torch, August-December 2000 (January 2001)
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

Disclaimer: I didn't build the Gundams. I just play with them. Many thanks to elynross and !Super Cat for trying to tame my punctuation and untangle some of my stranger sentences. Nothing that is wrong in this story is even remotely their fault. And thank you, Zoe Rayne. C&l is set around episodes 4-16 of the series. Do not archive this story without permission.

Clouds and lions

"Would you like something to drink?"

Trowa turned from the window and its view of sand and sand and more sand to look at the blond boy who spoke French with an accent Trowa had never heard before. He nodded briefly. It was hot here; he might get dehydrated. Though he told himself it had only been sensible to come along to this place — he'd been offered both an escape route that could not be tracked back to his own cover, and assistance with repairs — he knew that there had been far too much impulse in his decision, too much curiosity.

He wasn't used to surrendering.

The boy smiled and walked out of the room, clearly expecting Trowa to follow. He'd followed so far. The rooms here were only separated by arched doorways; there were no doors. All the walls were white, and the floors were smooth and the carpets shone like jewels, and the boy did not dress like a soldier, or smile like one. Still, he'd fought well.

Still. He had all these people. That certainly wasn't part of the mission statement.

The second archway led to a somewhat old-fashioned kitchen. One of the men from the mobile suits was sitting there by the kitchen table, drinking coffee — the very large one with the beard. He looked up sharply when they came in and said something to the blond boy. Trowa couldn't place the language, but the tone was clearly disapproving. The boy answered, sounding faintly apologetic. When the man continued, though, building to what sounded like a lecture, the boy cut him off with two words and a small gesture. The man rose, towering over them both, glared at the boy, and gave Trowa a long, unsmiling, suspicious look before walking out of the kitchen.

Trowa stood in a broad sunstripe and let it warm his feet and legs, feeling the sun burn through the fabric of his jeans. Where he'd left the circus, it was only early spring. The earth was interesting in that way, with different weather in different places, so that you could travel from season to season. Ice clattering against glass and liquid being poured were the perfect background sounds to the heat and the scent of desert and the clear blue tiles set around the window.

"Here," the boy said, and handed Trowa a tall glass with pale red juice. Trowa breathed in its scent, then sipped; he didn't recognize the flavor, but it was tart and good. The boy poured a glass for himself, too, and leaned against edge of the kitchen table to drink, legs casually crossed at the ankles. The sun caught his hair and made it gleam. He emptied his glass and filled it again, and refilled Trowa's, too. Then he said, "Come."

They wandered through the house, glasses in hand. It was a clean place, sparsely furnished, a few things here and there, plain furniture. Trowa looked more closely at it. No, not plain. Simple. Everything gave off an air of being cared for, of being owned. Of having been chosen to be just where it was. Even the bare spaces on the walls between decorations were deliberate. When he brushed a drapery aside, the material was rich under his fingers, caressing his skin with opulence.

Through the windows he saw sky and sand and distant mountains, the simplest of views, but there were growing things near the house, glimpses of green, of water-soaked softness in this harsh land. He could smell it here and there, when a sudden gust of flower-scented air would blow in through an elaborately carved window frame. He remembered what the house had looked like from the outside, a white jewel in a green setting, placed with beautiful precision on a stone perch... and the stone went down and down and was hollow and full of secret hiding places for weapons and mobile suits and sweaty, angry men.

The blond boy didn't look as though he had ever been either sweaty or angry. Just when Trowa had begun to wonder if they had a goal, or were just moving for the sake of movement, they came to a halt outside the first door he had seen in this house, and the boy pushed it open, giving Trowa a look over his shoulder that was difficult to decipher.

"Your mobile suit will be ready tomorrow," he said. "I hope you'll be comfortable here overnight." Taking a step inside, he pointed to the right. "There's a bathroom through there. The water pressure fluctuates a little, I'm afraid. But there should be clean towels and soap." The boy turned and slipped past Trowa, in the door, without even brushing against him. "I'll be having dinner in the kitchen in an hour, if you want to join me."

Trowa stepped inside and turned around. "Don't you eat with them?"

"Sometimes." The boy brushed his hair back off his forehead, the first nervous gesture Trowa had seen from him. "But sometimes it's nice not to...." He let his words trail off, nodded, and left, and Trowa turned back into the room and closed the door.

This place smelled of dust and some kind of cleaning liquid, and, very faintly, rose pot pourri. There was a low, wide bed with a striped red and white cover, and a shelf with a few ceramic sherds and a small pile of books, and not much else. Trowa went over to look at the books. The first two were in Arabic, the third in what he thought might be Hebrew, and the rest in French — L'enfant du sable, L'existentialisme est un humanisme, Si le grain ne meurt, Les cigares du pharaon, and what appeared to be a two-hundred-year-old railway time table. Trowa shook his head, bemused. He touched a fingertip to one of the potsherds, blew the dust off, and sneezed.

The bed looked inviting — a place to rest where he could sprawl if he wanted to, not just curl up in whatever space was available, the way he'd slept the night before in the driver's seat of a stolen truck. But he was hungry, and he was dirty, and it was too early to sleep yet. The bathroom, when he walked into it, was larger than the bedroom, and there were more blue tiles here, and soap cut in large square pale green blocks flecked with dried leaves and petals, and ancient metal shower fixtures that looked as though they had just been uncovered by an archaeological expedition with too much time on its hands. Trowa stripped out of his clothes and hung them on an empty towel rack. He turned on the water. It dripped. He turned the faucet a little more. It trickled.

With a shrug, he stepped in under the lukewarm water and let it flow slowly over his skin. He reached for the soap, which was hard and smelled faintly bitter, and the pipes clanged and suddenly poured a waterfall over him, plastering his hair to his face. Trowa dropped the soap and snorted water out of his nose; then the stream died down to a trickle again. Fluctuating was certainly one word for it.

The air blowing in through the open window kept trying to dry him, but he washed stubbornly, even working the soap into his hair. Trowa remembered times after missions when he'd ducked into icy streams to clean off, or scrubbed inefficiently with paper towels in public restrooms. It was rare for him to have literal blood on his hands that needed to be removed, but it seemed important to do something that would mark an ending, say that it was, for this time, over. On his lips, the water tasted of rocks and flowers. It remained the same temperature no matter which tap he turned, not cool, not hot.

There were plenty of towels, but he only needed one, to squeeze the water out of his hair. Trowa stood by the window and felt the drops on his skin evaporate slowly, one by one. Some of the blue tiles were plain, but in some, the paint swirled in a glazed spiral, round and round. There didn't seem to be a pattern to it. He followed one of the swirls with his finger, feeling the ceramic smoothness against his calluses. His stomach growled.

On a shelf by the door he found several combs and brushes, and tried to smooth out his hair, which was snarled and a little stiff from the soap. Trowa combed it down flat over one side of his face, letting the wide teeth of the comb separate it, watching the world through damp brown prison bars. He put his clothes on again, feeling the fabric snag on clean skin. Going out into the bedroom, he left the bathroom door open to let some of the damp air out.

He wandered around the room, looking at things without touching them, until he thought an hour had passed; the strap of his wristwatch had broken, and it lay somewhere on the floor of Heavyarms' cockpit, unless one of the men repairing his Gundam had thrown it out, thinking it debris from the fight. Trowa hoped they would do a good job. It would be foolish to turn down free repairs, although he was planning to check out every inch of Heavyarms later, before using it again. He didn't believe these people meant him harm, but they didn't know the Gundam like he did, no matter how similar it was to the blond boy's.

Once he opened the door, he could smell food, and he followed that smell to the kitchen. The table, bare when he had last seen it, was crowded with dishes: meat on long skewers, flat drop-shaped bread, stuffed vine leaves, a bowl of hoummos, a bowl of something that looked like yoghurt and smelled like mint, fried chunks of meat on a bed of couscous, a grain salad flecked with tomatoes and herbs. It took Trowa a second to see beyond this unexpected feast to where the boy stood, two glasses in hand, an open, friendly look on his face.

"I hope you don't mind eating here in the kitchen." The boy put the glasses down and went over to the refrigerator. A wave of cold air rolled out. "I didn't want to bother anyone — oh, wait! We can take our plates out on the terrace."

Trowa wondered if he made this boy nervous, or if the soft note of apology was merely a courtesy, as it had evidently been when directed at the bearded man. He nodded, and picked up a plate and served himself a little of everything while the boy poured water for them both. Pausing at the grain salad, he asked, "What is this?"

"Taboulleh." The boy was filling his plate, too. "Bulgur wheat and onions and tomatoes and parsley and mint and lemon juice and oil."

It smelled sharp and appealing. Trowa put some large lettuce leaves over everything he'd chosen, like a green lid to keep the smells in, picked up one of the glasses, and went with the other boy through the long cool hallways and out on the terrace. There was a table and a few chairs, but the boy went past them to sit at the top of the steps leading down from the house, putting his plate down on the terrace floor, so Trowa did the same.

The sun hung low, slanting abruptly across the rock in a spill of red and gold, and everything below them lay in shadow. The sky was a color Trowa had only ever seen in photographs before. He glanced at the boy, who was staring out across the desert with a dreaming look on his face, and then turned his attention to the food. It tasted good. Some of the flavors were new to him, or combined in unfamiliar ways.

Trowa was halfway through his portion, scooping up yoghurt stuff with his bread, when he noticed that the boy was still staring into space. He chewed and swallowed, and turned to look in the same direction, but he didn't think they were seeing the same thing. Soldiers should not let food go to waste, and so he fell back on the one thing Catherine was always saying to him whenever she saw him. "Eat."

The boy stirred, and blinked, and turned towards Trowa. He picked up his fork and speared a piece of what Trowa now knew was lamb, and then put it down again. "I'm not used to this," he said.

Trowa raised an eyebrow. "Eating?"

The boy looked at him as if to make certain that he was, indeed, joking, then chuckled. It was a warm sound, but it didn't sound entirely happy. "I'm not used to any of this," he repeated, and then he did something with his eyes and his shoulders, something like a tucking in and a buttoning down and a putting away, and he started to eat.

One moment the sun balanced on the horizon, the next it was gone, plunging them into a deeper darkness than Trowa had expected; when he looked up he saw stars, enormous stars, flowering against the sky like fireworks. They seemed closer here — an optical illusion, but he couldn't remember how it worked. Trowa stretched his legs out and sipped at his water. There was lemon and mint in that, too. He was crunching an ice cube between his teeth when something hissed and sputtered and lights came on behind them over the terrace. And went off, and came back on again.

"I know I told Reza to fix the generator." The boy had turned sideways towards Trowa, pulling one leg up and leaning forward over his plate. "Please, get yourself more food if you want."

Trowa mopped up the last of his taboulleh with the last of his bread. "I think it's the wiring," he said, got to his feet, and picked his plate up. When he went inside, it was darker, the hallways empty and unlit, but the lights were on in the kitchen and it seemed someone else had been there and raided the food. The skewers of grilled meat were all gone, but there was still plenty of bread and the garlicky yoghurt stuff. Trowa began to put together a second helping, wondering when he'd last eaten so much. Battle made him hungry. The aftertaste of garlic and mint lingered heavily on his tongue.

He gave in to curiosity, put his plate down, and went to open the fridge. There was more food in there, a lot more, though not enough to feed the entire band of fighters he'd counted during their retreat. There must be larger kitchen facilities somewhere down below. He wondered if those men came up into the sunshine to eat, sometimes. To sit on the terrace and watch the desert.

A sound from the doorway made him close the fridge and turn around. The large bearded man stood there, arms crossed. "Are you looking for something?"

Trowa went back to the table and picked his plate up again. "No." Perhaps some more taboulleh. The grains left in the bowl were swimmming in clear tomato juice spotted with shimmery drops of oil. He registered at the edge of his vision that the man stepped into the kitchen, coming close, looking down. Trowa didn't so much as shift his weight. He'd lived all his life around people who were larger than he was and believed that it made them intimidating, and this was someone who backed down in the face of five foot nothing of blond hair and big eyes.

"I hope you're here as a friend and not as an enemy." Quiet words in even more distinctly accented French rumbled over his head as Trowa scooped up a spoonful of taboulleh and drained off some of the excess liquid against the side of the bowl. "If you do anything to hurt him or to interfere with what he's doing, we will kill you."

Trowa glanced up. "I don't plan to interfere with what he's doing as long as he doesn't interfere with what I'm doing." Someone had taken half a piece of bread, and he took the other half.

"If that is the truth, we will help you as we have been asked. But you have the eyes of an assassin," the man said and walked away.

He'd missed the pile of paper towels the first time around. Now he took two to wipe his sticky fingers on and wandered back towards the terrace, seeing no sign of the large man or anyone else on his way.

The terrace lights were still on, and the refrigerator had been humming, so the generator had to be fairly reliable after all. Trowa stayed where he was in the doorway and looked at the blond boy who sat with his back turned, perfectly relaxed, staring out into the night. So the large bearded man was afraid that he would... throw the boy off the cliff, snap his neck with a crisp twist, suffocate him with his own vest, perhaps. Trowa ran through scenarios and dismissed them. They were pointless.

He stepped forward, scuffling his feet a little, deliberately, against the hard reddish tiles of the floor. The boy didn't move, and Trowa sat, and went on eating.

The afternoon had been still, but now a breeze was coming in from the west, licking coolly over his skin. He was fed, he was clean, he wasn't overheated, and the adrenalin spike from the battle had long since leveled out. Garlic burned on his tongue and he sipped at his water. The evening was very quiet. Trowa could hear the whisper of sand over stone, and the boy's slow regular breaths. He stretched his legs out and put the fork down.

"I've spent my whole life killing people," he volunteered into the silence. "You should be glad you haven't."

Out of the corner of his eye he could see the boy nodding slowly. "I am," he said. "And now... I have decided to act on what I believe is right, and I will accept the consequences of that decision." He paused briefly. "Or so I think now. But this," he turned to Trowa, lifted one hand and then stopped himself, "this is only the beginning. We don't know where this will lead us."

Trowa pulled his legs up again, so that he could get to his feet if he wanted to. "We have accepted our orders," he said.

A night bird called, a low, mournful sound.

"Yes," the boy said, "but we should be working together, don't you see that?" Then he fell quiet again.

The moon came into view eventually over the edge of the roof. It hung low, heavy-bellied, so clear and close it was almost ugly. Trowa wiped his fingers and his mouth and crumpled the napkin into a ball. He noticed that his jeans were fraying along the inside seams, especially at the knees. He'd spilled a drop of oil there, too, as round as the moon, but dark against the friction-pale fabric.

Another sputter from the terrace lights made the boy's face wink in and out of existence, disappearing and then reappearing again, just as thoughtful. Trowa rose and picked up his plate and glass. It was getting chilly. "Good night," he said and turned to go.

"Oh! Yes — good night — do you have everything you need?"

Trowa glanced back over his shoulder, just to look at the guileless blue eyes, and nodded.

He went to the kitchen and put his plate away, poured more water in his glass and brought it along to the room where he would be sleeping. It was dark in that part of the house, and in the room itself, and he stepped carefully across the thick carpet to turn on the lamp at the side of the bed. Someone had been in the room since he'd left it, turning down the bedcovers and leaving — Trowa blinked — a toothbrush, still in its plastic wrapping, on the pillow. It was bright green, proclaimed itself to be specially designed to combat plaque in new and effective ways, and looked entirely surreal in these surroundings.

Trowa sighed, rubbed at the back of his neck, and put the glass down on the bedside table. The lamp base was a delicate curve of porcelain painted with shepherdesses in hooped skirts and powdered wigs, frail little pink girls who wouldn't last an hour out in the desert. Or in a Gundam. Trowa turned away from their innocent frolics to look at the pile of books he'd found earlier. He turned them over, flipped through them, and finally picked out two.

He wandered into the bathroom to make use of its facilities, and even brushed his teeth with the bright green brush. Spearmint drowned out all the other things his mouth had tasted this evening. The light over the bathroom mirror wavered once, making him lose sight of himself. The pipes clanged and groaned, and he guessed that somewhere else, the other boy was preparing for bed, too.

There was a chair by the bed where he could put his clothes. The sheets were incredibly soft against his bare skin, a very fine cotton weave. He stretched for a long moment, arms over his head, feeling battle-tightened muscles twinge and then relax. Then he picked up the first of the books he'd chosen and began to read.

Through the open window, he could hear the silence of the desert night. It seemed enormous... endless. A great expanse of darkness and sand, and though he knew it was nothing compared to the vast reaches of space, it spoke to him in different ways.

L'existentialisme est une doctrine qui rend la vie humaine possible....

Wind whispering through starlight.

En se choisissant, chaque homme choisit tous les hommes.... Grains of sand moving against each other, tiny shifts that could make an entire dune wander and change the landscape into unrecognizability. Only the stars stayed.

Trowa closed the book with a snap and settled in to read about Tintin's adventures instead. When he reached the end, he put the book aside, turned out the light, and fell into a light, restless sleep. He kept waking up through the night, making a quick confirmation of where he was, and falling back asleep again.

The morning, when it came, was cool with promises of heat. Trowa slipped out of bed and went directly to the window, and found that he was facing the sun, and that the desert looked just as it had the day before. He nodded briefly and went to take a shower.

Clean and dressed, he put the books back in the pile where he'd found them, in the same order. He wandered out into the house, listening for signs that anyone else was up and about. In the kitchen, he found that the table had been cleared and someone had done the dishes. There was a pitcher of juice in the fridge, and he poured himself a glass and drank it standing by the kitchen counter, then put some leftover meat on some leftover bread and took it with him, going off to the terrace.

That was empty, too. Trowa stayed to eat, watching the view. He wondered if there was a TV anywhere in this strange house, or a radio, so that he could pick up a news broadcast and find out what was being said about the damage done at Corsica. When he'd finished his breakfast, he went back inside and walked around, looking at wall hangings and delicate statuettes. Everything was very clean; despite the sun, he could barely see any dust.

In a hallway he hadn't come across before, he caught sight of the blond boy, who was just opening a door — so there were more doors, then. Trowa had begun to wonder if he'd slept behind the only one. The boy looked at him and beckoned him to follow, going into the room beyond the door.

Trowa stood in the doorway and waited. He wasn't sure what it was he was waiting for, but then he heard the sound of a violin being tuned, and tried, and played softly. Slow notes, and then brighter, quicker ones; they drew him in. This room was full of music, and its ceiling was as blue as the sky. The windows opened onto an inner courtyard, with trees and bushes and sweet-smelling flowers. When he'd come to earth, he'd left everything behind, all the few things he'd ever pretended to own.

The boy looked up at him over the violin, not quite smiling. Trowa turned his head, and saw the flutes, and then he couldn't resist. He opened the cabinet, took hold of that cool shape that fit his hands so well, and knew even before he lifted it to his lips how rich and smooth the sound would be.

This was nothing like talking. They played together, leading and following, teaching each other new melodies and sometimes meshing perfectly into something they both knew. The sun moved through the room, and so did the music, and sometimes they'd stop, and drink a little from the fresh water set on a sideboard in a high blue carafe, and listen to a moment of silence before playing again. Sometimes it went wrong, notes colliding in mid-air, and sometimes it went perfectly right and Trowa found a counter-melody here and a free-falling descant there that made the world wider, made breathing easier.

Much later, after one of the quiet moments, he began to play the first song he had ever learned, the one that was like a sad lullaby of space, with every note a star. It had always felt like such a private, personal thing to him that he was stunned when the violin joined in, soft and warm. Once he heard it, he wondered if this second melody had always been there, ready to wrap around the first one and catch it and comfort it. Complete it.

