Broken Jade

Part Twenty-Eight: For The Crows

Heero swore under his breath and leaned up against the mirror until his nose was almost touching the surface. Irritated, he tapped the razor against the side of the basin and took a few more swipes at his cheek before giving up. The hurricane lamp's light just wasn't enough, and the wavering movement of the flame in the small room threw dancing shadows across his face. Normally he didn't need to shave but every few days, but he'd put it off for the past five days, and somehow it just seemed like another on the day's list of things to go wrong.

He had awoken just after dawn to find the house freezing cold, and the outside world blanketed in nearly ten inches of snow and still falling fast. It had snowed numerous times since the winter began - and most of the land was now draped in nearly three feet of snow - but it hadn't yet fallen this hard, this fast. Bringing in wood, he'd shivered, and not from the cold. Looking around, he'd realized that without his footsteps to guide him back, he couldn't see the house from where he stood by the barn. And it certainly hadn't helped that on the whole he'd probably only gotten three hours of sleep.

Draining the water from the sink, he splashed some up around the edges of the basin to clean off the shaving cream before washing his face and patting it dry. He wiped his hands roughly and picked up the hurricane lamp. In the living room, Duo was huddled by the fire. Trowa had appeared, blanket in hand, and fallen back asleep on the sofa, Heero noted. No surprise there, after Duo had insisted on sleeping on the sofa, rather than on his mattress, or even - as Trowa had tentatively offered - with the two of them. Unfortunately, that meant that Duo's screaming nightmares, every hour on the hour, would wake both, and one would head downstairs to shake Duo into awareness. They'd traded off, but the act of getting out of bed and going downstairs had woken Heero fully, each time, and he would only be sinking back into sleep by the time Duo's screams came again. It didn't help that Trowa's movement from the bed, taking his turn, would then send Heero's sleep into a hazy place where he couldn't quite relax enough.

Heero sighed and set down the hurricane lamp as Duo looked up. Duo opened his mouth, looking at Heero's jaw, and closed his mouth, but his lips quirked.

"Don't say it," Heero told him. "At least we've got enough propane for another day or two, but then we'll need a refill."

The generator was out, and Heero really wasn't up yet to heading to the freezing barn to see what had caused the problem. On top of that, the phone lines were down, so they couldn't even call for a propane refill if they did run out. Heero settled onto the sofa, shifting Trowa gently until the taller man's head was pillowed on his lap. Duo scooted backwards, climbing crab-like without looking into the wingback chair and wrapping a blanket around himself.

Heero contemplated getting up to fix breakfast, but he wasn't really that hungry, and the warmth was making him feel drowsy. Turning his head a bit, he could see Duo's exhausted face losing its lines as Duo faded into sleep. Heero smiled to himself, absently running his fingers through Trowa's hair as he thought about the bits and pieces he'd gathered from the little Duo had said each time he'd woken up.

Rubbing alcohol made Duo think of the drug therapy forced on him; the scent of lemon was somehow connected to a beating bad enough to send him into a flashback that left the man shivering and flinching away from touch. Trowa's shout as he nearly burnt his hand on dinner made Duo fall into a protective crouch, and the act of taking a shower alone sent Duo into a panic attack that had Trowa nearly breaking down the door to get to him. A hurricane lamp, left on low, brought back fears of a flashlight that moved in the middle of the night, through Duo's sleeping quarters with the other pets. The wool blanket, rubbing against Duo's face, became a gag. The one thing that bothered Heero the most, however, was remembering when Duo had caught sight of his reflection against the window before bed. There was nothing there that Heero could see, but Duo went cold and still for a long period before he shook himself and laid down to sleep.

Heero wondered if that last behavior were connected to the few bits Duo had managed to say before falling back into sleep, each time it had been Heero's turn to shake him from his nightmares: something about being watched, and being surrounded, by voices and bodies where Duo couldn't see their faces. Heero wondered if that were connected to the training, or perhaps a part of the training's impact surfacing in Duo's consciousness. He thought back to his own training, submerged in secrecy and bounded by isolation, and his own distrust of other people as a result of so little contact. He'd squared his shoulders and headed to earth, certain he would fulfill his mission or die trying. Or, he mused, both at the same time, and was surprised to find himself considering the notion funny, all these years later.

It was a dark sort of humor, but it was the best he could manage.

