Summary: After tragedy strikes him down, Heero turns back to the familiar path of self-destruct. He hopes that there will be no one there to save him, but a guardian angel comes to his rescue nonetheless.

Tags: Darkfic | Post-canon | 1xR | Heero-Introspectiveness | Major Character's Death

Characters: Heero Yuy | Relena Peacecraft | Zechs Merquise | Original Female Character (sorta)

I might be posting this for Christmas, but this tale is anything but "Christmasy". Reader's discretion is advised.


Preface

Written for the 2017 Gundam Wing Secret Santa Exchange on Tumblr, as a gift for Immuration, who gave the prompt-word "collateral", while also permitting a 1xR darkfic with canon-reference and world-building. Naturally, the prompt got me thinking of collateral damage, which brought me back to this unposted WIP I had neglected months ago, which – guess what – had to do with exactly that! (That's cheating, I know, but) Suddenly, I had the motivation to write and a deadline to meet so that I could make someone happy. I hope this answers your Christmas wish, dear.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Elle


Acknowledgments

A special thanks to the "Zechsperts" Clara Barton and Crown of Winterthorne for helping me out a few month back when I first tried to tackle this fic and had trouble figuring out Zechs' character.

And a HUGE thanks to BHG for helping me figure out where the hell I was trying to go with this whole thing. Her insight into Heero's psyche is second to none!


L1FE AFTER

A Gundam Wing Fanfic by Elle Smith

April 6, AC 205

Wistful violin music played quietly in the background. A small crowd gathered within the grassy arena at the bottom of an amphitheater. It was late in the evening. The colony's artificial illumination was fading to mimic twilight. The outdoor venue was getting dark, but strong projector lights kept it illuminated brightly as the night-cycle approached. About a dozen rows of folding white chairs had been set on the well-manicured lawn, facing a stone stage encircled by a curved black marble wall. The polished stone was etched with rows upon rows of silver typeface writing glittering under the bright stage lights.

Heero sat on the cast-stone seating surrounding the amphitheater, positioned high enough to observe the scene from a comfortable distance. A cool breeze carried the melancholic music throughout the small residential park, echoing between the surrounding low-rise apartment buildings. It tousled his hair and he shoved a hand through the thick brown locks, pushing the unruly mop of rumpled bangs away from his eyes. He used the same hand, his right arm, to adjust his massive brown trench coat and secured it over his hunched shoulders. Conducting himself with only his right arm, he reached for the half-empty bottle of vodka resting next to him. He sent a sharp glare towards his left arm, which hung secured tightly against his chest in an envelope sling, and then picked up the vodka. He locked his angry gaze on the stage again and took a quick sip out the bottle.

Once the crowd had seated, the reception music ended. Silence fell over the small park. Time itself seemed to come to a standstill. No wind, nor movement; just the occasional stifled cough or the whine of a child before it was cut short by a reprimanding mother. The crowd waited in anxious anticipation. He waited with them, holding his vodka bottle by its neck, swinging it back and forth. His eyes were set on the stage as an elderly man, dressed in a black suit, climbed up to greet the crowd. His stride was brisk and rigid as he headed for a podium standing at the center of the stage. Once he got there, he stood, arms stretched forward on the pulpit, and stared quietly at the crowd with a stony expression on his white-bearded face.

Not one word was uttered. As if on cue, people rose from their seats and stood quietly in their spot, heads bowed low respectfully. Heero placed his vodka bottle on the stone step and got up as well, levering himself up with the aid of his one functional arm. He strained to rise, his knees creaking in protest. His useless left arm dangled lifelessly in its sling, upsetting his balance (or maybe that was just the vodka). He had to steady himself with his right arm before shoving it into his trench coat pocket. He stood rigidly, gazing down at the arena, where people stood waiting in neat rows.

Then, an alarm blared. It pierced brutally through the heavy silence, vibrating raucously through the small neighborhood. Heero tensed, every cell in his body going on high alert, but remained perfectly still.

The strident siren wailed on, unwavering; its sound was continuous and steady, rather than going up and down as sirens usually went. The hollering horn resonated loudly between the huddled buildings; its cry bounced off the colony metal casing, coming back ten times stronger – a dreadful monotonous shrill that sent tremors down Heero's back. It was as if a hundred thousand voices were all shrieking at once, howling in desperation.

It lasted roughly sixty seconds, but it felt more like an eternity spent in hell. Heero used the time to run his eyes over the different faces standing in rows below. They were mostly elderly couples. Fewer and fewer of them came each year. There were families as well, even children. The Levis didn't make it this year, but the Rosenthals did. He knew every face, every name. Both living and dead.

The Kaplans had brought yet another child into the world, he noted while the siren kept wailing hollowly in the background. That would make ten children now. Back when he had first started attending this ceremony, Mrs. Kaplan was pregnant with her second child. Now she had ten. Had so much time passed already?

Ten children, although rare, was something to be expected of a wealthy Earther family, but not from Colonists. No colonist, even on the relatively prosperous L1, would ever dream of giving life to ten children. Colony population control drew the line at two children, three at most (if twins were involved in the second pregnancy). Certain religious faiths could earn a family another two or three children, depending on how well-connected one was with local authorities. The people of this neighborhood, however, had a special exemption. They could have as many children as they want, which was why Mrs. Kaplan was holding her tenth child in her hands, rocking her baby to keep him silent during the siren. But it wasn't their faith that granted them this dubious right. It was their shared grief; the same unbearable loss represented by the wailing siren vibrating through the streets of L1-X28798 on this terrible night.

He spotted the Scheffers sitting next to the Kaplans, filling the rest of the row with their seven children. In space, these unusually large families were an eyesore and a strain on resources. Many resented these people for this reason and more. And, while antisemitism was a form of insanity which he could never bring himself to understand, Heero could see why people judged this community for its large families. He understood, but he wasn't in any position to judge. The only reason these people were allowed to have so many children was because of him. And while these children no doubt provided comfort to these aggrieved people, they could never make up for the ones they had lost right here, on this night, eleven years ago.

The siren died out slowly, fading into a deathly silence. Not one person stirred.

The old man on the stage leaned into the microphone. "Please," he instructed quietly; "Be seated." The crowd did so in utter silence.

Heero did the same, settling on the curved stone seating. Quiet murmuring filled the arena as the crowd waited for the next part of the ceremony. Knowing what came next, Heero reached for his vodka and took a quick gulp, grimacing at the pungent taste. Close to a decade spent living on Earth had spoiled him rotten. Colony brew could never compare to its Earthly counterpart, but up here one could never be too picky; even on a well-off cluster like L1, whose prominent ex-Russian population prided itself for its finely distilled vodka. There was something about brewing alcohol in low gravity. It simply couldn't compare. Or, perhaps, he simply didn't care for the bitter taste of memories his mind infused into the vodka.

Odin used to pour the nasty liquid down his throat, so he'd drink the pain away while treating his wounds and fractures. The first time, he had hurled. Odin had sputtered an angry stream of Russian words. The second time, he had swallowed his own bile and kept the vodka down. After a while, it simply became another unavoidable difficulty he had learned to accept. Either way, L1 brew was hard to swallow.

On the stage, the bearded man in the black suit adjusted the microphone and prepared to speak. The crowd fell silent again. Heero took another torturous sip of vodka. His mind flashed back to the bottle Odin had shoved into his mouth. Something inside him trembled so hard he felt it might snap, so he closed his eyes, and forced another painful gulp down his throat.

The old man on stage opened in a songful prayer. Heero kept his eyes closed and listened, drinking mouthfuls of cheap vodka. The cantor's foreign words filled him with deep mournful yearning as he listened to the old man recite the Yizkor, a remembrance prayer, asking God to remember and grant repose to the 372 souls who had perished in this neighborhood eleven years ago.

Tears welled behind his closed eyelids. Heero pursed his lips tightly, trying to resist the tremors rumbling in the back of his throat. Fractured images flashed rapidly through his mind, like a jumpy old black-and-white film. Grainy memories devoid of color, devoid of life. A whole neighborhood lies in ruin. Homes reduced to piles of charred rubble and dust. The smoky stench of burnt corpses fill the hazy air. Ashes descend softly to the ground. Dying mothers, their broken mouths agape in an endless cry of sorrow. Dead children lie embraced in their mother's rotting arms. Homes enfolded in black decay. Amputated limbs bulging from under a pile of steel and concrete. Blackened fingers reaching out desperately to the heavens. Dead eyes frozen in wild lament. Survivors howling in pain and suffering. The mournful wailing of an infant still clinging to his mother's cold bosom... The aftermath of a massacre. A whole block, wiped out in one night.

Nothing about it had been black and white. Every single horror was experienced in ultra-high-definition and surround sound. He had stood there and watched, meandering through the rubble with a stoic face, unable to contain what he had done. He had borne witness to it nonetheless, knowing that he must. Every sight, smell and sound was committed to memory. Remembrance was the only repentance he could offer for his inconceivable crime.

Heero opened his eyes. A few droplets lingered to his thick lashes. He blinked them away. With each blink, the imaginary black-and-white images flickered before his eyes like a waning flame, until they faded into the back of his mind, where they belonged. When he looked ahead, a new and improved neighborhood now stood where the rubble had once been, including a vast green park to replace the one that had burnt to ashes that night.

He raised his bottle, and drank some more.

The cantor finished reciting the mournful prayer and cleared the arena. The crowd waited in thundering silence as the stage was set for the next part of the ceremony. Two stage-workers walked up – one carrying a single stool and the other a hefty cello. They set their cargo at the center of the stage and moved the podium aside. Being familiar with the usual lineup, Heero knew that an artistic interlude usually followed the emotional Hebrew prayer, before the long line of speeches began. He watched quietly as the two men walked off the stage and the lights went dark. Only a single projector light remained, illuminating the cello standing in front of the stool.

Heero took another swig of vodka. He drank, keeping his eyes on the stage.

A teenage girl walked into the light, dressed in a white strapless ball gown. She was a pale and petite young lady, her fair features striking in their intensity. Her face was set in a stony expression, desolate and bleak. Her short auburn hair that was gathered into a messy high ponytail, frizzing away from her lovely face. Her milky skin and white dress seemed to glow ethereally within the bright column of light. She looked like a forlorn angel, and indeed, she was even wearing a pair of feathery angel wings on her back, for artistic effect.

Drawn to this angelic vision of hopelessness, Heero leaned forward, watching the young lady closely. Even from a distance, the dreary young angel possessed an uncanny allure. Her dainty demeanor touched him in an uncanny way. He could almost feel the tightly sealed pain hidden behind her cool exterior. The stony expression was sincere, familiar. He leaned closer, enthralled.

The young cellist took her place on the stool and prepared her instrument. She adjusted the bow between her delicate fingers and placed it against the strings. Her auburn bangs concealed her face while she readied herself. Then, she lifted her head up to face the crowd. Her fierce gaze cut straight through the sea of faces and focused solely on him, up on the steps behind the small crowd. Her eyes, a unique purplish-blue shade found mostly in space, shone fervently under the harsh light.

For a split second, he was looking into Relena's fearless blue eyes. Heero blinked and his vision synced with reality again, so that he was looking at the young cellist. He shook his head to rid himself of the ghostly image of Relena's face. His head swam, overwhelmed by liquor.

The teenage girl was still watching him, holding her bow against the cello's strings. He stared back numbly, and she smiled. Not so much as a cold sneer, but her smile lacked even a hint of warmth or kindness. Her eyes remained dead, despite the friendly gesture on her lips. Heero wanted to look the other way, but couldn't. The look on her face... it was nothing like Relena's. It was more like looking in the mirror. She was but a child, however the doleful halo she emanated made the lovely young maiden seem wise beyond her years.

The girl finally broke eye contact. The entire interaction couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds. The crowd was still waiting patiently. The lovely cellist bowed her head, closed her eyes, and began to play. Soon, the small amphitheater was filled with beautiful melancholic music with heavy Eastern European tones.

Awashed by the girl's lugubrious melody, Heero remained perfectly still. His eyes were locked on the stage, mesmerised by the way her white-gloved hands rippled fluidly over the cello's strings to produce a hopeless hymn that left his heart in shambles. Every movement she made tugged at the most secret and sensitive strings of his abject heart. The girl's unearthly vacant expression seemed aglow with divinity, as if emitting its own faint radiance. She possessed a kind of nymphet quality; her creamy-white skin glowing under the bright projector light. She was a tantalizing creature of grace and beauty; an angel of sorrow and vanquished hope.

The smooth elegant movements of her hands filled his chest with a deep, sorrowful, yearning. They produced such beauty, while all his hands were ever good for was utter destruction. How can there be music after so much pain and devastation? How can there be poetry, beauty and art?[1] How can it be that the human spirit managed to rise above the abysmal horrors of war and unfathomable hate, and soar out of the ashes with such noble grace?

Feeling her music vibrate through his heart, Heero's chest burnt with tenderness, swelling hot and pulsating inside. He closed his eyes, allowing her music to carry him on its celestial wings. He relished in the sudden warmth sizzling inside and wished for the acoustic bliss to last forever.

Nothing ever did. The music soon ended, leaving him hollow inside. When silence fell, Heero opened his eyes, the Prussian blue veiled by a sheen of unshed tears. He allowed a single droplet to trickle down his unshaven cheek; his annual penance, the only one he was capable of offering this bereaved community. He watched the stage numbly. The young cellist was rising slowly to her feet, her flared white ball gown shifting gracefully with a faint rustle as she turned to leave. Once she had cleared the stage, leaving behind an empty stool and a deserted cello, the emptiness inside him grew unbearable. Her departure gaped an aching hole in his chest. He drank some more vodka.

Next came a long line of speeches. The L1 governor came to deliver a message of peace, et caetera, et caetera. Heero couldn't be bothered listening to those lip-serving politicians. They were only making a public appearance to advance their own interests. They didn't share any of these people's grief. To them, this was just another photo-op.

'I should come with you.' He suddenly remembered Relena saying. She wanted to accompany him up here, but he had refused. He didn't want the attention. He didn't want to turn this into a media circus. This was an intimate memorial. His private hell. He didn't want her anywhere near it. Relena assured him she will be discreet; 'no photo-ops', she had promised, smiling. His answer was the same. This was not her place. This L1-X28798 neighbourhood was a place of the past, and she was to remain a being of the future. She had no place here, among the grieving who still saw smoking ruins under polished layers of modern renovation. She wanted to be here for him, but this wasn't her wound to heal. He didn't want anyone to heal it. Any of it. This was where he came to self-destruct, unimpeded.

Not that any of that mattered, anymore.

Nothing mattered anymore.

Heero raised his bottle of vodka sharply, taking a large gulp so he could erase the image of Relena's worried face from his mind's eye. He didn't want to remember. Drinking through a whole bottle of vodka in a handful of hours should be more than enough to obliterate one's mind, even kill some, but physical alterations he had been subjected to in his youth have made him immune to its toxic effect. His body was capable of superhuman strength and extreme substance resilience. It would take more than a single bottle to expunge past and present from his mind, but it was enough get him through the memorial ceremony. His senses were dulled and his coordination poor enough to indicate slow reaction time associated with mild intoxication. He was feeling drowsy, but that will pass soon enough as his enhanced organs will rid his body from the staggering amount of alcohol in his bloodstream. He will need another bottle to make it through the night.

