Marking it Down to Learning + Chapter 17 (cont)
The Long Road to Redemption

Quatre submitted to being dressed as docilely as he had submitted to being undressed, seeming hardly aware of Heero, or of any other people in the room.

"What the hell happened back there, Quatre?" Une snapped, jumping to her feet as the last of the surveillance team left the room. "Was that Duo? Why is he there? How did he get there? Did you... "

"I'm sorry," Quatre blurted suddenly. He wasn't looking at Une, though, he was staring across the room at Trowa, who stood with his back to him, standing out the window.

"What? For what?" Une demanded, not realizing he wasn't speaking to her.

"Une, get out," Heero ordered tersely.

"I'm sorry," Quatre repeated, his voice a little more desperate.

"What?! I haven't even gotten a report yet! I'm not... "

"Une, it would be best if we did this later," Wufei said evenly.

"I didn't want to do it!" Quatre half-shouted across the room, beginning to twist in Heero's grasp.

"I'm not leaving until... "

"Une, get the fuck out!" Heero bellowed.

"I will not leave this room before... "

"Une, please, this isn't the time... "

"I didn't want to!" Quatre screamed. "I'm sorry, Trowa, I'm so sorry, I... "

"Get out!"

"I didn't want to hurt him!" Now, the blond was sobbing. "I don't want to hurt anyone, Trowa, I don't... but I... I... "

Too late, the auburn-haired man turned around. The rage he'd been radiating for so long was gone, but the blond flinched as his eyes met the green ones, and saw the deep pain and sorrow in them.

"I'm sorry," Quatre sobbed, wrenching forward, breaking free of Heero's iron grasp. "I'm so sorry... " he managed as he turned and fled the room.

"Quatre!" Heero shouted, running after him.

"Later!" Wufei yelled at Une as he followed his lovers.

Trowa, shaking nearly as much as Quatre had been a moment before, leaned heavily against the wall, his eyes closing

Zechs crossed the room and grasped Une's arm, pulling the surprised woman along with him to the door of the townhouse. "We'll give you a report tomorrow," he told her firmly, before opening the door and thrusting her out into the foyer. To his amazement, she didn't even protest.

He supposed he couldn't blame her. He too was a bit off balance at seeing the others so uncharacteristically in turmoil.

He returned to the living room, but found it empty. Apparently, Trowa had recovered while he was throwing Une out.

Zechs left the room and went to the wing where they usually slept, toward the bathroom Quatre had been locking himself in every night. Sure enough, Heero and Wufei and Trowa were clustered in a small knot outside the bathroom door. As he neared, Zechs heard Quatre's uncontrolled sobs through the closed door, broken by the painful wretching.

Wufei's lips were tight as he stared in undisguised loathing at the heavy panel. Heero's fists were clenched in agitation. Trowa looked drained, lost, somehow much smaller than he had before, in some way diminished by the loss of that lissome grace and feral power that had been so much a part of him a few moments before.

"That's it," Wufei said suddenly, breaking the helpless silence that had descended on them all. He turned to Heero. "Break it down," he ordered abruptly.

Zechs watched as the Japanese man's eyes lit up with relief. They all stood back as Heero rose, lifted one leg and lashed out, one foot connecting with the door just above its handle. The door shuddered, but held, and Heero kicked it again. It shuddered under the assault, and, as he kicked it a third time, it gave out, the frame splintering under the force of the kick.

The panel burst open, and Heero was through immediately, followed by Wufei and Trowa. Zechs followed last, not sure if he belonged here, but not wanting to stay behind.

Quatre knelt on the floor, tears running down his face as he emptied his stomach into the toilet. He choked repeatedly, unable to stop crying to be sick, but unable to do both at once.

Now that they were in with him, the others seemed unsure as to what to do. They stood beside him, hovering, wanting to touch him but not hurt him, unsure as to how to help him.

Zechs watched them for a moment, watched the tears flow faster down Quatre's pale cheeks as he felt their stares on him but realized none of them were going to make a move to touch him.

He couldn't wait any more. He didn't know if it was his place to interfere, but he was going to. He wouldn't stand by anymore as people hurt, and not step in directly to help them.

He hadn't directly helped anyone in years. He'd made speeches and helped to pass laws and allotted aid money, but he hadn't let himself get close to anyone else's pain. He'd let Relena visit the soup kitchens and the homeless shelters and the hospitals and the refugee camps. He'd kept himself separate.

His father would be very ashamed of him.

So would Treize, the man who'd learned the names of every man who had died fighting for him, and personally written to the families of them all.