Duo still hadn't cried, not really. He'd sobbed, and moaned, and his chest heaved, but no tears. Heero lifted his gaze to watch Duo's curled form under the blankets, his face just barely visible, and felt his shoulders slump. Duo's sleep was no longer his own, Heero thought. Even Jade, once comfortable, had sprawled in his sleep, an out flung arm, a leg on top of the covers. But Duo now was sleeping curled in a tight ball, his head against his knees, his arms up in a defensive position. He'd slept all night like that, but Heero paused, realizing that Duo had slept quite comfortably between them. He wondered if that was the reason Trowa had suggested it again, despite the man's discomfort with Duo's half-asleep reaction to their closeness. Although, Heero pondered, it had been rather amusing to see Duo fall over the back of the sofa. For such a graceful man, he could sure be a klutz when caught off-guard.

He was startled to realize Duo's eyes were open, and watching him carefully, but with just a hint of amusement.

"What is it?" Duo shifted, pulling the blanket down a little. "That look. What're you thinking about?"

"You," Heero said, not watching his words, too lulled by the warm fire and Trowa's steady breath against his belly. "Falling over the back of the sofa."

Duo blushed bright red, and groaned, pulling the blankets up closer around him. They muffled his voice as he stared at Heero, wide-eyed. "Look, I'm really sorry about that. I honestly don't know---"

Heero shook his head. "There's... " he started to say, trying to find a way to say what he meant without saying too much, or speaking too harshly. Duo had already apologized enough in the past twenty-four hours, and Heero could do without having to hear it again. "There's enough else going on," he finally said, satisfied when Duo lowered the blanket, even if he didn't say anything.

There was silence for several minutes, and Heero lowered his head. Trowa's face was slack, his mouth open just a little, and Heero could see Trowa's eyes moving under the lids. Lost in dreams, he thought, and hoped they were good ones.

"You make a good couple," Duo said, interrupting Heero's thoughts. "I'm... glad I set the two of you up."

"Did I ever thank you?"

"Does threatening to break my arm if I ever do that again count?" Duo cocked his head, his expression playful. "In Yuy terms, I think that's a sign of gratitude."

Heero snorted.

"You didn't threaten to kill me," Duo pointed out. "So I figured the walk back in the rain did you both some good."

It was Heero's turn to feel his face get hot, and he muttered something under his breath.

Duo laughed softly. "I... I remember... " He scratched his nose, then pulled his hand down to study it intently. Ifrit jumped up on the arm of the chair, and Duo moved around so the cat could lay across his lap. "It's strange, the things that stand out, even if I don't know where they go. Fireworks."

"October eighteenth," Heero replied. "That's the day Wufei visited."

"Oh." Duo's face scrunched up. "But Wufei... "

"No." Heero was pretty sure Duo had been about to ask whether Wufei had visited. "Neither did Quatre, when he brought us our stuff."

"I suppose I should thank you for that." Duo's voice was soft, his gaze lowered as he petted Ifrit with a distant expression.

"Better than you threatening to break my arm," Heero suggested.

"Not really my modus operandi." Duo lifted his head long enough to grin, but the look faded quickly. He shook his head a little before dropping his gaze again. "Not like I'm sure what it is, now, anyway. Maybe I do threaten to break people's arms."

"I doubt it." Trowa's voice was gentle, although a little thick with sleep, and he smiled up at Heero before turning to lie on his side, facing Duo. "More likely you'd just short-sheet the bed or put salt in the food."

"Salt... " Duo frowned, considering that. "I nearly killed you four when I cooked, after Hilde and I bro---" He made a face and shrugged, the grin pasted back on. "If you can live through that, a little salt won't hurt you." He look turned dark. "Salt," he whispered, his eyes closing.

Heero frowned, wondering what Duo was remembering, but didn't say anything. Duo's fingers were still moving through Ifrit's fur, and it occurred to Heero that his own fingers were doing the same, moving across Trowa's scalp, and down to brush past the backs of Trowa's ears. He was rewarded with the soft humming sound Trowa made when particularly pleased, and Heero had to hide a smile. He wasn't sure if Trowa would find it that amusing to hear he was being compared to that damn cat. Then again, Heero thought, Trowa's probably part-cat anyway. He decided to change the subject.

"The phone lines are down," Heero said, in an undertone. Trowa was immediately tense, and he nodded, swinging his legs around as he sat up.

"Breakfast," Trowa replied. "Then I'll hike to the road and call from there."

"Call from where?" Duo looked at Trowa curiously. "Who do you need to call?"

"Quatre and Wufei," Trowa said. He stood, putting his arms over his head as he stretched backwards. He yawned as he did so, and Heero smirked, seeing Ifrit stand up on Duo's lap and stretch just as broadly. Trowa caught the smirk and narrowed his eyes, before lifting Ifrit off Duo's lap. "Demon," he said fondly, rubbing his nose against Ifrit's. The cat meowed, its tail twitching, and Trowa set Ifrit on his shoulder.