The rest of the ceremony went by uneventfully. Heero had stopped paying attention once the politicians started offering their empty words and just kept drinking. When it was all over, the crowd rose slowly from their chairs and began to scatter quietly. Some lingered for a while, greeting old friends and offering support to one another. Tired mothers in ankle-length skirts and heavy wigs or head-covers shuffled tiredly along with their many children. Forlorn grandparents walked away hand in hand, heads bowed under the burden of being all alone in their old age. Some people headed to the large black-marble slab encircling the stage. They laid flowers and lighted candles at the foot of the memorial wall, standing silently as they stared at their loved ones names etched in silver on the polished black stone.

Swinging the bottle up for another sip, Heero rose to his feet. He swayed a little where he stood and lowered the bottle to balance himself. He stood there a moment, holding the bottle limply by its neck. Once the world ceased swirling hazily around him, Heero secured his trench coat over his incapacitated arm (hiding it, maybe) and turned to walk along the stone seating surrounding the amphitheater. He reached the black memorial wall from above and only then made his way down, drinking while he walked down the stone steps.

No one paid any attention to him as he approached the memorial. People were engrossed in their personal grief, staring miserably at the countless of names on the black marble wall, or placing old pictures of deceased loved-ones by wreathed flowers and burning candles. That didn't stop him from feeling very self-conscious about walking amongst them. He felt as if every pair of eyes was turning inconspicuously to sneak a careful peek at him, looking disdainfully at the nearly-empty bottle in his hand, or glowering at him accusingly for even being there. The paranoid sensation was absurd, because no one knew who he was/had been, or what he had done. His was just another vaguely familiar face out of many who attended this ceremony year after year.

The L1 cluster was home to a large population of American, Russian and Japanese descent, so he couldn't really say that he stood out from the rest. It was only here, in this community, that he felt painfully out of place. Perhaps some had at a onetime wondered about his scrupulous observance of their ceremony, no doubt curious about his incongruous appearance, which betrayed the obvious fact that he didn't share the same ethnicity as they did, but no one had ever approached him about it. Maybe they were grateful that someone from the outside was sharing their communal grief. The irony didn't elude him; in fact, it was what hurt the most.

He walked slowly along the curved wall, running his eyes over the hundreds of engraved names glistening in the light. He knew most of them by heart, but every year he read them again, so he would never forget. He looked at the photographs as well, dozens of framed photos resting at the foot of the black marble wall, surrounded by flowers and flickering candles. He had memorized every face, every name, and could recognize them from their photos: Deborah Levi, Block A, Apartment 13E; Aviha & Emanuel Klein, Block B, Apartment 5F; Lavi, Aaron & Marion Scheffer, Block C, Apartment A2... Six apartment buildings, 28 apartments each, 168 households and 372 lives in total. An entire community destroyed in one night, all because of some cocky kid who couldn't tell the difference between how things worked in the real world, compared to a well-practiced simulation.

No one had taught him about consequence. It was no excuse, only the tragic truth. He was trained to kill, not to feel. A simulation was deemed successful if the target was destroyed. It never covered collateral damage, not to mention personal risk. His superiors didn't think it was important enough. They didn't want him to be aware of the potential danger or fatal outcome of a mission executed in a densely populated area, and possibly question his orders. Consequence was something he had learned on his own, the hard way. He was taught to do whatever was necessary to complete the mission. He had done just that in order to take down the L1-X28798 Alliance base back in AC 194, never even considering that the force of the blast could affect the surrounding residential buildings. It never did in simulation. But when a Leo was knocked down from the blast and crashed into the apartment complex next to base, and then the ammunition hangar sprayed the neighbourhood with blazing projectiles, he had realized just how real things got on the outside. He had also learned that, once it was in motion, he was powerless to stop it.

It had been soul-crushing experience, afterwhich things were never the same. In a way, his was the 373rd life lost to this tragedy. Something had been broken that night; something visceral that was forever lost.

'Hey, Mister, are you lost?' A small girlish voice suddenly played in his head. He didn't even have to close his eyes to imagine how the girl's freckled little face had popped into his line of sight one bright afternoon. He remembered their encounter as clearly as he recalled what he had done that very morning. He had been lying on the soft grass, looking up at where the clouds revealed the streets, buildings, green parks and roads above him, twisting up with the round structure of the colony to complete a full circle. He had just taken a break after a day of recon, getting acquainted with every inch of the surrounding area and, more specifically, the Alliance base at its center. He knew the place like the back of his hand after hours of scouting and memorising schematics. No chance he'd ever get lost around here.

'Hey, I asked if you're lost!' The little girl whined in a high-pitched tone to get his attention, because he hadn't answered her yet. He sat up, looking at her quietly for a moment. She was wearing a frilly white dress and a sunhat. She also had a small white puppy, which she held by a leash. She didn't seem to pose any threat. She was just an ordinary little girl, spending an afternoon in the park with her dog. Compared to her, perhaps he was lost.

'I've been lost since the day I was born,' he therefore answered, speaking in a voice below a whisper. He was used to his every move being closely scrutinized and monitored, his every word and action recorded and analysed. Over the years, he had learned to keep his voice down to a whisper. He could never shake off the feeling of being surveilled, and he was well aware that this mission was more of a test than a tactical measure. He was certain that he was being constantly observed. After all, this was the first time, in a very long time, that he was out in the real world and away from Dr. J's clutches. Someone might be listening. This wasn't the time to start lamenting his miserable existence. Today will determine his future with the Colony Liberation Organization. He had spent his entire childhood being indoctrinated by the CLO. These were his finals, so to speak, and flunking was not an option.

'Oh, that's really sad,' the girl sympathized sweetly. She knelt in front of her puppy and rumpled its furry little head. 'I'm not lost,' she remarked cheerfully, 'I'm just taking Mary out for a walk.' She laughed, nuzzling her face against the puppy's little snout. The white pup barked excitedly and lifted its muddy paws to climb into her lap, but she pushed it away gently. 'Mary, no!' She rebuked and stood up again, dusting off her flared white dress. 'Mama said I haffta be real careful about my dress, because we're going to granny-Eva for Shabbat,' she lectured the puppy while running her small hands over the dress, to smooth out the ruffled fabric. 'I can't get it dirty!'[2]

'Shabbat?' He frowned, puzzled by the alien word.

'Yeah, that's when you wear your best clothes!' The little girl informed him gleefully. 'It's day seven of the week and it's a very special day!' She smiled, and he counted three of her front milk-teeth missing. Reddish-brown bangs peeked from under her wide sunhat, matted against her freckled face. He had a sudden urge to smile back at her, but he didn't allow his lips more than a subtle curve upwards.

'Here,' the little girl added and offered her hand forward. She was holding a little orange flower. 'Take it,' she urged him; 'You should give it to your mommy, for Shabbat.'

He could almost feel the prying eyes on the back of his head. He hesitated, not sure if he should accept her gift. He didn't have anyone to give it to. And even back when he still had someone, a long time ago, she never would have... and he never would have... but maybe he should have, and then she would have... maybe?

'Don't worry,' the little girl tried to reassure him and thus put an end to the useless circle of thoughts swirling in his head. He focused on her again and she gestured towards him with the flower; 'I'll get another one for granny-Eva,' she tried to persuade him to take it, 'There's a whole bunch of 'em over there,' she turned to point over her shoulder. 'I'm gonna make daisy chains for everyone!'

He concluded that the best course of action would be to receive the offered flower. After all, they did instruct him to be as inconspicuous as possible. For all he knew, they had coerced this girl into approaching him. He resisted the inherent impulse to steal a glance at his surroundings, and accepted the flower from her.

It was a delicate, fragile, thing. He couldn't recall ever holding a flower before. His hands were usually the carriers of steel and blood. They wielded weapons, not flowers. He was nothing if not nimble, but holding something so frail between his callous fingers made him feel awfully bulky. He wondered how could such a profound sense of ineptitude stem from a single orange flower.

'Mary!' The little girl suddenly shouted and he looked up just in time to see her run after her dog. The white puppy was pulling her away by its leash, barking and wagging its tail happily. 'Mary, wait!' She implored it, whining. He watched her run off to a secluded corner of the park, chasing after her dog.

'Not that way!' Her high-pitched voice had echoed throughout the small park and he had actually held off another smile listening to her girly whining. 'We haffta go pick more flowers for granny-Eva!'

Heero stopped somewhere at the center of the black memorial wall. His legs knew exactly where to halt, even while his mind was consumed by the past. He looked down, bowing his head slowly as if to stall before he had to face the horror waiting at his feet. There, amidst beautiful garlands of red, white and yellow flowers, stood a modest golden frame holding a family portrait: two young parents – David and Rachel Dubinchik – holding twin baby boys – Jacob and Arie Dubinchik, 16 months old – and, standing between them, a little girl in a frilly white dress – Hannah Dubinchik, five years of age. She was holding a small white puppy by a leash – Mary – and smiling cheekily at the camera.

The Dubinchik family. Block A, apartment 9D. Right next to the Alliance base, far right corner.

He had searched for them among the charred rubble, hoping against all hope that he wouldn't find a trace of the little girl. He had scavenged mountains of debris all through the night, his hands torn and bleeding, but the rescue party had gotten to them first. Come morning, all that was left for him to find was a small dead white puppy, left behind because human remains took priority in such mass casualty incidents.

Something shuddered and rumbled deep in his throat, trying to claw its way up. He raised the vodka back to his mouth, leaning his head back so he could catch every last drop of the noxious L1 liquor. Eyes clenched tightly, he emptied the bottle and quenched the troublesome quivering inside.

'Hey, are you lost?' This little girl asked.

'–– eбалу получишь, сука, блядь!' Odin barked at him.[3]

Heero gasped, choking on vodka. He coughed to clear the acid bile from his throat. Lowering the bottle slowly, he stared miserably at the framed family portrait at his feet. The Dubinchik family grinned back at him, their wide smiles forever frozen in time. He sighed, closing his eyes sadly. He had also been smiling that day, before it all went to shit. Afterwards, there was no more smiling.

Moving stiffly, Heero squatted in front of the Dubinchik family portrait. He placed his empty vodka bottle on the ground and reach his only working hand into his trench coat pocket. His hand trembled inside it, until his fingers brushed against something soft and delicate. The tremors ceased abruptly, suppressed by the overwhelming fear of harming the fragile item. Heero grasped its flimsy stem gently between two fingers, and pulled out a single orange flower.

His face twisted in agony when he laid his eyes on it. They still grew around these parts; there was a small patch of them at the edge of the park. He had picked one on his way here, as he did every year for the last ten years. Inhaling a long, shaky breath, Heero set the flower down gently. He placed it by the framed family photo and then lingered there a while, crouched defeatedly in front of his unforgivable sin.

He hadn't intended on making a ritual out of it. In fact, the first time he had visited the L1-X28798 ruins was meant to be his last. He had arrived on the colony the day before Operation Meteor had commenced. He was instructed to follow and observe Vice Foreign Minister Darlian – Relena's father – as he came to L1 to attend the 5th Colony Summit.[4] Once he had the man under his sights, he was ordered to assassinate him for gaining knowledge about the Operation. He hadn't, because he had other plans in mind. He had spared the man's life and neglected the mission, so that he could take his own life instead. He had thought it fitting that his life would end here, where his soul had been crushed and buried under a pile of infinite rubble.

Even a year later, the wreckage had still been a precarious mess of twisted steel, concrete and debris marring a large section of the colony. Massive cranes towered over the ruins, along with other heavy equipment still scattered about. Limited resources had hampered the clear up operation, because most of the funds were used for repairing the colony's damaged structure underneath the fallen neighborhood. The falling steel from the collapsed buildings had punctured huge holes in the colony's inner casing, filling large utility sections with debris. The force of the collapse had also destroyed much of the underground support structure that held the "ground" in place, risking a massive cave in. To maintain the area's stability, the clean-up engineers had to reconfigure the tieback system that originally held the inner-casing in place, until they could construct a permanent support structure.

The utility tunnels took first priority and, only recently, excavation had begun on the surface. The clean-up effort was slow going, with crews moving mountains of debris, truckload by truckload, to a large recycling center built especially to process the wreckage; nothing went to waste in space. However, despite this massive undertaking and inherent slow speed, most of the rubble had been cleared from the site, or piled in neat mountains of debris around the charred premises. When he stepped onto the soft ash-like ground on site, there wasn't much left but a barren hill surrounded by these large piles of concrete and steel.

Large squares of plastic tarp covered the holes in the metallic ground. Gusts of wind escaped between the cracks, rising from the punctured tunnels below. They swept the concrete ashes up into the air, from which they descended slowly, like snow.

'I thought it snowed in the Colonies too...' Relena had once recalled, laughing at her own silliness. He remembered frowning at her admonishingly in response. She had been sharing her experiences from that day, the day before the war broke out, on some quiet night of mutual reminiscing. She told him how she had joined her father on that trip to L1-X28798, a trip he might have never returned from if Heero had followed his orders that day.

Curious about the tragedy that took place there a year prior, she went to visit the ruins. They must have missed each other by mere hours, or even meters, only to meet again the next day. He never told her that, though. That would have entailed explaining why he came there, the day before the war; why he was ready to end his life with a clean shot to the head and let his body drop onto the same ground he had desecrated a year before. He never told her about any of that, and she was kind enough not to ask why he came here just before her birthday. She said she understood why he wanted to go home on the anniversary of Operation Meteor. He never bothered to correct her.

His knee began to ache. Like his lifeless arm, his right knee was also a constant reminder of his damaged physique. He released a quiet sigh and rose back up with effort, reaching his right arm towards the memorial wall for support as he dragged his sore leg up, suddenly painfully aware of the orthosis keeping his knee aligned and stabilized, supporting it with metal braces. They creaked when he straightened his leg, which was perhaps the worst part of having to rely on the damn thing to keep active.

Dr. J's leg braces used to creak all the time, and the sound had haunted his dreams for years. With practice, he had learned which movements made his own braces screech in protest and had adapted his maneuverability accordingly, to avoid producing these dreadful sounds. Right now, however, the creaking was unavoidable. He had demanded too much of the damaged limb, supporting all of his weight on it while standing back up.

He had to take a moment to recover from the strenuous rise. Looking around, he noted that people were beginning to clear the stage and leave the amphitheater, returning to the life they had rebuilt after he had destroyed everything they held dear. He spotted the Kaplans leaving in an orderly column, ten children following their parents like little ducklings. The Scheffers were right behind them, as was the elderly Rosenthal couple. No Dubinchik ever attended the ceremony. His atrocious act against this community must have ended that particular bloodline.

Again, that persistent rumble quivered just below his diaphragm, bubbling up to the surface. He felt how his face was twisting to express great agony, but did nothing to stop the blatant display of emotion. He stood rooted to his spot and watched, anguished, as the bereaved left the amphitheater to face grief in everyday life.

"You seem lost," a brash female voice interrupted his dark musings and that bubbling-rumbling thing jolted up like a frightened kitten, lodging itself in his throat. The choice of words was extremely disturbing. Heero turned slowly towards the voice and was hit with an impact of burning recognition as his gaze fell on the lovely young cellist from before. The young angel had shed her feathery wings, though her dainty arms were still clad in white satin gloves, the tips on her fingers blackened after wielding her instrument. A shiver crept through him as his glance slithered over her petite contours, sucking in every detail of her bright and sprightly beauty. Her flared white dress glided gracefully across her juvenile curves, topped with a strapless white corset clinging desperately to her blooming femininity.

