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

Reformation/Reaffirmation + Chapter 3

thanks you for the puppy.
thank you for the lamp.
thanks for the books.
thanks for the filing cabinet
I don't know what I did without it.

thank you for coming by.
it's nice to see you once in a while.
thank you for the coat I forgot to mention.
I've been freezing in here.
I've been freezing in here.

--"Sorry, I can't" m.g.

The four of us sat together at one of the tables in the common room, the fourth one from the TV that only played game shows and the gardening network. They didn't sing 'Happy Birthday,' first of all because I didn't want them to, and second because Heero flatly refused to do it anyway. From last year's experience, they knew I didn't like soda, so Duo brought juice. They brought cupcakes because, again from last year's experience, they learned that they couldn't bring a cake -- too much space in which to hide contraband. I'd ended up with a mush of cake crumbs and icing by the time they'd gotten it to me. The whole occasion was too depressing for words at that point in my life, still facing at least two more years here, and they promised to have it figured out for next year.

They were as good as their word, as I knew they would be. The store--bought cupcakes' tamper--proof seal had been broken, but the cupcakes themselves were in tact; the guards tasted the juice to make sure it wasn't spiked; and their gifts were examined before hand. They hadn't bothered with wrapping paper this time.

They all held their presents behind their backs and gave them to me one at a time, while I eyed the cupcakes and wondered when we would get to eat them. Heero handed me his first -- a stack of history books, both pre-- and post--colony.

"Those are okay, right?" he asked. "They would want you to know history, especially if you're taking literature classes."

I nodded, looking through the titles. "Much safer than the revolutionary manifestos you brought me last year."

He shrugged. "I should have known that they'd be confiscated." I looked up at him and saw a year--old hurt in his eyes over that one. He'd wanted me, I think, to have that collection of writings as a sort of peace offering. My seventeenth birthday was only the second time I'd seen him since we'd fought on that very last day and he'd dropped into the ocean. I'd been fighting for both of us, for all five of us, for every soldier who had been cast aside after the first war ended. He'd wanted me to see why others had fought as well, and why he would continue to do so but for a very different purpose than mine.

The first time I'd seen him after the second Eve War was at Quatre's funeral.

"I thought you and Barton were saving a place for me with Preventers," I said finally. "These lit classes are just for show, aren't they?"

Heero shrugged again and looked away. "For your own edification, then, or if you change your mind."

Trowa handed his gift to me next and it was a science fiction series that I didn't know. "The best politics are always in science fiction; it's pretty subversive stuff," he said in his flat tone. "The first one is about a group of children taken out into space to be trained for battle. They were supposed to be child--officers in a gigantic fleet headed into deep space to fight off an alien race that threatened to wipe them out. I think it's right up your alley."

"Sounds like it. I'm surprised they let you bring these to me."

Trowa smirked. "It's not so obviously subversive."

I got a bony elbow in my ribs. "Oi, oi, lemme give you mine, Wu. I'm tired of holding this stuff." Duo, who'd been sitting quietly next to me then proceeded to dump a pile of cigarettes and porn into my lap.

I looked down at it and then up at him to see a grin stretched from ear to ear. "Maxwell..." I started. "This is--"

He laughed. "It's your birthright! At the age of eighteen you are legally allowed to purchase smokes and porno, but since you're here and are thus unable to claim your birthright, I thought I'd bring the goods to you." He rummaged through the pile in my lap and pulled out a black pack of cigarettes. "And these are actually really good cloves. We should go smoke one after we're done eating, okay buddy?"

Of the three of them, Duo had been to visit me the most over the last two years. It wasn't just for me that he came. It was because he couldn't talk to Heero or Trowa the way he needed to talk. They didn't talk much anyway, but when they did, if the topic was not mission related, it appeared a painful activity for them. Duo told me that he didn't want to hurt them, but that he needed to talk. So he came to me, even though I'd always been rude and short with him. I could see him covering for them now, taking the pressure off of them so that they wouldn't have to need to talk, filling the space with his voice and easy conversation.

"Cigarette smoke smells awful and causes lung cancer."

"Yeah, so do gundams," he retorted.