"Why do you need to---" Duo's face went utterly still, and he stared at Trowa, then Heero. "This... this has something to do with me... "

Trowa caught his breath, and glanced at Heero, who nodded curtly, just once. Trowa seemed to consider that for a second, then set Ifrit on the back of the sofa and sat down again, on the end nearest Duo. He studied his hands for a moment, his lips in a thin line, before he looked up.

"The... people who were rescued, after the auction," Trowa began.

"The other pets," Duo said, nodding.

"People," Trowa corrected. "The Preventers have a team of doctors and scientists trying to help them, and... " He glanced over his shoulder at Heero, a quick look that spoke volumes: an apology. "They're not. Helping, I mean."

"What are they doing?" Duo's voice was cold, and small.

"They're killing them."

Duo's face went white. "May and August? Are they... "

"I don't know those names," Trowa said. "Pearl---"

Duo gasped, and one hand flew up to press against his mouth. He shook his head abruptly.


"No," Duo said, very quietly.

"---and Tiger." Trowa swallowed hard; Heero watched his adam's apple bob with the motion. "I'm sorry, Deo. There are more who have died, but those three are the only ones whose names we know, right now."

"More?" Duo's eyes were wide, and his voice choked on the question. The hand pressed against his mouth was shaking.

"Fifteen suicides," Heero answered, his voice flat. He dropped his gaze, unable to look Duo in the face.

"Suicides?" Duo's tone was incredulous, and his feet came down on the floor with a solid thump. "That's impossible! That goes directly against the will of the Master! You can't just up and kill yourself!"

"Deo," Trowa said, very gently. He sighed. "If you were... adopted, and brought to a hospital, and told your Master couldn't or wouldn't see you... what would you have done?"

"I... " Duo frowned, and then froze. His voice, when he spoke again, was low, and icy. "Are you telling me that the others were just... *abandoned*?"

"We don't know," Heero said, his fingers clawing at the knees of his jeans as he watched Duo from under his eyelashes. "We only know that Quatre lost several of his rescues, as did Wufei and Noin. We know the victims were all taken to a Preventers hospital for observation. Beyond that... we haven't gotten any more information."

"A hospital!" Duo shook his head, and his braid whipped around at the movement. "No, my god, that's the stupidest damn thing. That's not... how could... oh, fuck," he moaned, sinking back into the chair with a stricken expression. "August never would've taken that. He wanted so badly to have someone... there's no way he could've handled that... "

"Who's August?" Trowa didn't look at Duo as he asked.

"Just... just a kid," came the strangled reply. "Just a fuckin' kid. August and I... had cooking classes together." Duo leaned back in the chair, one hand over his eyes. "He just couldn't get it right, and he was so worried about everything... and I was paying too much attention to him, and I put too much lemon in the chicken... " Duo's voice cracked. "Trainer... that bastard... beat him for distracting me, and made me watch. Then the bastard did worse to me for trying to stop him." Duo dropped his hand, revealing tear tracks down his face. "August was... I don't know. I guess I loved him, too. And I wasn't supposed to... " Duo leaned forward, until his face was against his knees, and beat at the edge of the chair with helpless fists as he dissolved into sobs.

Heero was on his feet immediately. This time he wouldn't wait before he acted. Catching Trowa's eyes, he moved to the chair and threw one leg over the arm as he slid down, squeezing in behind Duo. Trowa knelt before Duo, pushing him backwards into Heero's chest, but Duo only sobbed harder, his hands shaking as he flailed for purchase. Trowa whispered something, and Duo began howling, unintelligible mourning as he screamed his distress. Around him and beside him, Heero and Trowa held Duo tight, letting him grieve.


Trowa gave Heero a quick kiss on the lips before heading out, and Heero carefully shut the door behind the man. He remained there for a minute, his palm pressed to the wood, feeling the wind surge around the house.

Guess I was wrong, he thought. Air can be just as furious and deadly on the surface, even if you never see it, only feel it. He sighed and turned, startled to see Duo standing in the doorway.

"Dishes all put away," Duo said, moving to the sofa, his eyes down. They were still red-rimmed and puffy from his crying, but his demeanor had faded into one of simple fatigue. "You sure Trowa will be okay out there?"

"Snow's not coming down as hard," Heero replied, moving to the window. "I can see him, and he's almost past the field. He'll probably stop in and check on Liddie, too."

Duo's eyes narrowed. "Are you sure she's okay?"

