Author: pyrzm
see ch. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Broken Warriors + Chapter 59

The shaggy blond wig Heero wore under his cap was cover enough to keep most people from recognizing him as he sat sketching in the Royal Street cafe. The dark glasses kept his subjects from knowing that they were being observed. Sitting back in his wrought iron chair, sketchbook on his knee, he could look sidelong at people around him, capturing them on the paper without them knowing. This morning he was watching a mother and two small girls. It was a challenge, getting three figures roughed out before they moved on, but it was good practice. The girls were probably about four, with curly black hair and light eyes. The mother smiled at them as she sipped her coffee. All three looked very peaceful and happy. Heero found himself staring at them, pencil still above the page, trying to figure out how to translate that sense of peace. The little girls were in constant motion, but there was still symmetry between them, as if some personal gravitational field held them together. Heero had noticed the same sort of configuration in pictures of his friends, and in ones with him in them, too. It pleased him, seeing that. He also found himself not looking forward to Trowa and Quatre leaving to go on tour. He didn't want to live on the road, but he would miss them, miss the symmetry of four they'd so quickly grown used to.

"You're very good."

Heero looked around sharply and found a heavyset man with a long gray ponytail smiling at him from the next table. He wore baggy old jeans and a faded floral print shirt with a hole in one elbow, but he didn't look poor.

"Thanks," he muttered, staring the man down through the dark lenses. Heero resisted the urge to close the sketchbook. He had nothing to be embarrassed about, but it felt odd, having a stranger watching him.

"You have a knack for capturing the personality," the man said, unphased. "When I came in you were drawing the two young prostitutes. You really caught how tired and empty they looked, under the hard expressions."

"Are you an artist?" asked Heero.

"Yes. Jim Arnaud." He extended a hand and Heero shook it silently. "My gallery is a couple of doors down. Would you like to see it? I was just going in to check on some work being hung."

Heero hesitated, then shrugged and followed him out.

He'd noticed the art gallery several times, but not the name. Gallery Arnaud. Huge, brilliantly colored oil paintings were on display in the windows, and more hung in the whitewashed rooms beyond. A few artsy looking young men and women were at work hanging pictures a side room.

Not all the work was Arnaud's, but his work was the most prevalent and distinct. He painted scenes of the French Quarter and Garden District, the riverfront and cemeteries, and old plantation houses, but in a wildly impressionistic fashion, with dark, haunting colors and strange angles, as if the whole world was on a different skew than reality. Heero walked from one to another, amazed at how each one seemed to give off a mood.

"This is sort of how I see the city, too," he murmured, impressed.

Arnaud leaned against a wall, smiling slightly. "I'm glad you like them. I don't suppose I could see some more of your work?"

Heero handed him his sketchbook. It was one he used for public sketching. The one with his first nude studies of Duo was already full and stored safely at home. There were some pictures from the others, though, including some from Circus della Notte. He noticed Arnaud pausing over these, including a particularly dark study of Trowa in his ringmaster costume, with Quatre kneeling masked in front of him.

"Ah, so you've been to the show?" Arnaud said. "Amazing, isn't it?"

Heero nodded, trying not to grin.

Arnaud turned the page and found a study of Wufei as Heero had seen him on the news yesterday. He and Zechs had attended a charity event sponsored by some trust Relena was involved with, and caused a stir by showing up together in a limousine. He'd been watching with the others as Zechs emerged from the long black car, dressed in a tuxedo, then turned to give his hand to his slender companion. The camera angle was such that they'd only seen the small, gracefully extended hand, then a profile hidden by long black hair, and finally the outfit, a sort of long, light coat of gauzy green silk, printed with cranes, over flowing black silk pants.

"Hey, who's the hot classy babe, and where's Wuffie?" Duo had demanded.

Then the "hot classy babe" had straightened and turned to Zechs, showing a flat, well-toned chest under a tight black shirt and the hint of a shoulder holster under the coat.

"That is Wufei!" Quatre exclaimed, echoing the others' disbelief at what they were seeing.

It wasn't just the unexpected clothing that made them all stare, or the fact that he was wearing his hair down in public; it was the look on Wufei's face as he looked up at Zechs. He wasn't smiling, exactly, and they all saw those dark eyes sweep the crowd for trouble, but there was something else, something softer.

"Damn, he's glowing!" Quatre said softly, leaning forward in interest.

"He's in love, all right," Trowa said, smiling under his bangs. "Check out Zechs."

Merquise had released Wufei's hand as soon as he was out of the car, but couldn't seem to take his eyes off him as they walked together up the red carpet toward the entrance of the building. Heero could not claim to know the man well, but he thought he recognized in that smile much of what he himself felt when he looked at Duo: love, passion, pride, the desire to protect. Wufei remained as dignified as ever, but Heero also detected a hint of shy pleasure in his lover's attention. That's what he'd been trying to capture in this sketch.

A few pages of strangers later, Arnaud paused over a sketch of Duo reading, his hair loose over his shoulders. He glanced up at Heero and chuckled. "I didn't take you for a fan boy. These are exceptionally good likenesses, though."

Puzzled, Heero asked, "Fan boy?"