"What?" Heero and I responded together. Trowa leaned forward on the table and rested his chin in his palm.

Duo rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on; they stunk like fuel and burnt metal from all the mobile suit parts that splattered on them like bugs, and we were fucking inside them for days on end, throwing ourselves at other multi--ton metal death machines as capable of killing us as our own gundams if just one vital system malfunctioned or failed. Hell of a lot more effective than cancer from cigarettes if you ask me." That shut us up pretty effectively. "So are you comin' out with me to have a smoke or not?"

I carefully stacked the glossy magazines and the packs of cigarettes into neat piles and nodded. "Of course."

But not before I ate three of the nine cupcakes, packaged in a noisy plastic carton that crackled obnoxiously loud every time I reached for another. They were light and moist and the icing was thick and sweet and I hadn't realized how much of a sweet tooth I had developed here where the desert was, albeit healthier, applesauce.

Trowa arched the one elegant eyebrow I could see as I finished. "Letting yourself go, Chang? Heero's going to have to spend extra time training with you on his next visit."

I swallowed the last mouthful of cupcake and licked my spork clean. I had just inhaled three of them, but was civilized enough to use a utensil. Across from me, Heero looked downright eager. Next to me, Duo kept his mouth hidden by his cup of lukewarm cranberry juice, but his eyes were lit up with good humor.

"Don't go to seed quite yet, or we'll have to put you behind a desk when we finally get you in uniform -- if we can even close the buttons, that is."

Duo choked on his drink and Heero's fingers twitched on the table. I put down my plastic utensil very carefully and laid my hands on either side of my plate. "It's raining outside and the laundry crew hates it when I get clay on my uniform, but we can clear up any questions about by readiness for duty right now, Barton."

He didn't even blink. "Not so soon after you've eaten so much. Wouldn't want you to cramp up."

Heero and Duo's eyes were bouncing back and forth between us like they were watching us play ping--pong at the table in the corner. "Perhaps it's actually that you don't want to disturb that mysterious coif of yours. I've always wondered how that bit in the front stays perfectly still even when you're upside down in zero gravity hurtling through space. What's your secret? Is rain your undoing?"

If possible, his eyebrow shot up even higher. "Perhaps. I might just melt. Is fattening food yours?"

My lip curled and I felt a familiar combative, nasty spirit rising up my throat. I kept my temper on a pretty short leash here for safety reasons, though that didn't mean I didn't let it off when someone deliberately bated me. However, instead of returning with another insult, I told the truth -- I must have needed to say it more than I knew. "No, I think it is rather that my diet consists primarily of oatmeal and canned green beans that I--"

Duo shot out of his chair. "And suddenly I could really go for that smoke? You comin', Chang?"

Trowa's face had gone completely blank and Heero's hands clutched the edge of the table in a white--knuckled grip. I thought about warning him that these were the only tables we had and to be careful. We couldn't play poker on a surface that wasn't flat.

I regretted my words almost immediately. I hadn't meant to worry them; that was the last thing I wanted. The whole truth was that I had become slightly anemic over the past two years because I tended to avoid the meat they provided, but it wasn't severe and it in no way compared with some of the other less pleasant conditions my body had suffered through during the war. Trowa had been communicating the only way he could; his tongue had only become sharper since Quatre's death.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'll be back in a few minutes." Heero nodded and Trowa offered a small cold smile that was probably an apology. As we walked out, Duo put a companionable arm around my shoulders which I promptly shrugged off. Without losing a beat, he showed me the pack of cloves, pealing off the plastic wrap as we headed for the yard. "Man, you are gonna love these, way better than regular cigs. They're a real treat."

"Duo, I don't smoke. And neither do you."

"I do sometimes," he said with a shrug, sounding a little defensive, as though smoking were something to be proud of. "And anyway, everyone should have a pack of these around for an occasion such as this. One pack won't kill you."

