Author: Maldoror
Genre: Action, Adventure, Humour, AU
Pairings: 3x4, 2x5, eventual 1x2x5
Rated:NC17 - for language, lots of violence, yaoi, sexual content
Feedback: Please! Particularly what you like/don't like about the fic.
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing belongs to its 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

AN: Whew, done! I'm soooo sorry for the delay! But I was neither lazy nor uninspired; this chapter was delayed because I realized, within a few paragraphs, that there are small and subtle threads starting here that will influence details in the chapters to come (bloody Zero system, grumble), so I had to sit down and do a lot of detailed planning on some of the aspects of the coming story, since I really hate writing myself into a corner ^^; It's also quite long; I had to cut it in two. I'll post the next chapter in a few days. It's written, but I need to make sure it doesn't contradict anything that's about to come, which means I need to go over the details one more time, once I've beaten RL into submission once again.
Enjoy!

And huge thanks for the GWAddiction reviews, as well as all the people who poked me and prodded me, in the nicest of ways ^_^ Particularly Sol, who helped me out with teh I/O thing.

In case it's confusing, […] is Quatre’s I/O interface with Zero. It’s him running programs and Zero giving him the results.

The Source Of All Things + Chapter 36
Parameters of Life and Death, Part I

Zero was busy calculating the parameters of Juusan’s arrival and worrying about the distant fate of the universe, but it did spare a few transactions to drop Quatre a warning about the arrow aimed at his head.

The healer distractedly leaned sideways a few degrees to the left. The arrow brushed by, close enough to stir a few strands of hair, and made a pinging noise and a wooden clatter as it struck the rock behind him.

Quatre quickly glanced around. Trowa was ten feet away, hunkered behind a rock, and hadn’t noticed. Good. After a second of consideration, the healer put out a discreet foot and nudged the broken arrow’s remains into a small bush, out of sight. Trowa had to concentrate on repelling their attackers and getting them to the Anima source. He didn't need to be distracted by close shaves.

Oh, by the way, Zero, if you could spare a moment - I know you’re busy with the fate of the universe in ten billion years and all that important stuff, but would you mind telling me who took a shot at me? And give me a bit more of a warning next time?

[Threat # 134 Origin Enquiry. Program: 'Injury Prevention' - chain to program: ‘Search- Neutralize-Destroy’]

Zero didn’t run the programs. It informed Quatre, as huffily as a spell in the shape of an algorithm could, that the shot had been random: a wild arrow loosed from a bow at the moment one of Trowa’s bolts had caught the shooter in the chest. Zero was good, but it couldn’t quite predict the unpredictable; randomness could be tamed by the suitable application of chaos theory, but not without time for the computations, more information and-

Some help you are. Just...give it a rest, Quatre thought tiredly.

[Program: ‘Search-Neutralize-Destroy’ - Aborted. Purge cache.]

Zero went back to trying to predict the end of the universe, Juusan's defeat, and how to get them out of their present predicament. Quatre had long ago stopped trying to realign Zero's priorities; it was more trouble than it was worth. As long as their survival and victory over the Scourge was in there somewhere...

One of their attackers took Trowa's next bolt in the stomach. It fell to the ground, yipping like a wounded coyote. The remaining archers bayed. Quatre poked his head cautiously around a clump of rocks.

Howard had dropped them off at the edge of the jungle, near the equator, halfway around the world from Svale’s sanctuary. He would have flown them to the Anima source directly, but the canopy was too dense for a landing. Not that he could have safely taken them anywhere near the jungle, as it turned out; some source or other within the green ocean started disrupting the navigation computer on his spaceship almost a mile away. Howard was a techno-cabalist used to the vagaries of Centre, its massive interference with anything technological, its almost playful power surges and drains that made most complex machines hard to rely on, or liable to blow up in your face. His ship had wards placed over all the sensitive elements, and techno-cabalist mandalas on the hull. Howard had flown that ship through the savage, chaotic Mater region without a hitch. But the disruption to the sources' boundaries caused by the planetary shield defeated even the cunning old man's usual precautions. He'd had to ditch his passengers at the edge of the jungle and return to orbit, where he waited for their signal to come and pick them up again.

