against them as I shut the door behind me. My guest is naked except for a towel about his waist, wet still from a very recent shower. His eyes seem rounder and I think I've surprised him. He stares at me.

"I locked the door," he says very quietly.

I turn the lock, still under my hands, under the weight of my body. "Remedied," I say.

My guest stares at me, his eyes large, ambiguous shadows on his face. I sense his curiosity, his heightened sense of things. My blood pulses a little quicker at what he might think I am here for.

I need to know if he is here to give the other side a chance. I say: "At least tell me you're here to give the other side a chance."

He very quietly shakes his head, his wet hair plastered to one side of his face, slick and shiny in the moonlight streaming in. "I don't understand you."

I try again. "A dies at time t of aneurism and B dies at time t + n of strobe torture which caused a seizure which caused a massive hemorrhage," I say in a rush. "I think we can both agree that B's life was not improved by the additional n minutes whereby he was captured and tortured by strobe."

He looks at me for a long time. "Yes," he says finally.

Encouraged, I give him a dark smile. "Good. Good. So you're here to give the other side a chance."

My guest frowns at me. "Do not presume that you know anything about me."

My smile slips, my mild manner slips too. "I do not presume. But I do know."

He stares dangerously at me.

"I know enough about you to know that enough about you and I are similar in at least enough of what I know."

"You and I are nothing alike." He stops himself. "I see." He steps forward very quickly, so I can see his eyes in the shadows of his face. He says, very quietly, very dangerously: "I do not know how you came to have a Gundam, but people like you ought not to."

"People like me," I echo, feeling the block of ice in my chest, feel it dangerously rock my tenor, fix my frown on my mouth. That's fallacious. It is fallacious to assume that because I do not look the fearsome part of a warrior, that because I am not muted and silent and reserved, that I cannot have a place to fight for the people I love and for the innocent and to go rogue because the only operative anyone can think up is to do questionable harm to the Mother Earth and all its inhabitants in the cry for sovereignty. I say: "That's fallacious. Do not think I am so easily breakable."

"I think you are a spoiled, rich, runaway schoolboy," he says very quietly, very cruelly, "that is rebelling against his family to prove an adolescent point. This war has enough of that already in OZ. The resistance needs detached, level soldiers who can do their duty without their personal baggage getting in the way."

I reach for him; place my hand on his thin waist. He steps closer.

"I am sick unto death of people underestimating me," I hiss in his ear, and it feels like a confession, it feels like Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor, it feels like continuing in Greek, it feels like the Z axis. One of his hands slide along the lower part of my ribs, curling around the cotton of my shirt. His other hand reaches up to cup my face. He lowers his head to kiss me, but I turn my face away. I help him unbutton and discard my vest. I untie his towel as he unbuttons my shirt. His muscles are hard and wiry beneath his skin. I refuse to be embarrassed at my naïveté; I refuse to be embarrassed at my pale complexion, my delicate bones. I refuse to let him make this tender. He tries to kiss me again, but I redirect his mouth to my throat. After a third failure, he growls and spins me around. My cheek is pressed against the ribbing of the door, my khakis wrenched around my waist. I'm whispering to him, urging him on. I don't want him to be gentle, and he isn't. He certainly isn't gentle, and my throat catches on every thrust, torn somewhere between a cry of pain and a gasp of pleasure. He works me roughly until I orgasm, making a mess on the door. I feel like I've been torn right open, and I'm not sure when he comes, but the next thing I know he's apologizing and saying he doesn't know another way and he hopes to god he didn't hurt me. He kisses the back of my neck and says very quietly that he is sorry.

I pull away and turn to smile at him. I think my smile makes him nervous because he steps back. I pull up my trousers and fasten them back around my waist. I button my shirt and pull on my vest and the entire time he is watching me warily. I've unsettled him, and it strangely elates me. I feel, a little bit, that I broke his expectations of me, whatever they were, that I surprised him enough to make him think twice about what he thinks he knows about me. I fasten my cuff links very carefully to my sleeves and run a hand through my hair. He stands there naked and stares at me.

"As you can see," I say very quietly. "It will take more than you to break me."

"You frighten me," my guest says honestly, plainly.

"Well, I should think so," I say, meeting his eyes sternly. "I am no mere runaway schoolboy. I am 04." I am a Gundam pilot, leader of the Maganac Corps, rogue of Operation Meteor.

He understands now. He very quietly inclines his head.

"Darlian was assassinated an hour—" I look at my watch. "And seventeen minutes ago."

He tenses all over, staring hard at me.

"I will understand if you wish to move on in the morning," I say calmly and I leave. I am proud that I do not limp until the door is shut firmly behind me.

~*~

"There is a character in The Count of Monte Cristo who digs through solid rock for years and finally gets somewhere: he finds himself in another cell. It was that kind of moment."