We stepped out into the yard to find that it had turned into a reddish--brown lake. We stood in the shelter of the overhang and I stared out into the rain as he pulled two cloves from the pack. Taking a cheap orange lighter from his pocket, he lit both and passed one to me. I took a drag but didn't really inhale. The clove crackled and left a sweet taste in my mouth. I watched Duo lick his lips and smile to himself. I felt very young, younger than eighteen, younger than the youngest person in this place. Since I was the youngest person at Rehab for Terrorists, I decided I felt younger than myself -- the Wufei who had first walked into his cell with a stack of clothes and blankets and a shaved head. He had been a proud and spiteful sixteen--year--old terrorist. Now, I just felt like a delinquent and slightly unhinged kid, smoking but not inhaling a clove cigarette with my best friend beside me, tasting vanilla on his lips and smiling. I looked at the hand that held my cigarette and saw a bony wrist and skin that had grown darker under two Italian summers.

"I think you frightened him," Duo finally said, not looking at me. I knew who he was talking about.

"Trowa doesn't get scared."

Duo snorted. "Sure he does. As soon as one of us is in trouble, Trowa's on it like stink on--" He caught me glaring at him and he coughed. "Like white on rice. He never gave up on you, even when he realized that you really were fighting for Mariemaia's army, and not--"

"I wasn't fighting for her," I said for what had to have been the thousandth time. Trowa wasn't the only one who enjoyed, or at least felt the need to bait me. Nor was he the only one from which I would take it. "And if he never gave up on me, why didn't he end up here with me?"

Duo's brow wrinkled in distress. This was a two--year--old argument that had never really been settled and probably wouldn't be until Trowa decided to talk about it. Didn't mean Duo wouldn't pick at it like an itchy scab. "As soon as he realizes there's not a damn thing he can do to help, he freezes up," he continued, choosing for the moment to step over the old land mine between all four of us. "You scared him because he's gotta leave you here and now he thinks they don't feed you enough and for the moment, all he can do is watch you scarf down cupcakes." He blew a cloud of smoke upward and then turned to look at me.

"Oh."

"Yeah."

I shrugged. "He shouldn't worry about it, and I shouldn't have said anything. It's not as bad as that." Duo looked me up and down, and I glared back at him.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yes," I said a bit belligerently. "If I'd known all of you were coming here to give me shit about something as stupid as my diet, I would rather have sat in my cell and done homework." Duo was grinning at me again. "What," I snapped.

"I forgot you still have homework. This really is a prison. Jeez, if I still had to... to turn in assignments -- my god, I think I'd--"

"Right, that's it." I tossed the cigarette out into the rain and dove for Duo's middle just as he realized what I was doing and dropped the pack of cloves onto dry cement. I hit him hard in the gut with my shoulder and he landed with a loud grunt in a puddle, me right on top of him. He was laughing even as rain and mud soaked through our clothes. He wedged his left leg between mine and rolled us over, pushing the side of my face down in the mud, while his other hand groped up the outside of my t--shirt. He found essentially every ticklish spot I had and exploited it ruthlessly. Between fighting him off and generally flailing about, I thought that Meiren was probably the last person to tickle me -- back before we were married, when she was an annoying tomboy who didn't care to follow the rules of etiquette between betrothed children.

I noticed while trying not to get a mouthful of mud that Duo was running his fingers over the red band of fabric that held my hair out of my face. From the corner of my eye I caught his careful scrutiny, and then his eyes met mine and he suddenly had his other hand up my shirt, sliding along my ribs and I could see that he was daring me to do something, to yell at him or to hit him. But I didn't fight him off. When I felt the underside of his forearm run up my back, I shivered and everything snapped into such sharp focus that I wasn't ticklish and I wasn't just out somewhere with my friend goofing off in the rain -- I wasn't sure of anything, except that it had been more than half my life since anyone had hands on my skin that weren't fists or doctors' hands. Then, the only thing I could do in that moment was fight back.

Grabbing his wrist, I pinched a nerve until he yelped and let go of my ribs. But I didn't let go. He tried to pull away, but it was a half--hearted attempt, and before he could really tell that I was serious, I surged up out of the mud and twisted his arm into a hold. From the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of blond and looked up with sudden, irrational hope that I would see the last one of us -- his flight must have been delayed, or he got lost trying to find the place. It was in the middle of nowhere, after all. But it was Karl, leaning in the doorway, smoking one of my cloves and watching me with great interest.

