Excessively lengthy A/N: Well, since a couple of people asked very nicely, here we go with the rest of the story. It's been finished for some time, I just never got around to posting it because no one ever commented on it, so I figured no one was reading! So there's a lesson for you, folks: if you want something from me, be sure to ask! Now, before you continue reading, a note on how I stepped out of series continuity with this story: In 'Where I Started From' you can't really tell, but by this point in Strangers, it should be apparent that some things have transpired differently than the series timeline. Basically, all I did was change one thing, and then extrapolate my own theories on how that one difference might have changed the course of the war. That difference is simply: Zechs did not join with White Fang after the battle in Sank. From that small change, I've postulated a lot of different scenarios, like the collapse of White Fang without Zechs as leader after Treize returned to power in Oz and Romefeller. If you're confused by what's going on in the background with Oz and White Fang and the Alliance, well, that's partially intentional. The politics haven't been the focus of the story so far. And that will pretty much remain the case throughout Strangers. In the final story of the trilogy, when and if I write it, the scope of the story will be widened further and, theoretically, all will be made clear. But if you want to read that, you'll have to nag me hard, because I'm very absorbed in writing Weiss these days. Okay, anyway, enough blathering from me! Here's the rest of Strangers...

by: Aoe

NCS!!

Strangers in Paradise + Part 7

Quatre bit his lip in trepidation as he and Sandrock crouched behind the tree line beyond the base perimeter. He had a bad feeling about this mission. He'd been uneasy ever since Heero had brought it up, but no one had seemed inclined to listen to his protests. The other four had either ignored or disregarded his arguments, and he'd been swept along unwillingly in their wake, to find himself sitting here in the dark, waiting for the signal to begin attacking.

After Trowa had run away from him, Quatre had forced himself to calm down and decided the best thing he could do was to throw himself back into his work for a while. It would take his mind off the rapidly disintegrating interpersonal relationships of his team, at least. He'd gotten caught up in the files and family discussions, though, and found he'd completely missed dinner, somewhere amidst a conference call with three sisters and a prospective brother-in-law, and an in-depth analysis of the potential profitability of refurbishing an older resource satellite.

He'd barely paused to catch his breath until Heero had stuck his head in the door without knocking, and informed Quatre they were going on a mission.

The strategy session had been brief, since Quatre was firmly opposed to the entire plan, and everyone else tended to favor a rather straightforward battle plan. The final decision was that Duo would go in first, sneaking past the base security with Deathscythe's superior stealth capabilities, and Heero close behind him as backup in Wing Zero. Once the two of them had caused enough explosions to generate a state of confusion amongst the mixed personnel of the base, the other three pilots would move in to complete the destruction.

It was a very simple, basic plan. Barring any surprises or unforeseen problems, it should work quite well. But since surprises and unforeseen problems seemed to be the natural order of events in this war, Quatre had little confidence in the plan.

But he was outvoted, and although technically all of the pilots operated independently of one another and he was therefore free to refuse to participate, considering all that had happened recently, Quatre thought it best that he encourage the team dynamic as much as possible. So even if it meant walking into a potential trap (an almost certain trap, really), he'd decided to go along with the others.

Besides, this way he knew Trowa's back would be guarded.

Quatre had ignored the angry glares Duo had directed at him throughout the discussion, more troubled by the way Trowa was avoiding even glancing in his direction. The tall pilot seemed to be doing his best to deny Quatre's very existence.

Quatre had found himself thinking about the scars he'd felt on Trowa's back. How had they gotten there? They didn't feel like recent wounds, so they'd probably been on his body for a while. Who had done such a thing, and why? He was desperately curious, and he longed to pull Trowa aside and ask him these questions, but Trowa easily evaded Quatre after the meeting broke up, and then they were all in their gundams, moving into position.

Quatre nibbled at a fingernail, beginning to grow impatient. For some reason, this mission was making him downright queasy with nerves. He didn't like fighting, but he was good at it, and practiced enough by now that he didn't get pre-battle jitters anymore. What had him so upset?

Trying to distract himself, Quatre began reviewing a takeover bid he was planning in his mind. A sudden burst of flame heralded the beginning of the attack, but Quatre's part in it wouldn't come for a while. He set another portion of his mind the task of counting down the agreed upon ten minutes and turned most of his attention back to the bid.

