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, I managed to polish this up and post it, dodging family left, right and centre. Thanks, as always, for all the encouragements and reviews!! This chapter and upcoming plot-point is one of those which have been boiling in the back of my mind for ages.

The Source Of All Things + Chapter 38
The Phoenix Gambit

*THEY'RE GOING TO BETRAY YOU!*

Duo bared his teeth in a snarl as the multi-throated scream echoed against the inside of his skull.

"No, forget it, I won't," he remembered to say aloud, just in case it wasn't obvious from the way he was savagely shaking his head.

"Duo-"

Whatever else Quatre had wanted to say was lost in the tumult.

*They're going to get rid of you!*

*They don't trust you!*

*And you shouldn't trust them!*


"I-"

*They're only human.*

*They fear you...*

*With reason!*


Duo's senses were screaming in alarm. Quatre was in front of him, with Trowa at his side. And Fen was on Quatre's other side, looking both urbane and implacable, boxing Duo in. Heero was leaning against a wall to the right, arms crossed, eyes on Duo through his lashes, and Wufei was seated at the table to his left, eating a bowl of stew Svale had whipped up for him. Duo had been about to sit down to his own lunch when Quatre and the others had shown up and-

*Cornered us! Surrounded us!*

*No-*

*Yes!*


Duo's eyes darted around the big common room. Imp clung to his shoulder, and he could distantly feel a tiny hand patting his neck, trying to centre him - Imp could always tell when he was starting to lose it.

To his left, Wufei had frozen, spoon halfway to his mouth, staring at Duo through narrowed eyes- Shenlong suddenly rippled along his wrists.

*The Dragon is dangerous! Enemy! Juusan's one-time servant! Look- he's getting ready to attack you-*

In the part of his mind where Duo kept his own feelings and reason, he knew that Wufei was only reacting to Duo's fast-rising tension. After five years, Duo could distinguish which was his own voice and which was the scream of the revenge-driven multi-headed hydra within him. But they were...so loud...

Scrape of boot against floor- Duo's leather jacket jerked and started to solidify-

But it was only Quatre. He'd abruptly moved away, a hand slipped into Trowa's to pull the shaman after him.

"Come on, let's all sit down and talk about this reasonably. Heero, go get something to eat. Now."

Heero didn't look surprised at the order, and that was what it was. He turned neatly and went to the fireplace at the other side of the hall to go get a bowl of Svale's stew.

The ring of hostiles - allies! They were his allies, Duo reminded himself grimly. His allies were no longer surrounding him, and he relaxed slightly. There was only Fen left near Duo, and he could take Fen out, no problem.

The voices within him stilled to a distant mutter, a curdle at the edge of his senses, like a lingering scent of blood; they went back to brooding about their revenge. But they were still wary. A few of them prodded Duo to make his position clear.

"I am not giving Fen his Soul Stone back," he growled.

Fen looked at him with an appearance of calm, but there was something murderous deep in his ice-blue eyes.

Quatre had sat down near Wufei. Trowa was standing behind Quatre, a hand on his smaller crossbow. Duo had a funny feeling, watching those two. Like a twisted echo. He remembered Trowa appraising him when they'd first met, hand on his crossbow, with the smaller healer behind him - Duo shook his head, clearing it. Heero had returned and crouched against the wall. He was holding a bowl of brown goop that Svale had dished up, but he showed no signs of eating it. Duo still felt a bit trapped, though now he had some leeway to fight or escape.

"Duo." Quatre sounded very reasonable. "Fen needs his Soul Stone to fight. Epyon and Zero can only get him so far. You dragged Fen into our group because you wanted him to be useful. Well, at this point, he isn't."

"If I give him his Soul back, he won't fight for us anymore," Duo ground out.

There was the slightest flicker in Quatre's eyes. "Of course he will. The Phoenix is bound to Centre. This is his birthplace, and he can't leave it. If Juusan destroys it, he'll be just as screwed as the rest of us."

"Exactly. You have no need to coerce me, Jishin," Fen supplied.

*Liar. Liar! Shut up. No!*

Duo gritted his teeth. The echoes within his mind weren't overwhelming any more, but they were confusing. Quatre sounded so reasonable - what he said made sense-

*Watch it. He could be using Zero against you- *

*Ridiculous! He's only human! He cannot use Zero-*


Oy, shut the fuck up, all of you, Duo thought painfully, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"I don't trust him." I don't trust any of you. "I...even if he's not at full power, he can still oppose Juusan-"

"Be your cannon fodder, you mean?" Fen murmured, his voice glacial. "I think not. If I oppose Juusan, if I die fighting him, then I want to do it as myself, complete in mind and body."

Fen cast an eye around them, as if to show Duo that everybody supported the Phoenix's position. Duo licked his lips again, his eyes reluctantly following the same route-

*Alone! Always alone...don't trust them-*


Everybody was staring at Duo, waiting for him to be reasonable- no, not everybody. Wufei was glaring down at his stew, arms crossed, elbows on the table. He looked like he was trying to say something rather painful.

"What the Phoenix says is fair...and just..." he finally muttered. "But in this instance, I think I can also see where the Jishin is coming from. I don't know the history behind all this, but what's to say Fen won't turn on us when he gets this whatever-stone back? Even if he only attacks the Jishin...the truth of the matter is, we cannot afford to lose any of our force at this point."

Quatre had tilted his head, as if to better listen to Wufei. Then he glanced at Fen, as if prompting the man for something.

