Warning: Mild violence & language.
Disclaimer: These characters are used and abused without permission. But they enjoy it. -----------
Episode Ninety-Four: Spirit Walk Through Superior Flame"A boy tries hard to be a man,
His mother takes him by the hand,
If he stops to think he starts to cry...
If you walkaway, walkaway...I will follow." -U2
September 23rd, 1903
Sally made many humming noises and clucked her tongue a lot while she carried out her emergency examinations. "Lucky you called me when you did," she said melodramatically while poking a tongue depressor into the mouth of horse-faced Grace. "Looks like I've caught this just in time."
All the assorted housemaids, minus Hilde but plus Merlyn the cook, were assembled in a line that stretched across the kitchen, and one by one the doctor was giving them a quick test for an exotic disease of which they were all very much afraid. Three of their number had fallen prey to it already, they had been told. Otto, who stood off to the side with his arms folded sternly across his chest, reeked of skepticism, and eyed the lady with severe mistrust. "I believe I said once before, doctor...that I didn't call you."
"Well, someone did, and a good thing too!" Sally shot back while taking Grace's pulse with her little silver pocket watch. On one side of the petrified girl were Bethany and Pearl, and on the other side were Doris, Elsie, and Merlyn, who all counted themselves very lucky that the ailment hadn't spread any farther than it did.
Otto rocked back on his heels and glanced at the ceiling in frustration. "And you say we have four confirmed cases of...the 'Swahili Flu'?" he asked dubiously.
As the doctor moved down the line to Doris and felt around her neck for swollen glands, she took on a tone of great offence and indignation. "I hope you're giving this situation the seriousness it deserves, sir! Mister Barton, Miss Noin, Miss Schbeiker and Mister Sagheer are all very ill, and will have to be quarantined until the infection is eradicated!"
Otto lowered his eyebrows, less than convinced. "Mm."
Sally stepped back and addressed all the ladies at once, going straight over the house steward's head. "Ears open, everyone!" she commanded, clapping her hands. "You all check out fine, but this whole house could be riddled with germs! It's imperative that you disinfect everything, and boil all the laundry before one scrap of it is used again! Scour all the pots, steam the floors, clear out all the ductwork and all the furnace grates..." She went on at them for about five minutes, going into a detailed list of symptoms they had to watch for, and if any of them showed the slightest hint of illness, they had to scrub harder. Afterwards, the ladies fell all over her with breathless thanks at being saved from a fate worse than the black death.
After the lecture, the girls scrambled off while Dr. Poole calmly packed up her Gladstone bag and buttoned her fern green jacket. Otto sidled up to her, hands clasped behind him, and hovered over her shoulder as if unwilling to let her escape unchallenged. "So...this 'Swahili Flu' of yours..."
Sally had sensed from the beginning that Otto wasn't buying any of her verbal snake oil, that he vaguely suspected the whole issue was a farce to give three of his staff some unauthorized time off, but it mattered little. "Yes?" she cooed sweetly, snapping her bag closed.
"All kidding aside, I'm sure I don't have to tell you that if any employee of mine is found to be off the job for fraudulent reasons, that job might not be there when they get back." He leaned into her slightly, all bearish and menacing. "Understood?"
The doctor looked up with a heavy-lidded smile, laughed quietly once through closed lips, and dipped a hand into the pocket of her dress. "I've never been one to brag, especially about social matters, but I do have a lot of friends. One of them works at the Times." She pulled out a folded sheet of paper, which she opened up and fawned over slightly. "He's in the typesetting department, and he gave me an advanced proof of an upcoming advertisement. It's very interesting."
She passed the paper back to Otto, who knotted his eyebrows up as he read it. It was the first ad for Sutherby Hotel, the Peacecraft's new business venture, around which there was supposed to have been a tight net of security until the official opening. Unfortunately, that net didn't extend to third-party 'friends' who worked in the typesetting department. Otto glowered.
"One of my other friends," Sally continued, fixing her feathered hat in place with a long pearl-headed pin, "works for the government. He's a health inspector." She turned around and looked Otto in the eye while she pulled on her white gloves, smugly. "The first few months can be absolutely critical when you're starting a new business, especially in food service and hospitality, and nothing will sink a newly-opened hotel faster than an unfavourable report from the health inspector. It could be anything...a bit of spoiled meat in the kitchen...a loose guard rail on a balcony...even a tiny little mouse running down the hall," she said, miming a scurrying motion with one hand, just before narrowing her eyes. "Sometimes it just depends on how hard the inspector inspects."
Otto leaned back. He fought like mad to keep it from showing on his face, but somehow she had the entire Peacecraft empire over a very uncomfortable barrel. In a sudden panic, he considered tattling to Milliardo about this threat to their success, but worried that the blame would boomerang back onto his shoulders, one way or another. In the brief moment when he might have salvaged some dignity by saying something sharp and witty, he ended up saying nothing.
Sally picked up her bag, smiled, and patted him on the cheek. "Take your vitamins," she purred in a sultry rasp before walking away.
After levelling poor Otto's ego, Doctor Poole showed herself out of the house and walked around the corner where her four desperately ill Swahili Flu patients were waiting by the side of the road with their suitcases and wearing their travelling clothes. She stopped next to them, and all five shared an aura of crafty self-satisfaction before turning and heading in the direction of the nearest train station together without exchanging a single word.
Duo stared deep into the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet for a long time, until he could feel the murderous rage seeping out from under the mask of pleasant confidence. It was a difficult thing to perfect, but he was finally able to exude the icy presence of death while looking sweetly amicable, an unearthly combination that he very much liked. Once he had drunk his fill of the sight, he opened the cabinet door.
The first part of their plan was all about stealing Heero back from Jeffrhyss' clutches, but when that was over, the second part would take on utmost importance. It involved securing a safe place for him to stay while he recovered, and making him as comfortable as possible. Before Duo could leave London, he had to collect everything of even the smallest value out of the room above Catherine's pub. It was a difficult task; he had been purposely avoiding looking at any of Heero's things because it was just too painful.
One by one, he gathered the meagre belongings into Heero's weathered old suitcase. A toothbrush. A small pair of scissors. A pocket-sized comb with one prong missing. A bottle of cologne, one-eighth empty. A nearly-new shaving brush and straight razor--despite their age, neither of the boys had been able to grow any substantial whiskers yet. A blue face flannel. A water glass.
He lingered awhile, then moved back into the main part of the room, adding some of Heero's clothes from the modest chest of drawers in the corner. With each article he chose, he stopped to hold it up and wonder how much it would hang off his emaciated companion.
...if he's still alive, he thought reflexively. Then he scowled, balled up the shirt he was holding and threw it on the bed. Quit doing that! You heard what Sally said...it won't be life-threatening for weeks yet. Somehow, that wasn't much comfort. He sat down on the bed and sighed.
Almost as an afterthought, he tugged open the drawer of the bedside table. Inside were a few more items, like a small wind-up clock with an alarm, a bottle of sleeping pills, a old dog-eared issue of "Chamber's Journal", and Heero's little stuffed tiger toy. He left the pills and the magazine, but took the other things, turning the tiger over in his hands and smiling. Tucked into the toy's back was the scrap of colourful woven cloth that they still hadn't found time to have evaluated. There was always one more act of vacant, meaningless maintenance to get done every day, and never enough time for what should have been infinitely more important. Duo sighed and put the tiger and the clock into the suitcase, but when his hand brushed accidentally against the little bottle of cologne, he couldn't squelch his sudden desire to pick it up. Before he could stop himself, he had opened it up and inhaled the vapours deeply. As soon as the familiar musky scent hit his brain, he instantly regretted it, and fought back tears as he quickly replaced it.
Then he huffed out an angry breath and squared his shoulders. What, are you a baby or somethin'!? Grow up! Crying like a little girl isn't going to accomplish anything!
While he waited for a response from himself, the chiming of Catherine's grandfather clock one floor below shook him awake. It was ten o'clock. If he didn't get moving, he'd miss the boat.
He hurriedly finished packing and bolted downstairs with the suitcase, plus his own carpet bag filled with essentials, and grabbed Catherine by the arm while she was heavily occupied pulling pints behind the bar. After a brief whisper in her ear, the pair of them ducked into the kitchen area for a chat. "Got something for me?" the proprietress asked with gleeful anticipation.
Duo had the suitcase in one hand and the carpet bag under the same arm, leaving the other free to dig around in his pocket for an envelope. Once he found it, he handed it over. "That was as much as I could scrape together," he admitted blandly. "Should be enough for both rooms for the next few weeks...I'll wire you the rest when I get some more."
Catherine gave him a tight-lipped and very sympathetic smile as she took the envelope in one hand and rubbed his arm with the other. "There's no rush, really. You guys have been some of my best customers for a long time...I just hope it all blows over soon."
"Thanks," Duo sighed, preparing to lie just a little bit. "You know how it is with family...they've only gotta say 'boo' and off you go..."
"Well, I think it's very nice of you and Wufei to go with him," she said, sounding like a mother hen praising her chick. "He needs the support at a time like this."
Duo nodded sloppily, not liking the icky feeling that developed in his stomach as his body started to reject the lie. "Yeah." It wouldn't do to have half of London know Heero's private business, and that's exactly what would have happened had he told the absolute truth. Just as Duo looked up, Yasmeen passed by with a platter of fish and chips bound for table twelve, and shrank guiltily away from his gaze. He looked down, supposing that Quatre's sisters knew at least that Heero was in some sort of trouble, and that they felt a tiny bit responsible, as if siding with Relena meant siding against him. At no point did Duo ever think of accusing them, or of laying a single ounce of blame at their feet, but the rift was still there, and they were all putting more energy into hiding it from Catherine than they were into resolving it.
"Anyway, don't let me keep you," Catherine said cheerily, patting his shoulder obliviously while she put the envelope away in her apron. "And you tell Heero for me that I hope his mother's feeling better soon."
Forcing a slight smile, Duo nodded and let her walk back to the bar to serve another customer. There was still one more piece of baggage he had to pick up, so he left the bags hidden behind the counter and jogged back upstairs to fetch it. Without knocking or accouncing his presence in any way, he marched down the hall, burst through Wufei's door, dragged the boy up out of his chair by a firm hand on the arm, and steered him downstairs, oozing more and more authority with each step. Wufei did not protest. He didn't look pleased either, but he silently obeyed, clutching his own suitcase with his free arm and staring down at the floor for much of the journey. The pair paused at the bar so Wufei could pick up an extra suitcase, and then Duo scooped up his carpet bag and led the boy out like a naughty child on his way to detention. They took the next train to the pre-arranged meeting place, and not a syllable was uttered between them the entire trip.
Though Eton was a very exclusive school with a limited number of students, the headmaster wasn't expected to deal with every disobedient student personally. Every rule had its exception, of course, but the miscreant in question would have to be particularly unruly and disrespectful to merit a disciplinary meeting with the top man of the institution. Byron was just such a student.
"Well!? What have you to say for yourself!?" A grayish, balding man with round spectacles and a long black mantle leaned over his desk in the cherrywood and green carpeted office, propped up by both sets of clenched knuckles and furiously demanding answers out of the blond lad seated opposite him.
Byron looked quite smart in his neatly pressed school uniform, and didn't seem a bit bothered by the predicament he was in, having been hauled in to answer charges of cheating on tests, rampant absenteeism, and just mouthing off in general, to name a few. He had tied together the ends of a long scrap of string and was calmly playing Cat's Cradle as the headmaster railed at him. Eventually, he looked up with a blankish expression. "I'm sorry, what was the question?"
The headmaster straightened up quickly with a frustrated grunt. "You see!?" he barked. "This is precisely the sort of disrespectful and lackadaisical behaviour about which your professors have repeatedly complained! As if it wasn't bad enough having less than 40 attendance, you will insist on being flippant and belligerent with your superiors! Well, it won't wash, young man! Any more of it and you're out!"
Byron kept looking down at his string game as he lazily rearranged it on his slender, nimble fingers. "Sooo...you want to expel me?" he said, following it with an elongated pause. "Because if I leave, so does my sponsorship money, you know that, don't you?"
The balding man bristled. Byron delighted in knowing he had perhaps the finest school in the country wrapped around his little finger. It was ludicrously easy to funnel some of Jeffrhyss' money into Eton in the form of generous under-the-table grants to the faculty, thereby ensuring him a top-quality education, at least on paper, no matter how badly he screwed up. He could be as slothful as he liked, spending the bulk of his time on his continued effort to take over Jeffrhyss' empire, and still graduate with honours without hardly ever having to set foot in a classroom or crack open a single book. It was the sweetest deal he'd made yet.
"Mark my words, Mister Schaeffer," the headmaster snarled, leaning forward again, "mere money will only get you so far in life. We both know that you haven't the class or the breeding to fool the rest of the world...so you'd damn well better pick your feet up!"
Just then, there was a gentle rap at the door. The headmaster seemed more than happy to answer it, rather than keep arguing with Byron and hand over the rest of his professional dignity on a silver platter. Byron paid him no mind as he stalked out from behind the massive desk, and went on with his string game, until a voice from out in the hall wafted in. "I'm so sorry to disturb you," said a soft, sweet voice like a white dove's coo, "but I'm looking for a young man named Byron, and I was told he might be taking classes here. I'm afraid I don't know his last name..."
The rest of her words bounced right off Byron's ears; they were superfluous anyway. He sat straight up, twisted around in his chair, and caught a glimpse of an angelic, fair-haired girl in a cream lace dress through the slanted window of the half-opened office door. His eyes lit up. The Peacecraft girl! He studied her face in more detail during the brief conversation. Ring-a-ding-ding! Why, Heero, you old dog...you were very naughty, keeping her all to yourself.
Having given ample audience to the girl's request, the headmaster stepped aside and pointed her into his office. "Be my guest," he crooned with cloying misery, grateful to her for taking the boy off his hands for awhile. "See if you can talk some sense into him."
Sensing that she was coming in and the old fuddy-duddy was going out, Byron sprang out of his chair, untangled the string from his hands and stuffed it in his pocket, smoothed out his hair, straightened his suit, checked his breath, and finally sat on the corner of the desk with one leg slung over the other, leaning languidly on one arm. You snooze, you lose, pal. She's mine now! he thought lasciviously.
Relena entered the office with moderate confusion, looking back and jumping slightly as the door was slammed shut behind her. Drawing her satin shawl a little closer from the coldness of the headmaster's departure, she turned to the desk and stopped suddenly again, fighting to keep any visible evidence of surprise from showing. That face...I know it from Morocco! He made a speech about Lord Jeffrhyss' accomplishments...I can't let on that I've seen him before. She tried to look indifferent. "You're the infamous Byron, then?" she supposed out loud.
"Well, I wouldn't say infamous," Byron said with a toss of his head and a flattered chuckle. At least, not yet. He slid off the desk, reached out for the girl's lily white hand and bent down to kiss it gallantly. "Enchanté, mademoiselle. Byron Schaeffer, esquire, at your esteemed service. It's not every day I get a gorgeous blonde hot on my trail...to what do I owe the honour?"
Relena ignored the crass and innuendo-laced compliment and took back her hand. "I've been trying to track down Lord Jeffrhyss," she said. "People tell me you're his right-hand man."
