Rattlesnakes + Part 12 (cont)

~*~

It looked like a nice enough place. It was secluded, nicely landscaped, and peaceful. The building was a slate grey with large floor-to-ceiling windows. They were parked in front in the small parking lot, staring at the building and the stately sign designating the name of the institution.

"It looks nice."

Trowa nodded slowly. There wasn't much else to say. "I'm sure it's nice on the inside."

"Sure," Duo laughed haltingly, "probably the best institution of mental health and substance abuse on the planet. Think there'll be a mint on my pillow tonight?"

Trowa continued to stare at the front door.

"Think I'll have a pillow tonight?" Duo slunk down in his seat, closing his eyes and putting his hand over his face.

Trowa poked him in the side with his elbow. "You'll have it easy. I'll have to face Une."

Duo panicked silently, his eyes opening widely to stare at Trowa with undisguised horror. "Oh, man, do you think it'll come to that?"

Trowa shrugged. "Forget it. She's a kitten."

Duo choked down a laugh. "Wow, that was way more than I ever wanted to know..."

"Idiot," Trowa muttered affectionately, turning away to hide his smile.

"Damn," Duo sighed, looking at the building once again. "It does look nice, doesn't it?"

Trowa nodded, patiently collecting his thoughts so that he could properly address Duo's anxiety. "Want to go in, and see if it is nice inside, too?"

Duo paled. "No."

"C'mon," Trowa urged slyly, "it'll be fun."

Duo laughed.

Trowa enjoyed watching Duo laugh so much, he smiled.

"I guess this is it, huh? We said we were coming today, and we even talked to Relena so we kinda have to go through with it... Right?" Duo gulped hard, and waited for Trowa to tell him what to do.

Shrugging noncommittally, Trowa sighed. "Might as well."

Duo grabbed Trowa's sleeve, and pulled him close for a second. He kissed Trowa on the lips with chaste passion. Trowa leaned closer, but Duo was opening the car door.

"Are you sure you can drive ok? I mean, are your arms all right? We can call a cab or something otherwise..."

"I'll be fine." Trowa got out of the car and closed the door decisively, waiting for Duo to walk around to go up the front walk. "Don't worry about me, ok? Just..." Trowa hadn't expected his voice to catch. He cleared his throat. "Take care of yourself, now."

Duo took Trowa's hand briefly, squeezing Trowa's palm. "I got it, Tro."

Trowa flashed a smile. "I'll be back tomorrow with your things."

Duo rubbed the back of his neck, eyeing the front door with trepidation. "Yeah... ok."

Trowa placed his hand on the small of Duo's back. "Let's go."

Duo nodded, and followed Trowa's nudge.

The front reception area had a fountain that spilled its water over a mound of flat rocks stacked on top of each other. The room was decorated to resemble a natural setting. The girl behind the front desk smiled at them and greeted them quietly, efficiently typing away as soon as she had Duo's name.

"Mr. Maxwell, everything seems to be in order. Your pre-registration is complete in full, so you can head straight into it. Let me page Dr. Mahoney, and she, or one of her assistants, will take you through the orientation." She smiled brightly at both of them, her manner so completely professional, Trowa felt like they were dealing with an automaton.

Duo swallowed hard. "Will we have to separate right away then? I... I thought that there would be, I don't know, paperwork or something..."

She continued to smile brightly. "Your friend - Mr. Barton? - is more than welcome to take the tour of the facilities with you. You can both meet Dr. Mahoney, who has been assigned as your principle therapist. After that, I'm afraid, Mr. Barton will have to leave so that you can complete the rest of the orientation."

Duo nodded, turning to smile weakly at Trowa. Trowa nodded briefly, feeling displaced. He had the desire to fidget, his heart fluttering with fear. He was glad, to his shame, that it wasn't him that was going to be staying in this place. His estimation of Duo was rising, and he wished that they had more time to be together; he didn't know how to let Duo know how he was feeling except to touch him, and they wouldn't have time for that now.