Various emotions flickered across Fen's face; he looked confused. He stared at Quatre, and then the confusion vanished. Zero must have helped him gather enough of a consensus among his shattered memories and pasts to find a way forward. Duo felt a slight pang of compassion; Fen's head must be as busy as his own. But then again, Duo put up with it, so why shouldn't-

"I'll give you my word," Fen announced, voice steely and proud. "I am the Phoenix, the ever-born. I will not attack Maxwell, and I will defend my home against Juusan, and fight with you to the best of my abilities, if you return my Soul to me."

"Really." Wufei's voice dropped like a stone into the silence after that grand announcement, and Duo felt a flicker of strange warmth at the total lack of conviction in the Dragon's reply.

Fen shot Wufei a glare and opened his mouth to argue, but Quatre suddenly stood up. The movement was sure and purposeful, cutting neatly through the nascent argument.

"Duo," Quatre murmured, all reasonable and rational, with only a carefully measured hint of regret, "another aspect of the problem is...that none of us feel comfortable fighting alongside someone who's being forced to obey you."

In the background, Wufei flinched, and glared at his bowl of stew. Duo soundly cursed Quatre, whose words had - accidentally or intentionally - reminded the Dragon of Duo's one-time mark of control over him, and all his manipulations. There went Wufei's support, as tenuous as it'd been.

"You know Juusan's strength," Quatre continued. "In his present state, Fen won't be very useful even as cannon fodder." Fen's eyebrows curved, but he didn't interrupt the healer. "He's given his word. I trust him. We trust him. Give him his stone back."

*See? See?*

A few angry whispers echoed. Most of the voices had gone back to their dark dreams, but a few of them stayed awake, laughing sadly at Duo's foolishness, at the way he'd trusted these- these humans. The humans trusted Fen instead of Duo, despite the oath of blood and stone, despite everything.

Duo glanced around savagely, feeling trapped once more. He needed these people, he needed their help. And he hated that. When you manipulated people, at least you didn't have to worry about them betraying your trust. He'd fought so hard to get every scrap of power this planet possessed lined up against Juusan; he was reluctant to give up even a smidgeon. If Fen's death slowed Juusan down by only a few seconds, that could mean the difference between victory and defeat. And besides, he controlled Fen. Among all these near-strangers that he was forced to trust, at least he knew where Fen stood. And now they wanted him to give up even that!

Quatre, Trowa and Fen were staring at him intently, expectantly. Svale was too, on the other side of the room, stirring the stew absently. The only people not staring at him were Wufei, who was glaring at the table, and Heero, who was listening, eyes closed, as if meditating. Or...waiting. That didn't make Duo feel any more at ease.

Imp was making tiny growling noises on Duo's shoulder, feeling the attack on its master. It was oddly comforting; at least he had someone on his side...It helped him centre himself, and resign himself to the inevitable.

"Very well. Don't come crying to me when it all blows up in your face, Winner," Duo muttered. He ignored the screeches and protests within his head with the ease of five years of practice. Most of the dead were silent; they didn't trust Fen, of course, but neither did they respect him much as a fighter, not when they, the Jishin, had been felled single-handedly by Juusan. They didn't think Fen mattered. Maybe they were right.

Duo reached out and drew a symbol in the empty air at eye-height; his mind concurrently tracing the same symbol, infusing it with magic. Arawasu. Reveal. The fold in the ether where he'd hidden the stone broke and dropped it into his waiting palm. Fen grunted softly. Duo knew the Phoenix had been sending his Zero-assisted mind all over the planet, searching for the stone - did Winner even know that? Why did Quatre and the others trust this- this- Duo growled and tossed the stone at the Phoenix. He'd hidden the stone so carefully, with all his knowledge and magic, folding it into a pocket of ether so that it was always within reach, yet completely inaccessible if you did not know exactly how it'd been hidden. He shouldn't have bothered. Allies. They were more of a bother than anything else.

Fen caught the stone and closed his fingers over it. He breathed out slowly, as if letting go of a heavy load, his eyes closed.

For a brief instant, a look of peace touched Fen's face and gave it a look of such beauty and serenity that Duo found himself thinking he'd actually done the right thing.

Then the eyes flew open and Duo knew he hadn't.

The tables screeched against the flagstones, chairs fell over, and the windows rattled. The air started to sparkle and burn. Golden-red fire, like a pair of wings, spread out behind Fen. The stone shot out of his palm, hovered over his chest. The air seemed to writhe and suddenly the stone was hanging from a thick chain around Fen's neck, like it had been when Duo had stolen it.

The Phoenix smiled. It wasn't the slightly concussed smile of the confused Fen that Duo knew. It was knowing, ancient and cruel. This creature was not human, and it wanted blood.

*Betrayed!*

It was only one shout, and then Duo's inner multitudes were standing fully behind him. As much as they might bitch and moan, when the chips were down they supported their last scion, the instrument of their revenge. Nobody, in the crowd of angry and dead mages, was particularly surprised at this turn of events. Neither was Shinigami.

Duo realized he was grinning fiercely, a crude, jeering echo of the Phoenix's ancient and wise smile. Dark magic howled and crackled from Duo's fingertips, from the tip of his braid, from the twisting thong in his hair which snapped like a whip. His armour solidified, hard surfaces and cruel spikes, covering part of his face, his torso, his legs and arms; darkness coalesced around him, shields and magic creeping around him like shadows against the Phoenix's burning light.

