Author: Maldoror
Disclaimer: The usual, Gundam Wing belongs to it's owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. Not a single peanut.
Rated R for language, lots of violence, sexual content
see chap. 1 for more notes

Thanks to the War Room for a healthy dose of weirdness on occasion, and for poking me mercilessly for this next chapter. Yes, it all helps

The Source Of All Things + Chapter 21
Ringing The Bells of War

Lines fluctuated in a slow dance around Quatre, shivers of the sanctuary's effect on Centre's magnetic field, leylines, electrical currents and night tides. The view outside his window shimmered like northern lights in the back of his mind.

Quatre tried to ignore the mental view and concentrate on the scroll Trowa had given him. It was one of the rare texts on shamanism. Nightwalker knowledge and history was transmitted orally, in the shape of stories, legends, symbolic painting, songs and even one or two dirty jokes. This text had actually been written by a Techno anthropologist, a kind-hearted soul who had obviously fallen in love with the rich, animalistic culture he was studying. He had written down some of their ‘charming legends' and ‘quaint beliefs', adding his scientific analysis regarding the stories and their significance to a primitive people. In the margin of his analysing comments, the shaman who had originally bought the copy, out of curiosity, had written several amused and derogatory comments about the blind fool who wouldn't know a line if he tripped over it. But the meat of the shamanistic knowledge on basic lines and patterns had been written down correctly, Trowa had assured Quatre, and would serve as a good primer to teach the healer what most Nightwalker children knew from the earliest age.

Quatre drew a pattern on the table ­ unconsciously following a curlicue working its way across the grain, echoing a larger one on the wall near his head, twisting under whatever Svale was putting the sanctuary through today.

Trowa... had wanted to teach him everything himself. Quatre didn't need no stupid lines to know that the shaman wanted nothing more than to curl up in front of the fire wrapped only in a blanket for two, telling him all the fantastic, often funny legends that helped illustrate the lines of Centre and the universe around them.

Quatre had quickly manipulated the conversation away from personal tutoring before it had even been suggested, asking Trowa if he had any books that could teach the healer the basics without distracting the shaman from more important things and had anyone else noticed how gloomy and silent Heero had been the last couple of days? Maybe Trowa should talk to him...

Quatre hated himself for the slight look of regret and hurt that had crossed Trowa's eyes and rippled through the lines of his mind and body.

His fingernail scored the wood of the desk, the slow scritch-scritch echoing the increased throbbing of the lines around him, and the rising anger in his mind.

He hated himself but he...he was angry at Trowa as well, for the fact the shaman was about to make that suggestion. For not understanding that zero was a weapon of war and murder and didn't care for - Quatre's eyes dropped to the text in annoyance - for the Turtle's Tracks or the Great Bear's Way. It was like asking a bullet to care about the air it was slicing to reach its target. Actually - a sliver of wood made a little crackling sound as his fingers dug at the desk relentlessly - actually what he really resented was the fact that if Trowa understood this, understood just how zero was showing him the world, just how warped his 'gentle healer' was going to get, he'd never accept that; Trowa had shown him how to fight but he'd always preferred Quatre on the sidelines, always safe, always Trowa who protected him and look where that ended up, with the mage-bolt he'd taught Quatre to cast buried in Trowa's chest, and his lover would never accept that- what the hell was going on?!

Quatre stared down at his bloodied fingernail for a split second, at the whipping line he'd been trying to pin down into the wood's tattered grain, then he shot to his feet. The crash of the chair hitting the floor barely registered as the coiling of the sanctuary lines around him swamped his senses.

What- what was-...

This was going to end in one almighty-...

Trowa!!

Quatre lurched and stumbled blindly against the downed chair as it caught his legs. He righted himself and ran from the room, mind searching the pulsating lines for his lover's pattern.

---

The sanctuary had grown an extra mound like a huge boil on the top of the hill's crown. A select few of the ley stones had flocked to it like worshippers to a temple, and were now collected in two concentric rings. Three of them were lying on their sides in the center of the circles, at the very top of the mound, in a loose triangle.

Trowa looked at them with vague repulsion. Quatre might find the sanctuary's pattern beautiful, but Trowa felt its unnatural manipulation of Centre's lines like a constant toothache. The way it was dragging ley stones around like leashed puppies was positively indecent.

