The Beginning's End + Part 9 (cont)

"What is it, Barton?" I snap, entering the small room that has been allotted me as my office. I sit in my chair; he remains standing. He's pacing all over the small enclosure, and I suddenly have the uncomfortable feeling that I'm caged with a lion.

"What is this all about?" I repeat when he doesn't answer me, my eyes following him back and forth across the room. This uncontrolled nervous movement is very unlike Trowa. He's always still, collected. He never allows any inner turmoil to show.

Suddenly, he stops in front of the desk. His eyes meet mine unflailingly. "I know who the Gundam pilot is," he says flatly.

It's not often I'm caught completely unaware. I feel my mouth drop open. "You…what?" I ask, hearing the incredulity in my tone.

"I know who that pilot is," he repeats.

"You…how? You were…" I can't bring myself to say it. Despite my brief confusion the day the Gundam attacked, I never really believed Trowa had anything to do with it. But now…he seems to be saying…

A brief expression of annoyance crosses his face. "I'm not in on the damn plot, Une," he snaps. "I recognize the voice."

"You recognize the voice?" I repeat doubtfully. "Trowa, it wasn't that good a transmission, and…"

"I recognize it," he insists.

"Who is it?" I ask skeptically.

He stares at me for a long moment. Then, in the flattest, deadest voice I have ever heard him use, he tells me.

I stare at him for a long moment.

"That can't be," I say, and I hear the coldness in my own voice. "Impossible."

"No," he says, all the power of his conviction in that one word. "I recognizee the voice."

"But how…"

He shrugs. "Who knows?" he asks rhetorically. "But it's him."

"But why, after all this time…"

"Not really so long. That force was pretty well destroyed last time. It would take awhile to rebuild."

"It's not possible." I can't believe it. It's too far-fetched.

"Motive, means, opportunity," Trowa recites. I scowl at him. He sounds like a cheap mystery novel.

"Ok, supposing your theory is true," I say, allowing my doubt to show. "Why now? Why that Gundam?"

"Because now is when they can, finally," he says. "As far as why that Gundam…for one, it's the one he'd have access to."

He's right. He would have access to that particular Gundam.

"And two…" he spreads his hands. "Revenge."

Revenge. The Heavyarms model. The L3 colonies. The base…on an abandoned factory colony…

"My God," I murmur.

He nods.

I can't believe I never thought of it before. But it seemed…impossible. I rise from my desk. "We need to tell the others. We need to formulate a plan. Now that we know…"

He shakes his head vehemently. "You will not tell them," he interrupts.

I am startled into sitting down again. "What do you mean, I won't tell them?" I interrupt.

"You will not tell them," he repeats. "And I will go surrender myself to his organization."

"What?" I can't have heard him correctly.

"I'm going to go there," he repeats.

I did hear him correctly. He's just crazed. "Pilot, if you think I'm sending you into that situation alone…"

"It's the only thing that can buy us some time," he interrupts. "We don't know what they have - they could have more Gundams," he reminds me. "We don't have enough forces now to take even a single Gundam. You need to manufacture more suits, Commander," he tells me unwillingly. He knows I don't want to hear that. "But that takes time."

We're silent for a moment. He speaks again, and I hear how reluctant he is to voice this thought. "He wants me," he says. "He wants revenge on me most of all. I'm the only bait we have that will distract him long enough to allow you to mobilize."

He's right. He's absolutely right. And sending him alone into this particular lion's den is very wrong.

"We'll send you in with reinforcements," I begin lamely.

He shakes his heads. "They'll be killed," he says flatly. "The mission will be compromised."

I rest my elbow on my desk and drop my head onto my upraised hand. "We'll consult with the others…see if they have any ideas…"

"No, Commander," he says firmly. "We will not tell them."

I look up at him. "Why not?" I demand. "You think they'll sit quietly and let me keep them in the dark?"

"Do you think they'll let me go alone, if they know where I'm going?" he asks.

He's right again, damn it. The other pilots would never send one of their number alone on such a mission.

"But they'll insist on knowing before you go," I protest weakly.

"So I'll go before they know I'm going," he says quietly.

I frown at him.

"I can leave within the hour," he says evenly. "You'll go tell them when I've already blasted off."

I blanch at the very thought of delivering such a message. He stares intently at me. "It's the only way, Commander. If they come too, they'll die."

"So could you, pilot," I remind him tersely.

He inclines his head. He doesn't seem too bothered by the notion, I note with exasperation. This little group was always far too willing to die.

"Possibly," he acknowledges. His face sobers. "In fact…Commander…it is probable." He's silent for a moment. "I expect I will be gone for some time. If I have not returned within a month, plan the attack. Wait another week, then begin the assault."

