Quatre arrived for a visit on the twenty-sixth of September.
They had been at the cabin for nearly a month. It was chilly at dawn, but the mountain's mist had burned away by mid-morning, and Heero guessed it was going to be a warm day. Trowa nodded, trading his long-sleeved shirt for a short-sleeved one. Stuffing his feet into his hiking boots, he left Heero and Jade to begin their work on the hot water heater. It had broken down two days before, but couldn't be repaired until the local store had found parts for them. Jade was the only one who didn't seem bothered by heating water in pots to add to the chilly bathwater, while Heero couldn't wait to fix the heater and take a hot shower.
Trowa grinned, leaving them to their work, and stepped out on the front porch. He eyed the hammock, wondering if he should keep to the plan of not letting the other pilots visit the cabin. Quatre had protested quietly on the phone, but gave in without pushing the issue further. Trowa sighed, knocking the hammock absentmindedly, watching it swing for a second before stepping off the porch to head across the front yard. Passing the newly turned garden beds, he couldn't help but smile.
Somewhere inside Heero, he thought, there's someone who could live like this quite happily for the rest of his life.
Two weeks before, after their hike up the creek, it had been Heero's turn to head into town, with a Jeep full of laundry. Trowa and Jade had remained behind, scraping the house's exterior trim in preparation for painting, and the Japanese man hadn't returned until nearly dusk. When he did, he unloaded the Jeep to reveal clean clothes, more paint, a hammock, and a box of gardening books, tools, and daffodil bulbs. Heero was adamant that the lady at the hardware store knew what she was talking about when she'd said bulbs had to be planted in the fall. After an evening perusing the gardening books, Trowa gave up and let Heero have his way.
The tall man paused by the mulched and neatly edged bed along the gravel road, and shook his head. He'd woken the next morning to find Heero already turning over the soil, checking the books repeatedly to make sure he was gardening properly. Jade sat nearby, finishing his breakfast while Ifrit perched on his shoulder. By noon, Heero had finished turning over half of the front flowerbed, the dirt black and heavy under the shovel. Jade followed behind, picking out clumps of grass and weed roots, shaking them out before setting them in a pile behind him. Ifrit, watching closely, had proceeded to snag each clump with his claws and shake it about in turn, usually tossing the clumps well into the air before they landed, scattered wildly about. When Trowa had discovered the cat's antics and pointed it out to Heero, who in turn got Jade's attention, it was the third time they'd heard Jade laugh.
That night, Trowa had awoken to find Heero crying silently in his sleep.
Trowa sighed, strolling away from the cabin and down the gravel road into the woods. Their days were routine now, with the only variation being what needed to be fixed. At each point they thought they'd be able to relax, something else around the house became an issue. Mondays were for grocery shopping and laundry. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were for working on the house. Thursdays they hiked, or fished in the deep pool just down from where the path from their back porch intersected the creek. Fridays were for house cleaning, which usually only took a half-day. They'd fallen into the habit of going into town on Friday afternoons, and the one small restaurant in town had already learned their habits, seemingly oblivious to Jade's downcast looks and complete silence. Saturdays and Sundays they continued to work around the house, with Sunday afternoons set aside for reading.
Over the two weeks, they'd managed to get Jade into wearing the braid for longer, until he'd become accustomed to keeping it in for up to a half-day. The only drawback they'd found was that if he were left alone while wearing the braid, he'd panic. He had to be in physical contact with one of them - or close enough to touch - while wearing it. At first they'd found it nearly suffocating, how closely he'd cling as they tried to complete each day's chores, but eventually it became just one more part of their days.
Trowa smiled to himself. Even now, he was finding that he felt odd, to not have Jade's fingers plucking at his shirt, or an arm wrapped around his waist in a quick, shy hug. To be out of the house and away, he thought, and shook his head, watching the road eaten up under his long strides.
He came around the bend in the road ten minutes later to find Quatre waiting by the gate. The blond man was leaning against the gate pole, his small blue car parked neatly next to Liddie's old truck. Trowa took a minute to admire how much his best friend had grown in ten years, and smiled to himself. Quatre would only blush and modestly deny any compliments, but it couldn't be denied that his wife had found herself a handsome man. The Arabian's blond hair and blue eyes were stunning, but more so on a frame that had grown tall and broad-shouldered, rivaling Trowa's own height.