Quatre had sensed something wrong as soon as they walked into the thick brush. Patterns of mystical energy lay all around them like tripwires. Trowa had seen them too; this was his element, after all. He led the small party through the dense vegetation stifling with raw life force, and tried not to disturb anything. They’d walked for over an hour, and had nearly reached the Anima source, when they realized that something was coming for them, trying to surround them in the dense woods. Trowa had led the party at a run towards a rocky outcropping that pierced the canopy a few hundred yards from their path. They had managed to clamber up the steep side of the promontory and take refuge among its rocks before their pursuers could catch up with them. They had a clear shot at their attackers, while being able to protect themselves somewhat. If they’d been caught out in the jungle, they’d have been submerged.

The creatures barked and yowled at the shores where the sea of trees broke against the island of rock. Quatre, with his Zero-enhanced vision, could see the lines moving the creatures. They were artificial; even a cursory observation revealed them to be too identical, too predictable, with none of the flashes of originality, of true genius or utter stupidity, that living creatures were always endowed with. These were products of a source; even Trowa didn't know which one, or which god or legend they represented.

They had the skin and bodies of men, but their jaws were elongated into furless muzzles, their noses stretched and reddened into snouts. They wore identical robes, simple white linen with red sashes and wide metal collars. Cloth headdresses were cinched in by metal bands looped over jackal-like ears. Their eyes were scarred over with pale patches of flesh, like clay that had been clumped into the socket and roughly smoothed with fingers. That didn't make their aim any less accurate; they all had small, wickedly curved bows shooting short barbed arrows at the trespassers.

“Are you all right, my young friend?”

Quatre, lost in visions of the future and strategies for the present, merely nodded distractedly at S. The warden looked at him anxiously, until Quatre, trying to avoid a conversation that would only distract him at this point, crawled away to rejoin Trowa.

S followed him. The warden had arrived at the Sanctuary a day after G, and he’d opted to come with them, to help them gain the stone from the Anima source and lead them through the jungle. The elderly shaman was armed with a staff, but at this point he wasn’t very useful. Trowa was keeping the attackers at bay on one side of the plateau they were on, and Fen’s whip was keeping them at a respectful distance on the other. Quatre couldn’t see Fen; a further outcrop of shrub-ridden rock blocked the Phoenix from their view. But from the way their enemy moved, and the lines of the future, he knew Fen was still standing steadily against the attackers, who seemed terrified of Epyon.

They were holding their enemy off, but that wasn’t enough. Sooner or later, Trowa would run out of bolts, and Fen…well, Fen would probably be okay, but…there was a series of nasty little equations called 'Fen - Motivations' running at the back of Quatre’s mind, and he wasn’t liking some of the results they occasionally threw up. No, they had to-

[Pattern disruption of enemy movement - 89%]

- had to find a way to…to force the issue…

[Speculate as to cause: enemy has adopted new strategy: 67% - covering for loss of team-mates: 23% - start of a retreat: 4.6% - other causes fall below probability threshold. Concentrating on most likely cause: enemy has adopted new strategy. Calculate and counter new strategy. Program: ‘Tree of Probability’]

From the basic premise, various futures unfolded like branches before Quatre's eyes. At the tip of each blossomed a simple number: the chances of the success of the mission. The priorities of which were, to have as many of them reach the Anima source as possible, while maximizing the chances of survival of Zero's carrier.

“I’m worried about Fen.”

Quatre was already acting on the branch leading to the best choice before he had time to think. Thinking dropped their survival numbers considerably.

“I should go see if he’s okay.” Quatre started to stand up.

“No, stay here!” Trowa hissed.

“I’ll go,” S offered.

Quatre promptly sat down, and heard his own voice add: “If you go around that side of that heap of rocks, you should be protected from projectiles from below.”

“Good idea, young man. I’ll make the cry of the screech owl if we’re in trouble, Trowa.”

Trowa grunted as he loosed a bolt at an imprudent jackal. It turned tail and crawled away, yipping, with an arrow in its thigh.

Quatre stared blindly at the air where Zero was drawing its patterns, and counted the seconds in his head, his mind still focused on a stratagem he was more feeling than plotting. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was counting down to - then S suddenly cried out in alarm behind them, and he knew.