Movement on either side of him - he cursed and brought up mental defences to shield him in that direction as well. Surrounded! His dead felt no surprise; he was going to have to fight all of them. Betrayed. Humans. Couldn't trust them. They were going to support Fen against him. The Phoenix was powerful, they would want his help against the Scourge, and, Duo admitted bitterly, Fen hadn't lied to them, manipulated them, burned marks of control in their minds or otherwise hurt them.

So, that was how it would be. He'd be alone to face Juusan after all-

The lack of furious attack on his flanks finally caught up with him. That and the way the Phoenix's burning magic had paused; the way Fen was glaring. Duo chanced a quick glance to his left and right.

Heero had walked up to stand at his right; Duo realized that the strange warrior had put down his stew quite neatly on the floor instead of dropping it and rushing over. Did anything ever fluster the bastard? If there was, a raging, burning Phoenix was apparently not it. Heero looked perfectly calm; he had his arms crossed over his chest. But Wing was deployed, and there was a sense of power throbbing in the air around him. His eyes were on Fen, unflinching; the fiery light danced, reflected in his pupils.

Duo glanced at his left. He felt a bit gratified to see that, unlike the imperturbable Heero, Wufei had dropped his bowl and knocked over his chair to get into position before the Phoenix could attack. But the Dragon didn't look terribly surprised at this turn of events either. Duo remembered the way Wufei had said 'really'. He'd not trusted the Phoenix any more than Duo had. Shenlong rippled along the white tunic; light flickered near Wufei's eyes as the analyzer started to dissect Fen and Epyon, looking for a weakness. Its owner was staring at the Phoenix with the murderous glare he'd given Duo when the latter had tried to stab him in the back. Wufei did not like people who broke their oaths.

They were...flanking Duo. They were on his side.

Duo tried to get his head around the concept, but it was proving hard. The Dragon was an enemy to many of the dead in his mind, and Heero, well, nobody knew what the hell Heero was.

But there they were.

Fen had looked quite ready to tear right into the Jishin, but it was obvious that even an enraged Phoenix wasn't dumb enough to run that particular gauntlet.

The inner army behind Duo's eyes were staring at the tableaux they formed, pretty much like Fen was doing, but with very different feelings. For once, their mental voice was nearly shorn of hate and anger, with only echoes of surprise, and something alien...something almost like hope.

We...might actually have a chance. We might actually defeat Him.

The Him wasn't Fen. There was only one 'Him', in Duo's torn and faceted mind. The bit that was pure Duo smirked. Yes, Fen; for us or against us, you're only a bump in the road. An incident, before the arrival of the real thing.

Someone moved behind him. Duo tensed, but the touch against his shoulder was soft. He glanced around. He noticed Trowa off to one side, bow drawn and aiming at a spot very near Fen, obviously not looking for a fight, but ready for one if need be.

Quatre had circled behind the fighters. He was leaning, one arm against Heero's shoulder, the other on a fairly un-spiky area of Duo's armour. Outwardly, Quatre looked relaxed. And also completely unsurprised. Apparently everybody had expected this; a fact that Duo would be sure to investigate thoroughly once they put out the fire, and the Phoenix with it.

The healer's eyes weren't even focused on the dangerous creature before him; they were moving very quickly, as if he were speed-reading something in mid-air. The darkness of Duo's power seemed to drink in the reflection of the Phoenix's magic. Against the shadows that reached out like dark wings behind him, Quatre seemed to be glowing ever so faintly. The Phoenix's light was playing off something, sparking minute, evanescent lines around Quatre, there and gone as soon as Duo tried to focus on them. They were shooting and flickering around him, like very thin cracks rapidly growing in a block ice.

There was a slight huff from Fen, and Duo quickly brought his attention back to where it mattered. The Phoenix was no longer glaring at Duo as if he wanted to rip out his spine and beat him over the head with it, which was a slight improvement. He was staring at Quatre.

"I see. Well played, Winner." But Fen didn't sound particularly angry. Indifferent, with an edge of cold amusement. "Did you get what you wanted?"

"Yes," Quatre answered. "You may go now."

Duo felt the slightest shiver walk up his back, and he'd thought his back was fairly shiver-proof by now. The way Quatre had said that- cold, devoid of emotion, implacable and dismissive - if he'd spoken to Duo like that, Duo would have gone, even if he'd had to make a hole in the wall to do so. He could feel Wufei start beside him. Duo glanced at Trowa, a bit reluctantly, and then looked away from what he saw in the man's eyes. Heero hadn't moved a muscle since he'd appeared at Duo's side; he didn't look surprised, upset, or even aware of Quatre leaning against his shoulder. Unflappable bastard. Duo rather envied him at this point.

The only other one who didn't look impressed was Fen. His eyes had narrowed, but his smile stayed fixed. He looked...beyond old, beyond surprise, beyond caring about what any of the insects before him could do. But there was a hint of amusement in his eyes. Duo was ready to bet that the joke wasn't anything that a mortal would find even remotely funny. The Jishin fought down another shiver. The way Fen was looking at them...it reminded him of-

The Phoenix flexed his infernal wings, cracking a window and sending old dust shivering from the rafters. A chair fell over with a prosaic thump, a contrast to the raw magic sizzling in the air.

"Very well, Quatre," the creature of light and fire purred. "I'll leave you with your puppets, and I will watch with interest when Juusan kills you all. Farewell, little mortals. Who knows, we might see each other again before the end."

