Heero pulled the Jeep up in front of the house, and bent over, resting his head on the steering wheel for a minute. He felt like he needed to take a shower again, and but scrubbing wasn't going to remove the feeling from inside him. The drive into town, the time in the grocery store, the drive back, and then seeing Liddie and Lady on the front porch of the old woman's house... He sighed and got out of the Jeep.
Trowa came to meet him as Heero brought in the first load of groceries. Jade was putting the books away, and Ifrit was asleep along the back of the sofa, stretched out to his full length, right where the afternoon sun angled in through the front windows. Heero couldn't help but smirk. Trust a cat to find the sunny spot and take full advantage of it.
While Trowa put the food away in the kitchen, Heero picked up the last item, a tin bucket. Approaching Jade, he took a deep breath and pushed away his doubt.
"Jade," he called softly, watching as the longhaired man finished setting the last books on the shelf and turning with a hopeful smile. Heero stifled the urge to cringe, seeing that contented expression. "There's something I need you to do. Come with me." Heero led the way to the porch, and turned, placing the bucket in Jade's open hands. "Follow the road down to the house at the bottom of the drive. The woman you met today...Lady...is waiting there. She and her aunt are going to take you to pick blueberries."
A little line formed between Jade's brows, and he ducked his head. His knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the bucket handle. Heero sighed, and reached out, tucking a strand of chestnut-brown hair behind Jade 's ear. The silent man relaxed a little at the touch.
"It's okay, Jade. They're going to keep you company, and then feed you dinner, and then you can come back here." Heero paused, chewing on his lower lip before deciding what to say. "Last night... you made your Master very happy. You know that, right? He was pleased with you."
Jade quivered a little, and his smile returned.
"But now... now I need some time alone with your Master," Heero whispered. "You understand, right?" He wondered why it felt like he was asking permission, but he was relieved to see Jade nod. "Good," he said, and sighed, feeling his shoulders relax with the motion. "You can eat all the blueberries you like, but bring back at least a half-bucket of them, and I' ll make pancakes in the morning."
Jade frowned, just slightly, turning in place to look behind him. Heero brushed the hair away from the silent man's forehead, as he recognized the little motions Jade was making with his hands.
"No, the cat stays here," he whispered, and Jade's shoulders dropped. Heero smiled at that. "He'll be here when you get back, and I'll make breakfast as your reward... for picking blueberries, and for giving me time with your Master. Understood?" He waited until Jade nodded, and stepped out of the way. "Go on, then. Stay on the road, until you see the house. Lady is safe. You can trust her. We trust her," he added, hoping that was enough.
The longhaired man hesitated for a second more, then nodded, stepping off the porch. Heero watched Jade wading through the tall grass until he got to the gravel road, and continued watching until Jade's black-garbed figure was out of sight behind the pine trees. Heero slowly became aware someone was behind him, at about the same point he could feel a sudden tension.
"What was that about?" Trowa's voice was suspicious, and wary. "You can't just send---"
Heero raised his hand, warding off any more comment. "Liddie's going blueberry picking, and Lady suggested we send Jade."
"To give us some time," Heero replied evenly, turning to catch Trowa's face between his hands. "You need some undivided attention," he whispered, and pulled Trowa's lips down to meet his.
"You missed a spot," Heero said, and chuckled when Trowa elbowed him. They were lying on their backs, their breathing still quick, sweat beading on their chests after such furious exertion in the early autumn heat. "No, you can see right there." Heero pointed at the ceiling, and grunted when Trowa poked him in the ribs. "There's a large spot where the white is more gray. That's the bare wallboard."
"Remind me to blindfold you next time," Trowa replied good-naturedly.
"We tried that once, remember?" Heero grinned openly, the warm expression he could only show around two people in his life. Only one now, he reminded himself, and the smile faltered.
Trowa noticed immediately, and calmed, but his eyes asked the question.
"Just... " Heero shrugged. "Sorry. I keep thinking that... "
"Stop thinking. It's dangerous when you think. I end up in trouble."
Heero smirked. "You are never going to let me live down one simple short-cut, are you."
"Short-cut my ass. We drove around for hours."
