by: Shoori

Marking it Down to Learning + Chapter 13
Echoes from the Past

Trowa sighed, reaching over and pressing one of the small silver buttons on the new stereo system by his bed. For once, even music was failing him. He was trying to distract himself, but he just... couldn't find the right sound

He'd tried classical.

It hadn't worked.

He'd tried pop.

It had bored him.

He'd tried the loud screaming rock that Duo favored when he was in a bad mood.

It had only given him a headache.

His latest attempt, sounds from nature, had worked only too well. Now, he felt a desperate need to be in a forest - some forest, any forest - walking down a shaded path, surrounded by nothing but trees and moss and grass and the small skittering sounds of animals and insects moving through the brush.

But where was he?

He was in fucking Sanc. In his room, by himself.

It was better than the alternative, he assured himself grimly, lying back on his pillows.

After all, be could be back at Headquarters, working that awful, depressing miserable prostitution case, watching Une and her group of incompetents mess it up and make it even more difficult than it was.

He wasn't enjoying work lately. He'd never particularly liked working for the Preventers. Once upon a time, though, there had been some... satisfaction in it. He had felt that he was doing something worthy, something noble.

Now, though... He was still doing important work. But he felt more and more that he was fighting his own allies - his "leaders" and the bureaucracy they so loved to wallow in - more than he was fighting the bad guys.

There had always been crap involved in being a Preventer. Once, though, the satisfaction of what he was accomplishing had outweighed the crap.

The balance seemed to have shifted lately, though. The annoyances piled up into a virtually impenetrable wall, with their real goal - saving innocents from a life of exploitation - practically invisible behind that solid wall of stupid shit.

The tall man shifted slightly, sitting up a bit, lacing his fingers behind his neck to support his head.

It probably wasn't the job. The job was the same as it had always been.

He was the one that was different.

He sighed again. He was different. He couldn't hide that from himself - or from anyone else - any longer.

He'd felt the change coming, slowly. The anger that he'd been able to suppress for so long, that had only bubbled up to the surface on very rare and extreme occasions, had been growing steadily stronger for months.

He hadn't wanted to confess that at all, not even to himself. Maybe especially to himself.

It bothered him because it was so... stupid. There was nothing to be angry at, anymore. Everything was fine. He had everything he'd ever wanted, and he had things - a home, people he cared about, actual relationships - that he'd thought he'd never have, things that he'd once thought that he wouldn't even want.

He'd grown up with nothing. He had the clothes on his back, and when they wore out, he'd rip some from a convenient corpse, or steal them from some already impoverished home, and he would wear them until they too were threadbare and hanging off him.

When he'd turned eight, he'd gotten his own mobile suit. Oh, it belonged to the unit, but it was essentially his. It was the smallest and most awkward, and noone else liked using it, so it had fallen to him by default.

He hadn't cared - it had been his. That had been enough.

And then he'd had his flute.

Quatre had asked him once where he'd learned to play the flute. The blond hadn't voiced his thoughts aloud, but Trowa knew how strange it must appear. A boy, raised as a soldier by a group of mercenaries - hardened men who killed for pay - had learned somehow to play the flute, of all instruments?

He knew it was odd. He understood why Quatre was curious.

But he hadn't told him. He'd never told anyone about Aubin.

He still hadn't told anyone about him. He'd never told anyone about the other boy, and it was likely that he never would. Noone else would understand. None of them had known him. In fact, it was very likely that he, Trowa, was the only person alive who still remembered Aubin.

Trowa's mercenary troop had taken a small village. It was strategically important, and the Captain had declared that they were to show no mercy.

Of course, their opposite force hadn't yet arrived when they reached the village.

But they still showed no mercy. It was good to make examples of people, whenever they could. It tended to save them trouble later on. Those who had heard of them and their ruthlessness put up less of a fight, hoping for mercy.

But they showed no mercy. Ever.