Trowa played, and the other boy played with him, and he felt a disturbing hollowness grow in his chest. It was too much. It sounded too right. He couldn't rush the music, or break away from it, only let it flow at its own pace, but the more it grew, the emptier he felt, and he didn't want to know what might come to fill him up. The sunlight seemed sharper, tickling against his skin like ground glass.

His old flute had never sounded so good.

The moment the song was over, Trowa put the flute down and turned away. Hours had passed here in this room, and he was thirsty again, and the air was dry in his lungs. They hadn't been pursued from the base. His Gundam must have been repaired by now. The mission had been successfully completed, and now he was wasting time. "I have to leave," he said.

"Oh." The boy wandered over to the window and turned there, sun-haloed, seemingly unbothered by the heat. "I was hoping you could stay for lunch." Then he smiled, as though it had been a joke, and looked out over his shoulder. In the silence left after the music, Trowa could hear the low rumble of an engine, and men's voices calling back and forth, and a clank of metal on metal. "I've got a truck you can use. Let's get you loaded up. And I'll give you a couple of codes and frequencies in case you want to get in touch."

The boy's voice was all business now. Trowa nodded, and they walked out of the room, leaving the music behind.

* * *

A blister was coming up on the palm of his right hand. Trowa looked up at the hollow canvas bulk of the circus tent and decided to wear gloves next time. He could probably, he judged, pilot Heavyarms with bleeding hands. Or with broken fingers, come to that. But it was pointless to incur even minor injuries outside of battle. He could already feel how the blister would get between him and the smooth grip of the Gundam controls.

The sky above the great top was a dusky blue, with a few clear stars beginning to show. When he turned around, he saw the scattering of wagons and trailers, with dark silhouettes hurrying between them. It looked like a random setup, like toys dropped from the hand of a careless child, but he had learned quickly that there was nothing random about it; there was order and deep significance in the way the trailers were arranged, who was next to whom, and at what distance.

That made perfect sense to him. It was like the way mercenaries chose their rooms, pitched their tents, grouped their mobile suits. The way any group would arrange itself into a hierarchy. He couldn't make out his own trailer; it was hidden behind Catherine's. But he knew it was there. And Heavyarms was in the woods, not too far away, off a disused logging road.

The silhouettes of the other circus workers were starting to be familiar to him. When he saw one particular familiar shape, he followed it, moving away from the big tent towards the area where the animals were kept. The man who fed the lions was easy to recognize: as broad as he was tall, with shaggy grey hair and a lumpy jaw. He went by the incongruous name of Beau, but Trowa never called him that. Trowa never called the man anything. He had no reason to speak to him.

He watched, though, as Beau tossed chunks of meat to the animals, growling affectionate obscenities at them. They growled back, indifferent. Trowa liked the lions. There was nothing about them that wasn't what it seemed. Beau had brought a bucket of special treats and was holding out chunks of liver, waiting until the lions came to snatch them away. Beau was missing two fingers on his right hand. When Trowa moved closer, he saw that there was a glint in Beau's eyes like that of a man going happily into battle. That had never seemed to Trowa to be a good thing, but it wasn't any of his business.

The lions ate and the air was heavy with the smell of blood and meat and rank lion breath.

When all the liver was gone, Beau put the bucket down and looked over his shoulder, straight at Trowa. "Clean it and put it away," he said and walked off.

Trowa rinsed out the bucket and hung it on its hook. His wet hands felt cold and he shoved them in his pockets, and stood leaning against the bars of the cage, watching the lions. The smells of the circus were becoming familiar to him now: wet straw, dry straw, canvas and chalk dust and sawdust and just plain dust, human sweat and greasepaint and the raw tang of animals. Woodsmoke from Catherine's fire — Catherine always had a fire going, regardless of local ordinances and permits. Coffee.

In many ways, this was a familiar setup. A small, tightly knit group, constantly on the move, living practically hand to mouth... he'd done this before. Trowa sighed. There were some significant differences. Trying to entertain people was, on the whole, more difficult than trying to kill them.

One of the lions stretched, tail twitching, and padded over to where Trowa stood, pressing its massive head against the bars. He pulled his right hand out of his pocket again and buried it in the lion's rough, warm mane. This made even less sense than pulling ropes without gloves; he could hardly pilot Heavyarms without hands. But the lions didn't fear him, and he didn't fear them. He dug his fingers deeper into the fur, scratching and kneading. The lion closed its eyes, and Trowa thought that perhaps he should close his eyes next time he helped Catherine with her knife-throwing number. The small cut had healed, but she still hesitated when he volunteered to assist her. That wasn't good — she needed to get past the reluctance and accomplish her mission without fear of failure.

Mission. Catherine would laugh, or look strangely at him. Trowa knelt down and looked at the lion, a being without language and without a need to choose the right words in order to fit in. Many things were easier without speech.

The back of his neck prickled. Someone was looking at him. The lion didn't react, so it probably wasn't a stranger. Trowa got to his feet again, careful to support his own weight and not lean on the lion. He gave a final scratch before untangling his fingers from the lion's mane and turning, taking care to keep his movements slow. Walking away from the cage, he glanced sideways through the concealing curtain of his bangs and saw Beau, at a distance, watching. Somehow, Trowa didn't think the man had come back to check that Trowa had rinsed out the bucket properly.

He followed the scent of woodsmoke and frying sausages back to Catherine's trailer. The trailer door was open, and he went up the steps, leaned against the edge of the door, and waited for her to notice him. She was humming to herself as she pushed at the sausages in the pan with a spatula that had seen better days, and broke off to curse when drops of fat spattered her wrist as one sausage burst. Reaching for a paper towel, she caught sight of him and nearly jumped. "You're too quiet!" Catherine wiped her wrist and hand. "Don't just stand there, get out the plates."

So he did, and fished knives and forks out of a drawer, and got the milk out of the small fridge, because Catherine liked milk. She filled the plates, sausages and mashed potatoes and something green and mushy that was probably spinach, and they carried everything outside to the two rickety stools that stood by the fire. That was another thing about Catherine. She liked to be outdoors. She poured milk in Trowa's glass and he remembered to say, "Thank you."

"It wouldn't hurt you to learn to cook," she said.

"I can cook."

Catherine looked at him over her raised fork. "Good. You make dinner tomorrow, then."

The sausages were spicy, not the bland ones he was used to. There was something on the mashed potatoes, too, a brown powder that tasted like, like... "What is this?"

"Nutmeg." She eyed him doubtingly. "Are you sure you can cook?"

Trowa thought about it. He could make coffee. He knew how much bread and porridge it took to feed sixty hungry soldiers in the morning, and how much beer it took to keep them happy at night. He could skin and gut a rabbit, and roast it on a stick over an open fire, or eat it raw if he had to. In the end, he just shrugged.

They were at the edge of the camp, close to the treeline. From one side came the noise and bustle of people cooking and watching TV and calling to each other, from the other only the rustle of wind in the trees. They'd be staying here for a couple of weeks at least, time enough for him to get to know the area and scout out alternative locations to hide Heavyarms if that turned out to be necessary. Trowa scooped up some of the green mush; it was spinach, just cooked in a different way from what he was accustomed to. Perhaps there would be a longer break between missions, to give him more time to adapt to this environment, find out how to fit in better. The other day, someone had said that he looked awfully young, and asked him if he'd run away from home to join the circus; it made him wonder if his fake ID had really passed muster, or if any of the others suspected him of being a runaway whose parents were searching for him.

Something moved in the tree-shadows, something small and quiet. He ate some more spinach as he watched, and after a few minutes, a tawny cat came out, heading for their fire. It walked around the circle of firelight, pausing to bat at a dead leaf with one paw for a while. Passing Trowa, it rubbed its head against his shins, and then moved on to Catherine, looking up at her and making a sound like an unoiled hinge. She smiled delightedly and poured some milk from her glass into her cupped hand, and held it down. The cat began to drink.

Trowa watched Catherine, studying the way she held herself as she leaned forward, the way she brushed her hair back out of the way. He thought she carried a knife somewhere, but he wasn't sure exactly where it was hidden — not that her usual outfit left much to choose from when it came to hiding places for weapons. He'd have to get her to show him how she did that. Some of the better mercenaries he'd known had kept knives in arm sheaths, but Catherine's arms were usually bare.

When the cat had finished the milk, it jumped up into Catherine's lap and tramped about, getting tangled up in the flounces of her skirt. She smiled and petted it, rubbing behind the ears much as Trowa had done with the lion earlier. Trowa was about to take advantage of her good mood and ask her about the knife when the peaceful evening sounds of the circus camp were drowned out by a scream, followed by loud animal roars.

Lions, Trowa thought, and he was on his feet and running, and Catherine was running right next to him.

A crowd had gathered around the lion cage, but Catherine pushed her way to the front and Trowa followed her. He could smell blood. Catherine stopped abruptly, and Trowa looked over her shoulder. Blood pooled on the ground, and the biggest of the lions, the one they called Rex, was worrying at something inside the cage.

Beau lay close to the bars. He was missing most of his right arm, and there was a deep slash across his abdomen. Trowa pushed past Catherine to kneel next to Beau, pulling the man's belt from around his waist and looping it around what remained of the arm, drawing it tight. It looked as though Beau had already lost too much blood, though, and there wasn't much to be done about the stomach wound; Trowa caught glimpses of intestines through the blood-soaked shirt. Beau was staring at him with glazed, shocked eyes. "But they love me," he said, and a line of pink froth trickled from the corner of his mouth. "They love me. Why do they let you touch them when they love me?"

"Just lie still," Catherine said, coming around to bend over Beau, stroking his hair away from his forehead with a gentle hand. "Don't talk, just be still, the ambulance is coming soon."

Not soon enough, Trowa thought, pulling off his own shirt and tearing it up to bandage the gut wound. He knew his shirt wasn't all that clean, but it was better than the straw and the dust and the dirt, certainly better than the lion's claws. Beau had quieted under Catherine's touch and lapsed into the still silence of shock. He looked like a man who would die. Trowa stood up and saw that the knees of his jeans were soaked, the blood looking nearly black in the dim evening light. He'd seen soldiers with worse injuries pull through, but not often. In the distance, he heard ambulance sirens, approaching rapidly.

"Will he be all right?" someone asked behind him, a trapeze artist, Ferdinand of the Fabulous Flying Freimanns, whose real name was Jack.

"Maybe we should get the arm out." The circus manager looked as though he was trying to figure out how to take charge of the situation. "They might be able to reattach it."

"There isn't enough left," Trowa said, tilting his head slightly back at the cage where Rex was still toying with the torn-off limb. The sirens rose into an ear-splitting screech, then died off abruptly as the ambulance pulled to a halt. The crowd of performers moved aside quickly as the paramedics came rushing, and everything became an efficient bustle that Trowa watched in calm admiration. He saw Catherine stroke Beau's hair again before slipping out of the way, and wondered a little at it; he hadn't been aware that she had any special fondness for the man.

The way the paramedics worked together made him think of meeting the blond boy who gave his name as Quatre. We should be working together, he'd said. Not an unreasonable idea in and of itself, Trowa thought, but it wasn't part of his mission statement. And he was here on earth to be Trowa Barton and follow Trowa Barton's orders, not to play music while strangers repaired his Gundam, not to talk about, discuss, or question those orders, not to be involved in anything outside of the stated parameters. When the paramedics took Beau away, the circus manager went along with them. Trowa turned and left the crowd, walking back to his trailer.

He went inside and turned on one of the lamps, then peeled off the blood-stained jeans. The blood had soaked through, and he scrubbed at his knees with a washcloth, dried off, and found a clean pair of pants to put on, and a long-sleeved sweater. Then he filled the sink with cold water and put the jeans in to soak, dumping a little washing powder on top. He hadn't bothered to close the door completely, and a moth had followed him in; Trowa heard it beat its wings against the lampscreen, a dry, hectic sound.

The blood might not come out of the jeans, and he'd certainly never see his shirt again. Trowa made a mental note to buy some more clothes.

Fluttering helplessly in one place, the moth was easy to catch in one loosely clenched hand, and he carried it outside and made sure the door was closed before letting it go. Trowa walked over to the fire where Catherine's stool lay overturned, a little too close to the ring of stones that kept the flames penned in. The cat had dragged a piece of sausage off Trowa's plate and was eating it, or possibly wrestling it, on the other side of the fire. It looked very much like Rex toying with Beau's arm. While he watched it, Catherine came back, walking more slowly than she usually did, hugging herself as if she felt cold; the air was getting a little chilly. Trowa nodded to her and she smiled, a faint smile that warmed a little as she caught sight of the cat, then faded altogether. He bent down to pick up the plates.

"You can leave them," Catherine said. She took a step to the side, seemed about to sit down, then stayed as she was. "Poor Beau."

Trowa picked up the glasses as well, stacking them and balancing them on the already stacked plates. "He misjudged the animals. It was a stupid mistake." Turning away from the fire, he went into Catherine's trailer, since his own sink was full, and looked around for the dishwashing liquid.

He heard her come in after him, but he wasn't prepared for her to come up to him and hit his arm with her clenched fist, hard.

"How can you be so cold? Don't you care if he lives or dies?"

Trowa paused, trying to figure out the most likely meaning behind her words. He had a feeling that no would probably be the wrong answer. "I didn't know you liked him."

"I barely knew him, but Trowa, that isn't the point." She raised her hand again, open this time, as if she wanted to grab and shake him, but then she just shook her head, turned around, and stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

Trowa stayed and did the dishes: plates, glasses, cutlery, pots, the frying pan. The spinach had hardened into a substance reminiscent of superglue. He dried everything on a checked cloth that hung from the knob to one of the cupboards, and put it away. A trailer was a small place to live, and with more than two things out of place, it looked messy. Catherine had a few decorations on her walls: a framed photograph of a city by the sea, a newspaper clipping in Polish with a picture where she posed next to the circus director, smiling sweetly, knives a deadly fan in her hand. A silky sleeveless top sewn with green and blue spangles lay tossed over the back of the trailer's only chair, next to a brown knitted cardigan with a hole over one elbow.

There were no moths fluttering around Catherine's lamp. Trowa picked the cardigan up. He went out and found her sitting by the fire, which burned low now; the cat was in her lap, purring beneath her stroking hand. When he sat down on the other stool, she glanced at him with sharpness in her eyes, but said nothing. When he handed her the cardigan, she still said nothing, but pulled it over her shoulders without bothering to push her arms into the sleeves.

Trowa stared out into the woods, catching the occasional glimpse of bats fluttering over the treetops. The day before, one of the acrobats had offered to teach him a tumbling routine, which might come in handy; he knew his skills in unarmed combat ran a risk of becoming rusty without anyone to practise with. The invitation to learn tightrope-walking was less tempting — he couldn't see the practical uses of that — but a refusal would look suspicious, and it was a way to work on stamina and balance and stay in shape, if nothing else. He needed to procure more ammunition for Heavyarms again. He needed new clothes. The treetops and the clouds and the stars and the moon and the bats reminded him of a picture he'd seen somewhere, but he didn't know where. The high distant noises of the bats were becoming more difficult to hear. He was growing older. Or simply deafened by Heavyarms' guns.

After a while, the cat wriggled out from under Catherine's hands, came to rub up against Trowa's legs, made a leisurely circle around the fire, and disappeared into the trees again. Catherine tried to brush the cat hair off her skirt. She didn't look at him.

The fire burned down to embers. It was too dark to see Catherine's face very well. Hesitant steps in the distance came closer and grew firmer until the circus director was standing behind Catherine, looking over her head at Trowa. He cleared his throat. "They said that that thing you did with the belt probably saved his life."

Catherine jumped to her feet, turning to take hold of the man's arms. "Beau will live?"

"Yes." And Trowa could see that they both cared, that they were both happy about this. "Trowa. Will you take over some of Beau's duties? The... lions."

He nodded once. "Yes."

"Good... good."

A cool wind was blowing from the east. It was late. Catherine and the circus director spoke quietly for a while, and then he left, and she turned to Trowa. Her star earrings had gotten tangled up in her hair, hiding in the curls. Her eyes were all pupil in the dim light. "Thank you," she said, and walked over to him. "Thank you for saving his life, Trowa." She bent and kissed the top of his head. Then she went into her trailer and closed the door. Trowa stayed where he was, and watched the treetops, and the stars.

The cat didn't come back the next morning, or the next evening. Catherine shrugged it off. Trowa busied himself with his work, more intensely now that he had the lions to feed, too. It occurred to him that others might see him touch the lions, might think it was safe, or a good idea. He looked over his shoulder more frequently. He couldn't keep buying new shirts all the time. Unsure of what to do with what had remained of Beau's arm by the next morning, he'd ended up burying it in the woods. It was of no use to anyone, after all.

* * *

Trowa walked around the truck, making certain that the tarp was still securely fastened and no part of Heavyarms could be seen. He thought he'd heard some part of it tug loose in the wind, even though he'd barely gone above the speed limit driving into San Francisco, not wanting to risk getting pulled over with a Gundam on board. There was no sign of that, though; his knots still held, these new ones that he'd learned at the circus, and none of the rubber straps had broken. When he came back to the front, Quatre was still standing there and still smiling. "I thought we could go somewhere and have dinner," he said.

The casual words made it sound like a social occasion. Trowa shook his head. "I brought sandwiches."

Quatre peered at him uncertainly for a long moment, and then burst out laughing. It rang through the dark lot, a sound of pure amused happiness, although Trowa couldn't see that it was that funny. "We'll have a picnic," he said.

Trowa climbed up into the truck, knowing he should stay there until it was time to move out again. His foot bumped into something, and he looked down. The sandwiches had been Catherine's idea. She'd cornered him just as he was about to sneak away and thrust a package wrapped in waxed paper at him, and told him he had to promise to come back. Trowa knew he couldn't promise anything of the kind, but he'd appreciated the thick slices of paté on crusty bread as he'd flown his stolen cargo plane across the ocean; the thermos full of coffee had been useful, too, helping him stay awake through time zone after time zone.

By now, what remained in the package had been dropped onto the floor of the plane's cockpit several times, had fallen off the seat of the truck, and apparently lain squashed under the metal thermos for a couple of hours, and when he picked it up, the contents looked half dry and half soggy. Trowa looked at it. He could eat this. Of course he could eat this. On the other hand, he didn't have to. He dropped the package and jumped out of the truck, and looked at Quatre. "All right," he said, and they walked off into the city.

It was just past sunset, and the streets were full of people. Trowa strolled along with his hands in his pockets, watching Quatre, who was studying everything with a look of fascinated delight on his face. They found a huge 24-hour supermarket with a deli section, and picked up fresh-made sandwiches and fruit and various things to drink; Quatre seemed on the verge of getting one of each of all the different types of soft drinks that weren't sold on the colonies. Trowa pointed out that they couldn't carry that much, and Quatre bought crackers and chips instead.

When they'd made it through the check-out line, Quatre turned to Trowa and said, "I want to see the ocean."

"It's dark," Trowa said, setting the paper bag in the crook of one arm and heading for the doors, stepping carefully around four small children who were kicking at a gum machine that had apparently swallowed their money and given nothing back. Walking past it, he dealt the machine a swift blow on a spot on the back, and it coughed and clanked and spat out gum after gum. The children screamed with glee and delight and began to jump up and down to catch the balls of gum that shot out like bullets from Heavyarms' guns, and Trowa strode away.

Quatre caught up with him on the outside, and shot him a sideways look that was difficult to read even under the bright floodlights that lit the store's entrance and parking lot. "Well, we have to go somewhere to eat."