He stopped short of staring inappropriately and looked up to meet her eyes. She was looking at him with an elfish smile, her raised cheeks dotted with faint freckles. Now that he was seeing her up close, he deduced that he was at least ten years her senior. She couldn't be a day over sixteen, and she played the part well with that cocky twinkle shining gleefully in her purplish-blue eyes. Gone was the tortured intensity she had displayed on stage. It had been nothing but an act, he realized, disappointed.

"–'scuse me?" He finally replied, doing his best not to slur the words while maintaining a hard guarded scowl on his alcohol-numbed face. He must have failed, because the girl's cockiness seemed to swell in response. She clasped both gloved hands behind her back, stretching to her full height – chin up, chest out, shoulders back and eyes front with a playful smirk hovering over her cherry-red lips.

"Well," she stated casually, rising up and down on her tiptoes. She had a kind of wiggly looseness about her; infantile, yet meretricious in a way that made his cheeks flush with heat. "Everyone else looks like they're dying to get away from here, but you... You just look like you're looking for somewhere to belong."

"I do belong here," he argued weakly, his drawling voice lacking the strength to offer any real protest. The words felt heavy on his tongue. Judging by her arching eyebrow, he must have been slurring badly.

"Hmm..?" The young cellist let out snidely, her plump lips curving into an all-knowing smile. She had picked up on his heavily intoxicated state.

"What's with the hand?" She then changed the subject and gestured with her chin at his useless left arm, hanging immobile in its sling. Unconsciously, he reached his other hand to conceal it under his trench coat.

"Building fell on it," he replied in what he hoped was a sarcastic tone.

The girl laughed, and brushed a lock of auburn hair off her face. "Seems to be a common denominator around here." She pretended to ponder it over, placing a gloved hand under her chin, and then added: "Hmm, maybe you do belong after all."

He scoffed, having no interest in her approval. He turned to stare numbly at the black wall stretching to his side, his eyes fixated on the burning candles flickering at the foot of the memorial.

"Did you lose someone?" The girl asked pertly, her voice devoid of real sympathy or genuine curiosity. Or maybe he just couldn't tell anymore. He turned to her, frowning, and she flashed him a wicked grin. His forehead creased as his scowl deepened. The young angel was a baffling mixture of childishness and vulgarity; arrogant and cute like an entitled princess, while showy and cheap like a young harlot. With her frizzy reddish-brown hair, brilliant purple-blue eyes and marvelous pale skin, she looked perfectly charming. A forbidden fruit – excruciatingly desirable from head to toe.

He traced his gaze across her exquisite milky-white neck. It was slender and not the least blemished, deceitful in its innocence. A dozen hands might have caressed it already, but none was the wiser. He was very much the same at her age, riddled with hidden scars and raging depths of agony no adolescent should ever have to contain. Now, he wore his scars for the whole world to see. Crippled, hollow-eyed and debilitated, there was nowhere left for him to hide his abominable life.

"Myself," he murmured a vague answer, his gaze blurring as he kept staring at her slender neck. His eyes lifted to look at the row of apartment buildings rising in the near horizon behind the wall. "You?" He asked after a while and shifted his gaze back down to the girl. The arrogance vanished from her fair features, melting into a bleak expression. The girl cast her gaze down, shrugging her delicate shoulders.

"I just came here to play." She swung her foot in-and-out of her floor-length gown, staring at it quietly, before adding: "For my grandmother."

Something about the way she spoke convinced him of her sincerity. His gaze lingered for a while, studying the features of her milky-white face with lusty red lips and delicate silverfish eyelashes. She could tell he was ogling her, so he looked away, facing the empty arena.

"Yo'very talented..." he tried to pay her a compliment, slurring the words so much that she laughed again. "And you're very drunk!"

Heero actually smiled in response, allowing a subtle smirk. "Apparently... yeah." He agreed helplessly, then wobbled, almost falling. He didn't, for the girl had reached her hand up to catch him, grabbing him by his upper left arm before he toppled over. It took him a second to realize she was holding him steady. His left arm hung lifelessly in its sling, nerves oblivious to touch – completely paralyzed. He yanked his shoulder back sharply, thus moving his dead arm away. The girl wisely ignored his obvious recoil and withdrew her hand slowly.

"Gawd," she let out brazenly, staring wide-eyed at the empty bottle he had left on the floor. "How much did you drink?!"

"Uh... lot." was all Heero could utter, gaping numbly at her protuberant breasts swelling out of her tight corset.

The girl sent him a feral grin. "See anything you like?"

Heero caught himself and looked away. "Nothing I should be looking at..." he murmured, sighing. He cast his gaze to look at the empty bottle he had placed next to the Dubinchik family portrait. He ached for another sip.

"Okay, now I know you're not from around here," his companion quipped loftily, gesturing with her eyes towards the bottle again. "Cuz if you were, then you'd known better than to pick Khorpysta as your choice of vodka. You might as well pour piss down your throat!"

"Sounds 'bout––" He barely stifled a belch, covering his mouth with his fist as it came out anyway – "––ru–right..."

The girl winced in sympathy. "I think you've had enough for one night," she determined.

Heero shook his head sluggishly. No, he hadn't. He hadn't had nearly enough as he should have had to vanquish the pain twisting his gut. The relative numbness would be gone in a matter of hours. He needed more. He needed... he needed so much more.

His languid gaze fell heavily on the prepubescent girl, drawn to beckoning glow of her ricey white neck. He longed to kiss her smooth white skin, knowing that she would let him do so. He also know that the impunity he had enjoyed for his crimes of war would not be granted if he followed this dangerous road of indecorous desire. But that was exactly the point. He should pay for his unspeakable crimes. He came here each year to do just that.

This girl, however, paved a whole new destructive path for him to follow, evoking sinful thoughts of a frightening yet exhilarating kind. He knew down to his core that she was sin personified. But he didn't care. Her sweetish powdery scent filled his aching senses to the brim. And when she cocked her head aside with a slight toss of her auburn ponytail and quirked her plump lips in a sly gesture, Heero trembled under a wave of tremendous generosity. He was instantly willing to give her everything he had in him; to expose every single thing about him – his heart, his throat, his veins if necessary – if only she would unload his harrowing burden. He needed her to take this terrible ache from his swelling veins. He needed her... He needed... He needed to get out of here.

"Poin'me atta exit?" He stuttered awkwardly, feeling about as filthy and helpless as a stray pup.

The young cellist arched a delicate eyebrow, eyeing him curiously. She studied his wretchedly haggard face long enough to make him feel self-conscious and reach to scratch under his bristly chin. She smiled artfully, like she knew what he had been thinking. Heero cast his gaze down guiltily.

"Carry my cello for me," she instructed, raising her slender white-gloved hand to point at the side of the stage. Her cello was packed inside a suitable bag, resting against the pulpit used during the ceremony; both had been pushed aside to clear the stage. Heero followed the slow languorous movement of her arm as she lowered it to rest gently against her flared white frock. She turned to him with a charming, contrived smile. The gesture raked through him with unthinkable titillation.

"I'll walk you home, so you can sleep it off," the girl offered simply, shrugging her petite shoulders in a fluid, limpid motion. Nothing salacious, but the sheer immaturity of the gesture had him stepping back tremulously, shaking his head repeatedly to assert his negation. She ignored his feeble resistance.

"Hotel, right?" She pressed her tongue to one side of her upper lip and took a step forward whither he had recoiled. She clamped both hands behind her back, smirking like a triumphant lioness before her prey.

"Something with a... Park, I think..." he murmured dully, the name of his hotel escaping him momentarily.

"Yeah, I think I know the place," she smiled, clearly amused by his helplessness. "Come on, stranger," she urged jovially as she slipped her hand into his and pulled him towards the other end of the stage. "Let's get you to bed."

Heero yanked his arm away forcefully, as though scourged by fire. But the reflex wasn't nearly as prompt as his usual reaction. They were already standing next to her hefty cello case. He froze, staring at it numbly.

Odin used to carry his sniper's rifle inside a violin case.[5] 'It was an inheritance,' the man had once told him while packing his sniping gear into a hidden compartment built into the battered old case. 'This thing made it here all the way from the Eastern Front,' he muttered solemnly and picked up an old violin, handling it gently as he placed it carefully over the stashed weapons. 'It survived world wars and death camps, passed down from father to son.' He closed the case slowly, and turned to face him with a small forlorn smile. 'Think it can survive the next big one?' He had asked, and Heero remembered the dire distress he had felt for having nothing to say in return.

He had stared blankly at the man, unable to come up with a reply. He didn't know what "Eastern Front" meant, and he wasn't quite sure what to make of a big word like "inheritance". Odin only taught him how to kill. He was proficient at concealing weapons and sneaking them past security. He could do recon and eliminate a target from any distance. But Odin never bothered teaching him anything beyond the requirements of the mission, with the exception of counting and telling the time. He remembered the disappointment on J's face when the old man realized he had to start from scratch. He didn't even know how to read, and his limited vocabulary and poor communication skills hindered his ability to train as an MS pilot.

The first few months of his training were therefore dedicated to basic education. The Eastern Front, he had soon learned, was a theatre of military operations during the First and Second World Wars. The battles on the Eastern Front constituted the largest military confrontation in pre-AC history, encompassing Central and Eastern Europe. It was a site of immense tragedy and loss of life, where millions of civilians were exterminated systematically, along with millions of soldiers who died in battle. Once educated on the matter, he regretted never keeping the violin. He should have made sure the ancient instrument survived the Eve Wars as well. He had left it behind on X-18999 after Odin died, when he should have kept it. He should have picked up on the message conveyed between the lines.

Heero stared at the cello case miserably, a dull ache thrumming on his heartstrings in a melancholic rhythm. He wondered what it might be like to have something to hold onto beside regret. It would have been nice to carry around a link to a past that could perhaps offer some validation to his empty existence. He should have kept the violin. He should have accepted his inheritance, instead of waiting for Odin to confirm what he had already known deep in his heart.

'Do as your heart tells you,' Odin had commanded just before his death. It was the only way to live without regret, he had claimed as a last piece of fatherly advice. But regret was the only reason Heero lived for now. He had nothing but regret.

"Well?" The girl planted her gloved hands on her hips, scowling impatiently.

He shook his head, trying to refocus on the present. The movement left him nauseated; the staggering amount of alcohol he had consumed swirling wildly in his stomach.

"Go on," she urged brashly, gesturing at the large case with her chin. "Make yourself useful."

Heero frowned disdainfully, glowering at the cello. She had no shame asking a cripple to carry her monstrous instrument, but he could not fathom refusing her. Changeful, testy, chipper, awkward, graceful and disgraceful altogether with her cheeky grin and coltish antics, the young cellist frayed his nerves in ways he hadn't felt in years. The irritation drowned out the remorse for a blissful moment. Parts of him that had long gone numb suddenly tingled under his skin, aggravated to life. She stood there, with her satin-covered hands against her girlish hips, waiting for his compliance and knowing she would get it.

She was a taboo waiting to be broken and his mind reeled at the promise of the never-to-be-had; the forbidden fruit – round, ripe and lovely – practically falling into his lap. As easy as pressing the self-detonation button.

He reached for the cello-bag with his one working hand, grabbed the thick strap and hoisted it over his right shoulder. He faltered, trying to balance the weight of the cello against his bad knee. The orthosis brace gave an embarrassing screech before he managed to hold himself steady on two feet. The girl noticed, sending his leg a curious side-glance. He glared at her harshly and she looked away, turning to walk down a small flight of stone steps leading off the stage. He followed her quietly, struggling against his leg's persistent urge to limp and wobble.

The girl looked over her shoulder, her snide gaze following his pathetic shuffling down the stairs. "A building fell on it too?" She asked dryly, smirking as she pointed with her eyes at his bad knee.

"Same building, actually," he grounded out a tart reply and adjusted the strap over his shoulder with a sharp yank. "Long time ago."

"Yeah. Sounds familiar..." she muttered cynically and turned to face forward again. They left the amphitheater without another word, stepping onto the park's main walkway. The wide path winded away from the brightly illuminated arena and into pitch-black darkness. Public illumination consumed a massive amount of energy, which the Colonies couldn't afford to waste. The park grounds – a lively patch of green during the daytime cycle – were therefore shrouded in thick blackness. However, the path itself was dotted with a geometric pattern of glowing cyan and green dots, emanating a dim radiance to light the way.

Such alternative light sources were prominent in space. A coat of bio-luminescent paint lighted many public spaces. Thick colorful lines were painted along various pathways, differentiating them by color. The phosphorous paint absorbed UV rays during the day, expelling them after dark. Late at night, the colony seemed to consist of dark patches outlined by glowing cyan, magenta, or green ribbons of light crisscrossing the habitat ring in a vast latticework of light. Central areas were lit with additional green-algae-based post lights, casting an eerie green halo over the colony during the night-cycle.[6] Most of the residential sectors were darker than anywhere on the densely-populated and heavily light-polluted Earth. Even on the darkest night on Earth, one could still see the stars, whilst here, the darkness was utterly oppressive.

Although born and raised in space, Heero felt a sense of unease walking through this ghostly green glow. The overbearing electric-green hue muted all color, barely slicing through the darkness. Dingy green shadows loitered in between chunks of faint green streets. He could only see a few meters ahead at a time and had no way of telling what dangers might be lurking in the murky-green shadows. The upper section of the habitat ring, clearly visible during daytime, was swallowed in black – a malicious reminder of the dark cold vacuum awaiting beyond the colony's metal hull – just a few lousy inches of thick metal separating them from certain death.

He had never realized just how vulnerable he felt in space. As a child, he never gave much thought to that nagging knowledge of living in hostile and dangerous environment, where anything could go wrong at any given moment. To a Colonist, imminent death was a part of life. It was just something he had learned to accept as a given, even more so after witnessing his mother being sucked into the void.

The vacuum made no discriminations. It killed swiftly and by the same clinical measures no matter its victim. It was merciful, in a way; a far more favorable fate than being crushed under the enormous weight of smoky rubble – painfully aware of every agonizing second as death crept up on you – feeling that thick, muddy, leaden stillness trudging closer, slithering over everything, devouring indiscriminately, spreading over homes, schools, shops and theaters, over parks and playgrounds, crushing and grinding, gruesome and greedy, relentless and unstoppable as it squeezed the life out of every living cell.

'He-Heero...' Relena exhaled his name in a strained whisper. The image of her feverishly hot features wracked through him violently; snapshot memories flashing red-hot in his mind.

She was lying on her back, pinned under him. Her breath was ragged, breasts swelling up and down in the sultry heat. Flames crackled nearby. The air burnt fire-hot. Sweat soaked through Relena's white blouse, the sodden fabric taking on a rosy-shade in the blazing-red light; it clung to her heaving bosoms. Dirty-blonde bangs plastered to her moist forehead. Her face was flushed with heat and damp with perspiration. The thick moisture trickled down her blushed cheeks, streaking black grime across her clammy skin.

'Heero...' She moaned, grimacing as she wriggled beneath him.

He groaned in response, eyes squeezed shut. He was leaning over her – kneeling torso-over-torso – tense and shaking. He held himself up with two hands pressed firmly against the floor. His arms trembled wildly, struggling to support the weight pressing down on them. His face contorted with effort, dripping steamy sweat. He gritted out a small grunt through clenched teeth.

'Heero...' Relena whispered faintly, chanting his name like a quiet prayer.