The air seemed to explode. Duo staggered, shields raised, shadows momentarily ripped apart by the light-

When he opened his eyes, there was nothing before him but the empty common room, a lot of glaring red afterimages carved into his cornea by the final flash, and Svale, on the other side of the long hall, knocked nearly into the fireplace, with stew all over her black dress.

"Well," she muttered, in the eerie silence. "That went down like a lead balloon."

Duo took a breath in and let it out again. It started out a bit wobbly, but ended in a hiss. He stepped away abruptly from Quatre.

"Talk, Winner. What the hell was all that about?"

Quatre didn't answer him immediately. His eyes were not quite focused, and Duo thought he was leaning a bit heavily against Heero. His eyes were almost closed, nearly-white lashes brushing cheeks that were suddenly pale.

"Quatre...?" Trowa took a few steps towards his lover, voice anxious.

Something seemed to shut off in Quatre. Duo watched warily as a mask slipped over the pale features.

"I'm fine. Just something I had to think about. A line of thought I didn't want to interrupt." Quatre sounded perfectly calm. Not that anybody took that at face value.

"Will he attack us again?" Wufei asked abruptly. Good ol' Dragon, Duo thought; always practical and hard-headed. Who cared about Phoenixes and burning magic and potentially crazy healers with spells taking over their minds, when there might be someone to thump?

"No. He won't think it's worth it."

"You sound very sure of that," Wufei said slowly, eyes narrowed.

"I am. Now."

The healer turned and took a few steps away, oblivious of all the eyes on him.

"You knew he was going to turn on me," Duo challenged, as he watched Quatre stumble, almost blind, across the flagstones to go and stare out the window.

"I knew he was going to turn on us," Quatre corrected him gently.

"Us," Duo muttered, not very gracefully, even as he remembered the way Heero and Wufei had appeared at his side. Part of him didn't want to acknowledge that. Didn't want to rely on that.

"Why did you get Maxie to give him his rock back, then? As the one whose dining room was destroyed, I think I'm allowed to know!" Svale snapped, appearing before Duo and hopping up and down like an enraged crow. A few drops of stew splattered on the flagstones.

Quatre stared at her, and Svale suddenly shut up, eyes narrowed.

"It was necessary." Quatre still sounded so calm. "I needed to know...something. I needed to know more about Juusan, how he was going to attack us, how he thinks.

"And now, I do."

The way he said that...nobody made a sound. They didn't even move. Duo had to remind himself to breathe.

In the complete silence, Quatre turned, after a last glance out the window. He hoisted himself up onto the window sill and sat there, feet dangling, staring down at his boots. He looked very young, innocent, blonde, cute and so much in control it was absolutely terrifying, and Duo had thought himself immune to terror by now.

"Duo, you know a lot about Juusan, but you do not know enough."

Quatre paused. He waited the exact length of time it took for Duo's inner screams to die, for the cries of revenge, for the lashings of hate and anger, to fade, until they could no longer cover his voice, and then he continued. Duo didn't like the way that had looked entirely planned. Quatre couldn't read his mind, could he? No.

"You do not know how Juusan thinks," Quatre continued. "He is beyond even the Jishin."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Duo growled.

"Juusan is an Immortal. Like Fen," Quatre stated simply.

He seemed to think the conclusion to his words was obvious. The silence and the lack of 'oh, but of course!' must have told him it wasn't.

"They are immortal. We are mortal," Quatre explained slowly, as he was talking to a bunch of four-year-olds. "We do not - and will never have - the same mindset."

"He lied. He betrayed his word like it was nothing. Just like Juusan." Wufei's voice was quiet, speculative. But Duo was beginning to know his Dragon by now, and he knew what the ugly light in those black eyes meant. If Fen were here, right now, he'd have a Dragon claw shoved down his throat, Phoenix or not. Wufei held things like honour and oaths rather highly.

"Why should he hold his word?" Quatre asked patiently. "Think about it. I know it's not easy, to imagine something so alien to us as immortality. Humans have evolved over millions of years, and in all that time, we have been born, we have had children to continue our line-"

Quatre stopped again, right on cue, as if he could really hear the moans of pain and sadness echoing through Duo's mind.

"And then we die," he concluded quietly, just as the chorus faded. Duo would have been worried and paranoid about that, but he was too down in the dumps to care. No more children for the Jishin. Their line was dead.

"We mortals cannot relate to a creature who has not evolved like that, who has not, in fact, evolved at all. The wheel does not turn for Immortals. It is always as it is, as it was, as it will ever be. Forever. Fen gave us his word, because he realized it could help him get something that mattered to him. It is absolutely inconsequential to him that he keep it. We are already dead, in his eyes. Even if we defeat Juusan, even if we all live to the ripe old age of, say, eighty, or a hundred, or a thousand years old...we'll still be nothing but motes of dust to Fen. Already we are dead; we know he broke his word, but already that is only a warning we passed to our descendants when we died; then it is a rumour, when our descendants die; then it is legend, then it is forgotten, and nothing will have changed for him.

"That is what being an immortal is about."

*He did it on purpose.*

The words were coldly calculating and steeped with some admiration; the makers of Zero, now dead and ensconced in Duo's mind, were coming to some interesting conclusions. They had decided decades ago that Zero was too dangerous to use, even for the Jishin, and they were having a hard time admitting a mere human had mastered it this much, but the evidence was there before them: Quatre had been following a controlled strategy; he had voluntarily freed the Phoenix, just so that he could measure, analyze and track the parameters of how an immortal behaves and reacts.