He had no idea at all how to show Duo how proud he was of him.

They stared at the water spilling over the rocks, neither one speaking or looking at each other, but indescribably together in watching the water. Duo put his hands in his pockets, and then took them out, and put them back in again. Trowa watched the water as if he hadn't noticed.

"Hello! You must be Mr. Maxwell!" A young woman in a casual but smart navy pantsuit stepped up to Duo, smiling politely. "I'm Dr. Mahoney. I'm the director of the Phoenix Treatment Center. I'll be your therapist."

Duo shook her hand, maintaining himself despite the fact that he was obviously thrown. "Dr. Mahoney... I didn't realize that you were the director... I hope that you didn't think that I needed any kind of... *special* treatment..."

She raised one eyebrow, amused. "You don't think so, huh? So, you think the sorts of stressors that have been affecting your judgments are common, then? Don't worry, Mr. Maxwell, we don't assign doctors to patients based on financial concerns. I specialize in post-traumatic stress syndrome, and its related complications. I'm just the best person to help you out. Although... I must say, I am glad to hear that you don't want special treatment. I have to say, I didn't know what to expect from you. I *was* afraid that you were going to cop a 'celebrity' attitude." She hugged her clipboard to her chest, and smiled cheerfully.

Trowa found her attitude oddly disquieting. She was too direct.

"Er, celebrity? How could cop that kind of attitude? *I'm* not a celebrity." Duo sighed and swallowed down a blush.

Dr. Mahoney shrugged one shoulder absently. "Well, it's good to know that you aren't, at any rate. And you are Mr. Barton?" She reached out to take Trowa's hand. He shook her hand a bit warily, aware that his hand was far too limp. He wanted to say something about how it was nice to meet her, but no words actually crossed his lips. "It's a pleasure to meet you, too. I like to see 'family' involvement in my patient's lives. Would you like to accompany us on a brief tour of our facilities?"

Trowa did not share a glance with Duo. The answer to the question was obvious. Dr. Mahoney knew that, as well.

It was nice inside, too. It wasn't sterile or fuzzy. It was nice. It looked a little like a resort, except for all the strung-out residents.

And Trowa was pretty sure there were some resorts that were like that, too.

It was too short a tour, thought. They were just taking a turn around the multipurpose room when Dr. Mahoney told them that it was time to separate. Trowa took Duo into his arms to forestall having to see the look in Duo's eyes. If there was anyone who was uncertain as the nature of their relationship, most of the residents got a good view of Duo clinging to Trowa like a vine wrapped around a tree.

Trowa closed his eyes, and kept his head down as Duo left his arms. He waited to hear Duo speak, because he knew that he could not speak.

Duo said nothing, but touched his hand gently before shuffling away.

Trowa looked up in time to see one last look at Duo's braid trailing down his back, and then Duo and Dr. Mahoney were gone and a young man in a white lab coat escorted him to the main entrance.

Trowa sat in the car for nearly an hour, his hands clutching the wheel as he stared blindly into space. He would not see Duo for a week. He would not speak to Duo for a week. He would not have any contact with Duo for a week.

He wanted to go home and cut himself, but it was implicit to his bargain with Duo that he wouldn't. It was going to be a long week.

He turned the key, and forced himself to concentrate on what he needed to do when he got home.

~*~

Trowa sat in the car, patiently checking off everything he needed. People from his office were leaving, and as they passed him, they all stopped or slowed down to look. He took no notice of them.

He hadn't bothered to call his boss. He had called Une directly as soon as he left the treatment center. Une had apparently left nearly sixty messages on his machine while he was gone. It had honestly never occurred to Trowa to check his messages. He had gone to their apartment, and picked up all of his and Duo's badges, and then came straight back to the office.

Une, Quatre, Sally, Wu Fei, and Heero were all waiting for him upstairs, but he took the time to check again to be sure that he had what he needed.

He had been planning what he needed to do for a while now, and he didn't want anything to go awry.

He strolled to the elevator, and got off on the floor for his office. He took from his office the very few personal things he had in his cube. There wasn't anything else important that he had to do there.