"Chang, you're hurting me," Duo growled. "You better let go before I get serious."

Without taking my eyes away from Karl or the three guards who bullied him aside to get to us, I let go of Duo's wrist and sank back into the mud with a resigned groan. As they grabbed hold of my arms and clothes to get me back inside, I remembered that I was supposed to ask him something important, something I would surely never get to ask now. My birthday was officially over. I'd be lucky if I was allowed visitors for the next couple months. I looked at Karl and realized I'd blown it for the both of us and our stupid investigation.

But I should have given Duo more credit, and I should never have underestimated the knee--jerk reaction he always had to force backed up with the power to punish, especially when exerted against one of his few friends. He sprang after me, spitting curses, and then he had an arm anchored around my middle, tugging me back toward him.

"It was my fault, assholes, not his! I provoked the fight, and we weren't even fighting! Haven't you ever seen two guys goofing around before?"

"Please let go, Mr. Maxwell," one of them said quietly.

"I'm not going anywhere until you let go of him and promise you won't punish him for a fight I started." He tightened his grip and I realized this was my chance. I went limp, not struggling against either of them, falling forward against his shoulder. He tensed and tightened his arm around my ribs. "Chang?"

"I have to ask you something important," I murmured, just loud enough that he could hear me over the rain. "I need your help. Please come back." I felt him nod and let go, as the guards succeeded in getting us all out of the rain. They let go, except for the one who kept hold of my arm, just above the elbow. More than most things here, I hated being led around like a delinquent kid. I hated being touched there -- I'd rather have been shoved around in cuffs. I jerked my arm out of the guards grip with a quick shrug, continuing ahead of him on my own. I could almost see him shaking his head at me, could see Duo faltering behind us, knowing something bad was about to happen. My skin tingled with the anticipation of rough hands.

The guard -- his name was Busey -- was one of the more restrained employees at RCNP. He didn't usually touch us unless he really had to, and now he was required to. "Wufei, why do you make things more difficult for yourself?" he rumbled under his breath, even as I turned to the wall and placed my palms flat against it. He loomed behind me, kicking my legs apart and removing the cuffs from his belt. I didn't even know what Duo was shouting about at that point. I looked over my shoulder at him when Busey pulled my arms behind my back and latched the cuffs. Our eyes met and I could tell that he knew everything he said was only making it worse, that yelling wasn't helping either of us. But he couldn't stop, probably for the same reasons I never stopped -- for years we'd never had the luxury of letting our guard down, of slowing up or doing anything other than crashing full--speed toward our future. There could be no restraint when you were fighting only for yourself, when even your allies were ambiguous and shifting and fleeting. You never stopped.

"I have to report this to Prescott immediately," Busey told me, keeping his voice low. "Mr. Maxwell is a Preventer. By assaulting him, you could lose all visitor privileges. Your sentence might be extended to--"

I swallowed hard.

"What is wrong with you people? I'm not a Preventer -- I don't have a badge. Do you need me to make a statement? I'll come with you -- I'll do whatever you--"

"Duo," I called over my shoulder. "It's fine."

He laughed harshly. "Not if they extend your sentence for another few months or a year, all for goofing off with your friend. Fuck, I--"

"Who's extending Chang's sentence?" The sharp voice held no outward emotion, but for those of us who knew him, Trowa was angry. I turned to see him standing with Heero, both holding their badges in white--knuckled grips. For a moment, the absurdity of two eighteen--year--olds with Preventer's badges almost made me laugh. They'd grown considerably taller in two years, and during the wars, they'd wielded incredible power, but at no point had they given orders and expected them to be followed. They certainly didn't look comfortable with it now. Not that anyone other Duo and me would be able to tell that from their aggressive posture and stern expressions.

Duo gave them the story, gesturing angrily at the guards who had followed us in and at Busey who still had his hand on my shoulder. All of the guards looked a little spooked with two badge--wielding Preventers staring them down.