"Forty-five minutes." Heero snorted. "We didn't miss that much."
"We got there as Quatre's daughter was getting off the stage," Trowa protested. "I'd say that's missing the whole thing."
"He taped it."
Trowa rolled his eyes and sat up. "Yuy, do you have even a single nostalgic bone in your body?" He looked over to see Heero leering, and grinned, shaking his head. "It's been an hour. Shouldn't Jade be back soon?"
Heero sat up and reached for the towel, wiping himself off before pulling on his jeans. "They were going to try to get him to stay for dinner, but if he's getting anxious, they'll call us to warn us he's on his way back."
"Computer's not online, is it?"
The Japanese man shook his head, watching as his lover pulled on the jeans, leaving them unbuttoned as he grabbed a clean shirt. Trowa's expression was intent, and Heero waited, knowing Trowa's mind had moved in a different direction. The two finished getting dressed, and Heero silently followed Trowa down to the living room, where the taller man opened another box of books and began filling the next empty shelf. Ifrit was asleep on the arm of the side chair, having been evicted from the loft after too much interest in the tangled bed sheets.
"There's a folder over there," Trowa said quietly, never stopping what he was doing. "Sitting on the table. It's... some of the information Une brought."
"You haven't read it?"
Trowa shook his head and turned away, his shoulders tense. Heero frowned, considering, and finally nodded and snagged the folder on his way to the armchair. Sitting where he could see out the window in case Jade returned, he opened the folder and began reading. After fifteen minutes, he glanced up to see Trowa opening the last box of books, and piling the empty boxes by the door. The auburn-haired man paused, brushing his hair out of his face as he fixed his eyes on Heero.
"It's what I expected," Heero said quietly. He dropped his gaze, studying the plain manila folder, and idly wondering who chose the bland color that was now so universal. He could tell Trowa was waiting, and he shrugged, the barest movement. "The auction house emphasizes a humane system of training," he said, unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice. "Using a combination of negative and positive rewards, with drug therapy. The explanations are vague, but the implication is that three months is the normal time to train a... pet... to their standards."
"They had Maxwell for six."
Heero nodded, and both men said nothing for several minutes.
Trowa broke the silence. His voice was low, and neutral. "Did you... are you familiar with drug usage, in the course of training?"
"Yes." Heero's response was flat. He pondered what to say for several seconds, fingering the edge of the folder on his lap. I don't want to remember, he thought, and scowled at himself. I don't want to talk about it, or bring it back. He glanced up to see Trowa's eyes on him, compassionate and warm, and he looked away quickly, unable to face the present while remembering the cold past. "When... the subject is in the early stages, it's a minimum-level dosage of an anti-anxiety tranquilizer, like Valium or Librium. At the right levels, it's enough to calm the subject, and make him... pliable."
Heero shot Trowa a wary look, then frowned and dropped his eyes, unable to meet Trowa's measuring stare. "No," he whispered. A sudden pain stabbed at his heart, and his words were reluctant. "It's combined with extensive negative reinforcement. Cessation of negative reinforcement is accompanied by the dosage to relax... the subject."
Trowa nodded, and went back to shelving books. He was silent for several minutes, but when he spoke again, his voice was lighter, and more conversational. "I think tonight, rather than give ourselves headaches on the Internet, we should read, instead."
"Read? What do you mean?"
"Read, out loud." Trowa's lips quirked up, just a little, at the edges. "No one ever read to you, I suppose."
Heero shook his head. "Not unless you count firearm manuals."
"The Captain used to read to me, when I was little," Trowa said. "I finally found copies of the books, a few years ago."
"What kind of stories?" Heero set the folder aside, and got up, stretching.
"Adventure stories." Trowa gave him a little grin. "The kind young boys like. I still read them, sometimes."
Heero grunted, uncertain what he was supposed to say, and went upstairs to begin unpacking the boxes of clothes.
The phone rang while Heero was upstairs, and fifteen minutes later Jade was at the door, a basket in one hand and the bucket of blueberries in the other. Heero came down the stairs to see Trowa laughing at the blueberry stains around the longhaired man's mouth, and Jade ducked his head nervously. The bells chimed on his anklets as he shuffled his feet, and Trowa shook his head, pulling Jade into a spontaneous hug.
