Authors: TB and Marsh
Rating: M15ish
Pairings: past 2x3 and 2x5

Six Seconds To Gone + Part 3

When he was fifteen, Wufei had been brave-- brash-- and prone to headlong plunges. He'd followed one wild impulse onto the deck of Treize Khushrenada's barge, where he'd abandoned the Gundam built for the very purpose of obliterating such men with economy and efficiency, and crashed through a window to duel OZ's general with his father's saber. Brave-- brash-- it had led to the most humiliating defeat of his life; he still dreamed of it, waking in a sweat with his knees throbbing as if from being forced to kneel. And in another headlong plunge, he'd determined immediately that in his defeat he should die to restore his honour.

He was almost wishing right now he had done. There was too much appeal in thinking about inky black silence, somewhere numb where he wouldn't have to bear this assault of feeling.

Goober, Duo said. You always want things to be easy.

Wufei's mouth was dry.

They were gathered on the grass in front of one of the trailers. Quatre sat on a blanket, lounging as he watched Trowa and Kathy instruct Six in handstands. Kathy, lithe as a cat, and Trowa, no less slim, demonstrated with all the flair of two born performers. Six was considerably less coordinated, falling twice before Trowa caught his ankles and supported him in the air. He couldn't let go for more than seconds before Six began to topple again, but Quatre and Kathy applauded dutifully. Heero's head turned to look, but his stare stayed focussed far away, watching the roving crowds beyond the fence.

Quatre eyed him as he approached, seating himself at the edge of Quatre's blanket. 'Hello,' he murmured.

'Just like that?' Quatre said. 'That's your entrance?'

'You were expecting cartwheels?'

'I won't clap for you, though.' On cue, Quatre brought his hands together again as Six managed a wobbly performance of nearly half a minute. The boy was all red face, brown hair flying to the ground. Upside-down smile.

'He looks happy,' Wufei said.

'He's trying hard to put on a good face.'

'He always has.'

'How are you doing, Wufei?'

Already uncomfortable in the presence of men who were, in name at least, friends. They-- altered him. He never felt he could be himself, forgot who he was even in trying to be it.

Not with Duo, of course. But Duo brought out the genuine in everyone.

'Frustrated,' he said. 'Getting nowhere.'

'Nowhere? You didn't learn anything?'

'I feel completely shut down,' he muttered. 'Someone out there knows something, but no-one's sharing.'

'It's only just come out in the news.'

'I'm surprised it took so long. Considering who he was.'

'I thought it was you,' Quatre remarked, startled but cautiously low-voiced. 'Keeping it quiet.'

'I was. But I'm not alone.'

At last shaking wrists collapsed, and Six tumbled to the ground in a breathless heap. He came up weaving a little, before Kathy caught him close in a motherly embrace.

Should have been Duo, hugging him. Duo would tip him head over heels, Six squealing in equal fear and delight as Duo threatened to drop him. Listen to you giggle, sweet baby, Duo would say, fingers sneaking down Six's belly to tickle. Giggle monster, giggle cat-- get him, Wufei!

Six had seen him. He came right up, before Wufei could do more than lift his hand in an aborted wave. 'Did you catch them, Mr Chang?' Six demanded. 'The men who killed my dad?'

He shook his head slowly. 'We're getting closer,' he answered, knowing it would be disappointing. It was disappointing to him. 'Hello, Six. New skills?'

'It's just passing time,' the boy said impatiently. 'I saw you on the news. How can't you know who did it yet?'

It was only a child's misunderstanding, but it cut unexpectedly deep. 'It's a complicated case,' he defended himself. 'With no apparent witnesses.'

He regretted that swiftly. Six was the witness, of course. Except that he'd been hiding, and had seen nothing. It was Six who dropped his eyes, now, chastised unfairly.

Quatre interceded. Gently he said, 'He's trying, Six. Very hard.'

Unwelcome interruption. Wufei almost resented the man for sticking up for him. Bit it did serve to remind Six of his manners. The boy blushed. Neutrally he offered an apology. 'I'm sorry, Mr Chang. Hello.'

'Don't be. I want to catch them very badly.' Headache. It had been plaguing him for days. It made him tongue-tied, self-conscious. 'But-- I-- wanted to check on you, too. I missed-- missed you, Six.'

'I'm okay.'

'Trowa and Miss Kathy are good hosts?'

'They've been real nice to me.' He looked over his shoulder at Kathy, real grin, this time, showing pert adoration noticeably lacking in his interaction with Wufei. 'Miss Kathy, she's an amazing cook. And Trowa takes me to see elephants and the horses and sometimes the big cats, except--' He turned back to Wufei with a flush. 'I don't like the big cats so much.'

They were all looking at him torture Six. 'Want to walk a while?' Wufei asked.

'Um-- okay.'

'I brought some of your things. I have boxes in the car.'

'My stuff? Thanks, Mr Chang.' More enthusiasm for that. Wufei smiled in relief. 'Did you find my iGame?'