Perspiration oozed slowly down his nose, tickling him. He twisted his face, trying to relieve the itch without moving his hands. The sweat dripped into Relena's eye, directly below him. She blinked, turning her head aside uncomfortably. A quiet whimper escaped her lips.

'Ha-hang on...' he stuttered, arms and legs shaking so hard his teeth chattered. He released an anguished groan, eyes clenching shut as he hung his head low. His normally remarkable stamina was all but gone. He couldn't keep this up much longer. She needed him to keep going, but his limbs were about to collapse. He couldn't do this, but he had to. Relena was counting on him to see her through this.

'Ju-just... a little... lon––ger...' he promised, or lied... or both. He opened his eyes, blinking away the sweat (tears?). His world narrowed down to the sight of Relena's eyes. Big, blue and full of sorrow. Their gazes locked, desperately holding onto one another. Relena's eyes welled with tears. She moved one hand, dragging it slowly across the dirty floor. She twisted it around his quivering arm, and reached to caress his face. He lowered his head, his aching neck grateful for the momentary relief, and fluttered his eyes shut. Her fingers were cold against his burning skin.

'Heero...' She wept his name anxiously, tears streaking down her dirty cheeks. He wanted to comfort her somehow, but all he could do was groan under the colossal strain bearing down on him.

'Re––Relena...'

Heero halted abruptly. They were just passing by the large apartment complex built over the Alliance base he had destroyed. The girl noted that he was no longer trailing her, and stopped as well. She spun on her heels to face him questioningly.

"I need a drink," he said and she blinked puzzledly, cocking her head aside. "Seriously? You just had a whole bottle!"

The sound of Relena humming 'Happy Birthday to You' played quietly in the back of his head. She was getting delusional, humming to herself.

Ha- -ppy birth- -day to you...

Ha- -ppy birth- -day to you...

"I need another one," Heero determined, looking around in search of a convenience store. He spotted a 7-Eleven across the road. The glowing green logo blended in perfectly with the spectral green luminance flooding the deserted street. He headed straight towards it, uncaring if the girl followed him or not.

He was vaguely aware of her presence behind him as he entered the store, carrying her heavy cello over his shoulder. A bald middle-aged vendor looked up from behind the counter. He gave Heero a quick once over – jeans, trench coat, cello, arm sling, bristled cheeks – and his thick gray eyebrows furrowed at the young man's disheveled appearance. His eyes then fell on the teenage girl entering a step behind him, all dainty and lovely in her flared white ball gown. The man's scornful scowl deepened with disdain.

Heero ignored him and limped/wobbled towards the liquor section at the end of the store, pulling up the cello's strap, for the case kept sliding off his slumped shoulder. There was something familiar about the place, and it suddenly dawned on him that this was where he had bought the previous bottle. The clerk probably remembered him for earlier that evening, which explained his blatant animosity.

He studied the vast collection of vodka brands stored on the shelf, his eyes searching for something recognizable. The young cellist was soon standing by his side, rising wiggly up and down on her tiptoes to examine the variety like a curious cat. She was more than a head shorter, reaching under his shoulder. Heero shifted uneasily, feeling terribly cumbrous towering over her. He was about to move a step to the side, but then the girl leaned towards the shelf, purposely invading his personal space as she reached for a bottle of vodka resting in front of him.

"Try this one." She grabbed it, turning to him with an impish smile. "If you're going to kill yourself drinking" – she shrugged carelessly – "might as well drink premium while you're at it."

He eyed the bottle doubtfully, noting the conspicuous "Made on L1" marking and the pricey price-tag. He recognized the brand. This was the kind of fancy stuff Odin used to drink after a particularly successful mission, when he got paid handsomely for his troubles. The only reward he ever got was a small taste of this premium L1 liquor, so he'd forget all about the throbbing bumps and bruises he had earned for his own troubles. He hated it just the same as the cheap kind. Odin would laugh and promise that it will grow on him. He was such a jerk!

Heero snatched the bottle from the girl's white-satin-gloved hand with startling intensity. She gaped at him, at a loss for words for once. He whirled around and stomped towards the cashier counter, slamming down the select vodka. He shoved his hand into his trench coat pocket to pull out his wallet, feeling the older man's scornful eyes scrutinizing him in contempt.

The girl joined him by the counter as he was sifting through the money bills in his wallet, trying to fish some Colony currency out of the thick stack of cash. He could tell the girl was watching him closely, bedazzled by the large amount he was carrying. He avoided charging his credit card whenever possible. It made it easier to disappear, especially when he was traveling up here. He didn't want anyone following him up here. Never.

He was carrying way too much ESUN currency, Heero realized sourly as he riffled through the unsorted bills, encountering the image of Relena's face on every other one. Her portrait was printed on the €$₦100 bill; her expression as intense as a fierce young goddess. He tsked in annoyance each time her sharp eyes looked up at him from the wallet and quickly flipped to the next bill.

The middle-aged clerk seemed thoroughly pissed by the time he had amassed the needed amount to pay for the expensive vodka. He placed the small stack of money on the counter, glaring back at the clerk just as sharply.

"I take credit, you know," the older man grumbled, shaking his head as he counted the bills. "Goddamn Earthers..."

Heero didn't bother with a response, glowering ahead at nothing in particular. The girl giggled.

She plucked a lollipop from a colorful holder on the counter and threw it casually next to the vodka. Heero sent her a sharp glare, but she just batted her silverfish eyelashes innocently. He sighed and turned back to the wallet, searching for another bill to pay for the damn candy.

The clerk eyed him warily. Clearly, he had no doubt in his mind as to what was about to transpire between them. He seemed utterly disgusted.

When he couldn't find any more Colony currency in between the €$₦ notes, he gave up the search, if only so he wouldn't have to look at Relena's piercing eyes again and again. He pulled out his credit card instead, throwing it at the clerk while sending the girl a nasty look. The man heaved an exasperated sigh. He slapped the stack of cash back on the counter and accepted the card instead, rolling his eyes and shaking his head as he turned to the register. Heero had the right mind to punch him, but, unfortunately, he wasn't that drunk. Yet.

He observed vigilantly as the disgruntled old fart swept his credit card through the card-reader. A nagging sense of alarm buzzed in the back of his head. Somewhere, perhaps, a popup window might be flashing on some screen to alert someone of his location. Stupid girl. Stupid candy. Stupid!

He jerked the strap hanging from his shoulder, pulling it up sharply. Stupid cello!

The vendor finally handed him his credit card and the receipt. Heero snatched them angrily and shoved both into his wallet, maneuvering his fingers awkwardly to hold both the wallet and the card in his only working hand. Using the same hand in which he held his wallet, the then grabbed the vodka bottle, sweeping it off the counter. He wasn't sober enough to coordinate his only working hand to hold both, and, in his rush, the wallet slipped from his grasp, falling to the floor.

Heero hissed a quiet cuss under his breath. It was the small simple things that managed to get under his skin. He would have been able to walk away sooner if he had two working hands – one to handle the wallet and the other to hold the vodka – but that was no longer the case. Stupid arm. Stupid wallet. Stupid everything!

The girl noted the dark scowl on his face. She tried to pacify him with a sweet smile, and leaned to retrieve the wallet. She handed it to him and he just glowered at her angrily. Didn't she get it? He couldn't hold both. He was a fucking cripple!

He spun on his heels in a melodramatic gesture, and walked out the store, taking his vodka with him. The girl followed him a moment later.

"That was intense," she remarked in amusement, unwrapping her lollipop. "What a jerk, right?"

"Hn," he grunted, distracted as he placed the vodka bottle between his thighs, clenching them tightly to hold it steady so he could open it with one hand.

The girl slid the pink lollipop into her mouth and watched him struggle to tear the plastic seal off the bottle one handed. She chuckled at his first failed attempt and his eyes shot up to glower at her. She shrugged dismissively, swirling her delicate tongue around the pink candy.

Heero paused, holding the bottle between his legs, hand clutched around the cap. He watched her, his mouth hanging slightly open. The girl's cherry red lips bit down on the candy stick, sucking it into her mouth, just... leaving it there. She suckled on it teasingly, purposefully erotic. Her flirtatious tongue impinged upon his imagination, causing a part of him to ache in yearning to swap places with the lollipop in her mouth.

He twisted his hand around the bottle neck swiftly – tearing both seal and cap in a forceful motion.

The young nymphet smirked slyly, lips curving around the candy stick. "Awesome trick," she said.

"Not a trick," he grumbled in return and pulled the bottle from between his legs. He raised it for a sip. "A necessity," he added bitterly and took a large gulp. It went smoothly down his throat. Odin was right. It had grown on him.

He resumed walking down the dimly-lit street, advancing at a brisk pace despite the hindering weight of the cello against his back. The girl matched his hasty pace, her mouth working lustily on the candy. The made their way through the murky-green streets in silence, Heero drinking mouthfuls of vodka and the girl sucking on her lollipop. She held it between her lips and reached to pull his wallet out of the white sash around her waistline, where she had apparently tucked it earlier.

Heero sent her a wary side-glance, the bottle raised to his lips. The girl opened his wallet and looked at his ESUN driver's license inside the ID window. She snorted, looking up at him nastily.

"Heero Yuy? Seriously?" She leered, laughing. "What, like the dead guy?"

"Yeah," he sighed, raising the bottle for another sip. "Like the dead guy."

"Gosh, your parents were cruel..." She shook her head in amusement, turning her attention back to his wallet.

He actually coughed out a laugh at that one; a crude, bitter sound. His mother had given him a name, of course, but he hasn't used it in decades. And Odin... well, he would just call him 'come here!' whenever he needed him. Dr. J called him a disappointment, mostly. He had given him the codename "Heero Yuy" almost as an afterthought. The only person to really call him by name in any meaningful way had been Relena. She was the first, anyway. The name just stuck afterwards.

The girl flipped the ID window over. His wallet was actually a bunker-badge wallet, and it did not take her long to discover the shiny golden Preventer badge hidden between the flaps holding the ID window and credit card slots.

"Nice," she drawled, running two white-gloved fingers over the badge. "So you're like an agent?"

"I'm like an analyst," he returned sarcastically. "Risk assessment."

She laughed again. "Did anyone tell you you totally suck at your job?"

He smiled, genuinely amused. It felt good. He wished he could smile more. Or cry. Or anything. He downed some more vodka, closing his eyes in a pained grimace. Anything at all.

The girl continued looking through his wallet. She turned the badge-flap to see what was on the other side. No one has ever rummaged through his personal belongings like this, which was why – Heero mused vaguely – he never bothered hiding anything. He never imagined he would allow such an invasion of his privacy, but this girl had him feeling extraordinarily generous.

"And what's this now?" The girl mumbled in a curious childlike tone and Heero shifted his eyes down. She had found Relena's picture inside his wallet; a passport-size photo of a seventeen year old Relena standing against lush greenery, wearing her hair down and smiling sweetly at the camera.

"She's very pretty," the young cellist asserted as she studied the picture closely, then turned to him with a wicked smile. "You sure like them young, don't you?"

Heero ignored her. He locked his gaze dead ahead, and resumed drinking.

"I bet her daddy didn't like it!" The girl snickered.

"Try brother," he muttered dismally.

"Ouch." The girl mock-winced. "I guess that didn't end too well... Was she crushed?"

"Give me that!" He snapped, scowling angrily. He reached out his hand to accept his wallet, his fist clenched around the bottle neck. She shrugged and handed it to him. Heero grabbed it between his thumb and index finger (the other three digits held the vodka), and placed the wallet in his trench coat pocket. He glared at her the whole time, until she bowed her head in shame, the cockiness gone with the realization that she had crossed a line that wasn't to be crossed.

They walked the rest of the way in tense silence, Heero sipping vodka out the bottle while stealing glances at the young maiden walking by his side. She kept her head bowed humbly, like an abashed child. His lingering gaze slithered from her bashful face down to her bare white shoulders. Awashed by the night's misty-green glow, she resembled a mythical nymph; a divinity never to be violated. How he longed to take this nubile maiden and bury himself deep inside her lovely limpid body...

Heero averted his eyes quickly. He tried to drown the rapacious thoughts with more vodka, but he was only adding fire to the flame. No matter how savagely his conscience heckled him to abandon this dangerous path, his ravenous gluttonous-beast-of-a-heart would not heed this warning.

They were getting closer to his hotel. He now had a fairly good idea where they were headed. But then again, he never really needed the girl as a guide. Might as well admit it: he was taking a sixteen year old up to his room.

In all matters of opinion, there was nothing more inviolable than a child, and even a promiscuous girl of sixteen constituted as such. The age of consent on L1 was set at 18, and even if the young seductress thought herself an adult, she was not yet capable of comprehending the path on which she was leading them.

He had also been there, a lifetime ago. As a teenage boy forged by blood and war, he had thought himself mature and capable of handling the world as an adult. He had soon discovered he knew nothing of the real world – a place molded by selfish whims that defied all logic. Hampered by his inexperience and naivety, he had suffered greatly for underestimating the grown-ups world. Now, however, in his mid-twenties, he had matured enough to join this senseless realm of whimsical desires. He was painfully aware of his faults, whilst foolishly determined to act on them nonetheless.

He drank his vodka avidly, as if it would bestow some hidden wisdom upon him, allowing him the freedom to act on his heart's desire and lay his bursting conscience to rest with this youthful courtesan.

By the time they walked into the lobby, Heero was wavering embarrassingly, staggering clumsily with each step. He stumbled drunkenly through the sliding doors, struggling with the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other. The girl pulled him close to her, snaking her arm around his waist to keep him on a straight path. Somehow, they made it to the elevators.

Heero stopped, sliding the cello bag off his shoulder and resting it on the floor. He swayed, his head swimming, overwhelmed with vodka. The lobby blurred around him as he turned to face the girl, his movement sluggish and ungainly. His eyes fell on her – a glowing white angel in a blurry sea of murky colors – gawking at her dumbly, unable to do much more.

The girl smiled in amusement. "Do you remember which floor you're on?" She purred sweetly. Her suggestive tone triggered alarm-bells in his head, sending a jolt of logic through his hazed mind. He shook his head.

"I'mma call you'a cab..." he slurred heavily, trying desperately to hold on to one last shred of decency.

The young cellist quirked an eyebrow. "Do we need one to get to your room?"

"You're not goin' to m'room," he stated as firmly as he could manage, scowling down at the demeritorious girl.

"I'm not?" She asked innocently, leering at him. "Did some last minute risk-assessment now did you?" She cackled.

Heero glared at the lascivious girl, or at least he tried to do so, because he couldn't quite control his facial muscles anymore. He ended up starting numbly at her frail ivory shoulders... silky supple neck... frizzy auburn head of hair... The russet beauty simply begged sacrilege. Her every move encroached on the conventional belief that she was beyond the pale. This girl was easily capable of throwing any well-disposed man into a paroxysm of desire. There was no point in trying to analyze his indecent craving. He was sick and tired of his constant surrender to the persistent introspective urge, which only served his analytic mind with boundless alternatives and forking routes to follow without end. He drank as much as he did to avoid these burdening analyses, to escape the maddeningly repetitious scrutiny of his own psyche. He wanted her. It was as simple as that. He wanted her precisely because he shouldn't. He wanted her to purge himself of this degrading and dangerous desire. He wanted her to be the end of thought. The end of reason. The end of him.

"You're not expecting to get paid, are you?" He drawled the question heavily, doing his best to frown warily at the girl. She laughed at his useless insinuation; a tawdry would-be whore shining through a dainty white sylph.