He had expected that his boss would have left for the day already, but his luck was never the best.

"Barton!" Trowa swallowed his annoyance, and started to walk to the elevator. "Barton! Just what the hell do you think you are doing? Do you think that you have some special privilege here that allows you, and you alone, to do whatever the hell you want, whenever you want, take off when you want, with no warning, and everything will be fine?"

His boss' face was bloated and red from his shouting. He looked somewhat how Trowa would imagine a puffer fish would look like, assuming a puffer fish resembled its name.

Trowa felt no need to respond to the man. The sooner he walked away, the sooner Trowa could put him and the office behind him for good.

"Barton! Don't ignore me, come back here!" Now he was shaking with rage, though Trowa did note that that did not encourage him to follow Trowa.

"I have a meeting with Une." Trowa pushed the button for the elevator. "Unless you think what you have to say is more important?"

The elevator dinged wearily, and Trowa got on without another word.

The ride was fairly long, since Une's office was on the top floor, and Trowa used the time to go through a final mental prep. He clasped and unclasped his fists loosely in excited anticipation.

The offices up here were widely spread out, large, and beautifully decorated, a far cry from the bleak office couture of the lower floors. There weren't many people to walk by, and Trowa kept his eyes focused straight ahead, his intent and purpose guiding every step. It was almost time.

The assistant outside of Une's desk waved him in with a small, tight grin that might have been either supportive or judgmental; Trowa didn't care.

Inside, everyone was waiting, in various degrees of grace. Une was placed neatly behind her desk, a small sigh of relief passing from her lips as she saw Trowa. Wu Fei and Sally were standing shoulder to shoulder, in the way that field operatives did, off to the sides. Quatre made a noise that was disturbingly like a squeak as soon as Trowa walked in, and began rambling in a distracting manner.

"Trowa, thank Allah! Where have you been? Why would you let Duo drag you off like that? Do you have any idea what the repercussions to your actions might be? We're all here to support you - both of you - but you have to try. You have to participate in your own recovery, or else..."

Trowa did not pay attention. He walked deliberately up to Heero, who was standing defensively at the corner of Une's desk. Trowa's strides were mechanically long, and he knocked Heero onto his back with one fast right hook.

There was general commotion, but before Heero could get up or anyone could get close to him, Trowa pulled his service revolver from his back, where it had been concealed under his jacket, and put it straight into Heero's face.

Heero moved as if he was planning on knocking the gun away, and Trowa put his foot down on Heero's arm. "I would stay down if I were you. I'm not the one with the broken trigger finger."

Heero seethed.

"Just what the *fuck* did you think you were doing? Did you want him back so badly that you were willing to destroy him?" Trowa had planned what he was going to say dozens of times, composing the exact verbiage as soon as he had heard that Heero was going to be here. He had said it aloud, even, in the apartment, but now he didn't recognize his voice. His arm shook, and he had to steady the gun with his other hand. He felt his whole being consume with rage. "He could have *died*, Heero! He nearly died."

Heero wiped the trace of blood from the corner of his mouth and sneered. "And what a loss to the world *that* would have been."

Trowa shoved the end of the gun into Heero's face. "And how many people do you think will grieve over *your* rotted corpse?"

"Trowa!" Quatre squealed, "What do you think you are doing?"

"Barton," Wu Fei was behind him, speaking calmly, "you want to put the gun down."

"I want to blow that fucking condescending smirk off your filthy face, you murderer." Trowa's eyes were narrowed, and the longer he stared at Heero, the more he felt like he would spontaneously combust with rage.

Heero growled, practically baring his teeth.

Trowa smirked. "What, you don't like that? You *are* a murderer, you know. You're no better than him, or me. Do you really hate him that much, that you want him to die?"

"Yes," Heero hissed, and Trowa was imperceptibly shocked at the honesty of it.