It had gotten even worse in the past three days. The morning after their return to the sanctuary, Quatre had shown Svale the heavily concealed entrance to the sanctuary's heart, burrowing deep beneath the earth. Trowa had been too weak to go with them, much to his annoyance and trepidation, but Quatre had described the scene to him, down to Svale squealing like a schoolgirl and lifting her skirts in a mad jig. Quatre had assured his lover that he was not scarred for life by the sight. To Trowa's relief, the healer had not accompanied her explorations but had returned to care for his patient. Trowa knew that Svale could fend for herself ­ she was too tough to kill ­ but he wanted Quatre to stay as far away from anything jishin as was possible while living in one of their sanctuaries.

Svale had reappeared at dawn the next day, exhausted and with a wary light in her eye that Trowa recognized, however much she tried to disguise it by fondling anything that came within arm's reach and drinking enough to put an ox in a coma. She'd slept three hours then had gone out again, and at the point the sanctuary started to seriously bend reality around it. Trowa felt the ache spread down into his very bones. Maybe he should have gone with Howard, who had left the day after they got back; the old man had left a note saying he would try to backtrack the cabalists who had attacked them and find out more about Duo and why the technos were after him. It was an important mission. But the shaman had a good reason to stay where he was despite that and the headaches. Svale was working on something particular and urgent, she claimed, but as soon as she was finished, they'd look into getting zero away from Quatre.

That was more important to Trowa than any discomfort.

The shaman winced as he entered the rings of stone, lines warping around him and twanging his bones like a xylophone. He shuddered and paused a moment to let the sensation fade, then he walked up to the figure sitting on one of the fallen slabs. He sat down without a word. The gentle hills rolled around them; their harmony, barely perceived through the sanctuary's interference, soothed the shaman slightly.

"Want to talk about it?" He finally asked. It wasn't his way to dig into other people's problems unless asked, but Heero, of course, would never do that. The strange warrior's uninterrupted silence and foreboding scowl for the past three days had made Quatre and Svale nervous, and they'd asked Trowa to talk to him.

Quatre was sensitive to people's health, mental state and feelings, and Svale was the queen of raw cunning, but they couldn't get anything out of Heero. He ignored Svale's ploys, when he didn't react brutally. And Quatre had never been able to feel much from Heero beyond a burning, relentless obsession for-... something. There might be feelings there but they were buried beneath that single-minded determination like the creak of wood was drowned out by the howl of a buzz saw.

Trowa relied on other instincts; he understood Heero on a level where words were treated like tools, sharp and dangerous. He didn't need Heero to talk and talk and vent. Trowa would simply outline what he thought, and then he would listen. Heero's words often made more sense than Quatre, Svale ­ or Duo ­ had ever realized. You just needed to listen and be ready to take intuitive leaps. And not waste Heero's time with meaningless questions and chatter, or he'd just ignore you. The trick was finding out what was meaningful to Heero.

The ley stones played cats-cradle with a small breeze whispering over the mound, weaving in the call of a few birds and the yip of a fox in the distance. The silence besides him was starting to take on a personality all of its own. Well, he hadn't really expected Heero to start pouring his heart out just because Trowa had offered a sympathetic ear.

"Quatre thinks you blame him." Trowa said abruptly, cutting right to the quick, as usual.

Silence.

He glanced at Heero out of the corner of his eye. The firm profile cut itself out from a light grey sky that had liquefied the sun. Heero gave no indication he'd heard the statement.

"He's very ­ " Trowa was about to say worried but, on instinct, changed it to: "-hurt."

Had the scowl deepened fractionally?

"You do blame him."

Trowa was about to add something else when Heero said: "No."

The shaman felt something unclench in his chest. Good. That would have been... he didn't want to think what he'd have done if Heero had held Quatre even partly responsible for any of this mess; for attacking Fen and starting a fight that had nearly cost them dearly, or for serving as hostage while Duo had escaped.

Reassured on that point, Trowa turned the next question around in his mind, carefully preparing his words as always, to say the most pared down the bare bones of what mattered. It was his nature, and it also served him well when it came to Heero.

"You were always suspicious of Duo." He finally said, slowly. For some reason, Heero always responded better to affirmations than questions.

Heero's scowl became downright deadly, with a certain amount of self-directed anger.