Zero had been right: their attackers had switched tactics. The jackals had left only a few of their remaining numbers to pin down the defenders and had been circling the base of the outcropping, out of sight, looking for the best way up to attack. They had the intelligence of animals, unable to really plan a concerted charge; Zero had deduced this from their strategy to date. S's movements along the promontory had drawn them instinctively, like a pack of wolves after a singled-out deer. They'd found a way up in the part where his path to Fen dipped the lowest, and they were now boiling up the slope towards him, clambering up the rocks and bushes of a gulley whose walls protected them from Trowa and Fen.

Quatre heard Trowa gasp and start to rise behind him-

"S. Duck."

Fortunately, S obeyed the healer's command instantly.

The mage-bolt passed over the warden and hit the rocky face opposite the gulley the jackals were climbing, at the precise spot Zero dictated. The rock cracked and split, and a huge boulder detached itself and crunched down into the ravine.

Quatre whipped his hand back without even looking - a wall of force shot up between the standing Trowa and the arrow headed for his heart.

The movement had been instinctive. The healer glanced back to take stock. Trowa was standing. A shattered arrow hovered near his chest, caught in Quatre’s hasty force field. But Trowa's left arm was raised, and the protective wrist guard was poised to intercept the arrow that had never reached it.

"I can read lines too." Trowa's voice was dull. He sounded numb. He was staring over Quatre's head where, the healer knew without looking, S had used his staff to finish off the two jackals who hadn't been caught by the boulder.

"The last six creatures will charge any time now. They do not understand defeat," the healer informed him. He was ready to bet Trowa had figured out that Quatre had used S for bait, and that couldn’t be good; but victory was still a few crucial steps away and that took priority. "Be ready."

Trowa knelt, crossbow swinging towards the targets that would soon be visible. His movements were slow and steady, but his eyes looked as blind as if he'd had the time to invoke the Sight and bind them with his headband.

"He's a warden, Trowa," Quatre said, reasonably, since they still had forty to fifty seconds before the final charge. "He's pretty much unkillable." And S wasn't doing much good here, with just a staff against an opponent who was out of reach.

Trowa was silent.

"If I'd asked him to do it, he would have gone," Quatre added. "I just didn't have the time. They'd have found another way up in a minute, another path where I couldn't have-"

"Don't." The word was soft, almost covered by the thunk of the crossbow releasing its next bolt.

So, you don't want to listen to reason? You would prefer that I stand back and let you, or Fen or S, die? Is that better than being useful?

[In his perception - Affirmative]

Quatre shot a furious 'purge' command at Zero's cold calculation, and was ignored. Zero knew its priorities. A little equation it had been working on for a while now, even though Quatre repeatedly asked it not to, found a few more parameters added to it. Zero was programmed to defend its owner against harm and to give Quatre as much control over the outcome of the future and its battles as possible. And Trowa, the spell had long ago judged, was a serious impediment to Quatre's efficiency and control.

I care too much about what he thinks. And what he thinks...is that I should stay his gentle, defenceless healer. He wants to keep control of me. Keep me safe - and harmless - by his side. Those thoughts belonged to Quatre, but they were born from a part of his mind that he’d cauterized from his emotions, with Zero’s help, to give him some objectivity and distance from the strategies he had to implement. It wasn't quite the 'Stone Rose' program, which would jettison all emotional connections, but it was close. Quatre’s emotional being tried to object to those thoughts about Trowa, but it wasn't a logical entity, and it was having a hard time opposing Zero's cold and measured conclusions, particularly when the level, less emotional Quatre was reluctantly drawing the same ones.

The last jackal died five feet away from their improvised shelter. Quatre had had a mage-bolt ready, but he'd held off using it when it was obvious Trowa could deal with the creature before it reached them. Maybe this show of helplessness, of letting Trowa defend him, would stabilize their relation once more, and put off for a bit longer the inevitable confrontation and break-up which was clearly ahead. The break-up which would leave him free of all emotional ties, free to take up 'Stone Rose', the program that would allow him to focus only on the future and no other weaknesses. .