"Mr. Barton, if you've spent your testosterone now, I'd appreciate it if you put that gun away and let Mr. Yuy up." Une flicked dust off the edge of her sleeve, her nose wrinkled with distaste. "I just had new carpeting put in, and bloodstains are impossible to get out, so if you have to kill Mr. Yuy, you can do it elsewhere."

There was a tense moment when Trowa felt like he was at the crux of a decision. He had never intended to do any permanent harm to Heero, which is why he hadn't bothered to load the gun, but he was stirred by the swelling desire to beat Heero's face with the gun until there was no face left.

Everything dissipated, as if nothing extraordinary was happening. Trowa straightened his back, and stepped away from Heero, moving to stand in front of Une's desk like the dedicated underling. There was a lingering ache in his arms, and his heart was beating, but everything else seemed to be muted and dulled.

The moment was over now.

Wu Fei watched Heero pick himself up, and his dark eyes were haunted by consideration. He had clearly heard and understood more of what Trowa had said than Quatre, who was rushing to help Heero, fussing like an overprotective nanny.

Sally cleared her throat delicately. "How is Duo?"

"Alive." Trowa shook off the last clinging tremors of passion, and elucidated. "He has gone into treatment."

Une smiled brightly. "That's very good to hear. I wish that I could offer you the unqualified support of the Preventors, but there are repercussions, not only of the illegal use of narcotics, but also of evading investigation. Both of you should have known better." There was a weary reproach in that, but Trowa was not affected. "Irregardless, I want you to know that I personally will do whatever I can to make things as easy as possible for both of you."

"We'll make it easier for you." Trowa laid his and Duo's badges down, as well as his gun and Duo's master keys to the garages.

Une blinked. "That isn't necessary, you know, I realize that the situation is not ideal, but we can..."

"We are tendering our resignations." Trowa was firm but considerate in his tone.

"Trowa, no!" Quatre protested weakly, his hands flailing in front of him. "Think about what you are doing here!"

We Fei crossed his arms over his chest. "You and Duo have decided this together?"

Trowa nodded slowly, meeting Wu Fei's eyes. "We had some time to talk."

Wu Fei nodded, and bowed his head. "And this treatment Maxwell is undergoing... Is it good?"

"The best." Trowa smiled faintly.

Sally stepped forward, her posture indicating that she did not wish to interfere. "May I ask where?"

"The Phoenix Treatment Center."

Sally nodded, smiling. "Yeah, they're good. If you want me to discuss anything with the doctors there, or if you need an intermediary, please think of me, all right?"

Trowa nodded, dazed. He had never had much interaction with Sally, but she seemed really concerned.

Une stood up, fingering the badges on her desk with dissatisfaction. "Places like that are expensive. If you stayed with us, we could subsidize your expenditures, help you..."

"We're fine." Trowa clasped his hands behind his back, and stared at the wall behind Une's shoulder.

She sighed. "Well, you were never the type to take help easily... And I know that the working situation here has been deplorable. I have tried to make better use of both of your talents, but we have so many different groups regulating our activities, it isn't easy. All the same, I don't want you to think that either of you are alone in this, Mr. Barton. We *all* care about Duo, and want to see him functioning and happy. That goes for you, too. So, *please*, if you need anything..."

Trowa extended his hand, and shook Une's hand, applying pressure to the space between her thumb and forefinger with his thumb. "Thank you."

He turned to leave right away, but Wu Fei put a hand on his arm. Trowa looked down at the offending appendage as if it were potentially hazardous. He was almost positive that Wu Fei had never voluntarily touched him before.

"I do care for both of you, Barton. Please keep me updated."

Trowa and Wu Fei considered each other's faces. Trowa found nothing lacking, and nodded succinctly.

"Oh, and Mr. Barton?" Trowa turned just as he was about to open the door. Heero was doing his best imitation of a sulk off to the side, and Quatre's eyes were panicked, his jaw slack. Une was grinning from ear to ear. "Good luck."

Trowa nodded, and walked away.

He realized that Quatre had followed him out, but he was pretty sure that this was not the sort of thing that he needed to attend to right away.