"Understanding Fen...will help you understand Juusan," Duo enounced slowly.

"Yes. They are the same. I know they have never met, that they are on a different level of magic entirely, but at the heart of it, they are the same. Immortal. Ever-lasting. Inhuman in a way that we can barely comprehend. The only difference..." Quatre's voice faded.

"The only difference is that Juusan wants something." The healer's eyes were turned inwards when he continued. "Juusan has some higher purpose. This is a strong motivator to his actions; it's crucial to him. I can read it in his lines, now that I can understand him better."

Duo was massively impressed. Quatre had just dropped that casually, as if seeing the lines of the most massive power in the galaxy was child's play. The entire combined strength of the Jishin had been unable to comprehend Juusan. Duo felt a prickle in his scalp. He'd been right about Zero. The spell was as powerful as he'd assumed it would be. And just as scary, too.

A jagged smile twisted Duo's lips. Scary was good. The Jishin had invented scary. They were the things that went bump in the night, the fair folk who stole children from the cribs, who created fairy mounds and nightmares. And Duo was Jishin. That kind of manifestation of mystical power, especially on his side, was sending pleasant little shivers across his shoulders.

"I don't know what this purpose is, unfortunately," Quatre continued, as if talking to himself. "Fen's behaviour could not illuminate this part of Juusan's mindset; they are different in this. This purpose has to do with the Source of all Things, the First Source, as Juusan called it. The Scourge is an aspect of it. Duo? You and I, and your ghosts, are going to have to have a chat at one point."

Oh wonderful, something else to look forward to. "If you want. I gotta warn you...erm..."

"I know they are not very coherent these days, but I think I can get some information out of them," Quatre said, his voice gentle, his eyes hard. Duo felt his lips twitch away from his teeth, and his razor-sharp gauntlets bit into his palm as the scrutiny took him apart, judged him and slotted him neatly into a pigeonhole under 'difficult but manageable'. Fuck, if this was what Trowa had been living with for the past few months, no wonder the shaman was looking so down these days; and no wonder he'd been about a second away from sticking Duo full of arrows, too, before they'd come to some sort of peaceful understanding.

"I don't understand any of this!" Wufei growled, obviously unimpressed by all these cryptic pronouncements. It had the same effect as the chair falling over earlier. The darkness and eerie feeling dispersed, and there was only a cross Dragon glaring at a young blonde man sitting on a windowsill. "What do you know of Juusan's plans? What the hell is going on? Why did we just free someone who might well attack us, or ally himself to Juusan?"

The Dragon don't know squat about magic, but he's got a point, Duo thought, lifting an eyebrow at Quatre. He wondered if the healer would explain.

Quatre sighed and rubbed his temples gently.

"Okay, here's a quick and dirty summary. Please do not question me on how I know this, unless you want me to spend the next three months explaining higher mathematics and probability schemas to you.

"We had to free Fen. He would not have helped us against Juusan. I know why you roped him in to help, Duo; it sounded like a good idea, to get him to fight, but it wouldn't have worked. Juusan has enough power to destroy the Phoenix. Not kill him; as we both know, the Phoenix does not stay dead. No, the Scourge can destroy him, for real, for ever. Because of that, Fen would never have gone near Juusan. He would have attacked us, run away, anything, but not helped us."

"He could have kissed his rock goodbye if he'd done that!" Duo countered.

"That would have been an acceptable loss to him," Quatre countered right back, an edge of annoyance in his voice, as if Duo was being unusually obtuse. "What do you think that stone is? It's an accretion, a physical manifestation of his myriad of memories and past lives. It holds his psyche together, it reminds him of who he is, of all the names he's worn through the aeons; he wants it. But he will not risk destruction to get it. To an Immortal, the notion of their physical destruction, of no longer existing, is on par with- with the destruction of the entire human race, for us. Humans do not fear death like an Immortal does. Because we have children, people who carry on our genetic heritage, our ideals, our memories. They carry parts of us throughout time. We are immortal too in that way; it's a way an Immortal can never grasp. Fen doesn't see the point of sex, of children, of procreation, of living on in legends. He only sees that he exists now, and if he is destroyed, there will be nothing after him; there is no continuation. It's The End. And that terrifies him more than any mere momentary insanity ever could.

"As humans, we care about things like that." For the briefest moment, his eyes flashed towards Trowa. "We don't live long, so we want to have control of our lives, we want to be healthy, happy and sane. If he'd lost his stone, Fen would have been insane for thousands of years. But time is not important for Immortals. He would have eventually gotten over it, and he'd have formed a new stone, from new memories; this moment in time would be forgotten, just one more souvenir. No, the Soul Stone was not the weapon over him you thought it was, Duo."

"But what about what you said. That if Juusan destroys the planet, he'll die too?" Wufei shot out.

"I lied," Quatre chirped with a disarming grin. "I'm surprised Fen bought that; he should know I would never be dumb enough to think that. He really was confused without his stone. Yes, if we fail, Juusan will destroy every form of life on Centre and Fen will die. But-"

"But in seven years time, he'll be reborn again!" Duo snarled, thumping his head with his mailed fist. "K'so! Baka! I should have-"

"It's hard to think out of our mortal mindset," Quatre reassured him. "Actually, I imagine Fen would opt to stay dead for thousands of years, millions if need be. It'd be boring to be reborn on a dead planet. It doesn't matter; the universe won't end for another ten billion years, so really, what's a few million years' wait until life returns to Centre? For an Immortal, that time is nothing."