He was in no hurry for that to happen. He held on to the pain he felt like a lifeline, as Trowa stood up slowly and looked at him like he was a stranger.

"All safe on this side, I see."

Fen came striding across the path, glancing indifferently at the mess at the bottom of the gulley as he passed. It had been his choice to defend their position by himself...in a spot where, if they'd all been killed, Fen could have stood with his back against a cliff and defended himself alone just as well. Quatre thought he knew the basis of that decision and he didn't like a lot of the conclusions Zero was drawing about Fen. That was one of the reasons Quatre had insisted on coming with the group, though Trowa had been rather reluctant to include him.

The other reason Quatre would not be left behind was the stone they were going to fetch. It was one of the key parameters to defeating Juusan, and Zero would not be anything less than involved in securing it.

And he also wanted to make sure Trowa was safe; Quatre found he had to add this to the list of the mission parameters, again. Zero tended to drop that one if the healer wasn’t paying attention.

There was some resistance from the spell. Equations and lines flashed in Quatre's mind. Trowa's survival would not play a role in Juusan's defeat; the shaman did not have the power to oppose the Scourge, and Quatre's ability to read lines was now superior to his mate's. And there was that other equation...'Emotional Chains', Zero had lyrically dubbed it. Bastard spell.

"Let's go to the Anima source," Quatre said quickly, as S rejoined them. "The source that produced these jackal-creatures can generate more."

"Agreed." Fen strode smoothly down the slope, forcing the others to follow. "Assuming, of course, it wasn't the Anima source that spawned them in the first place."

"No," Trowa and S said simultaneously.

"The Anima source would have sent... something else," Trowa added.

"She's not like that, anyway," S concluded with a small smile. "'A leopard doesn't change its spots'."

The old warden had apparently not suffered any harm, if he was back to spouting his proverbs and homilies, Quatre concluded dryly. He didn’t say it out loud; he doubted it would do anything to remove the dull, inward look in Trowa’s eyes.

Quatre wondered how long he'd be able to put off the inevitable. And why he wanted to put it off, the colder, more analytical part of him murmured. He was tired of being in pain, tired of being divided in himself, tired of this schism between feelings and logic. Tired of seeing the pain in Trowa's eyes, too. It would be so much easier...better all around...

No. Something was holding him back, telling him to wait. It was the part that wasn't logical, and Zero wanted to eliminate it. It was dangerous to have something uncontrollable like that within his very heart. But if that part of him wasn't logical, it was alive, compassionate and intuitive, still valuable even if Zero couldn’t understand that, and Quatre clung to it stubbornly. He had the unexplainable feeling that he should not shed it unless he really had no other choice.

Let the lines play out to the end. If their separation was inevitable, then there was no need to rush it either. He'd take the pain, as well as the pleasure that simply being with his mate still brought him, while he could still feel something.



---



"I'll wait for you outside," Fen announced abruptly, after one look at the source they were about to enter.

"What's the point?" Quatre countered promptly, before either of the others could say anything. "With the source’s boundaries eroded, she can harm you out here just as easily as in there."

"She's unwilling to leave the source, you can see that as clearly as I can," Fen shot back, eyes narrowing. Quatre felt the brush of Fen’s thought-lines against his, as the Phoenix tried to figure out why the healer had said that. But Fen was using Zero to keep him more or less operational, and that removed a lot of its analytical abilities; Quatre and his strategies were beyond the Phoenix’s grasp now.

"She's unwilling, but that doesn't mean she won't,” Quatre replied, tweaking the threads of the future; like teasing a trout nibbling on a baited line. “Come with us; an extra pair of eyes and ears to judge the situation and stop it from going sour can't hurt."

"I'll stay here." Fen crossed his arms and leaned against a fallen tree, caught nearly upright in the dense tangle of jungle around them.

The healer already had his next argument ready; he’d had it prepared before this conversation had even started. He wouldn’t miss the opportunity of observing Fen in a more dangerous situation than the jackal's ambush.

"Those creatures might attack again,” he pointed out, eminently logical. “But Anima will keep them out of her source. You'll be safer with us."