I suddenly felt like I would cause an even bigger scene if they stayed here even a second longer. In the two years I'd been here, I'd never been so humiliated as when I stood there watching them frantically think of ways to help me, knowing that they could not. Preventers had no power here. They couldn't pull rank for my sake. Heero watched me and I knew he knew it. My face was flushed hot and I had to look away from his helplessness and self--directed anger. Trowa stayed blank, and I could barely meet Duo's worried and furious gaze. I'd take extra laundry and bathroom duty over this any day. Room searches or an extended session with Rorty during which he made me face every life that I ended or ruined during the wars. Anything to be away from this.

"It's fine," I bit out. "Please leave now."

"But, Wu--"

"Get out."

"Chang..." That was Trowa.

"Leave!"

I left them there instead, not waiting around for them to decide what to do. I wanted the silence of my cell in mid day. I wanted Onur to come back filled with scorn and disappointment for how stupid I had been. I wanted Karl on the other side of my wall, lying awake all night. I wanted to be just like them -- inmates with no one to help them or care about them on the outside. They were cut out from the world; they had nothing but the lives they were building here. The ties that still bound me to the outside world were painful.

Busey walked me into my cell and unlocked the cuffs. He rubbed a hand through thinning sand--colored hair. "You have to stay here until you hear from us, but I guess you already know that drill. Mr. Maxwell will doubtless leave a statement, and I'll tell them what I saw. It'll probably be okay."

I nodded but said nothing and he left. Once alone and locked inside, I stripped out of my soaked and muddy coveralls, putting on the plain cotton pants we wore to sleep. Then I pulled Duo's bandanna from my hair as well as the tie and attacked it with my comb, working as much dirt and debris as I could without dunking my head in the sink.

The silence of the cell block was comforting in its totality. Everyone was either in class, working in the kitchen or laundry, or spending their off time in the common room. Our days here were strictly regimented, but they were not grueling. We all worked to feed and clean up after each other, alongside the staff that was paid to do so. We all took classes in a field deemed suitable for us. Some of the classes were training programs for those more technically oriented; they'd come out of here well--educated electricians and mechanics. The science courses were limited to the ones that didn't encourage skills no longer needed in this time of peace. Biology and chemistry were relatively safe, but physics and engineering were not -- not because humanity no longer needed scientific innovation in these areas, but because the minds doing the innovating could not be trusted to keep with what kinds of innovation were appropriate.

There were, of course, no future law enforcement officers here. But Une had worked out a special deal with Prescott allowing Heero to visit and train with me, so that I might be able to join Preventers at some point in the future. We trained in the basement on an old wrestling mat that smelled like feet, in an airless room that had us both light--headed by the end. I took literature classes officially. History, sociology, psychology and economics were also offered in the humanities and social sciences. There were no politics classes. And of course business classes were acceptable and encouraged. No matter how afraid of us the rest of the world was, there would always be a need for people who were good at making money.

When we were not in class or seeing to our chores, we could go outside to the yard or stay inside in the common room. We were not permitted to laze about in our cells unless we'd broken a rule and had to be put somewhere until punishment was decided. I used those times for meditation. That period of absolute silence was almost always worth the punishment.

I hoped that, if Duo was going to make a statement, he'd done it and left with Heero and Trowa. There were no visitors allowed in the cell block, but no lock had ever stopped Duo Maxwell once he set his mind to opening it. I hoped that if he was going to sneak in to see me, he would have already done so.

Therefore, with a reasonable amount of confidence that I wouldn't be disturbed, I sank to the floor between my bunk and the wall and tried to sort all that had happened into some kind of order.

+

When Onur came back to the cell, it was after dinner, when all the inmates were returning for study time before lights out. He brought me a roll and some butter, and my stomach rumbled the moment he handed it to me. I thanked him but he didn't say anything and went right to his bunk to read over his trig notes. I'd known from the moment the cell door had closed behind me that he would be disappointed when he found out about the fight. Judging by his posture, I'd guessed correctly. I'd disappointed him like one of the students he hoped to have, when he left RCNP as a certified math teacher -- I'd been given just a little too much freedom and had stepped all over the rules. What had happened today reflected poorly on me, but I knew he would take it personally, like he'd failed me somehow, like he could have prevented it if he'd only made me do my homework. Or something.

