Broken Jade

Part Twenty-Two: The Camphor Tree

Heero put the hammer under his arm and bumped the shelf end up with a grunt.

"Not so much," Trowa instructed, staring intently at the level. "Bring it down quarter-inch."

Another bump. "How's that?"

"Perfect." Trowa held the shelf steady as Heero nailed the cross brace, then stepped away, staring at their progress along the wall of the barn. "That should be a good stopping point." He grabbed his coat and pulled it on, buttoning it up as he stared out one of the barn's small windows. "You think of anything you need?"

"Shampoo," Heero answered automatically. "I put it on the list."

He put the hammer and nails away. His stretch was interrupted by a quick kiss from Trowa. A chilly draught came in when Trowa left the barn, and Heero sighed. Shoving his arms into his own coat, he made his way back to the house while Trowa backed the Jeep up and turned around, heading down the drive towards the main road.

A week had passed, since the night Trowa turned Jade away. Heero glanced up at the cloudless sky, squinting against the severe blue of the high mountain air. The next morning had been a constant argument, prompted by Jade burning the breakfast and putting pepper in Trowa's coffee. Heero was adamant that Trowa needed to apologize, but Trowa refused to budge. The dark-haired man thought back to their low-pitched disagreement, begun once Jade was banished to the barn for a time-out.

It was not an argument, as those things go, Heero thought, watching two crows wheel against the bright sky. His arguments with Duo, over the years, had ranged from quiet disagreements to outright shouting matches. When Trowa came to a decision, however, no amount of noise or silence would change it. Trowa had determined, somehow, at some point, that this new Jade was not the one for whom he'd been Master. And therefore, Heero pondered, Trowa had no compulsion about denying his Mastership. In fact, he'd pointed out quite amiably, Heero had insisted.

"I know I did," Heero recalled telling the taller man. "But I thought you'd back me on it during the day, when we could talk about it."

Trowa had simply shrugged and turned his head away, unwilling to continue beating the same paths. Eventually Heero had given in, recognizing the same obstinacy that Maxwell had always displayed. And strangely, Jade seemed to recognize innately that the situation had changed. He still watched Trowa like a hawk, but his barbs were less fierce, and his catcalls held less fervor. Trowa, in return, seemed unruffled by Jade's behavior, as though finally separating himself from Jade were the step he needed to love Jade, without being hurt by Jade's hostile response.

He just does it from a distance, now, Heero told himself. He wasn't sure whether it was an improvement.

Over the day or two after that, they'd settled into a new routine: an hour of all three at breakfast, then four hours of Heero and Trowa together. The three shared lunch, and then Heero spent the afternoon with Jade. Dinner was all three, and the hour after dinner was for Heero, alone, in the study on the computer. He'd realized after two days that he required it. After the second time he'd had to send Jade to the barn to keep the longhaired man from shadowing Trowa, the hour in the barn after dinner became part of the routine. Heero didn't like it, but he was beginning to understand just how difficult it was to walk the tightrope between Trowa's needs, and Jade's.

And I'm not even the acrobat, he thought, kicking a clump of icy snow.

He smiled at the forlorn snowman, a frosty beard glittering on its rumpled wool hat. The carrot had shriveled in the last snowstorm, but Jade had pitched a fit when Heero suggested dismantling the snowman. Heero shook his head and pulled the front door open. Jade was napping on his pillow, and sat up with a large yawn as the door opened. Ifrit was asleep across the sofa, but raised his head to blink at Heero before getting up, turning around, and curling back into a golden ball.

"Master?" Jade's eyes darted past Heero, and the longhaired man's shoulders slumped. "Other Master's left," he murmured. He'd been furious when Heero had decided to help Trowa finish the shelves, taking a half-hour away from Jade's one-on-one time with Heero.

Heero fought the urge to roll his eyes. Now he was Master, yet Trowa wasn't Trowa, but Other Master. Heero sometimes considered strangling Jade for his refusal to use proper names, but Jade flatly refused, for some reason he wouldn't quite explain.

"Did you want to work on the puzzle some more?" Heero kicked off his boots and sat on the sofa, pulling the low table towards him as he studied the piles of cardboard pieces, scattered around the few sections they'd pieced together.