Trowa thought about his next words, discarding the obvious questions; 'how did you know', 'why didn't you tell us'. Heero never answered questions about how he perceived the world, he seemed to think everyone saw the same things he did. Which was probably why-

"No."

The shaman waited, then sighed internally. Great, the Heero Yuy Connect The Dots game. Well, if he continued to dig maybe another monosyllable would crop up.

Trowa leaned his elbows on his knees, chin resting on his clasped hands, and cast his mind back to their first meeting with Duo. His own impressions ­ the cabalists were right, Duo was a master at hiding himself; Trowa had felt very little suspicion about the young man. Even now... Even now, after all that had happened, and above all, what Duo had done to Quatre... Trowa was furious, and pained when he saw the strange distance in his lover's eyes; but he found that his feeling towards Duo was the hurt of having been betrayed by a friend, not the anger at having been manipulated by an enemy. His instincts had been trying to tell him that Duo might be more than he seemed from the start. But now they were telling him that the situation might not be all that clear cut either. Trowa sighed internally, knowing that none of his doubts would be apparent in his face or posture.

Trowa had always thought Heero was hostile towards Duo, or else he'd ignored the cheerful man. But Heero seemed to be denying this. The shaman tried to approach the question from another angle to see what Heero had to say.

"The first time he made a pass at you, I thought you were going to kill him. Er-..." Suddenly something occurred to Trowa. "Of course maybe you were offended at the idea of a man wanting to have sex with you." Heero seemed so removed from any concept of prudishness or conventionalities it had never occurred to him.

"He didn't want to have sex with me." Heero said unexpectedly. "He wanted to control me."

"...How do you know?" Trowa asked carefully.

Heero gave him a long stare, apparently that that had been a very stupid question on Trowa's part. It must have been obvious to Heero. Trowa sighed and rubbed his forehead. He was getting a headache, an aftertaste of pain lingering behind his eyes. And no wonder...

"If you knew that, Heero, then why didn't you - "

A memory struck Trowa, of the conversation he'd had with Heero that day they'd met Duo by the river Reg and fought the mountain bandits. In view of what Trowa knew now it almost made him choke and he had to swallow before he could say, in a low voice: "After that first pass... Was it because I told you not to hurt Duo unless he became an immediate threat? Is that why you left him alone even though you knew he was trying to control -"

"No."

Trowa glanced at him sharply. And for once, Heero elaborated. It was as if he was trying to explain it to himself.

"... Duo tried to control me at first, but he stopped when we got here. And then he was... different. He was..."

A flicker of emotion was chased by a slight look of surprise as if it had caught Heero off guard. He seemed to be searching for a word.

"What, a friend?" Trowa asked. It was meant to be sarcastic. It came out with a shiver of the hurt he was feeling instead.

Heero frowned, his eyes wandering over the heather-speckled hills as if they contained a piece of the information he was missing. "I... don't..."

Trowa was getting rather worried. This was like a caricature of ‘his' Heero; a pitiful nervous wreck compared to the unstoppable force he usually was. Maybe he's hurting too, Trowa thought. The way Heero had attacked Duo rather contradicted that conclusion. He'd seemed so very sure then. He seemed so very confused now.

"Friend." The word was quiet, and said with concentration. It reminded Trowa of the way Heero had said 'sex' when they'd first met, when investigating what the shaman and the healer were getting up to that was so noisy.

"You don't know what the word means, do you?" Trowa said resignedly, knowing Heero wouldn't answer that one. But he was beginning to understand how Heero thought. He seemed to have encyclopaedic knowledge about primitive or magical weaponry, as well as simple transportation, survival skills and one-man combat techniques. The rest was pretty much a blank. When Heero stumbled across a notion that was new to him, he'd repeat the word he associated with it, as if he were educating himself. This didn't happen often. He didn't seem interested in seeking knowledge outside of anything that could help him fight better. Weapons held his attention effortlessly. Human relations and emotions only intrigued him when he had his nose rubbed in them.

Well better correct the misapprehension.

"Heero." Trowa said firmly. "Duo may have acted friendly, but he is not a friend. He's - ... " Trowa found himself reluctant to classify Duo as an enemy. He wasn't sure how Heero would react to Duo next time he saw him. Trowa wasn't sure how he'd react himself, but he wanted room to manoeuvre. He...oh, he didn't want to think about that. Not with his head pounding. He'd ask Quatre to apply a little healing spell when he finished this - for the lack of better term - conversation.