But neither of us said anything, and I stayed where I was in the corner. I ate the roll and all the butter in the little plastic packet. It wasn't a mystery why things had gotten out of hand today. The perpetual build--up of frustration, and the inevitable explosion of temper that could make Duo duck for cover, cause Trowa to exercise more than just his left eyebrow muscle, put Heero on an adrenalin rush that lasted for a good hour, and encourage Quatre to begin anew his quest to find a shrink who wasn't afraid of me occurred with stunning regularity here. Onur and Karl for some reason were never phased.

But my temper today wasn't the mystery. The part that had me really bothered was the bit where I could still perfectly recall how it had felt to have Duo's hand on my ribs. That feeling was not recognizable -- or at least it wasn't familiar. I'd been here long enough to know how sex worked for the men. Sometimes I heard them at night, but it was rare for roommates to be in any sort of relationship. More often they were relieving tension alone in their bunks. Other times I saw it in the showers, with both willing and less enthusiastic participants. With the survival instincts nature gave to a goldfish, a person knew to stay well clear of all such established relationships between inmates. Some appeared normal; some were decidedly less healthy. I wanted nothing to do with either variety -- had in fact gone to considerable lengths to make that fact known -- and I hadn't wanted any such attachments at any other point in my life so far.

During the wars, I'd never even considered it. Duo thought this strange -- or so he'd said when we were looking for apartments and he'd blurted the question. He'd then proceeded to tell me of his exploits when he'd been dirt--side, hiding out at different high schools by day, blowing up military bases by night. He'd said that he liked to take girls out for coffee just to prove that he could do something normal and enjoy himself. They usually came onto him because "Admit it, Wu, no girl could resist this face," and, presto!, instant stress relief in the form of sloppy groping and even sloppier kisses.

It wouldn't work that way for me, I was sure of it. Unlike Duo, I hadn't felt the need to work out the considerable stress that built up with each mission with sex. If I had, the only individuals I could have had such an arrangement with were the other four pilots. No one was anonymous; no one was safe. They were the only ones I could have trusted, and since I didn't trust them during the wars, even they were excluded. They hadn't expressed any interest in me anyway, and if they had, my response would probably have been one of violence... as it had been with Duo today.

But today had been different. Today, him touching me had felt good. Clinically, objectively, it was easy to see that I had liked it. I didn't know why now, after nearly eighteen years, it would feel good. This was neither the time nor the place for such feelings.

I heard Karl moving at my back, pacing around his cell. It was comforting to hear him and I wasn't surprised to feel a few taps on the wall directly behind my spine when his footsteps abruptly stopped. It was a variation of old Morse code -- made him feel like we were getting away with something, and gave his incessant pen--tapping a sense of direction.

'You there?'

'Yes.'

'You okay?'

'Yes.'

'Go to the door.'

Onur didn't look up from his books as I got to my feet and shuffled the few paces to the door, flip flops loud in the silence of our cell. I pressed my face against the metal bars and looked as far to the right as I could. I couldn't see more than a few pieces of dirty blond hair poking through the bars.

"Bummer of a birthday, Chang," he said and I could tell he was smirking. I shrugged, though obviously he couldn't see it.

"Wasn't so bad," I countered. And really, until Heero and Trowa tried to pull rank for me, everything, including the tussle in the mud and the ensuing fight with the guards had been at least interesting. "Sorry I didn't get to introduce you to Duo."

"I'm not sure I'd like him."

"I bet he'd love you."

"Excellent taste in clove cigarettes."

I looked down. I'd forgotten all about my birthday presents, as well as the pack of cloves he'd left outside. "I didn't get to pick them up, and I don't think he did either, in all the excitement."

"You think I'd let them go to waste? You obviously don't know me very well." His hair disappeared and then I saw long fingers and a hand sticking through the bars along the floor. I got down on hands and knees, sticking my own hand through the bars to reach the pack he slid toward me.

"Did you get a chance to talk to him?" he asked softly. I grabbed the pack and kept my voice low as a guard approached on rounds. "Not really. There wasn't time. But he said he'd come back, and he will. He has to." The thirteenth of July was approaching.

