It had been a long time since he'd set eyes upon the splendor that was she, and longer still since his hands had been graced enough to be allowed to touch her skin. He couldn't remember quite how long it had been, and he didn't dare to guess, for it would be far from accurate. She, however, had undoubtedly been counting the days. She always did. He could never bring himself to even estimate their time apart, and over time his eyes had returned to the same cold, emotionless state as before.
Although his eyes did not show it, his heart ached with the loneliness of living without her. For years he'd been able to force the feeling away, shunt it to the back of his mind, deep into the nooks of his heart and mind where it couldn't be touched. But now, the feeling had resurfaced. It was killing him inside, eating away at him like a demon.
But he knew that even if he could have found her, seen her, he would never approach her.
First he needed to find himself, in the vast sea of misery that his mind was turning into.
And finding himself was something he just couldn't seem to do.
At first, it had seemed like a small problem. But the painful bliss of his wounds did not last forever, and with his healing, the morphine drained away. Reality set in.
How he hated reality.
And how it hurt just to admit that he missed her. For years their relationship had been pushed to the side, making way for more important things. War waited for no man, or woman, and they had done their duty. Now, after it was all over, emptiness filled him. Most days, it seemed like he had little left to live for. There was nothing to pull him out of his depression. She was the only good thing he could think about anymore. The wars, the battles that haunted his memories were broken only with the picture of her face.
Yet he wouldn't allow himself to follow the directions on the little blue slip of paper which rested in the breast pocket of his coat, as it had for countless days. It had been there for weeks, probably, perhaps even months. He'd lost all sense of time. He wouldn't allow his heart to heal, because he did not want to shatter hers.
He didn't realize that by staying away he only made her world, as well as his own, continuously less substantial.
So he sat in solitude, pondering his scars, his hungers and fears, his loyalties, disloyalties, and his disappearance from existence. What did the world think of him now?
Noin had locked her heart and thrown away the key. It could be seen in her eyes.
So many things that had once been in her heart were now foreign to her – they had been lost in the untold depths of her soul.
She was broken on the inside.
She looked normal to everyone else... looks were all that mattered anymore. No one needed to know what she had bottled inside of her – that was for her alone to experience. And even though she felt guilty hiding her true feelings, she wouldn't risk showing them, because she feared that once she let them go, her emotions would take hold of her forever. It was one of the many things that her fear stole from her.
There would be too many pieces, too many shards. Too many pieces, too small for her fingers to pick up, even in the longest lifetime. Only magic would be able to heal her.
Her magic had died a long, long time ago.
Even though she would never admit it to anyone else, there was a small amount of fear blossoming within her that he was really dead, and that he wouldn't ever come back to her.
So Noin locked herself away.
Zechs's life was hardly remarkable. He lived in a nearly worthless ramshackle little apartment, where he spent his days with his thoughts. He would sit on the shabby old couch, stare at the wall, and just think.
He thought about everything... Noin especially, but the Gundam boys - as well as Treize - often drifted into his mind.
Treize. Oh, how that man loved to haunt Zechs.
Treize's murderous ghost was one of the reasons Zechs rarely slept... thoughts of the dead man constantly taunted him. Both Zechs's nonstop contemplations and the undying supply of nightmares which overwhelmed him attributed to the insufficient amount of rest he received. Being discovered alive, however, nor anything of that sort – the things that perhaps he really should have been afraid of - contributed to his lack of slumber. Even if someone else did find him, what would they possibly do to him? What could they do to him? No possible punishment could be worse than the grief and agony which had already been inflicted upon him by the horrors of war. Zechs was a dead man. There was no life left for him, a man who knew only the life of a soldier. And now, with his spirit as broken as his body, tossed about like a ragdoll in the final battle, his will to live was quickly fading. He had nothing left.
Nothing for anyone who wished ill against him, whoever they might be, to take.
It was rather more fear of the past, and the guilt of all of the people who he had condemned to their graves over the years that plagued his sleep and woke him at midnight, gasping for breath and leaving him damp with cold sweat.
The sensation of his heart beating so fast it felt like it was about to explode from his chest when he woke was one he could hardly bear. To solve the problem, he just avoided sleep in its entirety.
Instead, he examined the pearly smears that marred his skin. He studied the back of his hands, the transition between the pinkish scars and his unnaturally white skin. He tried to remember how he had earned each of them, but sometimes it was too hard to remember. Too many nicks from swords and bullets flawed his skin. There were several of them across his palms, which were still calloused. There were too many for him to memorize even in all of the days he'd been in that room. Even more had been drawn across his chest, and his back, which he could not see to take account of. The thick gashes which had been shaped by the keen razor-sharp shards of Epyon had only recently healed over. Those wounds had carried him so close to death that he had been but touching it, and he was fortunate to be alive...
Noin's home was far from lonely. The old-fashioned house was small but comfortable, and usually someone other than her was present in it. After what had happened with Libra, Noin had practically drowned herself in her Preventer work, and had done nothing but try to solve the unsolvable problems of the world. She seldom ate or slept, and the people surrounding her had taken it upon themselves to become very involved in her life. Rarely would they trust themselves to leave her alone. They were worried about her, she knew, but their lack of trust in her hurt, and the notion of their absence resulting in her own death did nothing to console the ache.
Sometimes – many times – she would rather have just died.
She did not make this wish selfishly, but she knew that there weren't any real reasons she should stay in this world. Noin, sinking into the large, lavish feather bed in her room, sighed and fell backwards into its warm depths. She stared at the ceiling, then closed her eyes, the shapes of the crossbeams appearing on the insides of her eyelids.
She thought about Zechs.
Was he really dead, or was he just "dead" again?
She didn't know if she could stand the thought of him still living. She hated him for all he had put her through, but still loved him with all of her being. She knew that even if he was alive, he probably wouldn't let himself love her.
She didn't even know if she could let herself love him the way she had before, or if her guilt would consume her first. Thinking about it made her feel forlorn, and she was almost relieved when a jovial shriek and cheerful laughter broke her from her thoughts.
Duo and Hilde had been watching a movie in her living room, but from the sound of it, the entertainment had turned from the television into a tickle war.
Noin decided to investigate, and as she entered the living room she was confronted by the pair all snuggly on the couch. They looked up at her, their faces friendly and welcoming, and invited her to join them watching their movie.
Noin smiled but politely refused.
"I'm going get something to eat. Would you guys like anything?" She asked, and was answered with the polite response for her to please, if she would, make them popcorn, thanks very much.
So the almost-carefully-watched Noin walked into the kitchen to slice up an apple for herself and to pop some popcorn for the lovebirds in the next room. She pulled a bag of microwave popcorn from one of the recently restocked cabinets (courtesy of Quatre) and placed it in the microwave. She then drew a knife out of the dishwasher, fetched an apple from the fridge and went about slicing it into chunks. At one point, her hand got caught in the path of the blade, and the glistening steel slashed her skin. Blood trailed from the wound.
Noin just stared as red spilled out across the counter.
The opening of the door jarred Zechs from his thoughts. He grumbled something about peace and quiet, which probably wasn't appropriate because he didn't really perceive either in the same way as the rest of the world did. The light turned on and he heard the sound of grocery bags placed on the little table, and keys set down next to them. Then the footsteps approached him.
"How was your day?" The voice at the foot of the couch inquired. Zechs would have looked at him, but he knew that the damned lamp would be in the way, and only hurt his already aching eyes.
"Just peachy." There was more than a touch of sarcasm in Zechs's voice. It sounded funny to hear it. He rarely talked, just as he rarely slept.
The thing at the end of the couch sighed and moved away from the light. "How are you feeling, then?" It started to place the groceries in the slowly-falling-apart cabinets.
Zechs didn't bother to answer. He always felt the same. Bored and nauseous.
"Are you hungry?" The voice asked, and once again Zechs didn't bother to answer. He didn't eat much, either. Just enough to stay alive. Everything in life – eating, sleeping – had all become trivial to him. Why he ate anything was a mystery to him. "You should be able to get off that couch soon, and I'm going to start making you eat so that you don't pass out when you actually do move."
"I move." Zechs said pointedly.
"My mistake. When you do something besides blink. I'm serious."
"I'm sure you are."
The voice sighed again, and the sound of crumpled paper alerted Zechs that the groceries had all been tucked away. He figured that he'd probably have to eat, considering that the one who would be shoving the fork in his face wouldn't give up. He'd tried to convince Zechs that there was a reason he was trying to keep him alive, but Zechs couldn't quite figure out what it was.
"What'd you buy?" He asked.
"Fruit. And some other crap. Just the thing for a growing boy like you."
Zechs wrinkled his nose. He didn't think he'd be able to handle the junk food which undoubtedly occupied the cabinet space, and the two of them didn't really share the same preferences when it came to fruit.
"No pudding or Jell-O? Or ice cream...?" Zechs asked, allowing himself to feel like a disappointed child, though his hope was drained. The foods he had treasured as a boy were not the same as Duo's.
This was another reason why he rarely ate, besides the fact that hunger had been lost to him long ago. The one buying his food had bizarre taste.
"What's today?" Zechs asked as Duo, determined to get the man to eat, knelt near him with a bowl.
"Sunday." Duo answered distractedly, stirring the contents of the bowl with the plastic spoon that had lain untouched on the counter for months. Zechs paused his mind, which was racing as usual. Duo had found him on a Sunday... with the Sweepers group that had been searching the area for the valuables drifting around space after the destruction of Libra. Instead of precious metals, they'd found Zechs – broken, unconscious, and dying. Duo had been oddly serious about keeping the man breathing, or at least more serious than what little Zechs had known of the young pilot before that. Duo had been worried for him, and saved his life. To the best of his abilities, he'd made sure that Zechs hadn't died. Now, when Zechs was almost fully functional again, Duo didn't have the time to spend on the man anymore. He had his own life to attend to.
Which was why Zechs was alone in this worthless apartment. Duo had done him a favor, but Zechs had still hated him for it. For weeks after he had regained consciousness, he despised the young man. He was supposed to be dead. He couldn't bear living anymore. His body, his life, everything was useless.
Suddenly, another thought struck Zechs.
"Duo, don't you usually come on Saturdays?" Zechs asked.
"Yeah," Duo answered. "but I was busy yesterday." He hesitated. "At the hospital."
"The hospital." Zechs couldn't think a reason why Duo would be there. But then again, he didn't currently know much about the world. "Why?"
"Noin." Duo stated simply, and raised the spoon to Zechs's mouth. "Eat this."
Noin was troubled. The cut on her palm was small, but the blood that leaked from it was starting to spill out onto the floor. She sat down on the stepstool placed a few feet behind her, careful not to jar her wrist, and watched the crimson liquid seep into her shirt sleeve.
Her own amusement kind of reminded her of Zechs. He was always mesmerized by the flow of blood, the river that had always haunted him. The river which he had no power to quell. She used to watch him, watch the pain and wonder in his eyes as he stared at the blood that marred the Earth and Space.
Noin's pants were becoming damp. She could feel a warm stream trickle down her leg. She felt dizzy, and when she moved, the world around her blurred.
"Duo," she called, but her voice was too weak even for herself to hear over her pounding heart.
"Duo!" She called louder, and heard a muffled response from the living room. "Duo?" she panted.
She heard him stand, and his loud footfalls alerted her to his approach. He walked to the door of the kitchen and peeked in.
"Yeah?" He asked, then froze. "Noin?" he asked weakly.
"It won't stop." She answered helplessly.
Duo seized the phone.
"You what?" Zechs asked.
Duo seized the opportunity to shove a chunk of watermelon in Zechs's mouth, which was swallowed whole before Duo was bombarded with questions.
He held up a finger to quiet Zechs, then began to explain. "She's fine," he started off, trying to calm Zechs. "She just cut her hand." He shrugged, avoiding Zechs's murderous gaze.
"Excuse my saying so, but when do you bring someone to the hospital after they 'just cut their hand'?" he asked pointedly, and another chunk of fruit made its way into his mouth.
"It was a small cut, but it wouldn't stop bleeding." Duo explained. "They had to give her stitches."
"So, what was wrong?" Zechs asked, weakly chewing a bit of cantaloupe. He hated the way Duo tried to spoon-feed him, but at the moment he was too preoccupied to quarrel with the boy.
"They don't know yet. Her blood was unusually thin, and there are many possibilities why. I think they're looking at anemia..." he trailed off.
"Anemia?" If it would have been possible, Zechs would have paled. "How could she have anemia?"
"I don't know." Duo said. "Some people get it for unknown reasons. If she does have it, it's probably only a mild case, and they've recently developed better drugs to treat it, at least to some extent."
