July 16, 2008-June 23, 2010

AN: Hello there. Not much for me to say but thanks to those who reviewed my fic and/or added me or my story to their favorites list. A reviewer suggested that I summarize what has happened so far since I'm so long in updating and readers forget what the story is about. Funny thing is, I'm the writer and I too have forgotten what has happened in the story. How sad is that! As always though, have fun reading…

A Rose Among the Thorns

Chapter 23

Faith

Alone in the darkness of his cell, Alex watched the single light bulb in the room flicker in and out like it had a heartbeat of its own. The chains around his limbs were beginning to cut into his skin and his body ached from sitting on the cold floor for so long. The only real comfort allowed him was a fairly decent meal. A bland but edible piece of chicken, plain peas, a slightly stale piece of bread, and clean water were pushed through a panel at the bottom of the door. Having expected a bowl of gruel and muddy water, he was grateful he had been wrong. At first, he cautiously stayed away from the food, suspecting that it contained some drug or poison. But after giving it much thought, he figured they needed him alive and he needed all the strength he could get to free himself. He then proceeded to eat his food greedily, unaware of his hunger until he began to eat. When he was done, he was left to his thoughts.

Alex guessed they had taken Heero about an hour earlier but it was hard to tell without any time device to use. It still shocked and worried him that Heero may be the codemaster after all. If Eris got their hands on the entire code, the fate of the Earth was sealed within the twisted hands of Donavon Fallicy, or more disturbingly known as, Ronin Trece. Alex had never dealt with the man personally before, but his officials had made small negotiations with the Secretary of Defense. The thought of knowing that he was in charge of the defense of the ESUN was both frightening and ironic. How he could remain undetected for so many years was unbelievable. Alex was left with many questions with no answers, plaguing his mind: What was Ronin's demented end game? What motives did he have for using the X25? What was going to happen to him? To Heero? To Relena?

Relena. He missed her. He missed having her there to reassure him that things would turn out fine. Just to see her smile or to hold her hand would have been enough to calm his nerves, but she was as much a prisoner in this mess as he was. But he wouldn't let that be the case for long. He turned his attention to freeing them.

He made a list in his head on the steps he needed to accomplish: 1) Free himself, 2) Find out where Relena was, 3) Find out how to get to Relena, 4) Free Relena, 5) Find a way back to Altera. In order to free himself, he'd have to get out of his shackles, unlock the door, and get away from the guards. Simple enough, if he was a magician. He sighed at the complexity of his situation. Even if he did manage to free himself, he couldn't plan much further. He had been locked in his cell from the moment he was captured and he had no idea what was waiting beyond the heavy steel door. He'd have to wait until he was ushered out to plan his next move.

Just then, the sound of the door unlocking brought Alex to attention. Two men freed his chains from the walls and floor and yanked him to his feet. Soon, they jerked Alex out of the room, pushing him and tugging aggressively on his metal ties as they took him through empty hallways and then an unmarked room. Alex involuntarily cringed at what he saw. It was a torture chamber, filled with various tools, all of which were made for one thing— Pain. Knives, syringes, chemicals, pokers were just a few of the items that lay on carts and shelves around the room. He hoped they were more there for intimidation rather than for practical use.

"Beautiful, aren't they," commented Ronin as he picked up a scalpel, twisting in the dim lights of the room, the metal tip glinting in the pale light from above. "I always feel like a kid in a candy shop whenever I step into this room."

Alex forced himself not to say anything. He wanted to rip Ronin's heart out and feed it to him, but years of trained restraint kept him from doing so.

Ronin walked up to Alex, putting the sharp edge of the scalpel next to his throat. "Have you nothing to say, Prince of Altera?"

"Where is Relena?"

A sly grin appeared on Ronin's lips. "If you must know, she's fine. I'd be much more worried about myself at the moment, if I were you."

Ronin motioned for his guards to strap him to the metal chair sitting in the middle of the room. Alex struggled to break free, moving his limbs as much as possible, but his efforts were worthless. Within seconds, he was secured to the chair. Ronin dismissed them, leaving only the two in the room.

"I will give you a chance to save yourself the pain if you give me what I seek. It is only one simple answer. But, if you refuse to talk, then I will have to resort to a much more interesting form of interrogation." Ronin placed a round basket with a lid next to Alex's feet. He grabbed a chair and sat next to Alex.

"When I was a boy, I was always fascinated with snakes. On special occasions, my mother would take to me the zoo, where I would spend hours in the reptile exhibit. Eventually, she bought me King Cobra, and from there my collection grew."

He took the lid off the covered basket and reached inside. What he pulled out made Alex flinch. Ronin held the head of snake, its tan and brown stripes rippling down its body as it curled around his arm. It shot out its tongue, tasting Alex's fear in the air.

"This beauty is Kiba, my pet Krait. An interesting fact about her is that when she bites, she releases a very nasty neurotoxin into a human's system. Eventually, important bodily functions are turned off. You'll experience spasms and severe cramps. If left unchecked, there is a possibility that a person could die from respiratory failure in as little as six hours," Ronin said, turning his eyes from Kiba to Alex.