Jade shrugged and crawled over to the table, pulling his pillow with him. Seated cross-legged at the table's end, he pulled the box out from under the table and began sorting through the pieces, one at a time. Heero scooped the sky pieces towards his end, and began laying them out against the top edge of the puzzle.

Five thousand pieces, all identical shapes, and they'd not made a great deal of progress, he thought. Then again, they'd not worked that hard. He was mildly amused to think that if it were Maxwell sharing the puzzle with him, Maxwell would have stayed up all night to complete the puzzle, just to one-up Heero. The idea made him smile.

"What's funny?" Jade's voice was suspicious, but tinged with sadness.

"Just thinking about... " Heero shrugged. "Someone I knew. We were really competitive," he said, and took a deep breath. He'd been working hard to talk to Jade, about everything and nothing, in the same casual way that Duo had always spoken to him. "My friend would've given years off his life if he thought it would get his half of the puzzle done before I'd finished my half."

Jade considered that for a second. "What would you give years for?" He pulled out a piece and stared at it for a second, before placing it in Heero's pile. "Sky, I think."

"Thanks." Heero turned the new addition over in his fingers, considering Jade's question. "I'd give years... to have my friend back."

"You probably treated him really badly," Jade announced. His eyes were sharp as he glanced at Heero.

"Sometimes," came the indifferent response. Heero had grown accustomed to Jade's random barbs. Shrugging and continuing as though there was no malicious intent, he'd found, was the only way to deal with it. Jade would drop the topic for a bit, even if he'd eventually come back around to it again, still testing. "We had our moments. Which is the mountain pile?"

"That one," Jade said, pointing. Heero dropped the sky-mountain puzzle piece in the correct pile. "Master... " His tone was hesitant, and he chewed on his lower lip for a second. "Why does Other Master have to keep leaving?"

"Because of you," Heero answered, curtly. "You're rude to him."

"I learned from the best," Jade shot back.

"I think this is a flower piece." The dark-haired man dropped a puzzle piece in the lower part of the puzzle. He sighed internally, and waited to see if Jade would go back to focusing on the puzzle, or if the conversation would escalate. In six days, only two afternoons had been free of accusations and hostile comments. He snapped another two pieces of sky into the border and sat back to review the blue pieces laid out in front of him. Jade still hadn't replied, and Heero decided to try another attempt, in case the longhaired man was still sorting through his repertoire of insults. "What do you think about lemon chicken for dinner?"

"We don't have any lemon," Jade replied quickly. "We have garam marsala, though."

"Curry chicken, then."

"I like curry."

Heero blinked, and frowned at Jade. The other man's head was down, his fingers moving constantly as he flipped over pieces, studying the colors before sorting them into the piles. "Do you remember... having curry... before you came here?" He kept his voice low, but couldn't disguise the note of hope.

"Before?" Jade raised his head, closing his eyes. His brows were furrowed, and Heero watched as Jade's eyes moved under his lids, as though seeking something in the darkness. The eyes opened, revealing bewildered deep blue depths. "Trainer taught me to make it."

There it was again, another rare mention of the Trainer. Explanations had been elusive, and Heero had refrained from pushing Jade. Watching the longhaired man's confused expression, Heero decided to risk it. "Trainer taught you a lot of things."

Jade nodded, a pleased smile flashing across his face. "Trainer was... " He stopped, and then shook his head. "Sky," he said, dropping a piece in the midst of Heero's spread. "I don't want to talk about Trainer."

"Do you... miss Trainer?"

"I... " Jade shrugged, one shoulder raised and dropped. "Sometimes I get mad at Trainer," he whispered.

Heero raised his eyebrows, and waited.

"Trainer said there was someone waiting for me who really wanted me," Jade explained softly. "But there wasn't. Trainer never lied, but... "

"Trowa and I really wanted you... " Heero almost added, 'to come back to us,' but caught himself in time. He opened his mouth to say more, but stopped, seeing Jade shake his head furiously.