"So he won't attack Juusan, but he might attack us," Wufei concluded, cracking his knuckles slowly and getting back to the heart of the matter.

"Why should he?" Quatre asked with a shrug.

Wufei stared, visibly caught short. "Maxwell coerced him, stole his Soul, and we were going to force him to fight Juusan! He must hate us considerably!"

"No, that's what you'd do, but that's not how Fen thinks," Quatre contradicted patiently. "Fen would have destroyed us right here and now, as an afterthought, just for the annoyance we caused him. But we are not important enough for him to hate us, Wufei. We are just humans, and in a few months, which is no time at all for him, we'll all be dead. Not just us. All humans on Centre. And he doesn't have to take any risks for this to happen. If a rat bit you, you'd kick it to death, and any other rat you saw too. But you wouldn't risk serious injury to do so, and you wouldn't hunt down that particular rat and its friends once you'd calmed down. Not when you knew the exterminator was coming in a few months."

Duo was beginning to see what Quatre was saying. The sheer...weight of time behind Fen, watching the dance of the ridiculous, tiny, mayflies called humans, living and dying repeatedly all around him, never touching him...

He felt cold, with only his hate burning sharp and hot within him; the tips of his gloves were slicing into his palms, the pain grounding him.

"Juusan," he said softly. "That's who he reminded me of, at the end. When he got his stone back, when he remembered who he was. He looked at us just like Juusan did when he-" Duo snarled and turned away abruptly.

"He reminded me of the Scourge from the start," Wufei growled. "I never trusted him, and we're better off without him. If he's not going to attack us, good. But personally, and no offence, Winner, I believe we should prepare for the eventuality. Yuy!"

Heero finally moved, turning his head slightly at the hail.

"I don't know about you, but I've lost my appetite. Let's go and train. It looks like you and I are the only ones left to oppose Juusan physically. We need to work together; it is crucial we understand each other's fighting styles and armours. And I want you to learn how to use the headpiece. And have you even drawn the sword? You're lucky to have it; my own weapon was destroyed when I attacked the Scourge on my home world, over a year ago. Now-" his voice faded as he marched out the door. Heero followed him without protest.

Duo glanced at Quatre, who had hopped off the windowsill.

"You said you know how Juusan will attack us. I thought it was obvious myself. He'll come here and pound us-"

"No. He won't." Quatre corrected him simply and firmly, as if he were reading it out of the newspaper. "I know you think you frightened him, Duo. And in a way you did. You threatened him, you and this shield, and nobody has done that for - well, aeons. But to him, you are still...just human. He will not risk a head-on confrontation with us. He has no hate towards us; we are bacteria to him. Possibly dangerous bacteria, that he does not want to go near. An Immortal never takes a risk he can avoid.

"He will send his men to attack first, as a distraction. But he will not trust them to succeed, or even to die for him. Juusan does not understand the concepts of honour, loyalty and bravery; these concepts are human, we evolved them in contact with our equals. Juusan has no equal; he is alone in the universe. He will send his men, but he will follow them closely, not trusting them to distract us for long. He will appear on the other side of the planet - I hope you can teleport that far, Duo, with Heero and Wufei in tow. You will have to block Juusan's magic, and the others will have to attack him quickly. Juusan will try to gather what power he can under the shield, and send a massive flare sweeping the planet. Centre and her power are intimately linked with all life on her. A truly massive wave of destruction will disrupt the power sources of our shield. Not for very long, but long enough. Juusan will not attack the sanctuary, though. He will take the opportunity of the shield falling briefly to integrate his source. Then he has all the time he wants to re-source himself; Zero estimates it will take anywhere up to ten hours. When he's finished, he'll come out of his Source, burn a hole all the way to the planet's core where the sanctuary used to be, make sure that there isn't even an amoeba or piece of plankton left alive, and then he'll leave Centre and kill every human within a parsec, just to be on the safe side.

"Then he'll go on with his purpose. Whatever that is.

"Was that all you wanted to know?"

Duo realized his mouth was open, and that shiver was back and camping out on his spine like it meant to stay. But the ornery part of himself, the bit that had refused to die five years ago, the bit that flipped the universe the bird and laughed like a maniac, that bit rallied and drawled: "Is that a fact?"

"Yes. To eighty-seven percent probability. There is an additional nine point six spread on some details being off, but not enough to affect the overall strategy. The rest of that hundred percent is the slim margin of chance that Juusan's overall purpose will change something significant in the way he acts, in a way I cannot foresee. In that case, our strategies will have to be reactive, and our chances of victory fall beneath an acceptable threshold. Any other questions?"

"No," Duo answered weakly. "I'm good."

"Very well. I have to go think about some of these elements I picked up from Fen. There may be other things we can do to maximize our chances of winning. If you'll excuse me-"

Duo nodded, still a bit stunned, as Quatre walked towards the front door. Then Trowa passed Duo, caught up with the healer in three long strides, hooked a hand beneath the blonde's arm, and dragged him away from the front door. Quatre looked up quickly, but didn't protest. Duo thought there was the tiniest downturn to the lips in the otherwise impassive expression, a hint of sadness in the blue eyes. Then they were gone, and the door to their room shut firmly behind the pair.

