Author: June
see prolouge or chapter 1 for notes, warnings, disclaimer

Reformation/Reaffirmation + Chapter 2

We do what we do
All for you
All dressed up
Black hat and white cane
Slowly the circling the drain
Ready for the future
Ready for the world about to come
We are what we are
Get in the goddamn car
Smiling faces flawlessly rehearsed
We are sleek and beautiful
We are cursed

--Slow West Vultures

I tried not to limp on my way back from the laundry room, keeping one arm firmly around my ribs, the other hand tightly gripping Duo's red bandanna. My hair was, of course, in my face, but it hid my bloody lip, so I let it stay there until I recognized my cell and shuffled through the open door. Curfew was in a few minutes, so they would all be sliding shut and locking soon.

I didn't look up, but I knew Onur was already in his bunk, probably practicing trig problems. I went straight to the sink and dropped the bandanna into it, turning on the faucet and watching the water run pink as it swirled down the drain. Good thing the piece of cloth was already red, or it would stain. I let go of my ribs and rang it out, crumpling it up in a tight ball and sitting it on the edge. Then I leaned down and stuck my mouth under the faucet. I took a few swallows and then swished more over my teeth and gums. When I spit, it also came out pink. Running my tongue over the split in my lip, I decided it wasn't too bad.

I felt Onur moving behind me and straightened slowly, grabbing up the bandanna and holding it against my lip. I wasn't surprised when I turned and saw my roommate standing directly behind me. Still, I took a step back and came up against the sink.

"What," I mumbled.

"It was over that stupid hair band, wasn't it."

I looked over his shoulder. Karl walked by the door on his way to his cell and conspicuously leaned back to get a better look at what was going on inside ours. I glared at him and he kept moving. "Among other things," I answered.

"Just stop wearing it. It's given you nothing but trouble the past week."

It'd been a particularly hot day, so even though the night brought cooler air, it had yet to filter down inside the cell blocks. Onur smelled like sweat and, coming from the boiling hot laundry room, I knew I did too. Without responding to him, I refolded the bandanna and pulled the hair off my face with it, tying it at the base of my skull. The cold damp of the cloth felt good.

"It's practical and comfortable in hot weather," I muttered. "I won't stop wearing it because someone found out Duo gave it to me. Those Romefeller punks were looking for an excuse to fight me again."

He crossed his arms over his barrel chest. "How perfect that you gave them one. And how did they fare this time?"

The side of my mouth that wasn't bruised quirked up in a smirk. "About as well as last time. But they brought friends who had better luck getting me on the ground. It helped that there were six of them." I decided I would wait until lights out to change into my sleeping clothes, not wanting him to see my ribs or my knee. I didn't really want to look at them either. "It was a good fight. I think O'Malley and Basker will have to find some new lackies to tackle me when I'm alone in the laundry next time."

"You know you'll only have more trouble with Prescott with these fights you get into. You're not making sufficient progress in the program, Chang; your sentence could be extended."

"And you know as well as I do that the fights I get into prevent lots more fights from ever happening. I win those fights to protect myself."

"I know that, I know," he said. "I just think that you could be making more of an effort to stick with the program, to keep your head down and focus on your studies. Your teacher approached me again today to tell me that you haven't been participating in class and that you've been rude to her when she's tried to draw you in to the discussion."

I rolled my eyes. "Gah, she's been talking to you, too? I got it from Rorty the other day at our meeting."

"Yes, he told me to try and talk to you about it as well."

I felt like stamping my foot and screaming at the ceiling. "Why is everyone so concerned with my participation in English class? We're reading Dickens... Dickens! I have nothing to say about Charles Dickens."

"You don't want to talk about your class?" he growled. "That's fine; how about the fact that you haven't been coming to any of the support groups, or outdoor recreation time? You always used to play soccer with us."

We heard tapping on my wall and turned to listen as Karl added his two cents. 'Chang is a punk.'

Onur pressed his mouth into a tight smile. "He's got it right."

I clenched my jaw until it ached. "They're optional programs, and I participated for the first year--and--a--half I was here. I don't need grief counseling or aggression therapy, and I get plenty of physical exercise on my own. I don't need what they offer."

He scowled. "You--"

"And I don't want to talk about this anymore. Can we please leave the discussion at the part where you think I'm a pain in the ass who isn't worth the thousands of tax--payer dollars spent on me?"