'I did. And the cartridges.'

'Can I have it now-- I mean, after the walk?'

Six is at least three times more polite than I ever was. Duo winked.

Trowa finally interrupted-- he'd obviously been dying to, his jaw visibly clenched, brows tightly together. 'Hey,' he said. 'Didn't expect to see you so soon.'

Ah, Wufei thought. He knows now. Not hostility, but a certain tension. Did he expect Wufei to make wild declarations of ownership? And of who? A dead man or a dead man's son? Neither of them wanted a scene; but the act of tip-toeing initiated the confrontation, all inevitably.

Wufei inclined his chin in a nod that was stiff enough to break his neck. 'I won't stay long.'

Kathy cleared her throat. 'I'll dig up an extra sleeping bag, if you don't mind bunking with the other two in the tent. You are staying overnight?'

'If I'm welcome, please.'

'Absolutely. And I'd better get cooking.'

Quatre winced. Trowa speared him with those frowning eyes. 'What's that about?' he demanded.

'Oh-- uh, sitting on a pebble.'

'Ass.'

Wufei watched in bemusement. No, he didn't fit here. There was no place for him in that banter, gruffly good-natured even it flew with edge. 'Six and I were going to walk a bit,' he said, and stood.

Trowa's mouth turned down in a scowl. 'Don't leave the inner perimetre.'

'He knows, Trowa.' Quatre stood too, using Wufei's dangling hand as a hoist without asking. 'Kathy, let me help you, please. I can certainly throw a stew together for supper.'

Trowa hovered there with arms crossed and lower lip savaged between his teeth, seconds tripping by, before he muttered something about checking on the cats. Six, at least, looked as mystified as a child ought to, missing the meaning of the not-fighting. Quatre rolled his eyes at Wufei in a way that suggested comradeship in dire straits, Heero stared almost vacantly at him; Kathy blushed when he tried to speak, and hurried away. Wufei drew a breath that made his head pound.

'I parked in the visitor lot out front,' Wufei said. 'Walk me to the car?'

Six fell into step with him. He had grown, though it had been less than a month since Wufei had seen him. 'You've been well, really?'

Six twisted back. Wufei looked, too. At first he thought it was only the flickers he'd been seeing at the edge of his vision for a week-- nothing to make sense of, and probably the product of too little sleep. But this time it was Heero, who didn't even hide that he was following them at a distance. 'Like I said,' Six echoed. 'They're all real nice to me. But they're starting to fight a lot. Is it because of me?'

'No, Six,' Wufei corrected quickly, touched by that. 'We're all a little strung out. Missing your dad. Frustrated because... things aren't going the way we'd like.'

'Mr Winner and Trowa were yelling at each other all yesterday and then Heero and Quatre yelled at each other this morning and Miss Kathy yells at all of them to stop yelling. I like Miss Kathy. She's real funny. Her voice gets really high when she's angry.'

Wufei laughed. 'She's a character.'

'Mr Chang? Why didn't my dad ever talk about Trowa?'

Creeping in, all inevitable. Six was mature enough for his age, but that age was only eleven, and he'd been deliberately sheltered, loved for his innocence, and it wasn't for Wufei to spoil that with unwise words. He didn't want to say Trowa and Duo had fought, that Hilde had fought harder; he didn't want to say things like bad break ups and worse break ups, and loves that weren't equal. 'I think...' he said, 'I think they were the kind of friends that miss each other so much that talking about it is hard.'

'I know what a gay is, Mr Chang.'

Who's queer? Duo said, offended, or playing at it. Don't you know they got rid of gender, like, a century ago?

So much for innocence, then. 'Your dad was a very private man,' Wufei tried.

'You mean he was a liar. He lied to me. And to my mum.'

'No, Six. I mean there were things he didn't feel he had to share with the world.'

'I'm not the world.'

'Maybe he was waiting for the right time.'

Six put his hand to something he wore at the cord around his neck. Wufei didn't see it before his small hand covered it. Then a fist pushed hard across his eyes, leaving red and wet impressions of knuckles behind. 'You were his boyfriend,' Six said.

'I loved him, yes.'

'I tried really hard to understand everything but it's hard.' Six scraped his face dry again. 'And I don't understand and no-one tells me anything until I make them and I don't know what questions are all right or wrong or even what to ask.'

It was cruel to make the child walk while he confessed his soul. Wufei came to a halt right where he was, to the side of a dirt 'path' between trailers, Heero hesitating some yards away. He crouched to Six's level and touched his palm tenderly to Six's face, using the broad side of his thumb to wipe hot tears away. 'You can ask me anything, Six. I'll do my best not to evade.'

More tears. Ah, he'd been holding them back all this time after all, afraid to let his new hosts see his weakness. Wufei freed a tissue from his pocket, mopping flushed cheeks. 'It's all right,' he whispered. 'It's all right to miss him like this. It's all right to be worried and afraid and to have questions.'