Svale shook herself. She looked about to say something, but Duo wasn't interested. He headed towards the door, deep in thought.

He meant to go up to the highest mound of the sanctuary, or maybe teleport to his hideout to think. Instead, his feet took him around the low building where Svale had made her home, to the big depression, like a shallow bowl, behind the sanctuary. Wufei went there to practice those weird martial art moves early in the morning; Duo had not followed him there, he had just happened to be awake at the time. The Dragon spent hours on those exercises; not that Duo had stayed to watch specifically, he just hadn't had anything better to do at that point, and he had wanted to evaluate Wufei as a fighter. The place had become an unofficial training ground a couple of days ago, when Heero had joined Wufei there to perform one-handed press-ups an absurd number of times. Even Duo had slunk there late at night, when the other two were asleep, to practice his magic and see how much the shield had impacted upon it. The place was safe, protected, and the dip of the bowl-like depression meant that a stray bolt of force or magic couldn't hurt the sanctuary nearby.

Sure enough, the two knuckle-heads were there. Duo sat down on a small rock at the edge of the grounds and stared at the pair. He didn't pay much attention to Wufei's words. Sounded like the Dragon was explaining about the headpiece.

"The psychic buffer of the helm will protect your mind against mental and magical attacks for a short while," Wufei was saying.

Heero looked less than enthusiastic.

"I know you're strong, Yuy!" Wufei barked. He'd make an excellent drill-instructor, Duo thought. "Trust me; I'd be happy if strength alone were enough! But only fools ignore the tactics of the weak and traitorous, of cowardly magic users."

Ouch, I almost felt that, Duo sneered internally. Actually, he didn't think it had been aimed at him at all. Wufei was probably thinking about the Scourge. Maybe. It was difficult to judge. Duo and that uptight Dragon had hammered...something out, the other day in the Arena of the Trials. He just wasn't sure what it was. At all. He didn't think Wufei knew either, from the glances, both searching, puzzled and annoyed, that the Dragon gave him when he thought Duo wasn't looking. Whatever it was, it didn't mean that they disliked each other any less, of course. Duo felt sure they'd still spar, verbally and maybe even physically, as soon as they'd get the chance. But they wouldn't compromise their ultimate goal to do so. They'd stand, side by side, against Juusan.

Allies...

"You're going to have to get used to it. The headpiece is an integral part of the armour. Besides, as that ridiculous 'Doom' creature demonstrated, when it comes to psychic attacks, you're just as human as the rest of us."

Just human.

That's what Quatre had said. Just human.

Duo had never thought of himself as human, or as 'just' anything. He was Jishin. The oldest race. The tricksters. The ones who haunted the nightmares of humans, and their most seductive dreams.

Just human...

The noon-day sun seemed to darken, and Duo's armour tightened and curled around him defensively. Yes, compared to the Immortals...even Duo Maxwell, the last Jishin, was just human.

It scared him. Deeply. Humans were nothing. A mere human could never win against Juusan.

*Not alone.*

The thought wasn't his, but the voice was achingly familiar. Duo stiffened slowly, mind turned inwards, staring blindly at the spot where Heero was turning on his headpiece and glaring grumpily through the flicker of light.

...Solo?

It was gone. Duo kept his pain buried inside where it wouldn't show on his face, where he wouldn't have to share it with anybody. It was his. It didn't make much sense, but then, these days, not much did.

"Is it getting any better?"

"What is?" Duo shot back, in a voice that was as menacing as he could make it this morning.

Svale sat herself down on the rock next to him and scratched at a stew stain on her dress.

"Your eternal choir," she grunted. "All the dead guys in your head."

"Fuck off, you old bat."

"I could get your mind off it, if you want?"

Duo shot her a suspicious look, and got a good view of a leer that would have looked better on a thousand-year-old mummy. Strangely enough, it did get his mind off things. The giant 'ick' shook off his blues.

"I don't understand why it's so bad...normally, at your age, the Soul-mind should be integrated into your memories..."

Svale was talking artlessly, casually. It was an offer to listen, not an order to explain.

Just human...Duo stared at Wufei who was gesturing wildly - apparently Heero had done something rather bone-headed with the communicator Wufei was trying to teach him to use. Duo felt a slight smile twist his lips. Heero was quite probably the most powerful creature on the face of the planet until the Scourge arrived, but he was getting scolded like a school boy. That Wufei...he just didn't know the meaning of the word 'fear'. Or 'tact'. And he packed one hell of a punch...if he wasn't a mechanical techno-geek, he'd make one hell of Jishin...Duo Maxwell, what the hell are you thinking of...

"Yes, normally by the time we're adults, the Soul-mind is harmoniously integrated with our own," Duo explained softly. He listened to himself idly spilling secrets and wondered why it wasn't even making him twinge. Just human...

"I hear it's supposed to be like a library, except each book has a small piece of the personality of its original owner," he continued, staring at the two in the training grounds. "But most of it is information and power. But...not for me. It was the way they died. All at once. It...stressed the magic that allows passage and integration of souls into the Tamashii Kokoro. They're not blending. The way they died, screaming, in terrible pain and madness, bloodthirsty for revenge...they're not integrating into the whole, into the well of souls, and their anger is corrupting it."

"They don't know they're dead?"

"Oh, they know, alright," Duo said dryly. "They just don't want to rest until they can drag Juusan down with them."

