Hundreds of miles away from where Quatre Raberba Winner was wondering how to find him,
Zechs Merquise was preparing to leave the OZ research base he hoped he'd never have to set
foot in again.
The door to the VIP guest suite was open as he packed the few personal effects he'd brought
into a satchel. He was about to pick up the thrice-damned silver mask and put it on when a
voice Zechs had grown to despise interrupted his thoughts, "Lt. Merquise?"
"Yes, Commander? What can I do for..." Zechs turned towards the door and froze.
A voice like warm honey greeted him. "Hello, Zechs," Lucrezia Noin handed him a bouquet of
roses as she stepped past the base commander and into the Lightning Count's room. "These
are from His Excellency."
"I see," Zechs accepted them and then smiled at the woman. "It's good to see you, Noin.
You're looking well."
"Thanks, so are you, 'hero'," she smirked at him as he pulled his mask back on with a soft
snort. "Treize-sama's message told me to tell you that he appreciates your efforts to save
lives when that 'unfortunate accident' occurred. But I have no idea what he was talking about,
care to buy me a cup of coffee and tell me all about it?"
Zechs shook his head, feeling a sense of relief that she was there and in a friendly mood. He
had just experienced three days of infirmary life without intelligent conversation since his voice
hadn't returned until the day before and he was desperate for company.
Even though the brunette had been furious when she discovered his sexual preferences
excluded her from more then close friendship, the platinum blond man treasured her as not only
an excellent first officer, but also as a someone he could speak freely with. Few people know
how hard command can be and finding a kindred spirit works wonders, this was part of why he
had been disheartened when she had deserted him so suddenly.
Finally pulling his own thoughts together, he inhaled the fragrance of the roses deeply,
whispered softly into the blooms, "treize, you should have brought them yourself," then handed
the entire bouquet to the commanding officer with a flourish. "Madam, I thank you and your
staff for your assistance after I was injured. Please accept these as a token of my esteem as
well as that of His Excellency, General Treize Khushrenada."
"But Lieutenant," the middle-aged woman shook her head, flattered by the gesture but feeling
her base had already earned enough ill-will from Berlin and wanting to avoid a mistake, "Ms.
Noin just delivered them to you, I can't accept them, sir."
"Ah, no, that's not the right answer," Zechs teased, enjoying putting the woman on the spot
after she had made him miserable for so long. "Now, I insist. If you don't accept them, I'll be
positively crushed!" Saying this, he forcefully handed her the bunch of flowers, feeling a few
stems break under his hand and not caring.
With a gentlemanly nod, he stated simply, "I must depart now, Ms. Noin undoubtedly has
transportation waiting for me, I'd rather not keep them waiting. Noin?"
He looked at the young woman who was barely suppressing a laugh and she said, "Of course,
Lieutenant, right this way."
As the pair moved away, backs straight and uniform jackets brushing against each other as
they nearly ran from the building, Noin finally had to let the laughter escape her before she
choked on it. "Oh, Zechs! That was evil! That poor woman!"
"Oh, Lucrezia, please!" The man laughed back as he spotted a staff car awaiting them and felt
infinitely relieved, "She's driven me half mad for the last week and then some! If being forced
to accept some flowers is the worst thing that happens to her I dare say it's not that bad!"
They both laughed as the driver closed the door and they left the godforsaken place behind.
As they sat together in the local Starbuck's, the same one that Duo had frequented the week
before, Noin apologized for her ill-tempered reactions and Zechs apologized for not realizing he
should have made things clearer sooner. They both discovered that they'd missed the other
and as they chatted, any number of things came up, not the least of which was an incident
with a small blond teenager.
"It seemed like such bad luck to miss that date, too," Zechs sighed wistfully, sorry he'd never
hear from the boy again.
"Now, Zechs, since when do you give up so easily?" Noin teased him. "What did you say his
name was? Carter? Something like that?"
"No," Zechs shook his head, regretting the fact that he had to leave the mask in place while
he was in uniform and off official OZ property, it was giving him a headache again. "That's not
quite it, seemed more like Cat-something or other. Oh hell, I don't know, it's this damned
headache, I just can't think straight."
Lucrezia smiled sadly, "The migraines are still bad? You really need to go to a milliner and get
that mask adjusted again."