Six swiped at his face with his sleeve, both sleeves. Wufei brushed the tissue under his nose for him. 'I just wish I could hear him again,' Six admitted, face frozen. 'Sometimes I think I do, but I'm just dreaming. I hate waking up.'

Look at him, Duo said. Sleeps like an angel. You hear what Hilde started calling him? Six. Six seconds into trouble, and six seconds batting those long eyelashes at her to get out of it. Can you believe I made that whole little boy?

Wufei tried twice to speak out of a dry throat. 'I hear him sometimes. Maybe it's my-- imagination. Maybe I'm just wishing I could talk to him, like you. It feels very real when it happens.'

Six looked up, wide-eyed, those long dark lashes clumped with damp and red-lined. 'You think my dad's an angel?'

Lie to my kid, Duo snapped. Don't tell him shit like that. I don't care if you do believe in ghosts, you're not teaching him to think that crap is real.

'I don't--' Wufei faltered trying to smile. 'Don't think he'd just leave us, when we're not ready to say goodbye.'

'When we used to go to church they'd talk about heaven and Jesus. The priest said I could pray to God to ask my mum to come home and if she was listening, she'd hear. But that didn't ever work, and Dad was really angry that Father Andrews said that.'

'It might've been a little irresponsible of Father Andrews, yes.'

'When you hear my dad, what's he say? Is it about me?'

He began to doubt his choice to share this. Was it wrong, did it somehow imply a fault in Six for not hearing what Wufei thought he did? He didn't even know if it was a real voice, or a self-delusion his grief insisted upon him. He had never believed in ghosts, not the ghost of his long-dead child bride, not the ghost of his grandparents and cousins who had died like Duo, in a sacrifice that ultimately changed nothing.

He didn't know he, too, was crying, until Six touched him, tiny fingertips inscribing careful half-circles under his eyes. 'It's okay, Mr Chang,' he whispered.

He squeezed Six's hands between his. 'Would it feel good, believing he was an angel?'

'I don't know. I don't know if I believe in angels. Dad didn't. He said it was what you did while you were alive that mattered.'

'He was right about that, Six.'

'But... maybe it would be nice. If he'd talk to me too.'

'Then listen for it. He might. You were the most important thing in the world to him, Six. If he's going to talk to anyone, it would be you.'

He's stronger than you give him credit for. He's like you. He can handle real life.

I don't want him to be like me, Wufei. I just barely want to be like me. I don't want him to have to be like me.

'Six.' Wufei wet his lips. 'I wanted us to be a family, you and Duo and me. We ran out of time. But I'll always be willing, if it's what you decide you want.'

He felt the spasm of Six's hands, all surprise. 'Like I would live with you now?' the boy said.

'Uh—' He hadn't quite thought of it like that. Right now, immediately? Hadn't spoken to the others, who would surely have opinions-- but why should he have to listen and obey them? None of them had had the relationship Wufei had had, the right to ask this of Six, as a man who might have-- he wasn't a father, couldn't replace a father lost, but he could give a home, continuity-- his mind raced in fits and terrified starts. 'If you wanted to,' he said. 'I'm sure Trowa and Quatre and Heero will invite you too. None of us will be angry if you don't choose to stay. But I'd like it—' As Six's face fell.

This child could be his son. The only son he'd ever leave behind, and if it wasn't quite as traditional as his clan might have hoped, there was still a deep spiritual need to know he wouldn't die without-- without this son he could have had with a man he'd grown to love.

'I'd like it very much,' Wufei repeated, 'if you wanted to make a family with me. On L2 where your father wanted to stay, or on Earth.'

'On Earth?' Six looked up quickly. 'I always wanted to go to Earth.'

'It's beautiful there, where I live. We could build a life. You'd have school again, or I could even teach you--'

'And I'd be safe with you.'

Safe. Maybe. He couldn't promise it. Earth was where this Gundamium scam may have arisen, after all. 'As safe as I could manage,' he said though, and he meant it, even thinking--

Duo snorted. You'd never quit Preventers. It's all purpose, fulfillment, yadda yadda.

Why are you so attached to this half-life on L2? Wufei had retorted. One of their rare pitched fights, vicious airing of bitter things that really couldn't be blamed on each other, but had been, all the same. You've done your time here. So has Six.

Because it should all mean something! It should all come to something, and if it doesn't I don't know what the hell the point is.

You'll die here some day, no better off than if you'd never left at all.

'Mr Chang?' Six said. 'You said you brought my iGame?'

'Yeah.' Wufei climbed to his feet with creaking knees. He felt drained. But Six kept his hand, and he could almost feel the strength coming from that little body next to his, keeping him upright. They walked the rest of the way to the lot in silence, curving around the outer fence that housed off the circus staff from the actual grounds. On the other side of that fence walked dozens of couples just like he and Six, a man with a son that might be his in name and might be his only in absence of the one who ought to be there. Neither he nor Six looked at them.