"Okay?" Heero shrugged. "That's the point of the---" He paused, something telling him that wasn't what Duo had meant. He frowned, tilting his head at Duo as he tried to figure it out. "Okay as in... "

"Trustworthy," Duo said. "We argued about it, didn't we? Something about... " He stopped, a line between his brows. "They wanted to test on the others? They knew ahead of time?" He shook his head. "Or maybe it was about wearing clothes with colors." Duo gave Heero a rueful look and collapsed on the sofa with a loud groan. "Man, I had no idea I was that hungry. Now I'm too stuffed to move."

Heero leaned against the windowsill and crossed his arms, perfectly aware Duo was changing the subject. Oddly, something in Heero wasn't willing to play. "Do you think Liddie would turn you in? Is that it?"

Duo stiffened, his fingers curling sharply against the sofa cushions, then relaxed as he smiled brightly. "Naw, that's... " He shrugged. "Pay me no mind. I'm just still on a high from Trowa's cooking."

"Deo," Heero said, coming to sit next to Duo. Carefully he settled on the sofa, sitting sideways, noting the way Duo flinched away from him. "Liddie is a good person. She keeps to herself, and lets us be. She's Une's great-aunt, too. This is her house. She's... " Heero noticed Duo was leaning away from him. "Deo... what's wrong?"

"How do you know she's someone you can trust?" Duo rolled his eyes. "Get it in blood or something? Hello, related to Une, probably not entirely on the up-and-up." He snorted and leaned back into the sofa, crossing his arms with a disgusted look.

"I know she's someone we can trust."

"How?" Duo's eyes narrowed; a challenge.

"I... " Heero frowned. "I can feel it."

"Oh, bullshit, Heero." Duo shook his head. "That's just bullshit. You can't trust anyone. No way. They'll fuck you over, and fuck you up, and---" He stopped, and raised one shoulder, dropping it in an exaggeratedly nonchalant move. "Never mind."


"Drop it." His voice was sharp.

Heero nodded, and leaned back on the sofa. His gaze traveled across the room, and he pursed his lips, staring at the set of board games Trowa had bought, wondering if there were any good ones for two people. "Game of Mastermind?"

"Sure," Duo said, but without too much interest.

A few minutes later the board was set up, and Duo offered to go first on guessing. He closed his eyes while Heero set the six colored pegs in their places and lowered the cover. At the last minute Heero remembered he was dealing with Duo, and removed one of the colored pegs, leaving an empty space.

"Go," Heero said. He watched as Duo selected one each of the colored pegs, pushing them into the slots. Heero studied the six carefully, selecting a black and a white peg, placing them in their slots next to the row Duo had filled, on his end of the board.

"One in the right place, right color," Duo murmured, his eyes on the black peg. "And one right color, wrong location," he added under his breath. Quickly he dropped six colors into the next row, two of which didn't match with ones in the first row. He watched intently as Heero placed two white pegs in the little holes at the end of the row, and one black peg.

Heero leaned back against the arm of the sofa and waited, knowing that Duo's mouth would eventually start running, as his mind worked out the puzzle. It was almost a relief, after the way he'd had to pry everything out of Jade. He was startled to find that Duo didn't start speaking, but played silently and intently. For a moment, Heero stared at the echo of Jade's purposeful silence, and could only watch, amazed and saddened, and doing his best to keep his expression impassive. Long minutes passed, and the board filled up with pegs as Duo narrowed down the possibilities between six holes and eight colors. Heero noted that Duo was only two or three rows from figuring it out, and was idly considering a private bet that Duo would solve it in two more rows. Duo's words cut through his thoughts.

"Last time we played a game," Duo was saying, "it was... a jigsaw puzzle?"

"Right." Heero set out several more code pegs, and Duo glared at them, then at the colors he'd selected, trying to discern a pattern based on his selections. "A puzzle of an Alpine meadow."

"Sky," Duo said, dropping a blue peg into the first slot of the next row. "And flowers... and... " His fingers halted, a red peg held delicately as his hand hovered over the board. "And then I---" He dropped the peg, his eyes wide. "Oh, shit."

"What?" Heero glanced down at the board, then Duo. "What?"

"I wanted to---" Duo's face went through several shades of red, and he ducked his head. "I... maybe I should just read a book or something."

"Talk to me," Heero replied, the barest hint of pleading entering his voice. "I don't understand."

"I tried to seduce you, too," Duo whispered, his head turned away. "And you... you said no, and I got mad, and we hit each other... " He laughed nervously. "Just like old times, but that time... I wanted to hurt you. Make you go away." He leaned forward, twisting away from Heero. "Fuck, I nearly managed it too, didn't I... oh, fuck."