"Tro," Quatre said, turning with a smile. His expression dimmed briefly, when he realized Trowa was alone, but he recovered quickly. "You look good."
"Thanks," Trowa replied, climbing gracefully over the gate to embrace Quatre tightly. They held on for just a minute, finally pulling apart with their hands on each other's shoulders. "I take it you're out of the dog house?"
The blond looked confused for a second, then laughed, abashed. "Not really. Emmy's saying we should get a dog, actually. And Laylah has one picked out already."
"One?" Trowa raised an eyebrow, motioning to a grassy area under the trees. Quatre followed, grinning as he scratched his head.
"Well, six or seven, to be truthful. I'm not sure what I'm going to do about it. I'm out-gunned on this one, I think."
"Don't look at me." Trowa grinned and sat cross-legged, his back against the tree. "I've been out of ammunition for years when it comes to animals. Besides," he added, his look turning playful, "you've stared down a large board of directors plenty of times. An eight-year old, a four year-old and a two-year old should be a piece of cake."
"That's what I would've thought," Quatre said, his tone plaintive. "But none of those old geezers on the board ever threatened to cry." His mournful look broke, however, quickly flashing into a wide grin. "And then Emmy threatened to cry, too, and I was done for."
Trowa laughed. Trying to imagine Quatre's headstrong, self-confident wife attempting the crying game was nearly as difficult as imagining Duo crying. The thought made him pause, and the laughter turned slightly choking. Seeing Quatre's raised eyebrows, Trowa merely shook his head, the mood broken.
"How are things?" Quatre's voice was soft, and slightly tentative.
"Better than I would have expected, but not half what I'd want," Trowa replied. He tugged at a blade of grass.
Quatre brought his knees up, wrapping his arms around his shins, and rest his chin on his knees as he stared at Trowa. "I brought some more stuff... for the three of you. I met with Relena for lunch on Monday. She had some things for Heero." A dimple flashed in Quatre's cheek. "And I brought you more books."
Trowa groaned. "I knew I should've driven the Jeep down."
"I don't have any information specific to what Duo went through, but we've dug up records on previous slave rings. And honestly, Trowa, with all the investigating that Wufei and I have been doing into their procedures, what point is there in protecting Duo? We have a pretty good idea already what they might have done," he added gently.
"We're not protecting him," Trowa said, his chin coming up. "We're protecting you. Both of you."
"From what? We were soldiers, too. We can handle it," Quatre retorted. His blue eyes flashed momentarily.
Trowa sighed, looking away. The last thing he wanted was to retread the old argument about Quatre's sheltered background, versus his own mercenary childhood. Trowa shook his head, and bent to study the grass by his feet.
"He might not." Trowa's voice dropped to a whisper. "There's a good chance that when this is done... if it's ever done... he may well hate Heero and I, for being there. For seeing him... "
"He'd never hate you. He's not like that," the other man insisted.
Trowa shook his head again. "You're wrong. Maxwell's never had much in the material sense, but he's always had his pride. And to see him so broken... I can only expect that this would grate on him, the fear that we helped because we pitied him. He would never be able to tolerate that."
"Do you?" Quatre shifted in place when Trowa didn't answer. "Do you pity him?"
There was a long silence, filled only by the sound of the wind passing through the trees overhead. A late-summer bumblebee flew past, the buzzing loud in Trowa's ears.
"No," Trowa finally said. "I... I'm not sure what I feel." He glanced at Quatre, daring the other man.
"You love him," Quatre said, and it was a simple fact.
"A little. I try. I always liked and admired Maxwell, even if he got on my nerves," Trowa admitted wryly. "But I wasn't *in* love with him. And this isn't Maxwell, now. It's someone else. If I love this person, as he is now... I know that when Duo's back, and is himself, the one I learned to love won't be there anymore."