"Does it really matter?" She asked foxily. Heero shrugged his shoulders in a languid motion. "I guess not," he muttered meekly.

Satisfied with his answer, the meretricious nymph pressed her shimmering white-satin finger to the elevator button. The doors slid open, revealing an empty elevator. Heero gaped numbly at the vacant space, studying the geometric pattern on the carpet – tacky gold against burgundy. He blinked away the dazed stupor and reached for the cello bag at his feet.

"Sixth floor..." he heaved with a weary sigh as he lifted the cello bag, holding it like a suitcase. He carried his awkward and numb body laboriously (still desperately trying to devise a means of escape, albeit aware it was too late to back out now), and shuffled tiredly into the elevator. The girl followed him in, looking tremendously pleased with his surrender. She pressed the #6 button and the elevator doors closed behind them.

Heero led her quietly down a dim hallway with the usual bland hotel decor. They entered his room without exchanging a word. He could tell that the girl took notice of the many empty minibar liquor bottles on the nightstand; small doses of courage he had consumed just so he could bring himself to leave the room earlier that evening. Sadly, drinking had become greatly associated with any event in his humiliating, sordid, and reticent life, moreover his pathetic excuse for a love life – a sporadic collection ephemeral delights procured with untraceable paper money.

The young would-be whore walked around the room, looking things over and running her white-satin gloved hands over the occasional surface. Heero stood by the door, still holding the cello case, and took a moment to appreciate the tight-fitting corset sheathing her young body in pure pearl-white. The lovely fay was like a glow of heavenly light, brightening his abject room with her lovely white dress. That flared white frock, with its strapless corset, and elegant arm-length gloves... it resonated with him deeply. He didn't want to admit why, and when his mind flashed back violently to an image of a sixteen-year-old Relena standing in the spotlight wearing a majestic white gown and a crown on her head,[7] he shook his head hurriedly to rid himself of the intrusive image of her fierce blue eyes shifting away from her audience to glare up at him, on the balcony above. She shouldn't be here with him; not right now, when he was at his lowest.

He focused on the teenage girl loitering around his hotel room. His eyes lingered to every detail of her compact body. The sight of her – that angelic something mingling with the rapturous air of her youth – stirred a delightful tremor in his loins. It consumed his mind like a furnace of lust. She was Helen of Troy. She was Samson's Delilah. A deadly siren who lured men to their doom. He couldn't wait for her to drag him under and drown him in his own despair.

Heero set the cello down on the floor. He then shed his trench coat, and tossed it towards a nearby chair. The girl turned to face him, her expression unreadable, stunning in its sheer intensity. Her eyes fell on the envelope sling holding his left arm against his dark shirt. She stepped closer, slowly. He tensed, but remained standing by the door. The girl smiled placidly and reached her graceful hands behind his neck to unfasten the hook and ring securing the sling. He studied the top of her auburn head as she worked on releasing his limb from the restraint. She removed it slowly, sliding his arm carefully out of the pouch, and let the sling drop to the floor. His arm fell limply as well, dangling lifelessly at his side.

She reached to touch it, timidly at first, before grasping his hand between hers. Heero watched her intently. She raised his hand to her face and bestowed a gently kiss on his folded knuckles. She looked up to meet his eyes, smiling coyly.

"Does it hurt?" She whispered tentatively.

Heero shook his head. "Nerves are dead," he replied sullenly, sighing. "Can't feel a thing."

She maneuvered his hand again, letting it rest over her bosoms. "Not even this?" She asked, looking at him curiously.

Heero gazed numbly at his tanned hand against her milky-white cleavage. He closed his eyes sadly, longing to feel the smoothness of her creamy skin, the warmth of her flesh, the weight of her soft bosom cupped in his hand... but his arm was completely lifeless from the shoulder down; ignorant of touch, devoid of life. He opened his eyes, looking at her dolefully. "No," he answered her question morosely. "Not a thing."

"Not feeling..." – she caressed herself with his lifeless fingers, stroking them gently across her fair skin – "must come in handy." She scoffed at her own pun, smirking up at him. Heero remained quiet.

The girl continued to stroke herself leisurely with his hand, her eyes fluttering shut and her lips parting slightly. Heero observed with bated breath, relishing in the unhurried manner in which she moved his hand back and forth, brushing his unfeeling fingers across the supple white mounds bulging from her corset. His breath shortened with the lust swelling in his pants.

"See?" The young nymphet teased, smiling haughtily, "It does make you feel something." She lowered his arm, pressing the palm of his unfeeling hand over the growing lump tenting his trousers.

Heero let out a throaty groan, his eyes fluttering shut. She left his hand hanging there and he felt her unzip his jeans, freeing his throbbing desire from its confinement. She took his dead arm in hers once more and he shuddered with anticipation, his legs barely supporting him upright. When she wrapped his own fist around his tumescent manhood, he let out a small whimper, sagging against her – face buried in the crook of her neck. His mind reeled at the very concept of what they were doing. The girl was using his own dead arm to coax the burning flow of life through his veins. She wielded his hand as skillfully as she did her cello bow, moving it rhythmically in a maddening rhythm. She clasped his fist tightly, squeezing his bursting passion. A part of him that was long-dead suddenly brought on the eruption of immense satisfaction.

The tumultuous cascade left him shaking, unable to stand. He sunk against her heavily, his body reduced to a useless heap of flesh and bone. She let got of his limp hand and zipped his pants, before wrapping her arms around him in an embrace. They stood motionless, a grown man leaning jadedly on a young girl. He inhaled a lungful of her faint musky fragrance as he slipped his only working hand around her slim waist. He held her close, breathing her sweetish, biscuity odor. His eyes watered behind his closed eyelids, languishing the monstrous yearning he felt for her comfort.

"Can I keep you..?" He murmured shamefully into her dimpled neck.

"Whatever for?" She whispered back.

'Heero...' Relena whispered softly in his ear, her long fingers caressing his face tenderly.

He pulled her closer, burrowing his face into her bare shoulder, trying to blot out the pain by melding with her splendid young body. His every nerve was inundated with the feel of the young auburn brunette's body. His heart expanded with such vehement force, as though trying to encompass her until it swallowed her whole. It knew what it craved for – his treacherous heart – his body even more so, but his mind still rejected the reprehensible carnal plea. Ashamed and frightened, yet incredibly hopeful, he clung desperately to the fragile taboo holding him in her merciful arms.

' Ha- -ppy birth- -day to you... ' Relena hummed dazedly to herself. Her birthday was in two days. ' Ha- -ppy birth- -day to you... '.

"Play for me," he whispered a pathetic plea, his words muffled against her silky shoulder. He felt her tense against him, taken aback. She wasn't expecting him to ask for such a platonic alleviation, and neither did he, but he could think of no better remedy for his aching soul. He needed her divine music to drown out the imaginary sound of Relena's delusional humming.

The girl released herself from his overbearing embrace, not violently, or with any obvious distaste, but with the grace of a benignant young angel. She broke away gently, untangling herself from him with an uneasy smile. He looked at her numbly, cold without her touch, and added a desperate "Please."

A tender smile illuminated her fair features. His angel of mercy nodded, gazing up at him in compassion. She took both his hands in hers, holding them gently in front of him, and pulled him slowly towards the bed. She helped him lie down and he sunk against the mattress with a tired sigh. He moaned sleepily, mumbling something incoherent to express his gratitude, but he could have said anything.

He was falling into a heavy drunken slumber. He felt the girl slip off his shoes, making his sleep more comfortable. She then moved away and he felt incredibly alone. He tried to open his eyes, but the alcohol in his bloodstream kept him under, urging him to fall asleep. He struggled against the compelling darkness, only vaguely aware of the young cellist's presence in his room as she pulled out the chair and readied her cello. He drifted between different states of consciousness, nearly slipping away, when suddenly – music. His angel came to his rescue, anointing his weary body with the delicate breaths of a mourning cello. A heartfelt tune filled his small room, the silky notes rolling sleekly into his ears. The plaintive melody coursed through him like ripples in a lucent blue pond. The notes came in a relaxed flow, gentle waves lulling him to sleep with a woeful lullaby.

Heero listened, immersed in the harmonic melancholia. Peace befell upon him slowly, and his body grew heavier. He let out an airy sigh, sinking deeper into the mattress as he was submerged in her somber symphony. A dim thought waned and flickered somewhere in the back of his benumbed mind, vaguely pondering over the nature of his usual dismissal of music, not so much as a waste of time, but maybe because it reminded him too much of the bereft violin music Odin had played late at night, when he thought he was asleep. He refused to think about it any further, tuning his entire being to the sounds of the cello. The luscious melody soaked his senses, drowning all thought. The sheer elegance of each measured strike of a chord produced the highest form of beauty. He fell into a state of meditation, his soul imploding in reverence of her holy music, praying to be swept away on its celestial wings.

Quietly, gradually, his mind surrendered to the warm darkness, melting away slowly. Everything fell into place as the clutter finally settled down for the night. A grateful smile spread leisurely over his lips. He fell asleep.

The girl continued sitting on the single chair on which he had thrown his trench coat earlier, holding her cello between her spread legs as she played, keeping her eyes closed in concentration. Her white-satin-gloved hands stroked the bow fluently across the strings with skillful precision. She performed one wistful symphony after the other, granting her audience a peaceful slumber.

Heero's intoxicated sleep was deep and heavy. He began snoring. The girl opened her eyes. She looked up from her cello, watching him while she continued playing. He snorted loudly and turned to lie on his side, curling into himself.

The girl stopped playing.

The room fell under and abrupt silence.

Slowly, she set her bow aside. She stood up, leaning her cello carefully against the chair. She took a moment to stretch, raising her gloved arms above her head. She turned her head from side to side and rubbed the back of her neck with one hand. She then went to the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

Heero turned in his sleep, uncurling from the fetal position. He lay sprawled on his back, arms and legs spread wide, his mouth hanging open in sleep. Now that he was on his back, the snoring ceased.

The girl stepped out of the bathroom. She held something small in her hand, her fist closed around it. She walked to the bed, standing over Heero. She observed him with a taut expression, toying with the small item between her white-gloved fingers. Eventually, she tucked it into the white sash around her waist.

Gathering her flaring dress into her arms, the young maiden climbed on the bed, shifting the billowing fabric aside to kneel next to Heero. She paused, studying his sleeping face. He seemed peaceful. Her lips curled into a subtle smile. She gathered him gently in her arms, laying his lolling head in her lap so he could sleep against her. She cradled his head in her arms, and used her free hand to stroke his hair soothingly, mollifying his disturbed slumber.

He mumbled something incoherent, and she hushed him gently. "Shush... It's okay. Sleep."

He relaxed in her arms, body sagging heavily against her folded knees and dipping into the mattress. She continued petting his hair gently.

Her eyes fell on his lifeless left arm, sprawled limply at his side. She chewed on her bottom lip, thinking. Her fingers combed through Heero's hair absentmindedly, alternately curling and releasing the soft brown locks. She kept eyeing his limp hand with intense purple-blue eyes.

Finally, she slid Heero's head carefully off her lap, laying him gently onto the mattress. She reached for Heero's left arm, grasping it carefully with two hands. She paused, glancing at his peaceful face. Slowly, she raised the sleeve to expose his wrist. She reached into her sash and pulled out the small item she had tucked there earlier. It was a razor blade, which had been removed from the plastic cartridge.

Heero moaned in his sleep. The girl's head shot up, watching him with alarmed purple-blue eyes. He turned to face the other way, but otherwise he did not stir. She waited for a breathless moment, scrutinizing his face dreadfully. When moments passed and he did not even twitch a facial muscle, she returned her attention to his lifeless arm. She held the sharp razor steadily between her fingers. She pressed the tip of the blade against Heero's wrist. The delicate flesh caved under the razor, the skin breaking with a slow trickle of blood. She turned to observe his face, but her victim was completely oblivious to her deeds.

Holding his arm steady, she dipped the blade into the delicate tissue. She slit his wrist open, gritting her teeth as she cut through layers of skin and muscle. She hacked through the dense tissue, watching the flesh separate with a sickly sound, and bit down hard on her lips in disgust. Blood gushed out of the gaping wound as she ran the razor blade across his inner forearm, staining her white gloves.

"Shit," she hissed and pulled back, raising both arms. Heero's slashed arm fell against the mattress. The sheets around it gradually soaked with blood.

The girl scuttled hastily off the bed. She stopped, watching Heero's arm bleed into the mattress. She observed numbly, toying with the bloody razor between her fingers.

Heero stirred, turning his head the other way. She leaned over him, watching his face closely. He was deep asleep. She smiled.

Moving away, she placed the razor in Heero's right hand, curling his fingers around it. She then packed her cello into the case, strapped it over her shoulder and turned to the door, careful to use her unstained glove to touch the knob.

Stepping out into the hallway, the girl stood a moment behind the closed door, leaning her head against it. She closed her eyes, inhaling a long, deep, breath.

"A Song of Ascents," she whispered quietly, the rasped words rushing out of her fast-moving lips: "I lift my eyes to the mountains – from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from HaShem, Maker of Heaven and Earth. He will not let your foot falter. He who guards you does not slumber. Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!"[8]

She hissed the last sentence vindictively and her eyes snapped open, glaring wrathfully at the door. She pushed away forcefully, and turned to march resolutely to the elevator, pushing the button repeatedly in a hurry. The elevator chimed and the doors slid open. She slipped quickly inside, holding her cello case tightly against her shoulder. She tapped her white doll shoe impatiently on the carpeted floor as the elevator descended in tense silence.

Once it reached the lobby, the girl proceeded hurriedly towards the exit. She gripped the cello's strap tightly with both hands, placing one gloved hand over the other to conceal the blood staining the tips of her fingers. Rushing across the lobby, she kept her russet head bowed to avoid drawing unnecessary attention, until she bumped into someone walking just as hurriedly directly in her path.

"Sorry!" She blurted out apologetically, her head snapping up to meet the unfortunate victim of her careless haste. Her purple-blue eyes widened dramatically as they rose to meet the harsh features of a tall and handsome man towering over her. His royal good looks, with his impressive stature and broad shoulders, complete with flowing bleach-blonde hair, befitted a European prince. However, it wasn't his outstanding appearance that left her gasping for air, rather the pristine set of uniform he was wearing. He was Preventer, and he was frowning at her scornfully.

The girl realized that she had moved her hand away, revealing the bloody glove with which she held the cello's strap against her shoulder. She inserted the bloodied tips of her fingers under the thick strap, clearing her throat uneasily.

"I-I wasn't looking where I was going..." she mumbled, smiling awkwardly. "I'm terribly sorry, sir."

"It's quite alright," the tall agent assured her in deep velvety voice that rooted her to her spot with its intense conviction. His sharp cerulean-blue eyes, however, held none of the reassurance conveyed in his polite and measured words. "Excuse me," he added quietly, stepping aside to walk around her. She turned to look over her shoulder, watching him walk briskly towards the reception desk, carrying himself regally across the lobby. He pulled out a badge from his Preventer jacket and held it in front of the receptionist. He was talking, but she couldn't hear a word he said. She hoisted the cello securely over her shoulder, and walked quickly out of the hotel.

Zechs glanced warily over his shoulder, catching sight of the young maiden in the flared white frock just before she slipped out the door, carrying a heavy cello. He frowned and turned back to the receptionist, who was checking something on her computer.

"I'm sorry, Agent Merquise," the young woman apologized, "but I don't have any record of that credit card number on file."