"She's a much more elegant way to torture a soul, don't you agree? Knives and scalpels are much too messy, but I digress. Now, are you ready to give me your half of the code, or are you and Kiba going to get better acquainted?"

Kiba hissed and snapped at Alex. Its black eyes blaring danger at him. Alex stared at him in defiance, never once wavering in his resolve.

"Kiba it is," Ronin announced, hurling the Adder at Alex.

Stunned, the snake landed in his lap, and within a blink of an eye it had sunk its fangs into Alex's forearm. He yelled instinctively, jerking violently in his chair in an attempt to drive the snake off. After what seemed like a lifetime, the snake released its grip and slithered back to its basket. Aside from the two ugly bite marks on his arm, Alex felt no pain.

Ronin opened the door to a handful of people wearing white lab coats. They brought with them various machines which they promptly began to attach to Alex.

"Monitor him and make sure he doesn't die," he ordered the doctors.

Ronin faced Alex, saying, "I'll be back every hour to see if you have changed your mind about giving me the code. Until then, enjoy what control you have left over your own body."

Duo was on his back under the body of his unfinished Gundam, his hands and face smeared with black grease and oil and the smell of molten gundanium filling the air around him. He was more than content to tinker his time Alex stared at him in defiance, never once wavering in his without worrying about the impending doom that awaited him outside the warehouse doors. Nothing felt more satisfying than to be working with his hands. For the last week, Duo, Rhys, and their band of mechanics and engineers had been working diligently on completing his Gundam. It had taken hours of planning and hours of traveling to get the machine from Duo's dealership to Rhys' site. Getting an eight ton metal giant down the streets in the middle of the night without unwanted eyes turning their way was a difficult task to accomplish. But with the help of Wufei and a few favors from Lady Une, Duo managed to keep the Gundam under wraps with little trouble.

"These are the last of the calculations we've come up with," a voice from above rang down on him.

Duo turned his head to the side to a pair of brown boots, worn out by years of use and toil. He pushed out from under the Gundam in order to look at the man standing before him. A man in his forties, with heavy bags under his eyes and a mop of hair that had prematurely turned the color of snow, stared down at him. The engineer reminded Duo of Professor G, the man who had taken Duo in and sent him on Operation Meteor years ago, and consequently, the thought made Duo flinch inwardly. Duo quickly went over the specifications and handed them back to the man standing above him.

"Looks good, Godfrey. How long until these modifications are completed," Duo inquired as he shuttled himself back under the metal giant. He grabbed a wrench from the side and started tightening another nut.

"With these numbers, we should be done within three weeks."

"Now that won't do," Duo sighed, "Cut it down to one week."

"That's impossible," Godfrey shouted, throwing his hands up in the air. "We don't have enough manpower to pull off a job like that. If you would allow us to hire more…"

Duo cut him off, "You know I won't hire more people. There are only certain people I can trust right now, and you guys are it."

Duo's answer calmed the engineer. In a softer tone, Godfrey answered, "I know. I'm telling you the truth: We won't be able to finish with just the five of us."

"Would two more pairs of hands be of any help," someone said from behind them.

Duo and Godfrey turned to find Quatre as he strolled into the warehouse with Trowa at his side. They had spent the last couple of days in Lady Une's office relating the happenings in Santiago's casino. Dorothy had decided to stay behind and lend the Preventers her skills and expertise in intel recovery. Quatre was reluctant to leave her, but with a kiss and the cheek and a pat on the head, Dorothy was able to convince him that his help was needed elsewhere.

The engineer looked at the newcomers skeptically. "Two men are hardly enough to complete the job."

"Oh, but these are no ordinary men," Duo explained. "They'll be more than capable of doing what is needed." Duo stood up and brushed the dust and soot off of his clothes. To his chagrin, he just dirtied them more.

"But…" Godfrey tried to interject.

"Ah," Duo interrupted him before the older man could get a word in otherwise. He swung his arm around the shoulders of the engineer and started walking him away from the Gundam. "You're one of Rhys' closest friends. So you trust Rhys, right?"

"Yes."

"And Rhys trusts me, right?" Duo said with a smile.

"Yes," Godfrey said a little more hesitantly.

"And I trust those two," Duo added, signaling his friends with a move of his head, "So this means you trust them as well."

"I suppose…" Godfrey slowly began to say, looking vexed.

"Great," Duo said, and patted him on the back. "Then get my buddies some work uniforms and inform the other guys about our new guests. We'll be back in a little while. Oh, and call Rhys and tell him to meet us in the back office right away."

Godfrey opened his mouth to protest, but Duo just pushed him away. Mumbling incoherently under his breath, Godfrey walked off to do as Duo ordered. Duo turned back to his friends, whom he greeted and ushered to the office. It was in the back of the main building, a modest-sized room furnished with modern décor. Quatre immediately took note of the fifty gallon fish tank filled with tropical fish and freshwater plants. He stared at it out of curiosity and a bit of anxiousness. It reminded him of his ordeal in Cole Santiago's lavish office, where Trowa, Dorothy, and he had come close to their graves.

"You ok, Quatre?" Duo queried, seeing Quatre's perplexed expression. He offered both of his guests some coffee.