Zechs still looked worried.
"I think you should visit her sometime soon. She misses you, and it would both of you good to see each other instead of pining for each other forever. Besides, you might be able to help her." Once again, Duo was trying to convince him to see her. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about, but Zechs doubted he did.
"...which is why you need to start eating, and walking, since your wounds shouldn't limit you as much anymore." Duo didn't know that Zechs was fully capable of walking wherever he wanted. He just didn't care to. Then Duo grinned, and for once he looked like the Duo Zechs recognized, not the new young man born from the old after the war.
"Here." Duo said, spoon poised. "Eat some more."
Zechs, once again lost in thought, had no power to defy the spoon. He didn't want to eat, and the chunks of fruit were hard on his unused stomach. Pudding really would have been better.
Even though Zechs was trying very hard to quell the thoughts and pain of Noin, he couldn't stop himself from being sick all over the floor.
Noin wasn't exactly coping well with the situation, but she wasn't exactly not coping with it well, either. In a way, she wasn't dealing with it at all. She laid in the bed in the hospital room, little tubes with medication and blood transfusions hooked to her hands and arms, wires traveling out of her and spiraling to the machines that monitored her every heartbeat and shallow breath, and watched the figures around her with weary eyes. Paying more attention than just catching the few words she was would have cost too much effort. She didn't even know who was there with her. Her fuzzy range of view was limited.
She supposed that everyone was there. She knew that they worried about her, even though she hated every second of the unwanted but unwavering attention they paid her. Perhaps their fears had finally been justified.
Noin looked up as a figure drew near her half-closed eyes. She let her senses return. Sally stood next to her, seizing the opportunity to talk while everyone else proceeded to yell at poor Duo for not paying more attention.
"Hey," Sally smiled, greeting Noin cheerfully. Noin figured she couldn't be too bad if Sally wasn't panicking.
"Hey." Noin responded, her voice unusually hoarse. "Any news?"
Sally nodded. "The blood test confirmed that your body isn't producing enough red blood cells, which makes your blood thin. It's usually diagnosed as one of the many forms of anemia. Your case is small, though, and treatable. As long as you take it easy for a while, you should be fine."
"How many drugs do I have to take?" Noin asked skeptically.
"Not too many." Sally explained, smiling encouragingly. "Just enough to regulate your blood levels."
Noin wasn't exactly confident in Sally's judgment of "not too many", but she did trust her friend, and weakly smiled back.
"How do you feel?" Sally asked, glancing over at the still-arguing group that had politely moved just outside the door to yell at Duo, who was backing away from them, chuckling mock-innocently.
"Okay. Better than before..." Noin followed Sally's gaze to the group, and smiled. She figured that she'd better rescue Duo. Heero was starting to look considerably menacing.
Duo raised his arms high into the air and stretched as he walked down the hallway. He tried to hide the tenseness of his body as he strolled along, but he wasn't doing a very good job of it. The gait of the other boy behind him was steady and calm, unlike the nervous pace of Duo, who paused in front of the door of the small apartment and emptied the contents of his pocket into one hand. He sifted through the mess until he found the single key that would open the door. One shaky hand fixed it in the lock, then turned it slowly until a satisfying "click" sounded in the silent corridor.
Duo flinched, but pushed the door open, and peeked in, back rigid. You almost would have thought that he was relieved when his shoulders fell down loosely, but it was not ease that crossed his face. Rather, disbelief marked his features.
"What?" the other boy asked when he saw Duo's expression, which, by then, had almost turned to anger.
"He's not here!" Duo gaped.
Duo made an aggravated noise and stomped around in a circle. "Where the hell could he have gone?" he said, exasperated.
His companion just raised an eyebrow and took a step into the apartment and glanced around.
Duo almost tore his hair out. "Aaargh! Where in the..." He suddenly halted, then stalked across the room at a piece of paper sticking out of the refrigerator. He snatched it away from the rumbling machine, read it quickly, and made an even louder and more aggravated noise. "I swear to God I'm going to kill him when I find him." He threatened the air. Then, as his friend's hands took the paper out of his hands, he paused. "Wait. I can't kill him. He's already dead." Duo said thoughtfully, almost hysterically. "That complicates things..."
About a second later, Duo was back to tearing out his hair. "Where could he have gone! Argh..." Then a voice came from beside him, and Duo turned his attention to it.
"...I've decided to finally take your advice, Duo. Though I suppose you should hope that it is the right advice. I do, however, still have a few questions I would wish you would answer me. Perhaps, next time we meet, if we are both fully intact, I shall force them out of you...
"Then, at the bottom... It's signed 'ZM'... Zechs?" Inquired Trowa, and Duo moaned.
"I fucking hate that man..."
It felt like a very large amount of bricks was being repeatedly dropped on top of Zechs's head. Every time his pace changed in the slightest, every time he paused or sped up to avoid stepping on the feet of a stray child toddling down the sidewalk, patches of gray would take over his tired eyes, and he would walk blindly for the moment it took for his vision to fully return.
Zechs had to admit that he was a bit surprised at how well the world had cleaned up after the war. The last he'd seen of anything relatively resembling civilization had consisted of barely a glimpse of the chaos which ensued following Libra's destruction.
The pollution-diluted scent of spring enveloped him and his senses ached as his memory steered toward childhood, and the old sounds and smells of the world flooded him.
Around him, the little city was bustling. Mothers going to buy groceries for their little children drove their cars down the busy streets. Business men, stiff in their suits and clutching their black briefcases, marched off to their jobs, worrying over day's work to come and daydreaming of the hour they would return home to their wives.
Zechs walked past all of it, unnoticed by the businessmen and teenage lovers. He was just as oblivious to them as they were to him – he was just another man on the streets. He gazed around himself, down the never-ending streets, into the dirty alleys, up past the towering buildings at the powdery sky and the clouds blooming within in its infinite depths. There wasn't a hint of the suffering that lay beyond those clouds in the peaceful sky, and Zechs briefly wondered how such a mask could hide what existed beyond it.
Then he thought of himself, and shook the notion away.
Instead, he began to pay attention to the signs.
He wasn't sure if he trusted himself to remember how to get where he was going... his mind had been scrambled during the war, and the fact that he would occasionally forgot things he thought he would never forget scared him.
Zechs looked up as he rounded the corner. He'd managed to get away from the city's crowded downtown, and now fewer buildings obscured his view of the sky. There were still plenty, but they weren't crammed as closely together as they had been just a few blocks back. Now, in front of him stood a home that seemed perfect in every way. He supposed that maybe it was, to the many people that looked upon it.
He himself wasn't sure which it was...
A sanctuary or a cage?
Lucrezia Noin's home was silent. It did not emit the smallest noise, the tiniest movement of air, the shallowest breath of the lonely inhabitant drowning within its depths. If you stood outside and peered at it long enough you would start to wonder if it was really a home at all, or just a house that stood against the wind with every ounce of strength it could muster. It did not move.
If it were a person, it would have blinked, or twitched.
But it was a house, just a pile of wood, concrete, and metal. It refused to move.
The stillness unnerved Zechs. It was not that he was unused to it – he had lived his whole life in silence and solitude. Although once, long ago, stillness had bothered him, it did not any longer. What made him anxious today was the immobile house. It was dark, and looked deserted. It seemed lonely, as if no one was inside.
Noin was supposed to be inside.
Thoughts crossed into his mind.
What if they'd had to keep her at the hospital longer, for some reason? Or was she actually in that house, in the depths of the dormant monster, carefully watched over by one of her many guardians, guardians who wouldn't let a single hint of life escape through the walls? Zechs knew that they wouldn't leave her alone – she was too precious to them. Precious...
Zechs's heart struck the word from his mind.
He approached the home, realizing that his fears were hardly justified. There was scarcely anything anyone could do to him that was worse than the deaths he had already endured. He placed his hand on the doorknob and tested it.
It gave beneath is touch, and the door opened.
Zechs wasn't sure whether or not he was supposed to be surprised. He knew that it wouldn't have been a coincidence – there were no coincidences in his life. There were no coincidences when the Gundam pilots were involved.
He did not, however, contemplate this particular occurrence. He was too busy studying the beauty of Noin's home.
And how it so perfectly reflected her.
Years ago, not long after they had met each other, a teacher at the academy had assigned one of their classes a project. It was an art project, supposed to encourage imagination or some such excuse, and the project had been to create the "house of your dreams". You were to map it out, measure each and every exact detail, from the bathroom sinks to the flowerpot on the porch.
Most of the students created homes with huge bathrooms and bedrooms, tiny kitchens and no closets. Little dreams, made in a hurry between classes and training sessions for a class that didn't matter anyway.
Noin's sketch, however, was the most elaborate thing on Earth that Zechs had ever seen. Little sketched in pots and pans and video-phones, even the tiny tiles that lead up to the doorway. Pages of writing describing every detail of every room accompanied the blueprints.
Zechs had read those years ago, and those words had been transformed into reality in front of him. He reached out and touched the stair railing as he climbed, remembering how it matched Noin's old fantasy exactly.
He smiled. The dream home of a troubled past turning into the future seemed almost trivial to him.
Just something else to add to the list of mysteries in the world.
Zechs stopped as he reached the top of the stairs, and turned and looked behind him for just a moment. The small amount of light the windows shed cast eerie shadows in the room, yet it still managed to look friendly.
He turned, walked down the hall, and approached the only doorway that could have hidden Noin. No light peeked out from beneath it.
He paused, wondered exactly what he was doing there. The sharp breath he took caused his head to spin – something he'd been able to avoid quite effectively for nearly the last hour.
The door hinges did not squeak as be pushed it open, and for a moment his heart quavered as he met the realization of how badly he needed to see her.
However, the need was cut short as Zechs's ears caught the audible 'click' of a hammer being drawn back, and his eyes met the cold metal barrel of the gun.
Neither pair of eyes showed even the slightest indication of emotion. There were no flickers of surprise, or fear, or anger within their crystalline depths.
Neither body moved. Each was as motionless as the other. Their silent breaths were startlingly even... they were almost synchronized.
Everything was silent.
Zechs tilted his head the tiniest bit, and glanced further into the depths of the room.
Threateningly, the gun loomed a bit closer.
But Zechs did not look back at the cold metal, or the glacial eyes.
"So, you're the one here to protect her?" Zechs inquired.
"To watch her." He was corrected.
Zechs nodded. It was of consent, rather than of affirmation. He was hardly a threat, and he knew that now that his intentions were known, Heero would not draw the trigger.
Zechs ducked away from the weapon, and slowly drew deeper into the room.
Behind him, Heero spoke. "Zechs..." The man paused. "Be careful..."
And the boy disappeared from view. A warning from the 'perfect soldier' would not go unheeded, but Zechs did not fully understand. He pondered its meaning.
As he trudged forward he began to hear the familiar sound of her breath. It was shallow – uneven – and it startled him. Few times had he heard Noin's breath so ragged, and it was not a sound he treasured.
His eyes soon adjusted to the darkness, and as he stood at the foot of the bed her thin form became visible. The blankets that were neatly spread over her as she slept trembled with every breath she took.
He drew a chair to the side of the bed, his heart hammering in his chest as he grasped Noin's hand in his own. Her face was the color of ivory, and even the bright blush of red that was usually present on her cheeks was absent. Duo had told him that Noin looked much worse than she actually was, and as Zechs sat and watched her he hoped with all his heart that the boy had been right.
The moment the door opened, Zechs was alert.
His eyes did not open, his breath did not quicken, nor did his shoulders tense.
But his senses paid all attention.
The footsteps were not heavily guarded, unconcerned with breaking the silence.
There was the sound of sliding metal.
Zechs did not have to guess who was approaching.
Predictability at its worst.
The man spun away as Wufei advanced. The chair slid a few inches backwards across the floor as he stood.
One weak knee gave, and a moment later Zechs was glaring down at the katana aimed flawlessly at his throat.
"Wufei." Zechs acknowledged. He tore his eyes away from the sword's silver blade. Too many weapons had been aimed at him in his short lifetime.
"I have grown tired of your idle threats." Zechs answered the boy's venomous glare cooly.
"What makes you think they are idle?" Wufei asked calmly.
Zechs just shrugged, and lifted his head in Noin's direction. "Her."
Wufei did not respond, just glanced at the mass on the bed. The ocean of blankets that hid Noin's frail body from view seemed endless, and it felt like the rapid breathing that echoed in the room would never cease.
Just as Wufei was about to speak, footsteps thundered up the stairs and Duo burst through the door.