"And the one taking his place may resent you," Quatre finished calmly. "That's no reason to hold back, now."
"I never was one for holding back," Trowa pointed out, a little defensively. "In anything."
"Yes, you were." The blond chuckled softly. "But no, you weren't... and aren't... once you let someone in, that is. Have you let in this new person?"
Trowa considered the question carefully, for several heartbeats before answering. "I think so."
"And is Heero doing okay with this?" His tone was neutral.
"As best as he can, given it's Duo we're talking about. Jade is... he has different priorities. He sees us through different eyes. He wants... " Trowa halted, uncertain how to phrase it, and opted to switch topics mid-stream. "We make sure to have private time in our daily schedule, and that helps."
"Do you do the same for Duo?"
"Jade. He's Jade now."
"Jade," Quatre repeated. "Do you do the same for Jade? Does he get one-on-one time with each of you... for undivided attention?"
Trowa lifted his head, giving Quatre a sharp glance. The other man shook his head, a faint blush on his cheeks as he realized the implications.
"I didn't mean like that," Quatre explained. "I just wondered whether you remember that Jade would also want, and need, time with each of you."
"We do. But we don't schedule it specifically."
"Perhaps you should."
Trowa nodded, and shrugged just a little.
"Heero is uncomfortable with the idea that Jade has sexual interest in him. Or perhaps he's uncomfortable that Jade is interested in you?" Quatre's eyes were steady, and he didn't flinch when Trowa's head came up, the taller man's eyes narrowed. The blond raised an eyebrow. "You didn't honestly think I'd fall for your sidetracking, did you? This is me you're talking to. You' ve been cooped up for nearly a month, with just the three of you, and no real breaks. Talk to me."
"Yes, and yes," Trowa sighed. "It's not sharing that's the problem, now. We've become used to each other, in some ways. It's hard to be private when there's nowhere to go in the house that you can't hear what's going on elsewhere. And after a week of fighting with Jade to get him to wear clothes, I'm pretty much immune to the notion of modesty, now." He smiled a little crookedly, and tugged at another clump of grass. "It's that this isn' t Maxwell. It's someone who has no ability to consent for himself. Treating him as a consenting adult simply isn't possible... and it goes against everything I believe in, to accept a sexual relationship with someone who is mentally not able to consent."
"He feels for Jade, and deeply. From what we've gathered, Jade believes his worth is based solely on whether or not I'm pleased." Trowa glanced up to see a look of shock flash across Quatre's face, and grimaced. "I... accidentally imprinted him, as his Master. So now I'm stuck in this, as deeply as Heero. But Jade is... a slave, trained for house and bed." Trowa looked away, unable to meet Quatre's eyes. "Every time we reject his advances, we're telling him that he's not good enough."
"You mean every time *you* reject his advances."
"We... Heero... touched him, once." Trowa could feel a slight heat rising in his cheeks, and made a face. Haltingly, he told Quatre about the backrub. "I... told him he could have an orgasm." His voice cracked, and he swallowed hard before continuing. "Heero barely touched him, and he came almost instantly. We still don't understand, not really."
Quatre was silent for several minutes, staring off at something in the distance. "He's conditioned, Trowa. I'm guessing he hadn't had sexual release since you two found him, and from what Wufei and I have uncovered, these slaves are... trained to be highly... responsive."
Trowa grimaced, as his face got even hotter. "I've noticed. He interprets every little touch as sexual, but I guess I've learned to ignore it."
"That's what Duo would want," Quatre replied. "But it's not what Jade wants, or needs."
"How do you know?" Trowa frowned, studying his friend. "You said you have information about what he went through. Have you found anything on what they did to him?"
"Not really. We only have a general idea," came the hesitant reply. "But I know... what it's like to not be who you are, even if for only a short time. And you know what it's like, too." His gaze was direct, and frank. "Being with Cathy didn't bring your memory back. Seeing Duo didn't jar your memory, and seeing me didn't do it, either. Whatever unlocks a person's soul isn't something predictable. But in the meantime, you can't treat that person as though they're who you want them to be."