"The Gundam boys?" Arnaud raised an amused eyebrow. "As I said, these are very good, but a bit surprising. Your other sketches are so serious. I have to admit, though, these are good likenesses. You must have studied a lot of pictures of them to do these. Fan boy stuff, though."

Heero glanced around. They were in one of the back rooms, and the shop assistants were still busy in the front. He pulled off the cap and wig and took off his glasses. Arnaud's look of slightly condescending amusement turned to chagrin.

"Sorry! The blond hair really threw me off! I had no idea you were an artist."

"I'm not," Heero said, feeling that strange, undefined embarrassment again. "I just enjoy drawing."

"What sort of training have you had?"

Heero didn't really feel like explaining about Odin Lowe and J. "None, except for what I needed during the war. I just do it."

This seemed to impress Arnaud even more. "Then you're a natural talent. Some of these are good enough to show. DO you paint?"

"No. Well, except for some mask work for the circus, but just some simple pieces."

"You should consider pursuing this," Arnaud said, paging thoughtfully through the book. "I could suggest some art schools, if you like. You really do have talent, and a good eye for people. In so many of these, you've gotten beneath the surface to something real. I must say, and please don't take this the wrong way, but I really am surprised."

Heero didn't feel like confiding all that Sally had told him about why the five of them were chosen as pilots. He just shrugged again, accepting the compliment. But as he walked back to the house afterwards, safely disguised again, he carried a list of art schools Arnaud had recommended. It was worth at least thinking about.

He stopped in Jackson Square to do a few sketches of the street performers there, but Arnaud's comments had made him too self-conscious. The more he thought about trying to "see below the surface" as he'd put it, the less pleased he was with the work. At last he flipped the book shut in disgust and headed back to the house for lunch.

Marie had left some sort of sausage and rice dish for him. Quatre and Trowa were out for the day and Duo was puttering in the workroom and Heero decided not to disturb him.

The mail came as he ate and he gathered it from the front mat and carried it back to the kitchen table. There were a few bills, a circus arts magazine Trowa subscribed to, and a few junk mail ads. To his surprise, he also saw a long envelope addressed to him.

It had been in transit for some time from the look of it. It was originally addressed care of the Sanque Embassy in Madrid, then forwarded to L-3, care of Quatre. From there it had been sent here. The original address was typed, but it didn't look like advertising. Assuming it was another piece of fan mail, he debated throwing it away, but curiosity got the better of him and he slit it open and pulled out a thick piece of triple folded paper.

The smell hit him first: rank urine, garbage, and dirt-the stink of despair. The kitchen faded away and he was left in a dark place, too familiar place, where he was cold and hungry and so very lonely, but not alone. No, not alone, but surrounded by grasping hands and cruel eyes and crueler laughter . . . "

Looks just like him!

Shit, close enough for me!

Show him what getting fucked over feels like . . .

Hands on him, and he was too weak to fight them off. The taste of blood and fear in his mouth, and then worse. And pain.

Heero forced his eyes open, forced himself to see the sunlight glancing off the polished copper pots on the wall and the colors of the little vase of flowers in front of him on the table. His hands shook badly as he made himself unfold the stained, torn scrapbook page. He recognized his own careful printing under the magazine photos carefully pasted there. "Feb. 13, 196: Duo at the Lido Club." "March 14, 196 T&Q dancing." "March 29, Duo, St. Martin's Hospital." He turned the page over, already seeing in his mind's eye the pictures there. He knew the scrapbook by heart. This was one of the early pages, from just a few months before he'd left Relena's detail and taken off on his own. It was just as he recalled, too, except for the new photo taped over the others, and a message scrawled across the page in red marker.

We knew it was you.

He stared down at the picture of himself, emaciated and dirty, on his knees in a filthy place. There were two other people in the picture, two men visible from the chest down as they stood over him. One was twisting his arms behind his back, while the other held him by the hair with one hand, yanking him toward the swollen erection he held in the other. They'd already beaten him up; one eye was swollen shut and there was blood streaming from his nose and his cut lower lip. His mouth was closed in this shot, but it hadn't stayed that way. Memories rushed in and suddenly Heero found himself at the kitchen sink, helplessly heaving up his lunch.

Only the thought of Duo finding him like this kept him on his feet long enough to rinse down the mess and stagger back to the table. He swallowed hard, mentally recoiling as he refolded the page, stuffed it back into the envelope, and hid it in his sketchbook.

As he started for the stairs he heard the workroom door open down the hall. Without thinking why, he changed direction and went outside and used the exterior staircase to avoid meeting Duo. Somehow he made it up to the side bedroom he and Duo used for sex and shoved the sketchbook as far under the mattress as he arm could reach. Then he collapsed on the floor, head between his knees, as another wave of nausea swept over him, leaving a few more choice memories in its wake.

Hold him!

Fuck, he's a fighter!

Get those fucking pants down . . .

And the pain, like red explosions behind his eyelids, and the stink of a stranger's body against his face.

Heero curled around himself as the phantom of that pain overwhelmed him.

"Hey Heero. Where are you, buddy?" Duo, downstairs in the courtyard.

Heero couldn't answer. He wasn't certain what the answer was.

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