"Come on, Heero," Trowa called, glancing up. "Looks like our dinner was delivered."
The food was simple, but filling, and Heero wondered which of the women had cooked it. There was also enough for three. Heero looked at Trowa, who glanced in Jade's direction quickly before giving Heero a pointed look. The dark-haired man studied the silent young man separating the meal into three shares, and realized Jade's hands were shaking, just a little, and his eyes were puffy. Heero sighed, and gave Trowa a sorrowful look as he accepted his plate and sat down.
There was no conversation over dinner.
Afterwards, Heero stood, and helped Jade clear the table. Ifrit had wandered in, mewing as he belatedly realized there was food out. Trowa smirked, and put the cat on his shoulder as he poured out a bowl of cat food.
"Should we put the cat box in the bathroom?" Trowa knelt down by the box, stuck in the corner of the kitchen.
"Are you planning on making the cat stay indoors?"
"No. He just has to stay inside until he's learned that this is home," Trowa said. Standing, he reached over to wrap his arm around Heero's waist. "I nominate you to read."
"Me?" Heero gave him a disgusted look and stepped back to the sink. "You're the one who knows the stories."
"We can trade off. You read the first chapter." Trowa dodged the dishcloth thrown his way, and chuckled as he ducked behind Jade. The silent young man smiled and twisted out of the way to hide behind Trowa, instead.
Heero grinned and shook his head. "Fine, have it your way. But if the two of you start ganging up on me, someone's sleeping on the sofa."
"That's okay." Trowa grinned and picked up the kitten rubbing against his ankles. "Seemed pretty damn comfortable this afternoon." He sighed, then, and set the cat down, ignoring Ifrit's cries. "First, there's something we've been putting off. Jade, show us what's in the trunk."
Jade dropped his head, nodding once as he turned and left the kitchen. Trowa picked the dishcloth up off the floor as Heero grabbed one of the hurricane lamps and followed Jade to the loft. He could hear Trowa following behind him, and watched Jade's slumped shoulders as the longhaired man made his way to the far corner of the loft. The trunk was nestled under the eaves, and Jade settled down in front of it, his knees spread shoulder-width apart, his head down, as he waited. Trowa joined them as Heero set the hurricane lamp down on the floor between them.
"Open it," Trowa said.
The silent man took a breath and reached out, his fingers sliding along the sides of the top. His fingers moved, depressing something, and the top clicked open. Carefully he lifted the lid, revealing a tray lined in velvet. There were a number of implements on it, many of which Heero didn't recognize. Some he did, and he struggled to keep from flinching. There was a hand on his thigh, then, and he glanced sideways at Trowa, acknowledging the comfort. Jade's hands were shaking as he lifted out a thin stick, about two feet long, and set it before Trowa. A leather-handled whip with a number of tails was the next item, and something metal flashed in the lamp's light as the whip was set next to the first item. Trowa ran his fingers across the whip, and lifted the end up.
"Claws," he whispered, dropping the leather braid quickly.
Trowa rubbed his fingers across his jeans, and the two men watched as Jade lifted out several more instruments and set them beside the first two. The tray was flipped up, then, to reveal a second velvet-lined tray. This one contained braces, shackles, chains, and restraints. Heero recognized the design for ankles versus wrists. When Trowa fingered a particularly large set, nearly three inches thick, Heero had to swallow hard before saying anything.
"Those... go around the thighs," Heero explained.
Jade nodded once, and prodded the restraints with a finger before turning back to the chest. The second tray was pushed up, revealing several boxes. He started to reach for one, and then shrank back, shaking his head.
"Show us, Jade," Trowa said, his voice calm and controlled.
The longhaired man shrank back further, a soft moan starting in his throat and growing to a soft keening sound. Without warning he twisted around, facing Trowa as he bent over, pressing his face against the wooden floor, his hands clasped at the small of his back. Trowa stared down at the shaking man, his expression impassive in the flickering lamplight. Heero shifted next to him, uncomfortable, and Trowa started, as though coming back to himself.