There was a gun in his hand. The cool metal glistened, reflecting light from the hall lights.
"'Fei," he whined as he entered the room. "We said not by force."
Wufei just shrugged. "Sometimes a little force is needed to accomplish things."
"But-" Duo started to argue. He was suddenly interrupted by a noise from the bed. Within seconds, Noin was haphazardly crouched atop her sheets, a gun, which had probably been properly concealed under her pillow, aimed at Duo, whose own weapon aimed right back at her. Noin cocked her gun slightly at the boy before he relaxed.
Zechs couldn't help but smile. This was typical of Noin, who was always prepared. She looked as though the kick from the gun would have killed her, if she had been able to gather the strength to even fire it.
"God, Noin, don't scare me like that!" Duo sighed, his gun falling harmlessly to his side. He shook his head slightly and looked back towards Wufei and Zechs, who was swathed by shadows.
"It's good to see you're doing better, Noin." Came Heero's cold voice from the doorway. Noin looked toward him, and for a moment Zechs saw the helplessness in her eyes. Then it was gone.
Zechs stood still, watching the woman on the bed warily lower her gun. He was too far back into the shadows – she hadn't noticed him yet.
Heero nodded his head toward sword-boy.
"Wufei," He said sternly. "We have to leave. Now."
Then he glanced at Zechs. "Something's come up. We have to go."
Zechs looked at Noin, who was gazing into the shadows curiously.
"Who…" she asked.
Wufei tilted his sword so that Zechs had to duck to avoid it. His undernourished body almost stumbled, but he managed to catch himself before he fell. He cast his eyes toward the door as the sword forced him into the light. He wasn't sure he wanted to see her reaction.
Duo, however, was watching her as Zechs emerged, and Zechs watched the boy's face. Duo almost winced as soon as the shadows pulled away, which made Zechs smile wryly. It was not a good idea to deceive Noin. She would either be absolutely furious, stampeding around like a child, or she would refuse to speak to whoever had wronged her. Her reactions made sense, but it was always hard to see such a warm person go so cold.
For a moment the only sound was the fragile clamor of Zechs's unsteady feet.
He reached Heero and the door, then turned back to face Noin. She stared at him, disbelieving, a single tear streaming down her cheek. Her mouth opened, as if she was about to say a million things that had been bottled inside of her heart for years, but her lips emitted no sound.
"Noin..." Zechs frowned, and then forced himself to smile for her – it was an awkward, crooked smile – he hadn't smiled in a long, long time. But the corners of Noin's mouth twitched.
And Zechs vanished again.
Noin stared at the empty doorway, her shoulders shaking.
Duo, not knowing what to do, stood motionless a few feet away.
"Duo..." she choked, and clambered off the bed. She tripped over the sheets and blankets twisted around her ankles, which tried to tug her back to their dreamy depths.
She broke free from the clutter and stumbled towards the door. She was nearly running by the time she reached it, and she was about to spiral into the hallway when a strong arm caught her around the waist.
"Duo!" She cried, and struggled against him, feeling as helpless as a tiny child.
Who would have guessed that Lucrezia Noin, second strongest in all of the OZ training academy since the Fifth Form, would end up like this, a child-like mess, powerless against a boy years younger than herself.
She choked back a sob.
She didn't know if she was still dreaming, or if another one of her nightmares had come true.
Once again, Zechs had been stolen from her.
With a surge of fear she detached herself from Duo, pushing him as far away as she could.
No, she wouldn't let it happen again.
She tore down the stairs, stopping only seconds before she would have hit the door. One hand grasped the door frame as the other tore the door open.
She watched as the last of the exhaust from the car which had just disappeared around the corner dissipated into the air.
Noin tumbled to the ground. She closed her eyes and trembled, jerking away from Duo's touch.
"Noin..." he began to explain, but the sight of the young woman glaring defiantly into the distance made him stop, and sighing, he turned back into the house.
"I presume that you have a very good reason for this." Zechs said calmly, though behind his impartial mask his head spun dizzily with unanswered questions.
"You stumbled around a city in broad daylight. Someone was bound to notice you." The truth was most obviously and rudely pointed out. "And somebody did notice you, and recognized you. The UESN refuses to take any chances, and pretty soon, there are going to be people out looking for you."
Zechs resisted the urge to groan.
"So... where are we going?" he asked a question anyone else in his position would have.
"One of Quatre's safe houses." Trowa, who sat opposite Quatre, who was driving, informed him.
"Where?" Zechs did not doubt that Quatre had several safe houses.
Zechs just blinked at this. Cobalt Landing was hours away.
"We should get there by morning." Quatre said, way too happily for Zechs's current mood. He was caught between a sword-toting maniac and a trigger-happy lunatic. He doubted the day could get much worse.
At least, until Quatre slammed on the brakes to avoid running a red light, causing his head to jerk forward and slam into the seat in front of him, sending violent flashes across his eyes and splitting pain through his head. He clutched his hands to the sides of his head in agony.
He was almost happy when Trowa suggested that someone else drive.
Zechs closed his eyes and tried to block out the world again.
By the time they arrived in Cobalt Landing, Zechs felt very sick. At one time he had been incredibly strong-willed, able to withstand almost any speed or altitude with little trouble. Now, however, after hours and hours of rocking back and forth in a vehicle not meant for the old back roads it had traveled, combined with one of the worst headaches he'd ever experienced, Zechs just felt like being ill all over the back seat.
After much difficulty, he managed to keep the rest of Duo's fruit salad where it belonged.
The car skidded to a halt, and after only a few moments they were all standing outside and making their way up to Quatre's overly-fancy house.
Wufei proceeded to keep his sword carefully leveled at Zechs's neck, to the man's displeasure, until Heero intervened.
"Wufei, the man can hardly stand. He is in no way dangerous. Put the sword away." Wufei reluctantly obeyed, though he shot a dangerous glance at Zechs as the katana slid into its sheath.
Zechs silently thanked the boy, probably for the only time he ever would – he certainly did not intend to do so ever again.
He looked around at his surroundings as they tromped up the stairs to the door. The house was not huge, but could be accurately described as large. It had a neatly preened lawn, with firs and magnolias stretching gracefully into the distance behind it. It was fairly secluded, too, found off of a dusty dirt road far from civilization. The sky above them shined with deep blue hues, and was dusted with a rainbow of colors where it touched the section of the horizon where the sun began to rise sleepily into the vast expanse above them.
Zechs looked back down when he heard the messy clang of the keys Quatre was pulling out of his pocket. The boy picked through them for the right one, and they were inside seconds later.
Zechs felt oddly out of place there, just standing while these people who had saved and preserved the peace of so many others tried to save him, a man who had destroyed many innocent people himself in trying to achieve the very same peace – but in an appalling way.
Delving deeper into the shadowy depths of the house, Zechs found a couch and sank down into it, relieved and hoping to receive a bit of well-needed rest.
Rest, however, decided to keep its distance from the weary man, and instead memories which had been well-worn into his mind resurfaced to torment him. Visions of his home burning when he was a child – a child old enough to understand what was happening, a child young enough to be thoroughly scarred – wracked his heart and stole his slumber. Like so many times before, the giant castle incinerated before him, his mother died before his eyes, his little sister was stolen away... and he was given a new name.
No, a new life.
He had taken the name, adopted it as his own. That had been his own choice.
And then there was Treize. They had been great friends, him and Zechs, with great aspirations to return the world to the state it had been when they were still innocent, loving children. They both had their malevolence for what war had taken for them, but at the same time they were drawn to the battlefields that could be seen by human eyes, while their hearts fought ones that could not.
They had both spiraled deeper, into power, into emotions better left buried, and though they had done what they did in hopes to restore that beautiful world they once knew as boys, Zechs couldn't help but wonder...
...had they done the right thing?
How many people had they killed? How many had died for their wishes? Treize had kept count, he could bear to. But Zechs could not stand to think of it – it tormented his soul. Too many other lives had already made him a monster. He had closed his eyes, his ears, and his heart, blocking out the words, the numbers. He had no desire to know how many of his faithful comrades had been marred by his wishes and now laid deep within the bowels of the earth, or floated out in the endless expanse of space.
No, he did not need that torture.
He did not need to know.
But... he did.
Faces plagued him, and he wondered how few of them still lived, and how many of them he had placed in danger.
He could have killed her, so many times, so many ways.
In the beginning, she had hated the war, hated the death and endless fighting. The war had stolen her family, too. War had cast her out into the streets as a hopeless orphan. She had been forced to learn about a new world – the real world – and become a new person. For her, that had never stopped. But then, her revulsion of war had been the one cause she fought for, as much as it hurt her to. As time wore on, though, he could tell.
She did it for him.
She had always wanted to help him, and, in every way she could, as well as ways she couldn't, she had.... She strove for what she believed in.
Zechs awoke, startled by a sound across the room. Trowa stood there, watching him, his face betraying nothing. Zechs closed his eyes to the boy, looking away, bottling the ghosts back up, and tucking them away where they belonged.
They could come again tomorrow.
"Now what?" Trowa asked quietly as they looked down at the sleeping Zechs.
"We should contact Duo – we need to see if anything is going on over there, as well as secure the area. We need to estimate how long the search for a dead man will last before the tip is deemed unreliable. We also need to figure out exactly what we're going to do with him until then." They all glanced back over at the immobile man propped on the couch in a very uncomfortable-looking position.
"Why are we doing this?" Someone asked.
"I don't think any of us can truly answer that." Someone else responded.
"Maybe... we should move him into a bedroom." Quatre asked. He felt bad for Zechs. The man looked horrible – not only as if he had the flu, but as if he'd been hit over the head with a baseball bat as well.
"He's got a point." Trowa said. Not only would moving the man help him get some sleep, but it would get him out of the way.
Trowa and Quatre each grasped one of the man's arms and pulled him to his feet, waking him immediately. The hardly coherent Zechs muttered something that sounded very much like a swearword before weakly pushing the boys away.
Across the room, the vidphone flared into life.
"Hey guys. Glad you made it! How'd it go?" Duo, though he looked very tired, smiled his characteristic grin at them.
As all of the petty details of the operation were described, Zechs's head began to throb again, and his muscles were overcome with what felt like thousands of little needles being stabbed into them – they ached with every atom of their being.
Before weakness overtook him, and he would need to be supported again, Zechs broke into the conversation.
The anxious, nervous look on Duo's face did nothing to comfort the man's fears, and he cursed the silence that preceded the boy's answer.
"Uh... in her room. I can't really tell if she's mad, sad, or what. She refuses to come out, even speak to me." His eyes clouded. "I don't know what to say to her."
Zechs sighed and winced as the pain in his head, which had momentarily receded, returned, stronger and more persistent than before. He leaned forward, his hair falling across his face, beads of sweat forming on his forehead. The world before him blurred.
"Zechs?" Duo's voice crackled across the intercom. "You all right?" He was aware of all of them watching him, though he couldn't say anything that would push their unnerving gaze away. A few of their eyes were even laced with concern. He tried to ignore them, brush them all away, but the world began to rush at him violently, twisting before him, and he could not shut his eyes tight enough to banish them away.
Duo knocked on Noin's door for the fifth time.
"Noin..." he whined. "Come on. You can't stay in there forever, and you have to take these." He stared down at the tiny pile of pills cupped gently in his hand. "Please?"
Noin, once again buried amidst the mountains of blankets and pillows heaped upon her bed, ignored him. She was too tired to pay attention. Her mind was battling with unanswered inquiries, and images of the man she'd fallen in love with years ago loomed in front of her eyes, no matter how hard she tried to force them away. He been so broken... he looked as if a tap on the shoulder would send him fleeing from consciousness, and the vision vexed her to no end.
She wouldn't have thought it possible.
"Noin..." Duo complained helplessly. There was a thud – apparently, he was beating his head against the doorframe.
As much as she hated to aggravate him, Noin didn't want to face Duo – he would, of course, understand, but she didn't want him to see her in such a state. Ever, if she could help it.
How much she would love to get out of this house and be with Zechs, to lift some of the weariness from his face. But she simply didn't have the energy to make that happen. For the past few days it had been a bother to even wake from the sleep which robbed her from the world – and her worries – for the time it allowed her to dream in peace, before the dreams turned to nightmares, was her only release.
Duo tugged at the locked door again. No matter how hard he pulled, it would not yield. And as much as he hated to do it, he had to get inside. Pulling a pin out of his pocket and positioning it in the cavity below the doorknob, he began to contemplate about the lock. Noin's house was old-fashioned. Every door locked. Duo wasn't sure if he would have been able to stand living in a house with so many locks – he would be afraid of being trapped.