"I know, but the only place that does a reasonable job is the one in Amsterdam," Zechs
complained and then brightened. "Oh, I know. I'll drop by there before I go to see Treize, I
won't have to wear the stupid thing while I'm off-duty on vacation, wherever that will be, so it
shouldn't matter for a bit longer."
The woman with him gave an unladylike snort, and then laughed out loud, "Oh, Zechs! As if
just leaving that thing off makes you less identifiable to your enemies? Only a blindman would
mistake your identity given a few simple things like that hair, silly!" She smiled, never knowing
that this had already happened once when he had met Quatre at the base.
Sobering, Noin remarked, "The opposition *can* find you easily, you know, Zechs. Do you
want me to arrange for some guards for you if you insist on vacationing away from OZ?"
"Hmm," Merquise considered this for a microsecond, then decided firmly, "No, I don't believe so,
Lucrezia, thank you. If I can't handle a few days off on my own, what kind of 'oh so fearsome'
warrior am I anyway? It'll be an adventure! I'll just think of some nice quiet place, get a good
book, and relax like normal people do."
"Sh'yeah, right!" Noin laughed, "You wouldn't be able to do that if your life depended on it! I'm
willing to bet that if you tried to do that, you'd end up at a night club the first night, driving to
the nearest city with a symphony hall in it the next, and jumping a transport back to
headquarters out of sheer boredom the third! No, my dear Lightning Count, you are *not* a
man capable of just laying back and letting life cruise past you!"
The TallGeese pilot's eyes lit up at this pronouncement. "A wager, Ms. Noin? Are you sure? Be
careful not to bet something you do not truly wish to part with, for I shall win, you know!"
"Bullshit," Noin laughed again, starting to remember why they were such good friends. They
knew one another so well, it was easy to relax and enjoy life like this. "You haven't won a bet
with me since our second year at the Academy. But if you want to lose to me again, all right. I
bet that if you last four full days of 'vacation', I'll take your speaking engagement at the high
school graduation you're stuck with next month."
"Really?" Ice blue eyes widened appreciatively, he detested those lower-echelon public
relations assignments, preferring to address larger groups or appear on videos. "That would be
fabulous, Noin, thanks! Hmm, but what can possibly match that?"
"How about a night out on the town when you get back to Berlin?" Noin leaned her chin on the
back of her hand and flirted outrageously, barely keeping from laughing again. "You, me, and
tickets to a show?"
"I can do that," Merquise smiled and then frowned slightly, saying, "Just not the opera, all
right? I've got some unpleasant memories of that."
Lucrezia smiled warmly at him, realizing that while their relationship would never be what she
had hoped it might be, at least their friendship was intact. Reaching one hand out to pat his
arm warmly, she offered, "Sure, Zechs, not the opera. And if you meet a nice guy by then,
you can take him in my place, okay?"
The smile returned to Zechs' face as he accepted, "Done and done again, Noin. But I won't
hold my breath, the blond boy, whatever his name was, was the first one I've met that I had
any real interest in at all. However, things change as I'm beginning to realize and I won't give
up hope just yet."
"That's the spirit!" Lucrezia smiled, then drank her coffee as the pair chatted a bit more.
Noin had brought news that Merquise was free of his inspection tour duty now and, after a
week or so off, he'd be welcome back in Berlin with orders to report directly to Treize, a direct
command Lady Une couldn't override.
Hopeful that life was on the definite up-swing, Zechs relaxed more and sipped at his coffee as
he pondered where to go for his vacation even as Lucrezia told him of her recent efforts in
readying the mobile dolls Romefeller wanted to bring on-line soon.
The pair of OZ officers enjoyed a long conversation before Noin returned to her duties and
Zechs was dropped off at a travel agency with carte blanche for a week. He decided to try a
condominium at the beach and it sounded like paradise. No simpering base commanders, no
need to wear the mask he loathed since he was now certain it caused his migraines to worsen,
no need to wonder if Treize would ever allow him to return, and possibly best of all, no longer
wishing he hadn't driven away his best friend.
All in all, Zechs Merquise felt his life was improving radically, yet he only knew a bare fraction
of the truth. He was right to a great extent about things improving for him, however, very
soon he would learn things that would change not only his own life but the fate of civilization
as he knew it.
It promised to be one hell of a vacation.
Full Author's Notes to Run at Conclusion.