"But we could be attacking you…"

"If I have not returned within that month's time, I will not return," he says meaningfully, staring into my eyes. "Do you understand?"

I do understand. They will have killed him, or he will have forged his escape by bringing about his own death.

This is terribly unfair. These five men should never be asked to do this again. They should be able to live out their lives in peace. They've earned it. But they are being required to fight again, and it is I that am asking them to do so. To my horror, I feel a sharp pricking at the back of my eyelids, a sensation I have not experienced in many long years.

"I will go get a suit ready, Commander," he says quietly.

I bury my face in my hands as he silently leaves the office. What in the world am I going to tell the others? What can I say, when I have coldly and pragmatically sent their friend into Hell?

______________________________________

I click the exterior radar into close focus. The hazy blob of light I was looking at a minute ago slowly coalesces, and in a moment I'm staring at Colony XV7870. There are definite signs of activity - the colony shield is blurry, obviously covered with the thin film of water vapor and ice created by an active climate control system.

I've been in space for over twenty-four hours, not counting the stop I made at the outermost of the L4 colonies for refueling. Every moment I've been in the air, every mile this Taurus has covered, has brought me closer to this colony, now bare minutes away.

I asked for this mission. In fact, I demanded that I be given it. I created this mission.

And I have never so desperately wanted out of a mission in my life.

But there's noone else who can perform this particular task. Just like there was noone else who could prevent Heavyarms from being used the way he was originally intended. There was noone else who could infiltrate OZ, noone else who could - or would - destroy Deathscythe just to prove to a hated enemy that they were "one of them." And noone else who could join Mariemaya's army, who would open fire on Duo and Heero just to provide them with a way into the Barton fortress.

I'm damn tired of being the only one who can do all this shit.

But that's self-pity. Heero self-destructed. Quatre's father was sacrificed to the war, and Wufei saw his entire world die. Duo flew missions that landed him in the hands of the enemy again and again. I wasn't the only one with impossible missions that should never have been placed on me.

Of course, looking at our lives in a reasonable fashion doesn't make me feel any better. I feel my skin crawl with revulsion, though I try, I desperately try, not to think of what awaits me on that calmly glimmering colony that appears ever closer in my viewscreen.

I am the only one who can go. I am the one he wants. He taunted me with the Gundam - the Gundam modeled on my own. It's not my Gundam - I've studied the photos XV7889's satellite captured for us, and I see definite differences. Even he couldn't completely replicate Heavyarms. But it's close enough.

That should have been my first clue. Who else could have access to those plans, now that Doktor S is dead? But it didn't seem that such a thing could be. That problem, I thought, had been solved years ago. The man was dead.

I should have remembered.

When we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.

I thought it was impossible, though. I saw his death. But I never saw his body. I assumed that it had been taken care of. But I didn't know.

I assumed it had been taken care of. Assumed. Always a mistake.

And I'm paying the penalty, now, for that faulty assumption.

Well, I won't assume he's dead next time. I'll kill him with my own hands, and wait until the body grows cold. I'll shoot it out into space and see it rupture. I'll…

I force myself to calm down. Mechanically, I check all of the gauges and readings on the control panel of the suit. There's precious little chance that I'll get the opportunity to kill him, much less engage in sick and exotic performances to ensure the validity of his death.

The reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.

Why is every quote I've ever heard or read suddenly thronging through my head?

The ball of white light that is Colony XV7870 is closer now - I can make out the particulars without the far-range exterior radar.

I probably won't get the chance to kill him. But he'll have every chance to kill me.

He'll probably make it last. Drag it out. It'll take days…weeks. He knows everything I hate, knows how to push buttons noone else knows exist. He'll seek to make me betray the others, to reveal the location of my friends.

Every instinct I have is screaming that this mission is wrong. It's a suicide mission. I'm going in with no escape route. No Gundam is waiting for me. I've demanded that noone stage a rescue mission. I have no hope in Hell of getting onto that colony unnoticed, and I won't be able to get away.

I'm nearly there.

The trip seemed so long, but now I wish it were longer. I wish I had another day, another hour. I haven't been able to become accustomed to this idea yet, haven't been able to erect the walls I'm going to need to have up to endure what's waiting for me.

All my possessions for a moment of time.

I've left so much unfinished. I left without saying good-bye to any of them. I had to - they would have followed, and would have died. I couldn't have allowed that.

I could have left a note. Left a message with Une. A note for Quatre. A message for Wufei. For Duo.

Oh, Duo. How could I have left him that way? Even though he made his choice, and it wasn't me, he didn't deserve to be treated like that. I made sure, by leaving without a word, knowing that I won't be going back, that he will have a burden of guilt to carry forever. We never resolved anything. He'll believe I went to my death hating him, angry with him, never forgiving him.