"Is that what's bothering you?" Trowa continued his questioning, dodging the awkward tangle of Duo's allegiances. "That he was acting like a friend while trying to manipulate us?"

Once more, an emotion and a hint of uncertainty flickered across Heero's face.

"He didn't beat me, Trowa...but he won." Heero finally said; his voice was as close to a question, to communication, as it had ever been, and Trowa felt that that was as much a defeat as the concession.

"I'd call it a draw myself." Trowa hazarded. That didn't seem to satisfy Heero. Come to think of it, Duo had gotten off scot-free after possessing Quatre, causing the healer to hurt Trowa, to kill Fen... It hadn't been a draw, Duo had never had any intention of fighting Heero in the first place. And he'd gotten away with it. He'd beaten them all and he hadn't even thrown a punch.

Apparently this wasn't something that fit into Heero's view of the world.

Quatre had told Trowa what Duo had said before disappearing. Trowa was clinging to it, since it gave him the hope that this powerful unknown entity was in fact on their side, or, to be more exact, not entirely an enemy. That was about as close as he'd let Duo get right now, he thought grimly, and Quatre probably felt the same way. But however mad he was at Shinigami ­ Shi No Kami, according to Svale and Heero ­ there was one point he had to concede.

"Duo was right about one thing, Heero. Brute strength isn't enough to win a confrontation." If pure power were the only determining factor there'd be no point trying to fight Jusan at all; he was the toughest son of a bitch in the galaxy to date. Actually they were probably all walking corpses whatever Duo said, but that was beside the point. They still had a chance, and a few months to prepare. Heero was an integral part of this preparation. "Even the deadliest fighter can't win if the opponent circumvents him, or manages to subdue him by other means. It's not just Duo. Remember Fen?"

Trowa really didn't like doing this. As far as he could tell, fighting was Heero's life. More than that. It was his reason for being. His existence seemed geared around the drive to become the best warrior there was. The best weapon, Trowa thought, and frowned at the strangeness of that notion. It made him uneasy.

Heero was scowling even more.

"I would have killed Fen." He said abruptly. "I was stronger."

"Yes, and he knew that so he took you out of the equation before you could use your strength." Trowa rubbed the back of his neck, trying to relieve the pain.

Heero stood abruptly, took two steps away from the stone, arms crossed, glaring at the countryside as if it were to blame for the basic deviousness of life.

"I will get better." Heero muttered. Trowa closed his eyes wearily. I've lost this round, he thought, too monopolized by pain to truly care. Still, Trowa was ready to bet that between Fen, Duo and himself, seeds had been planted that would crack the concrete blinders around Heero's vision of the world. Now... was this a good thing?

"Quatre will get better too. Whatever the cost." Heero said firmly and approvingly, and turned to walk away from the shaman.

Trowa shot to his feet, eyes blazing, mouth open in a shout of denial-

- which turned into a gasp of blood-red pain.

Something jarred him. The ground. He'd fallen to his knees. From a very long distance away he felt his hands gripping his face, and in his narrowing vision he saw Heero look down at him in surprise. Heero's face was warping as if Trowa was being encased in ice, the air in the circle of stone freezing around him. A vibration started. Slowly, like a heartbeat deep beneath them, where the sanctuary met the source, pulsing through the entire hill. The pace was increasing with slow finality. The helpless shaman knew that when the beat reached its screaming peak the ice around him would shatter into a million particles, shredding him to pieces-

The ice liquefied slowly and left him thrashing around weakly. He felt arms around him and clung like a drowning man, and the scent of the rough cotton cloth was so familiar he thought he was going to laugh with relief. The agony receded, the insanity of that pulse ripping through his mind abated, and he was in a calm oasis and in Quatre's arms.

"Shhh. It's going to be alright." Quatre's voice tried to be soothing but it was pitched a lot higher than usual and was trembling with effort. Trowa's mind swam back to reality, wincing as he could still feel the wringing of lines around them beyond the sphere of protection Quatre had woven.

"It'll be over s-"

"Hn!" Heero's grunt was pained. Trowa cracked his eyes open, expecting a blinding pain but finding only mild discomfort. Heero was kneeling next to Quatre, his hands over his ears for all the good that would do, looking around him bewildered. Even a non-mage, assuming that was what Heero was, could feel the magical riot going on around them.