If not the many enemies that continued hunting him with insatiable vengeance, then by the departed that also haunted him in his sleep.
The lock clicked, the noise resounding in the silent corridor. Duo could easily get into the room now... it was getting to Noin that would be the hard part. Ire made people violent, and though he doubted Noin would retaliate, the possibility was always there. He'd never been in such a situation, and he truly didn't know what to say to her.
He didn't even know why he cared so much.
None of them knew.
But care was something they did.
And Duo was worried.
Sure, Noin had locked herself away before, but that had purely out of sorrow, not the flood of indescribable emotions she felt now. Besides, she had never locked herself away quite like this. Her heart had been closed, but she had still talked to them. She'd still go to work, make dinner, and fall asleep on the couch watching coveted old movies. She'd never been quite so indiscreet before. Then again, circumstances had changed this time. She'd had plenty of reason.
She locked herself inside her heart, inside her room.
Instead of outside, as usual.
She changed in the few seconds she'd seen his face – the one thing that could return the old Noin to them had been taken away from her – once she'd been able to grasp onto hope again, they'd stolen it away again.
Like playing a cruel game with a child.
She had a right to be angry.
Noin forced herself to roll off the bed as soon as she heard Duo unlock the door – the act was predictable – she'd known that he would, even if she would have given almost anything to be alone at that moment.
She stumbled across the room to the large window, and curled herself upon the cushion that lay on the seat built into the sill beneath it. She gazed out as the day blossomed forth, jealous of its beauty and the spectrum of colors it possessed. And she cursed herself for being jealous, an emotion she'd promised herself as a child she'd never feel, when the world had made more sense. Envy had simply been evil back then... something to avoid at all costs.
Noin tugged the curtains closed and buried her face, damp with tears, into her arms.
She could hear Duo, barefoot, softly padding over to her. She heard him sit on the floor, and she heard him place the glass of water and pills on the floor.
The thought of swallowing them made her gag.
She was pathetic, and she knew it. The thought only made her weep more, even though she didn't understand the flood of tears. Wasn't she stronger than this? Shouldn't she be out, righting the world, instead of sitting here, letting it ruin her?
The room was silent for a long time, and Duo felt a sorrow of his own well up inside his chest. It was an odd, misplaced sort of sorrow. Zechs should have been the one sitting there, watching her calmly, peacefully. If it had been him, the tears flowing down her face would have been out of ecstasy, not anguish.
She couldn't hide from Zechs, he knew. He would have been able to draw forth all of the tears, and all of the strangled sobs that had torn her soul would have been let loose, never to distress her again.
Duo felt like it was all his fault.
For a moment they just stared at the unconscious man on the floor, dumbfounded.
Then Duo spoke.
"Uh... guys? Is he okay?" the boy asked apprehensively. Trowa and Quatre started forward, each hooking a hand underneath the man's shoulders. They picked him up, dragged him away, found him a bed and silence, and then left him alone.
They walked back to the vidphone and Duo.
And they began to form a plan.
Duo had fallen asleep at the top of the stairs at end of the hallway. He laid there, his head cradled in the crook of his arm, which rested atop his knees. His knees had been drawn up to his chest, and his other arm was wrapped around them tightly. If he had let go, he probably would have toppled headfirst down the stairwell.
Luckily, he hadn't let go. Duo was rather fond of his body when it was intact.
He'd been there for quite a while, and had been asleep for hours. He'd hoped that if Noin finally emerged, he'd be able to coax at least a few words out of her before she locked herself away again. He wanted to explain himself, what he had done, why he hadn't trusted himself to confide in her.
Despite his intentions, however, all he'd managed to do was allow sleep to overtake him. Neither the opening of Noin's door nor the closing of the one opposite it had managed to even stir him. It was the sunlight that jarred him from his rest, hours after she'd turned on the water. By that time, he was sprawled on the wooden floor, yards from where he'd been before, a thin stream of saliva trailing out from between his wide-open lips. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stretched, extending his arms high into the air and arching his back gracefully.
He yawned loudly, his mouth straining to open just a bit farther, and as he became awake, he looked around him. Everything was just as it had been before, he thought. He stood up, stretched again, and tromped sleepily to Noin's door, socked feet padding gently on the ground.
"Noin." He said, his voice still muffled by sleep, and as he prepared to knock on the door, his hands met thin air. Her door was open.
He remembered it being locked. He'd shut it, after he'd left her alone again, after giving her a glass of water and her tiny white pills. When he'd come back a few minutes later, it had been locked, and no sound had come from inside. So he'd sat down, at the stairs, and fallen asleep.
It wasn't incredibly unusual for the door to be unlocked, even when Noin was in a rather thick please-don't-bother-me mood, as she was now, but it was rare for the door to be open. Duo decided to investigate.
He didn't need to be a yard into the room to tell she wasn't there. He couldn't hear her breathing. Her absence in the room would be a good reason for the door to be open, but he was slightly wary. He did not like to judge her, but this was unlike Noin. She rarely left her room anymore.
He let his eyes sweep the room, and they froze at the glass on the floor, which was illuminated by a single thin line of light that the window curtain had failed to block. The glass was full, and beside it, untouched, laid the tiny white pills.
Duo panicked, and tore across the room.
His hands grasped the doorframe as he peered out into the hallway. For the first time, he heard the water running. Relieved, Duo sighed and shook his head. She was in the bathroom, taking a shower.
He walked across the hallway and rapped gently on the door. "Noin?" he called, hoping she'd be able to hear him through the door and over the noise of the water. She didn't answer.
"Noin?" He repeated, a bit louder, but still no response came. He groaned. "Come on, Noin, please? Just a 'what' or a 'yes'? Even a grumble would suffice. I don't really want to have to break into your bathroom to figure out you're perfectly fine. Well..." He paused, and shook the thought out of his mind. Well, not really fine, but...
"Noin!" He said again, and stomped around in an irritated circle outside the door. "Fine..." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a pin, and stuck it into the lock. He twisted it around until he heard the small, familiar "click", then pulled open the door, pausing only for a moment to think that soon this was going to get to be very old.
"Time to get out, Noin. Come on, we've got to talk. Noin!" He stepped further into the bathroom, chills running up his spine as the cold ground touched his bare feet. The realization struck that the floor shouldn't have been cold, that the mirror should have been fogged up, and the air should have been hazy with humidity from the hot water.
"...Noin?" Duo's voice was strangled as he ripped back the shower curtain, groped to turn off the once-warm water that had long ago run out and turned icy.
He looked down at her, curled up at the bottom of the tub, unconscious, clutching a sopping towel about her body. Her lips were blue, and there were red splotches where the water had pounded against her skin. Duo tentatively reached forward, laid a finger on her shoulder, then jerked back when his skin touched hers, chilled and colorless.
It was indeed getting old.
Duo managed to pull Noin out of the tub and onto the cool tiles. Water pooled around her limp body, and though she continued to draw breath, she was utterly motionless. After laying a multitude of towels over her, Duo disappeared back into her room, emerging seconds later with a large blanket to wrap her in. He spread the blanket on a dry section of the bathroom floor, and then attempted to drag her onto it, which wasn't easy, considering that, though she was small and thin, she was still bigger than he was, and rather awkward in his hands.
Not to mention how incredibly awkward it was for him, having her, cold, unconscious, and quite uncomfortably near nakedness, in his hands. He tried not to think about it.
Actually, he wasn't thinking much at all, which was why when a voice behind him calmly spoke his name, he jumped in the air, swore loudly, and nearly dropped the woman in his arms.
"Damn it, Trowa, don't do that" He gasped, and gently put Noin down on the blanket. "What're you doing here already? I thought you were coming tonight."
"I was." He said, but didn't care to elaborate. Duo just shook his head and bent down next to Noin, wrapping the blanket around her.
"What exactly did you do to her?" Trowa asked, also bending down.
"I didn't do anything." Duo said, rubbing the blanket over Noin's skin, trying to get her warm. "She must have passed out. The water was running, and it got cold..."
"In other words, you weren't paying attention." Trowa observed. Duo just shrugged, ignoring him.
"Why don't you get her stuff, so we can leave as soon as possible?" Trowa asked, and Duo complied, getting up and walking to her room. He threw some of her clothes in a duffel bag, along with anything else he figured she might have wanted to bring along. A hairbrush, her medicine, her toothbrush and toothpaste, soap... just random little things. When he was done, he glanced back one more time, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything. A glimmer of silver caught his eye, and he strode across the room and picked up the little wooden box. He ran his fingers over the silver lock, and placed the box, too, in the bag. He then turned off the light, shut the door, and went to help Trowa carry Noin, warmly bundled in a plethora of blanekts, out to the car.
"Are we there yet?" Duo moaned monotonously. He sounded like a little boy, impatient and wondering when the car ride would stop and a long-awaited family vacation would begin.
"Duo, why don't you do something worth your time?" Trowa asked the boy in the back seat. It was a thought that probably never occurred to him. "How's Noin?"
He heard Duo turn in his seat, watched him in the rear-view mirror as he leaned over her and gently brushed the blanket away from her face. "She seems okay." Duo said, then paused. He placed the back of his hand on her forehead, then placed it on his own, then back on hers. "She's getting a little warm now, though..."
Trowa just nodded. He would have been surprised if she hadn't been.
Duo looked up as the car came to a stop, and Trowa announced, "We're here."
"What did you do to her?" Heero asked as soon as they walked in the door. He was looking at Duo.
"What is with you people?" Duo asked irritably. "What makes you think I did it?" He pushed past Heero and walked over to Quatre, precariously balancing the sleeping woman in his arms. "Where do you want me to put her?" He asked, and Quatre led the way to one of the numerous bedrooms in the house as Trowa explained to Heero and Wufei what had happened.
Duo laid her down softly, tucking her carefully in amongst the masses of pillows. Then he yawned, and Quatre smiled at him kindly, understanding his fatigue.
"Where's Zechs?" Duo asked him, and Quatre led him through the adjoining bathroom to the next room. Zechs, asleep, laid there, pillows and blankets strewn across the floor, sheets tangled around his ankles. Duo tried not to chuckle at the scene. "Is he okay?" He asked Quatre, who responded with a nod.
"He was just tired. His body's not used to really living again yet. He'll be fine." Quatre paused. "He tosses and turns in his sleep a lot, though. He talks, too, but we can't seem to make out any of what he says."
Duo nodded, frowning. "Yeah, I know." He shrugged. "He has for a while. I never really knew what to do..." Again, he shrugged. "I suppose it'll stop in time..."
Noin slept for hours and hours, until her fever eventually woke her. Her body trembled between the damp sheets, and her glassy eyes couldn't seem to focus quite right. She couldn't tell properly tell where she was, but she knew that it wasn't her home, and this made her nervous. One unsteady hand pushed the blankets away from her, and the other grasped the edge of the bed. Shakily, she pulled herself forward. A wave of nausea swept over her, and she doubled over, gasping. Sweat beaded on her skin, and she paused until the feeling subsided.
She clambered slowly out of bed, her feet softly touching the carpeted ground. For a moment she sat there, on the ground, her fuzzy vision slowly searching the small dark room, which was empty besides the bed, the table beside it, and an unidentifiable blob on the floor. She pulled the patch of black next to her closer, immediately recognizing it. Her duffel bag. She searched through it, pulling out clothes and other belongings, making a pile on the floor.
Carefully, she picked through them until she found enough to clothe her, and began to dress herself, though she had to pause every so often when the sickness returned with force. Finally, fully clad, she stood again, and grimaced. She considered returning to bed, but was too curious about where she was to actually do so. The potential danger made her heart beat with fear. She stumbled through the nearest doorway, and found herself in a bathroom. An incredibly clean, sweet-smelling bathroom, too. The sweet smell made her stomach churn, and she fell victim to it. Breathing heavily, she turned, found the toilet, and retched, the fetid smell of vomit flooding the room.
It was that noise that woke Zechs. Not a pleasant noise, by any means, but to him it was welcome, because it woke him, tore him from his dreams, his nightmares... it brought him back to the world. He groaned and rolled out of bed. He felt much better than he had before – now, only a slight pounding in his head remained. It was not long before he forgot it, however.
A small, quiet sob reminded him of how he had woken.
The sob was familiar.
Oh, how he hated that it was familiar. He hated that he knew what it was like to hear her sob. It was a sound he loathed, despised with all his soul. Cautiously, he started towards it, aching to make it stop, to comfort her.