"And why would the baby sister of young Master Peacecraft want to talk to a wrinkly old codger like him?" Byron purred back in a husky tone, raising an eyebrow.
At first, the girl blinked at being recognized, but soon it made sense. She was a target from the very beginning, when Heero was sent to cozy up to her, so obviously she had a file with the organization. Folding her hands and glancing to the side, she steeled herself for the opening volley of negotiation. "I'll come straight to the point, Mr. Schaeffer. I know that a young man named Heero Yuy was kidnapped by Lord Jeffrhyss. He used to work for His Lordship, and I believe he was...repatriated recently." That was a bit of a bluff, as it was just an educated guess on her part.
Byron scrunched up his pale, thin eyebrows and folded his arms. Now, how did she find out? I hope I haven't got a leak already... "Go on."
Relena involuntarily wrung her hands a little. Once I start this, I can't take it back. I just pray that Milliardo never finds out. "I've come to bargain for his safe return."
A multitude of negative emotions fluttered around Byron's head. He frowned a bit and shifted his stance. Alright...he's still got some kind of hold over her, but I'm sure it's nothing a steak dinner and a bottle of Cabernet won't fix... "I wouldn't put too much credence in wild rumours like that," he suggested, attempting to throw her off the scent. "And if there had been such a kidnapping, I'm certain I would've heard of it by now."
"Don't be so quick to assume I'm wrong," she answered, half smiling and half scowling. "Maybe, just maybe, your employer knows something you don't."
Byron grinned slightly and swivelled his eyes upward, tapping his upturned mouth with one finger. , yes, I suppose he does," he mused out loud, revelling once again in a private joke. "So let's suppose my employer does have this...Yuy person in his custody. What precisely do you expect me to do about it? Subordinates like myself don't have much say in these matters."
Relena took a deep breath and slowly let it out again. "I...can't offer very much in exchange...I'm sure His Lordship is very wealthy, and couldn't possibly benefit from any monetary compensation...all I really have to offer is information."
".......the name of the anonymous applicant whom my brother represents."
Byron's eyes lit up. "Now that...might be worth something," he said, stepping back to lean against the massive desk again. And I'll have to make a good offer on it. "Unfortunately, His Lordship's schedule is rather difficult to squeeze into at the moment, so I couldn't possibly say when you could have an audience with him.....but if you were to tell me the name, I would relay it to him as soon as I was able."
"And then he'd let Heero go?" the girl begged anxiously.
"My dear," Byron sighed, "these matters are very complicated. Releasing a prisoner without official correction involves ratifications, formalizations, reprobations, declassifications and immunizations." The stream of nonsensical double-talk worked a treat, leaving Relena totally bewildered and open to the very fiendish idea he'd just had. He smiled thoughtfully. "Unless..."
Relena nearly leapt on him. "What?"
"Oh, nothing, just a thought.....it occurred to me that it might be easier to simply hand you Mr. Yuy's papers of ownership and have done with it, assuming of course that this person is actually in custody. I could take your information back to headquarters, and you could have his contract in a matter of days. It would save a small mountain of paperwork for us, which is always a good thing." He ended the speech with another snakelike smirk, knowing that in a few weeks' time, Heero would be dead, and his ownership papers would be worthless.
Relena naively thought this was the best solution. "Oh, if you could do that for me, I'd be eternally grateful!"
The lad continued to smile cattily and re-folded his arms. "I'll have to have the name first, of course," he prodded after a short silence.
At last, Relena balked, stopping to consider exactly what she was about to do. She imagined that everyone with even a little clout in the Cinq Association was chomping at the bit for the name of Milliardo's mysterious master. Whoever found out that person's identity first would be made doubly powerful, and might even have the power to influence the voting, when the time came. Giving the name away up front, to one of Jeffrhyss' lackeys, based solely on the promise that better things would come, was a highly risky move of which her brother would never approve, but the more she worried about Heero, the more she was convinced it was the right thing to do. Clutching bunches of her shawl in both hands, held tensly up to her waist, she took a step forward, leaned in close, and whispered the name into Byron's ear.
When she stepped back, the boy appeared lost and frustrated. "You can't be serious."
Relena looked down. "On my father's grave, I swear it's the truth."
"Well. That is interesting." Byron looked to his right and gnawed on the inside of his cheek while he thought it over. Eh...I suppose that does deserve me keeping my end of the bargain. At least I'll still look like the gracious one in her exquisite blue eyes. He nodded slowly. "I'll get you your ownership papers..."
The girl inhaled with an excited shudder. The deed was done. Out of a delicate beaded handbag hanging off her shoulder from a thin silvery strap, she took a little embossed linen business card and held it out. "Please have them sent to this address, marked 'Personal'," she said. "And no copies, understand? The originals."
Byron took the card and flicked up an eyebrow at it. "But of course." She would likely have to make do with the originals anyway, as the copies had previously been stolen from the archives.
There seemed to be little more to say. Relena nervously untangled a few strands of hair from her ear and gave a quick "Good day to you" before letting herself out solemnly.
Poor lovesick creature, Byron chuckled inwardly. Never mind, dear...you'll forget all about him in time...with a bit of help, naturally. For the next little while, he amused himself with his lewd imagination, daydreaming about what it would be like to slowly break down her starchy Victorian defenses and ultimately possess her, a pretty new toy to add to his collection of wenches. It could also prove to be a very clever move, strategically. Sun Tzu was right, he chuckled inwardly as he left the room, twiddling her card between his fingers. Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.----------
Wasting no time, the various members of Duo's newly-adopted team followed a strictly-laid-out schedule for leaving London, heading into the Southlands, and catching the ferry to France. It was a spot in the mountains, partway between the borders with Italy and Switzerland, that Wufei eventually pointed out on the map, once he was sobered up and shamed into doing so. Not willing to take any chances, Duo checked in on him hourly until it was time to leave to ensure that he never left his room unaccompanied. In spite of all his slacking off and backtalk in the past, Wufei had somehow become the most critical member of the team.
The trip to the shoreline of England was uneventful, and very little was said amongst the seven young men and women even as they had their passports checked before boarding the ferry. On the boat itself, a lumbering bi-level beast about thirty years past its prime, they scattered themselves on the various rows of benches provided for those passengers who weren't interested in leaning over the siderails and enjoying the scenery, such as it was. The exception was Trowa, who sat outside the area enclosed in wood-framed windows, perched on a wooden crate. The rest kept to themselves, blending in among the other passengers so they could be alone with their thoughts.
After the first fifteen minutes of pacing around at one end of the sitting area to avoid two businessmen smoking cigars at the other, Lucrezia got bored and wandered over to a random bench where Duo had slung his feet up on the back of the bench in front, ignoring the disapproving glares of the other passengers. She dat down next to him, slumping backward. "Not really how I imagined my life turning out by this point," she grumbled, half to herself after awhile, "twenty-something with no husband, no prospects, no home...sat freezing out on the open water on a boat to France to do battle against organized crime..."
"Yeah, funny how things work out," Duo replied with thinly-veiled sarcasm. "By now I thought I'd be lying dead in a ditch somewhere. I'm just kicking myself now!"
Lucrezia glowered. "None of what's happened to you, or Heero, or anyone else prevents me from having problems of my own!" From the dark teal bag on her arm that matched her favourite dress, she took two small envelopes, one open and one sealed. She swapped the sealed one to the front and stared at it. "I wrote my family a letter...the first one in three years...and now I can't get up the gumption to mail it. If I do, they could start looking for me again, and if they find me.....I don't know..."
Duo swung his feet guiltily off the bench in front of him. "...sorry." He fully understood her underlying anxiety that her overly-possessive brothers would 'persuade' her to return home if they knew where she was.
"I don't really know why I wrote it at all," she went on. "Maybe...maybe finishing with Milliardo left more of a gaping hole than I expected." The corners of her mouth turned up with a quirky twitch, and she tapped Duo lightly on the shoulder. "But I shouldn't be burdening you with my troubles."
The boy shrugged. "What's one more?"
Lucrezia nodded with resignation while swapping the positions of the envelopes again, so that the opened one was visible, and then took out of it the cryptic note she had found earlier. "Well, no matter how bad things get, I'm clinging to this for dear life," she declared, unfolding the note and running an eye over it yet again. It was the short 'I told you so' sort of thing that was addressed to Jeffrhyss and signed simply 'G'. "I know I've got a father of my own, but...Giorgenson felt like a father too, for awhile. If there's one chance in a million that he wrote this note--"
"Look, I don't wanna see you get your hopes up," warned Duo. "That 'G' could stand for anything, and nobody would love to find the old coot alive and well more than me, but I'm not betting money on it." Suddenly depressed, he shoved himself up off the bench and raised both arms over his head. "Gonna go for a stretch," he muttered before wandering off. He didn't look back to see what Lucrezia thought of his comments.
She let him go just as blithely, having worries of her own with which she didn't want to burden him at this stage. Ever since she got up that morning, and all the way to the docks, she had the innate feeling that she was being followed, but not once when she turned around to look could she see the source of her anxiety. Even then, as she sat on the boat surrounded by only her closest allies, she still felt eyes upon her, upon them all. She shivered and rubbed one arm vigorously, vainly trying to put the nervous thoughts out of her mind for the rest of the journey.
Off to the side a short distance, Duo ambled around the seating area, about thirty feet by fifty feet with a wooden plank floor completely saturated with the surrounding salty atmosphere, until he landed at a window and peered out at the English Channel. It was a dull, lonely place to him, even though there was ample sunshine, brisk sea air, and plenty of other boats passing by. He had the sense that he'd feel completely alone in a mob of ten thousand well-wishers. Without Heero, it would be meaningless. He leaned his head against the window and sighed with his whole body, silently.
"Have you got change for a penny?" Sally's voice crooned sarcastically from behind him. "Because I'm not paying full price for thoughts that do that to a person."
Duo slouched around in a circle until he was facing a bench behind him and slightly to his left. Sally's eyes were diverted down to a piece of needlework fixed into a set of wooden embroidery rings, and she was slowly and calmly pulling a needle laden with pale blue floss through the taut fabric. A small sewing basket sat next to her, containing all the supplies she needed for a dozen cross stitch samplers, to keep her occupied during dull moments. Duo stuck his hands in his pockets and walked a few steps closer, but did not sit down. "Can I pay you to take 'em away?"
The quip left Sally's face unchanged. "Sit."
"I don't feel like sitting."
"You don't have to feel like it, you just have to do it." Unexpectedly, she leaned sharply to her right, grabbed him by the braid, and yanked on it. Duo went down with a little yelp of pain, but sat as instructed. Then the doctor returned to her needlepoint. "There is absolutely nothing else you can do that hasn't been done, not until we get there, and certainly not in the middle of the Channel. So just sit."
Duo sat and sighed, but before long, his right knee began to bob up and down like a bubble on the rolling surf as his foot twitched impatiently. "I hate sitting. I hate not accomplishing anything. I haven't been able to really relax since..." He closed his eyes, exhaled with great discomfort, and shook his head. "Don't tell the others...but I haven't got a plan at all. I'm just making this up as I go along, and once we get there, I don't know if I'll have the faintest idea of what to do next. It seems so stupid to be in a hurry to screw up, but I just wanna get it over with! I wanna get in there and smash everything I see, and cut every last one of them to ribbons!"
With a thoughtful look, Sally put down her project. "You know what I think a certain someone would say if he were here now?" she asked. "He'd say, 'Don't jeopardize the mission by letting your emotions cloud your judgement. Try to separate what you think the enemy deserves from the bare minimum of what needs to be done to get what you want.' Otherwise...mistakes happen." She paused to let the first bit sink in. "And the second thing he'd say would be 'Sit down and shut up before I tie your hair around your mouth and dangle you overboard by the feet'."
That got a light chuckle out of him. "Yes, he'd want me to concentrate, yes, he'd want me to relax...I'm just not sure if I can do it."
Struck by a glimmer of inspiration, Sally opened up her sewing basket and fished out some supplies. "Well, if you really can't relax on your own, maybe you'd like to try some embroidery instead!" she cooed with sugary sweetness as she sifted through her cross stitch patterns. "Here's one of a country cottage, here's one of Baroque cherubs, here's one with frolicking bunnies..."
"Oh, this is the one for you!" Sally exclaimed, holding up a magazine page with stitch counts and a black-and-white drawing of the finished product. She smiled. "Kittens in a basket."
Her icky femininity had exactly the desired effect on Duo, who backpedalled like his brakes had failed on a downward slope towards a pool of pirahnas. He put on his cheery face. "Y'know what? I'm feeling a lot more relaxed all of a sudden! Matter'fact, I feel great! Tremendously super! Boy howdy! I'm just going to go over here now..." Then he leapt up and practically ran to the exact opposite corner of the seating area, farthest away from the needlepoint. Sally smirked to herself, and returned to her craft.
Quatre, who was in the opposite corner to which Duo ran, had heard a little patch of the boy's raised voice but couldn't tell what he was saying. The cloud of frustration that swirled around the ex-chef grew stronger as he approached, and struck Quatre with a slight wave of nausea as he sat down. It wasn't helping the already-seasick lad, and he curled up into an even tighter ball, bent over his knees and holding a little vial of peppermint oil to his nose, inhaling the vapours in short spurts. Duo frowned sympathetically and gave him a little pat on the back. "Y'okay?"
Looking slightly green, Quatre's head swayed a bit to the side before tilting ambiguously. "I've never.....been a very good sailor," he managed, pausing in the middle to swallow down something bitterly unpleasant that crept suddenly up his throat.
"Aw, well...only about fifteen miles to go."
The blond boy just nodded, rocked backwards with a little belch that he trapped in his handkerchief, quickly replaced the peppermint vial, then glanced out the window. It was just outside this spot where Trowa was sitting on a crate on the outdoor portion of the observation deck. Quatre was never quite sure what to say to Duo lately, as he didn't know what to make of him anymore. They twiddled their thumbs in complete silence until Duo leap-frogged around Quatre on the bench so that he was wedged in between the gardener and the window. Most of the windows at that level were meant to open, though few of them did due to their frames absorbing years of excess moisture and swelling shut, but Duo managed to force the nearest one open, yanking the sash from left to right and poking his head outside. "How's the cargo?" he asked.
Trowa had been lost in his enjoyment of the seascape, but turned around when he heard the window open. "It's resting comfortably," he said, rapping his knuckles on the crate beneath him.
"So since you're the only one who knows how to hook it up, you and Hilde will be on the same team, right?"
"Right," Trowa agreed with a quick nod. Then, seeing Duo and Quatre sitting so close together, he got an idea. Convinced that his friend still had a spot of lingering paranoia about Duo and Heero, he set out to gather evidence to the contrary. "Say, um...as soon as Heero's well enough," he said with a cagey smile after making pointed eye contact with Quatre, "what d'you think you'll do to celebrate his freedom?"
Duo blinked innocently. "Dunno. Haven't thought about it."
Trowa shrugged. "Go for a few drinks maybe, hit some of those posh places in the west end, meet some unattached girls..."
The second Quatre realized what was happening, he leaned forward and sank his head into both hands.
"You know, I heard about this one place," Trowa barreled on, leaning closer to the window and upping the excitement level in his voice as if he was sharing a dynamite secret, "it's a snooker club with a saloon, and while all the men are in the back room playing each other for penny bets, all their widows sit out on the terrace and get plastered! I bet they'd love to meet you two and let you entertain them for an evening..."