"You didn't manage it," Heero replied equitably. "And you wouldn't, either."

"How can you be so sure?" Duo's retort was quick, and breathless. "How do you know that for a fact? I nearly---"

"No." Heero shook his head and took the red peg from Duo's fingers, dropping it back into the box. Carefully he set the game on the low table, and the box of colored pegs along with it. Scooting down the sofa, he embraced Duo, Heero's chest against Duo's shoulder as the man stared into the fire with a miserable look on his face. "You will never manage to break up a relationship I have, no matter what you tried."

"But if---" Duo's body was stiff in Heero's arms. Heero wondered if the affection had been a bad move.

"If Trowa and I ever go our separate ways, it will be the same as why Relena and I divorced. It will be because what we had between us... isn't there anymore. Or wasn't the same, or wasn't good enough. But not because there's someone else, waiting on the sidelines."

"They imprinted all those pets," Duo said, as though he were responding to Heero's comment, and it took Heero a second to follow Duo's jump to the new topic. "How could they do that? It's hard enough to love two people, but to love twenty... it can't be done." He laughed, a harsh sound, and Heero's arms tightened. "Can't even love two people. Just one... that's all you get. And if you mess that up... "

Heero was silent, completely at a loss. Instead, he smoothed down Duo's braid, letting the fingers of his left hand gently massage Duo's arm as the man sat sideways in the embrace. Duo was staring blindly at the fire, his expression troubled.

"I already messed it up, once, so badly... " Duo murmured. "Hilde put up with it for as long as she could, but I... How does Quatre do it?" He sagged in Heero's arms, and Heero could only blink, wondering what step had led Duo's quicksilver mind to the new topic. "I mean," Duo whispered, his head down, "Emmy's cool, but she doesn't understand. She looks at us like we're... good people. And Hilde knew, she was there, and she still couldn't understand. I felt like I was always waiting for the cue cards, to know the right thing to say... "

"You often say the right thing," Heero pointed out. He was startled by Duo's comments, but then, Duo had never spoken much about the reason for the break-up. Heero wondered if Duo's silence were partially his own fault; Duo and Hilde had fallen apart at a point when Heero and Relena were still too madly in love for Heero to have time or attention to understand why his friends couldn't all be happy, too. Heero cursed the self-centered, younger Heero, and sighed as Duo's shoulders slumped.

"I look back at everything, and I don't know," Duo said. His tone turned emphatic. "I just... don't... know."

"What don't you know?"

"Whether what someone said is really what they meant." Duo made a face. "I kept dreaming last night that you both... that you'd tell me, now that I'm back... " He chuckled, bitterly. "That you'd tell me it was time for me to leave. Wouldn't blame you if you did, either."

"We're not telling you to go anywhere," Heero chided. "That's the last thing on our minds. As long as you want to stay here, you can." He ran his hand down Duo's braid once more, and dropped it, watching it slither across Duo's shoulder to lay down Duo's spine. Heero sighed and let his arms drop, surprised when Duo shifted sideways to lean his head on Heero's shoulder, his eyes still watching the fire.

"But how do I know?" Duo's fingers crept up Heero's leg, until they were latched onto Heero's sweater. "I mean... people will say one thing, and mean something else. And the people that seem decent and caring... what if they're not? What if... "

"What if they hurt you," Heero finished. He took a deep breath and put his arms around Duo once more. "I don't know... you'll have to ask Trowa. I've never really known. I'm... not good enough with people. I just go on my instincts, I guess."

"Yeah, well, my instincts suck," Duo retorted. "My instincts are the whole reason---"

In a flash, Heero could see where Duo was heading. He jerked backwards, pushing Duo upwards and twisting him around until they were face-to-face. "You are not to blame," Heero told him curtly. "You were undercover. There was no way you could've known, nothing to tip you off. You are not perfect. You will not always know---" He wasn't sure what he was saying, or wanted to say, but the words kept tumbling out, and he let them, hoping that one of them would be the key to unlock the miserable expression on Duo's face. Finally, Heero let his protests grind to a halt.

"No, Heero," Duo said, a little sadly. "I won't always know. But my instincts... they're all I've had. And if I can't trust them... " He shook his head. "Then there's nothing I can trust."

"But---" Heero was startled to realize that Duo's words also carried a hint that Duo couldn't trust Heero and Trowa, either. "We---"

"Don't," Duo replied, suddenly angry. "Just don't. Don't you dare tell me that you love me, Heero Yuy."

Heero frowned, baffled.

