The Beginning's End + Part 13 (cont)

Something is very wrong.

We four stare at each other in amazed disbelief.

I never thought Trowa would come back. But when I allowed myself to experience that foolish fantasy, I never imagined that it would be like this.

"What's going on?" Une demands. We ignore her. As fine a commander as she is, as trusted a friend as she has become, she has no place in this.

"He knows," Wufei says grimly.

Heero flushes. Duo's lips compress into a thin line.

"There's more than that," I insist, interrupting them before they can begin to fight.

Heero nods. "What the hell was that?" he demands, gesturing at the door that Trowa just practically ran out of. "What happened?"

I shake my head. "I don't know," I admit.

"Did you see his face when he looked at me?" Duo asks suddenly. "Does he really hate me that much?"

I shake my head impatiently. "Something is wrong," I tell them, voicing what they all know.

"Well, no kidding, Quatre!" Duo shouts at me. "But what?" He raises a hand to rub his forehead. Abruptly, he jerks his hand away from his own skin and stares at it, perplexed.

Our eyes follow his gaze. His palm is stained, covered with a reddish liquid that gleams as he turns his hand in confusion.

His palm…when he hugged Trowa…

The same startled gasp breaks from all our throats at the same time, and we all turn and run toward the door, toward Trowa.

If there was enough blood to so cover Duo's hand…after a twenty-four hour journey…

I push ahead of the others, running down the long corridor. The rest of them may be bigger than me, but I'm faster.

I round a corner, and almost trip over the huddled shape collapsed on the floor.

"By Allah!" I shout, dropping to the ground beside him. "Trowa!"

He doesn't reply, doesn't move. I pat his face, gently, then more roughly, shouting his name, trying to push away the panic threatening to overwhelm me. The others cluster thickly around me.

"Trowa!" I call loudly. "Trowa!" I repeat insistently.

A small noise comes from the inert body before me. I shift to a sitting position, then carefully slide my arms under him, lifting his body so that his head rests on my lap.

"Trowa, wake up," I order in a tightly controlled voice.

"Quatre…" he murmurs weakly, his eyelids fluttering open. He tries to look up at me and I see that his eyes are dulled and unfocused.

I move my gaze to the others. "Get a doctor, and a stretcher," I order tersely. "Go!" I half-shout when noone moves to obey. Une jumps as though struck, then turns and pelts down the corridor for help.

"Trowa, it's ok," I tell him softly. I gently touch him, very lightly lay my hand on his back.

He jumps as though I'd burned him. "Don't!" he shouts, and the despair in his voice is heartbreaking. "God, Quatre, don't."

I murmur apologies, sparing a glance at my hand. It's covered with his blood. His entire shirt is saturated with it.

"Quatre, listen…my mission…" he whispers weakly.

"You fulfilled your mission, Trowa," I assure him, and my voice breaks slightly. "You did, Trowa. You didn't let us down."

"No," he insists feebly. "Listen. Barton…he'll…you can't be captured, Quatre. Promise me."

"Don't worry about me, Trowa. Worry about yourself. We're getting a doctor, and he'll take care of…"

"No!" He struggles weakly, but he can hardly move. It seems that all his strength has been used up. I can't imagine what kind of injuries he's suffered, but it's amazing that he was able to move, much less pilot the Gundam here.

"You have to listen," he repeats desperately. "Promise me, Quatre. Stay away from him…and don't let him…he wants to…just…just protect Wufei. And Heero. And Duoplease, Quatre…"

"Trowa…" I whisper. What must he have suffered to be so afraid for us?

"Promise me," he insists.

"All right, Trowa, I…"

"No," says Wufei harshly. The others have been silent, frozen. This is unfamiliar territory - usually we're unconscious or we're fine. Or if we're not fine, we're insisting we are and pushing on ahead. But Trowa just can't push anymore, and none of us really knows how to deal with it.

"No, Trowa. I will not be protected. I will go and fight Barton alone, if you are gone."

"Gone?" I whisper. Heero's frown echoes my confusion.

Wufei waves a hand. "He's fulfilling his mission," he explains in a low voice. "Then nothing will be here to hold him. He won't fight any more."

"Don't you dare!" Duo bursts out suddenly. He worms between me and Wufei, crouching down so that his face is on a level with Trowa's. "Don't you dare leave me again, Trowa!"

Trowa squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head feebly. "Don't, Duo…" he manages.