To Quatre's utter shock, Duo and Trowa grinned at each other and then started a locker room snicker that built up to a moderate crescendo and then calmed down again, leaving behind a residue of toothy smirks and knowing glances. "That's, um...that's a thought," Duo admitted.
"Sure it is!" cawed Trowa. "I can see the pair of you there right now, with a blonde on one arm and a redhead on the other..."
Maybe it was the stress talking, but it actually sounded good to Duo. "Well, we just might take you up on that," he said just before the pair on either side of him locked eyes intensely. Then Duo slung an arm around Quatre's shoulders, dragging him up and forcing him to smile weakly. "Maybe we could all go, the four of us!"
Seeming satisfied with his detective work, Trowa went right on smiling. "Sounds great."
"Only the four of us?" Quatre pointed out, glancing uncomfortably to his right.
Duo followed his gaze, and his eyes landed on Wufei, who was on the far opposite side of the same row of benches, hunched over a drawing pad and scribbling with a pencil. "Let's see if he comes through for us before making out the guest list," he grumbled. "Which reminds me...I'd better see how our resident artist is doing." His mood dampened, he stood and walked away, leaving the other two to clear up a little disagreement.
Before Quatre could express how embarassing the last five minutes had been, Trowa leaned his head right through the open window, gripping the bottom of the sill with his left hand. "Well?"
"Did you get anything?"
Quatre slumped. "I wasn't trying to get anything off him...unlike you."
"I went to a lot of trouble thinking that up!" whined the stable hand. "You're still hung up on this wacky idea that him and Heero are a couple of weirdos, and I wanted you to see how ridiculous it is! All that talk about getting drunk in a bar full of semi-detached women who wish they were single...I just said that so you could judge his reaction! If he really was...'odd'...then it would've been a total turn-off, right?" He waited just a moment. "So, what did he think?"
It was all too ludicrous for words, but Quatre didn't see an easy way out of it. He slumped a little more and looked away in defeat. "I think he liked it."
Trowa was triumphant and it showed. "There. You see? There's absolutely nothing wrong with him. You and your dumb ideas..."
Quatre reached over and shoved Trowa's head back out the window, then shut it, then locked it. Hypocrite...
Blissfully unaware of how deeply he was being discussed, Duo had prowled over to Wufei's bench and sat down a couple of feet away, close enough to look over his shoulder, but not 'chummy' close. Wufei turned his head slightly to see who it was, but then quickly returned to his work. Through several bouts of intense questioning, the group was able to slowly extricate from his drug-addled mind some very precise details about Jeffrhyss' primary headquarters. To atone for his past sins, he was given a pad of paper, a set of pencils, and a sharpener, and was told to draw as much as he could remember of the layout in the form of sketchy maps. A short pile of papers sat between the two boys on the bench; Duo picked up the top sheet and looked it over carefully.
"Wow...you're quite the little artist, aren't ya?" he said humourlessly, but with definite scorn. "You know there's a bunch of doors on here and nothing behind them, right?"
Wufei's eyes gave a mighty roll. "I wasn't given the grand tour," he sneered, concentrating on his current masterpiece. "You're lucky I can remember as much as I have. I was only there for a few weeks."
Duo looked up, eyes blazing. "Well, these had better not be semi-educated guesses!" he said in a commanding tone. "I'm staking the lives of my whole team on knowing where to be and when, and if you can't give me accurate layouts, somebody might get hurt!"
"Might get hurt?" Wufei said with obvious sarcasm, finally lifting his head to look the other in the eye. "What does it matter? You're all dead anyway."
Sensing another of his self-important tirades coming, Duo folded his arms and leaned forward menacingly. Somewhat threatened, Wufei backed off a little, looking back down at his sketch pad, but the damage was already done, and Duo wanted to draw him out of his cave and beat him for it. "Oh no, please, I'd love to hear your childish whines of negativity! Do continue!"
Wufei's head bobbed back up tiredly, and he gave him a snide glare, hanging his arm off the back of the bench. "Once I hand over these maps, I'm considering my debt paid and getting the hell away from all of you. This whole mission is a death-trap. You're all going to be killed in action because this is the most reckless, foolhardy, egotistical thing you could ever possibly do. Nobody carries out a head-on assault of a base this size without bringing along their own coffins."
The ex-chef squinted. "Oh, I get it. 'If Heero was here,' we'd all be a lot better off, because you don't think I'm up to the job!"
"I don't think either one of you are up to the job!" Wufei laughed bitterly. "This is suicide, don't you get it!? It doesn't matter who's in charge, the whole team's gonna be carried out feet first! Hope you can sleep at night if you survive!"
"There's no way I'm letting you off that easy. You're coming with us. You're going to do what you're told, or I'll put your ass in a sling so fast--"
"Oooh, you think you and the other Merry Men can catch me without Robin Hood giving the orders?"
If Wufei had left that alone instead of waggling a limp-wristed hand at Duo while saying it in a scared little chipmunk voice, the unpleasantness that followed could have been avoided. Duo lashed out and cuffed him sharply about the ear, causing him to drop his sketch book and let both fists fly. A simple verbal skirmish soon escalated into a fierce brawl that had heads turning all over the ship. While they both managed to stay on their feet, they each had their arms locked in a death grip around the other's neck as they tried to wrestle each other to the ground. Within seconds, they were pulled apart by a mish-mash of passengers and team members amidst much shouting and commotion. The combatants were less than satisfied, but several strong words from Sally in particular convinced them to go to their separate corners and stay there for the remainder of the trip. It was all over in the blink of an eye.
Lucrezia watched with a bored sigh from her perch several benches away. This is a disaster in the making, I can feel it. She tried briefly to dstract herself with her letters, but it didn't last long, and she turned her gaze to the windows instead.
And there, just barely poking out behind some wood panelling, was a face, looking in the window to see what all the ruckus was about, and then tilting to accidentally peer directly at her. As soon as eye contact was made, the face quickly disappeared, but not before Lucrezia got a good long look. She rose slowly from the bench, clutching her letters closely. It had been a man's face, clean-shaven, underneath a navy blue sort of brimmed cap, like part of a military uniform. She had seen that cap before.
Losing no time, she hitched up her skirts and shoved her way past a couple of passengers to get to the glass enclosure door, and flew through it, nearly pulling it off the hinge. Outside was decking that wrapped all the way around the enclosure, and at the four corners were staircases down to the next level of decking, at water level. Here she bumped into members of the crew and more passengers, and looked in every corner she could get to without going through doors marked "Crew Only", but couldn't find the man in the blue cap. She stopped at the railing to think and catch her breath, peering over the edge at the water rushing by.
...I could swear that was the same uniform worn by the men chasing after Heero.....they're here, on the ferry. They're following us.
Lucrezia turned around, curled one hand around the railing, and thought. Then, for reasons she would keep to herself, she went quietly back upstairs to the enclosure and sat down, never mentioning anything to Duo about the men in blue uniforms. Perhaps she feared looking foolish if it turned out to be a coincidence, but there was no way to know for sure.
The rest of the journey to France was made without incident.
As the seat-of-the-pants plan developed, Sally practically begged for the opportunity to provide a key distraction for a select group of guards at the mountain fortress' front gate, but wouldn't say what the distraction would be, keeping it locked behind a tight-lipped smile. She did manage to reveal that she needed some very specific materials to do her job, so a brief supply mission was planned.
The group had spent the night in a cheap boarding house outside Versailles, just west of Paris, but for the supply run, they logically had to re-enter the city. Far beneath the thick layer of ever-building battle-madness, Duo was a bit disappointed that on his second trip through France, he still wasn't able to see any sights or really experience the famous town at all, but without Heero, he wouldn't have enjoyed himself anyway. Because several of them needed to make separate purchases of their own, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre went with the doctor to one of the few carriage houses remaining in the area, further proof that the horse and buggy were slowly going the way of the dinosaur.
Sally did all the communicating with the carriage driver, surprising her travel-mates with a previously undemonstrated fluency in French. They made several stops picking up various items that would hopefully be of use to them--dark clothing to reduce nighttime visibility, implements of first aid in case of injury, and a few non-lethal but still black-market weapons, including a quarterstaff and a sling made of coarse netting. Few of the team had ever handled firearms before, and if they really wanted to kill anyone that badly, Wufei offered to lend out some of his less valuable daggers, though he didn't expect anyone would have the nerve.
"I can't stand the suspense much longer!" exclaimed Quatre as the four of them carried bundles of second-hand clothes, all black or very dark blue, from a consignment store back to the carriage. "What's your distraction going to be?"
"I'd better not get your hopes up," Sally said slyly. "We don't even know if we can actually use it yet."
Duo opened the carriage door for her as he offered his two cents. "Hey, if you think you can keep a whole gatehouse full of guards occupied for ten minutes, I'm all for it."
Smiling adorably, Sally leaned to her left and shouted out a destination to the francophone driver. "Le Chat Noir, s'il vois plaît!"
The driver, a pudgy-faced, poorly shaven, grumbly fellow with a limp and a sour expression, gave the command only a moment's consideration before growling out a raspy reply. "C'est fermé, Madame."
"Ohhh..." Sally pouted and slouched.
"What's wrong?" Duo asked.
"I needed to borrow some clothes from the girls I used to work with, but the place I would've gone to get them is closed..." Her voice trailed off and her eyes glazed over as she was momentarily transported to another time and place. Inside a little bubble that separated her from the noisy flow of carts, horses, people, and motorcars filling the rest of the street with life, she seemed very sad. "...never thought I'd see that place go..." A second or two later, she lifted her face to the sunshine and thought up the next place to start looking for her past friends. "Bien sûr...'Au Lapin Agile'?"
This time, the driver nodded. "Oui, Madame."
They all piled back in with their purchases and off they went to another part of the sparkling city. By now, the boys were monstrously curious about Sally's plan. Sitting directly opposite her, Trowa folded his arms and arched his visible eyebrow. "So what was 'The Black Cat'?" he inquired, using his own limited French to translate the first destination she had asked for, the one that was turned down flat.
The doctor blushed slightly at the six eyes now focused on her like long-range telescopes, desperate to know her secret. She smiled again and leaned back, carefully weighing how much to reveal and how much to keep hidden. "It was...a kind of club...a centre for the arts, in the eyes of some," she began delicately. "I worked my way through medical school there...best years of my life."
"What kind of club was it?" Quatre asked innocently. "Sports? Or card games? What did you do there?"
The redhead laughed softly, turning her head to hide the pearly smile that followed. "...I..." She paused, but never continued. The boys would simply have to wait until they arrived.
Gradually their carriage rolled through the bohemian district of Montmartre as the sun climbed higher in the sky. They could sense a change in the atmosphere almost the very second they crossed the border into this highly artistic and philosophical neighbourhood. A touch of mystery was added to every little sidestreet by groups of free-thinking citizens in unconventional clothes, sitting at wrought iron patio tables in open-air cafés, drinking peculiar liqueurs and discussing the meaning of life and other high-brow topics. Unless they were merely trying to inebriate themselves well in advance of lunch.
The roads seemed narrower, and the buildings taller, but the effect was cozy rather than claustrophobic; the very ground they rode on tended to dip and slope like a roller coaster, giving the impression that the whole quarter was an elaborate fun house built to confound the senses and leave uninitiated visitors reeling from the shock of having all their starchy Victorian values stripped away. Art salons, dance halls, theatres and havens of haute cuisine lined the boulevards up and down, creating lush breeding ground for radical new ideas that the rest of the world may not have been ready for. As the boys hung their heads out the carriage windows, they breathed deeply to saturate themselves with this strange new land, where the colours were brighter, the music more sensuous, and the air more thickly-laden with exotic scents and conversations as deep as the sea. Never had the three youngsters ever been exposed to such a cosmopolitan fantasy land, driven hour after hour by its own rhythm of life...and they liked it.
It seemed odd when Sally gave a shout up to the driver that made him turn down an alleyway after rounding a corner where an earthy stucco building with a low, sloping roof attached to what looked like a small travellers' inn sat, with trees and shrubs giving shade and colour, towered over by a street lamp on a tall pole. The quartet disembarked in the alley, whereupon Sally knocked on a rear door marked 'Priv'. As they waited, Quatre took a moment to marvel at a violinist standing on the opposite street corner. He stood in a relaxed pose, singing through his instrument about love and beauty and other fine French virtues, but what was remarkable was that he asked for no money. There was no upturned cap sitting on the pavement to collect coins. He played his music for the music's sake.
When the door eventually opened a crack, the doctor smiled at the sliver of a pretty young lady's face and spoke to her in French. The two had never met before, but Sally only had to mention a few other girls' names, and the door was flung open with enthusiastic, if indecipherable, words of welcome. Sally and the tawny brown-haired girl clasped each other by the forearms and exchanged a very continental double-kiss as if they had been old friends separated by a thousand miles of ocean for twenty years. Sally seemed to ask a question while the girl peered at the three young men stood isolated on the door stoop. Then, to their surprise and moderate delight, she nodded and spoke to them in heavily-accented English. "Zees way, zees way!" she chirped pleasantly, waving them inside.
The boys half-smirked to themselves and followed the women into an odd, cavernous space that was all unfinished wooden walls, stacked with various painted cut-outs and backdrops, like scenery for a play. Only then did they notice that the brown-haired girl was actually in the middle of a fitting for some sort of costume. It started with ballet slippers on her feet, rose through a nearly floor-length skirt of chiffon in wispy, ragged layers of green, auburn and gold up to a bodice of dark green velvet decorated with real ivy leaves, and topped with a headdress of more chiffon held in place by twisted vines, giving her the appearance of a woodland nymph. A wardrobe woman stuck pins into the back and sides of the outfit while the wearer continued to talk animatedly with Sally. Then a young stage hand pressed past the boys with a coil of rope on one arm and a rolled-up canvas painted with an Egyptian motif in the other. Then they heard far-off music, a twenty-odd-piece orchestra. Then the stamping of feet and the shouts of a man completely in charge of something enticingly hidden.
"Where are we?" Quatre whispered with spiritual fear. Something about this place unsettled him. The other two simply couldn't answer.
"Okay, I've just go to go talk to some people," Sally interrupted, stepping back over to them, "so you three are going to sit and wait in the manager's office, alright?" She shoved the lot of them into a little room with a bureau completely obscured by piles of paper, and shut the door in their faces before any of them could protest.
They stared at the door for several seconds. "...maybe I'm paranoid," said Duo, "but I'm getting the distinct impression that she doesn't want us around for this part."
Trowa folded his arms and pouted just a little bit. "I think you're right."
Just then, from beyond the office door came the faint shouts and squeals of glee belonging to a whole pack of young French ladies, howling like jubilant little banshees. Duo raced up to the door, pressed his ear against it, then wheeled on the others with a scowl. "She's having fun without us!"
Trowa clomped to the door militantly. "Well, we're not having that, are we?"
"We most certainly are not. And I think it's our duty to investigate."
"I couldn't agree more."
They both turned to Quatre, who was being quietly obedient in his own understated way. The blond boy blinked at the pair of them. "...but Sally asked us to stay here..."