There was a bus stop on the other side of the street, and Quatre headed that way with determined steps. Trowa watched him for a moment, then shrugged and followed.

They had to change buses twice before they got off at the end of a long sloping street and found sand on the cracked pale grey asphalt. Trowa thought the low sound he heard was traffic from the streets, but as they crossed the road it grew louder, and they came out onto sand dunes, different from the ones in the desert. Here, pale grass rustled in the wind, along with fat, low-growing succulents, binding the sand into shape. The ground sloped downwards, and his feet sank deep into sandy softness before the whole of the beach opened up in front of them. It seemed to go on forever in both directions, this broad strip of sea-washed land. And directly in front of them was the darkly rolling sea, waves breaking with a murmur and a splash, leaving behind a white fringe of broken shells.

Turning left, they walked until they came to a large driftwood log, half-sunk into the sand; one end was covered in sharp white barnacles, but the other was sea-worn and smooth. "Here," Trowa suggested and sat on the log, putting the bag down.

Quatre dropped down on the ground, leaning back against the log and kicking his shoes off, tugging at his socks and then digging his bare toes into the sand with a small sigh. "It is beautiful, just as I thought it would be."

"It's dark," Trowa said again. "You can't see very much at all."

Quatre chuckled. "I can see a lot," he said, and then turned and began to unpack the shopping bag. He handed Trowa his sandwich and a can of grape-flavored soda, put the box of strawberries on the log between them, and ripped open a bag of chips. "What's your plan of attack for tomorrow?"

Trowa bit into his sandwich, roast beef on rye with plenty of mustard. The mustard exploded up through his sinuses and made his eyes water. He blinked, and sipped some soda. "Get there. Kill the OZ leaders." Somewhere down the beach, someone had built a fire. The smell of drifting smoke reminded Trowa of Catherine, who wanted him to come back in one piece.

"I think we'll be much more efficient and stand a higher chance of success if we coordinate our attack." Quatre gestured with his sandwich and a piece of lettuce fell out. "You remember what the plans for the New Edwards base look like. We can break through from the south together."

The chips were some odd flavor, sour cream and pepper, and the other bag was... blue cheese? There were blue cheese flavored chips? Trowa wondered why they couldn't have gotten just plain salt ones. "Cooperation with others is not in my mission orders. I can take care of this on my own."

"If your mission orders were anything like mine, you have a great deal of autonomy." Quatre ate a strawberry. "You know it makes sense to maximize the chance for success. If we're willing to die for our colonies, we should be willing to think for them as well."

Trowa gave up on the chips. For just plain salt, he could breathe the air; the smell of the sea was rich and unpredictable. It was complex, it changed from moment to moment, as the waves moved. "I'm not sure they want us to think," he said, surprising himself both by saying it and by the truth of it.

"That can't be helped. Once you've started thinking, it's difficult to stop." Trowa couldn't tell, in the blue darkness, if Quatre was smiling or serious. "Do you think the others will come to New Edwards, too?"

"The others?" The strawberries, at least, tasted of just plain strawberry; they were ripe and sweet and perfect, much sweeter than colony-grown ones that had never seen a real sun.

Quatre nodded. "I saw the reports on that factory outside Beijing — that wasn't you, was it? And there have been other acts of sabotage that I don't think either of us was responsible for, either. There must be others. I would like so very much to meet them, wouldn't you?"

"It could be some other faction," Trowa said. "You can't assume that it's others like us — or even if it is, that they would be friendly."

Quatre looked amused. "Have you always been like this?" Then he clapped his hand over his mouth. "I shouldn't have—"

Trowa gave the question due consideration. "Probably," he said. "Tell me about your strategy."

Turning sideways, Quatre smoothed out an expanse of sand and began to sketch the New Edwards base on it with one finger, then used shell fragments to represent mobile suits. Trowa had to lean close to make out the outlines, until Quatre produced a small, pencil-thin flashlight and used it to trace out the projected movements of OZ troops and of their Gundams. It was a good outline, but it didn't seem to take into account the possibility of getting pinned down in a narrower passage between two of the buildings, and it presupposed that some of the OZ soldiers would actually surrender when asked. Trowa didn't think Quatre should count on that. He shifted a couple of shell pieces, and they ran through some different scenarios, playing the Gundams against what they knew of the enemy forces.

He'd finished his sandwich by the time they had what seemed like a workable plan, and Quatre had gone through most of a bag of chips. They were so concentrated on what they were doing, their hands collided as both reached for the last strawberry.

"You take it," Quatre said with a smile. He drew his legs up and propped his arms on his knees, staring out at the waves that kept coming and coming and coming, never looking exactly the same. "I didn't know the earth would be like this. It's so very different from space."

Trowa bit into the strawberry. It tasted exactly like the difference Quatre was talking about. He slid off the log to sit and lean against it, too, making a comfortable little hollow for himself in the sand. There was so much of everything here on earth, such uncontrolled extremes of nature. The sea moved like a living thing, the waves rising and falling like irregular breaths. And looking up, there was the sky, the stars, and with them the awareness of not being enclosed in a manmade sphere, of being outside... in space without a space suit.

But 'space' had always meant those enclosed places, and the endless, dangerous, fascinating darkness between them.

Earth was different. It was so much bigger than the confined, confining circle of a colony, but so small compared to the solar system, to the galaxy, to the enormity of the vacuum that surrounded it. Trowa finished the strawberry and tossed the small green fragment of stem and leaf over his shoulder. "Yes," he said. "It is."

"I always used to think that earth looked so beautiful from the colonies." Quatre held a piece of shell in his hands, turning it over. "It's even more beautiful up close. But you can't even see the colonies from here. It's like they don't exist."

Quatre picked up another shell fragment, and another. Trowa reached down and erased the lines they'd drawn, moved the pieces they'd used as troops, until there was no trace of their sandcastle war. "Quatre," he said, trying out the other boy's name for the first time. "Why do you ask them to surrender? You're one soldier against an entire planetary army."

Quatre tossed the shell pieces in the air and let them fall. "I have to," he said. "If there's a chance that I don't have to kill them... I have to give them that chance." Then he smiled. "Besides, now there's two of us."

"I can do this on my own," Trowa said, but he said it very quietly, and he wasn't sure if Quatre heard him this time, over the steady wash of the surf and the sound of wading birds squabbling as water lapped at their thin graceful legs.

The moon looked hazier here; there was a white misty veil around it. It looked distant and unapproachable, as though no one had ever set foot on it. Quatre began to rummage in his satchel, and after a while he pulled out a large, slim, soft-bound book and held it out to Trowa. "Here. I, ah, thought you might like it."

Trowa took the book. The cover was dark and he couldn't see what it said. He flipped the book open, looked at a page, and then up at Quatre. "I can't read music," he said.

Quatre's eyes widened. "You're kidding." Trowa shook his head. "I'm so sorry!" Now Quatre sounded mortified. "But when we were playing, you said — you sounded as if—" He broke off. "I'm really, really sorry. And you're a very good musician."

Trowa looked at the lines and the dots. He knew enough about this notation system to know what it was, but that was all. "Tell me how it works."

Sweeping the rest of the shells out of the way, Quatre scooted closer and turned on the small flashlight again. He used his other hand to hold down the left side of the book, and Trowa noticed, as the beam of the flashlight followed Quatre's pointing finger, that Quatre had the same calluses he had from the Gundam controls.

"You probably know that these signs represent the notes themselves," Quatre said, "and the horizontal lines and the blank spaces between them represent the intervals between notes. This, on the lowest line here, is an E — this E," he hummed a note, "and then if there were a note in the blank space over it, that would be an F, and on the next line a G, and so on. These vertical lines mark off the bars of the song, and the way the notes are drawn show how long they should be played — this one is half the length of that one, and this one is half the length of that, and all this would be much clearer if we had a piano."

"You play the piano, too?" Trowa tapped his finger lightly next to where Quatre was pointing. "Knowing the relative length of the notes doesn't help if you don't know the absolute length of one of them, though." But as Quatre began to talk about pace notations and metronomes and then drifted off into beats per minute, Trowa looked more closely at the first printed line of this piece of music — a waltz, it was a waltz, one two three, and that was that note and that was, he counted, this note and that.... "So it begins like this," he said, interrupting Quatre, and whistled the first few notes.

"Yes! That's it exactly." Quatre's hair had fallen forward into his eyes, but his smile was clearly visible. He pulled his hand away, leaving Trowa to hold the book by himself again. "I — do you want the book, want to keep it?" Trowa nodded. "Good. And I didn't mean to assume — I am sorry."

"I heard you the first time," Trowa murmured, closing the book and putting it away, and Quatre laughed.

The people around the fire down the beach were growing rowdy under the influence of what smelled like beer and partly-burned hot dogs, and the wading birds fled before the noise. Trowa crumpled up an empty chips bag and stuffed it into the paper bag from the store, and then gathered up the soda cans, the strawberry carton, the sandwich wrappers. He tossed the one unopened can to Quatre, who put it in his satchel with the crackers and a few other things they hadn't managed to eat. Quatre nodded. "You're right, it's time to go. We have to make an early start tomorrow."

"Yes." They got to their feet, and Trowa looked closely at the log and the area around it, making sure they hadn't left anything behind. He scuffed with his foot at the sand where they'd outlined their attack strategy, and at the marks left behind where they'd been sitting. It was force of habit, and he stopped when he noticed Quatre looking at him, and turned to walk towards the path that had taken them there. The laughter from the people around the fire faded away behind them.

It was getting cooler. They didn't have to wait long for a bus, and as they rattled back up the street Quatre turned sideways on the seat, leaning back against the window, and said, "Where are you staying?"

Trowa shrugged. "In the truck."

"Oh." Quatre got an expression in his eyes that Trowa was coming to recognize. "I have a hotel room — it's a double. You're welcome to take the other bed."

"I need to get back to Heavyarms," Trowa said briefly. He'd already been away too long, leaving his Gundam in a public parking lot. It was much too risky. The bus engine whined at the long steady upslope and he wondered why no one had bothered to fix it, and then whether he had truly taken care of the slight overflexibility in Heavyarms' right knee joint. It was too late to do anything about it now — he certainly could not do any Gundam maintenance in a public parking lot — but he still felt the tug to get back.

Quatre didn't sound convinced. "But you'll be awfully uncomfortable."

Trowa shifted in his seat and bumped his elbow into the music book. He didn't know where he was going to put that, anyway; there was no room in Heavyarms' cockpit to stow personal possessions or mementos. "I'll be fine." Quatre opened his mouth to argue, but Trowa raised his hand in a silencing gesture. "You are not responsible for me, Quatre. I'm not one of your followers. I'm in this on my own."

They rode the rest of the way in silence, through the long streets and over the hills, past houses where every window was warmly lit, saying that someone lived there... that someone was home. Trowa brushed his fingertips against the music book, feeling the embossed text on the front cover. Possessions were nothing but trouble. As soon as you owned something, you needed a place to put it.

Quatre was getting off at an earlier stop this time, to get to his hotel. He scrambled off his seat and went to the doors, then paused there and looked back over his shoulder.

"I know you're in this on your own, Trowa. But you don't have to be." Then he got off, and the doors closed, and the bus moved on. Trowa leaned back in his seat and stared out the window; his eyes kept focusing and unfocusing, so that he sometimes saw the streets lit by an orange sodium glare, and sometimes just the reflection of his own face, pale and ghostlike, half-hidden by the dark fall of hair.

It was a short ride to the stop by the supermarket, where he got off and went inside. Aisle after aisle of food, endless reiterations of the same thing packaged differently. Trowa picked up some fruit, a little bread, and a bottle of water. That would do for breakfast. It was difficult to keep things simple in a place like this, but unlike Quatre, he had no real desire to try one of everything.

There were no children by the gum machine now. Trowa put the music book into the bag next to the apples and wandered out into the night.

When he looked up here, surrounded by streetlights and neon signs, he couldn't see any stars at all, only a vague darkness of sky. He retraced their route back to the parking lot where the truck waited for him. No one had touched it. The tarp was still in place, the doors were locked; he unlocked the one on the driver's side and climbed in, narrowly avoiding putting his foot on the remains of Catherine's sandwich package.

Trowa took his shoes off and crawled into the sleepspace behind the truck seat. He stretched out on the thin mattress, trying not to think about what the truck's former owner might have done to leave those stains behind. He'd thrown the sheets and pillows out, but kept the blanket, worn khaki wool that looked like army surplus. It was heavy, and so scratchy he decided to keep his jeans on.

Curling up, he breathed in the musty smells of this closed-in space and wondered, just for a moment, what Quatre's hotel room was like.

* * *

The fire crackled and hissed. The air smelled of rain, and Trowa guessed that the branches Catherine had gathered in the woods were damp. He looked across the spitting flames at the other pilot, whose features were perfectly still under the leaping dance of firelight. Wufei sat like a statue, eyes sightlessly fixed on the coffee mug in his hands.

Trowa picked up one of the bowls of soup from the tray Catherine had brought, tried a spoonful and burned his tongue. He took the other bowl and held it out to Wufei, and kept holding it out until the other boy finally reacted and took it. Wufei spooned some soup into his mouth and his brows snapped together in a sudden frown — he'd probably burned his tongue, too. Despite that, he went on eating for a while, then abruptly dropped the spoon into the soup with a splash and glared at Trowa. "I'm weak," he said bitterly. "I'm not worthy to continue this fight."

The coffee was bitter; it tasted as though it had been brewed several hours ago and then reheated. "Why didn't you just shoot him?" Trowa asked.

Wufei's brows drew even lower. "That would have been dishonorable."

Trowa considered this statement. The soup was cool enough to eat now, but it, too, tasted like something that had been left standing for too long. Maybe this was Catherine's way of telling him that she disapproved of his absence. "We went to New Edwards to kill the OZ leaders, not to challenge them to a duel." He put the soup down and tried the coffee again. Still disgusting. "You could have ended the war."

"Khushrenada tricked us," Wufei growled. "He tricked Yuy into an unjust act. I needed to reclaim our honor." Trowa raised an eyebrow. "I failed."

"I have no honor," Trowa said calmly. "I would rather see Khushrenada dead." He stretched his legs towards the fire. He was certain that Heavyarms didn't leak, but at some point during the fighting out at sea, he'd managed to get his shoes damp. He needed to put grease on them, or the leather might crack. "You don't have to finish that," he added, nodding at the soup bowl.

"Is that woman trying to poison us?" But then the spark of anger in Wufei seemed to sputter and die, and he closed down, turning still and quiet again, his features settling into a polished bronze mask.

Trowa stared into the fire, watching the way the wood charred and crumbled. The faction that wanted peace with the colonies was gone, and Khushrenada and his plans for war remained. An intelligent man, Trowa thought, to have manipulated them so easily. An intelligent man, and one who would be difficult to kill. The fire hissed, and Trowa felt a drop of rain against his cheek. He looked up to find the stars obscured by clouds. There was a patter of rain on leaves, growing louder. He got to his feet and picked up the soup bowl and the coffee mug. "Come," he started to say, and then the heavens opened and water poured down.

Through the thick curtain of rain he saw Wufei rise as well, and Trowa tilted his head in invitation, turned, and went towards the trailer. The moment he got inside, he shook himself, shrugging off water, and stepped aside to make room for Wufei to do the same. Trowa put the bowl and cup in the sink and opened the cupboard where he knew he had at least one clean, though well-worn, towel, a hand-me-down from Catherine. He handed it to Wufei and went into the trailer's tiny bathroom to look for the towel he'd hung there after his shower two days ago. It was gone.

A corner of his mouth twitched, despite the mild annoyance he felt. Catherine always told him he had to do his own chores, and then she did them for him anyway. She walked in and out of his trailer as though it were her own, rearranging his things to suit her. He wondered why she bothered, but on the whole, he didn't mind. Except now, when he was wet and would really have liked something to dry himself off with.

Trowa backed out of the small bathroom cubicle again and turned toward Wufei, who had wiped the water off his face and arms, though his clothes were still plastered to his body. "I'll leave now," Wufei said, so quietly that Trowa almost didn't hear it over the sound of the rain drumming on the trailer roof.

The weather was bad, and Wufei's mood was worse. There was a set to his shoulders that Trowa recognized from other lost battles. "You can stay." Trowa took the towel out of Wufei's hand and scrubbed at his face. "I'll sleep on the couch."

"No. You should not put yourself out for someone like me." Wufei was staring out the window, not looking at Trowa. "He won over us by dishonorable means, but then he also won in an honorable fight. He is strong. He's too strong."

Trowa shrugged, hanging the towel over the back of a chair. "You take the couch, then. It folds out, if you feel you're worthy of that."

He turned toward the sink and rinsed out the bowls and mugs. When he reached for the dishwashing liquid, he heard the sound of the door closing. Trowa looked up and found that Wufei was gone. It looked as though he'd have to do the dishes on his own.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, but it came no closer, and by the time everything was clean and dry and put away, the rain had gentled from a downpour to a light shower. Trowa opened the trailer door and looked outside at puddles and dripping leaves. The rain seemed to have put the fire out, but he wasn't entirely certain, and went outside to check. Rain fell softly on his face and hands. He tilted his head back and glimpsed the moon between drifting clouds.

There were a few stubbornly glowing embers under the wet black remains of wood, and Trowa went to get the bucket that stood by Catherine's trailer and used the rainwater collected in it to make sure that every spark went out. A little smoke and ash whirled up, and he sneezed. When he walked back with the bucket, Catherine opened her trailer door. "Trowa? Is that you?" She leaned out, then made a face at the rain. "Is your friend staying overnight?"

"No." Trowa set the bucket down. "He left."

"In this weather?" Catherine shook her head. "Well, I'll see you tomorrow, Trowa. Good night."

He nodded, and turned away as her door closed again. The rain was nothing but a faint drizzle now, and the air smelled fresh and clean, but it was chilly, and wet grass clung to his shoes. Trowa went back inside his own trailer. He turned on the bedside lamp, and it shone a warm yellow through its yellow paper screen. Anyone standing outside might look at the trailer window and the light coming from it and think, someone lives there, someone's home.

Trowa went to the tiny bathroom to brush his teeth. It wasn't all that late, but he had no reason to stay up, and he was tired from the fight. His shoulders felt a little sore from the constant tension; at least he'd get a good workout tomorrow.

Trowa took off his clothes and put on the pajama pants he'd acquired after realizing that Catherine intended to come and go as she pleased in his trailer, without knocking unless she felt like it, at any hour of the night or day. He got into bed and moved up to sit leaning against the wall, and picked up the music book that lay on the small bedside table, flipping it open to the place where he'd left off. That was a G, and that was... Trowa sounded out the notes in his head, occasionally humming one out loud. He might have to get a flute, to be able to play this music, to learn it better.

The wall was cold against his back, though, and once he'd reached the end of that piece he put the book away again, carefully, and scooted down, pulling the covers around himself and breathing in the smell of clean sheets. This was very different from the night before, from sleeping on a dirty mattress under a musty blanket in a stolen truck.

Trowa turned over, tucking his hand under the pillow. He wondered where Wufei would sleep tonight. Quatre, he thought with sudden clarity, would never have let Wufei walk out like that, not without trying to talk to him, when Wufei was so obviously troubled. But people often preferred to be alone with their troubles. To be independent of others, and keep themselves to themselves.

He closed his eyes. The irregular thrum of raindrops against the roof of the trailer was soothing, the covers were warm, but he could still remember the chill from the previous night. The solitude. Trowa wished he were already asleep. He'd chosen to fight so that others would not have to. If Wufei wanted to stop....

He blanked his mind of thought and lay listening to music in his head until he slipped into dreams where the music kept playing.