"I have always relied on myself," Duo said, turning his head away to stare into the fire again. The flames danced in his eyes, rendering the deep blue a strange mix of purple and crimson. "If I get through, it's up to me. In the end, I'm the only one I've got. And that's cool... but I guess I've just realized that it's not enough. I'm not enough. I should've... "

"Should've what?" Heero didn't want to hear it, and didn't want to ask, but he couldn't stop himself.

"Done something... instead of letting them do... " Duo shook his head, seemingly annoyed at the tears gathering in his eyes. They caught the firelight as well, and it seemed to Heero momentarily that Duo's tears were bloody. "Those nights, and days... on end... and they did whatever they wanted, and I let them."

Heero could think of nothing to say. Instead he wrapped Duo in his arms, holding him tightly. It seemed a position he was likely to repeat many times, he thought, and buried his nose in Duo's hair, hoping to offer silent reassurance as long as words were escaping him.

"I've always had a plan, a way, an escape," Duo whispered. "And I didn't. I did what I could and it wasn't good enough. Just wasn't enough. And they... "

The front door opened, startling Duo, and he pushed away from Heero with an abruptness that left Heero feeling stunned. And something else, Heero thought, only belatedly able to identify the feeling as *hurt*, and only then once Trowa had taken off his coat, gloves, snowy boots, and sat down at the same spot on the sofa that Duo had evacuated so quickly. Heero blinked, and looked down at his arms, still outstretched, as though Duo had only been there a second before. Then he looked up, seeing Duo hand Trowa a warm mug of hot chocolate, and Heero wondered how many minutes had passed while he processed all that Duo had said, and put it against Duo's reaction.

He's still in love with us, Heero thought. The idea very nearly made him gasp, and he barely managed to shake his head when Trowa looked his way, curious. Duo sat in the wingback chair, stretching out his legs as he studiously watched the fire, fidgeting a bit, then leaning forward to stir the fire with the poker. Trowa said nothing, but sipped his hot drink. Duo continued to fuss about, boxing away the game and setting it back on the shelf. He stood up, looking around as he brushed his hands off against the thighs of his jeans, and Heero frowned. Duo caught the look and grinned, a manic expression.

"I'll clean up the kitchen," he said.

"Deo!" Heero twisted on the sofa to stare at his friend. "You just cleaned it after breakfast."

"But I made hot chocolate, and I should put the pot away... " Duo paused, looking thoughtful. "I'll make more, then. Want some?" His eyes were wide, but the light in them was flat. Heero could only nod, unable to think of a way to alleviate the dullness in Duo's gaze. Duo laughed, too brightly, and backed out of the room. "Yeah... that'd be good, I think," he added, his words fading as he began banging about in the kitchen.

"What was that all about?" Trowa glanced at Heero over the rim of the mug.

Heero waited until Trowa wasn't drinking, and he spoke in a whisper. "I think... he's still... got a lot of Jade in him."

"Your powers of observation amaze even me," Trowa said dryly. "You mean he's still in---" He cut off his words as Heero's glance cut sharply to the kitchen doorway. Trowa sighed and put down the mug. "Deo, come in here. I've got news." He waited as Duo came around the sofa, and guided Duo to sit on the edge of the low table, so his knees were between his and Heero's. Duo looked puzzled at the arrangement, but said nothing, and Trowa sighed. "I spoke with Wufei. There's... been some complications."

"More, you mean," Duo replied.

"Yes... " Trowa rested his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging down, and was quiet for a minute. Duo reached out, tentatively taking Trowa's right hand, and Heero followed the motion, taking Trowa's other hand. Trowa gave them both a wry grin and twisted on the sofa to face them, hands still clasped. "First, May... was one of the ones Quatre lost. August is still alive... "

"Oh, thank---"

"But he's in a catatonic state," Trowa added quickly.

Duo looked like he was somewhere between smiling and in pain; his teeth were bared as if in shock.

"Eight more have died, and six are being force-fed after going on starvation diets," Trowa whispered. He licked his lips. "Four more tests were performed. Two died, and two were resuscitated and are in critical condition. Une managed a coalition with Relena's assistance and the councilors from L2, and has halted all tests. She also brought in a team of independent psychiatrists and doctors who are not under the control of the Oversight Committee. That's the good news."

"What's... " Duo's voice was hoarse, his shoulders stiff.

"It apparently did not take the psychiatrists long to completely contradict the team of scientists and doctors," Trowa said, a sardonic note entering his voice. "There is no way back. There will never *be* a way back. The work done to impress upon the survivors that they are no longer slaves, however well-meaning, has essentially created schisms."

"Meaning?" Heero was amazed he sounded calm.