"Liar," Jade mumbled, but weakly. He shot a glance at Heero, and ducked his head. Jade chewed his lower lip, pushing around a few of the pieces in the mountain pile, idly trying to fit some together. "Other Master doesn't want me."

Heero couldn't think of what to say. A log snapped in the fireplace, sparks flying up the flue, and Heero picked up another blue piece, feeling the edge with his fingertip.

"Trainer said my Master would... " Jade snapped two pieces together, and pushed them with one finger through the pieces until the section was against the solid border. "I think Other Master doesn't like me."

"Ah... " It took a second for Heero to register that Jade had switched topics again, and he thought about what to say. Vaguely he recalled the times Duo had spent with him, willing to be silent however long it took Heero to respond to a question or a leading statement. He smiled to himself, certain there had been times Duo was ready to explode from the effort. He also knew there had been times he'd purposefully held onto his response longer, a subtle way of teasing his over-talkative friend. Jade still hadn't continued, and Heero decided to try for a gentle prompt. "The past week or so, you've... "

"Not what I meant!" Jade scowled, and banged his fist on the table. His eyes went wide, and he shrank backwards, his shoulders hunched. When Heero didn't react, Jade slowly relaxed, but his brow remained furrowed. "He's not liked me from the beginning. I know," he insisted. "I heard you talking. I'm not deaf. And I'm not stupid, either." The man's eyes narrowed, and he flicked a puzzle piece with his finger, watching it bounce across the table.

Heero caught the piece before it fell off the edge of the table. Calmly, he glanced down, identified it as a sky piece, and dropped it in with the rest.

"No one ever said you were stupid, Jade."

"No, *you're* the stupid one," Jade retorted hotly. "Thinking I don't notice. Thinking I couldn't tell... " His eyes filled with tears, and he wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand in a furious gesture. "He's mean. He doesn't... Trainer said... " Jade's mouth clapped shut so hard Heero could hear the man's teeth knock together.

The dark-haired man dropped the piece he was holding, and edged off the sofa to sit on the rug. Their heads were now level, and he wondered if that would help. "Do you... like Trowa?" Heero made a point of keeping his eyes fixed on the incomplete puzzle.

"I knew you were stupid," Jade taunted, but his voice quickly dropped to a forlorn whisper. "Anyone would half a brain could tell... " He sighed, and shook his head. Several more pieces were dropped on the table. Heero glanced at them but purposefully kept his gaze off Jade, waiting for the other man to speak. "When I woke up," Jade said, so softly Heero almost couldn't hear him, "he was... "

The room was silent for several long minutes, and Heero realized he was holding his breath. The log in the fireplace cracked, one end falling down into the coals, but Jade still hadn't moved or spoken. It dawned on him that Jade was speaking of when he'd woken up, back in Sanq, in a traveling crate in a small room with one window.

"He's so handsome," Jade whispered, barely above a breath. "Trainer said I was going to be with someone who wanted me, but Trainer never said anything about what he looked like. I had no idea, no warning... if I'd known, I would've worked twice... " He sighed. "And then when he told me I could come out, I know I wasn't supposed to look... but I had to," Jade added. His voice cracked, and he dropped his head, starting down into the box of puzzle pieces. "I wanted to see his eyes, so bad... He had this smile on his face, like he was really sad, but trying to smile, and I thought... " He fell silent, his gaze turned inwards.

"You thought... " Heero prompted quietly.

"I wondered what I'd done wrong, already," came the hesitant reply. "And I wanted to make him really smile... I knew when he did, he'd be... oh, if he'd just said I could only sit in the corner and never touch him, I'd be happy. He's... he's... when I heard him laugh, and... " Jade shrugged, his distant look shifting quickly to a scowl. "I could never make him smile like that. He never laughed like that with *me*."

"Yes, he has." A snap, as another piece fell into place. "Like when we hiked up the river, and you both chased fish."

Jade nodded enthusiastically, distracted momentarily. "He did, didn't he! Trainer said I could make Master happy, that I would... but... " He shrugged, and then frowned, as though something had just occurred to him. "Do you... do you like me?"

Heero was startled, and raised his head to look Jade in the eyes as he considered his response carefully. "Sometimes," he said, guarded. "When you want to be, you're very likeable."