"What's going on?" Trowa asked, stunned.

"Svale- She's-... Uh oh, hang on." Quatre winced and gripped Trowa tighter.

The shaman tried to tell Quatre not to take any risks; he could feel the way the blonde was pushing away the lines that were trying to strangle them, and he knew only one way he could be doing that. Zero. He didn't want Quatre to push himself too far, to kill himself to save Trowa.

His words were drowned by the sudden spiralling increase of the vibration and the world dissolved into a swirl of motion which ended in one, gigantic pulse. Even Quatre shouted and was thrown to the ground by the massive release of mystical energy that rippled from the sanctuary, making it ring like a gong, before disappearing like a tidal wave ripping across the land towards the horizon.

And then silence fell again.

---

Imp was a simple creature. After all, it had been created from stone, mud and blood; these humble origins weren't the makings of a great philosopher.

Imp liked to eat. The electrolytes in blood kept imp's silicate portions healthy; the organic elements were unnecessary to imp in theory but it still thought they were yummy and besides, it gave the fluid a distinctive, individual flavour.

Imp also liked to sleep. It was detached from its worries then and left to connect with the deep, deep dreams of the earth, its mother.

Imp loved its father too, its master, Duo. Though that love was being tested after three days without food, and its master's constant pacing interrupting imp's morning nap.

Imp sighed, a little whistling sound, and poked its head out of the bedroll. It did love its master. It didn't have to; the spell that created it only enforced obedience. And a casual observer would say imp's master didn't always treat it kindly ­ but that would be ignorance speaking. It was actually impossible to hurt a rock, so as long as Duo fed it and let it sleep there was actually little the man could do to be cruel to it. Imp loved Duo because Duo was nice to it and talked to it, once it'd learned to avoid showing too much kindness and love towards its master when he was in one of his moods. As Duo had said, it brought out his worst side, reminding him of what was forever beyond his reach; the pain bringing out Shi No Kami. Imp knew that for all its love and devotion, it couldn't replace what had been lost; but Duo always treated imp like it was a creature in its own right, an ally. Sometimes even a friend.

Duo reached one end of the gulley that held them and the mountain spring captive. The figure, once more clad in his disguise of worn black leathers, turned sharply on his heels, braid flying, and walked the eleven steps ­ that number was beginning to burn into imp's simple inorganic brain ­ back to the other side of the cleft in the ravine. Duo's face was a parody of his usual relaxed grin. A one-sided smile that was crueller than a serrated knife. This did not surprise imp, he'd seen this side of his master before, but it would surprise anyone on Centre who knew Duo Maxwell the waif, or the jester, or the small-time crook or any other guise he'd worn. A few humans had seen this side of Duo but none had cared to discuss the chilling effects with imp. In fact, none of them had survived that apparition for more than a minute. No one knew of this Duo Maxwell, because he only left corpses in his wake.

Probably Duo was edgy because he had run out of things to do, imp thought. The first days after the plan had taken a bit of a blow, Duo had run around salvaging what he could. He'd made sure that he couldn't be backtracked to their hideout and that the others would not be able to find out more about him ­ insuring that all the leads to him were dead, or at least terrorized into silence. Then Duo and imp had looked into the origins of the healer who had unexpectedly incorporated zero. It proved difficult, Quatre had moved around a lot during his young life, going to whatever clinic his order sent him to. After considerable backtracking they had discovered he was the scion of desert dwelling folk, who were reputed for their skills at mathematics, geometry, astronomy, strategy and chess. Even imp had been a bit scared by the look on Duo's face at that point. Duo had spent a few minutes banging his head against the wall before porting imp to Howard's ship to warn the old man to get the hell out of there on any excuse, before Quatre started tinkering with zero and looked at Howard a bit too closely. Imp knew that Howard would be needed later, but he would have to stay away until things had progressed to the point it would no longer matter if the healer discovered the technologist had been working with Shinigami all this time.

Duo had slept for almost twenty four hours after that, exhausted by the past few months, the efforts at dodging Heero without showing up on any enemy radars, and with the hustle to shore up what he could of the plan. Imp had been grateful to see its master getting some rest and had curled up by his side for a nice long nap. But it looked like rest time was over.