He nodded, tucking his badge back into his jacket. "And you say there's no record of a Heero Yuy checking in these past few days?"

The woman shook her head helplessly. "I'm sorry, sir."

He nodded in acknowledgment. He glanced over his shoulder, frowning at the door out of which the girl had rushed in a hurry. He turned to the receptionist.

"That girl, with the cello," he said, "is she a guest here?"

"No, sir," the woman replied politely. "She came in earlier with a gentleman. One of our regulars. Comes here every year."

Zechs' blue eyes flashed in triumph.

"Room number?" He demanded sternly.

The woman hesitated, until she succumbed to his glowering gaze. "Uh... 602. Sixth floor."

"Key?" He handed out his arm to receive it. Again, the woman faltered indecisively, but his harsh glare soon compelled her to adhere his request. She handed him a spare key card.

"Thank you for your cooperation," Zechs said, nodding curtly as he tucked the key card into his jacket. He turned abruptly from the desk and headed promptly to the elevators.

"S-sure..." the woman mumbled after him.

Once one the sixth floor, Zechs marched down the hallway, glowering ahead, until he reached room 602. He keyed himself in, pushing the door wide open forcibly. He took one step into the room – and froze, eyes growing wide at the sight of Heero sprawled lifelessly on the bed, lying in a growing stain of blood.

"Shit."


Late at night, in a dim and empty blue corridor, Zechs sat in a small row of plastic waiting chairs in front of a closed door marked '312'. He was leaning on his knees with both elbows, bowed tiredly as he held his face against the palms of his hands. His knuckles were discolored, injured – blemished with scabbing red wounds. His long blonde hair cascaded flatly down his hunched backside, falling lifelessly over his Preventer jacket. His usually pristinely ironed uniform were rumpled and dusty, as was his normally rich and flowing blonde hair. The healthy shine was replaced with tangled and filthy locks of gold framing his hidden face. He sat alone, slumped against his arms in despair.

The door opened, creaking silently. Zechs looked up, peering ahead with a pair of numb blue eyes obscured by matted blonde bangs. A middle-aged doctor stepped out of room 312, wearing a white lab coat and a weary look on his bearded face. He closed the door behind him quietly, and turned to face Zechs.

The blonde Preventer agent stood up rigidly, smoothing down his wrinkled black dress-pants with his injured hands, if only to keep them busy doing something... anything.

"How is he?" He asked quietly, his voice rough with fatigue.

The doctor heaved a tired sigh. "Stable," he said, scratching under his beard. "But restless," he added sternly. "I don't know how, but even in his condition, he is very agitated."

"Is he conscious?" Zechs marveled in dismay.

The doctor nodded to confirm. "We gave him something for the pain," he explained, "He's drifting in and out of consciousness, but whatever I give him, he won't stay under."

Zechs nodded, casting his gaze to the floor thoughtfully. He took a deep breath and exhaled it shakily. "Does he know?" He studied the doctor's face tensely.

The older man bowed his head sorrowfully. "No," he said, and Zechs' tense shoulders relaxed somewhat. "We haven't told him anything, but..." His stern eyes fixed on Zechs, almost condemningly. "He's been asking about her ever since he got out of surgery. He needs to know."

Zechs nodded his acknowledgement again. He sighed, running a hand through his dirty hair, pushing it out of his face. "Thank you, doctor," he muttered tiredly, and walked to the door. He placed his hand on the doorknob, and paused, hesitating. He stared numbly at his injured hand; it was marred with scabbing cuts and black dirt under his chipped fingernails.

"I think it would be best to tell him," the doctor encouraged timidly. "It's the first step towards recovery."

"Is it now..?" Zechs mumbled somberly, gazing dully at the doorknob. He closed his eyes briefly, gathering strength, and finally opened the door. He stepped into the room and closed it behind him.

It was a small hospital room, accommodating a single bed. The lights were dimmed to a comfortable level, casting a soft yellow glow over bare blue walls. Medical monitors beeped softly in a steady rhythm. A slender figure lay motionless on the bed, tucked under a thin blue blanket. Zechs stood tensely by the door, watching the slow rise and fall of the figure's chest. He inhaled deeply, and finally stepped closer.

He treaded carefully across the small room, approaching the bed in reverential fear. He stopped, bracing himself before looking down wretchedly at the unconscious teenage boy laid lifelessly across the narrow bed: Heero Yuy, his boyish features ashen as though dead, his broken body limp against the mattress, impossibly frail; sinfully and incomprehensibly vulnerable. The boy lay on the bed, looking dwarfed, tiny and white; a narrow, gauze-covered little bundle looking like a frighteningly frail embryo. He lay broken and deformed following an act of courageous will, but he would soon wake to a state of weakness, inability, and guilt. In essence, April 8 197 shall become the most tragic paradox for Heero, for he had been rescued and destroyed on the same day.

This diminutive shrunken body seemed nothing like the mighty youth Zechs had first laid eyes on two years prior; that stunning young soldier who had stepped out of the cockpit and into freezing cold air of the Siberian night. Zechs will never forget the shocking realization that his rival was a mere boy, no older than his little sister, nor will he forget how this boy had looked fearlessly ahead with fierce determination gleaming in his intense blue eyes, as he held up the self-detonation button. Moreover, he will never forget the sight of this lean and muscular body as it was thrust into the air from the force of the blast and plunged into the snowy ground, crashing with a rubbery bounce.

Strange, but he had never taken the time to wonder how Heero had managed to survive that reckless attempt at his own life, and the subsequent injuries. They must have been grave, and he doubted that the CLO militia had been able to provide the same state-of-the-art medical care Heero was now receiving. Most likely, his mangled body had lain rotting in some dirty old cot in some obscene slummy establishment, denied of proper treatment, yet – somehow – Heero had beaten the odds and survived.

The doctors speculated that the boy's uncanny physical endurance was to thank for his latest act of survival against all odds. It was a well-known secret that the boy had been subjected to genetic manipulation and physical enhancements in his early youth. The CLO had engineered him into the perfect fighting machine. No other human being would have been able to pull through what he had, albeit the damage was still great. Doctors had worked on him in the OR for over sixteen hours of grueling surgery, fighting to save his limbs without amputating. Now, all four of his extremities lay wrapped in metallic tube-like casts, sophisticated medical instruments designed to restore tissue and nerve damage. They were hoping to regenerate his arms and legs to full capacity. Heero was looking at a long and painful recovery, but the odds seemed to be in his favor. Despite the grim initial predictions, he will not end up a quadriplegic.

Zechs heaved a weary sigh, gazing sorrowfully at the crippled boy lying unconscious on the bed. Heero had done the impossible, holding the weight of a collapsed building to protect Relena from the debris. Rescue parties had found him kneeling over her, his body bent to shield her head and torso, held up by his two hands pressed firmly against the ground. He had stayed that way, compressed under an enormous amount of weight, until they had arrived, six hours after the initial collapse.[9]

It happened on Relena's seventeenth birthday, April 8, AC 197. His little sister, a rising star in ESUN politics, had held a party at the old Sanc Kingdom castle. All of today's who's-who were there to celebrate the occasion. He had been invited, of course (he appreciated Relena's efforts to maintain some sort of a healthy sibling relationship), but he was working off-planet for Preventer and thus couldn't make it. However, when news came that the terrorist group Epyon de Telos had occupied the palace and took over 200 people hostage – including his sister – he had boarded the first shuttle back to Earth.[10]

De Telos had demanded the release of their imprisoned comrades, the official acknowledgement of Secret Clause 203 Section 51 (the formation of Preventer as a secret peacekeeping agency), and its immediate dissolve, as well as the entire Preventer budget as ransom. If their demands were not to be met within 72 hours, they had threatened to detonate a nuclear warhead left behind by the Alliance Forces, as well as execute the hostages on an hourly basis.

Preventer had called on their best agents to contain the crisis, including the five former Gundam pilots, who – as part of their parole arrangement absolving them from various war crimes – worked odd jobs for Preventer, with the exclusion of Zero Five, who worked for Preventer full time. They were all present at the scene within 12 hours, except for Heero, who could not be found. He was the last to arrive, 24 hours into the crisis, his only excuse being that he had a previous engagement he had to attend to on L1. Apparently, the news had reached him only after this secretive engagement was over. By then, the hostages had been separated into four heavily guarded rooms. High-key figures, including Relena and her adopting mother, were taken down to the nuclear bomb shelter beneath the castle.

The rescue operation had been meticulously planned and lasted approximately 90 minutes. Preventer commando forces sprung from their armored vehicles and burst into the palace. Of the remaining 185 hostages, 172 were rescued. Preventer also took heavy casualties. Zechs was not clear on the details just yet, but he knew that Heero and three other agents had advanced towards the bunker below the palace to rescue Relena and the other high-ranking officials taken down there. In the end, De Telos had detonated a bomb to destroy the castle, taking down the remnants of the commando forces and their own men. Large sections of the massive structure had collapsed, just when Heero and his team were making their way up from the bunker.

It took over six hours of careful digging to get to the survivors. Zechs had finally arrived at that point, shocked and devastated at the sight of his father's palace lying in ruin once more. He had joined the rescue operation, digging frantically through the rubble with his bare hands. Relena's mother, Marlene, was found dead. So was her trusty butler, Pagan. He had known the old man since early childhood. Heartbroken, he had started to lose hope of finding his sister alive, but kept searching the ruins well into the night.

Hours later, one of the rescue teams finally uncovered a glimmer of hope – a person spotted within a gap in the ruins, trapped under a collapsed concrete beam. Smoke was rising from the narrow shaft. Fire burnt in the air pocket below. Hearing the team's urgent shouts for reinforcement, Zechs hurried to join them, running and stumbling over piles of rubble. He threw himself to the ground to peer into the narrow gap, and spotted a familiar mop of scruffy brown hair within the smoke rising from the pit. He had no doubt in his mind – it was Heero. The seventeen-year-old boy was kneeling on all fours, supporting the incredible weight of the beam against his back. And, if Heero was still alive, then so was his sister.

By daybreak, following a careful excavation, the two teenagers were pulled out of the rubble. They were conscious, but in terrible shape. Relena's legs had been crushed by debris. Heero could only shield her upper body. They were dehydrated and fatigued, suffering a heat stroke from the fire that had burnt next to them for hours long. Relena was already delusional, having no real concept of what was happening around her. Heero was lucid, but just barely. He was in great pain, unable to respond to the paramedics. His limbs were crushed, disfigured beyond recognition after bearing the weight of the concrete beam for so long. The two were suffering from traumatic crush syndrome and reperfusion injuries. They were rushed to the hospital by helicopter.

In spite of Heero's best efforts, Relena's injuries were too grave. Her crushed legs – left untreated for a critical amount of time – had induced a deadly cascade of renal failure and severe hepatic bleeding. There wasn't much the doctors could have done for her, except make her comfortable in her final hours. Heero was still in surgery when she passed away, not before she had made Zechs promise her, swearing him on her deathbed, that he will take care of Heero. That he will not let Heero take the blame for what happened to her in the end.

'Don't let him self-destruct...' she had whispered, perhaps delusional, perhaps not, as she held his hand weakly, looking at him with pleading blue eyes. 'Don't let him slip away... Promise me, Millardo. Promise me you won't let him fall back into old habits. Don't let him fall... please. Promise me.'

And he had. Holding her hands tightly, he vowed that he will not let Heero go astray, that he will not allow him to succumb to the darkness and blame. He will not let him self-destruct and would keep following the same conviction he had formed after Siberia, like the time he had denied Heero the option of activating the self-detonation sequence during their battle in the Arctic, or the time he had stopped him from sacrificing himself in Libra's reactor chamber. He will not repeat the heinous transgression he had made in Siberia. Never again.

When a doctor came to update them that Heero's condition was finally stable, Relena had closed her eyes in relief, and slowly slipped away. His little sister, his only remaining family, was dead.

Heero's eyes were open. Zechs blinked in surprise. So lost in his dark musings, he had failed to notice that he was being observed by those intense blue eyes. There was a question burning there. The soldier wanted to know if he had completed his mission.

Zechs cleared his throat, stalling, before he spoke the answer quietly: "She made it out of the rubble alive," he said "She's right here, at the hospital." Down at the morgue, he reminded himself bitterly. He offered the boy a sad little smile. "You did well, Heero. She never would have made it out of there alive if not for you. You did well."

It was a terrible lie, told in the form of a half-truth. Thankfully, it was enough. Heero nodded his head ever so slightly, a subtle movement of his chin and not much more. His eyes fluttered shut as he finally succumbed to the anesthesia, sinking gratefully into unconsciousness.

The lie kept going for months, getting bigger and bigger with each passing day. Zechs couldn't think of a better way to keep Heero fighting for recovery, for life. Rehabilitation was an excruciating endeavor, both on Heero's and Zechs' part. Zechs took a leave of absence from his work with Preventer, so he could stay by the boy's side and make certain that he doesn't give up the fight. Heero was anything but stupid. He knew that even if he would regain control of all four limbs, he will never be the same again. He will never be fit enough to meet the impossible standards he had once upheld. Everything was about to change for Heero. Everything. And it was Zechs' sworn duty to make certain that he dealt with it rather than run away to rot in some god forsaken hellhole.

For the first few weeks, the doctors kept Heero unconscious to spare him the agony of the restoration treatment. He woke up from time to time, groggy and in pain. Zechs was always there when the boy opened his bleary blue eyes. Heero would look at him, puzzled by his persistent presence at his bedside. Neither of them had forgotten that, merely two years earlier, they were fighting on opposite sides.

'I promised Relena I'd look after you,' Zechs would explain his meticulous attendance, 'I gave her my word, to be here while she couldn't.'

More lies. More half-truths. They kept piling up as the weeks went by. Heero was beginning to suspect something was wrong.

'Why..?' He had rasped weakly at one time, confused.

'She doesn't want you to self-destruct.' Zechs had answered solemnly. 'I promised her you won't.'

'Why... can't I... see... her..?' Heero had asked on another occasion. He was growing warier as the weeks went by and all Zechs offered were empty assurances that Relena had made it out of the rubble.

'Because you're not well enough to do so, yet.' Zechs had replied with another cruel lie. 'I'll take you to her, when you're strong enough.'

'I'll never be… strong… enough...' The boy had murmured mournfully. 'She... She's the one who's… strong…' He added in a pained whisper, tears welling in his anguished blue eyes. 'I never should've... I should've… let her... join me... when she... asked...' He had slipped back into unconsciousness and Zechs had never learned what he had meant by that. He didn't know what Relena was to Heero. He was certain that Heero held her in the highest regard, but he didn't know whether the mutual respect had manifested into anything more than friendship. He never dared to ask.

The regeneration treatment had saved three out of Heero's limbs. His left arm remained paralyzed, and he had to work hard to regain control of the other three extremities. Physiotherapy was a slow and painstaking process, frustrating, taxing and utterly excruciating. Heero never said anything, but Zechs knew that what the boy seemed to resent the most about the gruesome process, was that he was around to witness his humiliating struggle to regain the most basic motor functions. 'GET OUT!' He had once barked at him in a thwarting fit of agony and frustration, after falling flat on his face in the therapy room. It was the only time Zechs had witnessed him break – the hurt teenage boy suddenly seeping through the cracks. It left him rattled in ways he could not even begin to put into words. He didn't want to see Heero that way ever again.