It was the slam of trailer door against trailer wall that woke him the next morning, and he sat bolt upright in bed, hand reaching for a gun that fortunately wasn't there. Catherine stood in the doorway with the sun shining in over her shoulder. "Good morning, sleepyhead! I've made breakfast. Get up! You're meeting Jinx in an hour!"

Trowa swung his legs over the side of the bed. He felt well-rested, despite hazy memories of dreams full of music and memories. The sky looked clear, with only a few thin scudding clouds. "What did you do with my towel?"

"You need to remember to do your laundry now and then, you know." Her smile was like a sunrise. The earrings she wore today were shaped like little angels. "I'm glad you're back, Trowa. Now come and do some work."

Catherine jumped off the trailer steps and disappeared from view, leaving the trailer door open. Trowa got up, went into the small bathroom cubicle, and splashed cold water on his face, trying to clear his head. It was a bright new day, all hope for peace between earth and the colonies had died, and he was going to learn to walk a tightrope. The face that met him in the mirror seemed unimpressed by all these things.

He put on the loose workout clothes that the acrobats had lent him last time and never asked to have returned, and went over to Catherine's trailer for breakfast. She'd made coffee from fresh-ground beans, and it was strong enough to make his ears tingle. The coffee mug was a deep, warm blue, like the music room ceiling in the house in the desert. Trowa sipped the coffee and felt himself warm up and wake up from the inside out. He ate toast with ginger jam and felt his ears tingle again. Then he went to feed the lions.

It was still early, but the circus camp was awake and bustling. Someone was frying bacon; a child was laughing and shouting, probably the Thorvaldsens' youngest, playing in the rain puddles; he could hear a clatter of hooves from where the horses were stabled. The lions were pacing their cages with swishing tails, looking hungry and impatient. Trowa tossed the meat in and stood back to watch them eat. When they were fed they would usually come to the bars and rub up against them, asking to be scratched... but he had no time for that this morning, he reminded himself.

He rinsed the bucket out and put it away, and went to the area behind the big top where the acrobats usually practised. Jinx was already there, warming up with a tumbling routine, while some others, Jack Freimann and Catherine among them, watched him. When Trowa walked up, Jinx flipped himself right side up and grinned. "Good morning!" Jinx was a short, wiry man, not much taller than Trowa, whose prematurely grey hair was cropped short over a wide brow and slanting eyebrows. His mouth was wide, like a frog's. "Now that you've been gone for a couple of days, do you still remember how to do a backflip?"

Trowa bent his knees, flexed his legs and launched himself into the air, tucking and rolling and straightening again, just enough. He landed lightly and turned to Jinx again. "Yes."

"You haven't lost your nerve," Jinx said approvingly. "Now let's see how you do on the rope." He gestured to one side, where a tightrope had been strung between two metal poles driven deep into the damp soil. The rope wasn't more than a meter off the ground. Jinx walked over and put his hand on it, testing it, then jumped up to stand on the flat top of one of the poles. He took a few steps forward, and then a few steps backwards. "It's all about balance, and I know you have that. Don't be afraid to fall, or you'll fall."

"Well, Trowa's not afraid," Catherine said, a bit dryly, but when he turned his head to look at her, she smiled at him. Perhaps she was starting to forgive him for what had happened during the knife-throwing routine. "He doesn't even mind an audience for his first try, do you, Trowa?"

"No," he said, because he didn't. He watched closely as Jinx moved forward once again, arms held out for balance, and walked all the way along the rope to the other pole. It didn't look easy, but it looked possible.

"You can't learn by looking," Jinx called, jumping down to the ground. He moved as though all his joints contained ball bearings. "You try it."

"All right." Trowa walked over to the nearest of the support poles and jumped up as Jinx had done. He tested the rope with one foot, gauging its tension, trying to sense how much it would give and sway under his weight; when Jinx had walked on it, it had looked perfectly solid. Clearly, it wasn't. He stretched his arms out and took a step, and another, and another, and fell and turned his fall into a flip so he'd land on his feet.

"Not bad," Jinx said. "Keep your back straight, don't lean forward. Again." Trowa got back up on the pole and kept his back straight; he imagined a line from the back of his head down to the backs of his heels. He turned his head a little and saw Catherine smiling at him, then looked straight ahead again. "It's better to go a little fast than a little slow," Jinx added.

Trowa nodded and set out on the rope again. This time he made it six steps before he began to sway. He tried to recover his balance, but it was hopeless, and he fell and tucked and rolled. The ground was soft and muddy. When he got up, Catherine's smile had turned into a wide grin. "I'll have that towel clean for you by tonight, Trowa," she called out.

Jinx came up to Trowa and poked his solar plexus with a sharp knuckle. "I know you know where your center of gravity is. Don't lose it. Again."

He tried again, and then again. It was more difficult than it looked. But then, he reflected, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and as with the acrobatic routines, the flips and cartwheels and tumbles, it was a change from piloting a Gundam — all motion, no thought. His body struggled to learn, and his mind relaxed.

The watching crowd left; everyone had their own work to do. The sun moved higher in the sky and the ground began to dry. He got halfway across the rope, and then two-thirds of the way. Jinx stopped calling out instructions and corrections and instead just stood and watched him, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette that smelled faintly of cloves. The smoke curled up through the air in feather-thin plumes. Trowa landed on the ground yet again. He flipped forward into a handstand, walked on his hands a couple of meters, flipped to his feet again and turned a cartwheel, then another one, before ending up upright again. Tilting his head back, he closed his eyes against the sun and cleared his mind. Very faintly, he could hear music playing; a waltz.

Trowa jumped up on the first pole, and everything fell into place — the right place, which seemed to be somewhere between and below his shoulder blades, and at the same time inside his head. He began to whistle to himself, and walked out on the rope, one easy step after another. It wasn't a struggle any longer; he knew exactly where he was and where his feet would go. He walked across to the second pole, stepped onto its flat top and turned to find Jinx watching him. "I found it," he said.

Jinx nodded. "Good. Again."

Going back was even easier. There was a place of clarity inside him that no uncertainty could touch, and that place was full of music and he walked to the rhythm of that music. It was very simple and very comfortable. When he came back to the pole he heard scattered claps and turned his head to see that Catherine and some of the others had come back again and were watching him, smiling. Catherine was eating deep-fried yellow-orange flowers out of a greasy brown paper bag. Maybe he'd missed lunch.

This tightrope-walking could be useful, after all, as more than just a balancing exercise. Trowa wondered what the easiest way might be to string a rope or wire between two buildings and make it taut enough and secure enough to carry his weight. He got down and closed his hand around the rope he'd been walking on. It was thick, and light-colored, had been white once, he thought. Metal wire would be nearly invisible in the dark. Trowa looked at Jinx. "Is it possible to walk on a thinner rope?"

Jinx came bounding over and clapped him on the back. "Don't go getting cocky, now. You're still a beginner. Go eat something and then come back here and we'll work some more."

Trowa nodded. He could get the information later. He walked over to Catherine, who was waving at him. "You were very good," she said, and held out the paper bag to him. He shook his head. "I know, it's all fat." She picked out another flower. "But they taste wonderful, really, Trowa, you should try one."

On the way back, they passed the youngest Thorvaldsen, who was now a walking mud monster. Catherine looked at him, then looked at Trowa, and giggled. Trowa looked down at himself. He was a mud monster, too. If the afternoon would only be more of the same, walking and tumbling, it might be pointless to clean up now. The ground was drying — he could almost feel the earth steaming in the warm spring sunshine — but there was still plenty of mud to tumble into, as the Thorvaldsen child could attest to.

"I've got some bread and cheese," he said.

"Good! I'll bring olives and tomatoes," Catherine said, turning left to go into her trailer, "and...."

The rest of her words were muffled as she disappeared inside. Trowa went on, going into his own trailer and washing his muddy hands before getting out the bread and cheese and a jar of pickled artichoke hearts. He'd left the door open, and Catherine came in with her hands full, olives and tomatoes and the deep-fried flowers and what must be the last of the paté she'd put on his sandwiches. She put it all down on the table next to the bread, and then stood looking around the trailer thoughtfully, and Trowa wondered if she was going to suggest curtains. "Do you want to sit outside and eat?" he asked.

Catherine nodded, and Trowa turned to get plates and paper towels. "That would be nice. Oh, what's this?"

He turned back to see her heading toward the small table by the bed. Trowa put the plates and paper towels down and took two quick steps past her, and picked up the music book before she could reach out and take it. "It's a book," he said.

"Trowa...!" Catherine looked curiously at him. Then she looked down at her hands, still greasy from the deep-fried flowers. "I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking." She tilted her head to look at the cover. "I didn't know you liked music. But Trowa, you don't even have an instrument, why did you buy this?"

He put the book down again, now that he knew she wouldn't touch it. "It was a gift."

Catherine went back to the table, picking up another flower. "From your friend who visited yesterday?" She bit into it with even white teeth.

"No. From someone else."

"Oh." Her voice turned teasing. "So you have two friends. And here I was beginning to worry that you didn't have any friends at all." He didn't answer, and she turned her head to look at him, and her eyes grew warm and soft. "I'm glad."

Trowa thought about saying that they weren't his friends. He barely knew them — at least not Wufei. He was in this on his own, but even as he thought it, he could see Quatre's face and hear his voice say, but you don't have to be. Looking at Catherine, who stood there treating his things as her own, and her things as his, he didn't think he could explain.

"Let's eat," he said.

* * *

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Trowa?"

He carefully slid the metal needle out, pushing the plastic tube deeper in, and secured the IV port with translucent tape. The medical supplies he'd stolen only added up to a primitive arrangement at best. Heero lay limp against the sheets, breathing slowly, but at least breathing steadily and on his own; he hadn't reacted in any way when the needle had pierced his skin. "The bag needs to be higher," Trowa said. "Hang it from that hook, there on the wall."

Catherine did as he asked, and he hooked up the IV — only saline for now. Once he'd made sure it was connected and the flow was unobstructed, he rose from the side of the bed, and Catherine came to stand by him, both of them looking down at Heero's unmoving form. Heero was a mass of bruises and scratches, interrupted by the clean white lines of bandages. Trowa had closed the sightless blue eyes, and now Heero's long dark eyelashes looked heavy against the skin, like black iron spikes, sealing his eyes shut.

"I know you saved Beau's life," Catherine said quietly, "but do you really have any medical training?"

"A little," Trowa said. Very little, truth be told. He wasn't sure what had moved him, there on the battlefield, to pick up the other pilot's body. It had been a confusing moment. He'd seen Wing Zero self-destruct, but it was Quatre who had cried out in pain over the comm system, and then the Deathscythe pilot had said, with dark intensity, Heero, you idiot.

"It looks like you did a good job on the bandages," she admitted. "They'll have to be changed, you know, and there are other things that must be done, when you're caring for someone who can't move out of bed...."

"I'll take care of it." This was a responsibility he'd brought on himself. It was work he hadn't planned on, but now that it was his, he would do it well. The wrappings around Heero's arm and shoulder looked tight and proper, and there was no blood seeping through. The head wound had been more difficult — shallow, but bleeding profusely, and even now it would open up again, a little, when he shifted Heero in the bed. Trowa resigned himself to buying a new pillow.

Trowa hadn't expected Heero to be alive. He'd just felt that it would be wrong to leave the other boy's body lying there in the wreckage for OZ forces to find and display as a bloody trophy for the world to see, a dead terrorist, a threat removed. There had been a hard purity to Heero's decision, and Trowa wanted to keep it that way, unsullied by political machinations. Grand gestures were so easily twisted into propaganda. Then he'd seen that Heero was still breathing, and realized that leaving Heero for OZ to find would have been even more of a mistake than he'd thought at first.

"I'm sure you will." Catherine slipped her hand into his and squeezed warmly. He turned his head to meet her eyes, and squeezed back. Today, she wore flower earrings — marguerites.

There was nothing more to be done for Heero at the moment, so Trowa pulled the covers up over the still, bandaged form in his bed and went with Catherine to her trailer to make dinner. It was good to get away from the smell of disinfectant. Standing at the sink, pushing his sleeves up to keep them from getting wet while he peeled potatoes, Trowa noticed that he had faint bruises all over his forearms from crawling on elbows and knees through ventilation ducts, breaking into the hospital supply room.

The smell of potato peel made him sneeze. He sliced the larger potatoes in half before putting them into the pot. Tomorrow he would have to come up with a way to explain to the ringmaster where he had been. Tonight, he had to explain to himself why he'd come back.

Perhaps they all should have done as Heero had — the implications of what the strange man on the viewscreen had said were clear. The colonies had surrendered, so the pilots could no longer carry out their terrorist missions. The Gundams would not be surrendered, and could no longer be used, so they should be destroyed. And the pilots no longer had a purpose. They had become a liability, a threat to those whom they had sought to protect.

But Trowa had not yet heard from Doktor S. He couldn't assume that the man with the claw could make decisions about the entire operation, though obviously he was the one who gave orders to Heero. The potato slipped from his grasp, and he almost cut his thumb. He picked it up, rinsed it off, and went on peeling. OZ's threat to destroy a colony if the Gundams did not give up their fight was certainly efficient, but it left a bad taste in his mouth: the very action that showed why OZ must be fought was the one that forced the pilots to stop fighting.

Trowa dumped the last potato in the pot and turned on the stove. He scooped up the peel and carried it outside to the small compost heap that Catherine had started, wondering why anyone who lived a transient traveler's life would bother with things like composting. Catherine did everything as she pleased, though. That was something he could respect.

Going back inside, he looked closely at Catherine, who was slicing shallots so fast that the blade of the knife was only a silvery blur. Then he looked down at the potatoes, waiting for them to boil. "You can't tell anyone that he's here."

"I promised, didn't I?" The sound of the knife hitting the cutting board did not falter. "But Trowa... that boy is seriously injured. He might not recover." He saw a bubble in the water, and another one. "This might not be the best place to care for him. He really needs a hospital, professional care...."

"No." Trowa didn't turn his head. "He needs time."

"I hope you're right." Catherine slid the shallots into a low copper-bottomed pan, where cod simmered in vegetable stock. "You have strange friends, Trowa."

He didn't seem to be able to get away from that word. They ate outside, as usual, sitting by the fire. The nights were growing warmer, and Catherine didn't need her cardigan any more, but she'd brought it outside and laid it on the ground by her feet. Trowa found that he didn't particularly care for cod cooked with shallots and served with boiled potatoes, but he ate it anyway. He wondered if the time that Heero needed really existed, or if there would be a communication tonight, or tomorrow, or the day after, that would decide his future — both their futures.

Trowa shook his head. "No," he said quietly to himself, quietly enough that Catherine did not react. Only his own future, because no one would give orders to the dead. Right now, he and Catherine were the only ones who knew that Heero was alive. He wanted to keep it that way.

When they'd finished eating, he took their plates inside, rinsed them off, and left them in the sink; it was Catherine's turn to do the dishes. Going out again, he saw that Jack Freimann had stopped by and was squatting on the ground right next to Catherine, talking and gesturing and smiling at her. Trowa turned left, intending to go to his own trailer and leave them alone, but Catherine stopped him. "Trowa! Don't you dare run off when you promised to help me with this!"

He went back to the fire and sat down on the three-legged stool again, feeling the weight of Jack Freimann's gaze, but not meeting it. "Sorry," he said calmly. Catherine flashed him a quick smile of complicitous gratitude. She was tugging at a corner of her brown cardigan, pulling a thread of yarn free, and then she handed the cardigan to him and began to wind the yarn around her fingers.

"About time you got rid of that ugly old thing," Jack Freimann said. "It doesn't suit you. Why don't you just throw it away?"

"There's a hole in the sleeve. I'm going to use the yarn to make a new cardigan," Catherine said, tugging her fingers free of the looped yarn and continuing to wind it into a ball. Trowa held the cardigan stretched out for her and shifted it as she pulled, making sure the yarn didn't snag.

"You should get yourself something new." Jack shifted on his heels. "Something pretty. Pretty girls should wear pretty things — don't you agree, Trowa?"

Trowa lifted his eyes from the unraveling cardigan and stared blankly at Jack for a moment, wondering why he was being dragged into this. "Pretty girls can wear whatever they want to," he said finally, and Catherine gave a little crow of laughter.

Jack didn't stay much longer. He said a polite "Good night" to Catherine, glared at Trowa, and went off to where the rest of the Freimanns were sitting in the middle of their own group of trailers, drinking tea and probably, Trowa thought, talking about soccer results. Catherine watched him go with a small smile. She set the first ball of yarn aside and started on a second.

"Do you like him?" Trowa asked.

Catherine tilted her head to one side. "He's cute, if you like that type." Trowa shrugged. "Don't you think he's cute?"

"No."

"Oh, boys never want to admit that another boy is cute." Catherine leaned forward to tug at the yarn where it had looped itself into a knot.

Trowa slanted a sideways look at her from underneath his hair. "I'd admit it if I thought it. I don't. And you don't want to answer my question."

She grinned. "You're being very persistent." The yarn came untangled and she straightened up again. "I don't know. He's a bit.... He talks a lot. About himself." A mischievous look crept into her eyes. "You, on the other hand, never talk about yourself at all."

"Well, I'm not trying to impress you," Trowa said, straight-faced, and Catherine dissolved into laughter.

Eventually the whole cardigan was picked apart and rolled up into five large balls of yarn, and Catherine yawned and rubbed at the tip of her nose. She bent forward to poke at the dying fire, and the embers flared up, calling red echoes from the depths of her curls. For a moment Trowa thought they appeared to have been dipped in blood, and he looked away, and got to his feet. Catherine looked up and smiled, unbloodied, unharmed. "Good night," she said. "Sweet dreams."

Trowa went into his trailer and turned on the lights, and wondered if he should perhaps get curtains after all, so that no one could look in from the outside and see Heero. Checking on Heero, Trowa found the other boy's condition unchanged; he quickly took care of the needs of Heero's body, and tucked the covers more securely around him, even though he knew Heero wasn't exactly likely to toss and turn in the night. He sorted through his stolen supplies, making a mental note of the things he needed more of, which was very nearly everything.

Going into the bathroom to brush his teeth, he stared blankly at the face in the mirror, and it stared blankly back at him: nothing to be seen here, move along.

The couch did fold out, a bit reluctantly, if one moved the table aside. Heero had the sheets and the pillows, so Trowa wrapped himself in a blanket he'd borrowed from Catherine and rested his head on his arm. When he lay quite still and everything was quiet, he could hear Heero breathing. It was a soothing sound, and eventually it lulled him to sleep.

The next day was a Sunday. Trowa woke, and stretched, and listened for Heero's breathing to make sure the other pilot hadn't died in the night, and then remembered he had no circus work to do today before the matinee performance except feed the lions. He rolled out of bed, pushed his hair aside to give him unobstructed vision out of at least one eye, and went over to check on Heero. Once he'd done everything he could for the unconscious boy, he folded the couch back up, showered and dressed, pretended that a glass of water was breakfast, and wandered out into the circus camp.

Zora Black, the dressage rider, lived four trailers over from Catherine. She had dark red curtains in her windows and was wearing a black dressing gown fringed with red feathers when she opened the door. When Trowa explained that he needed to borrow her car, she yawned and then looked suspiciously at him. "Are you really old enough to drive?"

Trowa resisted the impulse to shrug. He didn't know for certain how old he was, and the years he remembered didn't add up to either a driver's license or a work permit, but he had all the faked papers he needed. "You've seen me drive the truck," he said.