The main question, of course, was Winner Enterprises' liquidity at the moment. He wanted the medtech company, wanted it badly. His was not the only company courting the smaller firm, with their soon-to-be-patented nerve replacement nanotech. The owners were wisely waiting to see how high the bids would rise before committing, but they wouldn't accept a deal from a company that couldn't cover their final bid.

Five minutes. Quatre noted the distinctive shape of Wing Zero, gleaming softly in the night sky as Heero swooped toward the battlefield, transforming from jet mode to suit mode.

The problem, really, was that a lot of Winner's assets were tied up in property. They had so damn many resource satellites... it looked good on the balance sheet, but their cash on hand was not what it ought to be. Not that anybody's was, really, what with the war...

Two minutes. Mark. Quatre brought his mobile suit to life, rising from the tree line and beginning to lumber slowly toward the base, which was awash in fire and smoke. He could see Wing moving in the light of the fires, slicing through Oz and Alliance suits with indifference. He couldn't see Deathscythe, but Duo was supposed to be on the other side of the base now anyway. Heavyarms was a barely discernable shadow several hundred meters to Quatre's left.

The refurbishing plan was a good one, well thought out, but perhaps it would be better to sacrifice the old satellite in the interest of acquiring this new technology...

Quatre reached the inner perimeter right on time, and engaged a squadron of Leos. He felt sorry for the men inside. At this point in the war, it was hard to believe anyone was still fielding these things, but both Oz and the New Alliance had Leos on the field. It didn't matter, though, anything that wasn't a gundam was a target tonight.

Quatre could hear as much from Heero, who was muttering constantly under his breath, repeating his personal mantra, "My enemy is anyone who stands before me and tries to kill me. My enemy is anyone who stands before me and tries to kill me. My enemy ­ " With a frown, Quatre cut off the audio feed. Without the sound of Heero's muttering, Duo's yelling, or Wufei's declarations of justice, he concentrated on taking out the Leos before him. When the last had fallen, a few Virgos arrived, and the mobile dolls gave Quatre a bit more of a workout.

Of course, then there was Betina's wedding to consider. The father of the child had agreed to the marriage, thank Allah, preventing a scandal the tabloids would have just eaten up. The whole thing turned out to have been a miscommunication, Jamison hadn't known Betina was pregnant, and had just accidentally forgotten to tell her he was leaving on a business trip. He hadn't abandoned her and the baby, as the overly dramatic girl had been convinced at first.

Quatre finished off the Virgos and glanced around, surprised to find his sector of the field relatively deserted. There was no lack of activity on the other side of the base, though, judging by the massive explosions he could see. He trudged toward the flames, switching his audio back on.

" ­ the fuck is that thing?" Duo screeched hysterically. Quatre winced as the sound battered his ears, unaccustomed to the volume the others had probably been building up to as the battle went on.

"Shit! He got me again... Left side's almost shot, but I can still use my scythe... C'mon, you bastard!"

"Duo, get the hell out of there!" That was Heero, his harsh angry tone not concealing his concern. Quatre frowned, increasing his speed a bit, wondering what he was missing.

"... thought he... not supposed to... trap... " Wufei's voice crackled over the speakers, the communication garbled with static.

"I'm out of bullets," Trowa announced flatly.

"Shit!" Duo screamed again. "He's too fucking fast! I can't ­ "

"I said get out of there! I'll take him in Wing!" Heero shouted.

Quatre was approaching the side of the large hangar that effectively blocked his view of the others. He wondered when the battle had drifted so far from his position. If he'd been listening... but...

"If he's too fast for me, he's too fast for you!" Duo yelled back at Heero.

"I know how fast he is!" Heero screamed back. "I'm taking my shot! Move now!"

"Fuck!" Duo shouted again, but Quatre cleared the building just in time to see the black gundam dive to the side, activating it's massive Vernier engines to avoid the blast radius of Wing Zero's buster rifle.

"Did that get it?" Trowa demanded, and Quatre could see Heavyarms poised almost directly across from his own position.

"Not likely," Heero growled, charging at the enemy's last known position. Wing Zero pounded down the asphalt and into the billowing smoke and flames. Deathscythe shot briefly into the air and landed on its feet.