He gave me his best 'I'm disappointed in you' glare and turned away to climb back into his bunk. Wearily, I struggled up into my own, dragging off the coveralls and draping them over the metal bedpost. I lay there in my t--shirt and boxer shorts and rested my fingers along my ribs. My heart was still thudding with adrenalin and my knuckles still ached pleasantly. I ran my tongue over the split in my lip and tasted metal. It wasn't smart to accept gifts, much less wear them openly; it basically amounted to Duo staking a claim and not being able to back it up. Others had tried to fill that role in the past two years and they'd all failed. I didn't need protection, and I didn't want it. My friends were probably making my life more dangerous by visiting, Trowa and Heero especially when they showed up in their Preventer jackets. Right then, I didn't give a fuck. Let Romefeller posture and pick their occasional fights. They kept me in shape.

I rolled onto my side when I caught Karl's faint, muted tapping. I could barely hear it, and I hoped Onur was asleep enough to not be woken by the sound. 'You okay?'

'Yes.'

'Tomorrow at lunch?'

'Yes.'

+

Karl was shifty and nervous. He glanced over his shoulder a lot and pushed his floppy blond hair out of his eyes every time it fell forward. It fell forward every time he got excited. And judging by how wide his pale blue eyes were, he had a lot to be excited about. I watched him, mildly amused and hoping that the guards watching the yard saw nothing out of the ordinary in his level of twitchiness. As Karl had put it, we were "on a caper" even though we sat at our usual picnic table at the edge of the yard, under the small bit of shade provided by a spindly olive tree. I sat across from him and tried to figure out when the two of us had become friends.

During the war, Karl Bergsen had been one of Treize's most loyal followers. The kid had done everything in his considerable power to advance his leader's ruthless form of diplomacy. He kept his hands clean in MS design and manufacturing, but he was a zealot who'd taken countless lives without punching a single button or pulling a trigger. I'd seen his name on many a mission list, and if there'd been time, I'm sure his name would have eventually made it far enough along Yuy or Barton's assassination queue that he wouldn't be sitting here with me. But he went down hard after the first Eve War. The new regime was justifiably leery of his skills and his steadfast loyalty to Treize. He was here when I got here, and he would be here after I left in another year. The civilized world was not ready for Karl Bergsen, and I guess I couldn't blame them for wanting to keep him locked up a few years longer than most. He was smarter than Rehab for Terrorists wanted him to be and he still had MS schematics flickering through his brain as much as they tried to numb him with accounting classes. He still believed that there was a place for people like us -- one that didn't involve trying to convert us into something else.

He was a still a little on the creepy side; his eyes hadn't lost that manic gleam in the few years he'd been here. But he'd become a little smarter about who he trusted -- which has made our friendship even stranger because I didn't see how he could consider me trustworthy, unless he really didn't know that I'd been the one to kill his precious leader. Maybe someday I would tell him, the day I was leaving -- from a pay phone somewhere.

Just what was and wasn't known about the Gundam Pilots has remained fuzzy, especially here. All those in Mariemaia's army knew that I'd piloted Altron, but the details of the first Eve War, aside from Duo's televised capture were kept from the public. Knowledge of what I'd done during that war would probably lead to a swift and untimely death for me -- perhaps one similar to Benji's.

Despite his oddness and the very real danger I could be in if he found out exactly who I was, I liked Karl. And I had since I saw him take on three old Alliance men in a fight he had no hope of winning. They were all bigger than him and clearly had more combat experience, but he handled himself well against both their insults and their fists. I could never abide weakness and so I never thought I would identify with the underdog in a fight, but the way Karl fought -- he was different; and he certainly wasn't weak. Every now and then he looked at me with such complete focus and attention, I swore it was Quatre blinking at me with eyes just a little too pale, and hair a shade too dark. I sincerely hoped that his resemblance to Quatre was not the reason I considered him a friend, but, as has been the case with many questions I've had over the years, I wasn't entirely certain.

"So, what do you think, Boss? Hear anything new and interesting? Anything good come down the wire?"

I shrugged my arms out of the jumpsuit sleeves and tied them around my waist, already sweating though we'd been out here for only a few minutes. "Not a lot," I grumbled, watching him light a cigarette with a flimsy cardboard match. He flicked it into the dirt without extinguishing it and I watched it gutter, catch a few blades of grass on fire and then go out. "You're going to burn this place down if you're not careful."