They made a deal. Once Heero was strong enough to stand on his own two feet, Zechs would take him to see Relena. Again, he had lied to the boy to assure his continued cooperation. Despite the occasional setbacks, Heero kept fighting for recovery, his exceptional determination driving him from one small goal to the next. Within five months of the operation, the boy could stand without support. Walking was difficult still, but once he was strong enough to take a step away from the railing at the physiotherapy room, staggering forward while gritting his teeth against the pain, Heero turned his fierce blue eyes at Zechs, demanding his reward.

Zechs returned the next day with a wheelchair. He stood by the door and told Heero that if he could make it into the chair, then he would take him to Relena. He watched Heero's eyes calculate the odds and when Heero realized it was impossible, he looked away, turning to glare at the wall. He couldn't. Not yet.

It was a cheap shot. He wasn't being fair to the boy. Heero had made tremendous efforts to keep up his end of the bargain, achieving a speedy and remarkable recovery within a few short months. The boy was never one to admit defeat, but he knew his limits, as every soldier did. It was time. No more lies. He should at least give Heero this small grace.

He brought the wheelchair closer to the bed. Heero turned to look at him tensely. The boy's eyes shifted from the bed, to the night table, to the wheelchair, calculating methods of execution. He could see the moment when Heero finally decided it was doable, and took a step back respectfully.

Heero rolled off the bed ungracefully, reaching for the nightstand for support as he dragged his uncooperative body into the chair, slumping into it unceremoniously. The effort was too much. He passed out.

When Heero opened his eyes again, Zechs was wheeling him down a narrow gravel path along a green cemetery on a cloudy autumn day. Standing behind the boy, pushing the wheelchair, he noted how Heero's body tensed in shock as he looked around him and realized what it meant. He turned to look over his shoulder, lifting his wide blue eyes to look at Zechs. He could not bear to look Heero in the eye, and kept glaring stoically ahead.

Heero turned back around, bowing his head sadly. He stared at his hands, resting limply against his blanket-covered lap. Zechs cast his gaze down, noting how the boy was trying to flex his right hand into a fist, achieving only a loose imitation of the gesture. His left arm remained lifeless over the blanket.

'Che!' The boy uttered in a subtle display of anger.

Zechs stopped by Relena's grave. He allowed Heero a moment to study the headstone.

'She made it out of the rubble alive,' he told him for the umpteenth time, this time, however, relaying the whole truth. 'She died the next day. Renal failure. There was nothing they could have done. Nothing more you could have done.'

Heero stared at Relena's grave with a stony face. Zechs walked away, giving him some space. He watched from a distance as Heero sat motionless in his wheelchair, gawking stoically at Relena's grave for well over an hour as he came to terms with the fact that he had failed her.

It started raining. Zechs returned, taking hold of the wheelchair. He stared numbly at his sister's grave.

'You were all she cared about in her final moments,' he told Heero quietly; 'She held on until she knew you were going to make it.'

Heero's right hand clenched into a fist, the anger at the lies and betrayal giving him strength to clench his hand tightly.

'I promised her I'd take care of you, and she passed away peacefully.' He gripped the handles tightly. 'I will not betray that promise, Heero. I want her to rest in peace.'

'The dead don't know peace,' Heero muttered bitterly, the rain matting his long bangs over his pale forehead. 'They don't know anything. They're dead.'

'Then I would know,' Zechs argued firmly.

'You know nothing.'

Having nothing more to say, Zechs had turned the wheelchair around, ready to carry Heero back to the car, but the boy flung his right hand to stop the wheel from turning, locking it in place with a tight grip. He glowered up at Zechs. The man returned his loathing gaze evenly. Heero's blue eyes seethed with hate. They exchanged a long hard look, before Heero finally let go of the wheel, his hand falling limply at his side. Heero had bowed his head then, his whole posture deflating and slumping in defeat.

There was no more drama after that, no resistance. Heero had withered away in quiet surrender, a wisely-disguised meekness that could have fooled most, but it hadn't fooled Zechs. As someone who had seen Heero Yuy in his prime, the young man's subtle waning was painfully noticeable. On the surface, Heero seemed to be doing everything that was expected of him. From physiotherapy, to a slow return to work and even one or two social functions. Heero was nothing if not dutiful, and he kept up appearances, performing whatever task was required of him. But the fire was gone. Heero had burnt out.

His new beginning was not an act of volition, rather, an assignment, a task, a mission. More of an unpleasant necessity than a longed-for situation. Heero didn't choose to live in a state of utter decadence, but he had to deal with the undesired outcome anyway. It was what Relena had wanted, and Zechs knew that Heero would not fail her again.

The contours of this new life, however, remained nebulous. For the first couple months out of the hospital, Zechs had taken Heero into his home – a small cottage outside of Brussels. The teen remained under the long-term care of a private nurse, since he was yet unable to perform various daily activities. It was an uncomfortable arrangement, for both, but Zechs had left Heero no other choice but to accept his hospitality, because that was what Relena would have wanted. She was his trump card, which he wasn't ashamed to use every single time Heero tested his mettle.

Zechs was hardly ever home, anyway, trusting Heero's care to the nurse. During the three months the boy had spent living under his roof, they could not have exchanged more than a few words. Zechs would return from assignment after a long absence and just stand at the doorway leading into Heero's bedroom, looking at the sleeping teen without uttering a word. He didn't know what to say to him. It was easier to skirt around conflicted feelings and unspoken grief.

And life went on.

When Heero turned eighteen, Zechs had pulled a few strings to get him a permanent position as an analyst on his Preventer operations team. Due to the De Telos Incident, the Agency was no longer a secret organization working in the shadows, rather a fully funded and supported government body working to ensure peace on Earth. By enlisting Heero, Zechs had figured, he would be able to keep a close eye on him.

The young man resented the obvious scrutiny, not to mention having to work under Zechs, but he had taken the job nonetheless. He even tolerated Zechs' tenacious inspections and constant meddling. Zechs didn't make it a secret that he was keeping track of Heero, noting any suspicious deviation from his subordinate's well-established routine. It got to a point where Heero had begun losing a troubling amount of weight, due to depression, and so Zechs had resorted to bringing him lunch to the office every single day, sitting there to make sure Heero ate every last crumb; that being just one example out of many.

Zechs' unrelenting meddlesomeness had kept Heero alive thus far, kept him going one day after the other. He had his nose in Heero's most personal affairs, which was a great source of friction between the two. Nevertheless, Zechs stood his ground, stooping as low as to throw Relena's last wishes in Heero's face whenever necessary. Nothing remained sacred when it came to upholding his vow.

He had intimate knowledge on every aspect of Heero's life, with one exception. Every April, Heero disappeared, right around the anniversary of Operation Meteor and Relena's birthday; just like he had vanished back in AC 197 and therefore could not be called to arms. This was the only time of year when Heero managed to slip away from him, perhaps because it was the only time that really mattered enough to make the effort. He had been pulling it off successfully for seven years now, dropping completely off radar for about a week and then reappearing at the office as if nothing was amiss. Each April, the young man vanished off the face of the Earth, and each time he did, Zechs feared that this time would be the last, that Heero won't be coming back and he would have failed his sister.

This year, however, Heero made a mistake. He had used his credit card, thus alerting Zechs of his location. Already in the area, he had arrived on L1-X28798 in a matter of hours. Then, it was a short trip from the convenience store where Heero had bought two bottles of liquor on two separate occasions on the same night, to the hotel where he had eventually found the young man lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood. Now, Zechs has once again found himself sitting by Heero's hospital bed, gazing numbly at the young man whose left arm lay wrapped in a thick bandage, while an IV line transfused blood into his right arm. And, once again, he was pulling away from his reminiscing to meet Heero's Prussian blue eyes looking up at him wearily.

He straightened in his seat, clearing his throat, and fixed his harsh gaze on Heero.

"You keep finding strange new ways to self-destruct," he opened with a quiet reprimand.

"And, somehow, you're always there when I do..." Heero rasped a tart reply, his expression ruthless despite his obvious fatigue. His eyes burnt in accusation, glowering resentfully at Zechs.

"I made a promise," he reminded Heero calmly, as he always did when finding himself in this position. Even seven years later, he still had to justify his audacious invasion into Heero's life.

"She's dead," Heero snapped, turning to glare at the ceiling. "She can't hold you to it."

"Then why has it taken you so long to defy her last wishes?" He retorted.

Heero glowered at the ceiling in defiance.

Zechs heaved an embittered sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly. "I am tired of playing cat and mouse with you, Heero," he muttered into his hand, shaking his head. For the first few years, ego had driven him into this annual chase – he simply had to defeat Heero at his own game – but now... he was over it. The game became a nuisance rather than a challenge; just another arduous race against the clock.

"Enough with this senseless game," he muttered, moving his hand away from his face to look daggers at Heero. "I'm tired of chasing after you."

"Then don't," the young man retorted, turning his resentful glare at Zechs. "Stop treating me like I'm some wayward little brother. Relena is dead. You had your chance to be your sister's keeper and you blew it. Stop trying to make up for it through me. I am not interested in a brother," he hissed venomously, "or a keeper."

"No," Zechs countered harshly, folding his arms over his chest as he leaned back in his chair and glowered reproachfully at Heero. "It would appear you're more interested in fucking little girls."

"What are you talking about?!" Heero snapped irritably, his blue eyes seething and his face flushed and fouled with both blame and shame.

He studied Heero's face calmly, unfazed by the antagonism evident in his bleak expression; it was a familiar sight. "Do you remember what happened last night?" He asked coolly, noting the slight twitching of Heero's face; he absolutely hated it that he could not upset his appointed guardian.

Heero resumed staring apathetically at the ceiling. "Apparently, I finally worked up the courage to kill myself," he muttered bitterly, shutting his eyes. "I don't remember doing it, though," he added with a tired sigh.

Zechs nodded grimly. "Is this why you come up here each year?" He asked. "So you could drink yourself into oblivion?"

"Can't very well do it while you're smothering me back in Brussels," Heero groused accusingly, speaking with his eyes closed.

"Oh, I know exactly what you do for fun back in Brussels." Zechs scowled in disapproval. "Every single visit you pay to one of your whores. I doubt those girls are even eighteen, but this time you've certainly reached a new low. I can have you arrested for statutory rape, Yuy." He leaned forward, glowering dangerously. "Is that what you want? Is this how your story ends?"

Heero reeled his head to face him, his expression twisting with outrage. "What is that supposed to mean?!"

"The girl," Zechs told him, lifting his chin as though to point at someone. "The cellist," he added, "The receptionist at the hotel saw you take her to your room. The clerk at the liquor store also claimed the two of you were together earlier that evening. You bought her candy. Charged your credit card. You must have been drunk out of your mind to make such a negligent oversight."

Heero was still scowling at him, his forehead creased as though he was straining to remember.

"You don't remember any of it, do you?" Zechs realized in disappointment, sinking wearily against the chair. He released a tired sigh.

Heero returned to stare at the ceiling. His eyes shifted uneasily left and right as the infirm young man tried to make sense of it all.

"So which one is it?" Zechs asked solemnly. "Did you rape a teenage girl and then slit your wrist to purge yourself of the shame, or did you pay her to do it? Did you make her watch?"

"I––" Heero started saying, but Zechs cut him in before he could give any excuse. "She was running out of the hotel," he told him admonishingly. "Fleeing for her dear life."

"I..." Heero let out, blue eyes shining in distress. "I was... I was drunk."

Zechs nodded curtly, glaring scornfully at Heero. "Luckily for you, she didn't press any charges. Didn't leave a trace, actually. Not even a fingerprint."

Heero frowned warily. He turned his head to look the other way, staring broodingly at the opposite wall.

"You might as well have been fucking a ghost," Zechs continued chastising him, "which is, perhaps, the only bright side to this wretched tale of yours."

He leaned forward on his thighs, observing Heero carefully. "Were you?" He asked spitefully.

"What?" Heero snapped, whirling his head back around to glare at him. Zechs held his gaze steadily, sneering coldly. "Fucking a ghost."

Heero scoffed and turned to the wall again. "I didn't sleep with her," he answered cryptically. It was unclear whether he meant Relena, or the girl.

"But you mourn her loss as only a lover would," Zechs assumed the former, choosing to ignore the consequences of the latter, "Is this why you come here each year on this day: the day she was born... the day she died?"

"I mourn a lot of things on this day," Heero murmured, staring numbly at the wall. "She's just one out of many regrets."

"Why here, then?" Zechs asked carefully, the accusation leaving his tired eyes as he leaned back into the chair. "Is this home?"

Heero shook his head. "I don't know where home is," he whispered woefully, staring at the wall, "This is just where... this is where I got lost."

Zechs nodded in understanding. He ran a hand through his long blonde bangs, pushing them away from his face.

"A strange place to come when trying to find yourself," he offered some careful insight. Heero snorted quietly, almost like a bitter chuckle, gazing thoughtfully at the ceiling. Zechs also fell silent, casting his gaze to the floor. He wondered if the younger man had truly forgotten about the deeds he had done last night, or was he simply reserving the right to remain silent? He had no doubt that Heero kept quiet about many atrocities in his past; to be honest, so did he.

"Do you believe in god?" Heero suddenly asked. He turned to face Zechs, looking up at him curiously. Zechs frowned, taken aback by the strangely open inquiry. "God?" He echoed puzzledly. He could not recall ever hearing Heero use the word.

The young man didn't bother repeating the question. He was looking at him expectantly, awaiting his answer.

Zechs shifted his gaze aside to look out the window, staring dully at the colony's metal hull clearly visible in daylight; layers of gleaming metal casing this small man-made world floating in the darkness of space.

"God is just a deluded old man no one believes in anymore," he uttered somberly.

"Is that a yes?" Heero asked, catching Zechs by surprise. He rested his eyes on the bed again, pondering over the question. He supposed that denouncing god could be regarded as a form of acknowledgment.

"I don't know," he admitted, glancing down briefly before lifting his eyes to meet Heero's again. "I suppose that, somehow, perhaps I do." He paused, holding Heero's gaze, and then asserted more confidently: "At least, I would like to, yes."

Heero nodded thoughtfully, turning to face the ceiling again. He studied it quietly for a moment, before raising another question: "Then, do you believe that something can come out of nothing?"

This time, Zechs didn't hesitate. "I don't believe anything was ever brought forth out of nothing," he replied firmly, "and certainly not by some supernatural entity."

Heero turned to Zechs again, a strange shine in his Prussian blue eyes. He almost seemed... distressed; desperate for answers. "Then where can a new beginning come from?" He asked glumly. "How is it possible to create something from nothing? If god is just a dying old man, perhaps already dead, then where can any new morality come from?"

"Is this why you come here?" Zechs realized, frowning. "Searching for a new beginning? A life ex nihilo?"

"Could that really be expected from a generation forged by war?" Heero questioned, his eyes narrowing into a pained expression. "Can it really come from someone who grew up totally indoctrinated by the twisted ideals of war?"

"I'm not sure what you mean," Zechs released a frustrated sigh. He rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly, shaking his head. After spending three days searching the L1 cluster for his runaway ward, he wasn't up for a philosophical debate. He was already strung out as taut as a violin string, and Heero had a knack for getting under his skin on the most inappropriate occasions. Relena used to be the same, arguing tirelessly. And yet, Heero still insisted that he could not be expected to step into her shoes.

"Who are we talking about here, Heero?" He finally asked for clarification, resigning to the inevitable discussion. "Which generation?"