Quatre's constant calls begged to differ.

Trowa got to the elevator, and pushed the button. For once, there was an elevator right there. Duo might have thought that it was a good omen, or maybe some sinister plot to make him *think* it was a good omen.

Trowa could even hear Duo's voice as he joked about the probability of the cable being slashed.

"Trowa, wait up!"

Trowa did not bother to hold the elevator, but Quatre was fast, and caught up in time to get his arm into the door before it closed completely.

Trowa stared straight ahead, crossing his arms over his chest, and waited for Quatre to say what he would.

"Thanks," Quatre smiled unnecessarily. "Trowa, what was going on with Heero in there?"

"He's jealous," Trowa spoke distinctly, evidently of the attitude that the answer to the question was apparent.

"Of you?" Quatre sounded a little too disbelieving for Trowa's comfort. "Well, you should be more cautious. I doubt that Duo would thank you for killing Heero."

Trowa disliked the implication there, and shifted his feet, aggravated. "I don't know, he might not mind. All things considered."

Quatre sighed, the sound of someone who had never felt the deprivation of anything feeling put out. "Well, I take it as a given that there is a considerable amount of history that no one has bothered to tell me about. We are quite a lot, aren't we? Thank Allah for Wu Fei, or else someone might do a study on how piloting a Gundam negatively affects your ability to function as a member of society."

Despite himself, Trowa's mouth twitched in a grin.

Quatre smiled, a reserved sense of elation beaming from his eyes. "It's nice to know I can still amuse you, if nothing else."

Trowa shrugged noncommittally. "From time to time."

The elevator pinged, and the doors swished open. "Wait, let me walk with you... Look, I... I need to talk to you."

Trowa put his hands in his pockets, and ambled steadily toward his car.

"Trowa, I realize that... that with everything with Duo, my timing here in incredibly inappropriate, and I know that you think that I hate Duo or something, but that just isn't the case." Trowa recognized this tone of voice from Quatre. This was the one he used when he didn't realize that he was trying to manipulate someone into giving in to him.

Trowa considered it to be a dangerous tone of voice, but he felt oddly detached from the experience of hearing it again.

"I don't hate Duo. He will always be one of my greatest and dearest friends. I can't... I can't say that I approve of some of his choices, but then, I'm willing to concede that there are things I don't know that informed those choices."

Trowa hid his surprise with studied care. It was a large concession for Quatre.

They arrived at Trowa's car, and he pulled out the keys slowly, jangling them as he eyed the key to unlock the door. It had occurred to Trowa that this was a conversation that they both needed to have, and so even though he wanted to be alone, he did not interfere with the progression of Quatre's thoughts.

Quatre stood directly opposite Trowa, and put his hand on Trowa's arm, just above the wrist. Trowa knew that it was no accident that Quatre was cradling the very spot that he had cut the deepest during his last and greatest suicide attempt.

"I know that you have this relationship with Duo, and you care for him, but... I do still love you, Trowa. As much as, if not more than, I ever did. I know that I screwed up. I took you for granted, and I put other obligations before you. I can't change the past or what I've done, but if you give me the chance, I'd like to try to make amends." Quatre stepped deliberately into Trowa's personal space in one long stride, and Trowa could smell the aftershave on Quatre's smooth chin, and the slight tinge of perfumed odor from Quatre's hair. "I can do things better than before. I can love you better. I... I was immature, and cruel, and I can see that now, but I can change, and we can try again. Please, Trowa?"

It was a far better apology than Trowa had dreamed of, back when he dreamed of such things, but he didn't have to think about the answer for very long.

"No."

Quatre wilted. "But why?"

The question was surprisingly direct and guileless, as Trowa had remembered Quatre being during the war. "Because. My life is with Duo now."

"But..." Quatre trailed off, and then stepped back with a sigh. "I don't understand."

Trowa unlocked his car door, and shrugged. "I don't suppose you will. But you will respect it."

Quatre met Trowa's eyes with squared shoulders. "Of course."