Duo shook his head at Trowa. "Terrible. No backbone whatsoever."
"Oh, he has his moments," the other replied. "Just not now."
Quatre swallowed. He was then grasped firmly on either side, by the arms, and marched straight to the office door. Together they opened the wooden slab just a sliver, then a bit more as they saw no one was about. Creeping into the hall, the trio tiptoed further into the catacombs until they could take turns peeking around the corner at the giggly commotion that had their collective curiosity and jealously whipped up into a little green tornado. Sally was surrounded by women about her age, six or seven altogether, all thinly dressed and smiling as they clutched and cooed over the foreigner they had befriended years ago. There was a joyful discussion in French about what had been going on in their lives since they parted, but none of the boys could follow it properly, so they slunk away to explore elsewhere.
While they glanced questioningly at each other, wondering where to creep to next, the far-off music kicked up to a new fervour, and was accompanied by rhythmic stomping and commands barked out by a man's voice. Intrigued, they followed the sounds through the wood-lined labyrinth as far as it would take them, and what they found at the end of the trail left them irreversably astounded.
The halls they had travelled made up the backstage area of a kind of dinner theatre, with a stage overlooking a large but cozy room dotted with round wooden tables and round-backed chairs, each ensemble adorned with a Tiffany lamp and red satin placemats. The centre portion of the stage jutted out several feet, and on either side was a split orchestra pit, where about two dozen musicians in plain clothes were plying their bows and reeds with spirited vigor, according to the direction of a balding man in a blue cardigan who stood before the stage alone. Still, as fanciful as all this was, it paled in comparison to what was actually on the stage.
Girls. Twelve pretty girls in ruffled dresses with tight-fitting bodices of black, white, and scarlet. Girls in short ankle boots, kicking their legs in the air to the beat of lively music. Girls smiling, laughing, hooting, and snapping their heads from side to side so that the long red feathers in their headdresses caught maximum air and fluttered prettily. Girls tumbling and doing cartwheels, displaying enormous acrobatic prowess through their precisely choreographed routine. Girls deliberately lifting their skirts and showing off their shapely gams without shame. Girls gone wild.
Suddenly, the director shouted and clapped his hands twice, and the girls stopped and stood casually as he pointed out the minute things they hadn't done quite right. It was a dress rehearsal.
The boys quickly darted away from their hiding place before they could be noticed. They pressed their backs against the most convenient wall and stood frozen, staring, unable to make eye contact. If what they had just seen had occurred in broad daylight on a busy street in London, they would all be arrested and hauled away for indecent exposure. After several seconds, only Duo could make a sound. ".........woah."
The next sound, that of Sally wrapping up her conversation, sent them scrambling back to the office, half-crouched over and praying not to be seen by anyone, least of all her. They ran in and slammed the door, then stood around huffing and puffing for awhile. Trowa ran a hand through his hair, so the others could see his eyes were as big as dinner plates. "What.....was that?"
Quatre pointed nervously at the door. "...s-she wouldn't...have anything to do with...that sort of thing.....would she?"
"Well...we shouldn't assume that the place where she used to work was even remotely like this," Duo ventured, adjusting his black waistcoat self-consciously.
Trowa nodded out of desperation. "Yeah, and...even if it was, she was probably about our age at the time, so she might have been...a waitress or...something."
"Or a hat check girl."
"Or a cleaning lady."
"Or a kitchen helper."
"Yeah, any of those."
They froze like little stone gargoyles, staring at the floor with their hands in their pockets, until someone rapped lightly on the door. They jumped in unison. "Boys?" Sally called from without.
"Ye-es?" squeaked Quatre, his voice crackling into the soprano range briefly.
"I want to show you something the girls loaned me," she said, muffled by the door, "and I want you to tell me if you think it's distracting enough."
After glancing at each other and asking with their eyes if they had anything to worry about, Duo answered for all of them. "Sure."
The door opened and in walked Doctor Poole; in doing so, she permanently seared the eyeballs fixated on her. Sally's outfit made the twelve dancing girls look like outright prudes. It was a bright blue concoction with silver sparkles and clear white gems adorning it in strategic places. It was low-cut at the top, where her bosoms were moulded into a more appealing position, and high-cut at the bottom, showing off long, slender legs in bejewelled silk stockings, that were beige at the top and blended smoothly into a rich brown, disappearing behind a pair of short brown ankle boots. Her hair hung in loose red curls, with a bounce and shine found only in high-society color plate fashion magazines. Draping down from the small of her back was a tumbling cascade of blue ostrich feathers that just brushed the tops of her boots, and the hand that wasn't busy closing the door held two large feather fans of the same bright blue. Topping the ensemble was a hair clip at the back of her head that held a spray of smaller feathers sprouting from a large false diamond, crowning her obvious eroticism with tasteful elegance. "Well?" she asked expectantly.
Things were going from bad to worse for the poor boys, all three of them clearly going red in the face. Duo had never seen that much female leg in all his life, and he wasn't able to ignore it as easily as he might have thought. The other two had seen plenty of legs before, but not of their own volition, and Sally's display brought about a mixture of bad memories and good intangibles that were best not described. It was terribly confusing.
Sally smirked. A bit too much for them, now that I think about it. Poor dears. "I should explain."
"No no!" Duo blurted, holding up a hand to stop her. "Really. We don't need to know. Do we, fellas?" The other two couldn't tear their gaze away long enough to acknowledge this, but they made some passive little grunts to serve as their agreement.
The redhead sighed slightly and pressed on anyway. "My parents were always supportive of me becoming a doctor, but I wanted to prove I could do it all by myself. No matter how often they offered me money for tuition, or room and board, I wouldn't take a penny of it. I finally found a school in Paris willing to take women on as students, and my academic record got me in the door easily...I just had to figure out a way to pay for it.
"I already had some training in ballet, so I looked around for jobs in dance halls. The 'Chat Noir' was absolutely perfect for me! Full of artists, poets, musicians, philosophers, intellectuals...my very first week dancing, Claude Debussy himself came to the show and asked to meet me afterwards. We had a marvelous conversation about cross-medium impressionism." She smiled and blushed. "And he promised to write a sonata for me." The following silence was heavy and dense, like one of Duo's own chocolate cakes before he learned the subtle difference between baking powder and baking soda.
Quatre suddenly seemed to ignore the 'bare legs' issue, and was swept up in the glamour of the bohemian lifestyle, something he only could have read about in books back home. "Did you ever dance at the 'Moulin Rouge'?" he asked, wide-eyed.
Sally frowned snarkily at him, perching her hands on her hips and shifting her weight around. "Do you know how many kickline girls have to fall into the orchestra pit and die before I make it to the 'Moulin Rouge'?" she kvetched. "Anyway...our place was nothing like that gaudy dive. We were a clean, nicely run establishment, and management never required us to sleep with the clientele," she finished with obvious distaste.
She thought she had put them in their place until Trowa, arms casually crossed as he was getting used to the sight of her, piped up with, "But you could if you wanted to, right?"
The doctor huffed over and slapped him with a blue feather fan. "Why am I even discussing this with you!? I only brought you here for your opinion on the outfit, not an editorial on cabaret lifestyle!" She pouted and wandered to the other side of the room. "I should've waited until Lucy was over her migraine..."
"There's something I don't understand," said Duo, turning to follow. "The day we met, you were standing on a street corner, making fun of men in general and handing out leaflets on women getting the vote...you're the only lady doctor we know and you just land with both feet on anyone who dares doubt your credentials.....and all that time, you used to be a showgirl? Isn't that a bit...hypocritical?"
Trowa and Quatre each took one giant step backwards.
"The two things aren't mutually exclusive," Sally replied with shocking calm. "Being a feminist doesn't necessarily mean you don't accept your own beauty, you know...we don't all wrap ourselves perpetually in bulky gray dresses and run to the nearest policeman when some fellow whistles at us. The whole idea of women's rights is that we should be able to choose how to live without some man telling us what to do." Then she smiled sweetly, and gracefully took a fan in each hand, spreading them in front of her lower half like a crinoline-lined skirt. "Now...shall we get off this subject which I regret bringing up and talk diversionary tactics instead?"
The boys relaxed a little bit after that. "Can we see your routine?" Quatre asked excitedly, anxious to experience a foreign art form. He took a chair in the middle of the room, and Trowa availed himself of the small sofa after moving a pile of papers to the floor, but Duo remained standing.
"There's not really enough room in here," Sally mused while glancing around, "but I can give you the gist of it." She staked out a patch of unused floor and demonstrated a small snippet of her fan dancing technique, holding one fan over her nose down to her waist, and keeping the other over her legs, slithering around to expose them in miniscule increments. Since there was no music, she added her own matter-of-fact commentary. "I didn't usually do this routine, it was a bit racy for day-to-day use...this is actually the same outfit I wore, though...they saved it for me. Still fits, too. I was the 'Proud Peacock' in the late-night show...waving my wings around...teasing them with a bit of leg and then taking it right back.....and of course if we had a V.I.P. in the audience, I was supposed to prance over to his table and drape my tail feathers in his lap." Then she put the fans down and shifted her weight to one foot, looking at the boys for signs of understanding. "...like that, basically. It's a lot more dramatic with full stage makeup, but you get the idea."
Duo stood thinking with his arms folded while the other two applauded the impromptu performance. Trowa even threw in a whistle. When the commotion died down, Sally turned toward Duo, who still hadn't provided a response. He gnawed on the side of his thumb for a bit, then stood quietly awhile longer. "And you plan on doing that in front of a whole gaggle of enemy guards in the gatehouse?"
Sally blinked. "That was the idea..."
Duo shook his head at her. "I don't think so."
"What's the matter now?" whined Quatre. "Weren't you watching? That was really good!"
"Yeah!" Duo barked back. "A little too good!" He shrugged off all the glares of dissatisfaction and stood firm. "Half a dozen big, burly guys, possibly armed, locked in a gatehouse with her, alone, looking like that? I don't think so."
"Awww," Sally cooed lovingly, and she stepped closer to squeeze the boy's shoulders and kiss him on the cheek. He grimaced and wiped it off quickly. "You're such a sweet, considerate angel."
"Ew. Knock it off."
"...but just the same, if you pair someone up with me, like Wufei, I'm sure he could handle them if they got out of control."
"Look! ...I'm sure you've dealt with your fair share of drunks and perverts in your short time, but this is different! It's murderous cutthroats with guns, knives, and what-have-you, and since I'm in charge of this mission, I'd..." He paused, then shrank a bit, with apologetic eyes. "I'd never forgive myself if something went wrong."
That pretty much scuttled it right there. If the mission leader determined that a risk was unacceptable, that risk would not be taken. His word was final. Sally resigned herself to it with a disappointed upward flick of her eyebrows, and Quatre slumped in his chair a bit. There had been some wheels turning inside Trowa's head, however, and he only took a few moments more to pull together his own take on the matter. "What if we found someone else to sic her on?" he wondered out loud.
They all gazed at him curiously. "Like who?" Duo asked.
"Like..." Trowa took a few seconds to stare at Quatre, as if preparing him for something unpleasant. "...someone in a position of power...someone so slimy and lustful that no force on Earth could make him refuse a gift-wrapped dancing girl left on his doorstep."
Quatre's eyes widened slightly. Could he mean Byron? Oh, for pity's sake, Tro, be careful! Don't make Duo wonder how you know so much about his character or we could both be found out!
Intrigued, Sally brushed off another chair, swung her tailfeathers off to the side and sat down, leaning forward as if she had forgotten how low-cut her bodice was. "What do you have in mind?" she purred, sensing an even better plan was on the horizon.
Trowa told them his idea, which was quite a bit more involved than simple distraction, but somewhat less central to the rescue effort. Seemingly reading his fair-haired friend's mind, he kept to himself the details of how he knew Sally's alternate target was a leering, drooling wolfhound with a surplus of hormones and a deficiency of morals, for revealing what happened in Byron's secret den wouldn't have been good for anybody. The other three listened intently, hearing new possibilities they hadn't even considered, and soon it became the one part of the master plan in which they all felt confident. It was liberating at first, but soon it reminded them all of just how much farther they had to go.----------
Heero could only get away with drinking filthy water off a scummy stone floor for so long before it began to catch up with him. Though he was in too much agony to notice, as his internal organs screamed out in pain for blessed nutrients, an infection was rapidly spreading through his system. The most prominent symptom of that infection was a fever.
He'd suffered a similar fever once before, as a child, when he was too young to remember it. Then, he was well cared for, and recovered quickly, but this time he was not so fortunate. His temperature climbed. The dingy rags he wore clung to his thinning frame, dampened by a mixture of ground water and sweat. He laid slightly curled up on his side with both hands pulled above his head, as if tied to an invisible bedpost, but even in his exhaustion and dreams of being restrained, he was not perfectly still. The rising fever shook and swayed him, and the blinding heat cascading down his brow cast a cloud of delerium over his mind, and he began to slowly slip away...
When Heero next opened his eyes, he was mildly surprised to find himself standing upright. Looking around, he saw his cell, dark but clearly visible. It seemed at least twice it's normal size, and the walls appeared to be bowing in and out faintly like a giant bellows. Odd as this behaviour was, it didn't command Heero's attention as much as the lack of steel bars that had previously caged him. With a blink, he stepped away from his cell.
Something about the renewed strength of his legs and the soundness of his body set off a little alarm in the back of his mind, calmly suggesting that what he was experiencing wasn't real, but it was ignored. He was content to walk barefoot down the stone-walled hallway, and took a moment to notice when the scenery changed. After a smooth transition, he was walking down a cement corridor of a training base, not unlike the Isle of Wight. It was an identical likeness, from the electric lamps caged in thick wire and spaced at regular intervals down the hall, to the seams in the concrete left behind by the foundation's pouring moulds.
Still haven't fixed that, Heero thought as he passed by a flickering light bulb.
Around the corner, the hallway changed again. There were doorways without doors on either side, stretching a hundred yards in front of him. As he swivelled his head from side to side, peering into the rooms, he saw the same sight over and over--a blackened room with an empty chair turned directly away from the door. Over each chair was a hanging electric lamp, with a shade that guided the light down, letting none escape to the sides.
Room after room he passed, and coming from each one he heard a strange sound...the cry of a young boy being whipped and beaten, screaming in pain and whimpering for mercy in some foreign tongue. It was faint, but with each room he walked past, a fresh copy of the same unintelligible yowling was added, overlapping and blending into a tumult of white noise.
I wonder what he did wrong, Heero thought with a mental shrug, not recognizing the tiny child's cries.
Eventually, he became mildly annoyed by the ruckus, and coldly wished it would stop. One step further, and he froze, noting to his left a sign held up on a gilded iron stand and painted with a tasteful leaf motif in black on white. The sign read, in large serif letters, "Shhhh!"
As soon as Heero read the sign, the screaming stopped.
Two new lines of text appeared on the lower half of the sign, as if they had always been there. They read "Choir practice in progress." When Heero looked up from the sign, there was a wooden door. He opened it.