"Trowa, listen to me please. You have to believe me, have to understand that I…"

"Promise me, Quatre!" Trowa interrupts, opening his eyes again and staring at me.

Slowly, determinedly, I shake my head. I will not give Trowa leave to die.

Despair floods his green eyes, and his head slumps. The others cry out in alarm, but I quickly find the sluggish, thready pulse in his neck. Trowa is only unconscious - for now.

_____________________________________________

Duo cries out in dread, surging forward, grasping Trowa's limp arm.

"It's all right, Duo," Quatre says quickly, his gentle fingers resting on Trowa's neck. "He's alive. Unconscious, but alive."

"What the hell…" Duo's voice breaks, but he clears his throat and continues. "What the hell happened to him, Quatre?"

A sudden surge of anger sweeps through my body. I know what…or who… happened to Trowa. And when I get my hands on him…

"Barton," Wufei breaks in harshly before Quatre can reply, and my gaze jerks away from Trowa's battered form to Wufei's face. His black eyes flash dangerously, and he is practically trembling with the force of his barely suppressed rage. My own fists are clenched tight in an attempt to control the same fury that is threatening to overwhelm me. We stare at each other for a long moment, perfectly in accord for the first time in many weeks.

Our tense tableau is broken up at that point by the return of Une and her medical team. Two of them tear Trowa away from us, and carefully lift him onto a wheeled bed. Quatre directs them quietly but firmly, informing them of his injured back, ensuring that all care is taken to prevent the jarring of any presently unknown injuries.

I am hardly aware of our progression to the med bay. We all form a rather macabre little procession - the doctor in the lead, his team pushing the bed containing Trowa's unconscious body, the four of us clustered behind it, Une confusedly bringing up the rear.

I hear the doctors conversing in hard, rapid tones, hear Quatre and Duo firing questions at them, am aware of Une demanding answers from anyone willing to answer her. But I don't process any of the words, don't answer any of the demands. The voices are all overwhelmed by a rushing in my ears, the sound of my own pounding heart, each beat pushing wave after wave of rage through my entire body.

I jump as a hand comes down hard on my shoulder. I look up, snarling, to see Wufei staring at me. His eyes are calmer now, a faint glitter buried deep in the black depths the only remaining clue of his anger.

"Later," he says flatly, and his voice throbs with the promise of revenge, of retaliation, of horrible vengeance. "We must care for Trowa now."

I nod sharply. He's right. I can't allow anger to take the upper hand now. Now, we have to ensure that our friend is saved. Later, we seek out his tormentor and deliver our reprisals.

I take a deep breath, forcing my heart beat to slow, forcing the anger and adrenaline from my veins. We've reached our destination, and the doctor is barking out orders. Underlings scurry to ready trays of instruments, wheel machines over to the side of Trowa's bed, angle bright lights on his still form.

"You all have to get out," the doctor informs us brusquely. "There are too many people in here."

"Fuck off," Duo replies evenly. "I'm not leaving."

The doctor looks at him and scowls briefly before returning his concentration to Trowa. "You're in the way," he says flatly.

Duo backs up several steps, and defiantly crosses his arms across his chest.

Issuing a brief order to his assistant, the doctor sighs and looks at all of us. "I'm Dr. Rushton," he says, his voice calmer. "I want to help your friend. I have to examine him, and I may have to operate," he tells us in a serious tone. "I don't know what's wrong yet. Having this many people here may open him up to infection, depending on his injuries. Besides," he continues, gesturing toward his assistant, who is presently carefully cutting apart the material of Trowa's pants in order to remove them, "do you think he would want you all to be here watching this?" He pauses for a moment, letting his meaning sink in. "Leave him some dignity."

We're all silent for a moment. Une is the first to move. She nods sharply at the doctor. "I will be right outside," she warns him. "See that he recovers." She turns abruptly, and leaves.

Quatre touches Wufei lightly on the arm. The Chinese boy looks into his lover's aqua eyes for a long moment. After a silent struggle, he sighs deeply. He stares hard at the doctor for a moment in undisguised warning, then he too leaves the room.

Turning to Duo, Quatre tries again. "Duo, come on," he begins. "The doctor will tell us when…"

"No," Duo interrupts harshly. He looks at the doctor. "Doc, I hear what you're saying," he acknowledges in a tight voice. "But I'm staying. I'm not leaving him alone."