"Hey, Quatre, nice of you to join us," Duo snapped. An image of the braided pilot popped up in a corner of Quatre's viewscreen. "Where the fuck have you been? You didn't respond to any signals." There was a trickle of blood running down the side of Duo's face from somewhere over his right eye, and the red fluid mingled with sweat to drip off his chin.

"I... uh... " Quatre muttered, taken aback by Duo's battered appearance and the obvious fact that his comrades had been calling for his assistance while he had his comm turned off. "Where's Wufei?" he asked, avoiding the issue.

Duo scowled at him, but answered shortly, "He got his comm system fritzed, and then that... thing practically ripped off his dragon fang. He's out of the fight, waiting for retreat. Which should be pretty goddamn soon, once Heero finishes beating that fucker into scrap metal ­ " Duo's face turned as he spoke, apparently looking towards the billowing smoke Heero had disappeared into. Quatre looked over as well, and noted that a massive figure was beginning to coalesce from the smoke. "Great, here he comes now. Hey, Heero, what the hell took you so ­ oh, shit!" Duo's voice rose to a screech as the figure stepped out of the smoke.

It was big. It was maroon and black and had a whip attached to one forearm. The opposite arm was dragging something large behind it.

"Whatthefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefuck ­ " Duo whispered harshly to himself.

"Epyon," Quatre breathed in shock and horror.

"Epyon?" Trowa repeated sharply. "That... thing is Epyon?"

"Didn't Heero tell you?" Quatre asked weakly as Trowa's face appeared on his viewscreen as well, scowling forbiddingly. Duo was still looking off to the side, eyes wide and riveted on the massive mobile suit.

"We've been rather busy," Trowa snapped, "with Wufei out of the fight, and then that... monstrosity appearing out of nowhere and nearly pounding Deathscythe into metal fragments ­ "

"Uh, guys... speaking of Heero," Duo interrupted softly, but Trowa instantly fell silent, glancing first to a spot that probably held Duo's image on his viewscreen, then off to the side, at Epyon. "What... " he began, then his green eyes widened in dismay.

Epyon raised the arm that had dragged a large something behind it... and Quatre felt his stomach clench in terror as he recognized the somewhat mangled form of Wing Zero.

"Heero! Are you okay? Talk to me, man!" Duo was screaming, squirming agitatedly in his cockpit. Quatre tried to open the channel to Wing, but got only static.

"His comm may be fried," Trowa offered, obviously trying to soothe Duo. The braided boy was wild-eyed and frantic, the blood on his face smeared by a nervous hand.

"Gundam pilots," Heero's nasal monotone, only slightly roughened by pain, boomed over the field suddenly. Duo froze, staring at the image on his viewscreen. Quatre felt slightly relieved. Heero's comm system was gone, so he was using his external speakers. Trowa seemed relieved by this as well.

Heero's next words shattered their momentary relief. "Move away from the blast radius. Repeat, this unit is unable to escape. Move beyond the blast radius."

"Oh, fuck, please no," Duo whispered, looking horrified. Quatre had to agree with the sentiment. Watching Heero blow himself up once had really been enough. If only I'd been paying more attention!

Wing Zero began to emit a high-pitched alarm as the self-destruct was armed.

"NO!" Duo screamed, lunging towards the two suits. Trowa seemed to have anticipated the move, though, and caught Deathscythe's arm, using the Gundam's momentum to swing it around and pitch it down the crumbled, rubble strewn runway. Deathscythe skidded to a stop several hundred meters away, with Duo cursing a blue streak inside.

Epyon had turned its massive head toward the Gundam it carried in one hand. Zechs' familiar, cultured voice announced, also over external speakers, "Not today, I'm afraid, Heero. I've flown Wing Zero, remember? I know how to deactivate the self-detonate." And with that, Epyon produced a massive green beam saber and proceeded to neatly excise said mechanism.

"Shit," Trowa pronounced succinctly. The tall boy met Quatre's eyes from the viewscreen. "We either have to get him loose... or blow him up."

Quatre sucked in a frightened breath. Trowa was right, of course. They couldn't allow the enemy to take a Gundam. One of them would have to attack, and try to get Heero away from Epyon, or activate their own self-detonate and blow up all three suits.