When the door swung inward, a brilliant light streamed out, and it took a moment for Heero's eyes to adjust, but before they did, he took note of a new sound. Many different voices this time, but hardly shouting in pain. He reached up to rub his eyes and then focused on a peculiar sight. Standing on three tiers that made a semi-circle around a podium was a fifty-voice Southern Baptist choir, men and women, young and old, with varying shades of dark skin and gleaming white teeth, dressed in long gowns of purple trimmed with gold. They swayed slowly from side to side in time with music they made themselves, an a cappella anthem in four-part harmony, slow and mournful yet filled with determination.
"Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world,
Troubles of the world, Lord, the troubles of the world.
Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world,
Goin' home to live with God..."
This was not the strangest part of the scene. That award went to the conductor of the choir, who stood on the podium with his back to the door, gracefully waving his arms to shape the notes and phrases coming forth from his flock. His face was hidden, but the long brown braid was a fine piece of identification.
Heero attempted to enter the room, but his feet felt like lead. He couldn't cross the threshold into the glowing golden room that had no walls. Then he tried calling out to Duo, but found that he was mute, and became a bit frightened at the feeling of helplessness and confusion. While he struggled to make a sound, the choir continued their song passed down from their ancestors for two hundred years, about how wonderful it would be to depart their wretched earthly existence and meet the loved ones they had never known...their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, and their blessed Lord Jesus. They exuded the feeling of being together yet alone, so alone. The fact that Duo wouldn't turn around and acknowledge Heero's presence wasn't helping.
Annoyed and untouched by the experience, he found the power to turn away, and the door vanished as soon as it was ignored, taking the choir with it.
From there, he walked on down the same hall, but became increasingly aware that the whole structure was sloping upwards, making each step more tiring than the last. There were no more doorways on either side, and no more electric lights, but light still came from somewhere. By the time Heero could see an end to the ever-sloping hallway, the grade had become so steep that he was crawling up it on his hands and knees, fighting to adhere to the cement floor lest he tumble backwards down to certain injury. At the top of the slope was another wooden door, identical to the last. Sensing that he had to reach it, Heero dragged himself closer, inch by inch, scraping his hands against the nearly vertical concrete until he could just barely reach out and brush the door with his fingertips. It swung open slightly. With every ounce of strength he had, he managed to pull himself up over the precipice and roll onto his back at the finish line, panting with exhaustion.
He laid flat for a few moments to catch his breath, then glanced over and saw that someone had closed the door.
"Oooh, you're late," a familiar voice said scoldingly. "I'd just about given up on you."
Heero looked up and saw a hand being extended to him, to help him off the floor, but he couldn't see past it. He clasped the hand, felt a pull on his harm, and was suddenly upright, wearing his old black pinstriped suit from his butler days. He patted himself down to see if it was real, then seemed to accept it.
"Still, there's always room on my calendar for an old friend," the voice continued.
Squinting, Heero followed the direction of the voice until he found the source, a fair-haired young man turned the other way, wearing a brown tweed suit. The surroundings had changed radically; they both stood in a warm but formal-looking office, with lavish Persian rugs overlapping on the hardwood floor, a large desk with a green-shaded accountant's lamp appearing to grow out of it, a red plush chaise longue, and a few little assorted tables with knick-knacks such as a world globe, which was nothing but ocean, and a crystal liquor service. The room was perfectly round, about forty feet in diameter, and the one circular wall was nothing but one solid bookshelf, stuffed to capacity with brainy-looking books. There was no ceiling to the office--the wall stretched straight up to the blackness of infinity.
The fair-haired lad in the brown tweed suit turned around once Heero had seen the full scope of his haven. It was Quatre...but he didn't look quite right. Not only was the suit a bad match for him overall, but he wore a pair of tiny half-moon spectacles on the end of his turned-up nose, and he was sporting a moustache and goatee that were blatantly and absurdly drawn onto his face with a ladies' eyebrow pencil. The effect was highly comical, though Heero was in no fit state to laugh. "...where am I?" he managed finally, surprised to have a voice again.
"This is my office!" the phantom Quatre replied proudly. "While you were away, I went to Harvard and became a psychiatrist!"
"Oh." Heero knew on some level that this wasn't quite right either, but he couldn't pinpoint why. "Well, um.....good for you."
The pleasantries concluded, Quatre pointed him to the chaise longue. "Now, if you wouldn't mind taking a seat, we'll get on with our session," he said, pulling the green leather tilt n' swivel from behind the desk and sitting.
"The one you're paying me for, of course! And it's lucky you're my only patient, or I would've had to reschedule. You really ought to work on showing up on time for these things."
As one does in a dream-like state, Heero failed to ponder that thoroughly, but walked over to the chaise longue and made himself sit down. The ridiculous-looking Quatre-shaped apparition looked up, cleared his throat in a disapproving way, and made hand gestures to the effect that Heero should lie down properly with his feet up, so the scene would look like a psychiatric session as illustrated in layman's periodicals.
With a faint scowl, Heero laid back, put his feet up, folded his hands on his chest, and stared up at nothing.
"Now then," Quatre began, already scribbling notes in his coil-top notebook, "I believe the problem that initially brought you to my office was that you were missing something. Let's go on from there. Tell me about missing something."
Silence followed. Heero didn't have a clue what was going on, and it showed on his face when he finally turned his head and glanced at the 'doctor'. "I...don't remember losing anything."
Quatre tapped the end of his pen against his lips thoughtfully. "Why don't we start with a general description of what it is you're missing? Give me some abstract word associations that make you think about it."
Heero scowled again, made an exasperated little noise, and spread his hands out in front of him slightly. "I already told you, I'm not missing anything."
Nodding, Quatre wrote something down, then sat the notebook on his lap and steepled his fingers. "What's your earliest memory of having lost this thing of value? How old were you? What were you feeling at the ti--"
"Are you thick or something!?" Heero snapped, unleashing his ordinarily-repressed temper as he sat up quickly to face him. "I'm not missing anything! You're not listening to me, and you're not making any kind of sense by talking in bloody circles!"
There was another pause while they locked eyes, then Quatre swung one leg over the other and leaned back. "If the thing you lost could be any animal on earth, what animal would it be?" he asked sweetly.
Heero shoved himself up off the chaise with a grunt and began pacing back and forth angrily. "This is nuts," he muttered.
Quatre clucked his tongue with pity. "Tch-tch-tch...denial." Sensing a road block on the path to progress, he then reached behind him and to the right where a small pad of white paper sat on the desk. "I'd like to start you on some pills that have just come out on the market," he said matter-of-factly, scribbling out a prescription. "They're highly potent, somewhat experimental, and may cause you to feel worse than you did before you came in, but they've been given token approval by a figurehead government health agency and for every prescription I write, I get a nice, fat kickback towards my yachting tour of the Caribbean. I want you to take this to the first door on the right, and take one tablet three times a day half an hour before you wake up and an hour after you've gone to sleep. If you don't feel an improvement, come back and see me again." He tore off the top sheet and held it out. Heero hesitated, but eventually took the paper and looked at it. It was blank.
Quatre had already gone firmly back to scribbling in his notebook, so there seemed little point in pressing the issue. Heero walked to the door, cautiously opened it, and found a tidy hallway running parallel to the door frame, and quite normal-looking too. The first door on the right was about an inch and a half away from the office door. Reaffirming his grip on the nonexistent prescription, he twisted the knob of the second door and stepped inside.
The atmosphere changed.
It was colder, and the room was a paradox of being very tall with a very low ceiling, a product of delerium-based spatial sense. Against the far wall was a tall judge's bench, and sitting at the top of it, complete with a black gown and a gavel, was Lord Jeffrhyss. Guards were scattered around; two of them stood on either side of His Lordship behind the giant desk. Heero's mind was tossed four years back in time, and suddenly he knew no other existence. He stood straight and proud before his master, anxiously awaiting his orders.
"Your instructors tell me you are ready to begin your first mission," boomed Jeffrhyss from the bench, a tiny, far-off figure in dark spectacles. "You must retrieve the marked package and deliver it to your contact at the checkpoint by the pre-appointed time. Return to me when you have completed this task."
The door behind Heero opened, revealing a dimly-lit gray cement hallway, but he wasn't ready to leave the room yet. He knit his brow in confusion and took a step forward. "Master...may I speak?" he entreated.
Jeffrhyss waved the gavel regally. "You may."
Heero's throat tightened as the embarassment of showing up to work unprepared sank in. "Forgive me, but...from where am I to retrieve the package? And how is the package marked?"
The guards looked at each other, murmuring, and Jeffrhyss looked displeased. "You have already been given all the information necessary to complete your mission," he stated crossly.
As the faceless mob hiding in the dark whispered amongst themselves, Heero squinted, looking down and touching a hand to his head. Nowhere in his cranial memory bank was the pertinent information, and since he didn't just forget things, it must never have been given to him. "With respect, sir," he said, lifting his head with a touch of meekness, "no I haven't."
The ambient buzz grew louder.
"I don't know who my contact is either...or the location of the checkpoint, or my expected time of arrival." He looked up with innocent eyes at his master, expecting a connection.
Jeffrhyss became enraged without warning. "I have given you everything you need, you ungrateful whelp!"
Heero recoiled, then became irate himself. "No you haven't, or I wouldn't be in this position now! I don't have enough information! Why can't you admit your mistake for once!?"
The unseen mob began shouting angrily.
Jeffrhyss banged the gavel a few times and pointed at the accused. "Take him away and discipline him!" came the horrid judgement, and Heero was seized by four faceless guards who slapped, punched, kicked, and otherwise abused him on his way out the door. The treatment was grossly disproportionate to what normally went on in the compound, but it was magnified by the fever, along with everything else. After a thirty-second free-for-all, the four guards picked Heero up by a limb apiece and marched out the door and down the hall with him, and all the while he protested loudly, struggling and hurling epithets in raspy Japanese. He was unconscionably livid, but oddly unharmed.
Out the door they went, clomping towards a door some distance away, then threw the door open and threw Heero in. He yelped and tumbled to a stop, on his back atop several layers of Persian rug.
As he stared up at nothing again, Quatre's cosmetically-altered face popped into view, upside-down. "Oh, there you are! How are the pills working out?"
Disoriented, Heero blinked to the side and placed himself in the round room again, then held the hand in front of his face that still held the clean, uncreased prescription paper. He let it fall back down with a sigh. "I didn't much care for the side-effects."
Smirking, Quatre reached down with his right hand, and almost instantly Heero was seated upright on the red couch, half-facing the doctor in his leather chair, which was now a deep blue. "Well, if that didn't work, perhaps we ought to consider some alternate diagnoses," he suggested, leaning his elbows on the arm rests and steepling his fingers again. "How do you think the missing elements in your life have failed to create the opposite of what didn't occur through omission?"
Quadruple and quintuple negatives were difficult enough to follow when one wasn't delerious and sickly. Heero swallowed, his throat tightening. "I...I don't know."
"Of course you don't know," Quatre chided with an air of superiority and an overly-patient schoolteacher's smile. "That's your whole issue. You don't know who you are or what you want, only that time is slipping rapidly through your fingers, which causes you to flounder around in the murkiness of indecision and eventually make poor choices out of haste and desperation. It's classic." The notebook suddenly appeared in his lap again, and he jotted down some notes, looking down. "How else could you have ended up with Duo?"
Heero's head snapped up to glare viciously at the insinuation. "What?" he growled as the walls of the office began to ripple.
Quatre shrugged innocently and blinked his teal eyes several times in rapid succession. "Considering your past circumstances, it's hardly surprising...I wouldn't even say it's your fault."
Needing clarification on that part, Heero scooted right to the edge of the couch in an angry, jerky motion and wrapped both hands tightly around it. "What isn't my fault?" he hissed.
"That you have a problem with women."
The walls rippled again.
Heero breathed out a stale laugh at the accusation. "I do not have a problem with women."
"...do, times infinity, plus one."
It took every drop of Heero's self-control to keep from slamming Quatre's head in one of his desk drawers, whether it fit or not. "You really have gone bonkers."
Quatre smiled sympathetically. "Scoff all you like, but you know it's true. You can't stand women in general. You can barely tolerate the ones you work with."
Heero folded his arms and turned aside in silent protest.
"You think Grace and Elsie are a waste of good oxygen," Quatre prodded.
"I don't work with them anymore, remember?"
"You think Sally takes her professional detachment too far, even though you're the one unfairly transferring your feelings of abandonment onto her."
Heero opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. He had to think about that one.
"You think Kamal is a crackpot spiritualist, and that if Adeela turned sideways, the wind would whistle through her empty head like the Westminster pipe organ."
"Now, wait just a min--"
"You think Lucrezia waffles around with her loyalties, and because you don't see a clear committment to either side, you can't really trust her."
This began to get insulting fairly quickly, causing Heero to actually leap up and point an angry finger squarely at Quatre's nose. "That is a damn lie!" he shouted. "Lucy's a fast learner and a hard worker, and if she hadn't risked her own freedom against Jeffrhyss' ego, I'd still be hooked on his home-brewed obedience drugs!"
The outburst had no obvious effect on Quatre. "But do you trust her?"
Eventually, Heero stopped to consider that having respect for someone's abilities and actually trusting them implicitly were not necessarily the same thing, and that perhaps he had been unconsciously confusing them. Perhaps he really didn't trust the female of the species, but why? It really wasn't as if any of his lady acquaintances had ever given him cause to doubt them, he just thought he had a perfectly healthy dislike for the minute ways in which they tended to annoy him occasionally. And since he kept such thoughts to himself and squelched them out of existence within seconds, he also couldn't imagine why they would suddenly be a problem now.
After a short, blinkless pause, Quatre continued unfazed. "In your head, you quietly called Lady Une the 'Bitch Goddess from Hades'." At that point, Heero dropped his hands and wandered away with a sigh. "And Hilde is, in your opinion, a flaky, whiny, unmotivated, indecisive twerp who is really going to have to pull her socks up if she ever hopes to be considered for vital mission components."
Heero paused a few paces away and half-turned around with his hands in his pockets. "Can't really argue with that..."
Quatre shrugged. "Neither can I." He stopped to glance at a nonexistent wristwatch. "And since we're running low on time, I'm not even going to get started on Relena."
"But that still leaves you with a very serious problem," Quatre continued in a clinical tone that made the walls start bowing in and out again. "You have all these negative feelings about women, but you're far too polite to ever bring them up in conversation, so they get wadded up inside you like crumpled newspaper, unconfronted, unresolved, and fermenting in the pit of your stomach."
A peculiar aura descended upon the office, one that made Heero fidgety and uncomfortable. Something made him look up at the ceiling that wasn't there, at the infinite blackness above.
"What do you suppose Duo will say when he finds out?" the doctor went on, his calm tones turning to vicious taunts as he strolled in a small circle around his patient.
Heero narrowed his eyes at him, his fury slowly building. "Finds out what?"
"That he's your second choice," Quatre spat hurtfully. "That he's a victim of your own deep-seated psychosis.....that the only reason you've handed yourself, body and soul, over to a boy is because you can't stand the alternative!?"
"I don't have to listen to this!" Heero snarled, and he pushed past Quatre and made for the door, but when he reached it, he found the doorknob had disappeared. He slapped the wooden barrier all over with both hands, thinking the knob really was there and that he just couldn't see it, but to no avail.
"Something wrong, Heero?" mocked the phony psychiatrist. "Something missing?"