How disappointed they would be to see him closing his eyes to the suffering of others.

No more. He would no longer dishonor their memories by turning his back on pain, wrapping himself in his solitude and his misery.

Zechs pushed past Trowa and knelt down on the cold marble of the floor beside Quatre's shuddering form. He reached out and firmly grasped one of the younger man's shoulders, ignoring his convulsive start, and gently pushed the blond hair off of his forehead with the other.

"It's all right," he said softly. "Calm down, Quatre," he urged. He moved the hand on Quatre's shoulder up, carefully holding the blonde's head as he continued to be sick. "You need to stop this, Quatre," he said levelly, trying to let the compassion he felt for the other man be heard in his voice.

"Zechs," Quatre gasped in a moment, between heaves. "Zechs, please don't touch me... not yet... I can't... "

"You can't keep this up," Zechs interrupted firmly, not moving away. "You're killing yourself, Quatre, and you don't deserve it... "

"Please," the blond interrupted, gasping. "Please don't. I... "

"He's right." Trowa was suddenly kneeling on the blonde's other side, his face intent as he gently turned Quatre's head toward him. "You don't deserve it, Quatre. None of this is your fault. You... "

Quatre sobbed harshly once, pulling his head out of Trowa's grasp. "I'm sorry," he whispered, his body jerking as he wretched again. "I'm sorry, Trowa, I didn't want to hurt him. I... "

"I know," Trowa interrupted. "I know, Q. I'm not mad at you, I... "

"Don't lie!" Quatre half-shouted. "Don't lie to me, Trowa, I know you're mad at me, I know you... "

"I'm not!" Trowa insisted. "I'm mad at them, Quatre, so mad at them for doing this to him, and to you, and... "

"They aren't making me do anything," Quatre interrupted, his head hanging against his chest, his body trembling. "It's all my own choice. I'm hurting all those people... hurting Duo... "

"Quatre." Wufei's deep voice interrupted the blonde's still-escalating hysteria. "Quatre, don't do this. We all know... "

"You don't know!" Quatre screamed. "You don't know... "

"I do," Zechs interrupted forcefully.

The younger blonde's head jerked up, and Zechs almost winced as he saw the misery in the red-rimmed aqua eyes the stared up at him.

"I know, Quatre," Zechs said, more softly. "I know what it is to betray your own most deep-held principles. I know how it feels to know you are betraying those ideals for a higher purpose, but to know you are betraying them none the less. I know what it is to hurt those who are innocent, and to destroy that innocence to preserve it in others. I know," he continued, his voice heating, "how it feels to commit atrocity after atrocity after atrocity to make things better," he spat, his voice cracking on the incredulity of the last word. "And Quatre, I know how it feels to wonder and never to know if the end can ever truly justify the means. And I don't know if it does," he confessed, feeling his chest tighten as he knelt there on the hard floor beside the other man. "My father said it didn't. Treize said it did. I don't know," he admitted, a little desperately. "All I know is that a man has to do what he feels will do the most good in the end. And I know that the suffering you cause others, you visit on yourself too. But you have to stop, Quatre, or there will be nothing left. And... " he swallowed. "And if you don't take care of what you still have, you might... you might lose it." He closed his eyes, unable to go on.

There was silence for a moment. Then... "Zechs... "

The prince of Sanc forced himself to open his eyes, and saw Quatre staring at him.

"You have to stop doing this to yourself, Quatre," Zechs said slowly. "You have to share it with someone... or you're going to destroy yourself."

"I... I can't," Quatre managed. "I can't. No one else... you all never... "

"I told you," Zechs interrupted. "You can. I have."

Quatre stared at him.

"I know, Quatre," Zechs repeated. "I know what you're feeling. Share it with me," he urged. "Don't keep it to yourself."

Quatre's eyes closed. "Zechs... I can't... "

The blond reached out, and determinedly took the younger man's hands in his. "You can," he said firmly. "You can. Let me help you. You deserve it."

"But... "

"Don't try to hold it alone, anymore," Zechs insisted. "You aren't helping anyone by doing that."

"But... "

"Just do it, Quatre!" Zechs half-shouted.

The next moment he gasped, reeling at the wave of pain and regret and anger and rage and self-loathing that was suddenly flowing from the younger blond into him. He wanted to sever the connection, push the other man away, run and hide. But he couldn't. He had to stay, to help, to support the other man. It was Quatre's expiation, and, in a very real way, his own as well.