"Oh." Jade seemed to mull over that for a moment.

"If you're asking whether I consider you a friend... " Heero took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "The answer's yes."

The longhaired man narrowed his eyes, measuring Heero. "All the time?"

"Friends can argue and still be friends."

"How do you know?"

"I learned from the best," Heero replied evenly. Something Jade had said popped back into his head, and he frowned slightly, his eyebrows raised. "Jade... did Trainer know, ahead of time, who your Master would be?"

"Of course," Jade snorted. "The others said there were auctions, but I had a Master." He gave Heero a baffled look. "But when I made Seafood Newberg, Master didn't like it," he said. "Trainer said Master... " Jade scowled. "Everyone lies to me. Fucking bastards. All of you."

"Everyone? When have we lied?"

"Lots of times," the other man said, but he hunched his shoulders and didn't meet Heero's eyes. "We haven't gone to a single party."

Heero blinked. "A party?"

"Yeah, and I know how to be good at parties. But you don't take me out 'cept on Fridays and you don't show me off," Jade accused. "You're just into mind-fucks and games and hiding me away like you're ashamed of me. Assholes," he hissed.

"We're not ashamed of you," Heero answered slowly, the words long and low in his mouth as he struggled to work past the confusion from Jade's comments. "We don't go to parties very much." He cocked his head at Jade. "We're not really the party-going types."

"See!" Jade threw another handful of puzzle pieces down on the table. "You don't do anything like you're supposed to. Fuckers."

Heero's voice turned cold. "Would you rather be beaten, and kept naked all the time?"

"Don't forget tied up, you sadistic creep," Jade snarled, backing away. "Bet you'd get off on it, too." Hurt flashed across his face and he ducked his head, the muscles in his neck standing out in tense relief.

"You were told that's what your Master would do," Heero guessed. He put his hands down on the floor, shifting his weight to move farther down the table's length, closer to Jade. "You were trained to expect a Master who had a full social calendar." He moved a little closer, holding his breath as he waited for Jade's reaction. "And would be stern... and hurt you if you misbehaved."

"Better'n mind games," Jade snapped. His hands were white-knuckled around the box.

Heero shifted again until he was only an arm's length from Jade. "What do you want, Jade, if you could have anything, what would it be... " Heero murmured.

"A Master who loves an' cherishes me, an' keeps me safe," Jade answered automatically, the words tumbling over each other in his rush. He shook his head so hard the box was shaken as well, and several pieces flew out. "Bullshit like that, you can keep!"

Heero reached over, cautiously prying Jade's fingers from around the box. Jade didn't seem to notice.

"Cause I don't want anything to do with you or---" Jade froze as Heero's arm slid around his shoulders.

"Someone to love and cherish you," Heero murmured, sliding a little closer. He could feel Jade shivering under his touch, and he moved again until they were hip-to-hip and put his other arm around Jade, as well. He smoothed down Jade's hair, his fingers trailing along the tangled braid. "These are good things, Jade. It's okay to want them... "

"What's the point? Nothing is like it was supposed to be, and I don't want any of this but I do and I don't know which is right and you weren't supposed to be here and it was only supposed to be Master and he's not like I expected but nothing makes sense and when he smiles it's not because he's looking at me and I can't do anything right but when I do things wrong it's never---"

"Hush, Jade," Heero said, twisting to bring Jade's head down against his shoulder. The flurry of words was muffled against Heero's sweater, and he continued to murmur reassuring sounds as he held Jade close. "Everyone makes mistakes," he whispered, burying his smile in Jade's hair as the other man clung to him. Even me, he added silently.

Jade mumbled something, then raised his head to look Heero in the eye. "Was it all mistakes?"

Heero raised his eyebrows. "Were what all mistakes?"