"Hmmmm." Zora looked at him for a long moment, then nodded and winked one dark, long-lashed eye. "All right, I'll get the keys," she said and turned away, only to glance back over her shoulder, where the dressing gown was beginning to slip. Her skin was very pale. "Are you sure you don't want to come in for a little while first? Have some breakfast, maybe?"

"No, thank you." Trowa stayed where he was. "I need to get an early start on my errands to be done in time for the matinee."

"Oh." Zora pouted — the lipstick must have been the second thing she put on, after the dressing gown — and disappeared into her trailer, coming back a few moments later with the car keys dangling from her index finger. Trowa noticed that her nails were painted alternately red and black. "Drive carefully."

Trowa took the keys, and her fingertips brushed his palm. He nodded and turned away, putting the keys into his pocket. Before he did anything else, he'd have to feed the lions, and he headed that way. The big cats were pacing their cages restlessly, and pounced on their meat with dark impatient growls. Despite having told Zora that he needed to make an early start, Trowa waited until the lions had fed and Rex came to the bars, demanding attention. He crouched down and checked carefully that no one was watching before stroking the lion's back and rubbing behind its ears.

There was something soothing about touching warm fur, feeling a living creature respond to the movements of his hands. Trowa wondered what Beau had done wrong. He looked at Rex's jaw, at the massive paws, and knew they could tear him limb from limb. Knew that they wouldn't.

He got up with a final goodbye skritch behind one furry ear and walked off to get Zora's car. It was, as he already knew, black. It was also beat-up and dirty, and Trowa was surprised when he started the engine and it purred smoothly. Zora might not take good care of the outside of her car, but the inside seemed to be working just fine.

There wasn't much traffic, although as he got closer to the hospital he was passed by two ambulances. Once he got there, he guessed that it must be visiting hours because all the parking lots were full and he had to circle for a while before he found a place to park the car. At least parking was free today. Trowa stuffed the car keys into his pocket and headed inside. He wandered around for a while, just another visitor there to see his... colleague, of course, his colleague who had been mauled by a lion. There had been complications, he'd heard from Catherine, though she didn't know what complications exactly.

After a couple of turns around the second-floor wards he had located the right storerooms and set about breaking into the first of them, which had a fairly simple lock. Once inside, he pulled on a janitor's set of coveralls and appropriated a cleaning cart, fitting it with a new plastic garbage sack and bringing an additional couple of sacks to put on top of whatever he would manage to steal. He went out, made sure the door locked behind him, and rolled his cart down the corridor, heading for the next room.

This lock was more difficult, but he looked as though he belonged now, as long as no one paid too close attention to what he was doing, and eventually he got it open. Making sure no one was too close by, rolled his cart inside and began to pack it full of bandages and catheters and heplocks and alcohol swabs and other useful things. He wished he could pack an IV stand, too, but it wasn't feasible — they didn't come apart.

Trowa pushed his now significantly heavier cart out through the door and once again made sure it locked properly behind him. The next storeroom required a keycard and passcode, and he unhooked a dry mop from the cart and pushed it slowly along the floor, keeping an eye out, until a nurse ran her card through the slot and punched her code in. Trowa looked closely at the way her fingers moved. Then he waited until she came back out again and picked her pocket.

He had to move faster now; in the other storerooms he could have explained his presence away, but not here. Strong antibiotics, even stronger painkillers, diluents and soluents and he hoped he wasn't hearing steps outside. Trowa glanced through the crack in the door, saw no one, and went out, stowing everything onto the cart. He heeled the storeroom door shut, wiped the keycard clean of fingerprints, and dropped it a little further down the corridor, where it might very well have fallen out of someone's pocket. Then he headed for the elevators.

Down on the ground floor, no one looked twice at someone in coveralls pushing a cart. He thought it might be best to avoid the main entrance and veered off down a side corridor full of administrative offices until he found a smaller door, locked from the outside but easy enough to open from the inside. Trowa unhooked the plastic sack from the cart and twisted it shut. Someone would come along and find the cart; he wiped it clean of prints, then slung the sack over his shoulder and went outside. He walked quickly, until he got in under the cover of a row of ornamental trees that lined the road, and was glad to be able to turn away into the parking lot.

A family was just leaving, crowding into a station wagon, and he loitered aimlessly for a while until they drove away and he could put the sack in the trunk of Zora's car and strip out of the coveralls. Trowa put them next to the sack — they might come in handy some day. He got into the car and drove off, calculating how long the supplies he had now would last, and where the other hospitals in the area were. At least the circus would be staying in one place for a while, according to the ringmaster, since their performances sold out nightly.

It was possible that Heero really was dead, that Trowa was caring for a breathing body without a mind. But if Heero woke up, he would wake to a new existence, with no more obligations. The rest of them... the rest of them were still who and what they had chosen to be, with all that that entailed. Heero had already given everything he had. He was free.

Trowa made a stop at a convenience store on the way back to pick up a few things; Catherine was going out to dinner with Jack Freimann and a few other people, since they only had the matinee today, no evening performance. He had declined to come along, when Jack had given a grudging invitation. Now he bought vegetables and rice and eggs, and some orange juice, which would make a better breakfast than water. Trowa hoped he would manage to provide Heero with enough nourishment. Although if Heero got hungry enough, perhaps the smell of dinner cooking might wake him.

The groceries went on the passenger seat, and Trowa drove back to the circus. He parked the car where he'd found it, and got the groceries and the coveralls and the big plastic sack and started to carry them back to his trailer. It didn't matter here if someone saw him carry an odd bag or two — as long as he didn't drag along what was obviously a dead body or a nuclear warhead, he could say that he had found materials for a new act and the others wouldn't probe.

The door to Catherine's trailer was closed, and he went past it and into his own. Everything looked the same, and Heero was still breathing. Trowa put the food away, checked on Heero, and tried to work out where to put everything he'd stolen. He was short on time, though, so he ended up just leaving the full trash bag by the side of the bed, hurrying to change into the clothes he was wearing for the afternoon show. The sleeveless shirt, the wide pants he could hide a small army in, the ruff that tickled his neck... the clown half-mask, with its wide painted smile. Trowa picked the mask up, holding it balanced between his palms.

He looked at Heero, who was perfectly unmoving except for the slow rise and fall of his chest. Only the dead were completely free, he thought. Only the dead.

Then Catherine called his name from outside the trailer, and he put on the mask and left.

* * *

"That's all I know." Trowa looked down at his knuckles. It was a little odd. He'd been living with Heero for a while, but Heero hadn't been living with him. When he thought about what had happened during the past month, there was more in his memory about changing IVs and feeding the lions than about world politics and the latest terrorist attacks. "Maybe you have some questions."

"That girl," Heero said. "You trust her?"

Trowa realized Heero must mean Catherine. He drew breath to answer, but just then Catherine elbowed the trailer door open and came inside with a large pot; Trowa could smell cream and vegetable stock and thyme. She put it down on the stove and began to rummage in the cupboards for bowls and spoons. "It's about time you had some real food," she said over her shoulder. "You have to eat carefully, though."

Heero stretched out his arms and looked at them. Trowa could see bruises all over them, on the backs of Heero's hands, above the thumb joints, and up in the crooks of his elbows from the heplocks, but the old ones were healing fast, just as the rest of his body had healed comparatively fast, considering the shape he had been in. Catherine came over and handed Heero a bowl, and he took it in both hands. Steam rose up, obscuring what could be seen of his face under the shock of hair. Trowa looked away and went to the stove to get soup for himself, too. He dumped some cold beans from yesterday's dinner into it and went to sit on the couch. Glancing up at Catherine, he said a quiet, "Thanks."

"Your turn to cook tomorrow," she said with a small smile. Then she turned to Heero. "I'm glad to see you awake. Please, take it easy."

Catherine walked out. Trowa tried the soup. It was good. He looked over at Heero, who was eating slowly and carefully and then pausing to look at the bowl and the spoon, as if surprised. "Is there something wrong with the soup?" Trowa asked.

Heero shook his head. "No." He went on eating.

The beans made a nice addition, but he didn't think they would be good for Heero just yet. Trowa pulled his legs up and sat cross-legged on the couch, balancing the soup bowl on the fingers of his left hand. He could stow away the medical supplies now, what was left of them. It was good that Heero had woken up; Trowa had raided every hospital within driving distance, and they were beginning to tighten up their security. Maybe he'd finally get rid of the smell of disinfectant. The skin on his hands was dry from repeated scrubbing.

Once again Catherine had walked away leaving the trailer door open. The air blowing in was warm; spring had turned to summer here. Heero was very pale, almost as pale as the bandages he was wrapped up in, after a month indoors. Catherine, Trowa thought irrelevantly, had freckles on her nose after hours spent out in the sun. He could hear the radio from her trailer, sounding a little scratchy, playing a popular song. Last night she'd danced to that song out by the fire, first with Trowa and then with Jack Freimann, trying to teach them both some quick, easy steps.

Trowa looked down at the soup left in the bowl. He didn't want any more. When he turned his head the first thing he saw was the music book, lying on the seat of the chair he'd been using as a bedside table. He still didn't have an instrument of his own. Getting up, he poured out the remains of the soup and rinsed the bowl before turning to Heero, who was still eating methodically, one slow spoonful at a time.

"Your clothes are there," Trowa said, tilting his head to indicate a bag at the foot of the bed. "The bathroom's through that door. If you eat too much and make yourself sick, try to keep it off the bed."

Heero shot him a dark look under lowered brows, but dropped the spoon and put the bowl aside. Trowa smiled faintly and went out through the open door.

The music was louder here, and he listened for a moment, seeing in his mind's eye Catherine dancing with Jack, laughing, with her head thrown back. Inside the circle of stones, the ashes of last night's fire were grey and dull. Trowa turned left, going away from the campsite and in under the trees. There was a narrow animal trail that led from the campsite clearing deeper into the woods; foxes would come looking for easy pickings in the garbage, deer to graze the new grass and eat the buds off the Freimanns' potted tulips. Trowa had grown used to the badgers raiding the compost heap, and to the snuffling of hedgehogs as they skittered their stiff-legged way across the grass to crunch snails in the shelter of the trailer's wheels.

Fractured sunshine fell through the branches of the high trees, some of it tinted the pale green of early summer leaves. The brown remains of last year's were turning to mulch under his feet. Trowa couldn't remember paying much attention to the turning of the seasons when he'd lived on earth before, but somehow he must have done so; when he saw small yellow flowers in a bright patch at the foot of a tree, the sight seemed familiar, seemed to belong with this weather and this country and this season.

It was summer, and everything was alive, and Heero was alive again, too.

Trowa vaulted over some large fallen branches, covered in moss and rotting quietly away, and landed on the balls of his feet. His agility had improved through constant training in acrobatics and tightrope-walking. Working at a circus had proven to have some unexpected side benefits. He stepped around a boulder and found some wild strawberries growing on the sunny side; most were greenish-white, but a few had reddened and were sweet in his mouth, though crunchy with seeds.

After a while, he left the animal trail and began to walk at an angle to the sun, strolling along with his hands in his pockets over relatively even ground. He reached a ditch and jumped over it, pushed his way through a thin line of saplings, and came out onto a logging road, hardly more than two broad wheel ruts divided by a band of grass and flowers. Trowa turned right and kept walking. It was much easier going here, and he moved faster. He was beginning to pick out the landmarks he'd memorized, a slight upslope, part of an old ruined stone wall by the side of the road, an unusually large anthill built around the trunk of a tree.

Once he'd passed the anthill, it wasn't far to the gap in the trees on the left side of the road. He stopped and looked: not invisible, but not clearly visible to a casual observer, either. Heavyarms lay in a small clearing, flat on its back like a sleeping giant, covered by camouflage netting and tree branches. Trowa went up to the nearest hand and saw that a raspberry bush was pushing up green shoots between two metal fingers.

He jumped up on the arm and walked along it to the shoulder, stepping onto the chest, bending to tug at the opening in the camouflage net, hitting the buttons to trigger a partial opening of the Gundam's chest.

Slipping inside, Trowa crouched on the back of the pilot seat, looking up at the control panels and screens. The hatch closed behind him, shutting out the sunshine. He'd known all along that this was where he was going, but now he just sat. To tell Doktor S. that Heero was still alive would constitute a betrayal not only of the other pilot, but also of his own intentions in nursing him back to life. At the same time, he had accepted this mission knowing full well he would have to resort to any means possible, knowing it took priority over everything else, including his own life. Including the lives of others.

He tapped a few keys, a startup sequence for Heavyarms' lowest activation level, just enough to let him run a few external sensors and the air recycling program. Just enough to let him make a comm transmission. Trowa sat back and concentrated on picking wild strawberry seeds out of his teeth. He had faint red stains on his fingertips and all over one palm. The seeds were stuck, and he'd have to floss. He needed to make a decision.

Trowa reached out very quickly and entered a comm code he'd long since memorized. Then he held his breath and waited.

The screen flickered to life in a black-and-white scramble and hiss of static. When it cleared, Trowa was looking at the face of the large bearded man, and he almost hit disconnect. "It's you," the man rumbled. "Wait," and he disappeared from view, leaving Trowa to stare at the back of an empty chair.

His finger kept hovering over the disconnect, but he didn't press it, and after a while there was a blur of motion on the viewscreen and then he was looking at Quatre, tousled and out of breath, smiling at him. "Trowa! How are you? Is everything all right?"

Trowa shifted, trying to find a comfortable way to perch on the edge of the seat. The way he was sitting, he was almost sideways to the screen, with the fall of his hair nearly obscuring Quatre from view. He could see, though, that Quatre was wearing a pink shirt with the top two buttons undone, and a vest the same shade of bird's egg almost-blue as his eyes. "I'm fine. Listen." The scramble/descramble sequence was cycling at high speed; there was hardly any transmission lag. "Heero is alive."

Quatre's eyes grew wide, and then he closed them for a moment, and when he opened them again he looked a little different, as though he'd stepped out of a faint shadow into the full light of day. "I'm glad," he said quietly. "I couldn't tell... he's with you?"

Trowa nodded. "He woke up today." There was a wavy blue line at the top of the viewscreen, and he focused on that. "No one else knows."

Leaning towards the viewscreen, Quatre opened his mouth to say something, and then Trowa could see the exact moment when he understood; he sat back again. "Oh." Quatre's eyes grew abstracted. "OZ believes he's dead. That man who gave the order must believe he's dead, too." Trowa nodded. Focusing once more, Quatre's eyes became very clear and very serious. "Trowa, we all chose this. Heero just gets the chance to choose again. Ask him what he wants."

"Choose again." It hadn't been much of a choice, for him, but he understood what Quatre was saying; Heero had the right to make his own choices and follow through on them, as he had done in Siberia. Trowa wasn't going to contact Doktor S., or anyone else besides Quatre. "Yes."

"I'd like to tell Duo, though," Quatre went on. "He's been worried."

"Duo?"

Quatre smiled. "The one with the black Gundam — the one you almost got in a fight with at New Edwards."

"The one who called Heero an idiot for self-destructing." Trowa definitely remembered the black Gundam. He was curious about the thermal blade of the scythe, how it was powered, and the true extent of Deathscythe's stealth abilities. The differences and similarities between the Gundams intrigued him.

"Yes." Quatre shifted in the chair and once again leaned forward, propping his elbows in front of the comm and his chin on his fists. He looked a little different from when Trowa had last seen him, his face a slighty different color, as though he'd spent a lot of time outdoors. "We were both attacking the ground route, and we've been working together on missions since then."

"You've been assigned missions," Trowa said flatly. "Despite the threat to the colonies." He knew it, really — he'd been following the news, after all.

"We get suggestions," Quatre said. "Not orders, exactly, so far. We've been talking about it.... The way things are now, we can pick and choose, we can make our own decisions — we have to make our own decisions. We have to be independent." He blinked. "It's a lot of responsibility, but it's also a kind of freedom."

Trowa shifted as well, turning to face Quatre more directly and tilting his head a little; it occurred to him that with the way the vid pickup was placed, the other pilot might be talking to the out-of-focus top of his head. He took a deep breath. Grass and tree scents from the outside were beginning to filter in. "You know what you're doing might endanger the colonies."

"But doing nothing will mean that nothing changes." The blue wavy line dipped down over Quatre's hair. "We haven't been using the Gundams. The Gundams haven't been seen since Siberia. The only way to use them now without threatening the colonies would be to destroy them during a mission."

"To make it clear that it's a self-destruct. Like Heero." Trowa nodded. Belatedly, he began to tap a few other keys, call up other screens, to run a few diagnostics on Heavyarms as well as check on the status of OZ military activity. He frowned. "Will you and this Duo target the new mobile suit engine factories being built in Egypt?"

"Probably. Duo said he had some ideas about that." Quatre laid his arms down and leaned even closer; the image blurred momentarily as the pickup tried to compensate for the sudden movement. "And you, Trowa, what will you do?"

"I have to make my own choices," he said.

"Of course you do." Quatre must be very close to the screen now; the image Trowa saw seemed to consist entirely of his face, of his clear blue eyes. "Trowa, I know it's no use asking you to be careful, not when we are who we are and do what we do, but," his mouth quirked in a faint smile, "I'm going to do it anyway. Please—"

Trowa's right index finger, which had been hovering over the disconnect all along, seemed to decide to act on its own, and pressed down. Then he pressed another couple of buttons, shutting down communications entirely before Quatre could call him back. He watched the results of the diagnostics scroll up, noting a slight lag time in some of the sensor relays. That would have to be fixed. And he still wasn't sure of the right knee joint; he wanted Heavyarms' body to move for him as smoothly as his own did, to be able to perform the same spins and leaps should it be necessary. Though not, perhaps, tightrope-walking.

As soon as the diagnostics were done, he powered all systems down and triggered the hatch partway open, climbing outside. He had disarranged the branches in that part of the camouflage net climbing in, and now he spent some time making sure that they were nice and neat. Trowa closed the hatch and jumped down off the Gundam's shoulder, landing as Jinx had taught him, knees bending and flexing.

He went back to the logging road. No one used it, he knew that; there was a barrier down by the main road, fastened with a chain and padlock, and the cutting area at the end of the road was a few years old, in a regrowth phase now. Saplings were coming up among the tree stubs and the raspberry bushes. People might still come by on foot, though. He had a hazy idea that it was too early in the year for mushrooms, as well as for raspberries, but the wild strawberries had been sweet and good, and there were people who went walking in the woods just for the pleasure of walking in the woods.

The circus would probably move on soon. The ringmaster had mentioned a possible new engagement, promising more details later.

Trowa turned his back on Heavyarms and walked along the left-hand wheel rut, his legs brushing against long grass leaning in both from the side of the road and from the center. The whispering swish of every step didn't quite fall into a rhythm, since the ground was so uneven. Clouds were flocking in the sky, starting to block the sun; the light was strained, making everything look pale.

He took the same route back, and when he came from a different angle he saw that he'd missed several wild strawberries in that patch behind the rock, but didn't stop to pick them. A dry branch snapped under his foot and a bird took wing, flapping noisily through the branches of a nearby tree; greyish-brown, it had been almost invisible on the ground, and startled him in its flight nearly as much as he had startled it. He was moving faster now, more purposefully than when he'd gone out to Heavyarms. Trowa checked his wristwatch, with its new brown leather strap. He was a little late.

When he came out of the woods, Catherine was standing by the ashes of the fire, right by one of the little three-legged stools, tapping one foot on the ground. "There you are! I asked your friend where you were, but he didn't know." Trowa glanced toward his trailer. "He's been sick on the floor." Trowa took a step in that direction, but was stopped by Catherine's hand on his arm. "He's cleaning it up, and we have to rehearse."

