Setsuna had never had birthday parties. On the day he turned eighteen, more important matters occupied his attention. He'd uncovered evidence that a North African branch of the fledgling A-LAWS intended to seize control of a hospital vital to the region. It was vital to the region because it was located at a strategic crossroads easily accessed by even the most indigent locals, and for that reason, an ambitious young officer recently assigned to the new military group had determined that it was well within the A-LAWS charter for her to repurpose the hospital with no provisions made for the area's ill. Setsuna found out because she had arranged for a local politician who would oppose this to be killed.
He tracked her down in a short stretch of desert and shot her.
Some momentary illusion of kindness in her eyes might have made his hand stray, because his first shot wasn't fatal. "What are you going to accomplish?" she asked him. "You can't stand up to the united force of the world. You're just one kid. Hell, you can't even shave right yet--"
He shot her again.
Later, he puzzled over her last remark for a while, until it occurred to him to look in a mirror. After a few moments of staring, he realized that the once virtually nonexistent hair on his face had begun to grow in uneven patches, just enough that he should probably deal with it. He had never given the matter much thought before. After all, it was something that would happen in the future.
It had been a week since Setsuna's arrival on the Ptolemaios, and for the first time, he found himself unable to avoid the communal washroom intended to be shared by the four Meisters. Concerns about space had forced him to relocate from the private toilet off his room in order to brush his teeth in the morning. It was convenient that no one was there when he arrived; he'd be able to finish his routine and return to Exia's side more quickly that way.
But someone had left a weapon next to the sink. It was a small electronic device; its blades were almost concealed within its top, but Setsuna could spot them. He picked it up and pushed a button, and sure enough, the blades whirred into motion. Inconvenient for a weapon, to be sure; perhaps the non-lethal placement of the blades was a concession to the need for stealth.
Setsuna heard footsteps behind him just in time for him to tense up. Then a gloved hand was reaching down and pulling the device out of his hand. "Hey, hey," Lockon said, turning it off. "I don't think you're too young to be a Gundam Meister, but you're definitely too young to shave."
"Shave?" Setsuna looked at the device. So it wasn't a weapon at all. That would explain why it wasn't designed to cause significant harm. "Ah. I see."
Lockon paused over the sink, looking at Setsuna in the mirror. "You really didn't know what it was for?"
"It's as you said," Setsuna said. "I'm too young to need that knowledge."
For a few minutes, Lockon was quiet; he turned the razor back on and went to work on its purpose. Setsuna took the opportunity to brush his teeth, as he'd intended to from the start. He wasn't sure why he'd let talking to Lockon delay him, but he found that he didn't mind.
Setsuna set down his toothbrush, washed his hands and face, toweled them dry, and turned to leave the room. But he felt a hand on his arm as he turned to go. He tensed again, automatically, but then he remembered: this man who had touched him was also someone who wanted to change the world with Gundam. He wouldn't forget those words any time soon. Setsuna turned to look back at Lockon, frowning.
Lockon pulled his hand away. "Sorry, I didn't realize it'd bother you," he said.
Setsuna looked away, shaking his head a little. "It's all right. I am not too bothered."
"I was just wondering," Lockon said, "what did you think this was?" He was holding up the razor again, having finished with it himself.
Setsuna looked at it. "Its only obvious purpose was as a weapon. But not a very good one."
"A weapon, huh?" Lockon said. But he wasn't looking at the razor; he was looking at Setsuna.
On the day he turned nineteen, Setsuna had to shave with a weapon. He was lying low in an abandoned warehouse in Central Europe, with Exia camouflaged as dusty construction materials, and as he was waiting on word of a raid on a nearby town that was said to house political dissidents, he had to be ready at all times. He traveled as light as he could. His smallest and thinnest combat knife could double as a razor. His hands were sure enough now to render the danger insignificant.
This morning, however, checking for messages had provided him with a glimpse of the date, and for some reason it stayed with him, nagging at his brain. He was pulling the knife across his jaw when the realization came to him: this was his birthday. He was nineteen years old. For some reason, it startled him enough that his hand slipped a bit, and blood welled up from the tiny nick in his skin.
As he wiped off his face and patched it with the smallest possible amount of gauze from his first-aid kit, Setsuna thought that nineteen was an unnatural number for him to be. Eighteen had also been an unusual number for him to be, and so was seventeen; every time his age ticked upwards, it was strange and unnatural. It took him a while to pinpoint why this time bothered him especially. Nineteen was only six years younger than Lockon; Setsuna was supposed to be eight years younger than him.
Lockon was no longer growing older, and Setsuna still was. It was just another sign of how the world was still distorted.
He could not quite think, Someday I will be older than Lockon Stratos ever was, because six years still seemed like an absurdly long time for him to remain alive. But it no longer felt as right to think that way as it once had. He had told Lockon that he would continue to fight with Gundam for as long as he lived. Now that Lockon no longer lived, it was still true, but the burden was on Setsuna's shoulders alone. It was more important than ever that he continue to carry it for as long as he could.
After over a year with the crew of the Ptolemaios, Setsuna had grown used to their morning routine as it had settled down again around him.