"In effect, induced schizophrenia." Trowa sighed, and his hand went lax, but Heero didn't let go. "The funds confiscated during the investigation will be used to pay for their treatment. Right now the remaining survivors are being transferred in twos and threes to various psychiatric long-term facilities on earth and the colonies. It's likely... they will stay there for their rest of their lives, barring any breakthroughs."

"All of them... " Duo swayed, and Trowa's grip tightened suddenly. Heero put out his other hand, catching Duo's free hand. "That's... "

"One-hundred seventeen survivors, eighty-nine still living, two in critical condition." Trowa's voice was dull. "I'm sorry." He raised his head. "It looks like... you're the only one who made it."

There was a pause, and Duo sighed heavily before a tired smile appeared. "Yeah, well, that's nothing new," he said, but he sounded tired.

To the bone, Heero thought, remembering words Duo had used, years ago. Bone-tired.

"After the war," Duo mused. "Hilde was telling me once that it's okay, if I felt guilty... " He raised his eyebrows, his smile tight. "I asked her why in hell I'd feel guilty, and she said... because I'd survived, where others hadn't. That was when... I realized... we just could never see eye-to-eye. She felt guilty. I didn't. I think I came to grips with the fact that death will always be part of my life, a long time ago. It's not my fault, and it's not like I can do much to save them. I learned that was just the way of it, when I was six. Nothing's ever changed that. People die. Life goes on." He dropped his eyes. "My life," he added, bitterly.

"I'm still sorry," Trowa said. "We should have done something, something more... "

"Really?" Duo looked up, his indigo gaze narrowed and thoughtful. "Just what else did you think you could do?"

Heero was startled. He'd known Duo had a fatalistic streak, but he'd never thought to probe, to see how far it went. Then again, he told himself, I'm not exactly the world's biggest optimist when it comes to thinking I can buck fate. Neither is Trowa, for that matter. It was always Duo who had hope for the future, and plans, if no more reliance in those plans than the rest of them. And even though Duo once believed that his role was Death, it never seemed to stop him from hoping that a potential victim would live.

"I... " Trowa shook his head. "That's... I don't know, I guess it's just because I'm feeling helpless, and frustrated. Wufei told me... when they gave Quatre the news, he... collapsed." Trowa drew in breath, a long shuddering sigh. "Quatre's been at the hospital almost every minute, trying to... "

"Fuck," Heero whispered. "And Wufei let---"

"Wufei was at his side the entire time," Trowa replied. He was quiet, and Heero could see the subtle signs of Trowa drawing in on himself, taking back control. The minute shift in the shoulders, a line flickering between the brows, the rise of the chest as Trowa's spine straightened minutely. "Une has put them both on medical leave for two weeks, and Wufei will be staying with Quatre and his family for the duration."

"What about... " Duo's face was pale. He shifted on the wooden table, and ducked his head until his chestnut bangs hung down in his face.

"No one knows you're here," Trowa told him. "Une has refused to tell anyone, but they're pushing hard. Wufei suspects that's part of the reason she wants the original investigators to be out of the picture during the next two weeks... especially the Gundam pilots. Out of sight, out of mind, while she deals with the Oversight Committee."

Heero nodded. Made sense. Politicians weren't known for their long memories, unless they'd been personally slighted. And since none of them had family or friends currently facing the prospect of a lifetime in a psychiatric institute, the Committee could reasonably be expected to cheerfully forget the entire fiasco within a week or so. Relena had pointed out such behaviors many times over the course of their marriage. His mind wandered at the thought of his ex-wife. Maybe that's the difference, he pondered, the chill in the air and the long isolation drawing the lines clearer than ever before. Relena could forgive, but refused to forget; he could forget, but never truly forgave.

Trowa's voice brought Heero back, and he realized it had been several minutes the three had sat, silent, lost in their own thoughts.

"Deo," Trowa whispered. "This is not your fault. I know that'll take awhile, but it's not."

"I know," Duo said, a little too airily. He started to wave a hand to dismiss Trowa's words, but Heero refused to let go of Duo's fingers, and Duo ended up merely shaking their hands once or twice before stopping the attempt. "I was here, and they were there. Not much I could've done to make the scientists and doctors leave 'em all alone."

"Not what I meant," Trowa replied. His eyes were clear, but there were still thin white lines around his mouth, as though he were holding himself under a tight rein. "When I came in... what you were saying... and it's not your fault. You were not in control."

Duo froze.

"You cannot be held responsible for the fact that someone else had your life in their hands," Trowa continued implacably. "And you cannot be held responsible for what you had to do to keep your life."