"Those times... " Jade ducked his head, and rubbed his forehead against Heero's cheek. "When Other Master let me touch him... it made him angry and upset. He thought it was a mistake. But you touched me... " Jade's hand came up to entwine in the neck of Heero's sweater. "Why didn't... " He sighed, and nuzzled his nose against Heero's neck, his lips nipping softly at the skin. " ...ever... when I... "

The words faded as Jade ran his tongue lightly up Heero's neck, to kiss along Heero's jawbone. The dark-haired man shuddered, frozen to the spot as he tried to figure out what to do. If he pulled away, he'd be rejecting Jade. If he remained, he'd be betraying Trowa. Caught between the two options, Heero struggled to figure out the consequences of each at rapid pace, comparing and tossing reactions as quickly as Jade's teeth nipped at his jaw. The longhaired man whispered something inaudible, his tongue running up to Heero's ear.

"Play, Master," Jade coaxed.

"Play?" Heero wondered absently if his voice sounded as strangled to Jade as it did to him.

"Yes... " Jade nibbled on Heero's ear, and his fingers began tracing invisible lines up Heero's neck as the longhaired man leaned into Heero. "Play with me, play with me... "

"Jade... " His tone was a flat warning, even as he shuddered from the sensation of Jade's delicate tongue slipping into his ear. "I don't... "

"Whatever you want... to me, with me... let me... " Jade shifted, pressing himself closer as his hand trailed down Heero's sweater to scratch lightly at the inside of Heero's thigh. "Master... "

Heero swallowed, and bit his lip as he cautiously began to disengage from Jade. "I don't think... " He frowned, trying to think of what to say. "Jade, if you're asking what I---"

"Admit you want it," Jade replied. The cajoling whisper was gone, replaced by a harsh taunting note. His hand moved from Heero's thigh, to cup the bulge at Heero's groin, and he pressed down just enough to make Heero gasp. "You do, you want it, and you just won't admit it. Wanna bet that's a mistake, too? You're just dying to have me show you just how much---"

"Enough!" Heero shot up, knocking Jade off him. He glared down at the longhaired man, who smiled lazily and shrugged, leaning back on his hands. "Damn it, Jade, this---" He halted, gaping as Jade began to laugh.

"You should see your face!" Jade grinned, and came to his feet in a graceful move, his expression smug. "You wanted it. That's why you're Master now, isn't it? Because Other Master can't stand touching me, and you can't *wait* to get some."

Heero reacted without thinking, his fist flying out instinctively.

Jade hit the shelves, and crumpled, one hand on his face. He chuckled softly, gasping as he clambered unsteadily to his feet. His fingers probed at his cheek. His face was creased as though he was in pain, or on the verge of tears. A heartbeat passed, and Jade's cocky smile was back in place, but his brows were furrowed.

"Yeah, see, knew you're just that kind of bastard," he announced, but there wasn't much conviction in his tone. Jade laughed again, but it sounded choked, and he was clearly struggling. Then he swallowed hard, wincing as he touched his fingers to his cheek. "Wanna go another round? Only this time, don't make me hafta pretend to wanna touch you. We can just skip the pointless foreplay and get right to where you fuck me up."

"Jade," Heero snarled. He didn't move, but Jade flinched.

"Go *on*!" Jade's scream seemed to surprise Jade almost as much as Heero. The longhaired man was shaking, his hands in fists at his side. "Do it! Just do it and get it over with! *Please!*"

Heero blinked, and something inside him stepped away from Jade's angry posture to take a second look. The man's blue eyes were wide, and his face was contorted in fear and panic, not hatred or anger. Heero frowned, flexing his fist, and kicked sideways. His foot caught the low table and shoved it across the room. The table slammed against the wall, puzzle pieces flying. Jade shrank backwards, but his expression never changed, his lips pulling back to bare his teeth.

"Hit me."

Jade's eyes went impossibly wide, and he gaped at Heero. "Do *what*?"

"You heard me. Take a swing."

"You're crazy." Jade started to shake, backing away as his hands came up in front of him. The smile was gone, replaced by a look of abject fear. "You're Master... I can't hit you."

"Do it." Heero took a step closer, his voice perfectly calm.

"No," Jade moaned, twisting as his gaze darted around, seeking the fastest escape. Heero stepped to the side, blocking Jade's movement, and the longhaired man cringed. "No, Master, I can't---"

"Hit me," Heero barked. "Now! One punch! Come on!"