Trowa nodded slow agreement and went with Catherine towards the big top. They could rehearse any time, of course, but not in the ring. He could tell from the set of her shoulders that she was a little unsure of how this would go. People nodded to them along the way — Jinx from the acrobats' practice area, Zora from the door of her trailer. She had been very accomodating, letting Trowa borrow her car whenever he needed it. The last time he'd returned the car keys to her, only a few days ago, she'd invited him to dinner a week from now.

Overhead, the massing clouds had turned darker, and walking into the big tent where all the lights were on made for quite a contrast. The target board was set up in its usual place, and Trowa headed straight for it, placing his back firmly against the wood and spreading his arms as if for crucifixion. He looked at Catherine, who stood at her mark and held her knives, glancing from the blades to Trowa's face and back again. Today she wore silver and red heart-shaped earrings. Trowa closed his eyes and let the back of his head rest against the board. "Is this better?" he asked.

For an answer, he got a whistle of displaced air and a solid thud, and then another and another and another. The knives bit deeply into the wood, and not one of them touched him.

When he'd heard the last knife hit, and stick, he opened his eyes again to look at Catherine, and found her smiling. "Thank you, Trowa."

They did it again and again, repeating the simple sequence until Trowa thought they could probably both do it with their eyes closed. The immobility of his position, the regular swish and thud of the knives, the darkness behind his closed lids all combined to let him drift away from thought, to be empty and still. He had no idea how much time had passed when Catherine finally declared their session to be over; he just stepped away from the board, and stretched, and rolled his shoulders. Trowa opened his eyes, and the world began to come back. He could hear the thrum of a light rain against the tent canvas.

Together with a couple of the circus hands, they took the board down. The next act to rehearse in the ring would be Olga and Lena and their trained poodles. A few excited yips behind the curtain were quickly hushed into silence. Catherine, who liked the poodles, stayed to watch.

Trowa stepped out into the rain and wandered back to his trailer. The encampment looked almost empty now, as people had retreated indoors, but lights shone in a number of trailer windows. Not in his own, though. He pushed the door open carefully and saw when he stepped inside that Heero was lying in the bed, fast asleep and breathing deeply. There was an empty bucket by the head of the bed, and a faint smell of cleaning liquid in the air.

The pot with the remaining soup still stood on the stove. Trowa looked at it and thought he might heat it up later, if he felt hungry, or if Heero woke up and wanted to try food again. He went to sit on the couch and turned on the small lamp there; over on the bed, Heero shifted, but didn't wake. Trowa leaned back against the armrest and the wall and kicked his shoes off, stretching his legs out. Rain spattered the window over the back of the couch in a slow cadence, like an irregular heartbeat.

He picked up the music book from the chair seat and held it between his hands for a while before letting it fall open. He had read his way through the whole thing now, sounding out each note in his head, sometimes whistling or humming to himself. There were two songs he returned to more often than the others. One was a pavane, whatever that was, a slow and deliberate piece that sounded like the movement of stars in the sky, and the other was the first song in the book, the waltz that he had begun to pick out that evening in San Francisco, on the beach.

By now he knew both of them very well, and didn't really need to look at the printed notes. He often found the melodies running through his head, and now, as the book fell open to the pavane, that was what he heard inside: the clear low sound of a flute, playing. A pavane must be some kind of dance, because all the music in this book was old-fashioned dance music. Trowa ran his hand along the page, following the notes as though he could read them through his fingertips.

When the song ended, he closed the book and let his head fall back, too, against the wall; the book rested on his chest, held there by his crossed arms. He wasn't meaning for it to happen, but the waltz began to sound itself out, each note a dark-gold curl shaved off by the precise motion of a bow — a violin playing, not a flute. Trowa closed his eyes, and the violin played for him, and the rain fell, and its light beat seemed as heavy as the sound of Catherine's knives finding their target, and just as inescapable.

* * *

Maybe Heero was right, and dying hurt like hell. He didn't know. But he did know that living hurt, too.

Trowa sat on the steps leading up to the trailer, elbows on his knees, hands hanging uselessly empty. He stared at the ground, at muddy wheelprints and gravel. There was almost no grass at this campsite, and only a few trees. The trailers and wagons were set up the same way, but everything looked different. The entire left side of his face ached. Catherine packed a mean punch.

He felt bruised all over, inside and out. The sounds of the circus camp around him seemed faint and distant. Trowa let his eyes go in and out of focus. It was very late, or very early; he could smell dawn in the air. Last night he'd thought to end it all, and here he was, and nothing was over. The windows of Catherine's trailer were dark. OZ soldiers had rousted her out of bed twice, searching for the Gundam pilot who had disrupted last night's performance.

The trailer door stood ajar behind him, and Trowa knew Heero was in there, knew it until the moment Heero stepped outside and sat down next to him. The steps were a narrow fit for two, and they were shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee. Glancing sideways, Trowa saw that Heero had peeled off most of his bandages. The skin underneath looked as smooth as unbruised flower petals.

"I've decided what to do," Heero said. There was more color in his face now; he had no trouble with solid food and was curiously strong for someone who hadn't used his muscles for a month.

A mosquito settled on Heero's bare leg just above the knee. Heero didn't react as he was bitten, and Trowa watched the small translucent insect body swell and change color with the blood. When the mosquito flew away again, Trowa asked, "What?" Heero didn't react to that either, but he persisted. "What have you decided?"

"I'm going to find General Noventa's family."

Trowa didn't think he'd had any expectations, but he must have had, as that statement was not something he had expected. He turned his head a little, so that he could see Heero's profile, rather than his knees. It told him nothing. "Why?"

Heero was staring straight ahead, brows drawn down under his tousled hair. "To offer them vengeance for what I did." Suddenly his gun was in his hand; Trowa had barely seen his arm move. "To offer them this."

A breeze was coming up, and the dawn with it. Sunrise had not yet arrived, just a thin grey light breaking up the blackness of the sky. Trowa felt cold. "You got your life back. I didn't realize this would be what you wanted to do with it."

The gun disappeared again. "You said it... I'm already dead. This way it will mean something, to them at least."

A bird chirped, then another. Trowa felt a little light-headed. He hadn't expected Heero to follow the circus, either; he hadn't expected to see Heero ever again. He stared at his toes for a while and listened to the rising dawn chorus. There was a distant growl from the animal tent; the big cats were waking up, too, though they'd go back to sleep again until their feeding time. He drew a deeper breath, the kind that went along with decisions. "I'll come with you."

"You have a place here," Heero said. The light was changing as the sun finally rose, greyness replaced by color. A few strands in Heero's dark hair took on a dull brownish-gold tinge, like unpolished bronze. "With these people."

"OZ will be keeping a close eye on them now." Trowa weighed his words, studying Heero's rather hard profile, which was not at all softened by that thick fall of shining hair. "They all know."

Heero's expression didn't change. "Do you think they're a security risk?"

All the birds started singing at once, a mad, unstructured, joyful sound, as the sun cleared the treetops and the red canvas of the big top caught the light and shone like fire. Trowa stretched one leg out and rested his arms on the other knee. He reviewed his mission orders about anyone who saw him and his Gundam, about anyone who might be a security risk.

"No." He thought about Catherine, and about the ringmaster, and Jinx, and Zora, and Jack Freimann. They all knew. They'd all lied to the soldiers without a moment's hesitation. "No, they're not."

"Good." Heero stood up and stretched. "Do you have a truck to load the Gundam on?"

Trowa nodded and got to his feet as well. The air smelled differently now that the sun was up. His fingers were cold. The two of them walked through the encampment of circus trailers, and Trowa noticed that the gravel barely crunched under Heero's feet, or under his own. When they passed the Freimanns, the smell of coffee came from a half-open window, but the curtains were still drawn. Trowa picked up the pace ever so slightly.

The truck was parked with all the other circus trucks in an area on the other side of the big top. Bigger than the others, and a flatbed truck rather than covered, it should have stood out to the OZ soldiers. At some point last night, though, someone had loaded it with piles of support struts, a couple of large empty animal cages set right over the scratches left by gundanium armor, a number of limp strings of flags and streamers that should have been thrown away, and two boxes of tools in an empty area in the middle, suggesting repair jobs in progress. Trowa suspected Jinx's quick thinking behind it. He went in search of the fork-lift truck, finding it parked a good distance away.

They began to unload everything, all the circus camouflage. Trowa used the forklift to shift the cages, watching sideways through his hair as Heero moved metal support struts as though they weighed next to nothing. In the old days, many circuses had strongmen who amazed the audience with their feats of physical power. Maybe he should suggest a possible future career for Heero. He was surprised to feel that he was very nearly smiling, but as soon as he noticed it, the smile and the feeling that had made him want to smile went away. Not even the sight of Heero festooned with yards and yards of red streamers could bring it back.

Shadows had shortened by the time they were done, though the sunshine was not truly warm yet. It was a cloudless morning, as if the sky had been scoured clean, scrubbed down to a light unconcerned blue. Trowa parked the forklift truck where he'd found it and jumped out, and walked back to where Heero was standing on the truck bed, rubbing at the scratches with one scuffed sneaker toe.

Movement glimpsed in the corner of his eye distracted him, and he slowed, turning his head. Zora Black came walking briskly through the cool morning air; she was heading for her car, Trowa guessed, but when she saw him she changed direction and came towards him instead. She was very pale in daylight, without makeup. The skin under her eyes looked bruised. When she came up to him, she looked from him to the truck and back again. "You're leaving?"

"In a little while," Trowa said.

Zora nodded. Now that they were standing on level ground together and she wasn't wearing heels, Trowa noticed that she was barely any taller than he was. With her face scrubbed clean, she didn't look much older, either. "Take care of yourself," she said. "And don't forget to come back." She placed one finger under his chin, firmly enough that her nail — one of the red ones — bit into his skin, and brushed a light kiss over his mouth. Then she smiled and walked away.

Trowa blinked, and put his fingers to his lower lip for a moment, then shook off the odd sensation and turned back to the truck and Heero. Heero sat on the edge of the truck bed, legs dangling, and watched as Trowa approached. "Keys," he said, not quite a question. Trowa nodded. Heero jumped down, and they both got into the truck, Trowa in the driver's seat. He backed the truck up and waited for Zora's car to drive away. Heero glanced at him. "Does she usually do that?"

Not knowing what to say, Trowa just shook his head, and drove.

The road was empty. It wasn't far to where he'd hidden Heavyarms; there hadn't been time for much stealth during the confusion of last night. Trowa made an abrupt left turn and pulled up by the riverbank. When he killed the engine, he heard birdsong again. He opened the truck door, then leaned around the seat and began to tug at the tarp he'd stowed away, its heavy folds less than perfectly neat. Heero pushed from the other side until the ungainly bundle tumbled out onto the grass and Trowa jumped down after it.

He clambered up the muddy, slippery riverbank and looked down at the moving water. Trowa knew exactly how icy it was, mountain-fed, slowed down now from its spring-time rush. It was also very clear in daylight, and he could see glimpses of red and white below the surface; this was not a good hiding place at all. He toed off his shoes, wriggled out of his jeans, and put the sweater down on top of them. Then he took a deep breath and dove, slicing through the surface of the water and down into the cold silence below.

As he swam towards Heavyarms, memories of a story he'd once heard whispered at the back of his mind: a warrior-king buried in a riverbed with all his treasure, and all who had worked to divert the river and dig the grave put to death, to keep the location a secret. Trowa blinked, cold water running over his eyes. He kicked against the current, coming closer and closer to his own buried warrior. A humanoid design brought with it its own inevitable associations: standing, a powered-down mobile suit was still a menacing sentinel, but lying down, it seemed dead.

Trowa grabbed the shoulder plates and worked his way hand over hand to the chest. He triggered the release sequence for the exterior hatch, slipped into the narrow lock space, closed the hatch and cycled the water out. Then he opened the interior hatch and swung himself damply into the cockpit, careful not to drip on the instrument panels. He strapped himself into the pilot seat, feeling a little odd lying on his back with his knees drawn up, and began to power up Heavyarms. A quick diagnostic showed that the damage from last night was less serious than he had first thought; he could repair it easily enough given a little time and a few tools.

The comm screen lit up: there was a message waiting. Trowa looked at the flashing notification icon. It might be a mission. It might be urgent. He powered up the engines, flexed his fingers and then gripped the controls, and slowly, ponderously, Heavyarms rose to its feet and began to walk towards the riverbank. Trowa checked the external sensors. Apart from Heero, there was no living creature larger than a rabbit nearby. The Gundam's head rose above the river, then the shoulders, then the chest, water sheeting off the plates. Scattered drops shone like crystal in the sun, even through a small viewscreen.

Trowa took Heavyarms up on the riverbank, feeling the soft earth give under the Gundam's massive feet. Stepping down on the even ground next to the trailer, he stretched the Gundam's arms out and began to tap at a small side panel, raising the temperature of the external plates to make the water evaporate faster. Driving around with a large dripping wet object under a tarp might draw unnecessary attention.

The temperature in the cockpit was supposed to be completely unaffected by external conditions, but Trowa had noticed on several occasions that due to some internal routing glitch, heating Heavyarms' plates turned the cockpit into a sauna; he'd spent a lot of time trying to fix that particular problem. As a cloud of steam rose around Heavyarms, Trowa wiped the sweat off his forehead. One drop trickled into his eye, and the blinking red light on the comm screen blurred.

Heero was sitting on the bed of the truck again, hands resting on the edge, legs dangling, but when Heavyarms was dry he jumped down out of the way, and Trowa maneuvered the mobile suit into lying down flat on the truck bed. He shut down the heavy engines, put most of the external sensor systems on standby, and ran through the usual post-flight checks, out of sheer habit, even though the 'flight' had been a walk of thirty meters out of the river and up to the truck. The red icon kept blinking. Trowa mentally ran through the combination of keystrokes that would make it stop and permanently delete the message. He stared at it, and it stared redly back.

Movement on the two still-active external viewscreens finally distracted him. It was Heero, climbing up on the truck bed, and then up on Heavyarms. Trowa heard the exterior hatch open, a short pause, and then the interior one, and Heero was looking down at him, effortlessly supporting himself spreadeagled in the half-open door-hatch. "I thought you'd found a malfunction," Heero said, eyes moving from Trowa to those screens he could see from his position. Everything was clear except for the comm screen. Heero reached down and tapped it. "Incoming mission?"

Either there was a system malfunction, or Heero had deliberately brushed the edge of his hand against the corner of the panel as he pulled back. The red icon stopped blinking, and the message began to play. After a moment of blue static, Trowa saw Quatre, looking pale and severe in a white shirt and neatly tied black cravat. "Tr—"

Trowa hit the pause button. He looked up at Heero. "No. This is not a mission."

They looked at each other for a while, in heavy silence, and then Heero gave a curt nod and climbed back out, closing the hatch as he went. It was cooler in the cockpit now as fresh air had come in from the outside, but Trowa tapped a key sequence for better ventilation all the same. He looked at the screen where Quatre's face was caught in the middle of speech, fuzzy in stillness as it had not been in motion. Then he pressed play again.

"—owa." Quatre paused, but he didn't look down or to the side; he was staring at the vid pickup as though he were trying to see into Trowa's head. His eyes were unusually light, washed out by the white shirt, but intense. "Do you realize, if you were here, I'd do my best to knock you through the nearest wall?" Trowa blinked. "First Heero, then you. Random self-destruction is not an efficient use of colony resources. There is a difference between being willing to die for your cause, and cheerfully going off to do it at the slightest provocation—" Quatre broke off. This, it occurred to Trowa, was probably what Quatre looked like when he was angry. "This war is changing me," he said more quietly.

Once again, Trowa hit the pause button, and scrambled upright, sitting on the edge of the seat and dangling his feet. He reached up and opened the hatch partway, and climbed out. The air outside was much cooler, and he came close to shivering when it first hit his skin. Trowa looked around. This stretch of riverbank was still quiet and deserted. Heero stood up on the bank, looking down at the river; at his feet was the pile of Trowa's clothes. Trowa climbed down along Heavyarms' shoulder and arm. Bare feet gave him a much better grip on the plates, which still held residual warmth from their previous heating. He jumped down from the truck bed and climbed the riverbank again, feeling wet grass stick between his toes.

Heero turned his head as Trowa approached, but didn't move. Trowa picked up his turtleneck and pulled it on, then began to tug on his jeans; his legs were still a little damp with river water and sweat. He wondered if Catherine was angry enough to have taken his clean towels away. The tears she'd cried for him had been hot and furious. He glanced at Heero, who frowned a little before speaking. "That was one of the other pilots."

Trowa nodded. "His name is Quatre." He picked up his socks and shoes. It was more comfortable to go barefoot here on the grass. "We can go back," he took a deep breath, "as soon as I've listened to the rest of that message."

The river ran smoothly and deeply, its current slow. Near the bank on the other side was a swan, foraging grey-necked along the bottom. The look Heero shot him was a sideways one through a tangle of hair, and Trowa knew about those. He carried his shoes down the riverbank. Heero didn't follow. Trowa looked up at Heavyarms, and then up at the sky, wondering about military planes, having random thoughts about satellite surveillance. He hadn't made it out of last night's debacle alive and uncaptured only to be found like this. The tarp had to go on, soon. But first, and he squared his shoulders, he had to listen to Quatre.

He climbed up again and slid in through the hatches, perching once again on the edge of the seat inside the cockpit, looking up at the screens. The cravat and shirt looked like part of a school uniform. The background was difficult to make out — a shadowed wall, some dark furniture. Trowa breathed in, and hit play.

Quatre's eyes came into focus, but he didn't move or speak for so long that Trowa checked that the recording was indeed running. "I'm sorry, Trowa," he said finally. "Maybe I should erase this and start over. But when we talked about choices, did you think about this?" Now he looked down, just a momentary sweep of eyelashes. "I might have to make the same choice one day, and I wouldn't want someone to rail at me and call it meaningless. But Trowa..." Quatre looked up, and everything else still looked washed out, but not his eyes, not any more. "You're my friend, and I would have missed you."

There was a scuffle in the background; Trowa looked around before realizing it came from the recording. "Quatre!" someone called, and then again, closer, "Quatre, you said ten minutes and it's been half an hour, what are you doing?" American English, with a colony accent, Trowa thought. "We have to go, we're late."

Quatre turned his head. "I'm recording a message—"

"So send it already." The owner of the voice came within range of the vid pickup by dint of leaning on Quatre's shoulder, which made his long braid fall forward across both of them. It was the Deathscythe pilot, Duo, whose face Trowa had only seen briefly in comm transmissions at New Edwards and in Siberia. He was also wearing a white shirt in the same style, though his black cravat was untied; he looked cheerful, but preoccupied, even as he grabbed Quatre's hand and dragged it, index finger extended, down towards the controls Trowa couldn't see but knew were there. "Hit the button and let's get moving, cause school trip buses wait for no—"

The transmission cut off, and Trowa was left staring at a blank screen.

He shut down all systems, brushed the grass from between his toes, and put on his socks and shoes. Climbing out of the darkened cockpit, he blinked into the sunshine. Heero was standing on the ground below him. Trowa gestured at the tarp and ropes Heero had started to lay out, and together they managed to get Heavyarms covered up and secured. The grass that had been flattened by Heavyarms' feet was beginning to rise again, hiding the prints the Gundam had made in the rain-soft earth.

They got into the truck and Trowa drove back to the circus. Only now did it occur to him that they should have taken their things along and left the area as soon as they'd recovered Heavyarms from the river. Going back was dangerous. It wasn't as though he had much to pack, and Heero, Trowa knew, had next to nothing. OZ might decide that last night's explanations had been insufficient and come back at any moment.