Wufei had packed two banker's boxes full, lids taped on, on the back seat of his rental car. He tugged one to the edge of the seat. 'This one's lighter, I think you can manage it.' He handed it out to Six. The boy wrestled it to the ground, took the pocket knife Wufei extended, and knelt in the grass to peer at his rescued treasures. Wufei had remembered right. It was the box with the game, wrapped in a plastic bag that held all the cartridges Wufei had been able to find in Six's room, most of them from under the unmade bed. There were fresh batteries, too, taken from the kitchen drawer where Duo had keep such odds and ends, and better gifts than that, things Six might never have been able to see again if Wufei hadn't bullied the local police into signing them out to him. A beloved stuffed dinosaur, Tori; pictures drawn in school from the first unsteady days of crayons to the more sophisticated portraits-- pictures of his father that would always survive. Reminders of Duo it had caused Wufei more than a simple twinge to give up, though there was no question, no doubt they were Six's, of course. A silver bracelet, inscription long worn away, the kind that soldiers wore to venerate fallen companions, that had been particularly hard to let slide into the box. Dozens of times when they'd laid in bed together, Duo's body stretched under his, Wufei's fingers had fallen to the warm metal, wondering what it was, though it had never seemed important enough then to ask--

Six left trash in his wake, bags and cardboard scattered to the grass as he put the batteries into the console. He turned it on, sucking in a breath when it beeped obediently to life. Wufei set the second box to the ground and pulled his travel bag to the ground as well, opening his mouth to suggest they return to Trowa's trailer before Six loaded a game. But that wasn't what Six was doing at all. He was taking off his shoe-- from inside the foot he pried up the insole, and under it was a cartridge, just like the ones Wufei had found, slim plastic pieces. Six, solemn-faced, pale as a marble statue, held out console and gamepiece.

'What's this?' Wufei said slowly. He turned the cartridges over to read the label. It wasn't a game, after all. It was one of those recordable discs.

Recordable discs. He knew even before Six said it.

Six was saying it, his light small voice falling gravely. 'I was playing with it, when my dad got nervous, about the people in the street. You know, how it records like a camera? For a school project for Miss Zabrinski. And-- later-- I got to thinking about it, so when I was going I got the cartridge and put it in my pocket.'

It took two tries to speak. 'This could be very important evidence, Six,' he whispered. 'That was good thinking.' If it was playable. If it had captured anything. Six couldn't even know if it had, if he'd only taken the cartridge and not the console--

'I don't know if there's anything on it. But maybe you could do cop things to it and find out. It was nice of you to buy me a new console, though.'

He was puzzled, first. Then scared. 'This isn't your machine?'

'I dropped the other one, back on L2. At the shuttle port. It broke on the escalator.'

He never had to call for Heero. Heero had heard, and dispensed with the pretence of privacy, striding right to the car. He took the console from Wufei's hands, prying open the casing with his fingernails. He didn't waste a curse for the bug they found, simple sound and location broadcast plant, and neither did Wufei. It was far too late for that.

'Get back to the trailer,' Wufei said. 'Run, Six. Now.'


**


'I don't think he looked well,' Quatre said.

'He looked fine,' Trowa repeated impatiently. 'Can we stop talking about how Wufei looked?'

'I mean he looked like he was ill.'

'He did seem tired,' Kathy offered. 'But-- well, isn't everyone, right now?'

'It was more than that.'

'Ohh, I get it,' Trowa interrupted. 'You know, I honestly thought it was Heero. But it's Wufei, isn't it?'

Quatre flushed. 'Shut up. Now.'

'What's this?'

'Quatre's had a seven-year itch for Wufei,' Trowa told his sister.

'I have not!'

'What about the underwear model?'

All their heads turned, then. 'Was that a shout?' Trowa said.

'Yes, it was.' Quatre was the first out of the door, but only because he was closest. Kathy came out with the cleaver she'd been wielding on the rack of ribs in the kitchen, and Trowa came out with a gun he'd clearly been getting twitchy for the chance to use. He tossed another at Quatre, but Quatre had already loosed his from the holster under his jacket and he caught the airborne one only out of instinct. It didn't slow his sprint between the trailers.

There were the missing three, Wufei and Six in the lead, Wufei carrying Six, Heero behind taking careful shots that cracked in the crisp L3 winterised air. And the gunfire was being noticed when the flight might not have been. A scream started from somewhere. Trowa took a shot-- Quatre devoutly hoped he'd been sure of the target-- and then Quatre saw it, too. A group of men, armed. Quatre stopped running just long enough to empty his gun at them.

And then Kathy hit his shoulder, and Quatre just got his finger off the trigger in time not to hit any of the cowering bystanders. 'We need one who can talk!' Kathy snapped at him, and hurled the cleaver in a glorious silver whir. It hit a gunman at thigh-height, and he went down with a yell and scarlet spurt of blood.