He was usually the first to arrive in the washroom, although if they had early combat exercises, Tieria would be there before him, glaring at him disdainfully for his own immutable timing. Once, on such an occasion, Tieria told him, "You should learn to vary your morning schedule to better match our daily routine."
Setsuna looked at him, then reached for his toothbrush.
"The proper amount of flexibility will assist you in reaching our level of practice," Tieria continued. "As we have been training here for longer than you, it--"
Anything more Tieria had to say was cut off by Lockon's arrival: as usual, shortly after Setsuna and Tieria. "Hey, Tieria," Lockon said. "Did you really just tell Setsuna that he should be as flexible as you are?" He grinned, although Setsuna could not identify the joke that had prompted it. "You should probably back off a little on that. You've got your own habits, you know."
Tieria fell silent then, with a single dismissive glance at Lockon: judging him not worth the time it would take to continue the conversation. Setsuna finished brushing his teeth, as did Tieria, who left shortly thereafter. He never needed to shave.
On that day as on most others, Allelujah arrived last, having already shaved in his own room. After this long, Setsuna had determined that Allelujah was somehow uncomfortable looking too closely at mirrors around other people. He did not question why; there was no need for him to know. Besides, as Lockon had said, they all had their own habits. Setsuna was learning to accommodate them.
Setsuna had a new habit of his own: he would watch Lockon shave. It was curious, to see someone using something sharp as something other than a weapon, but more and more he trusted Lockon to do it. He studied him for hints on technique, not so much for his own use in the future--the idea did not occur to him--as for potential adaptability to other situations in the present.
That day, as Lockon and Setsuna were leaving the room last as usual, Setsuna said to him, "Lockon, my hair has been getting in my eyes when I wear my flight helmet lately. I need you to cut it for me."
When his twentieth birthday approached, Setsuna was aware of it ahead of time. He could not say why; there wasn't really anything special about the number. It marked two decades, but that wasn't an important distinction. It just was. On this birthday, however, Setsuna had a plan.
He had been checking on the North African hospital he'd saved two years ago last week, and that meant he was relatively close to Azadistan. Under cover of darkness and a storm, he took Exia in close to the capital and made his way on foot to the palace at the center. He wasn't sure why; there was no guarantee that Marina Ismail would be there. Nor had he any real reason to see her. Did he expect her to wish him a happy birthday? He didn't need such a wish, in any case.
Nevertheless, she was there, in the same room he had visited her in almost three years ago. He watched from a convenient shadow cast by the frame of the entrance, staying absolutely silent. She was brushing her hair; it was an ordinary activity, one that even Setsuna himself undertook, but on her it seemed as alien and important as everything else she did. Halfway through, she stopped, looking intently into the mirror in front of her, and plucked out a single strand of hair. Then she held it in both hands and stared at it with a puzzled expression, just the faintest bit dismayed.
Setsuna crept forward a little behind the curtains to get a better look. After a moment, as she held the hair in the light, he realized that it was lighter than the rest of her hair. It was grey. That was a little bit surprising: she wasn't more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight at the most. Sumeragi had found her first grey hair even younger than that, he knew, but she had attributed it to the stress of her job. Stress caused hair to grey earlier than it otherwise would. But Setsuna could not tell what in Marina's ethereal, peaceful world could cause her almost as much stress as bearing the weight of battle had caused Sumeragi. He did not doubt that there were such things in her world. But he could not fathom what they were.
It was his twentieth birthday, and Setsuna felt farther from Marina than ever. Still, he was glad he had come to see her. He left without informing her of his presence.
As he returned to Exia, it occurred to him that Lockon's hair had never greyed. Setsuna had found his specific birthdate data last year, when first investigating his surviving twin, so he knew that Lockon would have recently turned twenty-eight now. Old enough to find one or two strands gone grey, as Marina had, but he had never seemed stressed, so Setsuna doubted that would have happened. But it was a pointless thing to wonder about. It had not happened. It never would.
Setsuna wondered if perhaps, since Lockon had never had grey hair, he shouldn't, either. That was a familiar thought, even if it was phrased in a new way--he hadn't thought much about hair before. But on the heels of it, still touched by the memory of Marina staring at that paler strand, came a much newer one: perhaps Setsuna should live to grow all the grey hairs Lockon never had and never would.
Having parted ways with Lockon after washing up to go check on Exia, Setsuna arrived later than usual for breakfast in the cafeteria. Lockon was already there, and unusually, so was Sumeragi. She had brought her own drink in with her, which was normal, but she seemed awake enough to hold a conversation, which was not.
"Maybe I shouldn't tell you this," she was saying to Lockon as Setsuna sat down with his tray, "but I'm only twenty-five. Setsuna," she said, switching over to address him, "what would you do if you found out you had a grey hair at twenty-five?"
Setsuna set down his fork and looked blankly at her.
She met his gaze for a moment, and then, as if in spite of herself, she started to laugh. Lockon joined in. "That's like asking him what he'd wear on Mars, Ms. Sumeragi. He doesn't need to think about it right now, so he won't."
"It would be nice," she said, "if I could think that way too."
