by: Shoori

Marking it Down to Learning + Chapter 15
It Never Rains But it Pours

Heero sat back in the hard chair, wincing as his stiffened muscles protested the movement. He scowled at the pad of paper sitting in front of him, the notes scrawled in his own small, precise handwriting marring the pristine whiteness of the paper.

Pristine. There wasn't much that was pristine about their lives anymore. Not that life with the Gundam pilots had ever been ‘pristine,' precisely... But there had been an... order? Not exactly an "order" to their days... But they had been together, they had been focused on their own and each other's happiness, and while that may have been selfish, there was a purity in living a life focused on pleasure and joy that was not found at the expense of the happiness of others.

But now... Now everything that they did seemed to get more and more ugly, more tainted and tawdry. Duo was gone, they hadn't found a trace of him in all the time they'd been looking. Trowa and Wufei were quiet, grim lines of tension and anger etching themselves deeply into their faces, waking and sleeping.

And Quatre... Quatre was the worst.

It had been nearly a month now since the blond had infiltrated the Order. A month since he'd been visiting the high-class brothel located in the middle of the capital of Sanq, perversely disguised as a private institute conducting research to combat global hunger and poverty.

The first week, Quatre had visited the Order twice. The second week he'd gone three times, the third week four, and he'd visited the bordello every day for the past week. It was, the Arabian had explained flatly, in accordance with his cover identity. The face of Quatre Winner that he'd created was one of a man of infinite power and control, with one crack in his smooth, sophisticated veneer. He was, Quatre had established coldly, obsessed with sex and sexuality, with the carnality of the sexual act. That sort of man, upon being presented with the infinite range of temptations and delights presented by the Order ­ would at first attempt to control himself, and only avail himself of the pleasures he had purchased occasionally. But he would quickly weaken in the face of temptation, and would visit more and more often, stay longer, and revel and play in the atmosphere of freedom and debauchery and licentiousness that the Order so readily served up.

It would become an addiction, Quatre explained, and would be one that would swallow that Quatre Winner very quickly.

Heero scowled at the paper again. It all made sense. He was just afraid that, in the process of ensnaring that Quatre Winner, they would lose their Quatre as well.

So much was wrong. Their home had been taken over by the Preventers as the site of the surveillance operation. He didn't like having so many people in his living space, and neither did any of the others. But if Quatre were trailed from the Order, he had to be seen to be going home.

This mission, and getting through it, had become their lives.

Again, they were ruled by a mission, a job... By orders.

Heero's eyes moved around the living room, taking in the others keeping their vigil with him. Wufei stood in the doorway, arguing in a low voice with an obviously irritated Une. Since the second time Quatre had gone into the heart of the Order, they had all refused to allow anyone else in the surveillance room while a mission was underway.

It was safer for everyone, Wufei had established firmly. It was safer for the operation if as few people as possible knew what was happening. It was safer for Quatre, and would make the recovery from this operation easier for him, if only a few people knew what he had done and sacrificed to ensure success. And it would be safer for other agents if they didn't have to cross the paths of tense, easily-angered ex-Gundam pilots.

Une had tried to argue that those ex-Gundam pilots should be responsible for controlling their own behavior, but the four identical glares that had been bestowed on her had swayed her. That, and reports sent to her from the hospital, where one agent who had made what Heero considered to be an insulting and crude comment about Quatre's role in the mission was presently recovering from two broken legs and a concussion.

But Une had been very testy about being shut out of the surveillance operation, and retaliated by making a pain in the ass out of herself at least twice an hour, while they were all trying to concentrate on what Quatre was doing, what he was discovering, and whether or not he was safe.

Heero's eyes moved to Trowa. The auburn-haired man was sitting in front of the bank of surveillance tapes. He wore a pair of headphones on his head, and his fingers moved rapidly over the keyboard of Heero's laptop, which sat on the table in front of him.

Une thought that he was recording hard copies of the surveillance tapes as they came in.

Trowa, however, was altering them.

Une hadn't quite figured that out yet, though Heero knew from the traces he'd found ­ and destroyed ­ that she suspected that something suspicious was going on.

As the recorded information came in, Trowa was carefully removing anything that might be too incriminating or potentially damaging to Quatre. He was recording the information onto another reel, and carefully erasing certain information and splicing in new dialogue. In the weeks before Quatre had managed to infiltrate the criminal organization, Heero had written the program that would emulate Quatre's voice perfectly. They'd tested it against sound wave printouts, and it even matched Quatre's voiceprint.

The others involved ­ members of the Order, employees, prostitutes -were a little trickier, since he'd had only recorded images of their voices to work with, but he'd managed to tweak the program so that it would perfectly emulate the pattern of each voice, and transfer it to the tape.