Even though they were relatively new in this area, and hadn't built up a name for themselves yet, it still hadn't been much of a fight. The inhabitants of the relatively isolated village had been mostly farmers. They were innocent people, their lives mostly simple. The war hadn't arrived until the soldiers had, and the only weaponry they had at their disposal was outdated and laughable. The "battle" had been over in minutes.

Then the "fun" part had begun.

The Captain had declared that the men were to have free run of the village - destroy what they wanted, demolish any building or structure or place, take what - or who - they wanted. He allowed his men to rampage in that way from time to time - it was good for their morale, and made them easier to control later. And it made them seem that much more fearsome in the eyes of anyone they faced later who might have heard of the atrocities they committed.

And they committed plenty.

Aubin and his sister had been taken prisoner in that raid, and had been brought back to the camp. The men rarely did that - there was little room in their lives and their hardened existence for extra people. But that had been a special night, a celebratory night, and they'd wanted to bring souvenirs along when they'd left the decimated town behind them.

Trowa had never known Aubin's sister's name, but she had looked just like him. They'd both been delicately built, both with the same fine blond hair and soft blue eyes. Actually, Trowa reflected in surprise, frowning as his eyes ran slowly over the soft pink curves of the flower on the poster beside his bed, Aubin had looked a lot like Quatre had looked when he was younger.

Maybe that's why he'd almost instinctively trusted the blond pilot that first time he'd met him. He remembered that he hadn't understood why he'd stepped out of Heavyarms, why he'd agreed to return to the other boy's home and allow his people to work on his Gundam. But he had.

Because Quatre had looked like Aubin. Similar build, similar appearance... but their resemblance was more than physical. Both had an air of... gentleness about them. Goodness. And it had appealed to Trowa.

It hadn't appealed to the other mercenaries. They'd seen it as a weakness, and all weakness was to be exploited.

That first night, they'd used the girl to manipulate Aubin to where they'd wanted him. They'd told him - in exacting detail - of all the horrible things that they would do to her if he refused to cooperate with them. Trowa had been watching from well beyond the fire, but even from that distance, he'd seen the horror in the wide blue eyes.

To save his sister, Aubin had done everything they'd asked. He'd allowed his clothes to be torn from his body, allowed himself to be forced to his knees, and he'd serviced the brutish men who had destroyed his home, hurt his neighbors, killed his parents. For hours, they'd violated him in every way until he was barely conscious.

Then, they'd dragged him up by his hair, bound him upright to a tree, and repeated the act with his sister.

Trowa would never forget the sound of the boy's anguished screams echoing through the clearing where they'd camped. It was the only time he'd ever heard Aubin protest what was done to him.

After a few hours of that rough treatment, the girl was barely alive, hovering tenuously in the area between life and death. One of the soldiers had rolled her inert body over, and casually cut her throat.

Aubin had roared in agony, tears streaming down his face, as he watched the last of his loved ones die.

The soldiers had laughed.

They'd kept Aubin with them for months, finding themselves to be somehow amused and entertained by his company. For Trowa, the other boy's presence was somewhat of a reprieve. Someone else to share the horror that was his life.

Aubin was not part of the force as Trowa was, though. He didn't fight, and he was never left unguarded. Most of the time, he was bound in some way.

Not because he was seen as a threat. None of the soldiers thought he could hurt them. But they weren't through with him. They didn't want to lose their plaything.

After a time, Trowa found that guarding Aubin was more and more frequently his duty. He never touched the other boy - for all that Aubin was at least six years older than the ten-year-old Trowa, he was still a boy. He... wasn't interested in that kind of activity. And he could never bring himself to use another human being the way the soldiers used him. And Aubin.

At first, the blond was so withdrawn into himself that he never even looked at Trowa. He spent all his time huddled in on himself, his knees drawn to his chest, his head lowered, locked in his own misery.

After a time, though, his naturally caring and inquisitive nature began to re-emerge. Trowa began to feel the blue gaze on him as he went about his work, and after a time the other boy didn't look away when Trowa turned sharp green eyes on him. In fact, Trowa was the one who looked away, disconcerted by the directness and curiosity in the other boy's eyes.