He grinned, giving me a quick glimpse at the broken and missing teeth on the left side of his mouth -- a result of one of the first fights he'd gotten himself into upon his arrival. When he smiled, he didn't look at all like Quatre. "That's the plan, Boss." He took a few drags on the cigarette and watched me expectantly. "Well? You haven't found anything?"

"Why are you calling me 'Boss?'"

He shrugged. "Something new and different."

I think my mouth probably twitched because he grinned again. "No -- I haven't really found out much. Onur isn't talking and neither are his White Fang friends."

"They've always been a surly bunch, though. Onur's the only one amongst them who can form a grammatically correct sentence."

I raised an eyebrow. "That's not very nice."

He sucked on his cigarette. "Oh, I'm sorry; I didn't realized I was supposed to be."

"Have you ever been to L2 -- or any of the other White Fang recruitment centers for that matter? Most of the rebels were starving and desperate for a way to fight. If any one of them--"

He waved his hand in my face and stuttered a perfunctory apology. "Sorry, sorry. Prep school, OZ recruit talking. Have no humanity left. Bourgeois pig. Can we continue?"

I rolled my eyes and wondered why I had felt the need to stick up for the L2 population at all. Onur wasn't even from there.

"Hear anything from Romefeller, or your own cohort?"

I shook my head. "No one in Mariemaia's army ever spoke to me and I think Romefeller likes me even less. Considerably less, actually. But from what I can judge in my lit class and and the mess hall, they're spooked. They seem surprised that they're under suspicion for Benji's murder."

Karl looked up at the scraggly branches of the olive tree. "Pinning it on them was a good way to take them down a notch. You want a sense of entitlement? Romefeller thought they were owed the world."

"At my meeting with Rorty, he made it sound like the staff suspects them of being behind it, though he also said that some of the staff think it was suicide. The ones who did it would have had to be able to get into the cell first, which means they needed access to the computer."

"Or someone coaxed him to the bars before grabbing him."

I shrugged, frustrated. "It's impossible to know anything when there were no witnesses."

"None that are talking, anyway."

"And it's not like the staff will simply tell us what we want to know if we ask."

"Rorty seemed willing to talk about it with you."

I shook my head. "He's... not like other people on the staff. Though, maybe he was fishing for what I knew."

"Hn."

We sat in silence for awhile after that, the summer heat a physical weight on my shoulders and the back of my neck. Karl smoked furiously, eyes darting about the yard. Every minute or so he twitched the hair out of his face. Thus far, this wasn't much of a caper.

"So your big birthday celebration is coming next week, right?" I nodded. "All three of your friends showing up?"

"That's right."

He flicked the cigarette into the dirt and watched a few more pieces of grass burn. "How old will you be?"

"Eighteen." He nodded and then drew one leg up to his chest, resting his chin on his knee. Right then he looked so much like Quatre, I had to look away.

"Hey, don't be sad, Chang. Eighteen isn't old. You're just a young thing." He started bouncing his leg, making his head bob along with it. "Look at me; I'm 21, practically an old man."

"You can at least buy a drink."

"Yes I can, though I haven't been able to since I came of age." He flicked hair out of his eyes. "You don't strike me as the drinking sort."

"I'm not," I grumbled. "But it's the principle of the thing. I was--"

"I know, Chang. You were in that gundam when you were 16."

And a ways before that, I finished silently. "Right," I said.

"You're lucky to have friends who visit so often. There wasn't a party for me when I turned 18... or 21." That first birthday had been before I arrived, but the second -- it was true. No one came to see him, and the only event to mark the occasion was an especially brutal fight with his usual bullies. I didn't know what to say to him about it, and the moment of awkward silence ended when his eyes twitched away from mine and focused on some point in middle distance.

"You could-- you could come and meet them if you wanted to, when they're here. I think you would like Duo. Heero and Trowa are pretty inept, but--"

"That's okay," he interrupted, looking shiftier than usual. "I don't do too well with new people, these days, and they don't do too well with me."

I huffed a laugh and he glanced up, startled. "These days? You're 21, not 81. What days are you talking about? You're bizarre and moderately anti--social, but so are two of my three best friends." For another second or two, his eyes slid uneasily from me to the four observation towers and then back. Karl didn't like to be caught off guard any more than the rest of our fellow criminals. Then his shoulders twitched upward in a shrug.

"Maybe I'll stop over."