Fen glanced around him at the jungle teaming with life, then he glared like a sphinx at the shorter healer, and shoved away from the tree. He followed them, but he hung back, visibly unwilling to join them entirely.

"I guess I can't blame him," S sighed softly as they crossed into the source. "He's been manipulated into joining us and helping us. Why should he take any risk?"

That had little or nothing to do with it, Quatre had already concluded quite some time ago. But he didn't bother to correct the old man's assumptions. How...how could he get to the bottom of Fen's psychology? His motivations? Zero required data. Fen was a dubious ally, it was important to judge how he would react to any given situation, preferably before the chips went down. And if that wasn’t reason enough, Fen’s behaviour was part of a much greater equation, one linked directly to Juusan and to Centre’s survival...

S cleared his throat. He was walking between Trowa and Quatre, and apparently the silence was growing oppressive.

"I see she hasn't changed,” he murmured, visibly uncomfortable. “Still very fond of rats."

That she was. Quatre glanced around indifferently at the rustling underbrush. There had been a lot of scurrying and squeaking around them, but it hadn’t been clear what was causing it, to start with. Then he’d spotted a few of the creatures, climbing up and down lianas like the rigging on a sailing ship and impudently observing the intruders from tree branches. Dozens of beady eyes, small and black like shiny drops of basalt, glittered from the dense jungle brush.

These creatures were not real; they were generated by the magic of the source. It was throbbing all around them, a primal life force, an animal mind. Trowa hadn't had much time to give them details about the Anima source, but he had mentioned it had strong affinities to shamanism.

The source was huge; they’d been walking ten minutes, and Quatre gathered from the strands of power echoing around him that they were nowhere near the centre yet. Then the path, what there was of it, trickled to a stop in a small clearing with a pool at its centre. A couple of deer were drinking there. They lifted their heads to stare at the new arrivals, then went back to drinking, completely unafraid. In fact, there was the distinct feeling in the air that if anybody should be afraid here, it was the intruders. There were tracks in the underbrush, leading away. Fen stomped to the centre of the clearing, where he could have a clear view of anything approaching him, and glared at the deer. S went off to examine one of the paths more closely. Trowa hooked a hand under Quatre's arm and dragged him off to one side. The healer's heart froze in surprise, and then sank. What, here? Now? So soon?

"Quatre-"

"S is a warden. Besides being well-nigh invulnerable, he wouldn’t hesitate to risk his life for our mission to protect Centre."

Trowa paused, eyes narrowing beneath the cascade of hair. Quatre silently cursed himself; he'd jumped the gun, under the effect of a sudden surge of panic, his vision almost completely obscured by the parameters of the event that Zero was predicting. But from the look on Trowa’s face, that hadn't been what he had wanted to talk about at all.

Trowa visibly refocused on the issue, dropping the other, unknown subject. "That is true. But you could have explained-"

"I didn't have the time."

"You could have described the situation in ten words, the time it took you to trick him into going." Trowa's voice was oddly neutral. It wasn't his wont to rant and carry on, of course, but he rarely shut himself off so thoroughly from his lover. It's starting, a small part of Quatre thought sadly.

"I could have explained. And then he'd have argued, or asked me how I knew. Or accused me of being delusional."

Trowa had been visibly preparing a retort; that last word caused him to flinch, his mouth clicking shut on anything he might have said. They'd had a talk with Howard when they were aboard his ship. The technologist hadn’t waited for Quatre to confront him; he’d approached them both and apologized, admitting his involvement with Shinigami.

Quatre watched Trowa lick his lips and try to regain his mental footing; he'd dropped that ‘delusional’ like one chambered a bullet. He was certain that, up until Howard had spoken, Trowa had continued to believe that Quatre was paranoid and suffering from hallucinations, and that the technologist could not possibly be in league with the Jishin.

"I would have had the time to explain, barely. I did not have the time to convince,” Quatre finished posedly, his words falling neatly into the waiting silence.

"He would have gone without convincing," Trowa objected, his voice soft and without fire.

"So you say. You know him. I don't." Quatre hated the way his voice was so implacably logical, but then, how else was he supposed to say it?