Jade screwed up his face and turned his head away. At the same instant, his right fist came flying out, catching Heero right across the jaw. Heero's head snapped back from the force, and he grunted, memory flashing back to a moment ten years before. Almost grinning, he put up a hand to massage his jaw, sighing as Jade promptly dropped into a crouch at his feet.

"Master," Jade moaned, and covered his head with his hands.

Heero shook his head, and leaned over. "Come on, Jade, let's get some ice on your cheek." When Jade didn't move, Heero rolled his eyes, exasperated suddenly, and amused at the unexpected reaction. "Move it, Jade." Bodily he lifted Jade, shaking the other man a little until Jade stopped cowering and got his feet under him. "Kitchen," Heero ordered.

Jade nodded, ducking away from Heero's touch and scurrying ahead into the kitchen. There was the faint sound of bells from the remaining anklet, and Heero entered the kitchen to see Jade crouched by the fireplace, his hands over his head. Heero ignored the reaction, opening the freezer to retrieve several pieces of ice, and wrapping them in a towel.

"Sit down," Heero said, and set the towel on the table. "Put that on your cheek." He turned, ignoring Jade's tentative shuffle towards the table as Heero made a second bundle of ice and sat down opposite Jade, setting the towel against his jaw with a wince. Even in the midst of panic, Jade could pack a powerful punch. Heero found small comfort, somehow, in knowing that ten years and a bit more weight and height had given Maxwell's body the ability to make even Heero think twice about taking on those fists.

The front door creaked, and Jade flinched, shrinking down in the chair. Heero looked up to see Trowa standing in the kitchen doorway, a plastic tub in one hand, and several bags in the other hand. Trowa stared at Heero for a second, then at Jade, his eyebrows raised. Heero scowled, at the same instant Jade glowered, and Trowa startled them both with one simple action.

He threw back his head and laughed.

Heero made a face and situated the towel-wrapped ice against his jawbone. "What?"

Trowa's warm laugh softened into chuckles and he shook his head as he set the bags on the countertop. "You two," he said, rattling the drawers as he pulled out a knife. "Sometimes I'm amazed the house is still standing every time I come home."

Jade ducked his head, glaring at Trowa from under his eyelashes, but his expression seemed more like he was confused, and not angry. Heero noted the subtle difference, turning to see Trowa setting down a plate in front of him. "What's this?"

"Pie." Trowa set another plate and fork down in front of Jade, then brought a plate for himself. "Got it from a bakery in town that Liddie recommended." He glanced at Heero, and nodded. "It's apple, not peach."

"Ah." Heero took a cautious bite, rolled the flavors in his mouth, and gave Trowa a small smile as he took a bigger piece. He nearly choked on his fork with Trowa's next words.

"So, Jade, he insisted on shot-for-shot again, didn't he." Trowa's voice was conversational, the question phrased as a statement, not a question.

Jade's eyes went wide, and he glanced at Heero, worried. Then Jade blinked, frowning slightly as he licked his fingers. "Again?"

"It's a regular habit with Heero," Trowa replied. He leaned his elbows on the table, continuing to eat his slice of pie as casually as though he were discussing the weather. "I suppose we haven't told you the story," Trowa added with a smirk to Heero.

"Barton," Heero growled. He frowned when Trowa ignored him.

"Back about eight years ago," Trowa began, "there were some people who wanted to take over the Earth, become the ruling power."

Jade nodded, listening intently as he broke off another piece of pie with his fingers.

"One of the first things they did was kidnap a friend of ours," Trowa said, glossing right past the stickier details, Heero noticed. Trowa's eyebrow twitched as he glanced at Heero before returning his attention to Jade. "Heero had to go off and rescue her, and naturally his best friend was part of the effort."

"Can't believe he had a best friend," Jade scoffed.

"Same thing I always said," Trowa replied in an amiable tone.

Heero looked up to see Jade giving Trowa a disbelieving look. He wondered if Jade was surprised Trowa had agreed, or if there was something else triggering the longhaired man's response.

"Maxwell and Yuy got to the control room when I was almost finished undoing the process for destroying the colony," Trowa continued. "But the opposing forces were hot on their tails, and only one of them would be able to get out. We needed surprise. So Heero let Maxwell punch him, and punched Maxwell in return."