Trowa nodded, but he didn't know what else to say. Quatre grinned, and leaned in to kiss Trowa's cheek.

"I never thought that you would pick someone else over me," Quatre admitted with too much honesty. "My loss, my error... and my regret, I guess."

Trowa nodded stiffly, and turned to get into the car.

Quatre folded his arms over his heart, and looked away. "Duo better take care of you."

Trowa nodded. "He is."

~*~

Trowa held the flowers in his hands tightly, bending the stems a little. He wasn't sure why he had brought them at all; Duo was sure to hate them. They were daisies, with pure white petals and blood red centers. They smelled faintly of lasagna.

They were an unfortunate choice of flower.

Trowa adjusted his tie. He was wearing the suit from Christmas. It was tight, and binding in the shoulders. He felt like he had to work to breathe properly.

He was going to see Duo for the first time in a week. Behind the building, there was a small nature reserve, with rolling expanses of grass and trees.

Duo was near a small lake, or large pond. Duo was waiting by the water. He had been told.

Trowa walked for what felt like ages. There was no one else around. The ground sloped upward, and he plodded step by step up the grass to the crest of the hill.

He couldn't find Duo or the water, but he wasn't worried yet. He adjusted his tie again, peering out to find some glimpse of the water. It had already been a full week since he had seen Duo. The anticipation was making him nauseous with excitement.

He finally saw the gleam of the sun on water. His steps came faster and faster, and he ignored the safety of his flowers as tried to get to Duo faster. As he got closer, he could see a bench by the side of the pond, and a figure sitting on the bench, patiently waiting, a long braid trailing so far down that the bob of hair at the bottom was kissing the tall grass.

Trowa was at the top of a hill, and the pond was below, across a small meadow. He considered calling out. Generally, he hated to raise his voice like that, but this was a special occasion.

He hadn't seen Duo in a week.

A figure came from the trees. Trowa could see that it was a man, but the man's back was turned to him. Duo must have heard the man approach, because he turned. Duo got up immediately, smiling broadly.

A thread of panic wove its way though Trowa's circulatory system.

Duo tried to embrace the man, who pushed him away. Trowa started to walk toward them, watching them closely. The man slapped Duo across the face, and Duo got down on his knees.

Trowa felt his stomach drop, and he wondered how he had failed to recognize the back of Heero's head. He dropped the flowers, and started to jog toward Duo and Heero. He even called out, but he was still too far away.

Duo clawed at Heero's waist, seemingly begging for Heero's attention. Heero growled, and pulled out his gun.

"No!" Trowa started to run. He didn't know how close he would have to be before they would be able to hear him; otherwise, they were just ignoring him. He stretched out his legs and ran hard enough to feel the burn in his thighs.

Heero held the gun at waist level, and like an obedient puppy, Duo immediately took to his task. He wrapped his lips around the barrel, moving his mouth up and down slowly, his eyes on Heero at all times. He stroked the handle of the gun, and Heero's two hands holding it, gently with his hands as he tongued and sucked on the barrel.

Trowa could feel his heart pounding in his chest. It didn't matter how fast he ran, or how loud he yelled, Duo and Heero never seemed to get any closer or pay any attention to him. And yet, he could hear Duo's mouth on the gun, the wet sound of his lips and his tongue moving over the hard black metal barrel. He could hear Heero's grunts of grudging approval.

They could not, or would not, hear him.

Heero was becoming more and more agitated. His head thrashed back several times, and Trowa knew it was about to happen. He wasn't going to get there in time; there was still too much distance, and Duo was too busy with his work. Duo's head was bobbing up and down the barrel now, his thumbs caressing Heero's hands on the handle.

Heero grunted and moaned, and then he threw his head back, screaming, and he pulled the trigger.

Trowa sat up in bed.

His forehead was sopping wet with perspiration, his heart still hammering in his chest. He could swear that he still felt the exertion of the run in his legs, and the scent of the flowers still lingered around him.