"Good." Then, as the guard passed, "Make sure you let me have a few of those," he said. "You'll never smoke them all, and they'll just get stale."

"Please step back from the bars, Wufei," Brandt requested with his usual excessive politeness. "Unless you'd like me to extend your latest penalty." I didn't need to look at him to hear the sneer in his voice, and kept my eyes lowered, backing off and muttering something that he would hopefully take as an apology.

When he was out of earshot, I returned to the bars to see that Karl was back as well. "...About that," he started.

"It's not a problem," I cut in. "I'll deal with whatever penalty they decide is appropriate."

"Doesn't look like it'll be bad. Your buddy, Maxwell, made a statement." I groaned. "He explained the circumstances, said you weren't even really fighting and that he'd been the one to start it. They must've believed him because I think they're only gonna suspend your visiting hours for a few weeks, six at the most."

I turned to lean my back against the bars. "Fantastic."

I looked up when Onur abruptly slammed his trig textbook shut. He swung his legs over the side of his bunk and leaned forward. "What the hell is your problem? Your friend kept you out of a lot more trouble than you might have been in -- trouble you deserve to be in."

I glared right back at him. "It's bad enough that they come here so often, so everyone knows that I--"

"What," he snapped, "have friends? Have connections to the outside? Yes, everyone here knows you have friends. They know that you have people who care about you."

I kept my voice low, but gestured to include the entire cell block. "And you don't see how dangerous that is? You think they don't see two Preventers coming in here with another pissed--off ex--terrorist and don't notice that the three of them are all I have on--planet and off? You think they don't see how wide open that leaves me?"

Onur snorted and rolled his eyes. "They watch through that tiny window in the door to see the dark--haired one -- what's his name?"

"Yuy," I supplied.

"They watch the two of you clobber the hell out of each other; they see that you can beat him almost half the time. They see the paces you put yourself through in the yard during morning exercises. Your reputation comes from that, and from your foul temper, from those stupid fights you get into with nearly every faction and splinter group here. Your friends are not making it more dangerous for you by trying to help you. The only thing you need to worry about is Prescott finally giving up on your scrawny, contrary butt and sending you someplace where your friends can't visit you as often as they like, and you can't take classes, and you don't get time for those abusive morning exercises. Your friends make you tolerable to the rest of us. They do us all a favor. And your friend Maxwell did right by you today, so give it a rest."

I scowled at the floor. Karl stayed silent next door, though he hadn't moved from where he sat. "They make it harder by interfering."

"They make you tolerable," he said again. Having delivered what he felt to be the most urgent portion of his lecture, Onur shifted back onto his bed again, flipping through his textbook to find where he'd left off. "And look on the bright side," he offered. "Now you'll have extra time to study and catch up on the coursework you've been ignoring. You'll participate more in class if you're better prepared." I rolled my eyes and he frowned. "I mean it."

"I know you do, Onur." It was a funny thing -- hearing his name pronounced correctly. Whenever I said it, whatever he said to me came out a little less harsh. I liked to say his name correctly because no one else ever did. Everyone pronounced it phonetically; but when I'd first come here, he told me the right way: "Oh--NOOR" with the "r" ending in a soft half--whistle. "We've already talked about this."

The frown line between his eyebrows lifted. "I know, and I am trying to help you. You have to show that you are ready to reintegrate as an ordinary citizen. You have to prove to a whole committee that you are no longer a threat. And you can't do that if you're--"

"I was reintegrating just fine before three armed Preventers came into my home while I was washing my dishes and served a warrant for my arrest."

Arguably, not a true statement, except for the dishes part. Duo would make such an argument, but thankfully, he wasn't here. And thankfully, that sullen comment shut up my roommate and encouraged my neighbor to get up off the floor and head for his bunk, probably to contemplate the unfortunate moment when he found out that his efforts at reintegration had been deemed unsatisfactory and unsafe. Onur looked to be remembering the same thing.

I took the opportunity and climbed up to my bunk, making a successful escape. I pulled the blanket over my head and settled one hand along my ribs, mimicking what Duo had done when we were both on the ground in the rain. I wasn't surprised when I felt nothing.

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