"Put it all back," he whispered. He leaned forward to run a hand down Jade's hair, bringing his face into the light, and Heero could see the distaste clearly on Trowa's face as he studied the instruments laid out in front of him.
Jade sat up, sniffling, and wiped his nose with the back of his hand before carefully returning each item to its place and shutting the lid. Heero sat back on his haunches, and gave Trowa a pointed look. The taller man nodded, waiting until Jade had shut the lid.
"Never touch that trunk again," Trowa said calmly, but his voice was icy. "I will be getting rid of it. Is that clear?"
There was a long pause, and Jade seemed to shrink in on himself. Heero frowned, recognizing the reaction, and turned his head away at Trowa's startled expression. Gritting his teeth, he looked up to see his lover's eyes. Trowa studied him for a second, then nodded, understanding Heero's silent meaning.
I will tell you later, Heero was saying.
It was a more subdued group that settled into the living room for the evening's entertainment. Heero sat on one end of the sofa, with one leg stretched to the side as he scanned the opening pages of the book. Trowa sat on the other end, shifting Ifrit to lay on his chest. The tall man's legs were propped up on the coffee table as Jade reappeared with his pillow and dropped it by the fireplace, kneeling with his head down as he waited.
Heero sighed at Jade's posture and ducked his head to study the book's cover. Flipping to the first page, he began to read.
"The weather door of the smoking-room had been left open to the North Atlantic fog," he said, his normal tenor becoming a richer tone, "as the big liner rolled and lifted, whistling to warn the fishing-fleet. That Cheyne boy's the biggest nuisance aboard," Heero read, unconsciously deepening his voice further in mimicry of the character speaking.
He had just gotten to the point where the lead character, a young boy, falls off the edge of the ocean liner while in a drunken stupor, when he became aware of movement in the corner of his eye. Pausing as he turned the page, he glanced up. Trowa was leaning back, his eyes closed, one hand on the sleeping kitten on his chest. Jade was fidgeting on his pillow, his brows down. He seemed to sense Heero's eyes on him, and he dropped his chin, but his lower lip was definitely jutting out. Heero stuck his finger in the book and closed it, which prompted Trowa to open his eyes and give him a curious look. Heero jerked his head in Jade's direction, and mouthed the word, 'jealous.'
Trowa looked surprised, then frowned as he watched Jade. Seeming to come to a decision, he plucked the sleeping kitten off his chest and sat up. "Jade," he called, and handed the kitten to Heero. "Jade, go get your brush and a hair band, and come join us."
Heero frowned as the golden tabby was dropped unceremoniously on his lap. "Why do I have to hold the damn pest?"
"Because I'm going to be holding the other damn pest," Trowa replied amiably. He sat up a little straighter as Jade returned from the bathroom and tentatively sat down between them, his shoulders tense. "Tonight, Jade, you're going to wear the braid until the chapter's done. No timing it tonight."
Heero raised his eyebrows at Trowa, and winced as Ifrit dug claws into his thigh. "Damn cat," he muttered, one hand automatically going to the cat' s neck and beginning to scratch. The cat immediately started purring, its eyes closing into sleepy slits, and Heero watched as Trowa quickly brushed and braided Jade's hair. Trowa then swung Jade around, pulling the silent man's legs across his lap, and guiding Jade's head down onto his shoulder. Wrapping his arms around Jade, he nodded at Heero.
The dark-haired man sighed and propped the book up on the arm of the sofa as he began reading again, one hand still scratching the kitten. "He was roused by the sound of a dinner-horn such as they used to blow at a summer school he once attended in the Adirondacks," Heero read. Soon he was absorbed in the story, only vaguely aware of Jade's shivering as Trowa murmured reassurances in the longhaired man's ears. "Slowly he remembered that he was Harvey Cheyne, drowned and wet in mid-ocean, but was too weak to fit things together... "
Jade made it seventeen minutes, by Heero's count, but was crying steadily by the time the chapter was done. Trowa's shirt was damp from the tears, and Heero suggested root beer floats as a reward. Jade was off the sofa in a heartbeat, his anklets chiming as he busied himself in the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with one for each of them. Settling back on the sofa between them, Jade ate his as Trowa began the second chapter.