He didn't know how long they sat there, but it felt like forever. Wufei had shared with him his theories and ideas about Quatre's strange abilities, but he was unprepared for the intensity and intimacy of the connection the other man had forged with him. He felt like he was part of Quatre, feeling the other man's feelings merge with his own until he couldn't tell where Quatre ended and he began. He felt dizzy, and weak, as the waves of pain continued to wash over him, and he didn't know how much longer he could bear it.

But, eventually, they began to slow, and lessen, and eventually he found himself blinking at the floor. The floor was cold, and so was he, and he realized that that was because he was lying on it, with Quatre beside him, their hands still joined.

Then Wufei's hands were on him, pulling him up, pulling him against the Chinese man's hard chest. He looked over to see Trowa cradling Quatre in the same way, Heero sitting between them all, watching them, guarding them.

They all sat there, in silence, for a long time.

"I don't know how they got Duo," Quatre said, breaking the silence.

There was another long moment of silence.

"I... don't think how really matters now," Wufei said finally.

"We'll get him back, Quatre," Heero promised.

"You don't have to do this anymore," Trowa said suddenly, looking down at Quatre. When the blond stared up at him, he nodded firmly. "You don't have to," he insisted. "We'll find another way, Quatre. I don't want you to have to do this anymore... "

Quatre sighed, shaking his head. "It's too late, now," he said, and his voice was flat with resignation. "I'm too far in."

"But we can stop it," Trowa insisted stubbornly. "You don't have to... "

"Yes, I do, Tro," Quatre interrupted. "I do," he repeated softly as Trowa stared down at him, angry helplessness apparent in his green eyes. "Just... don't hate me," he asked, wincing as he heard the plaintive tone out of his voice.

"Never," Trowa vowed roughly. "I could never hate you, Quatre. I... " The former pilot stopped, his face twisting as he grappled for words. "I... could never hate you," he repeated, his features tight with frustration. He leaned down, pressing his lips to the blonde's, kissing him in an effort to cement his promise.

Quatre had relaxed slightly at the words, but tensed again under the caress. "Trowa, don't!" he gasped, pulling away. "Don't... I... Don't touch me," he managed. "I'm... a mess. Dirty... "

"We could all use a shower," Zechs agreed, carefully detaching himself from Wufei and pulling himself to his feet. He winced as he stood up. He felt like he'd just fought a battle.

Maybe, in a way, he had.

Quatre stared up at him, looking a little panicked. "I... I don't want to... "

"Bullshit," Wufei said calmly, standing up behind Zechs.

"Wufei, I... "

"Heero, would you turn the water on?" the Chinese man asked calmly as he began to take his clothes off.

Zechs stared at him for a moment, then felt a wholly inappropriate grin tug at the corners of his mouth.

The situation wasn't funny, really, but...

He'd never seen any group of people as comfortable with being naked as this group.

When in Rome...

He shook his head, and began divesting himself of his own clothes.

He watched as Trowa gently pushed Quatre up and began to undress.

Heero had already shed everything and was messing with the shower jets.

"Guys... please... " Quatre attempted weakly.

"We're not leaving," Wufei said firmly, staring at the blond. "You're no dirtier than the rest of us, Quatre. And anything that is... wrong... " He sighed. "We'll wash it all away, together. Together, Quatre," he emphasized.

"Water's ready," Heero called, stepping beneath one of the steaming jets.

Trowa stepped in silently behind him, lifting his face to another of the streams of hot, cleansing liquid.

Wufei stepped beneath another, sighing as the hot water plastered his ebony hair to his skull.

Quatre stared uncertainly at Zechs. The other man stared back at him, suddenly just as uncertain despite all the words and declarations of the past hour.

Did he really belong there? Could he too be cleansed of everything soiling his soul? Was there... room for him?

He gazed at Quatre, trying to hide the sudden hesitation that assailed him.

Quatre watched him for a moment, then suddenly, amazingly, smiled at him. It was a faint, weak shadow of Quatre's usual merry smile, but the effort was there. And Zechs couldn't help but smile back.

"After you," Quatre offered, politely gesturing toward the steaming shower and the three wet, glistening bodies waiting within it.

Zechs looked at Quatre for a moment more, the looked again at what he was being offered.

And he knew if he accepted his time of watching and waiting silently would be over.

He would have to be part of the world again, and risk all the uncertainty and potential heartache that that implied.

He hesitated for a long moment... then sighed. And shrugged and stepped into the water.

Quatre stepped in behind him, and he felt the blonde's body press against his. He turned into Quatre's embrace, and the others moved in around them.

And he was wet, and clean, and included and embraced...

And he wasn't alone any more.

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