He didn't even remember going to bed. He had been on the couch, like he normally did when he was alone. When did he come into the bedroom?

He could see it so clearly. Duo's head exploding as Heero's gun went off, the spray of brains and bone and blood shooting out like fireworks from behind where Duo's head had been.

And Heero had been laughing. Trowa could hear the manic peals of joy, and he felt sick right down to his bones.

He *needed* to see Duo.

He threw on some clothes that were by the bed, slipped into some shoes, and grabbed his car keys. It was late, still, just before 4am, and the roads were pitch black. There was a biting chill in the air, and a hazy darkness over everything, as if the universe were trying to keep its inhabitants asleep.

Trowa drove fast, his tires squealing at corners. He pushed the car to its limits, to the point where he felt like it was going to fly apart, and kept his eyes firmly on the road.

He needed to see Duo.

There were no cars in the front lot of the treatment center. Trowa supposed that there was some back lot for the employees to park in, but his main interest was on the front door.

There was no resistance. Trowa moved quickly and cautiously. There was no one at the front desk, so he tried the doors to the interior of the center.

He managed to get to the end of the multipurpose room before he was stopped.

"Excuse me!" A young woman in scrubs hurried alongside a man in a security uniform. "I'm sorry, sir, but there are no visiting hours now."

Trowa saw no reason to be disrespectful. They were only doing their jobs. "I have to see Duo Maxwell."

He continued to walk toward the patient living areas, but the security guard grabbed his arm. Trowa stared down at the man's hand on his arm. He showed his glare to the security guard, who swallowed hard, involuntarily loosening his grip.

"I'm very sorry, sir," the woman nervously looked from man to man, clearly wishing that she could be anywhere but right there. "But I'm afraid that there are absolutely no visiting hours at this time."

"I need to see him," Trowa reasoned, his voice sounding more intense than he had anticipated. "I need... I need to know that he's all right."

The security guard nearly dropped his hold on Trowa's arm, resettling his feet so that he had a looser stance. Trowa wasn't sure, because he wasn't paying close attention, but he thought perhaps the guard was sympathetic.

The young woman sounded crushed. "I'm so sorry, sir, but I really can't allow any visitors... I'm not familiar with Mr. Maxwell, but I *can* assure you that all of our residents are perfectly safe. Is there some reason you are worried about him?"

"Excuse me, what seems to be the problem?" A tired but affable Dr. Mahoney appeared on the scene.

Trowa sighed. "Please. I need to see Duo."

She crossed her arms over her chest absently. "Now, Mr. Barton, it's only been two days. You know he's in isolation for a week."

Trowa pulled his arm from the guard's lax grasp, and faced Dr. Mahoney. "Please. I need to know he's all right."

Dr. Mahoney's eyes widened slightly at the intensity of his words. "He's fine. I saw him at lights out. And a nurse checked on him two hours ago. Actually... he's been responding well. He's... a *bit* tight-lipped, but everything is proceeding normally."

Trowa's shoulders slumped, and his head drooped. He wasn't going to be able to see Duo, he could tell.

Dr. Mahoney reached out and touched his shoulder in a brief but comforting way. "I know it's hard, but it's *essential* that he has this time to really focus on the job at hand. I know that you care for him, so you need to give him this time. This is as hard on you as it is on him, no doubt, but please, put your faith in me. I won't let you down."

Trowa looked up into her clear greyish eyes. "No offense, but I don't know you. I've put my faith in Duo."

Dr. Mahoney grinned from ear to ear. "Good, that's what I like to hear."

"Can't I just..." Trowa cleared his throat, trying hard to appeal to her sense of compassion, though he had no idea how Duo or Quatre always did that. "Can't I just... look in on him? If I could just see him..."

Dr. Mahoney sighed. "I'm sorry."

He turned away quickly, and moved to the door. He didn't look up or stop walking to speak. "He's fine, though, right, you swear?"

"Yes," Dr. Mahoney responded with encouraging firmness, "he's fine."

Trowa wandered back out to his car. He had no choice but to believe her.

~*~

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