One day, Aubin had spoken to him.

People rarely spoke to Trowa. Well, they rarely conversed with him. He frequently was given orders of one type or another, frequently was mocked and derided... but people didn't talk to him.

"What's your name?"

At first, Trowa looked around to see who was speaking, and whom they were speaking to. But there was noone there but he and Aubin - the men were in a nearby town, purchasing supplies.

"Yes, you," the blond nodded with a half-hearted smile. "What's your name?"

Trowa had shrugged sullenly, turning away.

"Don't you have a name?" the boy pressed.

Trowa turned and glared at him through narrowed eyes, suddenly angry. "No," he replied flatly.

The blond stared back at him, nonplussed for a moment. "You have no name?" he demanded, obviously surprised.

"Are you deaf?" Trowa had asked harshly. "Don't you listen to them call me? I am Nanashi."

The blue eyes had gone vacant again at the mention of the soldiers. He slowly drew his legs back up to his chest, and lowered his chin to his knees, and Trowa was pestered with no more questions.

He was almost... sorry. He hadn't wanted to answer any questions... but it had been nice to talk to someone.

Several days passed, and Aubin made no attempt to speak. Then, the soldiers were gone again, and again a voice suddenly broke the silence as Trowa wrestled with a gear that was sticking in one of the transport vehicles.

"I can give you a name, if you like," the other boy offered.

Trowa looked up, and stared flatly at him.

"I can think of a name for you," the boy repeated.

"A name... for me," Trowa said slowly, still staring at the blond. A name? Could it be as simple as that? Could someone just... give him a name?

"What kind of name would suit you?" the blond mused, staring thoughtfully at him. "Bertrand? That means ‘intelligent,' so that would fit you. Or Rousset. That fits your hair. Or Noreis." The boy stopped looking away. "That means ‘protector,'" he whispered. "That fits you too."

Trowa scowled at him. "I protect nothing," he declared harshly.

The blond shook his head. "You protect me," he corrected softly.

Trowa glared at him, and the blond nodded firmly. "I see it," he insisted. "You hide me from them when you can. You've even... even... " He shuddered. "You've even gone to them before they can reach me. Saved me from them."

The younger boy snorted in derision, waving the other boy's comments away.

"You do," Aubin insisted. "And I... appreciate it."

"You're mistaken," Trowa told him harshly. "I have no reason to protect someone like you."

That had ended the conversation for that day. But Aubin wasn't easily put off. He talked to Trowa more and more in the coming days, never seeming to need a response. Sometimes he asked the silent boy about his life, apparently not put off by Trowa's stoic silence. Frequently, he pondered names for the red-haired boy. He had, he confessed once, made sort of a game with his sister of coming up with names. She had named everything - animals, flowers, places - and wanted unique names for all she named. They had, he related with a smile, read whole books just to encounter as many new names as possible. Then they'd look them up, and examine their meanings, to be sure that the names fit whatever his sister felt the need to christen.

Trowa had stared at him in amazement. "You can read?" he interrupted harshly.

Aubin looked up at him, surprised. "Of course," he said simply. "Can't you?"

Trowa had pressed his lips together and turned around angrily. Of course he couldn't read. When exactly would he have learned?

"I should teach you," Aubin mused. Trowa turned to look at the blond, surprised, but Aubin's eyes were closed, his face drawn in pain. "I used to read all the time," he confessed softly. "We were the only people in the village who had the money for such luxuries. But we did... and I miss it," he sighed. "Sometimes... it feels like I miss my books and my flute almost more than... " He broke off with a self-deprecating laugh and looked up, but Trowa saw the pain in his eyes. "Isn't that awful?" the other boy demanded. "To even think that I miss things like that more than I miss my family?" He shook his head. "It's just... I can't believe they're gone," he confessed hoarsely. "It must just... be a bad dream. I feel like... like they're waiting for me somewhere. They're not gone. But the other things are... and I miss them."