Quatre snapped out of his thoughts. "Yes. I was actually just thinking about what we came here to tell you." He nodded his appreciation and took a sip from his cup.

"You don't mind waiting 'til Rhys gets here, do ya?" Duo asked.

Trowa and Quatre exchanged a questioning glance. "Are you sure we can trust him," Trowa questioned.

Duo nodded his head in affirmation. "I haven't known Rhys very long, but from the moment I met him, there was something about his eyes that told me he was a man to be respected and trusted. He once told me that he had many demons in his past to make up for. He knows what war feels like firsthand. He would give anything to prevent that."

Convinced, Trowa and Quatre were content to wait. A few minutes later, Rhys walked in to the room.

"I apologize for my tardiness, but that Godfrey keeps whining about…" Rhys stopped in mid-sentence when his eyes fell on Trowa. The Gundam pilots all curiously stared at him for a moment and then at each other as if someone else could explain Rhys' strange pause.

Duo cleared his throat to break the silence and stood up next to his old friend. Clapping his friend on the back, Duo said, "Quatre, Trowa, this is Rhys Collins. Rhys this is Quatre Winner and Trowa Barton."

"Nice to meet you," Rhys uttered, shaking both of their hands. When everyone was settled, Quatre and Trowa explained their harrowing experience at Santiago's compound. After they were done, the group sat in silence, processing the information.

It was Duo to first speak up. "Eris equals Dona… something. That's not much to go on," Duo muttered, scratching his head.

"No, but it is a start," offered Quatre. "Does this clue mean anything to you, Mr. Collins?"

"Please, call me Rhys," he started, "And, no, I'm afraid it doesn't."

"The Preventers are working on it as we speak. If they find anything, we'll be the first to know."

"Have either of you been able to gather any useful information," Trowa asked Duo and Rhys.

They both shook their heads. "We've got information," Duo offered, "but nothing of use."

The entire room felt heavy with defeat and frustration.

Lady Une popped another aspirin into her mouth and gulped down her water for the fourth time today. She rubbed her temples in an attempt to relieve some of the built-up stress that had accumulated over the last few days. The whereabouts of their kidnapped comrades were still unknown and nearly one-third of her forces were out scurrying the far reaches of space to find any inkling of them. The rest of her men we out preventing the people from rioting on the streets. On top of that, the press was quickly becoming more difficult to fend off. They were constantly berating her with questions and allegations, and her roundabout answers were losing their effect. Rumors were beginning to spread, and soon, she would have to tell the world the truth. It was only a matter of time.

"Be careful. If you don't relax a bit, you're head will fall off," Noin said to her overly pressured friend.

"At least I wouldn't have to deal with all of these problems," she rebutted, rubbing her temples in a futile attempt to erase the pain in her head.

"But then, who would save the world?" Noin joked. "I'm just saying you can't bear the burden of all the problems. Just focus on the most important ones for now and let someone else worry about the rest."

"How can you be so calm at a time like this, Noin?"

"Because I know that in the end, it will all turn out for the best. It always does. You just need to have faith."

Noin had that innocent, bright-eyed look that little children have when speak about what they dream of doing. Lady Une smiled in spite of herself. Faith. It was tenuous like the weather. You could predict sunny skies all you want, but in the end, sometimes it just rains. Une never liked things she couldn't control. She needed to know the exact specs to get from point A to point B, and if she couldn't, then she would make a new plan to follow. With faith, there are no plans. To Une, that was unacceptable. That is not to say she never had faith. She did possess it at one time, when her heart was invested in the man she loved. But, her faith had died with Treize, laid to rest in the earth under the shade of a maple tree, and unless he could rise from the dead, her faith would remain with him.

"You're too idealistic, Noin."

"Somebody has to be," she said with a smile.

Just then, Wufei barged into the room, his brow furrowed and his jaw set tight. He stood at attention.

"At ease," Lady Une said.

"Ma'am, we have leak," Wufei stated.

Lady Une and Noin sat up straight, their attention focused on Wufei and his next words.

"The news of the kidnappings is all over the media. The government is demanding answers. We're not sure who released the information, but I assure you that they will be found and severely punished."

"Understood. You're dismissed," Une ordered, and he left.

"This isn't good news," Noin stated.

Lady Une closed her eyes to calm herself. "There doesn't seem to be any of that lately."

"How about I handle the press, and you handle Zechs for a while," Noin suggested.

"How is your husband these days?"

"Driving me up the walls. He spends most of his searching for clues to his sister's whereabouts. His nerves are on edge, and I'm getting the end of it. He hardly spends any time with Vallor. I understand his need to find her, but if he continues this way, I might just end up losing him as well."

Lady Une gave her friend a sympathetic look. "Go to Zechs. Tell him how you feel. I can handle the press."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, he needs you more than I do right now. Besides, don't you have faith in me?"

AN: Ok, so the ending was kinda short and slow, but it'll lead into something bigger. Hopefully, if I ever finish this story. I do know everything that happens up to the end, I just don't seem to have the time to write it all down. Small steps, small steps. Ok, if anyone reviews, I'll be very happy. Until next time…