So, as the recordings came in, Trowa reworked them, wrote new dialogue on the computer where necessary, and created a final version. He copied the revised transcripts, and they then presented them to Une as the originals. The actual originals they carefully destroyed.

Heero had planned to do the altering himself, but he'd been completely unable to construct new dialogue. Trowa had watched over his shoulder for twenty minutes as he struggled to rewrite the tapes they were receiving while not casting Quatre in too bad or too obviously virtuous a light. Eventually, the taller man had snorted in disgust, pushed Heero out of the way, and taken over the job himself.

The Japanese man had been affronted at first, but after watching for a few minutes was forced to admit that Trowa did a much better job of it than he had himself.

Quatre had reviewed the tapes a few days later, and remarked that if Trowa got tired of working for the Preventers, he'd probably be able to make quite a good living working for the afternoon soaps.

They'd all smiled, tried to laugh at the forced joke, but they hadn't really been able to. It wasn't funny, really, and it was agonizing to see Quatre try so hard to put a light cast on the situation that was tearing him apart.

Heero scowled, even as he forced himself back to his work. Every day before he left, they put tracking devices on Quatre that had enabled them to trace his progress through the building. They'd compared the signals they'd received from these devices and Quatre's notes and observations of the building to the architect's drawings, and Heero was working on constructing a blueprint of the Order's establishment.

This was easily the most important task they were doing right now. Zechs was helping ­ as he listened to the recordings come in, he was trying to create three-dimensional renderings of whatever room Quatre happened to be in at the moment, doing his best to place in furniture and people in the locations they seemed to be based on the sound coming in from the recordings, and the information coming in from the tracking devices Quatre wore. Each day, Zechs would show Quatre the model he'd constructed, the blond would correct it, and they would try to place it within the model of the building Heero was constructing.

It was slow work, and it was frustrating, but it had to be done. Already, they had enough evidence to take the Order and the freaks who ran it down. But until they were sure that they had a solid idea of where things were located within the establishment, they couldn't risk going in.

So until he figured out the lay of the building, Quatre would have to keep going back there. And Heero wasn't sure how much longer the blond could handle it.

Quatre never complained. He kept going in, and Heero was sure that no one within the Order saw anything except a charming, rich, spoiled nymphomaniac.

But every mission was taking more and more out of the Arabian.

When he came back, he would ­ as safety demanded ­ continue to play a role for the hour and more that it took to search him thoroughly for any possible listening devices that the Order may have placed on him. That was always a difficult and frustrating time ­ sitting there as Quatre was X-Rayed, injected, examined, poked and prodded to ensure that the Order wasn't tracing his movements. They couldn't talk to him about anything major until it was determined that he was clean, otherwise they risked tipping off the Order to their presence and putting everyone trapped within the organization ­ and Quatre ­ in danger. So they had to sit and pretend to be having a normal evening at home, pretend to be unaware that their lover had spent the evening at a brothel. There were so many layers of lies and pretense in that hour that Heero's head pounded with tension and confusion by the end of them.

But it was even worse when the hour was up, because they still were unable to comfort or help Quatre. He wouldn't let them.

He would report on what he had seen or observed or concluded that the tracking and listening devices may not have picked up on. He would deliver the information to them, and Une, and whatever idiot happened to be there, and he would answer any questions they had, any comments that had come up, and they'd discuss ­ sometimes for hours ­ any information they'd gathered.

Then, all the extraneous people would trickle away ­ they'd rented another townhouse in the building complex ­ and just the five of them ­ he, Trowa, Wufei, Zechs, and Quatre ­ would be left.

And Quatre would smile wearily at them, trying but unable to hide the exhaustion and torment in his blue eyes, and excuse himself. He would leave the room, enter one of the bathrooms, and be thoroughly sick in the toilet. Then he'd get into the shower, turn on the water as hot as he could, and stay in there for a long, long time ­ often hours.

Of course, they had to interpolate what was going on by the sounds and the steam in the room afterward, since he always firmly locked the door behind him, shutting them out.

They'd all mill around in the hallway outside the door, arguing in low voices about the relative merits of leaving him privacy or breaking the door down.

Heero always advocated breaking the door down. But so far, Wufei hadn't let him do so, although the Chinese man seemed to be wavering on that score as the pattern repeated itself over and over again.

Finally, the blond would emerge, smile at them with that smile that didn't reach his eyes, and announce his intention to go to bed.

And he would go.

Alone.

He was tired, he would tell them. He didn't... feel well, he would continue, the false smile wavering. He appreciated their concern, but he needed... to be alone, he'd conclude, the comforting smile gone, the misery in his tone achingly, painfully, apparent.