Trowa had just stared at him for a moment, then had silently turned his back and continued his work. He didn't respond to the other boy's whispered confession, and Aubin didn't speak any more that day.

Trowa never understood the impulse that drove him to his next action, an action that would have earned him a beating or worse if he'd been caught.. But the day after Aubin's pained confession, he found himself in the truck where the soldiers kept items they had confiscated or stolen and that they intended to try to sell for a profit. They could rarely find buyers for the more esoteric items they picked up - the people in these war-ravaged lands could barely afford food, much less useless trinkets. So it didn't take him long to find what he was looking for.

The next time the soldiers went away, he went and fetched the small, slender case, and carried it to the area of dirt where Aubin was chained to wait for his next degrading encounter with his tormentors. Unceremoniously, Trowa dropped the case in the older boy's lap.

For several long moments, the blond just stared at it. Then, with shaking hands he opened it, and stared at the gleaming silver metal within. Slowly, he looked up at Trowa, and the boy saw that his eyes were filled with tears. "Where... did you find this?" he managed.

"I want you to teach me to read," he replied flatly, defensively trying to keep any emotion out of his voice as he bargained with the other boy.

"To... I would have done that anyway," Aubin assured him slowly. "But... I can't believe you... brought this back to me," he whispered, slowly fitting the pieces of the instrument together. He held the connected cylinder reverently. "Maybe... I should call you Marvel... miracle worker," he managed. "Except... that's a girl's name," he finished on an unsteady laugh.

He lifted the instrument to his mouth, and blew hesitantly into the opening at the top. A sound resounded from the metal, rather rough at first, then increasingly soft and delicate. Tears - the first Trowa had seen Aubin cry since the night of his capture - slid down the blond's cheeks, but he ignored them. His long fingers moved over the keys, and Trowa listened, enraptured, at the sound the older boy was creating. He'd never heard music like that. Sometimes, travelling troupes crossed their paths, but the music they created was loud, boisterous and rowdy as the travelers themselves and the soldiers they entertained. This... was magic.

After a long time, time during which Trowa was held spell-bound, Aubin slowly lowered the instrument. The two boys stared at each other for a long time. "I'll teach you to read," Aubin promised slowly.

"Can you teach me to do that, too?" Trowa asked, nodding at the flute.

Aubin stared at it for a long time, then stared up at Trowa. "Noone can teach anyone to do this," he said cryptically. "But I'll show you how to learn."

A pattern was set - a pattern that endured for several months. They were the happiest months of Trowa's life. It was surprisingly easy for him to find time to spend with the blond boy. None of the men approached Aubin by daylight, and as for Trowa, he found that if he just wasn't around, noone remembered him. Maybe they thought that he was off completing a task assigned to him by someone else, or maybe they just never thought of him at all. Whatever the reason, Trowa found it easy to slip away and steal time with the other boy. And whenever they were alone - early in the morning, late at night, during the day if the other mercenaries were away - they practiced. Trowa learned the alphabet, learned to spell, learned to sound out words from the sound of the letters. Aubin was delighted at his progress, and Trowa felt... completed in a way he had never felt before. He was no longer ignorant. And whenever it was possible, whenever it was safe, after the reading and writing lessons had been completed, Aubin would let him play the flute.

At first, he'd been horrified at the ugliness of the sounds he created. But Aubin had smiled, and encouraged him, and soon... Trowa never knew how it had happened, really, but soon he had learned to let the instrument sing in his hands as it sang in Aubin's.

Trowa had never thought those months would end. He never wanted them to. He ignored all the horrors that still surrounded him. For once, the pain and fear didn't consume his every moment, waking or sleeping. The nights when both he and Aubin were pulled beneath the brutish men who ruled them, and were hurt and used and mocked didn't seem to matter as they once had, because he knew that when they were over, he would have the moments with the letters and the flute.

But winter was approaching, and they would have to move on. They'd been based in one place too long for safety, and they were running out of areas to destroy and pillage.

And Trowa foolishly allowed himself to forget one very important fact. The mercenaries always traveled lightly.