"I warned yer, said Dan, as the drops fell thick and fast on the dark, oiled planking," Trowa read. Heero smiled to himself at the way the taller man could so easily mimic an accent rare in all but a few parts of the Earth. Trowa caught the expression and threw the dark-haired man a smile as he continued between bites of his dessert. His voice went up in pitch as he voiced the sailor boy. "Dad ain't noways hasty, but you fair earned it. Pshaw! There's no sense takin' on so."
By the time the second chapter was done, they'd rearranged themselves into a pile of arms and legs. Heero took over, moving the hurricane lamp down nearer to him, and opened the book to the third chapter as Jade shifted sleepily in place. He was laying with his head on Trowa's chest, and his legs in Heero's lap. Ifrit was asleep in Jade's lap, although the kitten sat up when Heero shifted, yawned widely. The cat came to his feet, stretching for several seconds before collapsing back on Jade's lap with a muffled meow. The dark-haired man could see a smile on Jade's lips as he rubbed the kitten's head, and Heero thought for a second there he could see the glint of light reflected on Jade's eyes, but the room was too dark to tell. Sighing, he leaned back, dropping one hand down to absentmindedly rub Jade's bare feet as he began the third chapter.
"It was the forty-fathom slumber that clears the soul and eye and heart, and sends you to breakfast ravening," Heero read. He glanced up to see Trowa's hands running through Jade's hair, but the green-eyed man's eyes were fixed squarely on Heero. The dark-haired man gave him a little smile and bent his head back to the story.
They read until midnight, unable to put the story down, and unwilling to lose the momentary peace.
The next day, Heero took the trunk out to the barn. They'd discussed it in hushed tones while Jade was in the bathroom, and Trowa sensed Heero's frustration.
"We'll let him know it's in the barn," Trowa had assured him. "But I don't want it in our bedroom."
When Heero returned, Trowa had finished putting away the leftover blueberries and washing the breakfast dishes. Jade was already occupied priming the stair railings, and Ifrit was balanced on his shoulder. At noon, they took a break and read another chapter while eating on the back porch. By dusk, they'd finished reinstalling the spindles and priming the stairs.
The ninth day of their stay they spent unpacking the rest of their belongings, including items that had been Duo's, which the other four pilots had split amongst themselves as the sole inheritors of their friend's possessions. Jade didn't react to any of the pictures or mementos, and Heero reluctantly repacked the items, setting them aside under the eaves for later. Over the course of the day it became apparent that they needed more shelves, both for Trowa's extensive book collection, and for clothing in the loft. Heero drew up the plans at the kitchen table, and worked out a plan while Trowa came up with a routine for Jade to follow. Heero listened to the one-sided conversation in the living room, but the murmuring was too low even for his sharp ears.
That night, Jade kept the braid in for nearly thirty minutes, only starting to panic once they were halfway through the second chapter of the night. The dark-haired man was gratified to find that Jade wanted the reward of giving Heero a backrub, and he willingly acquiesced with only minimal encouragement from Trowa.
The tenth day, a Monday, they picked up wood and tools, and began building shelves in the study. Trowa measured and called out the lengths nee ded, while Heero cut the wood on the front porch. Jade sanded each piece quickly and efficiently, and it was handed in through the window, where Trowa built the shelves in place with Heero assisting. Between the three of them, the shelves were built by nightfall. The braid stayed in for nearly an hour, as Jade dozed with his head on Heero's shoulder while Trowa read.
Tuesday, Jade stained and sealed the shelves in the study to match the golden glow of the wood floors, while Heero and Trowa measured, cut, and sanded the built-in shelves for the loft. When Jade brought them lunch, they were glad of the break. Trowa later reported he could have sworn he'd caught Jade watching them, but the long-haired man was uncannily good at dropping his eyes if he thought his observations were noticed.