"I would rather... "
"Trowa, listen to me." Quatre's voice became stern. "When I was lost in the Zero system, you tried to reach me, by reaching Quatre. You couldn't do it, because that's not who I was. Heero treated me as what I was: a threat. I don't know how or why, but that reached me. Perhaps that's because, in that moment, that's what I truly was." His gaze softened. "It doesn't make you a failure, that you couldn't stop me."
Trowa couldn't say anything.
"I hated myself for a long time, for trying to kill you," the young man told him calmly. "I was ashamed. And I expect Duo... Jade... will be, too, for a while, until he reconciles the fact that while he was Jade, he was not Duo. The rules, somehow, are different, as a result. But as long as you react to him, as he is now... " He sighed, waving his hand in a vague motion. "See him as who he is, *now*, and act accordingly. Trying to deal with him based on who he used to be... only confuses him and frustrates you."
"You're saying I should go against my principles," Trowa translated, his voice cold.
"I'm saying your principles as they apply to Duo... might not, to Jade. The fact that sex is now part of the issue is bound to make things complicated." Quatre smiled, his eyes kind. "It makes everything complicated, actually."
"It's already complicated." The tall man leaned back against the tree, and closed his eyes, trying to let the tension in his body drain away. After a minute, he gave up, knowing it wasn't working. "He won't wear his braid. It's taken us a month to get him to the point where he can wear it from breakfast to lunch before breaking down in a complete panic."
Quatre nodded. "It's a part of him. I imagine they tried to destroy anything that was a big part of his identity."
"He won't speak, either." Trowa opened his eyes, focusing on Quatre's hands, so calmly clasped around the other man's knees. "That's the hardest part. I keep expecting him to joke, or tease Heero, or chatter on about something. He won't talk, and he won't look either of us in the eyes."
Trowa's gaze lifted to watch Quatre's face, and he fell silent, recognizing his friend's contemplative expression. Quatre's brow was furrowed, and his eyes were unfocused, both signs that he was considering something very deeply, turning it over in his head. The auburn-haired man waited patiently, trusting his friend to speak when he was ready.
"You weren't trained by a scientist," Quatre said, his expression thoughtful. "You already knew how to pilot mobile suits, right? Did he do anything to you, to prepare for using Heavyarms?"
"Not really. I only had a few weeks between... taking over Heavyarms, and leaving for Earth. I was given a series of booster shots, to help my immune system, but that's it." Trowa cocked his head, waiting for Quatre to reveal his line of thinking.
"Same here, on the booster shots," Quatre said. "But I had two years of training on Sandrock, and received those shots numerous times. From what I understand, Heero had been trained and... engineered since he was eight. What do you know of Duo's history?"
Trowa shrugged. "Heero knows more about it, but all he's told me is that Duo snuck onto a ship, and impressed G so much he selected Duo to be the pilot. From there, they worked together for about two years. I recall Duo mentioning once, a year or so ago, that college was easy compared to the amount of studying he did while working with G."
"I've always suspected Duo's intelligence to be off the charts," Quatre murmured. "He can't be average intelligence and catch up that fast, considering he had next to no formal education prior to meeting G."
"I suppose so, now that you mention it." Trowa frowned slightly. "There was something he said once, as a joke... about osmosis."
"Absorption? What about it?"
"Sleeping while listening to tapes of his studies," Trowa explained. "He said that's how he passed classes and didn't collapse from sleep deprivation. He would laugh about sleeping with his head on the books, but he made some comment about G teaching him---"
Trowa broke off his words, seeing Quatre's shocked expression.
"Tro," Quatre said, rather breathlessly. "You said Jade imprinted on you as his Master. How? Did you show him something? Give him something? Or... " He left the question hanging.
"I read a sentence that was in the documents Heero and Une found... at the house where we found Jade. I didn't know what it'd do, but it was like hitting a switch. Why?"
"G used hypnotic suggestion, I'd bet," Quatre said. "Which means that Duo's susceptible. Drugs would have little effect on him, for the most part, and his strength and willpower are phenomenal, as well. But once you have a built-in access to someone's psyche, that's nearly impossible to remove. Or to protect against," he added.