"Me either," I add. Quatre turns in surprise, and I shake my head at him. "Two of us won't be in the way," I assure the doctor. "We have to stay with him."

Quatre moves next to me. "Heero," he asks softly. "Who are you staying for?"

I stare at him for a moment, confused by his question. He lifts a golden brow at me, and suddenly I understand. With understanding, comes the desire to punch him in the head. What a question! Have Duo and I really behaved that badly over the past weeks?

"Trowa," I say firmly. "I am staying for Trowa." I won't abandon him again.

Quatre stares at me for another moment. Finally, he nods once, and leaves the room.

The doctor shakes his head, acknowledging defeat. "You two, go stand there," he orders, gesturing towards the corner. "Don't move, or you're out."

Duo nods, and we move together toward the corner. I'm aware of his pain, of his frustrated helplessness. But there's nothing I can do now, no way I can help him. Now, there is only Trowa.

"Doctor." One of the nurses has cut Trowa's shirt up both sides and removed the sleeves, and is presently trying to remove the rest of it to get a look at his injured back. "Doctor, we can't get it off."

The doctor pushes her aside, and begins to work at the material himself. "Good God," he mutters under his breath.

"What's the matter?" Duo demands.

The doctor growls under his breath but doesn't reply. The nurse turns to us. "The cloth of the shirt and the material beneath it are sticking to his back," she tells us, and her voice is worried. "We can't get it off without tearing it. We don't know what kind of injuries are beneath it, so we don't know what kind of damage that will do."

Throughout her speech, the doctor is carefully working at the material, trying to pull it away. A faint moan comes from Trowa.

"Get the damned anesthesia into him," Dr. Rushton snarls at another of the white-garbed figures. "The last thing we need is for him to wake up."

The doctor works at the shirt for several minutes, alternately tugging gently at the material and saturating it with water to loosen it, and I chafe under the delay. Every mutter from the doctor, every whispered suggestion of one of the nurses, every new needle and tube they shove into Trowa's unprotected arm makes me cringe.

Finally, the doctor manages to work most of the shirt loose, and carefully peels it away. An exclamation of dismay is wrung from his lips as he stares at the now-exposed flesh. Two of the nurses turn away.

"What is it?" Duo demands, pushing forward.

The doctor falls back, and we get our first glimpse of Trowa's back.

It doesn't resemble any part of a human being. I see no spared skin - just raw, bloody flesh. Some areas are black with dry, caked blood, others are still oozing the red fluid. Some places glow an angry red, and I recognize the signs of infection. There are horribly exposed areas of pink and purple that I assume are uncovered muscle. Long gashes obviously made by some sort of whip overlay each other, too random to be any sort of pattern. It looks as though he's been flayed.

I hear a choking sound, and I turn my head. Duo is staring at Trowa in open-mouthed horror, tears standing in his violet eyes.

"His back…" he whispers.

"I've never seen anything like this," the doctor admits hoarsely, forgetting to reprove us for leaving our corner.

Duo turns to him. "He's had injuries on his back before," he tells the doctor. "He had…scars. Lots of scars, covering his whole back."

The doctor narrows his eyes and stares at him. "How did he get them?" he asks.

Duo shakes his head. "I…I don't know," he admits. "Some of them….I'm sure some of them he got from the same person who did this."

The doctor nods slowly. "Ok," he says after a moment. "We have to get going. You two, back in the corner," he orders, jerking his head to indicate where he wants us to be.

I never again want to live through another experience like this one. The doctor carefully cleans Trowa's injuries. The pain seeps through to Trowa despite his unconsciousness and the drugs, and he cries out piteously under the careful ministrations. The muttered comments and instructions from the doctor and his team burn themselves on my brain, and I shudder with every one of their movements, feeling the pain Trowa is suffering.

"Some of these were inflicted some time ago. There's just new ones on top…"

"…indications of scar tissue. Broken up by the new injuries…"

"…definite infection. Look at the swelling…"

"…fever of 105 degrees, doctor. There's danger of brain damage if it continues at this level…"

"…going to stitch it up?"

"I can't. There's nothing left to stitch it to."

"…through the muscle. Will it retain functionality?"

"It should. We have to watch these infections. This should heal, if the infections don't spread."

"…going to do if we can't stitch it?"