"Shit shit shit! Forces are regrouping... more mobile dolls headed in!" Duo yelled from his vantage point down the field. "We've got no time! Get him out quick, or we're completely fucked! Move it, Quatre!"

It was the most logical decision. Sandrock had the best armor, the best chance to withstand a blow from that evil whip. But... Quatre had seen Epyon in action... the machine was uncanny, more destructive even than Wing Zero, and Quatre could vouch for Zero's destructive capacity.

Wing Zero could blow up a colony.

Epyon was stronger, and faster.

But a mission was a mission. He had to go, he had to...

He had to give his sister away at her wedding. He had to make a decision whether to keep or trash the satellite, affecting the lives of hundreds of laborers. He had to make thousands of little decisions, was responsible now for the well being of thousands of employees... If only Father hadn't died... I hadn't thought, things have been mostly peaceful lately, I hadn't realized... How many people are depending on me, now...

"Shit," Trowa said again. And Heavyarms pounded forward, toward the waiting behemoth.

"Trowa!" Quatre and Duo yelled in unison.

"You asshole! You don't have any ammo left! What are you gonna do, stick it with that stupid knife?" Duo screeched frantically. Quatre could see Deathscythe turning, the Vernier engines beginning to spit blue-white flames. In a moment, Duo would rush Epyon as well, and they would lose not two pilots, but three.

"No, Duo, we have to go," Quatre said. His voice was soft, but somehow the braided boy heard him.

Duo's crazed violet eyes latched onto Quatre. "Are you nuts?" he demanded. "Trowa can't take that thing! He's gonna get killed, you little ­ "

"Duo. Please allow me to do my job," Trowa said flatly. Heavyarms had nearly reached Epyon now. Zechs still had his beam saber out, apparently intending to fight Trowa's arm-knife with the closest approximation of an equal weapon he had to hand.

"The rest of you may go," Zechs announced. "I accept single combat with Trowa Barton in exchange for your freedom."

"What the hell? Like we're gonna walk away and leave Heero and Trowa ­ "

"Go, Duo," Trowa interrupted firmly.

Duo faltered in his tirade. "W-what? Trowa?"

"This is the best we can manage right now. I don't stand a chance of winning, but Zechs will let you go. So go. Live to fight another day."

"Of course," Duo murmured distractedly. "Shinigami always lives." The wide violet eyes were starting to glaze over a bit as the reality of the situation sunk in. Quatre felt tears streaming down his own cheeks. But he knew what he had to do. As Heavyarms squared off before Epyon, Zechs casting Wing Zero to the side for the battle, Quatre moved Sandrock away from the fight, toward Deathscythe, an eerie black shadow against the flames and smoke on the runway.

"We have to go," Quatre repeated grimly, firing up Sandrock's Verniers. Altron finally appeared, stumbling onto the runway, obviously unbalanced by the extendable arm that dangled at it's side, halfway torn loose.

"We ­fzzsnap ­ go," Wufei announced over his external speakers.

"Right," Duo murmured. "Right." Deathscythe slowly turned, the engines spitting fire again. Quatre could see hordes of Virgo mobile dolls hovering in the sky, but they made no move to attack, holding to Zechs' word. Honor had become such a fragile thing in this war, though, that Quatre felt they should take advantage of the respite before the binding of Zechs' word was broken.

Deathscythe shot upwards, and Sandrock and Altron followed close behind. Duo had switched off his visual channel, and Quatre did so as well, so they were all alone in their cockpits, only the view of the starry night obscured by rising smoke and hovering Virgos in their viewscreens. Quatre, at least, did not have 360 visual activated, so he only felt the shockwave and heard the crash of the massive explosion behind them as they rose into the night.

He heard Duo's voice, though, as the American whispered in a softly ominous tone, "I'll see you in Hell, guys. You and every single person responsible."

Quatre felt a chill run down his spine at the cold implacability in Duo's voice. He tried to summon thoughts of his family or his business, but for some reason, none of his other responsibilities seemed terribly important right then.

+

Heero woke, and wondered why.