"Words." Trowa frowned again, turning the idea over in his head. "But physical touch seems to be the only way to get through to him, now. It's like words don't have even half the value they once did, for Duo, at least."
"Maybe you're saying the wrong things." Quatre sighed, and stood up, brushing off the seat of his jeans. "Look, it's nearly lunchtime, and I didn't bring anything with me. Do you want to... do you have time to... go with me, and get something to eat? Then we can come back and figure out how to get the contents of my car up to your house."
"Lunch would be good," Trowa replied, also standing up. "Look, I'm sorry about making you stay away---"
"It's okay," Quatre interrupted. "I do understand. I just don't want to, but I guess you know how that feels."
"All too well," Trowa said.
Through lunch, Quatre seemed to understand that Trowa needed a break, and the blond kept the conversation light. Comfortable doing most of the talking, as he had done for the majority of their decade-long friendship, Quatre regaled Trowa with details about Laylah's first summer camp, Rashid's experiences babysitting Yasmeen, and the kindergarten marriage pact between his middle daughter and Auda's first son. It revolved around a broken Popsicle, Quatre reported. Emmy had been promoted, and was now working directly with Relena on peace-building projects, and Quatre had at least a half-hour of Preventer gossip that had Trowa alternately shaking his head and laughing.
Back in the car, however, the conversation turned serious. Quatre's hand was rubbing against the gearshift as they sat at the town's only light, and Trowa recognized the signs. Shifting in his seat, he gave his friend a level stare.
"Out with it," Trowa ordered. "We've covered everything else."
"It's the investigation," Quatre replied. "I know... I'm sure you want to know as much as you can, and I'm sure you want these bastards shut down. It's a Preventer top priority, now."
"I'm waiting for the 'but'... "
"Right." Quatre sighed, and a rueful grin flashed across his face, causing the dimple to flicker. "The... organization is seriously underground. Whatever happened four months ago, after Duo disappeared... they've not come back up even half as active as they were. We're not sure, but we think they figured out somehow that Duo was with the Preventers. This is probably why they staged his death. Frankly, it would have been idiotic in the extreme to snag an undercover Preventer on purpose. They were caught off-guard, and now they're being very careful."
"I figured as much." Trowa leaned back in the seat, and watched the town buildings give way to old houses. "Waiting a month to provide a reason for his disappearance was sloppy on their part."
"Wufei is going undercover as a potential buyer. He's got the aristocratic pedigree, and one of his distant cousins has agreed to allow his identity to be used, so that eases the difficulty of creating a full, searchable background." Quatre slowed at the stop sign, and glanced at Trowa.
"Right turn," Trowa told him.
"Thanks. So... it's going to take two months, minimum, before Wufei's cleared for attending an auction. Une is insistent that we wait until we know all the players are present. She doesn't want anyone getting away, and right now, we barely know where they're located, let alone who's responsible for running the operation."
"Two months." Trowa rubbed his forehead, and watched the road. "Up at the next intersection, take a left."
Quatre nodded. "Once we can get in, we'll take it down. And then we'll raze them to the ground, and bring you all the information we can find about how they... created Jade, and what they did to him."
"Two months," the auburn-haired man repeated, and sighed.
They were silent until Quatre pulled up into Liddie's driveway, and parked in front of the gate. He shut off the engine, and turned to Trowa, his expression conflicted.
"There's one other thing," Quatre said quietly. "I... owe Heero an apology. I understand that I can't give it to him now, but please tell him for me, and I'll tell him whenever I can see him myself. I... Wufei and I... are terribly sorry that we encouraged Heero to accept Duo's MIA status as final. We... we doubted his belief that our friend was alive, and---"
"You don't have to say this, Quat," Trowa replied. "I wasn't exactly supportive myself. Heero's insistence that Duo didn't show up on the tapes wasn't exactly convincing. Duo didn't like being taped. He rarely shows up on surveillance tapes in the course of a regular day, let alone while moving through a crowded airport. Old habits, I figured."