She retched again, and he winced, walked to her. She sat on the bathroom floor, knees drawn up to her chest, face buried in her arms. Her shoulders were tense, and shook as she cried, sobbed. Her Preventer jacket trembled with her, and it seemed as though the world around her was quaking.
She did not notice him kneel beside her, didn't recognize his presence until he laid a cool hand on her hot back, stroked her neck the way he had years ago. Slowly, she looked up at him, blinked her tears away, forced her eyes to focus. She looked up at him and recoiled slightly, then began crying once again, twice as hard, and buried her face in his chest, tears staining his shirt. He wrapped his arms around her, blew cool air on her feverish head, rocked her back and forth in his arms, whispered her name softly, savoring the sound on his lips. He kissed her cheek, let her cry, and the world around them slowly drained away.
Several hours later, the five Gundam pilots were sitting, gathered around the single small table in the spotless kitchen, drinking coffee, and – in some cases – tea. They let their minds drift. Tired and bemused, they stared at the walls, though they didn't see them. Their gazes drifted farther, their minds preoccupied, thinking of far-off places or tasks they would rather be doing.
Suddenly, Quatre started. The rest shifted their attention to him, staring sleepily not at the walls, but at the blond boy who had cupped one ear towards the hallway.
"What?" Someone asked.
"Oh!" Quatre said, blushing as he realized they were all looking at him. "I just thought I heard something."
For a moment, they all paused, listening. They didn't hear anything besides their own hushed breathing.
"Duo, go check on them." Heero commanded.
The boy just gaped at him. "Why me?"
"Fine..." Duo said poutily, and, pushing his chair back, stalked off down the hallway.
He peered first in Zechs's room, only to find it empty. The bed was bare, pillows and blankets strewn around the room even more randomly than before.
Duo then took the few steps and stopped in Noin's doorway, smiling at the scene. She was asleep, blankets piled gently on top of her, hands clutching a pillow to her chest. Zechs sat next to her, his back to the doorway, one hand resting lightly on her forehead. Duo backed away, about to leave, when he heard his name. He turned back towards the room, looked back at Zechs, whose back remained to him.
"Duo." He repeated, acknowledging the boy's presence, then turned, and Duo was suddenly startled when their eyes met. The man's usually cold eyes were unfamiliar, clouded with compassion.
"How is she?" Duo asked, taking a step into the room to get a better look at Noin.
Zechs didn't immediately answer, but seemed to ponder the question for a moment before replying. "Not very well." He was stroking her forehead, wiping away the sweat that beaded upon it. He frowned down at her pale face and reached out to grasp one of her hands in his own.
Duo, who now stood at the bedside, reached past him and laid a palm on her forehead. "Yikes!" he said. "She's warm."
"Is she?" Zechs asked bewilderedly, staring blankly down at his own hands. "I couldn't really tell."
"She is." Duo affirmed warily. "Maybe you should put her out on the couch. We can probably keep a better eye on her that way. I'll see if there's a thermometer in there somewhere." He gestured to the bathroom as he said this, and as he walked off and began to dig through drawers, Zechs carefully lifted the sleeping woman and carried her away. Duo pilfered through drawers and cabinets, pushing bottles, nail clippers, and other miscellaneous objects out of his way, until finally he found what he was looking for.
"I told you I heard something." Quatre said as Zechs laid Noin on the couch and bent down next to her. She clutched the blanket on top of her and moaned softly in her feverish dreams.
The boys all turned to look at them, and all but Wufei rose from their chairs to move a bit closer.
"I found it!" Duo said triumphantly as he entered the room, fist in the air. He opened it to reveal the little plastic device, which he placed in Zechs's outstretched hand. As the man poked it into place inside Noin's mouth, Duo disappeared into the kitchen.
He reappeared less than a minute later, bottle of pills in one hand and a glass of juice in the other. He placed them both on the floor at Zechs's knees and peered at the thermometer protruding from Noin's mouth.
"40!" he exclaimed. "Is that even possible?"
Zechs stared wordlessly at the numbers, which blurred before his eyes.
"Oy, Heero. You'd better come look at this." Duo gestured for the boy to come closer. Heero glanced at the woman's face calmly.
He picked up the glass of juice on the floor and handed it to Zechs. "Try and wake her. Get her to drink as much as you can." He shrugged. "Check her temperature again in about an hour."
Zechs pulled the thermometer out of Noin's mouth and, with one hand on each shoulder, began to gently shake her into wakefulness. She shook him off, curling deeper into herself and burying her face in a cushion.
"Noin..." Zechs said, forcing her to sit up, to open her eyes. She didn't look at him, just stared at her knees. "Noin." He repeated, and Duo froze when he heard the man's voice break. She did not look at him. "Lucrezia..." Her eyes lifted then, briefly focused.
"Zechs?" she asked, dazedly glancing up at him. "I told you not to call me that."
"Noin..." He said, his voice slightly relieved. He pressed the glass to her lips. "Noin? Can you drink this?"
"I'll try..." She whispered, vision obscure again. He tilted the glass upwards, and her hands flew up to meet it, locking themselves over his.
It was half empty when she let go, closed her eyes again, and fell back into sleep. She tossed and turned, muttered and whispered, and could not be calmed – neither by Zechs's pained, pleading voice nor the cool cloths laid on her neck and forehead. None of them knew exactly what to do, and eventually they just filled the tub with lukewarm water and slowly let her sink into it. It helped, but not enough – now they could not even wake her from her pained sleep. Zechs watched bewilderedly as a great deal of this went on, and he was much beside himself, burying his face in his hands and whispering "I've done this. I've done this to her. It's my fault." Nothing Duo tried could comfort him, either. All he could do was smile awkwardly, and hope – both of which he'd gotten fairly good at.
Later, long after much of the juice had been vomited back all over the floor, they placed Noin back on the couch and positioned the thermometer between her trembling lips.
"Forty point five..." Duo said helplessly. "And rising."
He looked towards Heero, who simply said. "Get her to a hospital."
"But we can't!" Quatre interjected. "Someone would find out – they'd make the connection, wondering what we're doing down here.
Heero just shrugged.
"We can't just leave her like this." Duo said desperately.
Wufei, who had been silent up until then, now spoke. "There's a Preventer building nearby." He said. "Take her there."
Annoyed with themselves for not considering this possibility, but glad that Wufei had suggested it, they all piled into two cars, and let Wufei lead the way.
Half an hour later, Duo skidded to a stop in front of the main desk of the large building, and asked if, by any chance, there was a Sally Po present in the building.
The man at the desk, startled, nodded, and quickly gave the boy directions. In seconds, Duo was off again, tearing down halls and upstairs in search of the former doctor. By then, Noin had gotten even worse – something they'd hardly though possible – and Duo wasn't going to be the cause of her lack of medical attention.
"Sally!" he blurted loudly after he nearly ran her down as she stepped out of an elevator.
"Duo! What...?" She asked him, clearly puzzled.
Duo, panting, just pointed at the elevator behind her and followed her back into it. "Lobby" he said breathlessly. "She's sick."
Sally pushed the button, which lit under her touch, and as they descended, she flooded Duo with questions.
Why, of all places, was he in the Preventer building, how he'd found her there, who was sick, what on earth was going on... none of which the winded boy was able the answer.
"Sorry," he wheezed as the doors opened, and he gestured toward the main desk, where Zechs, surrounded by the four other boys, was whispering tenderly to the figure in his arms.
"What the…?" Sally walked towards them, unable to stop her eyes from growing round at the sight of the man in front of her – Zechs Marquise, Milliardo Peacecraft – was supposed to be dead, incinerated long ago in the last fires of Libra's existence.
As she approached, her attention shifted, drawn to the mass in his arms. She laid a hand on it carefully, but she could not see its face, which was hidden in the man's elbow. Nor could she definitely tell if it was male or female – all she could see was that it wore a Preventer jacket – it was one of their own.
"Who...?" she said, and Zechs shifted so that the figure's shoulders flexed, and it turned its head away from his chest.
"Noin!" Sally gasped, drawing closer to the woman's body and placing a hand on her head. "She's burning up... follow me."
Sally pivoted one foot, and let them away to what was, inevitably, the infirmary.
"Sally." Trowa said to her as they walked. "No one can know we're here. Anyone who saw us must not say anything about it."
"Yes." she said. "They know. They should be smart enough to be quiet." She smiled. "Don't worry. I'll send an order for all Preventers to never discuss today's events, just in case."
A bit of the tension disappeared from their shoulders.
She gestured them inside a room, and motioned for Zechs to lay Noin down on the stretcher in the middle of the room.
He did so with only slight hesitation.
Sally busied herself at a counter, hurriedly rummaging through drawers and glass jars on the countertop, unable to find what she was looking for and quite annoyed by it.
Duo, leaning forward over Noin's body, made an observation.
"I think she's hyperventilating."
"How's she doing?" Sally asked, bending over Zechs's shoulder to get a closer look at Noin.
"Better." Was all he said – her fever had begun to subside, and her breathing was almost normal now. A bit of color had even returned to her cheeks. "Thank you."
Sally nodded. Then, waving, she stepped out into the hallway and was swept away with a bustle of busy Preventers.
Zechs, exhausted, suppressed a yawn. The boys had all left, gone to the lounge, most likely to drape themselves over couches and chairs and fall asleep.
"Zechs?" Noin mumbled. She gazed around her, eyes still hazy with illness. "Zechs..." She repeated, grasping one of his hands. "What happened? Whe – why am I here? Did Zephyr break something again?" She let go of his hand and rolled over to face the other direction and better inspect the room.
Zechs couldn't help but smile – Zephyr had been one of the "bad boys" at the academy. He'd dealt drugs and constantly broken things. He was kept on, however, on account of his academic genius. Zephyr had been a polite boy, and very kind, but one of the worst in the academy the same time. He'd always had drugs on him – usually a quite large amount, probably so much that he could have bought the academy a new training hall if he sold all of it. He was the one who always sang loudly in the dormitory hallways during holidays – always either drunk or high.
Her confusion intrigued him, but he wasn't incredibly surprised – the room stunningly resembled the old infirmary at the academy.
"Noin." he said affectionately, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Wake up."
She blinked up at the ceiling, her vision gradually clearing. "Where...?" she said hoarsely, glancing about her, and jumped when her eyes met him. His hair gleamed even in the dim light, and she could sense a sparkle of laughter behind the cold blue veil of his eyes.
"You scared me..." She said, once again taking his hand in her own. Then, suddenly, she flinched and clutched her stomach. "I feel...very sick." She stated, wincing.
"With good reason." Zechs said. "You had a fever last night. We were worried we wouldn't make it here on time."
"I'm not exactly sure where. One of your Preventer bases."
Noin nodded dumbly, then jumped about another foot in the air as Duo burst in, panting. "Get up. We have to leave. Preventers..." He stopped, gasping for breath. But Noin, her eyes filled with hidden knowledge,finished for him.
"Preventers have a leak."
Duo nodded. "Yeah." He looked at Zechs. "The UESN now knows you're alive – there's not a doubt in their minds. They personally probably don't really care... but too many people want you brought to 'justice'. They'll do anything to get you. Your sister's got her hands full, trying to get them to understand. Of course, she kind of freaked out, too, when she heard, so she's having a bit of a hard time of it, but..." Duo babbled.
Zechs flinched at the mention of his sister, but he had no time to dwell on it. Cursing the rush of events that had left him little time to even think clearly, he swept Noin off the bed and followed Duo down the hallway, struggling against the waves of frantic Preventers pushing past them towards the lobby and, undoubtedly, the enemy.
The building blurred past them as they rushed down the halls, coming to a sudden stop inside an elevator. Duo hurriedly pushed a button, and they began to move. Noin started to struggle against Zechs's arms.
"Put me down." She said, obviously uncomfortable with being treated like an invalid. "I don't need your help to stand." Zechs refused, shaking his head.
"No, you can't."
She looked up at him, the expression in her eyes caught between hurt and indignance. "Please?"
Gently, he put her down. She was right – she could stand – but she clasped Zechs's arm tightly, and her knees shook with the strain. She did not, however, complain.
"Get ready to run." Duo said as the elevator slowed. "The cars are at the same place we parked them before."
Zechs nodded, and as soon as the doors opened with their characteristic "whoosh", they began to sprint.
They didn't make it very far.
Lined up in front of them was a string of what looked like plain policemen, weapons raised. Duo was almost offended at the pathetic force, and angry that he was powerless against them.
"Damn it." he sighed.
"Put your hands in the air." They yelled their standard command. Duo raised his – Zechs could only raise one, as the other was pinned to his side by Noin, who was slowly losing her hold on the world, and using his shirtsleeve as a means of keeping herself upright.