The parking lot looked just as it had when they'd left, and so did the rest of the camp. Trowa parked the truck and looked at Heero. "I'll be right back," he said. Heero nodded.

He'd meant to go straight to the trailer Heero had brought here, but instead he turned right past the line of parked cars, walking slowly over the gravel until he got to the lion cages. It was a new place, but the smells were the same. Trowa went up to Rex's cage and knelt by the bars, and after a little while the big lion turned away from his pacing and looked at Trowa through the bars with eyes like polished glass before bending his head, demanding to be touched.

Fur against the palms of his hands. Trowa closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the nearest metal bar; it was cold as river water against his skin. He felt Rex shift under his hands and knew his face was only inches away from the jaws that had ripped Beau's arm off. Shifting, too, he pressed closer until he could bury his face in the lion's mane. Gravel bit through the knees of his jeans. He rubbed his face into the raw scent of male lion. Then he pulled back and sneezed, and Rex harrumbled at him.

Footsteps crunched on the gravel. Trowa turned around to see the ringmaster approaching, and got to his feet, brushing lion fur out of his face with the end of his sleeve. "You have to find someone else to feed the lions," he said.

"You're leaving?" The ringmaster frowned. Trowa nodded. "You don't have to leave. I don't think the soldiers will be back. We're moving on later today to a new engagement. And we need you. Beau's barely out of the hospital, he can't work yet, and he can't take your place in all the new acts. I hired you to work, not to run off on your own every week."

"So don't pay me." Trowa brushed his fingertips against Rex' ear, then turned and walked away from the lion cage. "I have to go."

The ringmaster followed him all the way through the camp, talking about work and responsibilities and new acts and the lions. Trowa didn't listen. He walked along with his hands in his pockets, feeling the morning sun on his face, warmer now. There was a stronger smell of coffee in the air. The trailer, when he reached it, was unlocked, and he walked inside and looked around. The sheets had been stripped off the bed; the sink was empty and dry. When he checked the refrigerator, that too was empty. Trowa went into the bathroom. No towels. So much for a shower.

He couldn't imagine Heero scrubbing out the vegetable bin. This had to be Catherine's way of telling him that she knew he had to leave. Trowa got his few spare items of clothing and stuffed them into a canvas bag. All his dirty laundry was in Catherine's trailer, and so was his toothbrush. He closed the bag, and then stood in the middle of the trailer for a while and thought. After a while, he picked up the music book in his free hand and went outside.

Catherine was standing on the steps to her trailer now, talking to the ringmaster. They broke off when they saw him. Trowa dropped his bag on the ground and went up to Catherine, holding out the music book carefully in both hands. "Will you...."

She nodded. Her eyes were soft, last night's anger burned out. "I'll take care of it for you." Trowa waited while she went inside, waited until she came back out again, giving him his toothbrush in return, a small exchange in an odd barter system. She was wearing the star earrings again. Closing the trailer door, she came down the steps and looked at him for a long moment. Trowa picked up his bag again, and they all began to walk towards the parking lot.

* * *

It was hot.

They'd crossed over from Reggio di Calabria to Messina, after a long argument about putting a truck that size on a car ferry that size that had resulted in long-term parking and car theft. Trowa hoped the parking lot attendants wouldn't even think about looking under the tarp.

Now they drove south along the coast in someone's beat-up old Fiat, without air conditioning. The road ran through tunnel after tunnel. The sea, when they could see it, was a clearer shade of blue than Heero's eyes. They stopped for gas in Taormina, and Trowa wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. While Heero filled up the gas tank, he went across the road to a small hole-in-the-wall store and bought two bottles of water and some fruit from a girl in a red dress. She tossed a pile of paper napkins into the bag and smiled at him.

He went outside, and the sun fell on him again, as much weight as heat. Heero, currently checking the air pressure in the Fiat's somewhat worn tires, was better dressed for this climate, but the tank top clung darkly over his breastbone. They'd barely slept since Marseilles, taking turns at the wheel along the Riviera and into Italy. The landscape he'd passed through was beginning to blur in his mind's eye. He remembered the large houses in Monaco, the steep coastal road just north of La Spezia, and the beach somewhere between Pisa and Livorno where they'd stopped for food and had ended up walking into the water, walking forever on soft white sand until the sea deepened and they'd floated on the waves for short moments before getting back in the truck and moving on. Terraced vineyards, spiky cypresses, dry yellow grass. Remembered driving over the silty brown Tiber, and after that it had gotten too dark to see more than the road and the oncoming cars.

Trowa suppressed a yawn, feeling it pull at his throat muscles, and walked back to the dusty car. Heero straightened up, turned around, and tossed the car keys to him. In return, Trowa passed him a bottle of water and went round to the driver's side. As he pulled out from the gas station, he saw the girl in the red dress wave from across the street.

There was one more tunnel just past Taormina, and after that, they were driving along the foot of Etna. It looked very peaceful, for a volcano. Trowa flexed his fingers against the hot plastic of the steering wheel and took the open water bottle out of Heero's hand, drinking deeply. "There are plums in that bag," he said, nodding. The plums lasted all the way to Catania, and they wiped their sticky fingers on the paper napkins.

In Catania, they turned inland, away from the sea, driving on increasingly narrow roads through sloping fields in endless shades of gold and brown and not-quite-green. The olive trees looked dusty. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. The cattle grazing along the hillsides looked like black cutout silhouettes. "Turn left here," Heero said, pointing at a private road that led up between two low stone pillars. On top of one of them stood a cracked decorative urn; the other was empty.

The road led up to a large, square, clunky farmhouse. All the shutters were closed. Two brown hens were standing in the shade of a gnarled olive tree, watching a third that had ventured into the sunlight. A cat slept peacefully in a dry marble birdbath, its white-tipped tail hanging over the edge. Trowa glanced sideways at Heero. "Are you sure this is the right place?"

Heero nodded, not quite as assuredly as usual; Trowa turned off the engine and they could hear the countryside silence through the open car windows, a breeze in the leaves, the hen strutting across the yard, the lazy sound of cicadas. They got out of the car. Trowa felt damp and sticky. Sweat was running down the back of his neck, and there was plum juice on his fingers. Looking at Heero, he saw that Heero's hair was beginning to cling in little darkened curls to his forehead and temples. When they shut the car doors, the cat woke up and eyed them sleepily over the rim of the birdbath.

There was a paved path to the left of the house. Heero stalked forward, sending the hen scuttling nervously into the shade. Trowa locked the car, then lengthened his stride to catch up. The cat jumped out of the birdbath and came with them.

They came out onto a patio of slightly uneven flagstones. A table and five chairs stood in the shade of a canvas awning. A brown-haired woman dressed in black was putting flowers in a vase on the table. She looked up as she heard their footsteps, and came around the table to face them, still holding a pale purple flower. "Who are you?" she asked in Italian, then shook her head quickly and switched to English. "You must be Heero Yuy. Sylvia called and told me about you. I'm afraid my Japanese is very bad...." Her eyes moved quickly to Trowa, and he thought she was seeing both his dirty socks and the traces of plum juice on his hands. "Who is your friend?"

"Anna Maria Noventa." Heero ignored her question. "I killed your husband." The gun was in his hand once again, and he held it out.

She looked at him, and looked at the gun, and lifted the hand that held the flower, as though suggesting an exchange. Then she turned and put the flower with the others in the vase, and said over her shoulder, "Put that thing away. Sit down, both of you." Mrs. Noventa brushed her hands against her black skirt. "I'll be right back." The heels of her black shoes clicked against the flagstones as she walked across the patio and into the house.

The cat was batting at one of Heero's shoelaces. Heero stood almost at attention, ignoring it. Trowa pulled out a chair and sat down in the shade, looking out over the sloping hillside; he could see more flowers like the ones Mrs. Noventa had picked, growing around an old well, and beyond that olive trees and more olive trees. The sound of cicadas droning made him want to go to sleep. "I don't think she's going to shoot you," he said. Heero didn't move.

Through the open door came a sound of rattling crockery and glass. Mrs. Noventa came back carrying a tray with a large covered bowl, plates and cutlery and glasses, and a high-necked water carafe. She put the tray on the table and fixed Heero with a clear, soft gaze. "Sit down," she repeated. "I want to talk to you, Heero Yuy."

Heero sat.

Mrs. Noventa poured water in two glasses and set them down in front of Heero and Trowa. She uncovered the bowl and a cloud of steam rose, bringing with it a scent of garlic and tomatoes. "So," she said, picking up a plate and beginning to ladle food onto it, "why did you kill my husband, Heero?"

"My mission was to eliminate the leaders of OZ," Heero said. "I thought they were on that plane. The information was false."

"Where did you get the information?" Mrs. Noventa put a full plate in front of Heero, and picked up a second plate. Her movements were brisk and efficient, and her spine was very straight. Trowa wondered if she had been in the army, too.

"OZ military channels."

Mrs. Noventa nodded. She handed the second plate to Trowa: it was pasta with some kind of eggplant sauce. Eggplant had never appealed to him, but they hadn't eaten much since Marseilles, just stopping to grab a sandwich here and some fruit there. "So it was Treize Khushrenada who killed my husband, and you were the weapon he wielded to do it."

Heero's face was impassive, but something flickered deep in his eyes. "I did it," he said, flexing his fingers. "It was my hand—"

Mrs. Noventa placed a fork in that hand and closed his fingers around it. "Eat." She finally sat down herself and took a sip of water,and shook her head. "You're too young to be a soldier, Heero Yuy."

"I've been a soldier all my life," Heero said flatly.

"Yes. That's what I mean." Mrs. Noventa darted a quick look at Trowa, who bent his head and started to eat. The eggplant tasted better than it looked. Much better. "So was my husband. It took many years for him to understand that he could be other things, too. That peace can create time and space for other possibilities."

Trowa went on eating eggplant and pasta, listening as Mrs. Noventa talked about her husband, about how they had lived together in this house. About the olive harvest. He would have thought that hot food was the last thing he wanted, but sitting in the shade, he could eat it, and the eggplant was really quite good. While he ate he looked at the cat, choosing a spot half in, half out of the sun to lie in, and at the open back door, where a muddy pair of work boots stood, waiting to be cleaned. They were much too big to be Mrs. Noventa's, and Trowa realized they must have been standing there for a month and a half, ever since the general was killed.

The food slowed his thoughts down. He looked at Heero, who was once again offering his life in repayment for what he'd done, speaking through a mouthful of pasta. He looked at Mrs. Noventa, and knew she wouldn't pull the trigger. And really, Trowa thought, sipping at his water, how would a corpse on her patio and blood pooling on the flagstones make things any better for her? Trowa understood Heero's offer, at least he thought he did, and the strength and unswerving singlemindedness of it sometimes made him feel all hollow inside, but he wondered what he would do if someone actually took Heero up on it.

"I owe this to you," Heero said.

Mrs. Noventa's eyes grew sharp. "What you owe me, Heero Yuy," she said, "is peace, and you can't give me that if you're dead."

"I don't know peace," Heero said, putting his fork down on his empty plate. Trowa looked down to find that he had finished his portion, too. "I only know war."

"Then you're going to have to learn. You have the name of a pacifist, after all." There was a muted beep, and Mrs. Noventa leaned back in her chair and dug a cell phone out of her skirt pocket. "Pronto!" Trowa kept his face impassive; she didn't know he knew Italian. "Already? I'm glad you warned me, everything is absolute chaos here.... Drive slowly, Angela, please, then everything will be ready when you come! Yes, of course. No. No, not at all. Give my love to Roberto, and I'll see you in a little while." She snapped the phone shut and switched back to English. "You have to leave. Quickly."

Trowa got to his feet. He stacked his plate on top of Heero's and put both of them on the tray, and then their glasses as well. Heero rose, too. "This is your last chance to change your mind," he said. Then he looked down in something like surprise as the cat came bounding over and began to bat at his shoelaces again.

"I hope you enjoyed the food." Anna Maria Noventa rose from her chair and walked up to Heero. She was half a head taller, and her shining brown hair in its braided knot looked like a crown. "I want you to take good care of yourself, Heero. I want you to remember what you owe me. What you owe yourself." She stepped forward and put her arms around him, and Trowa saw Heero's spine stiffen and his eyes narrow, though he made no move to avoid the embrace.

Trowa picked up the tray and carried it indoors. Inside the back door and to the right was a large, shadowy kitchen. He set the tray on an empty countertop and quickly rinsed off one of the plates and one of the glasses, dried them, and put them in what he hoped was the right cupboard. When he came back outside, Heero and Mrs. Noventa were a foot apart again, staring seriously at each other. He went up to Heero. "Let's go, then."

Breaking the eye contact with Mrs. Noventa, Heero nodded and turned to go. Trowa was about to follow when he realized that Mrs. Noventa had turned her head to look at him instead, with almost the same focus and intensity. To his surprise, she smiled, and the lines that appeared around her eyes and mouth redrew her face, making it beautiful. "I'm glad he has a friend," she said.

The cat butted its head against Trowa's ankle. He bent down and stroked it, once, getting away from Anna Maria Noventa's eyes, and then went after Heero. The shadow of the olive tree had moved and the hens with it, except the adventurous one, which was sitting on the roof of the car. Trowa dug the car keys out of his pocket and opened the door on the driver's side, then shooed the hen off the car before getting in. Stale, hot air flowed over him. Heero got in on the other side and immediately rolled the window all the way down. Not even he was entirely immune to this kind of discomfort.

When Trowa started the car, the hens scattered. He managed to back up and turn without hitting the birdbath, drove down the hill and out between the stone pillars, and turned back the way they'd come. The sun had moved, and long cypress shadows spiked across the fields. They hadn't gone five minutes when they met an open military jeep driven by a woman in a sundress, a uniformed man sitting next to her. Trowa drove a little faster. "Is there any water left?"

Heero nodded and picked up the second water bottle from somewhere down by his feet. The water was lukewarm, and the temperature brought out the metallic undertaste. Trowa kept drinking all the same, washing away the taste of eggplant and garlic. After a while he passed the half-empty bottle back to Heero and downshifted around a sharp curve. Mrs. Noventa wasn't going to send anyone after them. He might as well slow down. There was a small marker by the side of the road, hung with wilting flowers: a memorial to a dead driver. Something moved in the shade behind the marker. Trowa thought it looked like a rabbit.

Next time, Trowa decided, they would steal a car with air conditioning. Heero was drinking the rest of the water in long greedy swallows. When the bottle was empty he put it down and turned his head to look at Trowa. "There's a turn-off to the right just before we get back to the bigger road. She said there was a house there we could stay in overnight."

It wasn't late. It was only afternoon, not really evening yet. But neither of them had slept well the previous night, curled up in the small space behind the seat of the truck. It had reminded Trowa of the chilly night he'd spent in a parking lot in San Francisco, and that had made him think of Quatre, and he'd spent the hours he was supposed to be sleeping thinking about Quatre's words in the vid message. Quatre had said Trowa was his friend. Mrs. Noventa had said Trowa was Heero's friend.

"We don't have any more water."

"She said there is running water and food." Heero's tone, almost uninflected, still managed to convey that he thought Mrs. Noventa had been telling the truth. Trowa saw no reason to doubt it, either. She had fed them. She hadn't shot Heero. He checked the landmarks and slowed down, looking for the turn-off.

The road, when he found it, was in worse condition than the one that led to the Noventas' house, and their car didn't have much in the way of suspension. When they bounced into and out of a pothole, Heero's brows drew together as though he were wishing he'd chosen to drive himself. Trowa ignored him. He navigated the next few bends and turns and then stepped abruptly on the brakes to avoid a rabbit sitting in the middle of the road. The rabbit stared blankly at them for long moments before scuttling off into a tangle of yellowing grass and low dusty bushes.

Heero's scowl intensified. Trowa looked sideways at him before getting the car moving again. "You said there was food. Roadkill's not my favorite."

That got a snort out of Heero that didn't sound wholly unamused, and the scowl eased. The road turned sharply to the left and then faded out into a grass-and-gravel open space in front of a one-story building that looked more like a small storehouse than a place to live. Trowa parked the car, and they got out. There were only two tiny windows, both shuttered, and the dirty white paint on the walls was peeling. Heero went up and unlocked the door, and Trowa wondered what else Mrs. Noventa had given Heero, or tried to give Heero, when they'd been alone together. Heero was not an easy person to give things to.

Inside, it was cool and dark, and smelled of still air and a little dust. Trowa searched for a light switch, but then sunlight flooded in as Heero opened the back door as well. Together, they opened windows and shutters, let air and light into the house. It was all one room, with three low sturdy beds on one side and a kitchen area with sink and stove and kitchen table and chairs on the other. Trowa went out the back door and found a small open area and a view, between trees, of more fields and olive groves. He turned back to see Heero crouched down by the small freezer. Over Heero's shoulder he could make out neatly labelled packages and boxes. It didn't look as though they would starve. On the other hand.... "There's no bathroom."

Heero shrugged.

They took turns stripping and washing by the kitchen sink. Heero had discarded most of his bandages by now, and the wounds hadn't left any scars. He still favored his bound left arm, though. Trowa found apples and pears in the fridge, and a small shelf of books over by the beds, all of them in Italian. He picked out one called Il Gattopardo, took two apples with him, and went outside, wearing his jeans, but leaving his shirt behind.

There was a block of cut stone not far from the back door, just sitting there in the grass, as if someone had meant to build something with it and then gotten distracted. Trowa sat on the ground, mostly shaded by tree branches, and leaned back against the stone, feeling its irregularities dig into the bare skin of his back. Heero came to sit in the open back door and clean his gun. Trowa opened the book and began to read, surrounded by the hum of cicadas and the comforting scents of hot earth and gun oil.

Nothing disturbed them during the afternoon and evening. Around sunset, they thawed and heated some stew — rabbit stew, Trowa noticed, and smiled a little to himself. There were frozen bread rolls, too, that tasted almost like fresh after some time in the oven. After they'd eaten, it was too dark to sit outside and read, but Trowa sat outside all the same with the book lying by his feet, a straw of grass marking his place. Heero ate a pear and flung the thin remains of the core out into the woods; something moved in a startled rustle of leaves and branches. Trowa looked up at the stars.

Later, Heero vanished around the corner of the house, came back and went inside. Trowa knew he should go to bed, too. Fatigue lay along his shoulders and down his arms; sleepiness made his head feel heavy. He cracked his knuckles idly, then got to his feet and went in among the trees to relieve himself. When he turned around he saw soft light spilling from the open doorway, one of the windows. It reminded him of watching the trailers in the circus camp and wondering what the people inside were doing.

Going inside, Trowa pulled the door shut behind himself. The windows would let in enough air. He didn't want a rabbit wandering in by mistake. Turning towards the right half of the house, he found that Heero was sitting up in bed, the one nearest the back wall, with his arms wrapped around his updrawn knees. Heero looked up at Trowa, his blue gaze a little less focused than usual. "Have you ever touched anyone?" he asked abruptly. "Have you ever really... touched?"

Trowa walked closer, sat down on the middle bed. He looked down at his hands uncertainly. Thought about reaching out to touch smooth metal, and the tones from the flute reaching out to touch those from the violin, and about fingers brushing accidentally over a box of strawberries. Thought about cleaning and caring for Heero's unmoving body until he knew it as well as his own. Thought about burying his hands in a lion's scratchy mane, and about Zora's light, undemanding kiss. "I don't know," he said finally.

Heero's eyes were distant, and he nodded, once. "I don't know, either," he said.