They would try to protest, try to stop him, but he'd shake his golden head and gently push past them, into one of the large bedrooms where they used to all go together. He'd quietly close the door behind him, and, even though they listened very closely at the door, they never heard a sound.

But he'd get up in the morning paler and more drawn and exhausted-looking then when he'd gone to bed the night before, and they'd know that he hadn't slept, that he'd lay there awake, tormented by the horror of his own actions.

And the things he did were horrible. He ­ or rather, that false Quatre that they'd created ­ gloried in sex, and the more animal, the more rough and dirty and degrading it was, the more that Quatre liked it. He seemed to revel in it, and the Order fed that hunger that seemed so apparent, supplying him with frightened innocents, with angry, struggling captives who fought their fate and him with rage and despair, and let him use and hurt and break them. And he seemed to love it, glory in it, and demand more and more of the same.

Then he would come home, and pour the contents of his stomach into the toilet, sickened with himself and what he'd done, and stand in the stream of hot water and try to wash it all away.

But he couldn't, and he knew it, and so he got sicker and thinner and more withdrawn. And every afternoon, he would again leave their home and go into the hell that was the Order.

Most worryingly, he wouldn't discuss it, wouldn't share it, but kept the whole burden on himself.

Wufei, who seemed somehow to better understand Quatre's strange abilities than anyone else, was very concerned. He'd tried to explain it to Heero ­ that Quatre was taking on the pain of those he hurt, to try to spare them as much of the suffering he was inflicting on them as possible. At the same time, he was storing up his own suffering and anguish, holding onto it and pushing it deeper and deeper into himself. Wufei believed that Quatre was hanging onto this accumulated suffering as a form of repentance, saving it and visiting the pain and guilt of it on himself again and again to punish himself for what he was doing. He talked about empathy and reprisals and possible emotional and mental consequences on the blond. Heero had gotten lost when Wufei started rambling about philosophical theories of human chastisement, but he understood that Quatre's abilities gave him the power to severely hurt himself emotionally, and shared Wufei's worry.

But there was nothing to be done. Quatre couldn't stop going now. There was more at stake than just the mission. The Order knew him personally, so Quatre's own personal safety would be in severe jeopardy if his cover were broken. The Order had demonstrated how very skilled they were at hiding their own tracks. They could easily strike and destroy Quatre, and disappear forever.

So he had to keep going, and they had to keep letting him, until he'd somehow managed to get close enough so that they could bring the whole mammoth organization down from within.

Heero just hoped that they didn't all get caught in the wreckage.

He scowled again, shaking his head furiously, as he realized he'd just been sitting there, staring at the papers in front of him. He looked up as Wufei sat down beside him, pulling the papers Heero had been working on across the table and examining them closely.

"How's the layout going?" the Chinese man asked in a low voice.

Heero sighed, angrily running his hand through his hair. "We don't have much new information," he said, hearing the tightness in his own voice. "They keep taking him to the same rooms. We've got a pretty good idea of the structure of the west side of the building, here," he said, indicating the appropriate area on the map, "and we know about the office section in the front of the building, and the reception rooms in the back, and the layout of the room this Polynices hangs out in, though we can't actually place it accurately, but everything else... " Heero shook his head. "We still have thousands of square feet of space unaccounted for," he finished, practically growling in frustration.

Wufei stared at the papers, his brow furrowing in concentration. "How do the spaces we know of correspond to the architect's drawings?" he asked. "We can interpolate from them... "

Heero shook his head. "They seem to have remodeled extensively," he announced dolefully. "We have no fucking idea what is in there beyond the public area of the building and these areas we've been able to map out. And Quatre thinks it extends underground... "

Wufei groaned. "I'd been trying not to consider that theory," he admitted.

"You and me both," Heero told him grimly.

"He can't keep this up," Wufei said quietly, staring unseeing at the plans. "He's making himself... ill... "

Heero sighed. "You can't blame him for getting sick," he pointed out. "To have to do that, and to know everyone's listening to you, and... "

"I don't mean physically," Wufei interrupted, looking up and staring intently at Heero. The Japanese man frowned, unnerved by the expression in the other man's dark eyes.

"You know that Quatre is... " Wufei hesitated, and Heero's frown deepened. He wasn't like Wufei to falter.

"He's not always... stable," Wufei continued delicately.

Heero scowled, reflexively shaking his head in denial. "That wasn't his fault," he protested. "The Zero System... "

"The Zero System dragged out the darkness that was already within each person," Wufei inserted smoothly. "It's true," he insisted as Heero stubbornly shook his head again. "Quatre has the potential for... He's not always stable," he repeated.

"Quatre's not crazy," Heero refuted hotly.


[cont]