Wufei was in range. He set Six back to the ground, hand out. Quatre threw Trowa's spare gun to him, and Wufei caught it and aimed it in the same move. 'Prisoners!' Quatre shouted, and Wufei smoothly adjusted so that his shot took one of his attackers in the shoulder, not the head. Heero had heard, too, and was taking body shots now.

'Six!' Kathy yelled. 'Come here, sweetie!'

Too many men. More men than bullets. Eighteen, Quatre thought, but then it was twenty, and for every one that fell there was another coming. Big men, some of them, some with a Spacer's slim build. Twenty-two, and another coming in from behind--

The impact to his chest sucked the breath from him. Then he was on his back, black clearing from his eyes slowly to show only the shimmer curve of the colony's solar panels. He was cold.

'Quatre!' He felt the hands on him, because the hands were so hot and his body was so cold. 'Quatre. You'll be fine. Look at me.'

'Where am I hit?' he asked, or tried to. It came out mostly in coughs.

It was Heero. He could mostly see. Heero was pushing on him, which seemed rude until Quatre realised, dimly, that it was probably to put pressure on his wound.

'Six?'

Heero was a blank blur. Not saying anything.

'Six?' Quatre demanded. 'Heero, where is he--'

'They have him.' Heero pushed so hard on him that Quatre coughed again, and like that the hurt blossomed. He couldn't catch his breath, couldn't stop coughing, and there was something wet in his throat.

'Quatre!'

'Six,' he tried to say. 'Go after him. Don't--'

He was shoved roughly onto his side, and all the liquid in his lungs had somewhere to go, then. He hacked it out into the grass, and it sprayed red from his mouth. But he could breathe again. He could breathe.

'Quat.' It was Trowa, face wild and tear-streaked. 'Quat, they took him. Wufei's down, they got him in the knee-- Raoul tried to help, I think he's dead-- there's dozens of people injured, here, someone's bound to call-- call the cops-- they took Six, Quat. They took Six.'


**


Eighteen wounded. Two fatalies-- their people, anyway. The enemy dead had been dragged away by their living accomplices as they fled.

They were fleeing, too, though. Wrong direction. Six was being taken in one direction, and Quatre was being taken in the other. They weren't going after Six. Not yet. Not with another one down. Heero had been torn, was physically torn as if his body were being ripped in half. Six or Quatre.

Then the ambulance had come and Trowa had pulled Wufei out of it, pulled him out and climbed in instead, talking to Quatre in that intense way men talked to comrades who might not make it but had to, had to-- talking to Quatre as if talking would keep a heart beating, if you just did it long enough and loud enough.

And then because Wufei was out of the ambulance but was still walking with blood spurting out the patella, Kathy had tried to run him over with the Jeep and was now trying to run over everyone between them and Saint Luke's Hospital. Heero thought that the forty minutes to the hospital was likely to be more deadly than the ten minutes it had taken for the ambush at the circus grounds. Kathy was more furious than anyone he had ever seen, including Duo, who might just have matched her, if he had been with them--

And if he had been with them, they wouldn't have been here, and they might not be silently wondering if they would lose Quatre too, now.

The radio was already buzzing with the story. They were interviewing the witnesses, or trying to. The circus folk were close-lipped even without an attack on their own. Heero was thinking and not-thinking, his eyes on his white clenched fists, and slowly registered-- Wufei was saying--

'One of us should've gone looking.'

'The grounds were swarming with cameramen and reporters,' Kathy retorted. 'They already picked up that it's Quatre Winner who was shot, and it wouldn't have been long before the rest of you were identified too, and then you wouldn't have been able to step foot in any direction, much less try to trace their trail.'

'One of us should still--'

Kathy said flatly, 'If you blame yourself in my hearing one more time I will kick you out of this vehicle, and I will not be slowing down first.'

'Why shouldn't I? I should have checked his things. I should have known!'

Kathy slammed the Jeep three lanes right to get at the highway exit. It rocked them in their seats, and Heero had to grip the door to keep his ass connected to the seat. 'I've been walking the compound since I arrived,' he interjected. Kathy's hot hazel eyes glared at him through the rearview. 'I was walking behind you and Six the entire time and I didn't see them coming. You're not the only one who missed the clues.'

'It should have occurred to me that his things were bugged, damn it.' Wufei's exhale was shaky. 'You would have suspected it, wouldn't you?'

Yes. He would have.

Kathy tapped the brakes at a stop sign before barreling through the intersection. A horn trailed them, fading quickly. She said, 'You were trying to be a father, not a cop. So what you did was right, even if it turned out wrong.'

'I'll find him.'

'Yes, we'll find him. And try not to do what Duo did-- if you die before he's safe, I'm kicking you out of this god-damn Jeep, Chang Wufei.'

Wufei shifted. Heero shifted, to keep Wufei's foot propped over his lap, to keep the bundled shirt they'd wrapped around Wufei's knee in place. 'I think you should act as though you believe her.'