"…bandage the whole thing. Coat the bandages…change them every hour…"

Duo is very still beside me. Neither of us speak. We stare at the doctor, and the helpless form under his hands.

"…look for other injuries."

"…fracture of the sixth rib…"

"…lacerations around the wrists and ankles…some kind of restraint…"

"…more lacerations on the elbows…bruises on the hips and thighs…indications of possible…"

"…yes, that's definite…multiple tearings of the anus and the rectal passage… nurse, get a rape kit..."

What?! I sway, feeling like I've just been struck a physical blow. Trowa was…no, that's not possible. Even OZ would never…

There's a small sound beside me, and I turn to look at Duo. His eyes are squeezed tightly shut, but tears escape and flow down his cheeks.

"Duo," I whisper hoarsely. Duo needs to explain this. I must be wrong, must have misinterpreted what I heard…

Duo's eyes open, and he stares at me. I see the truth in his eyes. I'm not wrong. My God. We stare at each other in mute horror. My stomach twists with shame and self-loathing. I let Trowa suffer that, and I didn't even try to rescue him? I had no idea…and all the while I was with Duo.

After many, many more agonizing minutes, it's finally over. Trowa's injuries are all tended. His back in covered in a mass of white bandages. A clean sheet is pulled over him to his waist. Several tubes drip various liquids into his veins - two, the doctor explains, are medicines, one is nutrients to help rebuild his wasted body, the fourth is blood to replace some of what he has lost.

Dr. Rushton looks exhausted, and sick. "He has a good chance of recovering," he assures us as he wearily pulls off his gloves. "That back is a mess, but it's all regenerative tissue. It's amazing that he was able to walk, much less get back here. That's encouraging, though - he seems to have a very strong constitution, and that should recover that much more quickly."

We stare at him mutely. I can't begin to think of anything to say.

The doctor sighs. "I'm going to keep him sedated for several days," he tells us. "What he needs more than anything else is rest. It will help him heal physically, and…" he hesitates. "Well, I think he needs the mental respite as well. I'm sorry to tell you that your friend was…"

"We heard," Duo interrupts harshly. I feel a cowardly relief. I didn't want to hear him say it. "You're sure?"

The doctor nods. "I'm sorry," he says simply.

"Thank you for taking care of him," Duo says suddenly. "You're…you're sure he'll be ok?"

"There's still the danger of infection," the doctor hedges. "But, there's a good chance that he will recover."

"Can we stay?" Duo asks.

Dr. Rushton shrugs. "I don't think I could stop you," he acknowledges wryly. "But he's not going to wake up for quite some time. You might want to get some rest yourselves."

"We'll stay," I answer for both of us.

The doctor nods. "I'll go speak to the rest of your friends," he says quietly, and leaves the room.

The rest of the medical personnel fluttering around finally complete their tasks, and they're gone too.

Duo and I pull two chairs up to either side of Trowa's bed, and seat ourselves. We haven't spoken to each other yet.

A monitor above Trowa's bed traces the rhythms of his heart and brain, and I stare at the reassuring patterns.

Trowa is alive.

The doctor said he'll recover. Physically.

"I knew this would happen to him," Duo says suddenly.

I look up, startled.

"As soon as I heard that we were dealing with Barton, I knew," he continued.

"Did he…" I stop. "This happened…before?"

Duo shrugs. "Trowa never told me outright," he admits. His face twists in disgust, and I realize that that disgust is directed toward himself. "And I never asked him. But he had nightmares…about Barton…and he would say things in his sleep…" His voice trails off to nothing. "I knew," he continues finally. "And I didn't do anything."

"There was nothing to do," I remind him.

Duo emits a short, humorless laugh. "Yeah," he agrees ironically.

I don't reply. There's nothing to say. We sit and stare at Trowa's motionless form, the only sound in the room the regular, faint beep that reassures us that Trowa's heart is still beating.

I stare at Trowa. I feel helpless. I don't know how I can possible make things better for him. I don't know what to do. And I am damned sick of not knowing what to do.

I watch the faint rise and fall of Trowa's thin shoulders. Duo is resting his forehead on the edge of Trowa's bed, and I gaze at the thick mass of chestnut hair flowing down his back. I feel a surge of unaccustomed feeling. I don't want them hurt anymore - either of them. They have hurt enough. Neither of them deserves it. I clench my fists determinedly. Noone will hurt them again. I will see to that myself.

The first order of business - destroy Barton.

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