I gestured grandly around the yard. "We'll be out in the garden if the weather is nice. If it should rain, we will retire to the parlor."

Karl gave his sharp laugh. "Is that the third or fourth card table from the TV that only plays game shows and the gardening network?"

"The fourth -- the one with the leg that Onur fixed using only Elmer's glue, construction paper and sequins from the craft table."

"Oh, right, that parlor." He laughed again and so did I. I hoped he would choose to meet the others when they came for my birthday. Duo would enjoy his sense of humor. Heero could probably talk mecha with him all day, and Trowa, if he could get past Karl's resemblance to Quatre, would probably like him for his twitchiness because Trowa was pretty twitchy himself, although he was better at hiding it than Karl.

I realized, after a moment, that Karl's attention had been drawn elsewhere -- most likely inward -- as he sat across from me and stared at the table, subconsciously fingering his pack of cigarettes. I turned away to leave him to his thoughts and watched the soccer game taking place across the yard. I could make out Onur's big frame guarding the goal, hand raised to his mouth to call out encouragement. The scene before me was suddenly so familiar and immediate that I had a difficult time envisioning what it would be like when my three friends arrived together in a few days. I couldn't picture them here with me -- Duo trying to get me to care about his latest salvage mission, Heero struggling just to communicate with any of us, Trowa's sharp tongue and cold exterior masking and distorting the very real concern he had for all of us, the vacant seat none of us would look at. I could guess at how it would go, but I couldn't make out the details of any of them, not in the face of the tangible circumstances before me -- Karl's sandy colored hair that he didn't wash as often as he should, the shouts of the men playing soccer, many of them speaking languages I didn't know, the tension in the air as all of them struggled to determine their place in a world that had deemed them too dangerous to be out in it. I thought that maybe this was exactly where I belonged.

Then Karl raised his head and our gazes met across the table as he came back to the present. "What were you thinking about?" I asked, well aware of how bold a question it was and how much that didn't seem to matter here.

"I was thinking about the third parlor where Benji used to get some great poker games going. And he could turn anything into an excuse for a bet -- even those stupid garden shows. He'd think of some way to get a wager going about how much they'd spend on shrubs and mulch."

"I never took part in those," I sniffed.

"You should have," he said. "They were hysterical. I'm really going to miss them." He pulled another cigarette from his pack and deftly lit it, cupping his hand around the match. "I was thinking that we should keep trying to figure out why he was murdered." I looked down at my hands. "And I was thinking we should really try to figure out why our food was drugged the night it happened."

My eyes flew back up to his. "I was thinking we should find out why Romefeller took the blame for the murder when it was Prescott herself who ordered that we all be put down for the night. We should find out whether some staff member did the deed or had one of us do it, for some reason that we should also find out." He took the cigarette from his mouth and blew a stream of smoke up into the branches. "That's what I was thinking about."

In the few weeks since Benji's death, Karl and I had speculated about the prison staff's involvement. We both thought that, given Benji's life here -- just how many friends he had and how well he could pull hesitant inmates, men who'd fought bitterly against White Fang, into his circle -- the administration would have an interest in controlling and maybe even silencing him to keep him from exerting more of an influence over us. But speculation and suspicion were one thing...

"Karl, where exactly did you stumble upon the information that Presott ordered sedatives put in our food."

He shrugged sharply. "Who else could it have been?"

"Anyone who works in the kitchen," I answered quickly. "We all have kitchen duties -- it could have been anybody who had a chance to slip something into the ingredients."

He shook his head. "I spoke with the man who did it. And he said he got his orders from Prescott."

"Okay," I started, "but why would your source want to share this with you -- an inmate and a friend of Benji's? Who is he?"

Karl waved his cigarette and from the light in his eyes, I knew this was what he'd been so excited about from the moment we sat down. "It doesn't matter who it is, and I wouldn't tell you anyway."

We stared each other down until he finally looked away, puffing on his cigarette and bouncing his knee under his chin. "Karl... was it a guard or some other staff person who told you this, or one of us?" He started to rub his arms, cigarette dangling from his lips, and didn't answer. "I don't need to know who specifically told you, but if--"

"If what?" he snapped. "Are you concerned over the validity of the information, or is this some half--baked effort at caring about how I got it?"

In the two years I'd known him, Karl was always looking for something -- attention, acknowledgment, excitement, something interesting, something dangerous, affection or fulfillment -- something that would scratch and satisfy him in a way that his life up until then had not. He was smarter than everyone here, and when in that position, without an equal, he only had his own head for company. But even that, especially that, got boring. I thought that was why he wanted me around, and probably why he said something like that.