The ceiling of infinity seemed to be closing down on the office, impossibly. Panic shot through Heero's veins. Pressure built up in the room until his ears popped and started ringing unbearably. As a last resort, he hauled back and landed a high kick in the centre of the door. The first one merely jostled it slightly off its hinges, but the second kick broke it. He brought his arms up protectively around his head and burst through the splintered mess as if it was tissue paper, just as the ceiling would have collapsed and crushed him.
On the other side of the door, the dream switched tracks again. The office was forgotten a second time, and Heero suddenly knew himself as a boy of nine, quite a bit shorter and not as muscular as he would someday be. The scene was a bland little room in a brick building with a chair and a small wooden desk with an inkwell. The windows were tightly boarded up, but it mattered little. Heero knew that after his lessons, there would be sparring practice on the roof, in full view of the sun so he could develop a fetching tan. If his instructors were especially lax today, he thought to himself, he might even be able to glance over the side of the building and watch the people milling about in the street. He enjoyed those infrequent treats.
Also in the bland room, with its plank floor, water-stained stucco ceiling, and single shaded lightbulb hanging directly over the desk, was a black-clad instructor. He stood in the shadow, his nondescript features difficult to discern, and clutched a wooden ruler in the crook of his folded arms. Without prompting, Heero took a seat at the desk, under the lightbulb, and awaited his lesson.
"Latin today," the man said in a blah, weary, 'I could have been a university professor instead of this' voice, and he removed the first portion of the day's lesson from a small bureau in the corner. It was a hand-written set of Latin exercises on a sheet of cheaply-made newsprint. He set it on the desk before Heero, next to the sharpened #2 pencil. "Translate the following into English, and provide two Latin synonyms for each verb while maintaining the original context. You have fifteen minutes."
Child's play, it was. Young Heero picked up the pencil in his right hand to complete the assignment, but the instructor stepped swiftly forward and gave the boy's hand a little smack with the ruler. Wordlessly, Heero transferred the pencil to his left hand.
"What do I keep telling you?" the instructor demanded with quiet annoyance. "If you don't use each hand evenly, they won't develop evenly."
Duly chastised, Heero dropped his nose toward the newsprint sheaf and attempted to do his schoolwork, but there was a problem. It was subtle at first, but the more he stared at the paper, the more pronounced the error became. There was supposed to be a series of neatly-written Latin phrases, but here and there, letters were missing. In other places, entire words were missing. The more he stared, the more it all shifted around, misplacing bit after bit of indelible ink. Within seconds, there was insufficient information to complete the assignment.
Young Heero crinkled his brow. He looked up. "Sir?"
The instructor stepped out of the shadows with a puzzled expression, for this student was the quietest he had ever known. Heero could see him more clearly now; he had dark hair and a closely-cropped beard that made him look more like a riverboat captain than a language tutor. Upon seeing that his pupil wasn't working, he frowned. "What is it?"
"...I can't understand this," said the pitiful child in gray slave's rags, holding the paper out with his right hand. The wispy, high-pitched voice bore just the faintest trace of an accent from the far east, yet to be removed by his vocal coach. "There are too many words missing."
Squinting, the gruff American took the paper, shook his head at it, and handed it back. "It's fine, there's nothing wrong with it. Get on with your work."
Heero earnestly studied his assignment, fearfully wondering if it was some sort of test, but it looked worse by the second. In fact, there was hardly any handwriting left. "Forgive me," he said nervously, "but I swear, I can't do it. It's impossible."
"You are really pushing your luck today," the instructor grumped, stepping forward to tower over little Heero while he shook an impatient finger in his face. "Do you want me to call the proctor in here to straighten you out?"
"N-no," the boy whimpered, shrinking in his chair and trembling a little. A call to the proctor at this point would mean a severe beating.
The ogre leaned down and planted both sets of knuckles on the puny desk for maximum intimidation. "Then smarten up and do what I tell you," he growled.
When the instructor walked away, Heero was left to struggle with a lose-lose scenario. He absolutely could not obey his orders, but dreaded the horror and pain that would be visited upon him if he did not. He wished he could just weep from the hopelessness of it all, but he had no tears left to cry, as they had long since been beaten right out of him. Frozen by indecision, Heero wrapped his thin arms around himself, trying to appear as small and insignificant as possible, and hopefully disappear.
It didn't work. The instructor lost his temper, ran shouting out into the cracked plaster hall, and called for backup. In anticipation of what was to come, Heero fell suddenly ill with a panic attack, shakily gasping for air while his fingers and toes went unpleasantly tingly. Guards rushed in, seized the boy and relocated him, but he was barely aware of it, as his conscious mind displaced itself to oblivion for protection from the sting of the lash. Time and space were warped beyond recognition, and large chunks of both flew by until he became aware of his own presence again, and also aware of being forcibly crumpled up and stuffed into a little cage of steel bars with a stout lock on the door.
Inside the cage, which was less of a tangible memory and more of a metaphor, for no actual cages had been used on him in real life, he was all grown up again, and back in his black pinstriped suit. There was just enough room to sit up in the cage with a couple of inches above his head to spare. Blackness was all around him, though he could see his hand in front of his face quite clearly.
The sudden interjection of a softer voice startled Heero so badly that he jumped and slammed his head into the bars. A snarl of pain and a clutch of naughty words soon followed.
A light chuckle was heard. Heero twisted around properly and saw Quatre standing a few paces from the cage with his hands in his pockets. Gone was the ridiculous psychiatrist's costume--he was just plain old Quatre now.
"Quick, get me out of here," Heero ordered calmly, gripping the bar right in front of him with one hand.
Quatre shook his head. "Sorry. Only the person who put you in there can truly get you out."
Heero sighed and slumped tiredly. "Well, who put me here, then?"
Rather than answer what seemed to be a perfectly reasonable question, Quatre stepped back and sat down on what must have been a tall box so black that it couldn't be seen. He tucked his legs underneath him and looked like a Maharishi floating serenely. "I was hoping to ask whether you found what it was you were missing earlier," said he.
Not back to this again... "I'm not playing anymore. Either open this box or get the hell out."
The phantom Quatre gasped mockingly. "What a way to behave! Were you born in a barn!?"
That did it. One more absurdity thrown on the pile and the whole stack came tumbling down at once. Heero turned away, leaned back, perched his wrists up on his knees, and started to laugh. It was just a long, rambling, moderate chuckle, but there was something unnatural about it. "I've finally done it," he concluded with eerie cheerfulness. "I've snapped. I must have snapped. Only took about eighteen years, too...funny, I thought insanity would be more colourful than this."
"I'm glad you're so happy about it," barked Quatre all of a sudden, "but we're not done here. I keep going over it and over it, but you will insist on missing the point repeatedly."
From the boy's mechanical and almost mocking tone, it became clear that he had a very prominent hand in Heero's current predicament. Then, it suddenly got worse. From out of the shadows, one by one, came bodiless arms in white coat sleeves and cotton gloves, each one reaching into the cage with a syringe at the ready. Heero's eyes bulged at the familiar but ghostly sight. Jeffrhyss had used him as a pin cushion most of his life, testing new methods of strength enhancement and mind control on him until the crooks of both arms were bruised purple from multiple piercings. The arms were stretching out to him, but couldn't quite reach him. All the same, he pulled his legs in closer and scrunched himself hard against the nearest wall of bars, glaring angrily up at Quatre. "What did you do!?"
Quatre looked quite sympathetic, and slouched forward a big, dropping his head slightly. "Heero...I want you to pay attention. You're not here by accident, and it's time you faced up to that. Someone put you in that cage, and you're not escaping until you come to terms with who it was."
As if it couldn't get any worse, the cage began constricting around Heero, shrinking slowly so that the arms with the needles attached were getting closer and closer to him. The mental barriers that kept counter-productive emotions such as pure fright at bay were cracking. "What are you doing just sitting there!?" he shouted, fearfully watching the unattached apendages become more numerous, and more pushy. "Get them away from me!!"
"I'll give you a hint...it wasn't Jeffrhyss. He just happened to be there at the time." The phantom propped his chin up casually with one hand. "Who did you know before you met Jeffrhyss?"
"Do we have to do this now!?" Heero shouted, slapping away the hands in a panic.
"Who did you know before Jeffrhyss?"
Desperate, he pressed a hand flat on the underside of the cage roof and pushed up with all his strength, hoping to rip it off its hinge, but it wouldn't budge, and all the while, the needles were reaching closer. They didn't just mean a brief prickling pain, they meant the momentary death of the self, the crushing of one's will, a kind of non-violent mental rape from which one never fully recovered. "I don't know! I was too young to remember!"
"It's there...in your memory. It hasn't left you." Quatre watched his patient's struggles with quiet pity. The cage was growing ever smaller, and the gloved hands were too much to handle now. "Who brought you to Jeffrhyss?" he prodded, expecting the attacks on Heero's body to leave his mind unguarded. One of the hands dropped its syringe and clamped onto one of the boy's ankles, trying to pull him down flat . "It was a woman, wasn't it? Think hard..."
"Shut up and help me!!" the prisoner bellowed.
Quatre stared, tight-lipped. "Who was she, Heero?"
At that precise moment, Heero was too busy to answer, for the disembodied arms were getting the better of him. The cage was now so small that his head was bent down by the roof, and he was being squashed in at the sides. There wasn't enough room to fight the needles, and the first of many little spikes plunged into the side of his neck just below the ear without resistance. After the stinging pinch came the injection itself, an unwelcome surge of liquid metal, burning and crackling through unprotected flesh. Suddenly swimming in the exaggerated sensation of being electrocuted from the inside out, he gave up the struggle and slumped downward with a pathetic groan, head lolling back tiredly. That gave license to all the other gloved hands to stab him all over with at least a dozen different needles, impaling him right through his suit. He felt defeated in a most powerful way, and instinctively longed that someone would pick him up and carry him away from that awful place. As Quatre's last question squeaked through the haze, he realized there should have been someone there to guard him, to take him away the second it became too dangerous. Perhaps that was the thing he had been missing all along, and from the darkest depths of his memory came a vision of the first person to ever have that job, and the first woman who ever betrayed him.
"And how do you feel about that?"
Heero's arms were hanging outside the cage. The gloved hands took full advantage of his surrendering posture, stabbing him in slow motion, and he could do nothing but watch, drained of all strength. It angered him. How do I feel about it!? he screamed silently. Go on, he told himself, watching the needles dart in and out of his limbs, filling him with poison. Tell him what you really think of the traitor who threw you away. Go ahead...what's the harm? Nobody's around to hear how weak and pathetic you've become, since none of this was ever supposed to matter. You weren't supposed to care. You weren't even supposed to know. But go ahead and whine about it, if it makes you feel better. His energy renewed slightly by rage, he lifted his head in a wobbly fashion and turned it just enough to send a hate-filled gaze at Quatre. "...mothers are supposed to protect their children, not draft them into a madman's army!"
Finally appearing satisfied, the phantom nodded. "Good..." Silently, the gloved hands withdrew.
As soon as it struck him, what he had said and why, Heero felt sick. Just then he had taken a giant step backward, from being a steadfast warrior who appreciated all the magnificent tools he had been given to rise above ordinary men, to being a pitiful victim, neglected and abused like a spoiled prince's lap dog. He fought to turn over onto his knees, gripping the bars and leaning against them weakly. Sweat poured down his brow as he desperately pled his case. "I didn't have a chance, I--"
"How do you feel about her?" Quatre prodded.
Heero shook his head tiredly. "...I...I don't know...I've never even met her..." The cage was still constricting; it now threatened to crush him completely. "You have to get me out of here, please!" he begged. "Do something!!"
"She abandoned you...doesn't that make you angry?"
"Of course I'm angry!"
Quatre's tone turned sugary sweet with sarcasm. "But I thought you liked your life the way it was. All that expertise, always knowing what to do, never being afraid of anything..."
"Don't you tell me what I like!!" Heero snarled, shaking a furious finger at his adversary as the roof of the cage pushed him into an even tighter ball. "You don't know a thing about the way I lived! Jeffrhyss might have poured every resource he had into me, but inside I was empty!!"
"Don't keep bringing Jeffrhyss into this, he only made the cage," Quatre snapped back. "Your own flesh and blood locked you inside." He hopped down from his perch and knelt next to the cage, which was only about two feet long on each side now. "Don't you see? It's no wonder you have such venom inside you for all of womankind. How could you possibly trust one after what your own mother did to you?"
Struggling to draw breath, Heero shut his eyes, gritted his teeth, and tightened his death grip on the bars. As the cage squashed him farther down, the pressure on his ribcage was so great that he thought his chest would cave in. He began hyperventilating. "Can't breathe!" he gasped in a feather-light tone.
"The first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem," Quatre cooed gently. "Now tell me...what do you feel right...this...minute?"
Pressure was building up inside Heero, almost as strong as the pressure being exerted on him by the cage. It was the long-suppressed need to scream, to vent frustration, to express dissatisfaction and ingratitude for the life he had been given. To admit that even the tiniest actions could have governed by fierce emotions all his life was the greatest indignity, but it was begging to be done. He fought the force of the shrinking metal trap enough to take one last deep breath, shuddering with pain and clutching the bars tighter and tighter, until fourteen years of pent-up fury exploded from his battered form. "I HATE HER!!"
As soon as he let it out, the environment around him imploded. There was a tremendous noise like the shattering of glass, and indeed, broken shards of glass rained down all about the tiny cage, bouncing up and scratching his hands and face. They were fragments of the wall keeping parts of himself hidden from the world; never had he realized how very fragile it was. When the last shard of glass had fallen, with a delicate tinkle that echoed over and over before dying in the darkness, Heero realized he was now lying on his left side on the stones, with one arm pinned underneath him and the other slung out in front, back in his prisoner's rags...but for some reason, he wasn't entirely back in reality yet. Rather, he was in the twilight world between sleep and wakefulness, and there, he had one last vision to experience.
The cell around him was not yet visible, but at least the cage was gone. In its place was a fuzzy picture, like a badly developed photograph. Slowly it came into focus, in shades of black, white, and gray; moments later, natural colour returned to the scene, but it was already quite clear. There was a room, small and stark, with a table in the centre. Two guards stood at the only exit, a closed door that locked from the outside. There were some papers on the table, and a quill pen in a pot of ink. It was already bleak, but the hazy, dreamlike state made it seem even bleaker.
The door opened a bit, and someone outside spoke to one of the guards, who stepped out of the way to let them in. First came a man slightly past middle age, balancing easily on two peg legs without a cane. He looked old beyond his years, grizzled and gray, hiding securely behind dark round spectacles. Behind him came what looked like a young, small family, with a mother, a father, and a toddler. From his vantage point on the floor, made worse by his ever-shifting sense of perspective, the grown-ups all appeared as giants to Heero. Only the toddler seemed of normal size. None of the phantasms seemed to notice the scrawny prisoner lying on the floor.
After the door was closed again, the old man began speaking in a slow, deliberate gibberish, but Heero had no interest in deciphering it. The family of three were far more interesting. They wore colourful garments embroidered along the edges in geometric patterns, and very worn sandals. Their feet were blistered and their faces tired, but it was easy to identify them as strangers from the far east, by their tanned skin, narrow eyes, and straight, dark hair. Even more entrancing was the child with them, a small boy of three or four years, dressed in a tunic of blues and golds, and matching short pants. While the adults had some business to discuss, the child's father opened up his travelling sack, took out a toy, and gave it to him to play with.