"You there!" one gestured at Noin. "Step away from him. Put your hands in the air."
Zechs resisted the urge to help her as she stumbled away, but he had no doubt that they would shoot him if he did so. A few feet away, Noin fell to her knees, unable to hold herself up, and pressed her palms against the ground in front of her. She didn't have the strength to raise them. The policemen moved closer, closing in on the startled three.
They were only a few paces away when a swarm of Preventers appeared behind them – many with guns. Big guns. They greatly outnumbered the police force, and the frightened, startled men promptly dropped their weapons.
"Run!" One of the younger Preventers shouted at the three, who still had their hands in front of them. There was no hesitation. Within seconds they were inside the car that Trowa conveniently stopped in front of them, and then they were speeding away.
"They all said you were dead." Noin said, finally conscious enough to address Zechs. "They thought you were dead." She stared at him with a forlorn expression.
They were in the back of the car, driving down a seemingly endless road, and it took Zechs a moment to answer her.
He looked into her eyes. "You didn't."
Her gaze shifted, and she looked at her lap as she said, "I was never sure, but I couldn't just give up... not on you. Not while the whole world was urging me to think otherwise. They told me to forget you." Her voice was hushed. "But it's not possible to forget you."
"I'm sorry." For the first time in a long time he meant what he said. "I'm sorry I put you through this. It was never meant to hurt you." He stopped. "I..."
"I understand." Noin said, laying her head against his chest.
He did not answer. Noin always understood. She always trusted him. Her forgiveness and acceptance was beyond his realms of expectation and understanding.
"I love you..." she whispered into his shirt, startling him. He could feel her warm tears through the thin material, and the emotion she spoke of suddenly flooded him. His heart began to throb with it beneath her tears. Smiling, he drew her closer.
"I... I love you too, Noin."
It hadn't taken them long to get back to the house, considering the speed at which Trowa had been driving.
They were fairly sure they hadn't been followed.
Not out here, in the woods, where too many old side roads could lead their pursuers far, far away. They were incredibly surprised that their hideout hadn't yet been discovered, and were extremely happy with their good luck.
Now, however, they had to formulate another plan. Their last actions had been rash and foolish, their fear having caught up with them, entwining itself around their ankles and bending them to its will.
They felt slightly better now, however. Noin, though having been promptly ill upon their arrival, was feeling much better, her fever nearly diminished.
Sometimes the boys questioned themselves and what they were doing. They were helping a man who had killed hundreds – thousands – of people, just as they had. He had done it to achieve the same goal as they, but he had done it in a much bloodier way.
They couldn't wonder for long.
"They didn't have to die. Not all of them, at least. It was simply to prove a point, to teach a lesson. Treize, he liked to control the world, to influence it. He liked the feel of power. He was a good man, but too intoxicated with the possibilities of who he could be, of what he could turn himself into. The point he tried to prove was a good one, and he meant it for the best. In the end, he discarded all of his love of the world and for the love of the people it withheld, foolish contenders they may have been." Zechs's eyes clouded. "And he knew that not all of them could live. It hurt him, but he knew.
"All of the people we killed... I could have stopped him... stopped some of it. But I was too blind - blind with the hope that it might all end, finally. I wanted to be a part of it, wanted to watch it, to be there. Now look at what I've done, what I've gotten you into, what I've gotten them into." He turned from the window to look at her.
On the bed, Noin gazed up at him, hurt in her eyes. "Zechs... you couldn't have stopped it. Besides, it's over now. You can't change the past." She paused, unsure what to say, how to comfort him.
He just shook his head. "I couldn't. I couldn't stand up to him, Noin, even if I tried. He... he was my friend... as much as I hate to say it sometimes. He taught me to fight, Noin, which was the only way I could both loose myself and find myself. The only time I could ever find peace was on the battlefield." He laughed, a short, painful laugh, and once again just shook his head. "I enjoyed it." He whispered. "And now they wish to haunt me."
Noin pulled him closer, so he sat on one edge of the bed. She clasped his trembling hands in her own. "You enjoyed the peace of mind, not the bloodshed." She told him. "I could always see that hurt in your eyes, the few times you let it show. You didn't enjoy killing. Knowing how death felt made you hate it with a vengeance. Strangely, combat was the only way you could find to take your mind off of it."
"Please," she pleaded. "Try not to think about it right now. Get some sleep."
Zechs just nodded, and laid down next to her. They wrapped their arms around each other, and they could feel each other's warmth mingling. It was a strange feeling, so often longed for and still surreal. They each felt out of place, like they were lost in a dream. Finally, their skin was touching, their hands locked in an embrace. Never before had they accepted their emotions for each other so startlingly. Never had they professed love. Indeed, they found themselves in a situation they had oft deemed impossible. It should have been a moment of bliss.
Their minds, however, were still overflowing with concern.
"They're so cute!" Duo exclaimed, peeking through the doorway into Noin's room. Zechs's arms were wrapped around her, and they were both finally asleep, their faces etched with peace and relief.
"Duo." The vidphone the boy held in his hands exclaimed. "I really don't think they'd appreciate you watching them sleep. It's a little weird."
"Aw, come on, Hilde." Duo pouted at the screen. "I haven't done all of this for nothing. Besides, you have to admit, it is cute."
"Fine..." Hilde said, unable to hold back a smile. "It's cute."
Zechs woke hours later, his mind sluggish and his body numbed by sleep. The first thing he noticed was the unusual hunger in his stomach.
The next was the absence of warmth beside him.
"Where's Noin?" Zechs, standing in the kitchen doorway, asked.
It was the middle of the night, and the room was dark – there wasn't even enough light to cast shadows in the room.
Trowa, hands wrapped around a steaming mug, was the only other person in the room.
"Duo took her home." The boy answered. He gestured to the chair opposite him, which Zechs took after pouring his own cup of steaming black liquid.
Zechs understood their reasoning – Noin, being away from work for so long, would draw questions as it was, but his sudden appearance, when he was supposed to be dead, would also bring unwanted attention. Their actions had been rational, but he still could not dispel the ache in his chest.
"A terrorist group..." Trowa started, catching Zechs's attention "...formed after the end of the wars. A group of bloodthirsty men with an insatiable lust for what they call 'justice'. Most of them have never seen battle, but they hold an enormous amount of power, and continue to grow. Most likely, they will have targeted you, now that rumor has it you're still alive. You're probably on the top of their list to kill.
"We figured it best to have Noin go about her usual business. Her extended absence would draw attention that we don't need right now. She agreed, figuring it was best for your safety." Trowa paused, sipping at his coffee. "She did, however, hesitate leaving you."
Silence followed. Zechs pondered Trowa's words, and what they meant for him.
"Quatre's looking into the group." The boy started again. "But as they are a fairly new organization, we don't know how much he'll be able to find. Most likely, they'll lay low for a while. Months even, perhaps, if they can't find any solid leads soon. Once they have gathered enough information, however, it is likely that they will strike."
Zechs nodded, his mind, once again, still absorbing the meaning of the boy's words. Trowa only made sense, and Zechs wasn't sure if he should be relieved that there seemed to be a way out, or to fear the possibility of more battles.
The next few weeks passed slowly for Zechs, though they went quickly for the others, involved in their own busy lives. Zechs had only television to amuse himself inside the small safehouse, and the only worthwhile thing on the television had been a glimpse of Noin he'd had on some evening news program reporting on her swift recovery from her trip to the hospital. Television, the abundant entertainment of many people, was useless to him, besides the news. He turned his mind to other things.
Noin had been busy. Her life was back in full swing. She had been bombarded with Preventer assignments the moment she'd returned to work, and had hardly had a moment to spare for breath.
The media hype over Zechs had died down quickly, too... no one would believe that the dead man wasn't actually dead for long. Now, there was only the occasional murmur on the streets to remind the world of the man's possible, though unlikely, survival.
Noin, however, hadn't forgotten for a second. Her insanely busy schedule couldn't keep thoughts of Zechs from frequently fluttering through her mind. The second she finally had time, she immediately called him. Her heart had been longing to see his face for too long.
Zechs heard the vidphone ring from his bedroom and loudly shouted at it to receive, he was coming.
The only thing Noin could see on the other end was darkness. She heard nothing, and saw nothing, and was about to panic when she heard the faint 'click' of a light switch and saw a faint glow in the corner of the screen.
"Zechs?" She called out curiously, but it was still for another minute before the man's face appeared, his hair tousled from sleep.
"Noin?" He asked. "It's two in the morning."
"Sorry..." she said sheepishly. "I forgot about the time difference."
"There's not that much of a time difference." Zechs said. "What time is it there?"
Noin glanced down at her wrist. "Midnight." She said calmly.
"Midnight?" Zechs asked. "Noin, you should get some sleep... you don't look well." She could hear traces of the gruff sternness of his voice returning.
"I'm just tired." Noin, unconcerned, smiled at him. She seemed much more interested in studying his face than following his suggestions.
For a moment, there was silence, and Noin took the moment to just look at him, to admire the man who was pictured before her. "I miss you..."
"I miss you, too, Noin. What took you so long?" Zechs leaned over the vidscreen and gazed down at her image.
Noin didn't have the chance to reply, though, because halfway through the next breath she took her cell phone started to ring.
"Oops..." She began to shuffle through the numerous documents on her desk. "Sorry... hold on." Apparently, it wasn't on her desk, because she dashed away. Zechs could hear her footsteps as she ran down the hallway. He heard as the ring of the phone was abruptly cut off, but then he didn't hear anything. No "hello" from Noin, no more footsteps.
"Noin?" He spoke into the screen. He waited a moment.
"Noin?" He repeated, anxiously, and a bit louder. Suddenly, the screen in front of him went fuzzy with static. The view of Noin's living room disappeared.
"Shit." Zechs said loudly.
Someone had cut the connection to Noin's phone.
Which meant that someone was in her house. Someone she wouldn't want there, someone who didn't belong.
Furious, Zechs resisted the urge to hurl the video monitor across the room. He regained his bearings quickly, though. Situations like this had happened to him before – hostages being snatched away, captives or prisoners of war escaping – but none of these people had been as important as Noin.
No, never as important as Noin.
Zechs wasn't entirely sure what he was going to do, but he knew that he wasn't going to sit in this cage he'd been trapped in. He swept out of the room, heading down the hall to the room where he slept, and opened the laptop lying dormant on the desk. Luckily, Quatre's safehouse was incredibly secure, and the boy had assured Zechs that it was safe to prowl around the internet and military files for any information he could find while he was locked in this desolate place, and that the phone lines could not be tapped.
"Damn it, Noin..." It had been hours, and Zechs hadn't found anything that could give him even the slightest clue as to Noin's whereabouts. He was growing irritated. He was about to give up and resort to pacing about the house to try and relax when he heard a car and saw the flash of headlights outside the window.
A messenger had come to bring him the news.
"Whoa!" Duo exclaimed. He'd just gotten the door open, and the moment he had, Zechs had strode past him, shoulders tense and a grim look on his face.
"Hey, Zechs..." Duo started, watching the man head for his car.
"Let's go." Zechs said. "We have to find her."
It took a moment for Duo to respond. "Her? Whoa... wait, you know?"
Zechs didn't answer, which Duo figured was pretty close to a 'yes' for Zechs. Duo watched as the man climbed into the car, slamming the door behind him.
"But..." Duo started helplessly, staring at the car, and then threw up his hands in defeat. He knew that no matter how he tried, he'd never be able to change Zechs's mind.
So, it was off to find the others, and save Noin. Duo felt a thrill he hadn't had in quite a while come rushing back to him.
He was ready.
Heero was waiting for them when they arrived in the apartment Zechs had been living in for the past few months of his life.
He was studying a map and several other papers that were scattered haphazardly across the rickety table in the dimly lit kitchen. He began to speak as Zechs and Duo took their places across from him.
"We think that they're here." Heero said, pointing to a red-colored spot on the map. "It's an old abandoned military base about. It's the only place in the area that's close enough for them to keep a watch on Noin and big enough to house a small supply of soldiers."
Zechs remembered this base – it had once been used as a training facility, back in the days of OZ. He had spent a number of years there, and had returned from time to time for various reasons. Zechs could still remember a few secrets about it which the blueprints Heero had retrieved could not reveal. Treize had taken him there once, on a short break from some reconnaissance mission, and had shown Zechs some of the inner workings of the base.
Maybe he wasn't worthless after all. Perhaps he could help.
The door opened, exposing Trowa, Quatre, and Wufei. Zechs avoided Wufei's malicious glare.