How could I do that? Now I have to go to this colony, to this evil awaiting me, knowing that the last thing I did in my life was to irreparably harm the person who means the most to me. The last thing I did was bring more pain into another life.

Jealousy...it is the green-eyed monster, that doth mock the meat it feeds on.

No use thinking of that now. At least Duo will be alive to feel guilty. Heero will console him.

Heero. Heero was my first friend. I can admit, now, to myself, that I had a crush on him. He was perfect - everything I wasn't. I wanted to be him. I even wanted to self-destruct, like him. That's why I always believed Duo must prefer him - he was a better, a more perfect version of me.

When it turned out that Duo did prefer him, I hated him. Despised him for being so much more than me. How pointless that seems now. What was he supposed to do, stop training and suck out some IQ points to make me feel better?

I scowl. I have to collect myself. I'm getting sentimental, and stupid. Of course I'm looking back on the past horrible week nostalgically. Anything is preferable to what I'm going to. The rose-colored glasses I've donned as I've neared this colony don't actually change the hue of events past. They still betrayed me. Still broke promises they had each made me. Still abandoned me.

That's what I need to focus on. Regret, sorrow, and guilt will only deliver me more easily into his hands. I have been betrayed, and now I will die alone, as I have always been.

I feel something within me harden at that thought. They have all left me alone to die. Une allowed me to go, knowing I would die alone. The others will have been told by now, or will soon be told, of my mission. They will not come for me - the lives of the many others we protect will be deemed more important, and I will be allowed to die, alone, at that hands of a man who hates me. Perhaps they will be sorry, but they will not prevent it.

Friendship and love are illusions. They fill up empty time, occupy our minds in times of peace. They are the first things to be sacrificed when the road turns rocky. Any loyalty anyone felt for me is now nothing but the sacrificial goat on the altar of duty.

Determinedly, I increase my speed and move within the air space of the colony. Something inside me is screaming that I'm wrong, that I'm being unfair again. I don't care. Numbness is the only thing that can possibly help me to bear what is coming. I don't want anything else. I don't need anything else. I will save myself, or I will die. My life is noone else's responsibility.

A harsh beep breaks the stillness, alerting me to a signal coming from the colony.

I press a button, and a face appears on my vidscreen.

I don't recognize it. It's a male face, white, probably in his early thirties. His hair and eyes are brown, and his expression is angry.

"Who are you?" he demands. "Our organization likes to keep track of those they have destroyed."

I recognize the voice. It was the officer who was taunting the pilot of the Gundam in the transmission picked up by Colony XV7889's satellite. I ignore his threat as I answer calmly. "This is Trowa Barton. Pilot 03. The pilot of the true Heavyarms."

The man's expression turns from angry to startled. His eyes flicker away, obviously meeting those of someone out of the range of the camera. "You are to enter the colony," he tells me abruptly. "Disarm your suit. If we see any indication that you're powering up your weapons, you will be destroyed immediately."

The picture flickers out as he breaks the transmission.

I guide my suit to the opening created as they release the lock, pulling away a section of the shield guarding the colony and containing its atmosphere.

I lightly press my fingers to my wrist. My pulse is steady and slow. I pilot the suit as though in a dream. The fear and consternation of moments ago is gone. I feel nothing.

A few minutes pass, and I'm landing the suit inside the old factory. My exterior camera shows whole troops surrounding me, guns drawn. I turn off the camera.

Deliberately, I run through the landing checks. I run diagnostics. Nothing's wrong with the suit; it's seen no action. But I activate and complete the process anyway. I scan the computer system, eliminating all traces of my launch or travel coordinates. They will not find the base through my suit.

When everything is done, I open the hatch. I remove my safety restraint, I take off my helmet. I stand up and exit the suit.

I don't bother with the landing strip, I just allow myself to step off the end of the entry platform. I feel the breeze through my hair, feel the impact as my feet slam into the ground.

I turn my head slowly, casually from side to side, searching for the face. I know he's here.

There's movement in the ranks in front of me. The mass of men facing me parts, to let another man through.

It's him.

I walk forward.

He walks toward me.

We stop, about five feet away from each other.

I survey him calmly. He looks older; a bit bulkier. But the rugged features are as sharply etched as ever, the cruel mouth is shaped into the same wry twist and the blue eyes flash with the same angry, arrogant contempt I learned to dread all those years ago. And all that is crowned by hair as blond and soft as that of angel.

He is the first to speak. "Well, well. Look at what we have here. Little Nanashi, all grown up. So nice of you to come visiting."

My mouth is completely dry, but I incline my head politely as I return his greeting.

"My pleasure, Trowa Barton."

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