And why was Zero suddenly diverting so much energy to its tactics program and jumping to battle-stations?! Trowa wasn't going to fight him. Quatre crossed his arms over his chest to avoid rubbing his forehead. He wanted to concentrate, wanted to explain, he wanted Trowa to understand -

[Warning! Warning! War- Comprehension of others not necessary for-]

Shut up! He wanted- and Zero was distracting him. What-

"Quatre-" Trowa interrupted himself and closed his eyes briefly. "We'll talk about this after the mission. We'll be seeing Anima soon. Look, there's something I have to tell you-"

"Trowa."

Quatre really wanted to hear what Trowa was going to say - he had the feeling Trowa had been trying to tell him something about Anima several times already, at the Sanctuary, aboard Howard's ship, but each time they’d been interrupted, S and Fen popping up with questions, plans - whatever Trowa wanted to say, it was important to him, though not important enough to say in front of the others…or did he not trust S and Fen? Either way, Quatre was very curious to know what it was that Trowa wanted to say, and how it would impact the lines of the future, but at this point, he couldn't concentrate on that. At all.

"- it won’t stop us from getting the -"

"Trowa. Hush."

The shaman looked at him questioningly, then stiffened as he felt the lines that had already alarmed Quatre, closing in on them.

Quatre slowly uncrossed his arms, his hands gathering power for a mage bolt.

"Don't make any sudden moves, but there's a rat the size of a rottweiler right behind you."

It had materialized out of the jungle just a few seconds ago, and it was sitting there so relaxed and confident that Quatre had almost overlooked it as part of the scenery, if Zero hadn't drawn his attention to it with several alarms.

"Don't attack it." Trowa's voice was as soft as Quatre's, but it held a definite warning. He turned slowly. The rat sat back on its haunches and looked at him appraisingly, in a manner that was too intelligent for any beast.

"Greetings. We wish to speak to Anima. Could you lead us to her?" Trowa asked politely. His hands were empty and away from his weapons. Quatre heard/felt/analyzed the rustling of leaves, the crackling of twigs around them, and let his own hands drop slowly. The rodent wasn't alone.

The rat stared at them. Only its whiskers were vibrating slightly. Then its tail curled up around its naked feet and long yellow toes, and its ears twitched. It seemed to be considering. And then it was gone. Quatre blinked. It had moved with such speed that even his Zero-assisted senses hadn't followed it.

Zero obligingly upped the level of the danger they were all in; it judged that if all the rats around them could move at such speeds, none of their small party, not even Fen, could counter the attack. The spell didn't trust Trowa's judgment about this thing’s peaceful intentions. And what had Trowa been about to say? What did he know about Anima that he hadn’t shared while planning the mission on Howard's ship? There was an unknown variable there. If it wasn’t for the mission, and the presence of a powerful entity within the source, Zero would have insisted that Quatre lay waste to the entire clearing with one flare, and get the hell out of there immediately.

"How interesting, is it dangerous?" Fen asked, both the scholar and the warrior trying to get a word in at once. Fen was hard to talk to under stress, you had the impression you were listening to two or three different conversations at the same time.

"Ah, she's found us, I see." S had rejoined them too, and confidently took a few steps after the rat, which was waiting for them a bit further down along one of the tracks. "Have no fear. The guides will lead us to her. Don't step on their tails; that gets them very upset."

"I'll do my best," Fen muttered.

Quatre glanced at Trowa, then at the rapidly disappearing backs of his friends. "Let's-"

"Quatre-"

"Let's not lose them. Come on." Quatre lengthened his stride.

"If you ever have to sacrifice me for the greater good, do me the favour of telling me why I'm about to die. You won't have to convince me."

"Very well."

The words were neutral, because there were too many different emotions that could have coloured them otherwise - pain, love, resentment, sorrow, anger, trust, despair...he no longer knew anymore. That part of himself couldn't be unknotted with all of Zero's logic, and he wasn't sure he even wanted to. It had been the dispassionate side of Quatre which had spoken the actual words. That part also loved Trowa, strangely enough; it was simply not hampered or blinded by the emotion. That Quatre had already resolved that, if the case occurred, he would do his lover at least that one grace. He would trust him, and tell him why his sacrifice was necessary.

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