"Master, maybe we should sort through your things again and see if anything can help us?" Imp suggested brightly. One of imp's other simple pleasures was going through Duo's collection of treasures like a chuckling magpie. It didn't know what most of the shiny magical things did, but it liked them, and it knew Duo could sometimes find new uses for them if he thought about it.

"Shut up." Duo muttered as he turned at the wall and continued to pace to the other side.

Imp sighed again and shrugged. It had been worth a try. Maybe-

"Shut up."

Imp blinked and opened its mouth to point out it hadn't said anything. But being simple didn't make it dumb and it caught itself in time. What was Duo -

"Shut up shut up shut up shut up!"

Imp's little mouth hung open but it didn't notice. Uh ho...

"Bakayaroo!" The word burst from Duo and made him stagger before his quick pacing resumed; his worn leathers twitched and jerked, shaping into buckles here and there, tightening slowly. "Hn. Shut up." Duo added.

Imp fluttered nervously from the blanket and perched on a saddlebag. "Master... ?" it whispered.

"Shut the fuck up. Iee! No, the plan is still-... kk!" Duo nearly slammed into the rock face.

He stood still for a few seconds, head sunk into his arms against the cold stone of the ravine. The leathers swirled, curling around his body like formless silk, shaping up again into something harder, smoother and dark as murder. Imp took a fluttering hop nearer then back to the saddlebag again, wondering what to say. And knowing that Duo would probably not be able to hear it anyway.

"It will-! Damn it! Five years! I-!"

Duo straightened away from the rock in a violent movement, spinning, energy sparking from his rippling armour, his hair crackling with mana. Eyes wide and angry.

"You have no right... " Duo hissed, glaring at the rocks around him. "You have no right! I've done everything I could, I- aah!" He flinched then snarled and straightened again.

"Fuck. You." Energy started to swirl and imp whimpered a protest. "You heard me! I've plotted and planned and lied and ­ and killed and you, you died - you left me all alone!"

The scream ripped through air and rock, cracking boulders and making dust and debris dance in the ravine. Imp gripped the saddlebag and furled in its wings, helpless to stop the explosion.

"You bastards! I've set it all up! It will work or nothing will! I did what I can and you - are - dead!" The smooth black material on the slim body juddered once, and small spikes began to curl up and harden like claws along his arms and back.

"You no longer have the right to ­ shut up! No! I couldn't-! What good would that do! Are you insane?! I won't! If I harmed them what would that accomplish -! Oh that's just great, that's real smart! I can't force them to fight! Well, him I can but he doesn't have Wing and ­ no! Wing is Heero's, and I can't get it off of him -! Just leave me the fuck alone! All on me, it's been all on me! I'm - aaaahh!"

Imp flinched as its master screamed in fury and agony, glaring at the sky above them, lost in the tumult in his mind. It wanted to go to Duo, it wanted to do something. But Duo had warned it before that it was too dangerous to interfere with him in these cases. Stone and bone, imp thought bitterly. It hadn't been this bad in years. Everything had been going well. More than well. In fact Duo had accomplished minor miracles to get this far... why was it so bad? The plan was already in motion. Just because Duo's role had been discovered didn't change anything this late in the game.

Imp suspected that the voices in Duo's head had detected a weakness; and they were notorious for coming down strongly on that. ‘If I harmed them', Duo had said. Was that it? 'Them'? Was it because, for the first time in five years of manipulating animals who were only trying to use him in turn, Duo had stumbled upon people who had accepted him at face value? Who had asked nothing of him? Had tried to befriend him? Imp has seen its master's eyes dim when he'd been forced to attach the shihai on the healer. It had flinched from Duo's face, rigid with anger and pain, when he'd come back from a fight with Heero to tell imp that the plan would now have to manage on its own or not at all, as he could no longer go near his former companions without being attacked. And now Duo was alone again. Imp wondered if its master missed the others. He shouldn't. His kind shouldn't miss humans, shouldn't need them; it was a weakness. But after five years of solitude... Was that why the voices were so much crueller than usual?

Duo had staggered and fallen to his knees in the middle of the ravine. He was clutching his bare forearms, and the armoured gloves had pierced the skin, sending little tears of blood cascading down the white flesh. Imp whimpered, though it knew that the pain was necessary to its master, the only way Duo could anchor what was left of his mind to his body, as well as expiate his sin, the sin of his survival. He was snarling in the old tongue, words biting and curtailing each other so quickly imp could no longer follow the argument. But Imp overheard a few whimpers in a voice he knew.