Had he ever touched, or been touched? Trowa put the back of his hand to his cheek, where the remembered sting of Catherine's punch still lingered on his skin, thought back to Catherine's hand and the way he hadn't been hurt by the pain of her blow — no, it had hurt, but not — and did it count, what she had done, what he had been on the verge of feeling when she did it? Some other kind of pain, one that came from the hollow spaces inside him.

He toed his shoes off, stripped out of his jeans, and lay down on top of the covers. His skin felt damp with sweat again. The night was almost as hot as the day. He wondered what he would have done if Mrs. Noventa had decided to hug him. Trowa looked over at Heero, who was frowning again, and then he turned out the light.

* * *

The walls were cold, and the floor was cold, and the air was cold. The food in the base cafeteria wasn't cold, but it wasn't hot, either. And he was cold, cold to his bones, and tired. His breath rose in small fleeting puffs of steam. Since the moment he'd tumbled out of Heavyarms into the snow, looking at the smoking wreckage of mobile suits and seeing blood spilled on pristine white, he hadn't been able to stop a subtle inner shaking. Everything was so empty here. There was so much space.

Trowa slowly ate another forkful of rice pudding. It tasted like glue flavored with cinnamon, and stuck to the roof of his mouth. The formica tabletop was badly scarred, carved with the initials of countless bored OZ cadets. He traced a large jagged W with the tip of his index finger. The cafeteria was almost empty at this hour of the night, except for him, and a blonde guard on coffee break, and the man behind the counter, who was yawning and scratching the back of his neck. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead.

It had been impossible to persuade Heero to take a break for food. At least he'd stopped to put a new bandage on his arm, where the wound had reopened and bled sluggishly. Trowa would bring something back to him, but not the rice pudding. He wondered if he should carve his name into the tabletop, too. No one here would recognize it for another's, unlike Heero's. He poured a little sugar on the rice pudding, but that didn't make it better.

Across the room, the blonde guard got to her feet and walked out, leaving her coffee mug behind. Trowa sipped at his own coffee. He wasn't sure how long he'd been awake this time; glancing at his watch, he realized he'd lost track of the time zones. That kind of thing, he thought with tired wryness, would never happen to Heero Yuy. He could go and ask Heero how long they'd been up, and get an answer, possibly to the minute.

The minutes didn't matter. Trowa took a last mouthful of rice pudding and put the spoon down. He did not want to be here. The sensation of time passing was a ghost itch on his skin, as annoying as the crackle of the fluorescent lights. The search for Noventa's relatives had finally ended. They should have been making plans. He finished the coffee and got up, returning to the counter to see what there was that he might bring back. Sandwiches: dry bread, sweaty cheese, limp lettuce. Bowls of sickly green jello, bowls of cold noodle soup. Slices of what seemed to be broccoli pie, the pastry soggy and crumbling.

The sound of determined footsteps made Trowa turn his head. Zechs Merquise came walking into the cafeteria, still in his uniform boots and his uniform pants and his uniform shirt and his uniform cravat. He'd taken off the red coat, but not the mask, of course. The boots still shone with the same high gloss, but the cravat had wilted. "Akca," he said, and the man behind the counter snapped to attention.

"Sir!" Akca stood ramrod straight, and his face changed, not smiling exactly, but brightening as if getting to see Zechs Merquise at one thirty in the morning was the best thing that had happened to him all night. Considering how deserted the cafeteria was, Trowa conceded that it might well be. "Would you like one of my omelets, sir?"

"Yes." Zechs paused and turned his head, and Trowa caught a glimpse of blue eyes through the mask. "Make that two."

"I've eaten," Trowa said. "I'm just getting something for Heero."

"If you ate any of the ready-made stuff," Zechs said, "you need an omelet. Make that three, Akca, one for later." He looked at Trowa, seeming to study him with a grave and thoughtful air. "You can bring it to Heero in a little while. I would appreciate some company while I eat."

"All right," Trowa said, ungraciously.

Akca disappeared through a side door behind the counter, and Trowa caught a glimpse of large shining metal machinery beyond it. It looked like a kitchen for mobile suits. The max capacity of the Berkeley base was probably around two thousand, Trowa thought, including support and ground staff. Right now, the halls echoed with emptiness. He could see why Zechs had chosen this remote, isolated, currently more or less disused place for his duel with Heero. When the door swung shut behind Akca, Trowa turned away from the counter. Zechs led the way to a table, and they sat down.

The surface of this table was also etched with names, initials, little signs and pictograms of different kinds, in different alphabets. Trowa wondered if Zechs had ever carved the name he went under into a table top or desk somewhere. He thought not. Looking up, he couldn't help but stare for a long moment at the metal mask that covered most of Zechs' face and head. It had shape, but no expression. It looked clunky, welded together by less-than-expert hands.

His mind's eye suddenly painted the metal with the same broad inane smile that his own clown mask wore, and he suppressed a dry chuckle. Zechs tilted his head slightly to one side and began to tug off his gloves. "What is it you find so amusing?"

"Masks," Trowa said, and to his surprise, a corner of Zechs' mouth curved up.

"Yes," he agreed, and they sat in silence under the buzzing lights until Akca came out from behind the counter with two steaming plates. Zechs thanked him, and Akca made it-was-nothing gestures with both hands. The omelets smelled good. Trowa thought it might have been better if Zechs had come along before the rice pudding. He poked at the omelet with his fork and found that it was filled with smoked meat and chunks of half-melted cheese. It was underfried rather than overfried, the egg mixture still a little soft. "It's not poisoned," Zechs said.

"The rice pudding made me suspicious." Trowa took a bite. It tasted as good as it smelled. When he looked to the right he could see the large clock on the wall by the kitchen entrance, square black hands moving over a dial as white as the snow outside. A quarter to two in the morning. "Why are you up so late?" he asked. "Is this another attempt at fairness? Or will you stay awake until Heero falls asleep so that you can see the modifications he's making?"

Zechs, who had been eating methodically and rather fast, paused and straightened up in his chair. "If rice pudding makes you suspicious, I shouldn't be surprised at what you think of me."

"I don't understand why you're doing this," Trowa said bluntly. "I don't see the point."

Zechs smiled. It was a warm, sad smile. "No. Of course you don't."

The smoked meat tasted like lamb. The cheese was mild. Trowa picked at it. "That's not much of an answer." All the activity there was on this base right now revolved around this man with the long pale hair and the mask, and his ambition to meet Heero in yet another mobile suit duel. Heero was still injured. Heero had more important things to do. "It seems to me that you're being selfish."

Zechs had finished about half of his omelet. He pushed his plate aside, and the fork, unevenly balanced on the edge, slipped down on the table. The tines lay over a half-finished peace symbol. "I suppose I am. And I don't expect you to have any patience with my motivations."

"You're going against the interests of your own organization. You should capture us or kill us, not feed us omelets." More animal protein and fat than Trowa had seen in a week, and he took another bite, though it sat uneasily on top of the rice pudding. He could use the energy, here in the cold.

Folding his arms on the tabletop, Zechs looked straight at Trowa, and it seemed for a moment that he really wasn't wearing a mask at all. His mouth looked very young. "And do you think I will?"

"No." Trowa looked straight back. If there was one thing he did not feel, it was fear that Zechs Merquise would go back on his word. Which wasn't to say that someone else at the base might not deduce who they were and decide to go against Zechs' wishes and do something about it. After all, Inspector Acht, dead now in a cloud of smoke and snow, was proof that not everyone reacted to Zechs the way Akca did.

Something relaxed fractionally in Zechs' demeanor. "Then that's all I ask."

"I'm sure you're acting according to your emotions," Trowa muttered. "And so are the rest of us." Inspector Acht and his men, their blood spilled in a lonely place where no one would ever see it, were only more bodies piled on top of those he had already killed, a tally he did not wish to keep, a count that should have no meaning to him. He was a soldier, and this was war. He had spent his whole life killing people. When he'd knelt there, dropped out of his Gundam like so much garbage, the air that had surrounded him and penetrated him with its biting cold had not been able to make him numb.

"There are those who feel that emotions have no place in war," Zechs said softly, as if following and echoing Trowa's thoughts. "And those who conquer their emotions for the sake of expediency and what they believe to be a higher goal—" He broke off. "Have you finished?"

Trowa disposed of the remains of his omelet in four quick bites. "Yes."

They rose from the table together and went back to the counter. Akca was sitting on a stool, leaning back against the wall underneath the clock, reading a newspaper. When he saw them, he jumped to his feet. "Would you like that third omelet now, sir?"

"Yes, please, Akca. On a covered plate. This young man is taking it with him." Akca nodded and disappeared into the kitchen again. Zechs turned to Trowa. "Make him get some sleep, too. He might listen, if it comes from a friend." With a nod, Zechs walked away. His back was straight, and the heavy fall of his hair barely shifted with the motion of his strides. His boots were loud on the hard floor.

Trowa looked up at the clock on the wall and watched the minute hand until it moved, and moved again. The coffee had been bad, but he supposed he'd better bring Heero a mug all the same, and some water. He pushed his hands into his pockets; the left one was empty, but in the right one was a small hard object that, when he took it out, turned out to be a plum stone. Trowa flipped it into the large trash can at the end of the counter. The heat of Sicily was a fading memory.

When Akca came back, he looked disappointed to find that Zechs was gone. Trowa found it interesting that a faceless man could win such devotion. It was a rare gift even in a commanding officer who didn't wear a mask. Akca put the covered plate on a tray, with water and coffee and cutlery and paper napkins and little packets of salt. "Thank you," Trowa said, and picked up the tray before Akca could add toothpicks and a decorative flower.

"I'll hold the door open for you," Akca said, stepping back from the counter.

"That won't be necessary." Trowa shifted the tray, balancing it on the fingers of his left hand. He walked out of the cafeteria, leaving its mixed smells of food and cleaning liquid and air in a large room behind as the door swung shut after him. The rest of the Berkeley base smelled dustier, and there was a hint of mobile suit fuel lingering in the hallways and corridors. Some of the fluorescent lights here had gone out and not been replaced. The skeleton staff left on the base concerned itself with other things.

Outside the cafeteria, there was a perceptible drop in temperature as well. The steam of his breath became a larger cloud, and he felt the skin on his arms and legs begin to draw together and pebble. The omelet would be cold before Heero could take a single bite of it — not, Trowa thought, that Heero would care one way or the other. He walked quickly down the hallway, quickly and quietly in soft-soled shoes.

The smell of mobile suit fuel intensified when he came out into the hangar holding Wing and Heavyarms. The closeness of walls dropped away and he was surrounded by space and air, and the chill inside that the hot food and strange conversation had distracted him from was back. Trowa walked up to Heavyarms and tilted his head back to see Heero sitting on the narrow walkway level with the chest hatch, legs dangling on either side, working on the laptop that had been hooked up with a thin extension cord to Heavyarms' systems. "I brought food," he called up, pitching his voice to carry that far and no further. "And coffee."

There was no response except for a distant clicking of keys. Heero didn't even turn his head. Trowa went to the nearest rung of ladders and began to climb straight up, right hand sliding up the side for balance. When he got to the walkway he set the tray down right behind the laptop, seated himself crosslegged by it, and pushed the laptop screen forward and down over Heero's fingers until Heero stopped tapping keys and looked up at him darkly. Trowa handed him the mug of coffee. Heero scowled and took it.

After the coffee, Heero didn't object to the omelet, though he flipped the screen back up again and ate with one hand and typed with the other, with long pauses to read whatever his typing called up. Trowa looked at Heavyarms. The gundanium armor shone dully, red and white, smooth and undented. All the adjusments he had made to suit his own fighting style were slowly being undone. Heero picked up the glass of water and drank it down in long thirsty gulps. The new bandage around his arm was still white and unbloodied.

"The right knee joint needs to be tightened," Heero said, looking up over the laptop screen to meet Trowa's eyes. "It will be faster if you do it while I put in the systems adjustments."

"I've tried to fix that for months," Trowa said warningly, but he got up all the same and climbed back down the ladder, swinging himself off it halfway down and onto a small movable work platform. He steered the platform over to Heavyarms's knee and fished a wrench out of the platform's tool kit. "All right," he called to Heero, who began to feed him brief, precise instructions.

Heero wouldn't have made a bad mechanic, Trowa thought. He had the right kind of attention to detail. The adjustments they made should see Heavyarms through tomorrow's battle, at least. After that, Trowa thought he would have to see if he could scrounge up spare parts from somewhere. Months of fighting had taken their toll, for all that the armor still looked pretty.

He tightened the last screw to Heero's specifications and moved the platform aside so that there was room for the suit to lift and flex its leg. It looked all right, Trowa thought, studying it through narrowed eyes. It would do. But in order for all the changes to have the best possible effect, the whole operating system would need recalibrating once they were through, to integrate the changes more smoothly. And he was still concerned about the weight distribution between the right and the left arm.

Lowering the work platform, Trowa got out down on the floor and walked back to study the knee motion from a distance. It wasn't as flexible as he would have liked now, but Heero didn't have his fighting style and was unlikely to try any acrobatics with the suit. He sat down on a crate of Leo parts and rubbed at the back of his neck. The caffeine made the inside of his head feel like floating glass. He was deeply tired, yet not at all sleepy. Staring at the shadow of a forklift truck stretching across the floor, Trowa found his thoughts drifting to the circus. He wasn't sure what time it might be there, or what they would all be doing. He didn't know who was feeding the lions. He hoped someone was.

A clatter made him start: Heero had dropped the screwdriver. His arm was bleeding again. Trowa got to his feet. Sitting around thinking about things he could not affect was useless, when there was something here that he could and should do. It took surprisingly little effort to persuade Heero that it was time for him go to the bed set aside for him and get some rest. Once Heero was out of the hangar, Trowa tilted his head back and looked up at the Gundams, Wing and Heavyarms.

Wing had been rebuilt and repaired so that to hear that young engineer, Maser, tell it, it was almost better than new. Heavyarms was battered, held together by everything Trowa knew about mobile suit repair and a bit of blind luck, badly in need of a complete overhaul. All he needed to do a good job was in this hangar, but there was no time, not quite enough time, and Heero had refused to use the perfectly restored Wing because he didn't want to be spoiled.... Sometimes Trowa wondered about Heero's sense of honor, and his sense of humor.

Still, he had work to do. Heavyarms' weighty left arm would not work well for someone with Heero's lingering injury, and Trowa had an idea about how to improve the situation. He went to the control panel for the suit repair frame and began to key in commands, then rode a work platform up to the chest hatch and logged into the suit's central system. What he had in mind would make the burden of Heavyarms' weaponry lighter for Heero, and give Heero a chance to use his preferred fighting style, as well. It would improve Heero's odds against Zechs Merquise — Zechs, who was not injured, who was on his own turf, who was fighting in his own mobile suit...

Air whistled past him. Trowa looked down and found that he had clenched his right hand around the platform control so hard that the platform was shooting towards the hangar ceiling, barely missing the spikes on Heavyarms' helmet. His knuckles were white. He eased his grip, and the platform slowed down, stopped. From this height, the hangar floor was all shadows. Heavyarms stood with its arm stretched straight out, as if warding off an invisible enemy. Trowa closed his hand around the control grip again, gently, and lowered the platform until he could step off on the walkway and go up to the arm, bringing a spanner that would let him open the plates to access the local circuits. His hands moved automatically, while his mind, still trapped in glass, struggled to catch up.

Every other time he had worked on Heavyarms, to repair or improve, it had been because he had wanted the suit to be a better weapon, which would allow him to be a more efficient soldier. He'd wanted to hone himself and his mobile suit, turn his human body and Heavyarms' metal one into a perfectly aligned unit, working as one, perhaps dying as one. Now he was changing Heavyarms to fit someone else, which was strange in itself; what he'd said to Maser was true, pilots did not like for others to touch their suits. Especially not strangers. But Heero wasn't — Heero was—

Heavyarms didn't matter. He didn't want anything to happen to Heero. Trowa froze. His breath caught in his throat. He wanted Heero to live. The thought tore loose a cascade of others. He wanted the lions to live. He wanted Quatre to live, and Catherine, and the other pilots. He wanted the earth, with its forests and oceans and frozen wastelands and crowded cities, to live. The screwdriver fell from his hand, bounced with a clang against the walkway, and plummeted down to land with a crack against the concrete floor, while he stared blindly at the circuits he'd uncovered.

Friends, he thought, that word he couldn't seem to get away from. Was that what Heero was to him, a friend? Catherine? Quatre? This feeling of being connected to them, of caring whether they lived or died — it was painful. The awareness that Catherine and Quatre cared whether he lived or died was even more so. He had come to the earth on a solitary mission, to succeed or die. Now there were all these people. They pressed up against the empty spaces within him. Trowa bent his head and bit his lip, hard, until the blood he drew began to drip down on his hands.

He drew a deep breath, and then another. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he willed it to slow down. Trowa straightened and wiped his bloodstained hands carelessly on his jeans, turned on the narrow walkway and went over to the ladder, climbing down as fast as he could. There was no one else in the hangar. Not at this hour. Trowa suspected that Zechs had given orders they were not to be disturbed even by the guards doing their nightly rounds. He picked up the screwdriver; its handle had cracked on impact, but it was still serviceable. Trowa stuck it into the back pocket of his jeans and climbed back up. He had work to do.

Installing a beam saber in Heavyarms turned out to be more complicated than he'd anticipated. The physical installation demanded a lot of circuit rerouting and plate realignment to accomodate the additional hardware, but the real challenge lay in getting the command sequences to work properly. He lifted the programming from Wing, which meant Heero would already be familiar with it, but he had to make continual adjustments and reboot the system six times before the beam saber subroutine ran smoothly; Wing's operating system was a little more advanced than Heavyarms', probably through modifications that Heero had made himself, the way Trowa had modified Heavyarms' mechanical ability. For a while he'd worried that the subroutine was incompatible with Heavyarms' OS. It wouldn't do much good to have a beam saber installed if accessing it would give Heero a system error in the middle of battle.

By the time he'd fastened the arm plates again and was running a final level four diagnostic on the system and a level six one on the subroutine integration, he was soaked with sweat and his bangs were plastered to the side of his face. The air in the hangar had grown steadily colder throughout the night, and he was shivering. He'd gone back to the cafeteria once for more coffee, but now he couldn't even remember where he'd put the empty mug.

One by one, the checklights came up green. It would work. The fuel level was at max, all the guns were fully loaded, and Trowa felt his knees begin to buckle. He shut the system down and climbed down from the chest plate, closing the hatches. The walkway seemed to sway under his feet. Instead of climbing down the ladder, he got on the work platform again and let it take him down. Trowa shook his head to clear it, and became aware of a new level of sound all around him. Footsteps somewhere in the distance, engine sounds outside, voices. The base was waking up. He checked his wristwatch and drew a deep breath.

Faintly, somewhere in the back of his head, he heard music: a flute and a violin playing a sleepy lullaby together. Trowa glanced up at Heavyarms one last time, then made himself walk away. In the hallways leading from the hangar, it was a little warmer, but not much. Trowa pushed his stiff-fingered hands into his pockets and wished for a hot shower. He met a couple of soldiers, probably on their way to the cafeteria for breakfast, but they ignored him as though he weren't there. They wore loud boots, too.

The door to the dorm room wasn't even closed. Trowa went inside and found Heero sprawled on top of the blankets, breathing slowly and deeply. His hair fell over his eyes, and the blood on the bandage had dried and stiffened. He hadn't even taken his shoes off. The light from the open door reached his left hand, palm-up on the bed, but not his face.

"Heero," Trowa said, and saw the long fingers tense up, watched the open hand clench again into a loose fist. "Heero, it's time to get up."

* * *

Chicken, cream of mushroom, tomato

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