The young man lowered his eyes to stare at the floor at Zechs' feet. "That girl..." he mumbled, "these precocious children... The youth that inherited this world we had fought for..." He lifted his eyes to look at Zechs hesitantly. "Can they really make their way out of the rubble... and rebuild? Can they be trusted to turn over a new leaf?"

"The war is over," Zechs reminded him sternly. "The rubble is gone. This is the new leaf."

"Technically... legally... maybe," Heero rasped with a tired voice, turning to gaze wretchedly at the ceiling. "But morally... spiritually... it would never be over." He placed his right hand over his bandaged arm, and closed his eyes mournfully, caressing the paralyzed limb. "Not as long as even a single wound it had caused continues to bleed..."

Zechs stared numbly at Heero's bandaged hand, having nothing to say. He understood the sentiment. The War was not simply a military conflict that lasted from April to December AC 195. It was an enormity of Earth's moral, spiritual, political, military, cultural, and economic catastrophe under the Alliance's twenty-year rule. And the wounds caused by this war were not just physical or medical; they were also spiritual, political, universal. The Earth itself had become a gaping wound, with the political division between parties and states seen as the most obvious incarnation of that wound.

He suddenly recalled Relena's speech to address the people of Earth on New Year's Eve AC 195, soon after OZ's defeat: 'The Organization of Zodiac has committed suicide, but the corpse is called Earth. It's up to us to resuscitate it.' She had a way with words, hitting right on the mark every single time. He wished he knew what she would have told Heero if she were here, how she would have comforted him. Instead, he offered his own thoughts on the matter:

"Then it is up to them to attempt to understand and to treat these open bleeding wounds that the war had caused," he said. Heero listened with his eyes closed, absorbing the words quietly. "The future is won by those who are able to harness memory and interpret the past," Zechs continued, "They must never forget the horrors of war, but they shouldn't pay for them either. We never did, so why should they? How can you expect them to reform this world into a peaceful one, to be the ones strong enough to prevent the next war – and do so on their knees?"

Heero opened his eyes, but said nothing. His contemplative gaze was fixed on the ceiling while he considered Zechs' words.

"Then maybe, it's for the best..." he finally said, murmuring the enigmatic words in a weak, tired voice. He turned to Zechs. "Maybe she should stand before a tabula rasa... purge the poison out of the system. Maybe that's the only way life can be renewed."

Zechs frowned. He wasn't following. "What are you getting at, Heero?"

The young man sighed, shaking his head against the pillow. "I don't know..." he murmured, raising his arm to rub his tired eyes, "My head's all messed up."

"You lost a lot of blood," Zechs pointed out, adjusting his position on the uncomfortable chair. "You should get some rest."

"I've lost much more than that," Heero mumbled abjectly, hiding his face under his arm. "And now there's nothing left for me to find..."

Having nothing to say to those grieving words, Zechs just nodded solemnly. He bowed his head to study the floor, struggling to find some words of comfort.

"Then, perhaps god is both a necessity and a failure," he offered quietly, raising his eyes to look at Heero, lying disgraced with his arm over his eyes. "A possibility that might have been, and perhaps should have been, but was abandoned: something that ought to have happened, but didn't. Maybe god is present, but as a felt absence, as something that did not and could not exist. The idea of god had turned into nothing... but it had started off as... something. Maybe this is what you're looking to find. You should cling to this absence, and hoped that it would lead you to a new beginning."

"Hold onto nothing..." Heero lowered his hand onto the bed, an ironic smile hovering over his pale lips as he lifted his eyes towards Zechs. "I can do that."


Heero raised a disposable hot paper cup to his lips and took a small sip of coffee. He set it down on the bench on which he sat, and lifted his eyes to stare ahead at the small public park stretching before him. It was a quiet afternoon. Traffic flowed steadily through the street behind him. The bench was standing on a wide walkway surrounding the park, overlooking a green hill and, beyond it, the residential buildings erected over the old Alliance base he had eliminated eleven years ago.

He sat, dressed in his trench coat, sipping coffee quietly as he watched an idle afternoon go by: Mothers walking their children home from school; elderly couples strolling through the park; a group of young boys laughing loudly as they chased a ball across the grass; two little girls playing jump-rope; a small parliament of old men talking heatedly about this and that; another two playing chess; a young mother pushing a stroller; a young man jogging... Mundane life in all its glory.

Tilting his head back to face the "sky", he gazed at the clouds drifting lazily across the center of the habitat ring, revealing and concealing the streets twisting above him. He followed a few cars driving alone the curved colony structure, disappearing behind white vapor. Birds chirped quietly in the background. A cool breeze carried the scent of wet grass from the park. He closed his eyes and inhaled it deeply, relishing in the fresh earthly odor. The wind tousled his messy bangs, soft strands brushing gently across his closed eyelids. He opened his eyes and fixed his gaze ahead on the small park, raising his coffee for another sip.

He spotted a slender young figure walking along the gravel paths – long legs in skinny blue jeans striding with an airy bounce, and a lavender sweater clinging to curvy contours. His eyes followed the agile figure, drawn to her lively long legs sauntering forward like a charming young mare. She was walking her dog – a large white Labrador pulling her along by a leash. The lovely long-legged maiden wore a slouchy beanie over her head, auburn locks of hair frizzling out of the knitted hat. Intrigued, he watched her head his way.

There was a bench next to his, the two seats forming an L-shaped sitting area. The girl settled on the second bench. Heero observed her quietly from behind his coffee cup. Her memorable ivory pale face and lily neck struck a chord with him, as dramatic as the first strike of a bow across the strings of a cello. He knew exactly who she was, but remained quiet. He watched her lean towards her dog, ruffling its furry white head and leaning in to nuzzle its long snout affectionately, while scratching under its chin, smiling without a care in the world. She has yet to notice him watching her.

The dog wagged its tail happily, barking once. A subtle smile tugged at Heero's lips. He took another sip, concealing the irresistible smile as he continued watching silently. The Labrador barked again, turning to look at him. The girl did the same, lifting her head up curiously to face him. Her purplish-blue eyes flashed in alarm, widening briefly in surprise. She clearly never expected to see him again, and her pale freckled face immediately contorted into a hard glare. She glowered at him sharply. Heero returned her gaze evenly. The two exchanged a whole conversation without saying a word – she acknowledging the obvious fact that he was still alive, and he realizing pretty much the same thing.

"Hello," he acknowledged her casually, nodding his head in greeting, before taking another unhurried sip.

"Hey," she greeted back tensely, her hand clenching around the Labrador's leash. She knotted it tightly around her fist.

Heero leaned his head backwards to gaze sadly at the clouds. "Hannah..." he sighed her name in a wistful whisper, "Hannah Dubinchik... The girl in the lovely white dress."

"Heero Yuy," she retorted, spitting his name out bitingly and fixed her gaze on him; her dazzling purplish-blue eyes brilliant with hate. "The dead man still walking."

He scoffed in amusement, his lips curving into a sarcastic smirk. "That I am," he agreed, leveling his eyes on her and gesturing a halfhearted toast with his coffee cup, before taking another sip. She snorted, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

"You're a fucking prick," she muttered under her breath, her tone laced with disappointment.

They sat in tense silence, Hannah avoiding him by looking solely at her pet, stroking its head absentmindedly, while he observed her with calm blue eyes, sipping his coffee pensively. He finished his coffee, but kept holding the cup, toying idly with the domed lid, pushing down the buttons indicating cream/decaf/black/tea one by one.

"Did you do this?" He finally asked, looking away from the empty cup. He used his shoulder to gesture towards her with his left arm, which was back in its sling. The girl studied his paralyzed arm for a moment, before sneering at him nastily.

"Did you do this?" She snarled, gesturing with her head at the buildings behind the park.

"Yes," Heero admitted simply, nodding.

"Then you deserve what I did," she hissed viciously and turned back to her dog, tousling its furry head roughly.

Heero nodded in silent agreement. He studied the residential buildings towering behind the small park, and heaved a sorrowful sigh.

"How did you survive?" He inquired, gazing ahead sullenly. "There was nothing left of your building."

"I asked to stay at my grandmother's for Shabbat," the girl explained bitterly, gazing down at her dog. Her eyes burned with pain and rage as she petted it slowly. "I was on the other side of the neighborhood. I got lucky." She raised her head to face him, glowering accusingly. "My family didn't."

He nodded grimly, lowering his eyes abashedly. They sunk back into bitter silence. Heero resumed toying with the buttons on the lid, while Hannah caressed her dog quietly.

"You?" She suddenly asked, avoiding his eyes.

He sighed, shrugging his shoulders carelessly. "Lucky... I guess."

The girl scoffed dismissively. "Rescued by your very own prince charming..."

Heero snorted out a crude laugh. If anything, Zechs was more like the Big Brother watching, but whatever.

They sat – each on a different bench – listening to the sound of the bustling road behind them. He studied Hannah quietly, taking note of her hunched pose as she leaned over her dog, caressing it gently. Her gaze seemed far away.

"What's his name?" He then asked, gesturing at her dog with his chin.

"Her name is Mary," the girl replied tartly. He smiled, nodding his head. "Of course," he mumbled numbly.

"What was her name?" Hannah turned to him, her purple-blue eyes burning with a heated grudge.

"Relena," he uttered with a sigh, leaning his head back to stare dazedly at the streets stretching overhead. "I couldn't save her from the rubble either..."

The girl remained silent for a while.

He lowered his head to look at her, gazing lengthily at the slow sad movement of her hand stroking Mary's furry back. He didn't bother asking how she knew it was him. He has never forgotten that day, has never forgotten her face, so why should she? He also didn't bother asking why she did it. The answer was as clear to him as her identity. She did it because she felt that same complete-dislocation-of-life feeling they all felt. She did it because of the violent experiences which had shaken her entire generation. Tragedy had become a part of her, leaving only one path to follow.

When the war ended and the Alliance's rule and OZ's terror were no more, Hannah Dubinchik and her entire generation were thrust into the age-old battle against their predecessors, a kind of primal Freudian struggle in which the young sought to metaphorically kill their fathers to escape from their potential influence. Of course, Heero knew very well that such an escape was impossible. The only possible route towards rebirth lay in an absolute and radical new beginning; a complete break-off from the past; the erasure of all the remaining bleeding wounds. But how could her generation ever free itself from the wounds, when they themselves were bleeding?

Slitting his wrist and leaving him to bleed out will not purge her of the past, from the pain he had instilled in her very soul. Into the very pages of history. No act of violence will ever be enough. The old ways will continue on forever, through mistakes, failures, weakness, and all sorts of stupidity on all sides. Her generation was doomed, much like his had been. The mistakes of the previous generation will keep on poisoning their existence, crippling the thoughts and actions of the next in line. This pain will tarnish humanity forever, overshadowing all hope.

A car rolled to a stop somewhere behind him, and honked. He didn't have to glance over his shoulder to see the solemn look on the driver's face – Zechs' face. The man was sitting in a rental car, out of uniform, glaring at Heero behind a pair of dark sunglasses. They should be heading to the spaceport to catch their flight back to Earth, yet he had wandered off to drink his coffee in peace. Zechs had given him an hour before pick up, but Heero had taken his sweet time, strolling around the park before choosing this bench. He had no doubt Zechs was pissed; the man absolutely hated to be late. Heero, however, simply didn't care anymore.

He sighed and stood up laboriously. He looked up at the road, meeting Zechs' eyes behind the windshield. He nodded to confirm that he was coming, before turning to the girl again. She looked up, and he regarded her quietly for a moment. Her young face seemed wary of whatever he was about to say or do. He walked over to her bench, limping slightly, and she tensed readily, lifting her head up to look at him standing over her.

Heero reached into his trench coat pocket and pulled out a wilting yellow flower. The same one he had placed by the Dubinchik family portrait, and retrieved earlier, during his walk through the park. It had no place there anymore.

"Here," he said, handing it to her. She gaped at him, wide-eyed. "This is for you," he told her humbly; "it's always been for you."

Hannah lifted her hands to accept the flower timidly. Her fingers trembled as she grasped the flimsy stem.

The car honked again. Zechs was losing his patience. Heero sent him a quick glare through the windshield and then turned back to Hannah.

"I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "I'm sorry you got lost. I hope you find your way."

"I—" she let out, but then fell silent, having nothing to say. She bowed her head shamefully, holding onto the wilted flower. Tears welled in her eyes. She closed them, weeping mutely.

Heero stared at her bowed beanie-covered head and frizzy auburn locks. She was trembling like a leaf. He wanted to comfort her, caress her, but held himself back. He could feel Zechs' eyes on him, the same way he had felt eyes on him the first time he had met this girl, many years ago. He could never shake-off the feeling of being watched, because he was always under the magnifying glass. Nothing had really changed.

He inhaled deeply and exhaled a troubled sigh. "Goodbye," he concluded solemnly, and finally walked away. He felt her eyes on him as he made his way to the car. He stepped inside, immediately greeted by Zechs' inquisitive gaze.

"Was that her?" The blonde man asked as Heero settled into the passenger's seat. "Yes," he confirmed, closing the door behind him.

"Who is this girl?" Zechs wanted to know, but Heero ignored him. He grabbed the seatbelt shoulder strap and yanked it forward. He considered saying she was "collateral damage", but as he watched the girl stand up and walk away along with her dog, he felt that the label would not be accurate.

"The new leaf," he said instead, putting his seatbelt on and keeping his eyes on the windshield to avoid Zechs' prying eyes. "Trembling in the wind."

"Hn," the man let out in amusement, smirking, and steered their car back into traffic.

Heero looked out the passenger side window as they passed by the park, his eyes catching a glimpse of the black memorial wall behind a green blur of lush trees. Yes, he decided, the label becomes her, for it implied not self-righteousness, but rather self-awareness. As such, it provided a ray of sunshine in the continuing storm of history.

Or so he hoped.

The End.


[1] In a memorable and much cited passage, Theodor Adorno, the eminent German philosopher, famously said: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric". I'll let you ponder over this one for a while.

[2] I took some artistic liberties with this iconic scene. Since we were introduced to this scene through Heero's dream, it could be that we didn't get all the details, just the condensed dream-version of events. Hence, I can expand on it however I like.

[3] Russian: Fuck you, bitch, fuck! (Yebalu poluchish', suka, blyad!)

[4] Gundam Wing Episode Zero Manga, chapter 8: Operation Meteor.

[5] Based on the Episode Zero Manga, chapter 2: Heero Yuy (1)

[6] Inspired by a brilliant HC by BHG.

[7] See this.

[8] A Song of Ascents, Psalm 121.

[9] Inspired by this scene in episode 47, and this story.

[10] See Episode Zero manga, bonus chapter: Preventer 5 and Frozen Teardrop Special Prequel.


Afterword

Okay, so I might have gone a bit overboard with the whole background story here, and somehow managed to connect the imaginary AC timeline to Judaism and the Third Reich, while drawing inspiration from a classic Jewish children's book called "Hannah's Sabbath Dress" – a story about a little girl wearing a lovely white dress when she goes to play outside with her dog until the Shabbat enters and mother tells her not to get the dress dirty, but she does anyway because she helps a stranger... you get the picture.

So yeah. I might have insinuated that Heero has some Jewish roots on his father's (Odin's) side (because why the hell not?). And I might have insinuated that he has some kind of pedophilic tendencies (because he envisions himself with Relena as he remembers her), and, to top it all, I might have left some unresolved issues in the end (like Heero's and Zechs' "sibling rivalry", or Hannah's incomplete story), but, overall... how bad was it? ^^;