"... Solo... help me... make them see... did all I could... Solo... please... don't leave me, I can't, I can't be alone... I- What the-... "

Duo suddenly flinched and tensed, head coming up like a hound scenting the wind. His eyes were focused, and hard as his mother's bones, as the saying went. Imp trembled, wondering what was coming.

Duo opened his mouth, eyes widening. Then he put his hands over his ears, smearing blood on his face; his spirit shield slammed into place. Imp instinctively gripped the saddlebag again.

Then the sound came.

The cry of the phoenix was a mere bird's chirp next to this noise. Not so much sound as pressure, as if the planet were inside a huge bell. What felt like a single huge tremor ran through the crust of the earth, rippling past them faster than the speed of sound, but incredibly leaving no damage behind it, apart from a nasty sympathetic ring in imp's stones that made it topple off the saddlebag with a weak ‘gah!'

When it scrabbled up, Duo was still in the same position, kneeling with his bloodied hands over his ears, eyes focused on something imp could not see. When he spoke, it was not the voice of the solitary young man crushed by what he had to do; it was the voice of Shi No Kami who had accepted his fate with a disturbing laugh and a smirk, formulated the plan, and killed hundreds without hesitation or remorse to put it in motion.

"Well, well, well... looks like that lecherous old lady managed to get it right. You guys can go back to being dead now." Duo's voice cut like diamonds. "End game has begun and I don't need your whining and carrying on to compromise it. The dice are cast. Let's see what Juusan does now."

Duo licked the blood off a finger casually, then laughed. It was a sound that made even imp go cold.

"Well of course the Scourge might send a herald. In fact I'm rather counting on it! I have that covered, I have it all covered now. Or at least I'd better! Or we're all well and truly fucked and the galaxy with us. Hmmm. The next few months are gonna be fun... "

Duo stood up slowly, eyes on the sky where the grey clouds were roiling from the shaking of the earth below them. "Fun... " he whispered and the smile flickered. "Though maybe not for Heero and the others. I hope... too late for that, I suppose. Unless... Well, it depends on the Scourge now. Come on, imp! We've got a lot to do and little time to do it in."

"What are we going to do, master?" Imp asked as it fluttered over to Duo's shoulder, flying in unsteady zigzags as it tried to get its stones to stop vibrating. It avoided the areas where Duo's armour was repairing his minor self-inflicted injuries, finally settling on Duo's shoulder, careful not to touch the hair.

"Do? We're going to check one last time that everything is ready, all the players in place, all systems go... and then I'm gonna get drunk for a week. I should imagine that's all the time I'll have."

---

Wufei ignored the men he passed as he walked towards Jusan's quarters. He'd dismissed them days ago as carrion, cheap mercenaries beneath contempt. They parted fearfully before him.

He gave a minimal nod to two Dragons guarding the door to the systems' room. They returned full salutes. Wufei sighed internally. These were the lowest caste of Dragons, and they were simple men; they didn't understand the politics of alliance and allegiance and the fact that Wufei wasn't yet their war leader. For them the deal was done already, and they were obviously relieved. Wufei was solitary by nature, and this clinging to him was annoying, even though he tried to accept it gracefully. In his mind a man shouldn't depend on others for his pride, for his reason to live, fight and die. He should find his own. Wufei had. Its name was Wing.

He sipped his coffee abruptly, ignoring the way it scalded his tongue. The thought had triggered a memory; he'd had that dream again. In that dream, Wing was not the purpose but only a means to an end, leading to something so important, so urgent, that it burned his very soul... but he'd lost it, it was cloaked in darkness and the memory of pain. The dream made him writhe in shame; the loss had driven him to his knees, and his weakness and his grief were put on open display. And then the ultimate insult, an offer of comfort. In his dream he'd clung to that gentle hand like a pathetic-...forget it, probably just the remains of his conscience torturing him about his decision to join Jusan. He was due the occasional nightmare, considering his circumstances.

He wasn't in the best of moods as he opened the doors to Jusan's sanctum without knocking. He didn't see why he should waste his time signalling his presence; Jusan knew the position of every person on this ship, particularly someone as strong as Wufei, and if the Scourge didn't want to be disturbed, a gravity bomb wouldn't get that door open. Still for some reason the absence of this useless little courtesy annoyed Jusan. Wufei considered that a bonus.