Granted, it was hardly the first time he'd survived a self-detonate, but last time he'd been pitched far from his Gundam when the explosives went off. This time...

Of course, his Gundam hadn't blown up.

Fear twisted his gut as he was suddenly gripped by the thought, Trowa...

Gods. After that little conversation he'd walked in on between Duo and the tall pilot...

Trowa...

Duo...

Gods.

Heero rolled off the cot he was sprawled on, grimacing at the pain of numerous cuts and bruises. He didn't think he'd even managed to break a bone. And Trowa was...

Trowa was lying on the cot against the opposite wall.

Heero jumped to his feet, ignoring his pain as he crossed the tiny cell in two steps, falling to his knees beside the other boy's cot. Trowa's face was turned away from him, toward the wall, and Heero's hand hovered uncertainly over the taller boy's neck for a moment. Finally, his need to know overrode fear, and Heero gently probed the cool flesh, seeking Trowa's pulse.

It was there. Heero slumped against the cot, leaning his forehead against Trowa's bony shoulder in relief. It was there. Weak and thready, but there. Trowa was alive.

Once he'd gotten past his initial relief, though, Heero frowned in confusion. Trowa shouldn't be alive. He shouldn't either, for that matter. At close range, Heavyarms' self-destruct should have taken out both itself and Wing Zero, and hopefully taken a substantial chunk out of Epyon. Heero knew there had been a large explosion, but...

Still frowning, he began assessing Trowa's injuries. The tall boy would be pissed when he woke up. After the events of the past few weeks, Heero was sure Trowa felt he'd spent enough time convalescing. He held to this thought to buoy his mood as his fingers located cracked ribs and a deep gash on the left thigh where a piece of shrapnel had probably been imbedded, and a lovely set of bruises and cuts to match his own.

Trowa was in worse shape than Heero, but he still didn't look like he'd come through a self-detonate. As Heero sat back on his heels pondering this mystery, the cell door swung open.

He instinctively gathered himself to attack, but the three soldiers in the door held guns trained on himself and Trowa's still form. Heero scowled fiercely. There was a time when he would have attacked anyway, preferring being shot to being a prisoner against the colonies. But the way the war had drifted, Heero didn't think there was really anyone he could betray, except for his fellow pilots. And to get himself or Trowa killed when they'd just survived self-destructing would be a betrayal to his friends.

So he remained kneeling on the floor and studied his visitors.

They were genuine Oz, Treize's boys. That answered any question about who was in charge of the trap. The one on the left was nervous, he was the weak link. Short and just barely avoiding plumpness, he was sweating under a shock of bright orange hair and his wide brown eyes flickered from one person to the next, never settling. Sometimes the nervous ones were dangerous, but this man's loose grip on his gun betrayed his unwillingness to shoot. The one in the middle, this was his idea, whatever ‘this' was. He had short, dark brown hair and angry blue eyes. His face was set in an infuriated mask and he glared determinedly back at Heero. He was more than willing to shoot, but Heero guessed he had other ideas. The one on the right, though... He was muscle. He was big and blond, and his eyes were gray and cold. Heero recognized the look in those eyes. Here was a man who didn't give a shit about morality or consequences. He was a walking weapon. He would kill without pity or remorse, if he were ordered to do so. He might even do it for fun.

He was the man Heero was supposed to have become.

Once upon a time, Heero would have challenged the coldness in those eyes with his own. But now... he avoided that frigid gaze. He wanted to test himself, find out if the emotionless, efficient husk was really better than the hybrid being he had become, if no heart at all was better than half of one, but...

There was Trowa to consider. Since they were alive, the others would be coming to rescue them. Heero would have to help them as much as possible. And that meant taking care of Trowa and himself. They had to be capable of running when the cavalry arrived.

So when the leader growled out, "Okay, which one of you little fuckers set up that ambush at the circus?" Heero calmly replied, "I did."

Whatever they had in mind, he was sure Trowa, who wasn't even conscious yet, wouldn't be up to it.

The leader's eyes lit up with unholy glee, and he ordered the muscle, "Bring him."