The toy was a small stuffed tiger.
...that's.....me, Heero thought obviously. It no longer mattered that he couldn't move or speak. This was something he had to watch quietly, for whatever reason fate had in mind. I don't remember ever being in this room...but I must have been. Are mite! I can hardly believe I was ever that tiny. He actually managed a smile.
Then...those must be my parents. The smile faded as he focused on his mother first and his father second. He had never really given much thought to his father, as his vaguest memories of childhood only involved his mother. I'd almost convinced myself that they never existed. But still...he does look a bit like me. They can't have been much older than I am now. If they didn't think they could handle being parents, they should've stayed away from each other. Selfish pair of... Determined not to be in any way touched by the traitorous scene, he began to break everything down into measurable chunks to be analyzed clinically. Even his long-surpressed hatred of the mother who abandoned him was locked back behind the fragmented wall, where it belonged.
The old man seemed to be explaining the documents on the table to the young couple, but even though Heero logically knew he was speaking in slow, simple English, he couldn't understand it himself. His parents had slightly less difficulty, but they still squinted a lot and consulted a little book frequently when they heard a word they hadn't learned yet. When he explained as much as he felt necessary, the old man took the quill from the pot, daubed some excess ink off on the rim, and held it out to them. It was just then that the little boy in the azure tunic sat on the floor with his tiger toy and looked expectantly upwards at his mama.
Heero's anger came boiling back to the surface. Why do I have to watch this!? Wasn't once enough!? Everything was fine the way it was, when I didn't remember any of it! They didn't want me, so they gave me away, end of story! If I could only close my eyes, or turn my head, or something...I don't want to see this! I don't want to know!!
Forced to watch the replay of his first and most terrible disgrace, Heero witnessed something he hadn't expected at all. His parents, realizing that the hour of action they had anticipated for years had finally come, looked down at their blue-eyed boy with dreadful sadness. The young father finally looked away, putting both hands on his wife's shoulders, to steady her as she began trembling. Her eyes welled up with tears, forcing her to bury her face in her husband's chest and shudder slightly. This was not something they wanted to do, but something, for whatever reason, they had to do. Finally, they both composed themselves enough to make their marks on the dotted line at the bottom of the contract, two tidy sets of ideograms scratched out in unfamiliar pen. Within seconds, the deed was done.
The old man looked quietly pleased with himself as he picked up the papers and folded them up along pre-existing creases. Heero's distraught mother whirled around and crouched before her baby, hastily brushing away tears. Her sad face was pretty, but unremarkably so, and seemed to lack detail at being viewed through such young eyes. She forced a smile, and spoke to him. The grown-up Heero struggled to hear the soft, dove-like whispers, and though he wasn't certain that he caught every word, it sounded something like, "Sensei wa takusan keiko...yoko kio tsukete okiki nasai."
Inside Heero's mind, the garbled words came into focus. His eyes widened slightly. What is she saying? Something about...paying attention to the lessons? ...'listen well...and mind your teacher'?
Next, his father, who looked equally unremarkable in his close-cropped hair underneath a plain, cylindrical black cap, reached down with one hand to tousle his first-born son's hair playfully, also holding back tears. "Tokidoki sampo ya undo o suru ho ga ii desu...amari benkyo bakari suru no wa karada ni warui desu."
Still lying mostly paralyzed on the floor, Heero's foot twitched in confusion, and his brow crinkled. ...'get plenty of exercise...too much studying is.....bad for your health?' I...I don't.....
It didn't compute. They sounded like they were sending him to boarding school, not selling him into slavery. Heero looked up at the old man, stroking his beard and clutching his precious papers of ownership while he looked down on the poor peasant family through those tiny black spectacles, and suddenly it all made sense. It was monstrous to think that he had never even considered the possibility before, but now it was perfectly plain to him.
The rage returned once more, but this time it was aimed at the right target. Heero fought the paralysis enough to clench one fist into a white-knuckled ball, digging his fingernails painfully into his palms. .....you sick bastard, Jeffrhyss!! You lied to them! You stole me from them!!
Unable to contain herself any longer, the young mother threw her arms around the child and clutched him close. "Kio tsukete! Itte irasshimase!" She didn't want to upset the boy, who didn't seem to understand what was going on, but she couldn't help nuzzling him in the neck and whispering a few more things that grown Heero could barely hear. Then she knew it was time to let go. She stood shakily, and Jeffrhyss showed them quickly out the door, barely allowing them time for one last farewell glance at their son.
And then they were gone.
Heero's eyes grew dim, and the room around him slowly dissolved as his mother's last intelligible words to him echoed gently. "Please be careful...and hurry home." Then it was quiet again. It took a few moments to re-orient himself, but he soon realized he was lying flat on his back on an uncomfortable stone floor. His eyes met nothing but blackness, and the only sound was the slow dripping of water. When he finally had the courage to ask himself if this was reality or the world of nightmares, he tried to move something, anything, and found that he didn't have the strength to lift even a finger. Then he shifted his leg slightly and felt the cold iron shackle around his ankle, and knew he had returned. Slowly, he let out a sigh.
The fever had shown him many things he hadn't ever known about himself, and it was greatly disturbing. I must have been hallucinating...that means I must be pretty sick. He inhaled sharply to test something, and as he suspected, the breath caught on something in his throat and made him cough weakly. There was a low, ghastly rattling in his chest, not a good sign. He winced as the coughing fit passed. If this place doesn't get me, that will, he decided. Then the immediacy of death became very real.
...and now I have to spend my last days on earth worrying about my.....family. Worrying about what lies Jeffrhyss told them.....and whether I really care for Duo or not...
He shut his eyes tightly, and they stung. The wrenching pain of finding and losing his parents so quickly was just a drop in the ocean. He didn't want to believe that Duo was some kind of unwitting surrogate for his feelings, but the hallucination made a compelling case. For the next several minutes he struggled with it fiercely, desperate to prove the nightmare wrong, but he just didn't have enough to go on, not while the very memory of the outside world was slipping away from his mind.
A revelation struck him.
I have to get out of here. If what I just saw was true...then I have a real family out there, somewhere...and they're waiting for me. They're expecting me back home. And...and I have to know if it was real with Duo...or if.....
Get ahold of yourself. You're going to prove that quack inside your head wrong, and you're going to think your way out of this mess, just like you would any other. It's the same as the timed escape drills...don't think about getting all the way to the surface, start with getting out of the cage. Take it one step at a time. Just start with the cage.
Fired up with fresh determination, his mind worked furiously on possible scenarios. As part of his training, he spent hours developing strategies to implement after capture, or during a crisis when quick decisions were needed to avert death or injury. When a scenario got complicated, it was better to break the problem into chunks rather than deal with it as a whole. If you're at the top of a tall building about to burn down and the only way out of the fire is to jump out the window, then jump out the window. You can worry about what to do next on the way down.
There was a low clunk and a squeak far down the hall. Someone was coming. It was probably about time for a pair of dullard guards to come waddling up to the cell to check on Heero's progress in dying. He quickly summed up the predicament in three points: One, he wasn't going to be brought to the surface until he was almost dead; two, the guards would be the primary decision-makers who determined when that would be; and three, they weren't the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. Suddenly, like a brilliant flash of white-hot lightning, an idea came to him, one that would take every ounce of physical and mental stamina he had left, but one that absolutely had to be carried out perfectly if he had any hope of ever being free again. As the footsteps approached, Heero closed his eyes gently and mustered all his agent's powers of precise concentration, and waited.
Down the dusky hall came the two guards, stocky figures in bland, tailored uniforms, one carrying a lantern and the other carrying a heavy baton, which wasn't really necessary for subduing the prisoner at this point, but regulations were regulations. As per usual, they methodically stopped at the cell door, unlocked it, entered one at a time while keeping a close eye on the captive, who was still in the 'deadly damage' category of prisoners and was not to be treated carelessly, and set about their work.
The lantern was set down a safe distance away, close enough to give light but not so close that the prisoner could grab it and use it as a weapon. The larger of the two hatless French guards stood just out of arm's reach, watching Heero intently. He had a firearm in addition to the baton, but the firearm wasn't to be drawn unless it was an emergency; Byron didn't want his plaything expiring ahead of schedule because some hired goon got trigger-happy. The other guard, who had very minor training in the field of first-aid, did the actual examination, gauging how long it would be before the prisoner could be taken to the surface for his final judgement. The timing was critical in order to balance maximum suffering with the jailer's perverse delight in watching the captive's final seconds of life drain away. It didn't take long, however, for the guard to notice that something wasn't quite right when checking Heero's vital signs--the boy didn't appear to be breathing.
The hulking, moustached guard noticed a strange pause below. "Quoi?"
"...j'ne sais pas," said the smaller with a puzzled shake of his head and both hands hovering over the boy's chest fearfully. If anything had happened to him, it would be their fault. "Je pense qu'il ne respire pas." He pulled Heero's head upright and leaned in closer, listening for sounds of life.
Covering his worry with a thin layer of bravado, the larger guard sneered at the prospect. "Il feint!" he scoffed, thinking it a very well-acted farce. He crouched down, grabbed a clump of the boy's hair, and gave his head a tug to one side, shouting in his ear, "Attention! Reveillez-vous, Monsieur Traître! C'est un beau jour au-dehors!"
There was no response from the lad. Beginning to panic, the lesser of the two guards straightened the boy's head up again and put his ear close to his face, and indeed heard a very faint wheezy whistle, ebbing and flowing in a frighteningly slow rhythm. "Merde," he breathed, sitting back on his heels. "Il ne feint pas, Henri! Il est presque de la mort! Nous sommes finis!"
"Bah!" The moustached guard set the baton down and got down on his knees behind the boy's head. "Je vous montrai qu'il prétend." It was time to test the prisoner, to see if he was really ailing or just playing dead as part of some ill-conceived escape plan. The guard reached down and clamped both hands over Heero's nose and mouth, sealing off his air supply. If he was faking, they would soon know it.
Heero knew it was coming, and had slowly inhaled in preparation for it. The first thirty seconds without air were easy. Seconds thirty-one through sixty weren't too bad either, but he could already feel his lungs starting to strain. Up above him, the moustached guard still wasn't buying the act, and was actually taking wicked pleasure in inflicting suffocation on his victim. "Dépêche-toi," he said in a sing-song voice, toying with his prey, "ne te moque pas de nous..."
One and a half minutes passed. It was getting very difficult now, but to be totally convincing, Heero couldn't wince, squint, moan, struggle, or give any indication that he was even awake, or the effort would be for nothing. Inside the shell of his body, adrenalin-fueled panic set in. There was choking pain, instinctual fear, and a level of intense physical stress beyond anything he had ever felt before, even while learning how to hold his breath under water. He suddenly was afraid that this wasn't such a good idea after all, that the guard wouldn't stop in time, and he would truly die of asphyxiation before having his 'day in court', yet even with so much pressure exerted from within to fight back, he amassed all his training and every last ounce of strength to remain perfectly still.
After two minutes, the lesser guard feared just as much for his own life. "Ça suffit!" he gasped nervously, prodding the other guard in the arm. Then his lower lip started to tremble, and he shoved harder. "Henri, ça suffit!"
Henri pulled his hands off Heero's face, and they were shaking slightly. Then he bent down quickly to listen for either gasps and coughs, or the silence of death. He could hear the air slowly leaking out of the boy's lungs, unassisted, followed by a slow, ponderous inhalation. Hardly the sounds of someone aware of being on the brink of suffocating. For Heero, in spite of his inner relief that he wasn't necessarily about to expire, this was the most difficult and crucial part of the plan, not taking the oxygen offered to him as quickly as he would have liked. Beads of sweat clung to his brow, and came off on the tormenter's hands, but the shocked guard still didn't realize what was going on. He was suddenly thinking about what Byron would do to him if Heero wound up dead.
The guards were in a terrible dither. At first they began blaming each other for nearly killing the boy, then decided they would have to get their story straight before telling Byron. Everything was moving faster than expected, and it left the two men in a very definite panic as they all but ran with their gear out of the cell and down the hall, barely remembering to lock the cell door behind them.
When they were safely gone, Heero indulged in several loud, sharp gasps, followed quickly by a coughing fit that left him in excruciating pain from the throat down. He had just accomplished the hardest thing he had ever needed to do, and brilliantly so. Whatever happened next was out of his hands, but at least he had cracked the door open an inch to let fate in. The guards would be running for the surface to confer with their superiors. Their superiors would deem it more than all their jobs were worth not to notify Byron of the change in Heero's condition. Byron would have to cut his time in England short and race back now that his plaything was at death's door, and Heero would be brought to the surface for judgement. If anything or anyone was to intervene on his behalf, that would be the time.
...Duo...that was the best I could do. I hope it was enough.
His work completed, he slipped into a deep and well-deserved sleep, free from hallucinations and regurgitated traumas, where he was back at Bridlewood, polishing silverware and listening to Duo banging pots and pans around in the kitchen.----------
Late that night, Trowa unpacked the big wooden crate he had been guarding so carefully on the ferry. Inside was the peculiar black market contraption purported to steal telegraph signals during their transmission. The entire group left the boarding house in Versailles and transferred everything to another hostel outside Grenoble, which according to Wufei, was one of the closest towns to Jeffrhyss' mountain fortress. Their funds were running dangerously low, even with the costs split seven ways, but poverty had never stopped them before.
Trowa and Hilde were paired together for reconnaissance purposes, Trowa being the only one who knew how to run the telegraph machine, and Hilde being the clerical gem who had memorized Morse Code. Following Wufei's maps, they located the telegraph office which the group had generally decided was most likely to conduct business with Jeffrhyss' organization, based on its location. It was a moderate bicycle ride from there to the foothills leading up to the mountains, so it was there that the two youngsters set up their workstation.
Being something of a stealthy acrobat, Trowa used the cover of darkness on the cloudy night to take the long wire coming out of the telegraph decive and attach it to a metal eyelet touching the wire that stretched from the side exterior brick wall of the office to a series of poles that vanished into the dimly-lit town. Hilde hid in the bushes with the device itself, a good fifty feet or so from the unimposing building, well out of sight.
"Try it now," Trowa whispered to her upon his return. He sat down on the rough gray blanket spread on the grass, in his black turtleneck and slacks. Hilde's dress was darkest blue with all white trimmings removed, and she shifted her skirts around comfortably before giving the small hand crank poking out of the wooden box several sharp turns, like winding up a jack-in-the-box. They stared at it for a moment as the glass vacuum bulbs hummed to life, and a small lamp on top glowed with just enough light to read and write by, at least until the machine needed to be cranked up again. Amidst the switches, dials and knobs was an ordinary telegraph key, its hammer hovering at the ready, prepared to accept input from the wiretap or a human operator. The recon operation could begin at any time.
"...what happens now?" whispered Hilde.
They had already gone over the procedure several times, but Trowa humoured her and repeated it all from the beginning, sensing her nervousness. "As soon as a message comes through, you decode it, I read it, and if it looks suspicious, I'll follow whoever sent it as they're leaving the office. With any luck, they'll head for the mountains, and I'll trail them as long as I can."