Soon. It was the briefest touch, again. Solo. He was just a drop in the ocean, but his voice was a warm, loving touch amidst the cold anger and hate. He'd died thinking of Duo, worrying about his young cousin. He was still present because he wanted to stay with Duo, and help him against the multitude who was giving him his power, his magic, his knowledge and his madness.

*Soon...soon it will be over, and we can all rest.*


Yes, Duo thought.

Five years of this. It was only thanks to Solo and his own natural resilience that his mind was still largely intact. And thanks to Imp, too. The little creature was still hiding in his pocket; the Phoenix had given it a bad turn. But until Fen had disappeared, it had been on Duo's shoulder, hissing defensively. Imp was of Iwanohone's rock and bones; formed from Duo's blood and the earth of his home. The little creature had been his only friend for those five years. No touch of fellow minds, no Solo to cuff him gently, no warmth of kindred magic and souls. Just the screams of the dead, thoughts of revenge, and the paranoia, distrust and contempt that all Jishin felt for the rest of the human races, compounded by the Jishin's destruction through treachery. Duo had never even thought, in all those years, to trust other humans. He'd never thought of joining forces with them. Manipulation and trickery were embedded into the Jishin's mentality. He'd never even questioned his methods.

Maybe that had been a mistake...

He ignored, by force of habit, a few sneers from his dead. The Jishin had been betrayed, tricked, slaughtered. They wanted revenge and they trusted nobody. And maybe they were right. Yes, they were probably right.

But at this point, he didn't have a choice, and that brought him a strange sense of relief.

"Good. You have the basics," Wufei announced. "Now practice is essential. The helm, the visor, the buffer and communicator have to be easy to use, even in the midst of heated battle. Otherwise they'll be nothing but distractions. You have to - oof!!"

Well, what did he expect, Duo laughed inwardly. Heero had been obviously getting a bit antsy during all this theory. The way his face had lit up when Wufei had said 'practice' had made Duo wince. There was only one way Heero knew how to practice.

Wufei rolled and dodged the second blow, and shot to his feet. He didn't look furious, as Duo had expected. A bit put out, yes, and ruffled by that unannounced blow that had gotten through his guard, but other than that...there was a gleam in his eyes, a vibrant energy in his stance, that spoke volumes. It was a strange sort of joy. Wufei was a good tactician, a dedicated warrior, a fanatic for his revenge, but what he still liked to do best was hit somebody, Duo thought sardonically.

Not that Duo was any different, when it came to using his battle-magic. That clarity, that moment of sweet concentration when every other worry faded and you could just be, and act, and things obeyed you because you were stronger than they were, you were in control...Duo realized he had a dreamy smile on his face. He shook his head and concentrated. He had to keep an eye on these two idiots. Now more than ever, they could not afford an injury to either of them.

Wufei dodged and blocked, and his fist shot out, with breath-taking speed, to jab at Heero. Heero blocked it, solid as a rock, with the faintest of grins on his face. He was enjoying himself as well. He spun, and threw himself at Wufei. The two short punches that followed were measured, to Duo's relief. Apparently Heero did know that you weren't supposed to kill anybody during a practice fight. Wufei must have already explained the concept to him before Duo had shown up.

"Use the buffer-" Wufei snapped, out of breath. "I am going to - " he dodged, and kicked. Heero dodged the blow gracefully and Wufei had to back away hastily from his retaliation. Heero hadn't even broken a sweat. "I'm going to start using Shenlong to send small psychic attacks at you while I-" a hurried parry "-while I attack. Be ready."

Heero grunted, and then flinched. Duo hadn't seen the attack; it was a psyonic jab, probably, a mentat weapon, not magic. Dragons didn't have much in the way of psy attacks, but they could do a little damage. Wufei had attacked at just the right moment, body and mind a single deadly weapon, and Heero was caught flat-footed, momentarily blinded. Wufei dodged a wild blow, slipped under Heero's arm, grasped, twisted, threw him over his shoulder, and then jumped on him. Heero landed with a thump and a grunt, and tried to fight Wufei off, but he was winded, and the Dragon managed to immobilize him.

Wufei said something - about the buffer and using it. Duo tried to concentrate on the fact that the two morons should be careful not to injure each other, but he had, ah, a hard time concentrating... Heero was caught under Wufei, pinned down by the Dragon straddling him; black hair, loosened from the pony-tail by the first blow, drifted into Heero's face - Duo managed to swallow, and closed his mouth sharply. He shook his head abruptly, desperately trying to get the mental picture out of his mind. He glanced worriedly at Svale. The old mummy already had some crazy notion about him and the stupid Dragon; he didn't need to add fuel to her fire.

Svale hadn't noticed Duo's pole-axed expression, or how close he'd come to drooling. She wasn't looking at him, and she was definitely not looking at the pair of flushed fighters, Wufei trying to give Heero a lecture, still in that rather interesting position, and Heero squirming and jerking in a way that was making Duo's temperature spike.

Despite the interesting stuff happening in the training grounds, Duo felt his attention drawn back to Svale. She had a look on her face that Duo had never seen there before. She looked her age for once - Duo had never realized how much her sprightly energy had, in fact, made her appear a bit younger than her five hundred plus years. She looked old, weary, and sad beyond understanding.

She was looking back at the main compound. Duo followed her gaze, and suddenly remembered the door shutting behind Trowa and Quatre.

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