"Doesn't change the fact that we should have believed Heero," Quatre said stubbornly. "We should have worked harder to help, instead of breaking up Duo's stuff among us four as though Duo were dead and buried. I'd say we all know how easily life can be lost, but our histories are no excuse for such callousness."
Trowa was silent for several heartbeats, but finally nodded with a tight smile. "I'll tell him."
"Thanks. So... about the stuff in my car?" Quatre looked over his shoulder at the back seat, crammed with boxes and bags. "There's more in the trunk, too."
"Would you mind if I drove the car up, unloaded it, and returned it to you? Shouldn't take more than a half-hour."
Quatre gave Trowa a long look, then grinned. "You just want to take out the oil pan on yet another car of mine."
The taller man groaned and reached for the keys. "That was not on purpose. There was no way I could know the clearance on a TGR-17 was only nine inches. I'd never driven one before!"
The blond grinned and got out of the car, stepping aside as Trowa came around to get in the driver's seat. "Hurt this baby and I'll see to it you never have children, Trowa," he warned, but his eyes were amused.
"Don't want any," the other man growled. "You've got enough for both of us."
"Sure about that? Going cheap. Cheaper if they keep hounding me." Quatre grinned widely. "Pun intended."
Trowa shook his head and started the engine, pulling the car up the driveway. In the rear view mirror he could see Quatre laughing, as the man leaned against the gate pole, waiting for Trowa's return.
The car was unloaded and returned in record time, with Trowa merely shaking his head when Heero tried to ask about Quatre. Returning the car, Trowa accepted one last hug from Quatre before watching his friend drive off. He waited for a long time, watching the dust settle in the hot September day, and turned around, heading back for the cabin. When he got there, Jade was perched on the step, Ifrit in his lap. The longhaired man wasn't wearing his braid, and his hair fluttered around him as he came running down to meet Trowa at the edge of the road.
Trowa smiled, and draped his arm over Jade's shoulder, hugging the silent man closely as they walked up to the house. Inside, the living room was a wreck, boxes stacked behind the sofa, and bags covering the sofa and chairs.
"What is this stuff?" Trowa opened one box, and realized it was nothing but books. "We're going to need to build more shelves, I think."
"Books in those six boxes," Heero said, coming down the steps from the loft. He was carrying something dark in his hand. "Bags of clothes that Quatre had saved... including this." He held it out as he came to stand in front of Jade.
It was Duo's old priest shirt, from the One Year War.
Trowa held his breath, as Jade's fingers reached out, smoothing down the fabric. There was a thin line between Jade's brows, and the silent man seemed lost in concentration. Finally he drew his hand back, slipping a little behind Trowa and ducking his head.
Heero sighed and dropped his hand, clenching the fabric tightly as he exhaled through his teeth. "Shit," he muttered, and gave Trowa a sorrowful look. "I'll put it away, then. Two of those boxes are power tools, and there are bags of linens and blankets for wintertime. I'd be willing to bet that's Emmy's doing."
"Probably." Trowa frowned, seeing an unwieldy black case peeking out from under two of the bags. "What's that?" He hadn't seen it while they had unpacked the backseat and trunk, but he'd been in a rush to return the car.
"It's Relena's guitar."
"Relena plays guitar?" Trowa gave Heero a surprised look. "I never knew that."
"Well, she didn't, actually," Heero replied, his face coloring slightly. "I played. She gave it to me on our one-year anniversary, and when we separated, I gave it back to her. There's a note from Quatre in the case, and I think I saw a flute case in one of the boxes."
Trowa's expression went from surprised to shocked. "Quatre's flute?"
Heero nodded, leaning over the back of the sofa to push the bags aside. He pulled out the guitar case and flipped the top open, revealing an acoustic twelve-string guitar in some exotic red wood. Tucked into the interior of the lid was a creamy envelope. Heero handed it to Trowa, who turned it over in his hands before sliding the single card out. Quatre's graceful hand swooped across the page, a delicate but emphatic series of curves.
'Sometimes, where words can't reach, music can.'
Trowa glanced up from the note, and smiled at Heero. "Guess we should fit practice time into the schedule, too," he said.
End Part 11
On to Chapter Twelve
Back to chapter Ten