Hilde drew her knees up to her chest and stared at the unmoving machine. "So what you're really saying is that I could be stuck in these bushes for weeks waiting for something suspicious to come along. I'm going to have to powder my nose a few times until then..."
Trowa sighed. "You won't be here all the time...sixteen hour shifts, at the most, then someone will take over so you can get some sleep, but you've got to be here most of the time because you're the best decoder we've got. Tonight is just for practice so you can get used to the long hours, but Wufei says they're sending and receiving messages all the time, so it shouldn't take more than a few days for something juicy to come along. I'm in the same boat, don't forget."
Somewhat deflated, Hilde turned her head away and pressed her ear to one knee, feeling very put-upon. It was all very well for the rest of them to carry out these long, complicated mission segments--they were all so much stronger and more grown-up than she was--but the housemaid was beginning to feel that the rest of the team was expecting an awful lot of her. Granted, she volunteered, but because she was the youngest, and a girl to boot, she had secretly hoped they would giver her all the easy jobs, like 'lookout' or 'equipment manager'. It wasn't that she didn't think their cause was just, far from it; she simply felt helplessly over-relied-upon, and the strain of it was terribly unpleasant.
"You know..." Trowa began after watching her sulk for a few minutes, "it's alright if you want to quit."
Hilde straightened up slowly and gave him a wide-eyed glare of bewilderment. "What?"
Trowa shrugged innocently. "I know you've got a lot more responsibility on your shoulders now, and if you feel it's too much for you, I'm sure Duo would buy you a ticket back home."
Something was quite surreal about this whole line of conversation. He sounded so serious that she couldn't tell whether he was being sarcastic or not. Suddenly she felt awfully guilty, the way she always did when she fanatasized about quitting the team and running away, which was often. "I can't do that! I'd be letting everyone down!"
"How badly would you be letting them down if you were only half here?"
Hilde didn't understand. She squinted and shook her head faintly.
"Now, I know you're not afraid of hard work, after watching you go over eight hundred feet if wooden baseboard with furniture polish on your hands and knees," he continued. "So...must be something else bothering you."
The housemaid pulled her hands up to her waist and wrung them frantically. It was time to acknowledge those nagging doubts that had never been given a voice. "...it's just.....nobody really cares if the baseboards are shiny and lint-free. There's no government inspector checking to see if I really darned a hole in a bedsheet or just slapped a patch over it. No one's going to start a war over the quality of my tile floor scrubbing, and the whole world isn't going to fall apart if I don't put the feather duster back on the exact same peg in the cupboard every time I use it! None of it matters!"
Trowa put a finger to his lips to remind her that they were trying to stay quiet, but didn't interrupt.
Hilde dropped her hands to her sides and fought the tiny whimpers trying to crawl up her throat. "If I make a mistake at work, there aren't any real consequences...but if I make a mistake here.....somebody could get killed..."
Nodding at the perfectly reasonable and rational anxiety, Trowa scooted closer and put her hand on his arm, squeezing it. "We've all thought about that...even Duo."
She looked up and sniffled. "Really?"
Again the boy nodded. "...the only difference is, the rest of us made a conscious decision to suck it up and get on with it. If mistakes are gonna happen, they're gonna happen. Whatever comes about from what we do, boo-boos included, it's gotta be better than doing nothing." He saw that he was getting through to her when she began gazing hypnotically at the telegraph device. "I can't tell you what to do, obviously...but the way I see it, you can toddle off back to England and be a housemaid all your life, or you can suck it up, stick with the team, and find out how much more you're really capable of."
In the back of her mind, Hilde had always known this day was on the horizon, when she would have to grow up or be left in the world's dust. She knew in her heart that she could do better in life than being a hired hand, just like she knew she could do better than being a street urchin before Relena gave her 'her big break', but pushing herself beyond the Hilde she was used to was a scary prospect. I don't have very much to pick from...stay and possibly fail big, or go home and fail forever by default. Can it really be as hard as I think it is? The others have all changed, and they're alright...but they're used to taking risks, and I'm not! Ew...just look at yourself, all jelly-kneed like a little girl. What would Heero say?
Out of nowhere, the telegraph key sprang to life, tapping out a message that was either being transmitted or received by the telegraph office. They both looked at the machine, whereupon Trowa elbowed the girl gently. "You gonna get that?"
Her decision-making time cut short, Hilde stared sharply at the device and thought quickly. What would Heero say if I gave up on him because I was terrified of failing? No matter what the answer was, she concluded that she wouldn't like it one bit. She rose up on her knees and crawled over to her workstation, picked up the pencil and the clipboard with a few sheets of plain paper attached, and scribbled out letters and numbers corresponding to the dots and dashes coming through in rapid clicks of the telegraph key. Because she couldn't read French any better than she could read English, the letters all butted up against each other without any spaces or punctuation. Several seconds after the clicking stopped, she handed the clipboard over to Trowa, who did his level best to figure out where each word began and ended.
The first telegram was a dud, a birth announcement sent to the baby's new relatives. A boy, nine pounds, three ounces, named Louis-Antoine. About half an hour passed before another message was received, which boiled down to 'Hi Mom, miss you, love you, please send money'. After that, there was nothing.
It was getting to be midnight when the pair started to wonder. Arbitrarily, Trowa stood up, crept carefully out of the bushes, and tiptoed around to the front of the building. He was back in less than a minute. "The operator must've locked up and gone home! It's empty."
"What? I thought these places were supposed to stay open all the time! What happens if there's an emergency in the middle of the night?"
"I thought the same thing..." He shrugged. "Maybe they're a little more laid-back out here in the boonies."
Hilde looked relieved. "Maybe I won't have to sit here till dawn after all."
Just when it appeared as though their efforts had stalled out badly, but before they could pack up and leave, Trowa heard something. He silenced his partner with a shake of one hand, while angling his ears toward the approaching sound. It was rather like wheels crinkling along a dirt road, light and fast. The pair ducked below the cover of the bushes just in time before a young man in dark gray casual clothes rode past on a bicycle, coming from the direction of the mountains. Quietly pushing aside branches, they watched a peculiar scene unfold, with the rider as the star player.
The plain-faced gentleman, who looked barely older than the hidden observers, pulled his vehicle up to the back of the telegraph office and leaned it against the brick wall, well out of sight in case anyone passed by. Then, from his bkack leather belt he took a large metal ring full of keys, at least two dozen of them. When he looked down at the keys and squinted in the low light, Hilde panicked momentarily and threw her skirt over the glass lamp on the telegraph machine, but thankfully the young man didn't seem to notice the sound, or the eerie glowing greenery. He felt his way around the ring until he found the correct key, unlocked the back door to the office, and slipped stealthily inside.
The youngsters held their breath. Without warning, the telegraph device started clicking away madly, and it startled them. Hilde collected her wits quickly and started jotting, and Trowa hurried to her side, looking over her shoulder at the badly-formed characters, already supposing that the stranger was sent by Jeffrhyss. The break-and-enter was so easy, so flawless, that it must have been happening every night for several years.
"It's in English! ...'storeroom...overstocked'," he read slowly at just above a whisper. "...'offload excess...to...'" He shook his head. "Can't make out the sender's name...but he's got to be one of them, he's just got to be."
"Shhh!" Hilde admonished as she wrote furiously. There were several different messages being sent, one after another, a whole day's worth of communication saved up until it was safe to transmit without discovery. They spoke of matters such as employee transfers, injury reports, eyewitness accounts of target movements from scouting agents in the field...all of which had to be relayed to someone, somewhere, but since several clicks went by before Hilde began copying the letters out, they missed the critical information about where the messages were bound, and for whom.
There was a pause in the clicking, possibly while the intruder shuffled his papers around to separate sent memos from pending memos, and then started transmitting again, having to repeat the name and location of the recipient, a brilliant stroke of luck for the eavesdroppers. Trowa leaned even harder into Hilde's left shoulder, and the shared nervous tension made them both shake slightly. After only a short time on surveilance duty, they cracked the case. "...Byron!" Trowa breathed hastily as soon as the letters fell into place. "...'Schaeffer.....Eton College'..." Jeffrhyss' messenger was quite a bit faster with the telegraph key than the daytime operator, and Hilde had a job keeping up, causing her to write badly. Trowa quickly became frustrated. "You're scribbling! I can't rea--"
"Alright! Alright! Shhh!" she snapped, swallowing with a small gasp as her hand started to cramp up painfully.
He leaned in closer, squinting at the rapidly filling page. "...'prisoner.....dying...stop. Request...your immediate...return...stop. Execution...plans.....underway'..." Drawing a slow, deep breath, he sat back and gnawed on his lower lip, worrying and shaking his head. "It must be Heero...why else would Jeffrhyss call Byron all the way back from England?"
At the sound of the word 'dying', Hilde felt as though someone had punched her hard in the stomach, but she dutifully kept writing even though she wanted to cry. You're a big girl now, she told herself. Suck it up. Then the stream of dots and dashes came to an end. "That's all there is." With that brief comment, she handed over the page for examination and rubbed her sore hand. "What does it mean?" she asked needlessly, with pain in her voice.
Trowa took the page with the sloppy lines of text and seemed to look straight through it to the dry ground underneath. "It means they're ahead of schedule, and we're nowhere near ready." ...we're going to have to be ready, or he's a goner.
It should have been obvious from the sudden stoppage of transmission, but they both jumped a bit when the light inside the office went out. Hilde fumbled for the machine's off switch, dousing the electric lamp and the noise of the gears for good, and they both huddled low behind the hedge, clutching papers and pencils that threatened to fly away on an unexpected breeze. The back door to the building opened, and out came the messenger, drawing his bicycle away from the wall and trotting it over to the road before mounting it and pedalling back the way he came. Without a word, Trowa took off like a shot, running after him at a distance that was precariously balanced between discreetness and failure to keep up. Back in the bushes, Hilde was left to assume that she was to pack up the equipment and await his return, so that was precisely what she did. Soon the pair of lads disappeared completely into the countryside, on a winding course toward the mountains.
A bicycle being driven by a sleep-deprived soldier, slightly uphill, was little match for Trowa's natural sprinting pace, once he got up to speed. The team suddenly had far less time than they thought to discover the hidden route to Jeffrhyss' lair, and for this reason, he was determined to follow the messenger as far as he could. Once outside the town, they took a sharp turn into the woods and followed a snakelike trail specifically designed to throw off the innocently curious, as well as the deliberate infiltrators. Every hundred feet or so, another trail split off, appearing to lead in enticing new directions, but Trowa stayed on target, marking each red herring as he passed, huffing and puffing.
Suddenly, the messenger looked back. Trowa was startled, but kept running. Finally sensing that he was being followed, the boy on the bicycle stood on the pedals and leaned heavily against them, dragging his machine up the ever-increasing slope at a rate that was too quick to catch. Once he was beaten, Trowa felt the full extent of his exhaustion, which he had been heartily ignoring for the last hundred yards, and ground to a halt, leaning forward with his hands on his knees and taking great gulps of air. The bicycle vanished into the dark woods, and since there had been no rain in the area lately, it left no trail to follow. Trowa straightened up a little, leaned against a tree, and cursed his big, clomping feet and the unwanted noise they made, even at a distance.
...now, where the hell am I?
He turned around, stared at the trail for awhile, and began slowly picking his way back down the hill, trying to remember the correct path. Not so bad on the way back, all roads lead down...but I'd better get this right the first time.
The night ended uneventfully, but the next day started early with a grim-faced Duo receiving the intercepted message with less than full-on enthusiasm. Sally couldn't seem to do anything but bite one particular hangnail and repeat over and over that Heero shouldn't have been hanging by a proverbial thread yet, according to everything she knew about human physiology. It didn't add up, no matter how many times she went over it, but Duo was quick to remind her that it didn't matter. Heero's time was running out; that was the bottom line.
As soon as Byron stepped off the boat from England, they would tip over the hourglass for perhaps the last time.----------
Next, in Episode Ninety-Five: As Duo leads his team to the Mountain Fortress, about to attempt a gutsy rescue effort, they all begin to feel that they may have bitten off more than they can chew. The first cracks appear in Byron's hold over his own troops, as doubt spreads amongst the higher echelons of power.
I have some advice for anyone in their mid-twenties struggling with family and career (and by family, I mean parents and grandparents) without losing their mind: Do NOT allow yourself to be ruled by guilt. It will only erode your sense of self until you're an empty shell carrying around a cold, unfeeling brain. Bad mojo. So anyway! I'm back! I'm in business! And I'm ready to atone for the terrible sin of leaving you all hanging for, oh...four months. xX I sent a letter last month at about this time to as many email addresses as I had on file (some were dead inboxes, but oh well...), but I couldn't possibly have emailed everybody, I'm sure, so if you didn't hear from me in May, this is what I had to say to you all:
An apologetic yet hope-filled note from Mitsugi about Bridlewood and stuffies.
-sheepishly steps up to microphone with hands behind back-
Hi there.....remember me? oo If you don't, well...just delete this, maybe I got your email by accident. P
This is sorta gonna be a "email-everybody-at-once-through-the-magic-of-blind-carbon-copy" sort of thing, and I scraped together as many email addys as I could find from people who had contacted me over the last, what...three years? Holy crap, has it been three years already? Well...anywho, if I goofed on the BCC-ing, you might get more than one copy of this. If I REALLY f-cked up, you'll get two or three. I don't want to speculate past that, I'm just gonna address this to everybody and get on with it.
First, I wanna offer my humblest apologies for letting Bridlewood Manor languish in unfinished fic land for the last 12 weeks...believe me, it wasn't my first choice, but 2004 has turned out to be a really shitty year. -leans away from microphone to talk to Rachel- Can I say shitty on the air? ...I can? Oh, good. -leans back in- It's been four months of utter hell...screaming fights with my Mom, screaming fights between Mom and Dad, Grandpa dying, screaming fights between me and my bro, screaming fights between bro and Dad, moving out and getting an apartment, and looking after Grandma who's really sweet but a little deranged, so it's really hard to spend more than an afternoon with her. But enough of my excuses.
Bridlewood lives! Rachel and I are sorting out details for the new website (which has been coming since before Christmas), and you can see it starting to take shape at our current address (which will change but not without due notice) and if you can't remember it because it's been so long since there was anything new there to look at, it's (Now watch, I'll have typed that wrong and it won't work. Bleh.) We shall have a domain name! We shall finish Chibiland! (Yes, Virginia, there IS a Chibiland.) And we shall check in on Heero who has, at last reckoning, been locked away in a cold, dank dungeon by his arch nemesis Byron since, erm...probably also before Christmas. Honestly, I'd hoped to be starting a totally new portion of Bridlewood by now, but what with all the delays...well, there you are.
Umm, lemmie see, have I forgotten anything? 99 Well, maybe just to say that...you guys...you awesome readers out there.....you are my oxygen. When everything else in my life has been falling apart, I've never been short of a friend, even though I've never met any of you face-to-face. -passes out hugs to all who will accept them- I hope you can forgive me for being so...so Mitsugi.
So! To recap:1. Sorry.
2. Episode 94 soon!
4. New website!
6. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
7. Acknowledgement of fanart that's been sitting on a zip disk for far too long!
8. Sorreeeeeeeee! -throws self at your collective feet-
9. And golf, Leafs, golf. Thank you.