"There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom."

~The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

~*~

It took a grand total of five minutes to completely regret what I did.

Granted, yes, my week has been nerve-wracking; what with the near-crash on my initial descent to earth, the trauma of my first kill, the multitude of disagreements with my dear Rashid, and failing to procure the prototype from Corsica. However, I had absolutely no right to take out my temper on a boy most likely just as confused and out of place as I. I had no right to terrify and seduce my house guest. And even after all of that, I did not even determine a definitive answer on whether or not he is here to give the other side a chance. I think my father's father would be disappointed.

I think perhaps the only thing worse than failing as a Gundam pilot of the resistance, is failing as a human being. Both of which, it still seems, I have much to prove.

Someone from the Maganacs knows me well enough to leave a file atop the grand piano for me to brief. I pick up the file and glance over photos of yet another Gundam attacking Lake Victoria. It does little to lift my mood, but at least I know there are three of us now, and that I am perhaps not alone in giving the other side a chance. I sit behind the grand piano and begin Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat Major.

I work from my elbows, because Nihra always told me that in playing from the wrists, something is lost in transition from the body to the hammer to the string, and ultimately, the sound becomes a stifled thing of what it is supposed to be. I finish without flourish, and play a second time Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat Major.

Sometimes I wish I had said something to my father that was not laced with anger and contempt, because I think if I die in this war, I would want the last thing my father hears from me to be...

Well. I begin a third Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat Major. I wonder if my obsession with music runs parallel with my obsession to understand the soul. I finish the third Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat Major without flourish and merge right into a fourth. I wonder if Chopin wrote Nocturne in E Flat Major one night when he couldn't sleep. I wonder if maybe Chopin wrote Nocturne in E Flat Major one night when he couldn't sleep because he terrified and seduced a houseguest.

Dawn breaks and the light creeps in gray and rippling behind me, light dancing off the sea and onto my keyboard. I launch sleepily into my two hundred and fourth Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat Major. A warm hand covers my right and gently pushes it aside. I open my eyes just enough to register my guest sitting on the bench beside me, taking over half the song. I suppose if he had not known the song before, he might have it memorized now. I make room for him on the bench. He plays from his elbow too. The thought makes me smile a little.

His body is very warm next to me, his left arm curled over his middle; and I cannot decide if it is a defensive gesture or if he is just not sure what to do with the limb. I can't quite look him in the face. I can't quite keep my smile, and it slips.

He surprises me with a little flourish, his eyes darting to the corner to see my reaction. I burrow deeper into the broken melancholy of Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat Major, wallowing for the rest of what its worth. He is not so easily deterred. He adds another little flourish, lilting as it scales up and out. It reminds me of how the flute sounded with my caprice. I stumble in the melancholy of Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat Major, lifting very slightly, the transition is choppy, but he saves it with a longer flourish. He surprises me again by snaking his free arm around my waist, long fingers coming up under my arm to balance out my stumble, to tie in the flourish, to make the scale seem something of a dreamer awakening excited for the day, instead of a mirror mask to a restless night. The tinkle, the lilt is positively silly, ridiculous, absurd; it makes me laugh. My black mood shatters. The hammer hits the string one last, resounding time, my foot pressing the pedal to make it end in a sigh, instead of whimper. My guest stares at my smile.

His body is so warm next to mine, his arm fitting easily, hot and alive, against the curve of my waist; I can see his eyes clearly through his mask of hair, a handsome, stern green. Definitive, in the shadow of his face. They lift, meet mine. He opens his mouth to say something. I strain in a little closer to hear. Dazmir clears his throat at the entryway.

Several things happen at once. I am suddenly cool, my ears ringing from the garish clash of miss-pressed keys, my fingers jerking against the porcelain in surprise. My guest is on his feet so quickly I do not notice the movement at all, just the absence of the heat.

"Sirs," Dazmir says quite calmly. "Will you be requiring breakfast this morning?"

I look up at my guest's face. His eyes are closed now, mouth pressed tightly and cheeks flushed as he breathes in deeply and lets it out, silently, slowly. "No," I say. "No, I don't think so, Dazmir."

My guest opens his eyes, looks at me very quietly.

"Have Heavyarms packed and ready for travel," I continue. "I think my guest is ready to be on his way."

"Very good, sir," Dazmir replies.

"Thank you," I say, dismissing him.

My guest's gaze flickers away, watching Dazmir leave, and then back to my face again. "My duffle is still in my room," he says softly.

"Of course it is," I say gently, smiling kindly. "I'll go with you to fetch it." I make to stand, but I have been sitting for so many hours, and the soreness is like an injury by this point, I groan and stumble against the piano. His hand it as my elbow, steadying me. My temper rises again like bile in my throat; I swallow and it returns to a simmer in my gut. I allow him to help me up, get my feet under me. I wave off his silent apology, the one glowing fiercely in his regretful eyes. I swear I think the pity makes me angrier. I do not let him walk me bodily down the hall, though I think he would have if I did not step away. I do not shut his bedroom door after we enter it, but I close it enough to allow us some privacy.