The twelfth day, the three loaded up the Jeep with a number of the rotting furniture from the barn, and drove the hour to the nearest dump. Open only on Wednesdays, they made a day of it, packing a lunch and picnicking on the banks of a river on the way back. Trowa mentioned again that he wanted to try fishing. When they returned to the cabin at twilight, they had three new reels and had gotten a crash-course in using them.
Jade kept the braid in for nearly two hours, as they finished the first book and began a second one.
On Thursday, Heero declared he'd had enough of inhaling sawdust, and Trowa suggested hiking for the day. Jade eagerly agreed to show them where to find blueberries, and with lunches and drinks packed, they set off. Noon found them at the bottom of the mountain, near the creek, but none were that inclined to go back for the fishing rods. Trowa lay on the bank, his head in Heero's lap, and both watched Jade wading in the quick-running water. They left the bag hanging from a tree to retrieve later, at Heero's direction, and hiked upstream several hours.
"What's that sound?" Heero cocked his head, uncertain. "Is there a highway near here?"
Trowa laughed, watching Jade scramble across the rocks ahead of them, splashing as he leapt from one rock to another, and nearly missed. "No, Heero. I think it's a waterfall."
Heero shot his lover a suspicious glance. "Like in movies," he said, a dubious tone in his voice.
"Exactly." Trowa raised his head, and a smile broke out across his face. "They're bigger in movies, but this one is a good size."
The dark-haired man turned his head to see a sheet of water coursing over the rocks, dropping ten or eleven feet to plunge into a large dark pool. The rocks Jade had been climbing ringed the pool, and Heero clambered over the rocks behind the longhaired man, curious. Finding a good-sized rock, he settled himself down and waited for Trowa to join him.
The taller man raised his eyebrows as he climbed up beside Heero, and the dark-haired man gave him a shy smile in return. Trowa kissed him quickly, before turning his attention to Jade, who was knee-deep in the pool, bent over and studying something. Heero leaned against Trowa, his gaze falling on Jade.
"It's strange," he whispered. "The days pass... and I'm starting to see him as someone who just happens to look like someone I knew. It's getting easier to not see him as Maxwell." He frowned, pained by the confession. "I don't like that."
Trowa nodded. "We're getting into a routine. He's more comfortable now that he knows the limits." He frowned, as Jade moved deeper into the pool. "Jade," he called suddenly. "Don't go too far."
"And you're turning into a parent," Heero said.
"How would you know?" Trowa gave the Japanese man an amused look.
"You're acting like Quatre."
Trowa chuckled for a moment, then fell silent. "Parent... I suppose. He can't consent on his own, so I do it for him. He doesn't have rules, except those we provide. I'm getting used to that, and there's something inherently... "
"... Wrong about that." Heero narrowed his eyes, watching Jade squat down in the water as he picked up another rock and studied it closely. "He's got a brilliant mind. It's just... not there."
"Locked away." Trowa sighed and leaned back on his hands, his expression somber. "I'm guessing we should hear from Wufei or Quatre in the next two weeks, with any news on their investigation. In the meantime, we just continue in our routine. There's plenty more to do on the house, and Jade seems to be getting comfortable." Trowa gave Heero a crooked grin. "He also seems to understand the idea of needing private time. You still haven't told me what you said to him last Friday."
Heero simply raised his eyebrows and shrugged nonchalantly.
Trowa chuckled, then grew somber as he watched Jade dig around in the creek bed, bringing up several rocks before dropping two. "I guess this is it, then. Get ready for winter, and stick to the schedule. Until we figure out the key, this is the only thing we can do."
"What if we don't? What if we can't? What if he really is gone," Heero muttered. "What if I was wrong, and they went too far... "
"You're not wrong."
"How do you know?" Heero glanced back, to see Trowa's level gaze.
"I don't," Trowa said quietly. "But I know that if I stop believing that Maxwell is in there... "
He couldn't finish the sentence, and Heero could only nod, watching Jade collect rocks from the pool's edges. Trowa climbed down from the rock. He didn't say anything, although his green eyes seemed bright in the sunshine. Running his knuckles across the back of Heero's fingers, he smiled just a little bit, and went to join Jade in the shallows.
End Part 10
On to Chapter eleven
Back to chapter Nine