Nervous guy fluttered... well, nervously as they left the cell, and weakly protested, "Jeremy, do you really think we should be doing this? I mean, you know how General Trieze gets about prisoners, not to mention Lieutenant Zechs... "

"Frank, either shut up, or get lost. If you're too much of a pansy to help me, then go hide in your bunk and pretend this little piece of rebel shit didn't open fire on a circus tent full of innocent people. Just forget Kimmy died there for no better reason than this little monster wanted to cause a sensation! Go, Frank! Get lost!" Jeremy was yelling now, gesturing wildly with his gun still in his hand.

"You got the safety on, Jer?" the muscle asked. Jeremy paused in his ranting at the cowering Frank to glower at the tall, powerful man who was marching Heero forward, the barrel of his own gun pressing uncomfortably into the Japanese boy's back.

"What the fuck do you want, Kent? I'm trying to make a point," Jeremy raged, waving his gun some more. Heero grimaced in irritation, and guessed Kent probably did the same.

"I want to not get shot in the middle of illegally torturing a prisoner," Kent replied flatly. "Hard to explain to the medical unit."

Jeremy seemed to calm a bit at this and finally put his gun away. Heero considered trying to rush the two in front, but Kent rumbled warningly, "Don't even think about it." Heero scowled, but allowed himself to be led into a small room down the hall from his cell.

It was, he saw, another cell, but set up slightly differently. For one thing, there were no cots, only a table that held a few sets of manacles. Heero wasn't sure what they planned to do with him, but he knew he could handle a certain amount of torture. He'd been trained for it. You just had to send your mind someplace else for a while.

Heero took a deep breath and started to do this as Frank unhappily crawled on the floor, clamping each of Heero's ankles to the legs on the short end of the table. This set his legs far enough apart that it was hard to balance, and he toppled forward onto the table when Kent pushed him hard from behind. While one heavy hand held Heero down, Jeremy attached the last pair of manacles to Heero's wrists, and looped a rope through them. This he tied to the front table legs. So Heero found himself firmly bound, his upper body stretched across the table, his legs spread apart.

Pretty much helpless.

It began to bother him, interfering with the meditative state he needed to separate his mind from his physical body. He didn't like to be helpless. He liked to be in control.

He needed to be in control.

He heard a slither of leather behind him, then a sudden sharp sting as someone's belt came down across his back. He actually relaxed a bit. He could handle a whipping. He wouldn't enjoy it, but he could tear his mind away from it, and thus retain control of the situation.

The belt came down a few more times, and each time Heero paid less attention to it. Eventually, Frank gasped, "Jesus, Jerry, he's bleeding!" Heero heard Kent snort in disgust, and silently echoed the big man. What the hell did Frank think was going to happen?

"So he is, Frank, so he is," Jeremy replied, his voice much colder and calmer than before. Heero felt a twinge of alarm at the tone. Jeremy was not getting off on whipping him. That meant Jeremy was going to try something else, and Heero didn't know what that would be.

The belt stopped hitting him. He waited in silence for a moment, then someone grabbed the waist of his shorts and pulled them and his briefs down to his knees. They wouldn't go any further with his legs spread.

Heero bit back a curse at the unexpected disrobing. He was vulnerable again, horribly vulnerable, and he hated it.

"You killed my girlfriend, bastard," Jeremy hissed from behind Heero. The Japanese pilot heard the sound of a zipper, and Frank's shocked gasp. "You're going to make up for my loss," Jeremy added, in case there was any confusion left as to exactly what he intended.

Heero wanted to scream now, in protest, in fear, but he couldn't seem to make a sound. He was frozen, utterly helpless. He had no control. They were going to...to use him, and there was nothing...

I can't stop them, Heero realized dazedly. There's nothing I can do.

Eventually, he found that he could scream, but it wasn't much relief.

Screaming did, however, bring his salvation, in a most unlikely and unexpected form. Kent was pounding into him, the pain having long since reduced Heero's vision to a red haze, when he heard the door of the room crash open, and a familiar voice demand harshly, "What the hell's going on here?"

Heero resisted the hysterical urge to ask Zechs if he really didn't know. He wasn't sure he was capable of coherent speech anyway. All that seemed to want to come from his throat at this point was a quavering sort of wail. Kent, totally absorbed in his current task to the point that he hadn't even noticed Zechs' arrival, smacked him in the back of the head for the noise.