"They know what they're doing." Trowa informed the group at the table. "They did a good job. They left no evidence behind."
"They did, however, leave this." Quatre placed a sleek black cell phone onto the center of the table. "And her medicine is missing."
"A phone. That means they'll be contacting us soon." Trowa analyzed. "They'll be wanting compensation for Noin's safe return."
Zechs stared at the small piece of plastic and metal in front of him. How trivial an object it was, yet Noin's fate may have rested on it.
Zechs felt powerless against the world. How much it annoyed him that he could do nothing but sit here and wait, sit here and try to puzzle out how to save Noin.
He shook his head. Noin wouldn't like him thinking that she needed to be saved. She always had been strong, and able to protect herself.
But nothing lasts forever…
Zechs was dressed in an elegant white suit. It opened in front, displaying the navy silk vest and tuxedo shirt he wore beneath it. On either side of the row of buttons streaming down the top half of his body, his coat was beautifully embroidered with bold golden thread, curls blooming out across his chest. He was shocked to realize that he was wearing the suit of a prince of the Sanc kingdom – that he was wearing upon himself the symbols of his dead father's country. Intending to steady himself, Zechs placed a finger – gloved in the same pure white fabric as the rest of his body – on the banister at his side as he stepped down of the polished wooden stairs into the ballroom.
It was enormous – on both sides of the hall, pressed against the walls, were dozens upon dozens of small tables, each set with glimmering cutlery and a flickering candle apiece. Behind the tables, on the walls to his right and left, were huge, spotless windows which gave a spectacular view of the lush, grassy gardens beneath the stars twinkling in the nighttime sky.
Zechs, taking in the scene, jumped. In front of him, standing in the eerie candle light were hundreds of people, men and women wearing formal suits and graceful ball gowns. Gazing upon them, Zechs felt a shiver run up his spine as he realized that each of them held in his or her right hand a gleaming silver rod which led to a velvety, infinitely dark mask, and behind those masks, hundreds of pairs of eyes had set themselves upon him. Unconsciously, he took a step backwards, nearly expecting them to swoop down upon him, but they remained as still as statues.
Then, they began to turn inwards, breaking apart from each other and forming a path from the opposite end of the hall, down which a girl in a long, flowing blue gown flecked with silvery stars dashed, trying not to trip on the hems of her skirts.
"Zechs?" she called frantically, stumbling forward, one arm outstretched as though she could not see him.
"Noin?" the prince breathed, stepping forward.
Noin, hesitantly stumbling forward in the dress which seemed to be holding her back, pushed her way past invisible obstacles.
"Zechs, where are you?" she pleaded, grasping the delicate silver chain strung around her neck for comfort. "Zechs?" terrified, she whispered his name again.
"Noin!" he called, and his voice rumbled tumultuously through the hall. He began to run forward to meet her, but as he did, the hall began to elongate, stretching out, and as he ran forward he only seemed to get further away from her. He stretched out his arm, attempting to touch her, but as he did the elegant ballroom and the masked specters began to melt away, draining from his vision.
He blinked, and suddenly everything was dark. Perplexed, Zechs was about to close his eyes against this place tightly, to try and block it out, but before he could, there she was again. This time, though, she was dressed in her old OZ uniform. She stared up at him, one slim hand raised in salute, with an expression of absolute misery and dejection… and… love.
"Noin," Zechs called, "No, Noin, don't cry. I'm right here…" And, with his hand outstretched, grasping for something that wasn't there, he awoke.
"Damn it." He swore, and tried to shake the bizarre dream away.
As Zechs stood, Duo pulled a chair out for him at the crowded little table. The six young men had stayed awake nearly all night trying to puzzle out a strategy, to very little avail. In the end, they had decided to get some sleep – their minds would be useless if they were too exhausted to think.
Duo pushed a mug of steaming coffee over to Zechs as Quatre entered the apartment and found a seat in the only empty, dilapidated chair left.
"Well," he said, "What do we do? Just… wait for contact?"
"There isn't anything else we can do." Heero answered. "We could break in, but we have no way of determining where in this building – if it's even the right building – she could possibly be. We need more information."
Zechs stirred his coffee, staring at the little eddies the spoon left behind it. As time continued to pass, he felt as though he should just get up and leave, travel to the old base, and get Noin back. He knew how foolish it was, and how dangerous, but he also knew that he deserved whatever punishment it was that these men wished to inflict upon him, and he would willingly give his own life for hers.
But at the same time, he know that if he did this, he would most likely be killed, and even though he wished it were not so, he knew that his death would devastate Noin. He never wanted to wound her again.
And then, he had no choice but to sit and wait, and he hated the sitting and the waiting when he felt as though there must be something he could be doing.
He looked up, and saw Duo fiddling with the cell phone. The boy opened it, stared blankly at the buttons, then closed it again. He did this – opening and closing it – numerous times, until the phone let out a loud beep. Duo jumped and nervously thrust the phone from himself onto the table.
"I didn't do it." He automatically announced.
Trowa reached out, swiftly grabbed the phone, and opened it. "They've sent us a video clip."
Duo looked impressed.
"What is it?" Quatre asked.
"Hold on…" Trowa said, turning around and pulling his laptop from the bag hanging off of his chair. "I'll plug it in so we all can see it."
They all gathered closer as the screen flashed brilliantly into motion, and their minds ran wild as they watched the video.
At first all they saw was a door – but even with only this small amount of information, it was apparent that the clip had been recorded in the base – the polished brass lettering of the "SENIOR OFFICERS ONLY" sign on the door was the same type that they had all seen before.
The camera lingered for a moment, and then the door swung inward, revealing a small room – probably once an equipment storage station of some sort. A single dirty dull bulb hung from the ceiling, a cord dangling next to it. The paint on the wall, which had once been white, was now off-color with age, and was chipping off in several places. There were a few piles of dust on the cold gray cement floor. The room was nearly empty.
Except for the small, stained military cot which sat in the far left corner of the room.
The picture began to wobble unsteadily as the person wielding it began to step towards the cot, providing a better view of the person laying on it.
Noin's hands were tightly bound together with thick lengths of rope. More of the stuff coiled around her ankles like an ugly brown snake, and one end was tied to one of the metal bars that the olive green canvas of the cot was stretched across. The camp bed itself was cemented to the floor.
Zechs's breath caught in his throat as the camera focused on her frail body. She looked fine – she had not been bruised or beaten, and her chest rose and fell gently as she slumbered.
And then, as a small measure of relief fell over the table, the camera cut away, and the screen went black.
And all they knew was that she was safe.
Zechs buried his face in his hands, trying to quell his agitation. Now what were they supposed to do? Then Trowa began to speak, and he looked up at the boy.
" They left a message - 'You have what we want. We have what you want.'" he read, glancing over at Zechs, and then back at the phone palmed in his right hand. "… and a time… one o'clock. Tonight."
They sat in silence for a while.
"So now we have to wait three more hours?" Duo said, half bewildered, half pissed. "Who the fuck do they think we are? Amateurs?"
Noin awoke in the dark. She was groggy, her drugged senses disobeying her mind's orders. The only thing she could perceive was the cold, and the utter absence of light. She shifted her body slightly, pulling up her knees and tucking her elbows closer to her chest. The tightly stretched canvas she laid on creaked beneath her, and she lifted her head to look up as heavy footsteps approached.
There was the heavy sound of a lock being turned, and Noin suddenly flinched as the door was thrown open and she was blinded with fluorescent light. She raised her bound hands to shade her eyes as a body drew nearer.
"Noin." He spoke, acknowledging her, and sending chills down her spine.
"You…" she breathed, glaring up at the crisply-dressed man in front of her. "What do you want from me?"
"I need nothing from you. You taught me everything I need. Now, all I want is the Lightening Count."
"There's no way a dead man can help you." She told him, staring up at the man who had twisted her teachings to his own demented mind.
"Oh, but this one can." She was answered. "You see, we know he's alive. And I'm truly sorry that we had to use you to get to him, but now he's as good as ours." He actually sounded sincere, Noin realized.
She struggled angrily, futilely, against the cords restraining her.
"Why?" she asked, her voice strangled. "He's nothing to you. For what possible reason could you want him?"
He stared at her for a moment, then swiftly turned on his heel and strode to the door. Then he paused, and looked back at his captive.
Noin gazed upon the door he had left through for several moments, thoughts spinning dizzily through her head. Then intense emotion struck her as she realized that this… all of this… was her fault.
She was the one that had taught him. Him, and Alex, and Muller. It was her words, her teachings, which had corrupted them. Noin did not try to hold back her tears as the dying bulb above her flickered, sending ethereal afterimages to her eyes. Another one of her students was lashing out at the man she loved. Was this what her years of painstaking work had accomplished? Malice and corruption of the human soul?
She felt as though her heart would break. Her passion for Zechs, her guilt for her teaching gone awry, her abhorrence of the fact that these men would go so far for revenge in an era where mankind had finally accomplished the formation of a peaceful world… these emotions all flooded her. Angry at her own weakness and inability, she drew a shuddering breath and tightly closed her eyes, trying to block out the contemplations that plagued her.
And she tried to sleep.
Rest was one thing she would need.
The five of them sat huddled around the table, examining maps and blueprints, sketching designs and attempting to formulate plans. Trowa had been gazing, brow furrowed, upon the calculations that Heero had drawn in a margin for some time. Every few minutes Duo would swear under his breath. While Quatre looked deeply concerned and thoughtful, Wufei wore a characteristic scowl.
Zechs sat a few feet away from the cluster, his head buried in his hands, carefully pondering the events of the last few days.
All of them jumped when the crisp, piercing ring of the cell phone sounded.
Duo fumbled to snatch the thing from the table as Trowa calmly closed the browser on his laptop and deftly plugged the cord trailing from the phone into the back of it. Heero aimed a nod of acknowledgement at Duo, who flipped open the phone, and tentatively asked, "Hello?"
The voice that crackled through the apartment was mechanical and heartless. Rapt with attention, the young men gathered about the table grasped for every word.
"We offer a trade," the mystery voice claimed. "We know you are intelligent. You know where we are. We know you value what we have. The choice is yours. We will not hesitate to kill the woman."
With a resounding click, the connection terminated before anyone had the chance to argue, to negotiate, to call the voice out for claiming their friend.
Duo shouted, angrily cursing the voice. Around the table, each of the young men felt their anger grow and their resolve strengthen. Too many times had they seen the victims of war claimed by self-righteous soldiers claiming they knew what was right.
They would do whatever it took to get Noin back.
Noin woke, infuriated with herself. Her own actions had led her here. Her weaknesses had not only trapped her in a horrific visit to her past, but endangered the people dearest to her. She knew that the Gundam pilots were plotting her rescue every second she sat on that bed. The anguish and frustration that beat within her heart grew stronger.
She had taught this soldier, had helped to create the monster that he had become.
But mistakes can be rectified, and Noin was determined to do everything within her power to stop the destruction. She was tired of war, tired of its ravages, tired of seeing the ones she loved haunted, their gazes and their dreams filled with ghosts and guilt. Deep in her heart, she understood the justice the man who had taken her claimed to seek. She couldn't stand for the prolonging of a war that should have been long over.
She couldn't stand to lose what she had been seeking for so long, what she had finally found, for one man's twisted concept of "justice".
Her tortured cries rang out through the empty room as she struggled against her bonds, ripping at them with all of her might.
She froze, however, when the sudden sound of footsteps struck in the hallway. Jumping back onto the bed, plastering innocence on her face, she prepared for her visitor, bracing herself. The door swung open, but it was only a young man, inexperienced, barely older than a boy, who set the tray down on the floor inside the door. He walked over to her and held his cupped hand out to her. Noin recognized the small red pills in his hand. His innocent kindness struck guilt within her as he offered her the medicine. How could such a young boy be captured into the folds of conflict in a time of peace? Her guilt flared into anger as she shakily grasped the pills, her tightly bound hands struggling to keep their grip.
She placed the pills in her mouth, receiving a nod from the youth, who swiftly turned and left, slamming the door behind him, leaving desolate silence in his wake.
Noin inspected the meal he had left behind, her eyes twinkling with excitement as she realized what lay before her.
Clearly they underestimated her, thinking her a weakling. Surely they had been informed about her recent medical emergencies, and deduced that her physical condition was degraded. She choked back the bitter laugh within her throat.
A plastic knife lay on her dinner tray.
After hours of sawing away at her bindings and breaking several teeth off of the plastic knife and Noin's hands were almost free. The process had been long and monotonous, and Noin had contemplated trying to break the bones in one of her hands in order to slip it through the roughly tied knots several times. Using her better judgment, however, she resigned herself to the task.