"Half--baked?" He sucked hard on his cigarette and now, wouldn't look away. I took the bait. "Karl, what happened? What did you have to do to get this person to tell what he did?"

He gave me a manic grin. "Nothing outrageous. Nothing that wasn't worth what I got. Chang, we're onto something big, here, something really exciting! I know you see it. We were all knocked out while one of our friends was killed -- murdered! What would you give to know why it happened, or whether it's going to happen again? Wouldn't you give anything to know exactly why Quatre Winner died, to know why, one week before your sentence started, he ended up dead at his desk?"

"Quatre killed himself," I murmured, only half--listening now. I could feel the color draining from my face in a rush. I didn't think just speaking of his death would have such an affect after nearly two years. It usually didn't. I thought about Quatre a lot. But no one else spoke of him, and when they did, well... "He was under a lot of pressure at his job, and he was still working on my case. He didn't..." I trailed off. I forced myself out of the track of memory that led inexorably to finding him in his office, Duo's frantic shouts for help, feeling his throat for a pulse and finding his skin still warm with residual life.

I caught the sharp, bitter smell of tobacco smoke and remembered how to breath. I looked up to find Karl holding his cigarette under my nose, expression deadly serious. He was sweating and nervous and obviously excited. "You see it, right? You see what we could do with the fact that the people who are supposed to be helping us are drugging us. They're at least complicit in the murder of one of our friends."

"We don't know that for sure. The two aren't necessarily connected."

He shook his head. "But you see it, don't you. You see what this could be. And it might not even be the first."

I was still remembering the sound Duo had made when he'd found-- "Not the first?"

"Yes! You remember Vasil, right?"

"I'm not sure -- maybe."

"He might have been before your time; I'll check. But he was one of the first anti--Alliance colonist rebels -- stodgiest old curmudgeon you'll ever meet... except you won't meet him because he got knifed in the showers about two years ago. He was one of the few real leaders here, and he was--"

"I don't think I can talk about this anymore today, Karl." That was my second effort to avoid an important conversation in two days. Was this becoming a habit?

He flicked his cigarette away and twitched the hair out of his eyes, not seeming too concerned. "Fine, fine. But you see it, right? This is something we have to follow."

I realized I was trying to dig my fingernails into hard plastic and forced myself to relax. "Yes I see it, but if there is some insidious plot at work here, if Benji and Vasil were killed for political reasons, then you and I have to be so careful where and with whom we talk about this. And you see that, right? If any of the staff catches wind of the fact that we're nosing around in their business, we could be--"

"It stays between the two of us, at least on the inside. There's no one we can trust here. Not your roommate, not Rorty -- no one." He stopped and was looking at me strangely. I replayed what he just said.

"'At least on the inside?' You know some outside who'd help us with this?"

He looked away and started tapping his fingers on the table, thinking about another cigarette probably. "My only friends are here," he said finally. "Everyone else just put me here."

I rarely saw his bitterness in the open like that, but when it surfaced, I could feel that it was bone deep. "Most of my friends are Preventers, so they're not really the ones to ask. At least not yet," I offered. While I knew that Heero and Trowa would dive right into this sort of investigation, both because they were more dedicated to the peace than anyone I knew and because my safety was potentially at risk, I didn't think I could go to them with it, not when their badges were still so new and they were still feeling out their positions. The same went for Sally. Une was just too... unpredictable. I didn't trust Merquise at all and probably never would, which meant I couldn't trust Noin either. Relena would definitely want to know if her pet program was screwing up its participants rather than helping them -- if it was in fact killing them -- but she already had more on her plate than she could handle. If there really was something sinister going on, we'd need more than Karl's conspiracy theories before we went to her. That left Duo -- freelance Preventer, sweeper, mechanic, former thief and terrorist with serious authority issues. Pretty much every chance he got, Duo expressed his dismay and outrage at the fact that only I was being punished for what we had all done during the wars. Duo had always been a wild card among wild cards. For almost the entire span of the first war, I had considered him a liability -- he was too reckless and brash and loud to be of any use as an ally, let alone a partner. But I had learned that counting him as one of my few friends meant that I could trust him absolutely. I looked Karl in the eye and gave him a tight smile. "I know someone who might be willing to help us."

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