Wufei turned sharp, red eyes at Heero. 'I know she means it.'

'I mean it, too.' He reached to Wufei's knee, his already stained fingers acquiring a new wet film as he pressed the cloth into the wound. Wufei's jaw tightened. 'She might not be able to kick hard enough to knock you out of the car, but I can.'

Another silence, then. Wufei's hair had come lose from the tail and whipped in the wind of their frenetic drive. The daylight lit sweat-streaked tendons in Wufei's neck. Like Quatre's, when he'd been lying in the grass where Heero found him.

Wufei spoke again, quietly now. 'Six said you'd all been fighting. Over him. It makes him uncomfortable.'

'God damn it,' Kathy swore.

'That was his assumption, anyway. I tried to convince him-- convince him otherwise.'

'Do you really think this is the best time to keep arguing over him?'

'We're not arguing,' Wufei said raggedly. 'We're having a conversation.'

Kathy actually turned, then, her bare arm stretching over the empty seat beside her as she twisted to look at her backseat passengers. Her eyes were narrow, then wide. 'My God,' she said. 'You want to keep him.'

'Yes.' Wufei sought Heero's gaze. His own was pleading, but his words were pugnacious. 'I have every right,' he said. 'He and Duo and I were a family.'

Kathy faced forward again.

'It's what he knew,' Wufei said.

Heero tried to wet his lips with a dry tongue. He said, 'Once we find out about Quatre, one of us should start tracking these people. Did you get them to close the ports?'

Wufei stared at him. 'I--' He wiped at the sweat on his brow. 'I made some calls, yes. I--'

'We're almost there,' Kathy told them.

'There's going to be news coverage,' Wufei burst out.

Twenty people shot, including Quatre Winner. Of course there would be.

'With the right spin,' Wufei said. He shifted again, urgent shift, urgently trying to convince them. 'It can work in our favour. I gave them the right spin.'

Heero had to press on Wufei's knee again. 'What are you talking about?'

'There's going to be news coverage.' Wufei spoke so quickly that his words tumbled over each other. 'I called one of Preventers' contacts in the local press. Amber alert-- boy of Six's description, Six, not Rupert Maxwell-- and there's a picture-- I gave her a picture from my wallet. I told them to say it's a custody kidnapping. Media blitz. Television, internet press--' His own panting breaths cut him off. He wiped his forehead again, and left a streak of red behind.

In the front seat, Kathy let out an explosive sigh. 'Thank God you've got your head on your shoulders,' she said, warm suddenly. 'That's brilliant, Wufei.'

Heero did not agree. 'You've just alerted their entire organisation that they have to go underground.'

'No-one but his family knows that nickname,' Wufei argued. 'And even if they did... they have to be expecting us to do something public. It would be insanity to cover it up. Just like it was insanity to cover up Duo's murder.'

Kathy ended it by swerving suddenly to take an open spot, cramming the Jeep between two larger vehicles. There wasn't enough room to open the door on her side, so she merely went over the top, slithering down the rigging to the asphalt. 'Get out,' she told them. 'You can keep arguing inside.'

It wasn't quite as easy to get Wufei out of the Jeep, but once they had him on the street, Kathy abandoned them for the walk and sprinted for the ER doors, making considerable time even in her high heeled sandals. By the time Wufei and Heero made it inside, she was at the desk speaking to a nurse. Kathy pointed imperiously at them as they entered, Wufei limping heavily and refusing more than Heero's arm around his shoulders for balance. Kathy said, 'Someone shove this man into a wheelchair and prep him.'

Heero stood close enough to hear Wufei grind his teeth, but whether it was Kathy's declaration or his own pain it was impossible to know. 'That's not necessary,' Wufei grated. 'Please.'

'Argue with me, Wufei. Please.'

The desk nurse looked back and forth between them uncomfortably. Heero interrupted the byplay by catching his eyes. He said, 'Quatre Winner.'

'He's still in Emergency, sir. No visitors yet.'

'Are there any papers to sign?' Kathy asked.

Heero didn't wait on the answer. All the cream-coloured walls looked alike, so he focussed on the stream of people walking through the halls. People wearing scrubs kept moving toward a pair of closed doors; Heero followed them through it, ignoring the one who tried to warn him back out again. There were rows of operating rooms stretching to either side, and he stood in a waiting room now, panelled all in glass so the waiters could try vainly to see what happened in the ORs. And there was Trowa, standing pressed to the glass several yards ahead. Heero crossed the distance with each footfall heavier than the last. He had to will himself to take the last, the one that brought him even with Trowa, to look through that big window. He made his eyes level, made himself take in the sight inside.

They were operating on a man. Several people in gowns and masks, only two holding real surgical implements, their hands moving over and in the body on the table. The body wore a cotton cap over his hair and a large oxygen mask with snaking plastic tubes obscured much of his face, but Heero knew it was Quatre. His own body knew, his chest so tight he couldn't breathe until he opened his mouth to draw in the air, as if his lungs were full of water. And there on the other side of the glass they put a tube in of Quatre's chest, and scarlet red flowed out from Quatre into the tube.