The loud report of a handgun echoed through the small chamber, and Heero felt Kent suddenly pull out of him. He heard the sound of a large body hitting the floor.

"Lieu ­ Lieutenant Zechs! You shot Kent!" Jeremy protested lamely, obviously shocked by the violence.

"Yes, and I'll shoot you, too, if you take one more step toward the prisoner," Zechs replied calmly. Heero heard the grim determination in Zechs' voice, but he hoped Jeremy wouldn't. He wanted Zechs to shoot the little bastard.

But apparently Jeremy backed off, because the gun didn't go off again.

Someone approached Heero, and he began to whimper softly, hating the fact that he could make such a defeated noise, but unable to control it.

"Heero?" Zechs asked, in a tone of horrified amazement. Heero whimpered louder in reply. It was Zechs who had approached, and now stood about where Kent had been, from the sound of his voice.

Oh gods, please, don't let him decide to take a turn, too... Heero pleaded to some unknown deities.

He felt a hand slide down the curve of his rear and along his upper thigh, and could barely contain another scream, but the touch was clinical, not sexual. Zechs' hand came to rest lightly on Heero's back, in a protective manner.

"They've hurt you, Heero," Zechs murmured, apparently to himself as Heero was in no shape for conversation. "I can only pray they haven't broken you. But this... This is... "

"This is revenge," Jeremy suddenly interrupted fiercely. He seemed to have recovered form the shock of Zechs' arrival.

"Revenge for what?" Zechs demanded in his quiet, intense tone. "What could possibly justify this?"

"He killed my girlfriend, sir!" Jeremy wailed miserably, and Heero recognized the genuine grief in the man's voice. But he didn't care. Even if he had killed the girl, he wouldn't have cared.

"In cold blood?" Zechs asked. This seemed to surprise Jeremy, because he was quiet for a while.

"Well... no, sir. At a... a circus... a sneak attack, it was a trap... "

"He killed her in battle," Zechs interpreted, the hand resting gently on the back of Heero's tank top clenching slightly in the damp fabric. Zechs knew damn well Heero had never attacked a circus. The Lightning Count would know, as these lower rank soldiers would not, that the circus ambush had featured the performance of Gundam 03 piloted by Trowa Barton. Heero hoped Zechs wouldn't bring that fact up.

"She was a civilian, sir!" Jeremy protested.

"And you took her, in the midst of a war, a guerilla war no less, to a large gathering of Oz troops?" Zechs asked. Jeremy apparently nodded, because Zechs continued, "Then you only reaped what you sowed, pilot. This is war. People get killed. What happened is regrettable, but no more solely this boy's fault than the deaths of any of his friends would be yours. When you begin to take these things personally, it's time to leave the service."

Jeremy and Frank both gasped in shock.

"Sir, are you... throwing me out of Oz?" Jeremy demanded.

"Hardly," Zechs muttered. "That honor will go to General Khushrenada, following your court martial."

"C-court martial?" Frank whispered frantically. "B-but, sir, I... I didn't p-participate ­ "

"You were here, and you did nothing?" Zechs demanded.

"Uh...y-yes, sir."

"That is worse," Zechs declared grimly. "You're confined to quarters. If you attempt to escape, I will personally hunt you to the ends of the Earth."

"Yes, sir," Frank muttered miserably. But Jeremy had a little defiance left in him.

"He's nothing but an animal, sir. He de ­ "

"If you say he deserved it I will shoot you where you stand," Zechs interrupted coldly.

"Sir," Jeremy murmured sullenly, but Heero heard the sound of the two soldiers leaving. When they were gone, Zechs released a deep sigh, the hand on Heero's back relaxing to stroke gently. Heero shivered beneath the gentle touch. Zechs pulled his hand away.

"Heero... " he murmured.

"Can I go back to my cell now?" Heero asked flatly.

"I should take you to med bay, at least."

"I'd rather just go to my cell." Damn it, Zechs, I just want to go crawl in a corner and lick my wounds, not have them prodded at by more Oz bastards...

"All right, Heero. All right." Zechs carefully unlocked the manacles on Heero's ankles with a key taken from Kent's body. Heero lost consciousness sometime before his hands were free.

[part 6] [part 8] [back to Aoe's fic]