Seeing as he hadn't trusted the young man who had deposited her dinner on the floor of the bare little room she was confined to, and hadn't actually swallowed the pills she had been given, she chose to avoid her own potential bloodshed. She'd had more than her fair share of medical issues lately. The young soldier had seemed innocent, and the pills had seemed innocuous, identical in appearance to the ones she had been prescribed. Just because the man seemed innocent, however, there was no indication that those who had poisoned his mind and instructed him to deliver her meals were.
Noin felt a little guilty, but pushed the emotion to the back of her mind. The young man had made a choice, and she had made hers. No longer would she allow herself to be a victim of the ridiculous warfare that the human race couldn't seem to appease.
Straining with all of her might, Noin managed to wriggle one hand free. It was scratched and cramped from the utensil and uncomfortable position she had used to best access the rope, but it was free. She couldn't help but let out a sigh of relief. Surprised with how lucky she had been that no one had interrupted her rope-sawing session to check on her, she stood up and stretched, clenching and unclenching her fists to return circulation to her tingling fingers.
Now she turned her attention to what to do next. Clearly these people underestimated her, seeing as they actually had given her that little plastic knife, and had trusted that young man alone with her. It made her bitter, the thought that the once respected Lucrezia Noin had been reduced to a weak, fragile girl who needed to be spoon-fed her medication in the eyes of these men. Clearly, they didn't think it possible that her strength had long since returned, and she was more than physically capable of causing damage.
She planned to make sure that they didn't make the mistake again.
Zechs, though quite unhappy, was characteristically masking his emotions from the other young men gathered about him. Inside, he was fuming, mulling the situation over, analyzing it from every aspect, trying to determine the best course of action, and considering the ways in which he could crush the people responsible.
The thought of losing the woman he had just confessed his love to – an action he never would have fathomed taking – made his heart ache. The emotions flooding him were ones he wasn't used to. He had surely had his fill of regret and sadness – the death of his family, the distant relationship he had maintained with his sister for so many years, and the constant loss of comrades in the war had worked to make such emotions familiar. His love for Noin, he realized, had been present for a long time. He had certainly been puzzlingly aware of her feelings for him for a long time, but had refrained from open reciprocation. His love had always been distracted, dampened by the dedication with which he had committed to his military career, his quest for vengeance, and his participation in the war.
There had always been other things that needed to come before Noin, matters that were more pressing than love. As he looked back, he wondered if this was a mistake. The woman had given up so much for him, had stood by him no matter how much of a monster he became, no matter how twisted by his desires and weaknesses he was. She had always cared, and had always shown it, by greeting him with a smile, deliberately answering questions wrong at the Academy, or protecting his beloved sister. She had always been patient with him, had always known what was important, and had always wordlessly and selflessly given more than he ever could have asked.
And now, he had lost her.
He had already lost so much in his life. The prospect of losing something else, something so important, was an option he wasn't willing to entertain.
As the Gundam pilots tried to confect some semblance of a plan, examining blueprints, replaying the video clip they had been sent, and marking everything Zechs had been able to solemnly recall on the maps. They wildly discussed the situation, trying to determine the reality of the situation in front of them.
"They showed the room she was in – it was small, it had to be one of these." Quatre claimed, gesturing to a series of small squares on the map.
"They'll have moved her from there, though, they won't be that obvious." Heero replied.
"There's no way to know that for certain. The building is old and run-down, there can't be that many options. They'll have kept her in a central interior room, making it difficult for us to get to her. They can't expect that we're just going to give in to their demands," claimed Duo.
"We don't know anything about these people. We can't attempt to ascertain what they will or will not expect." Trowa said, trying to pull up whatever information he could on his laptop.
Wufei stood at a small distance, gazing down at the map, a look of concentration on his face. Zechs couldn't decide whether he wanted to be there or not. He figured the latter was more likely. He had seemed to show a distinct lack of respect for Noin a few times.
"They took her medicine, though. They must be concerned for her welfare. They're not just going to kill her." Quatre replied.
The debate continued until they decided they could waste time no longer. Some of them didn't take the threat that Noin would be killed seriously, but others weren't willing to risk it.
They set out, unsure what to expect and hoping their improvisational skills would serve them just as well as they had in the past.
Noin knew that her friends wouldn't be sitting quietly while she was locked away in this place. She knew that they would have been contacted. They would know that what these men really wanted was Zechs.
She also knew that they would soon be arriving to aid her escape.
However, she did not know when they would be arriving, and consequently, how to proceed. Her windowless room lent her no clues to the time of day, and her sleep as well had removed all concept of how long she had been trapped in the constricting little place.
The longer she was left alone, the more time she had to dwell on her situation, and the more her bitterness grew. Had her efforts to teach been so useless in her life? Here she was, trapped by another one of her students, her teachings gone awry. She felt as though her values had been wounded, but at the same time her determination and frustration grew stronger minute by minute.
This, combined with her distracted surprise when the door in front of her opened and the sudden surge of adrenaline she fell victim to, caused her to react by jumping forward and punching the young man, who had come to retrieve the remains of her dinner, squarely in the face. Momentarily disoriented, he stumbled backwards. Noin recovered quickly, peered into the hallway behind him to ensure it was empty, pulled him forward, slipped out the door, and locked him in.
Her luck was incredible. She had no idea how she'd managed to pull that off, besides the element of surprise. Glancing around her frantically, she navigated away from the little room as the young man's heavy pounding on the door began to resound through the hallway.
Noin slunk through the hallway, her bare feet barely touching the floor. The walls looked oddly familiar, but her panicked mind couldn't place them. The frustrated cries of the man she'd locked up behind her were growing fainter as the sound of her pulse pounding in her ears grew louder.
The running footsteps drawing towards her were also getting louder by the second. From the voices that echoed through the hallway, she could guess that she was in trouble. She'd been lucky to fend off the unsuspecting young man, but she wasn't willing to try her luck again. With her breath caught in her throat, she glanced wildly around the dilapidated hallway for some hope of escape.
Her only option was a rusty doorway halfway down the hall. The footsteps were drawing closer and closer, due to round the corner at any second. Praying that it wasn't locked, Noin dashed, her skin touching the cool metal of the door knob just in time.
"This place looks like a junk heap." Duo observed critically, glancing at the abandoned facility. They were barely a quarter of a mile away, looking down at the base from behind a scrubby stand of trees. Trowa and Quatre gazed around, familiarizing themselves with the area, while Wufei stood still and silent behind them. Heero had been unimpressed with the security measures their enemies had put into place – or rather the lack thereof. No scouts had been placed along their approach route.
They weren't putting up much of a challenge. He was a little disappointed.
"So… what do we do?" Duo spoke again, sensing Zechs's impatience. The stern look on his face showed shades of tortured emotion.
"We go." The man responded immediately, breaking off from the group and heading straight towards the building, regardless of any risk in doing so. The others briefly glanced at each other before double-checking their weapons and starting off behind him.
The room was dark. Noin half praised her luck for the door being unlocked, but didn't press her luck. For all she knew, the room wasn't empty. She stood silently inside the doorway as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the light, trying not to breathe too loudly. The room smelled dank and dusty, like a moist old book. She resisted the urge to sneeze.
Suddenly, the hallway she had exited from erupted in a storm of yells and footsteps, travelling towards the room she had previously occupied. Noin jumped away from the door in surprise as the thunder of footfalls and voices raced past her, the door providing a thin barrier between them. She tripped over some misused article of furniture, landing on the floor with a grunt of pain. She laid there for a moment, bracing herself in case the door opened.
It didn't. If they were looking for her, they weren't doing a very good job. She relaxed a little, her moment of panic passed. She told herself that if there was anyone else in the room, they would have made their presence known after the chaos outside.
As soon as the noise died down enough so that it was barely audible, she gathered the courage to pick herself back up again. She fumbled back towards the doorway, the thin sliver of light creeping in under the door the only illumination to guide her. Somewhat dizzily, she lifted herself up and felt around the edges of the doorframe for a light switch. As her fingers found one, she breathed a sigh of relief.
As soon as the old fluorescent lights flickered on, however, her breath caught in her throat and her face froze in an expression of terror.
Noin knew where she was.
A flood of memories came rushing at her, some fond, some terrible. No wonder the halls had been familiar. She'd been here before. Many, many times before. She berated herself for not realizing it sooner. How could she not have noticed? She'd spent years in this place. The Lake Victoria base had been her home for a time, and she had put her heart and soul into the work that she'd done here.
They were toying with her, and it was working. As hard as she tried, she couldn't push the sickened feeling in her stomach away. She stood, frozen in place, staring at the worn stools and shattered glass that littered the room she had set aside for her young trainees to relax in. It felt like decades ago that she had last been here, when in reality, it was only a few years.
So distracted by her emotions, and still dizzy from skipping her medication, she didn't notice the crisply dressed man standing next to her until the cool metal of the gun touched her temple.
"Hello again, Lieutenant Noin." Her ex-soldier sneered, poking at her with the title. She cursed her own distraction. She should have known better, should have been listening better and paying more attention. She should have known that he was there.
Shuddering, she closed her eyes, concentrating every ounce of energy on resisting the deadly urge to punch him squarely in the face.
As they stood there, the sounds of running footsteps became louder again. Shouting voices resounded in the hallway. The echoes of distant gunshots and a pained scream made Noin flinch. The man with the gun pushed her away from the doorway, to the center of the room. Colored class crunched under her feet, cutting into her skin.
Suddenly the door burst in, knocked off of its rusted hinges, and three uniformed men rushed into the room, surrounding Noin and her captor. She froze nervously, until she realized she recognized one of the soldiers, an attractive young man with short brown hair. He held a gun at his side.
"Sir!" the solider yelled at the man holding his gun to Noin's head. "The Gundam pilots and an unidentified force have infiltrated the building."
Noin caught the confusion on her captor's face as he looked at the solider, and reacted in a split second, using his distraction against him. An elbow to the stomach and a twist of the wrist and she was in control. She leveled the gun at his chest. More men were spilling into the room, but the motion around them froze as she stared him squarely in the eyes. "Everything I taught you, all I did for you, you wasted it all. I no longer have any respect for men like you." She asserted firmly, distain and disappointment in her tone.
The familiar, attractive soldier took a step forward and with the butt of his weapon, knocking him unconscious. He nodded at Noin in acknowledgement.
"Noin." Zechs breathed as he broke apart from the pilots entering the room, herding the small enemy force that they had apprehended into a group and restraining them.
She forced a pained smile at him. He could tell how utterly uncomfortable she was there in that room, a reminder of years of hurt and humiliations. He remembered a time when they had stood here together. Shortly afterwards, Wufei had destroyed an attached building, murdering dozens of young trainees. The Chinese pilot stood next to the doorway, emotion imperceptible in his eyes.
"Please get me out of here." Noin whispered.
The breeze drifting in through the windows awakened Noin. She dragged the covers over her bare shoulders, but couldn't warm up. As she rolled over in the direction of the window, she realized that something was missing. Her main heat source was absent from the bed. She rose, tenderly touching her bandaged feet to the ground. As she approached the window, she shuddered, her hair standing on end from the chill.
"Zechs?" she whispered to the troubled form silhouetted against the glass. She gently placed her hand upon his back.
Slowly, he turned to look at her, his calm, glassy eyes reflecting the moonlight.
"Noin." He took her hand in his, then glanced back out at the night sky. How could he tell her how he felt? "Noin, I…"
She smiled, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze. "It's okay. You don't need to find the words to say what's on your mind." Her tone was infinitely understanding, as if she could see down into his soul. Zechs knew that he could tell her anything, and with those words he knew that she did not require him to. She had forgiven him long ago.
Noin slid her arms around him, momentarily leaning her head against his chest. Zechs's breath quickened with the unfamiliar affection, his mind trying to determine how to react. He knew he was doing all of this wrong. But before he could, she was gone, closing the window and drawing the curtains. He regretted his hesitation.
For years, the love and affection that came naturally to other people had been utterly foreign to him. He had spent time with Noin before, and had shared some of his most intimate secrets with her. But their relationship had never been like this. Never had it been so open and hopeful and promising.
"Zechs," Noin called sleepily, settling back into the blankets. The rest of her words were lost in an exhausted mumble.
Zech returned to bed, wrapping his arms around Noin's warm body, relishing the feeling of the warmth of her skin. He lifted his head to kiss her cheek, finally giving in to a comfort he hadn't felt in years.