'He coded in the ambulance,' Trowa said. His lips were bitten and he was pale. Heero wondered, vaguely, if he looked like that too. Maybe he didn't. He didn't feel like that, except for the heaviness in him. Drowning him. 'They brought him back. They're acting like he'll make it. One of them said something about transferring him Earth-side. Hospitals here are-- are shit, you know.'

The smaller of the surgeons, the woman bent over Quatre's torso, lifted a pair of forceps up into the light. She had the bullet that had done this to Quatre. She set it carefully in a bowl one of the other gowned doctors held, and took back a needle instead.

'Maybe—' Trowa said. 'If someone had got Duo to a hospital, he...'

'Look,' someone behind them spoke, and then there was different noise, television noise. The volume rising rapidly, to be just a little too loud. 'We're here on the site of what is becoming one of the bloodiest attacks on L3 since the war, where the tranquility of Wertzimmer Circus was viciously disrupted by the appearance of several gunmen just two hours ago. Police Chief Patil is about to address the gathered press and witnesses, still so shattered over the loss of two-- excuse me, I've just been told the death toll here has been officially brought up to four-- here's Chief Patil, asking for our attention--'

'Tell them to turn that off,' Trowa mumbled.

'Thank you all for waiting. We need you all to run this photograph, it's been linked to your networks as we speak. Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, the picture you're seeing on your screens now is a boy named Six who was kidnapped during the commotion here. We are issuing an amber alert for this boy, who is approximately four feet and two inches--'

'What did you do.' Trowa turned. Wufei was there now, standing disheveled and with the shirt at his knee now sluggishly falling off, its knots too loose and soaked to hold. 'You did this?'

Wufei nodded jerkily. 'I thought it was best, yes.'

Heero could see every thought on Trowa's face. Of two minds about it. Seeing the reasoning in exposing the kidnapping to the public. Knowing there were ways to manipulate the media to get what they wanted, needed-- but still hating it. Distasteful. Exploitative. Dangerous. And Six would be the one to suffer for it.

Wufei drew in a sharp breath. 'No--'

Kathy interrupted unwittingly, approaching behind Wufei carrying an armful of clipboards and paperwork. She wasn't even looking up as she walked, and didn't seem to realise how potentially explosive the situation was. 'Who knows Quatre's middle name?' she asked them all. 'And is the underwear model his emergency contact?'

Wufei passed his hand over his face. 'I'll be his contact. I don't know I have a number for Takeo.'

'Middle name? And does anyone know anything about his medical history? I'm really not the right person to be--'

'I'll help you,' Wufei said wearily, and sat where she pointed him. It was only then Heero realised Kathy had meant to achieve that all along; she was a shade too smug when Wufei propped his leg up again. Heero left them to it, turning to face Quatre's operation again. Trowa turned with him, hands falling to the wooden railing, gripping hard.

Then Trowa said, pitched only to him and not to the pair at the chairs behind them, 'We need to discuss where we go from here.'

Heero nodded his consent. 'If his surgeons think he's safe to make re-entry.'

'No. As soon as he's stable enough, we need to move him. He's at risk here. Vulnerable. We need to move him--'

'To where? He'll need hospital recovery.'

'His place on Earth. With his money, he could probably get better care at home than in any hospital. One of us can go with him.' Trowa's head slanted, his eyes settling angled behind them. Then, even quieter, Trowa said, 'You and I are going to find Six.'

Heero didn't blink at that notion, but something else in that struck him. He said slowly, 'You are deliberately separating Wufei from us.'

'That's right.'

'Why? His status as a Preventer agent is useful, in addition to his abilities.'

'Then he can be useful on Earth, where I don't have to deal with him.'

'This is personal.'

'Hell, yes, it's personal. He fucked up.'

Trowa was too controlled to let his voice raise unwonted. It was iron hard and it stayed just above a whisper that wouldn't carry. Heero was no less so. 'It was a mistake,' he agreed. 'But it brought Duo's killers into the open. We've seen them now. We can hunt them down and destroy them.'

'And we'll do that. But we don't need to do it in each others' pockets.'

'Past experience would indicate that you are incorrect. And present experience demonstrates that you're a prick. He didn't lose Six. It took all of us to lose Six.'

'He brought them here,' Trowa hissed at him. 'Didn't he? Hell, maybe he did it on purpose. Using Six as bait.'

Heero had very rarely felt the grim dark feeling that come over him then. Trowa's face seemed very ugly to him, and Trowa's voice too, and even Trowa's justified anger seemed very ugly because this reaction wasn't justified. He didn't want to look at Trowa looking like that. So he didn't. He turned his face forward again, to Quatre inside that operating room. And he took a large step away from Trowa, so that he wouldn't have to stand near Trowa like that, saying such things.