"But you're our strategic forecaster," Lockon said, "so it's a good thing you don't. That must be why you got the grey hair," he added. "Because you worry so long and hard over your tactics and predictions. Thanks, by the way. For worrying that much about us."
She smiled and looked away, returning her attention to her drink. "It's easy for you to say, Lockon. You won't go grey till you're forty, and then you'll look good doing it."
Lockon turned a little to look at her, and Setsuna paused with his food, his attention caught. There was something strange about Lockon's expression, although he had no idea just what it was. It lasted only a couple of seconds, and then he was smiling again. "I can't help it. The rest of you get worked up enough for all of us. There just isn't any worry left for me."
They lapsed back into largely irrelevant conversation, and although Setsuna listened to it nevertheless in case either said anything useful to him, he gleaned little more from it. After a while, Sumeragi left. No one else had arrived yet, so Setsuna and Lockon were left alone.
"Lockon," Setsuna said after he finished his food, "what was wrong?"
"When she talked about why it would be easy for you."
Lockon blinked at him. "I wouldn't say that anything is wrong." But he paused for a moment, glancing around the room. It wasn't a particularly significant move, and the way Lockon did it, it was absolutely casual; most people wouldn't have picked up on it. It was one of the few expressions Setsuna could recognize. Lockon was checking to make sure no one else was coming. Setsuna wasn't sure how deliberate it was, though. After a moment, Lockon continued, "It was just a little strange to think about being forty and having grey hair. It doesn't really matter. What matters is what we can do with Gundam now--right, Setsuna?"
Setsuna nodded. "We will change the world, regardless of our hair."
Lockon laughed and reached out to ruffle Setsuna's hair. "That's right." By now Setsuna was used to the gesture. It was almost reassuring, if still a little exasperating. "You'd never let a thing like that distract you."
On the day Setsuna turned twenty-one, he noticed that his hair was getting in his eyes.
It was only to be expected. He hadn't had it cut in almost four years. His hair grew fairly slowly, so it hadn't been so much of a problem. It had occurred to him occasionally over the past few years that perhaps he should have it cut, but he couldn't think of anyone he could go to for that purpose. He had thought at first that it would be too much trouble to take time out from his travels to find someone, but eventually he'd realized that was only an excuse. He could have his hair cut if he needed to. He simply didn't want someone other than Lockon to do it.
That was acceptable so long as it was only a matter of appearances. But he couldn't risk obscuring his vision. He still had battles to fight. A-LAWS was more entrenched than ever. He had been back to that hospital a month ago, only to find that A-LAWS officers had infiltrated it. There was nothing he could do now on that front. But he could still make sure that his vision was clear.
There was a pair of scissors in the first-aid kit he had collected over the past four years. Setsuna took them out and went to work without much fuss. He wasn't too concerned with making sure it looked neat. There was no one who needed to see him looking neat, and he would spend a lot of time in his flight helmet, anyway.
Clumps of hair drifted down to the floor; Setsuna watched them curiously. He felt vaguely that there should be some metaphor born out of this: something about shedding the old to better approach the new, perhaps. But while he thought they might be nice sometimes, he still had problems coming up with metaphors himself. His hair was not the past being abandoned; it was just his hair, and he needed to cut it so he could see. And he could never abandon the past, after all. He had to carry it with him, so that he could carry Lockon with him.
Setsuna tried to finish cutting his hair, but he couldn't reach the back without risking stabbing himself in the neck. He decided that cutting that part was unnecessary, put the scissors away, and started cleaning up.
It occurred to him that maybe that was part of the metaphor: a part of the past that he couldn't quite detach himself from, maybe? It still didn't make sense to him. But that was all right. Whatever his hair looked like, he would keep moving forward with Gundam.
It was morning on the island, and the three of them still had a little while left before they would return to the Ptolemaios. Even Setsuna could tell that the air between them was awkward, heavy with the previous day's revelations. It didn't matter. Lockon had lowered the gun, in the end. They were both still alive to change the world with Gundam, and now Setsuna had more reason than ever to keep fighting.
They met in a clearing not far from the beach. Lockon was watching the last vestiges of the sunrise fade, and Tieria was watching Lockon. Setsuna was looking at the container where Exia rested, wondering what the next battle would bring for both him and his Gundam.
The sky had cleared to blue, and Lockon turned to look at Setsuna. "Hey, Setsuna," he said. "When was the last time I cut your hair? Now's the last time you want to be distracted by it. We've got enough time before we launch, so let's do that."
Tieria glanced between the two of them, then asked Lockon, "Should you be so close to his neck with sharp objects right now?"
Lockon laughed. "That's for him to decide."
Two days ago, Tieria's question would have been sharp and scolding, the answer predetermined. Now it was genuine. He was changing. Setsuna wondered if they all were. Had Lockon ever pointed a gun at someone and lowered it without killing them before? Not for a long time if at all, Setsuna thought. He wondered if he was changing too, but he had no answer to that question. Surely this wasn't how it was supposed to go. They had to change the world--not themselves.
But for now, he needed a haircut. Setsuna nodded at Lockon. "Let's take care of that, before we leave."