I say immediately: "There is a third; an attack on Victoria."

"Gundam?" he clarifies.

"Yes," I say.

He is quiet for a moment. "Five, then. So far."

"Five?" This floors me. All five major colonies with a gundanium guerilla representative on Earth. The implications are astronomical—and heartening. Very heartening.

"According to the OZ manifest," he says, "two more have been sighted in Europe."

"Five," I repeat, a little dazed. "But six, really. The prototype. OZ has it."

"The white one from Corsica," he says with a nod, without the least bit grace to seem embarrassed. He was, after all, the reason the Lightening Count was able to sneak it from the factory. "And Darlian is dead."

We share another quiet moment, one of ten thousand in the span of a few days. "Five," I say again. "I would very much like to meet all of them."

"To see if they are here to give the other side a chance?" he says with a small smile, a rogue's smile and drier than the desert outside. I think maybe I could fall in love with that smile.

My chin lifts a little, but I am smiling too. "It's important."

He comes closer, but I am not afraid. I smile wider, enjoying it. "Will you seduce them too?"

I laugh a little. "No, I don't think so." I let him pull me closer, against him, his hand on my throat. "A dies at time t of heart failure," I say very quietly, and he is watching my mouth move. "B dies at time t + n of his heart being wrenched from his chest and set on fire while he can still watch it burn." It occurs to me that I think I would very much like him to kiss me. "I think we can both agree that B's life is not much improved by the additional n minutes—" It occurs to me that I think I may not move my face away if he tries to. "—whereby his heart is ripped out of his chest and set afire so he can watch it burn as he dies." It occurs to me that I think I would much rather know his name first.

Fortunately and unfortunately, we both hear Rashid's heavy steps reverberating down the hall towards us. He pulls away as it occurs to me that Gundam Pilots though we are, sneaking kisses is still more or less a teenager's game. It occurs to me that there may still be hope for us yet. My guest slips by Rashid as he enters, duffle in hand. I move to the window and throw it open, the urge to laugh hysterically bubbling inside of me. I stifle it as Rashid tells me that Heavyarms is ready for transport.

"Oh, I'm sure," I say, not daring to look Rashid in the face. "I'm sure. Efficient, as always, my dear Rashid."

I see him, walking steadily up the driveway. "Do you really have to leave?" I call, and I'm grinning like a fool because he slows. "I won't stop you—but if you have to leave, at least tell me your name before you go." And then I break the rules; H's first rule. Tell no one, he said, tell absolutely no one who you are. But I think he will not if I do not, because he is at least similar to me in that we are what we are. "I am Quatre Raberba Winner."

He stops and turns and looks up. His mouth quirks, but it is such a quick thing, I cannot in good faith call it a smile. "I have no name," he says, and turns back. "But if you must call me something, it's Trowa. Call me Trowa Barton."

"Goodbye friend Trowa," I say, and I understand. I understand him now. "We'll meet again."

The exchange is not lost on Rashid. "Quatre," he says. No 'Master' today, it seems. "Should we be letting him go like this? He knows the location of this base after all." And my name, and my resources, and my colony, and my family and how important they are to me and the space community. It is not lost on me, the enormity of the trust I have given him.

"I wouldn't worry," I say, sitting gingerly on the bed. Trowa Barton. Barton. My guest is too young to be the true Trowa Barton. Which tells me a great deal. It tells me Trowa Barton is either dead or missing, it tells me Heavyarms was funded by the Bartons and originated from L3. It also tells me, and most importantly, that he is here to give the other side a chance. "He isn't the type to go telling anyone."

"But what if he attacks?"

I nearly snort, but I am suddenly tired. I smile sleepily at Rashid. "I almost wish he would. At least I'd be able to see him again." And yes, it is truly the adolescent, whimsical statement it sounds. Rashid glowers quite furiously at me. I wave at him and he helps me up, glaring more intensely at my show of injury. I interrupt him before he can inquire. "Tell me, Rashid; how shall we wage war today?"

"First, by getting you to sleep," he snaps at me, as if it were such a bitter battle.

"Alright," I surprise him by saying. "Sounds good." I'd be lying if I said I was completely unscathed.

A dies at time t of heart failure and B dies at time t + n of his heart being wrenched from his chest and set on fire while he can still watch it burn. It stands to reason that B's life is not much improved by the additional n minutes whereby his heart is ripped out of his chest and set afire so he can watch it burn as he dies.

If only life were so simple.

I am here because I can't not.

Can't not. Which is to say: I must.

~Fin