"In the stomach."

Heero's eyes went wide, and he stared at Jade. The longhaired man's head was down, and he was playing with a piece of apple.

"Jade," Trowa whispered. "How do you know that?"

"Seems reasonable," Jade said, lifting his head to give Trowa a bored look. "He did it before, and everything went black. What I don't get is why he'd knock out his best friend." He scowled. "And why you think it's funny."

"Because it's just so typical," Trowa said. "Yuy has a plan, and Maxwell would walk right into it, every single time."

"Wasn't like it didn't work both ways," Heero muttered almost inaudibly, remembering the snowman. He could feel Jade's eyes on him, but he didn't look up, too busy frowning at his slice of pie.

"Maxwell sounds like an idiot," Jade commented dryly.

"Maxwell is a brilliant man, and the best damn pilot I've ever met," Heero interrupted, unable to hold his tongue for longer. "It wasn't like I wanted to mess with him." He shook his head, staring down at his half-eaten slice of pie. "I just didn't want him to get hurt."

"That's patronizing." Jade sucked on his fingers and gave Heero an annoyed look, then turned to Trowa. "You didn't like Maxwell."

"I thought he got in the way," Trowa admitted, and shrugged. "He wasn't a soldier. He was a thief." Trowa's lips curled up at the edges. "One of the best thieves I've ever known, but he still wasn't a soldier."

"He ever steal something from you?" Jade wiped his fingers on the towel before putting it against his cheek again.

"A few things," Trowa said, and shrugged. "Hasn't taught me to pilot like he can, though."

"Is... " Jade frowned, his eyes darting between Trowa and Heero. "Is this guy dead, or not? Sometimes you talk like he's gone. You both gang up on him, too?"

"Maxwell ganged up on *us*," Heero replied, hedging Jade's first question. "He's the one who set us up on our first date."

Trowa smirked.

"But is he... " Jade looked baffled as Trowa stood up, collecting the empty plates and setting them in the sink. Jade glanced at Heero, who was also standing up. "This is somebody important... why do you keep talking about him?"

"He's someone we both love," Trowa whispered, his back still to Jade.

Coming to stand beside the taller man, Heero rested his hand over Trowa's for a half-second before pulling away. Emptying the ice into the sink, he draped the towel over the rack and wiped his hands off on his jeans.

"How's your cheek, Jade?" Heero leaned against the countertop, crossing his arms as Jade lowered the towel and turned his head for Heero to see. The dark-haired man nodded. "Won't be as bad, now. Give me the ice-pack and go straighten up in the living room."

Jade stood, his fingers clutching the towel, but then he sighed and handed it to Heero. Heading towards the living room, he stopped in the archway and turned around, his face downcast.


"Hm?" Heero shook out the towel, the ice cubes rattling in the sink.

"Are we... " Jade shifted in place, nervously, fiddling with the cuffs of his black sweater. "Is this what friends do?"

"Yes," Trowa replied, before Heero could answer. He strode over to Jade, stopping only inches away as he looked down. Smoothing Jade's hair off his forehead, Trowa leaned down and gently kissed the purplish bruise forming on Jade's cheek. "We are all friends, no matter what."

"Oh, sure," Jade retorted, his voice hardening into a taunt. "I bet you wouldn't---"

"I love you," Trowa whispered.

Jade's eyes went wide, and his mouth formed a little 'o' of astonishment. He started to say something, but it came out as a squeak.

"I'm not your Master," the tall man continued. "I'm a friend, and I *do* love you."

He bent down again to kiss Jade on the nose, before walking away with a single backwards glance to Heero. The dark-haired man was startled to see Trowa's eyes were glittering brightly, but there was a sweet smile on his lips. Heero listened as the study door opened and closed. His gaze traveled back to see Jade, staring off in the direction Trowa had left, his fingers coming up to gently tap on the end of his nose. There was a thin line between his brows, and for a long time he remained there, staring off into the middle distance, his fingers resting gently against his nose. Then Jade sighed and was gone in a silent flash, off to clean up the living room.


End Part 22

On to Chapter twenty-three

Back to chapter twenty-one

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