Duo swallowed hard, shaking his head slowly without taking his eyes off Trowa. "No," he half-whispered, half-moaned. "There's more I could've done, should've done. If I had---"

"No," Heero said, turning to face Duo more squarely. He tugged on Duo's hand, ignoring Duo's frown, and kept tugging until Duo got the message and moved to sit awkwardly between them. Duo gave a little laugh, self-consciously, and hunched over.

Heero knew this one, knew this feeling. He just wasn't sure how to put it in words, but he trusted Trowa and Duo would hear him out, so he opened his mouth, and took a deep breath.

"I was... three or four, and my earliest memories are of Odin Lowe," he said carefully. Duo's eyes widened, and even Trowa looked a bit surprised. Heero swallowed hard, and frowned, closing his eyes to block away their reactions while he struggled to find the words. "By the time I was eight, I had assisted directly in killing eighteen people, and indirectly in the deaths of forty-two others. Guns and bullets were the only toys I had. And then Odin died... and Dr. J found me. From then, until the day I came to earth... the control I had was purely an illusion. We have to believe we are in control, Du-eo," he said, catching himself. "I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny, to be the one who decided. Dr. J always gave me three choices. Do it, don't do it, or walk away. But the consequences of not doing a task were clear. I would only escape through death. And my own death would be the only choice I'd ever have."

Trowa's indrawn breath was soft, but loud in the silent room. Heero opened his eyes to see Duo staring at him, a thin line between his brows as he listened.

"We... I want to believe I am in control, that I have a say in what happens to me. But when you're alone, and it's you against all of them, there is no control. And recognizing that... " Heero's voice cracked dangerously, and he had to fight to keep going. "... Recognizing that you weren't in charge, that you had no control, makes you question whether anything else is truly your decision. Every minute, once you become aware of that, you're always going to question whether you... whether you... " He frowned, looking past Duo and Trowa, into the fire, seeing the flames of mobile suits and barracks. He thought he could hear the screams of people he'd killed, and he shook the memories away. "They... shot me up to make me immune to every known disease, and made me workout in double-gravity to increase my strength. I was eleven when they put me in the first Gundam prototype stimulation, and I had to stay in there until I had a clear shot record on the first test. When they let me out, even my blisters had blisters," he added, his lips twisting. And those blisters were bleeding, he recalled, making the levers slippery under my small hands.

He stared down at his hands, linked with Duo and Trowa. Idly he ran a thumb across the base of his fingers, feeling the calluses still there.

"That was my life," he continued. "For seven years... control was an illusion. The only thing I had control over was whether I pleased them enough to prove to them I should live. If I didn't, they would... abandon me and begin with another project." Another person, he thought, bleakly. Throw my body out with the trash. Disposable. Heero looked up to see Duo's head was down. "And the truth is, I never had any control. Pleasing them was an illusion, too. The only thing I could do was hang on, and be the best I could. I made... being the best... my small domain, where I had a say." Heero shook his head. "But the truth is, it was an illusion. Even in doing that, I was doing what they wanted. Always."

Heero stopped, wondering why his heart wasn't pounding. Instead, he felt dry, aching deep down, as though he'd been wind-battered at the edges of the atmosphere.

"They expected me to come to earth as an avenging angel, and die in the process. And I, thinking it would be my own choice, was more than happy to do so."

"Heero... " Duo's voice was quiet. "I've never not had control. I've never not had... even in those Oz prisons, I was still me. I could mouth off and the worst they would do was kill me. Death was not entirely unexpected, even if I won't lie and say I would've been thrilled. But I never... I never wanted to make them happy. I never gave them that control over me, and now... " He crumpled with a sigh, and Heero echoed the feeling as he watched. Duo leaned forward, between them, hunched over. "Every time I do something, I feel like they're behind me, patting me on the head and telling me I'm a good boy." His lips curled in a snarl. "Fucking assholes... and yet, what I want is what they wanted, now. Or is it really what I want? How do I know? And how do I forgive myself for giving in?"

"No one can tell you that," Trowa said. "We can only share stories."

Duo raised his head, and Heero could see the clear question in Duo's eyes. Heero did the same, wondering what Trowa meant. They'd never discussed their pasts, knowing each other for long enough that he'd always felt he knew both of them as well as he knew himself. Knew them well enough that knowing the past was insignificant compared to knowing the future. One more element of believing I have say in my destiny, Heero realized, and his chest hurt. Forget the past, because it's the only way to ignore the cage.

"When I was ten," Trowa began, "I met a girl... "


End Part 28

On to Chapter twenty-nine

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