"And good morning to you too." Jusan said sardonically. He'd probably sensed Wufei's mood from hundreds of feet away. The tall figure was sitting in his chair - where he had probably materialized shortly before Wufei opened the door - obviously waiting for his obstreperous guest.

Wufei grunted and looked around absently. A small tray materialized two feet away from him at chest height, floating in mid-air. The dragon gave it a distasteful look but placed his cup on it without comment. He jerked the buttons on the side of his tunic.

"What are we doing today?" He asked, without wasting his time on small talk.

Jusan stood and made a show of thinking, a long finger tapping the thin lips. Wufei wondered, not for the first time, why the creature bothered with all these little mannerisms; the Scourge had been among humans too long.

"I'll continue to stimulate the growth of the nano-morphs on the chest plate, then we'll have a look at its energy levels." Jusan finally declared.

"When are you going to repair the CPU?" Wufei asked tightly. He missed having his little beam of information twinkling in his eye.

"I'll save that for last, once autonomous functions are restored. Otherwise I might miss a connection between the parts' processes and the headpiece, and you'd find yourself unable to fully integrate them without having to do a whole lot of resetting and recalibrating."

"Oh very well." Wufei grumbled. He had the tunic off now, tied carelessly around his waist; a thought sent Shenlong stretching and dancing across his chest. "How long until the chest plate is complete again?"

He glanced up at the silence. Jusan was a few feet away, face blank, staring at a point a few inches to Wufei's left. The expression on the patrician features was so unusual that the Dragon glanced over his shoulder with some alarm to see what -

The chair, tray and Jusan dematerialized with a whoosh that buffeted Wufei and sent papers flying across the room. The crash of the coffee cup smashing on the floor was the only physical sound but the mental roar nearly knocked the Dragon unconscious.

// THEY DARE!!//

Wufei groaned as Jusan's presence swamped him, burst from the sanctum and burned in the psyche of all on Libra.

//Those little worms, those apes, they dare to oppose me?! They dare to deny me from what is mine?! They think this will stop me?! If it's war they want they'll get it!//

The mental turmoil died down. Wufei gasped; he'd fallen to his knees with his hands over his head in an instinctive gesture of defence. He glanced up. Jusan had materialized again and was glaring at him.

"Stand up, Dragon. We have work to do. I may be several months away from Centre and whatever pitiful little plots are hatching there, but you aren't. I hope you rested well last night, you will not have many hours of sleep until you get onto that shuttle and go and see exactly what the hell they think they're doing on that mudball."

"Fine by me." Wufei said carefully, standing and continuing to deploy Shenlong. He didn't ask Jusan to explain, he knew he'd be told what his soon-to-be liege and employer wanted him to do once he got to Centre.

He squirreled away in the back of his mind a little wisp of thought. That moment when Jusan had lost it - and that was a millennium-defining event right there - Wufei had been nearly crushed by the anger pouring from the Scourge. He was ready to bet the ship was now littered with whimpering crewmen who'd be in shock for hours. Wufei's mind and will were much stronger than that, even though he'd been at ground zero. Not only had he not been damaged by the display, he remembered something else about the event, a little tinge of emotion to the anger, something Jusan probably didn't want him to know about. He turned the memory over and over in the back of his mind, counting on the Scourge's distraction to shield it from him. That little speck of feeling, that drop of emotion...it was not something he recognized ever feeling from Jusan before. In fact it took him a few minutes to figure out what it had been.

A hint of fear.

Wufei glanced down at Shenlong's throbbing metal plating. He hoped Jusan would accelerate the process now. Wufei could take it. He wanted to get back to Centre more than ever now.

He was getting very curious.

---

Birds were screeching and wheeling in alarm some distance away from the Sanctuary. But within the stone perimeter there was only a deathly, ringing silence. Any creature that had not managed to bolt away from the sanctuary was now lying on the ground, stunned. Svale walked in a stagger through the stone circles, occasionally slipping on a worm that had wrenched itself from the sod in panic. Her hair was fluffed and crackling as if she'd stuck her fingers in a live socket, and her eyes were glazed. The leer on her face was undefeated though.

"Whoohooo! That'll clear your sinuses!!"

She was pinned down by three angry stares.

"...What?" She asked innocently.

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