Not far enough away not to feel Trowa stiffen. 'Heero. Don't turn your back on me.'

Heero would not look at him. The doctors were doing something new inside, the two surgeons stepping away with bloody gloves held at chest height, while the other ones in their clean gowns began disconnecting all the tubes and IV lines, packing them about Quatre's body. They pushed the big rolling bed away from the centre spot it occupied, to the wall, where large computers stood. Heartbeat. Blood pressure. Lung function.

'Heero. I need you.'

Kathy, again. 'Does anyone know Quatre's security number? Neither of us do.'

'05-3928-3489dwt,' Trowa said. He closed the gap between he and Heero. 'I don't want to fight with you.'

'We're not fighting. We're not speaking.'

'You know...' Trowa's chest heaved in and out, audible breaths. 'Fuck you.' His boots clunked hard on the tile floor as he went away, and then a door slammed. He'd got to the smoker's vestibule at the far end of the hall. Heero could see him through the little window, gripping fists in his own hair, before his head disappeared from the square and all it showed was grey again.

Heero inhaled deeply through his nose, letting the air dribble slowly from between his lips. It cleared his chest, but not his head. Duo would have handled that better than he had. Duo had always known how to handle people. Even Trowa. But even with Trowa, even after they'd broken off their romance or affair or whatever it had been, Duo had known not to go after him again, because Trowa wasn't the kind of person who really knew how to forgive. Duo had known that.

It occurred to Heero, then, that he had finally accepted it. Even in his thoughts, there was no hesitation now in thinking about Duo as-- gone.

His eyes stung. He blinked until they didn't, and made himself watch as the surgeons inside finished their tests on Quatre. They were prepping him, it seemed, to be taken maybe to an ICU. He could see an angle of Quatre's face now, his eyes closed.

He was so absorbed he didn't hear Kathy approaching, and her hand on the middle of his back made him jump like a child. His heart lurched in a single palpitation before he recovered himself. He looked behind him, but Wufei no longer sat there. The clipboards were gone, as well.

'I'm sorry,' Heero said to her. 'About your people at the circus.'

Watching it from the outside, Heero wondered again if he looked like that. Kathy's eyes took on a watery sheen and went red at the rim of the lids, but her expression was set and she didn't cry. 'Thank you,' she replied evenly. 'I'm sorry too. I knew all of them well.'

Her hand on his back pressed warmly. 'Does your intuition say-- if Quatre will be all right?'

'We can't afford to lose another member of the family. So let's go with yes.'

He turned toward her. She was shorter than him, only barely, though her red curls piled into a chaotic ponytail made up the difference. She was both harder and smaller than other women he had known, those other women who had been warriors and queens and whose toughness had come from rigid regimens like Heero's, of making decisions that destroyed as many lives as they saved. Kathy had never had to end a life. But she had saved some; she had helped in saving Heero's, by hiding him during his long recovery from the destruction of his Gundam. She had saved Trowa's, physically preventing his death and by bringing him out of a half-life by making him her brother in everything but blood. And she was doing the same now for another life, for a boy who had lost one family and needed another to heal the hurt. These were new thoughts to Heero, a shift in a long-set perspective. The same perspective in which Duo had been alive somewhere, one of Heero's few and precious links to a humanity he'd tried to escape by heading into Deep Space. The world was different now. Not changing, not moving on, just-- different than what it had been, unalterably. Heero couldn't change it back.

'Who can?' she said, and he felt a flush on his face when he realised he had said that aloud. 'Oh, don't blush at me. I'm not asking for the impossible. I never saw the point in that, but maybe I just saw you differently because I knew all you boys when you were still children in your killing machines. I lived in that world a lot longer than any of you, you know, the world before the war. I remember very clearly what it was like. Everything had been bad for so long, everyone had been frightened and cornered and beaten down for so long, no-one believed anymore that we could change anything, that we just had to accept the universe the way it was. Everywhere we went it was the same. Until you boys. You gave people hope. And all hope is is the belief that things can change for the better.'

'Katherine.'

'I'm not done, dear.' She faced him, her hands going to the collar of his shirt to flatten it as if she couldn't stop herself from doing it, but face-on he could see new lines by her eyes and mouth, how drawn she looked. 'I remember how little all of you were. Your big raw bones in those little boy bodies, and all of you willing, if not eager, to throw your lives away for the cause. And don't fool yourself that's not part of what inspired people. People can bear all kinds of injustice, you know, but it tears something in the soul to see children fighting your wars for you, because we're too afraid to step up. But look what kind of men you grew into. Quatre in there, do you even remember how he looked then? In his school uniform still, like he just ran away from home and never made it back again. And Trowa, skinny as a twig you'd snap if you even shook it wrong. I used to think Wufei would sooner tear himself apart than look anyone in the eye. Duo-- Duo was all energy, you remember that? He could fill a room just by showing up, but you couldn't keep one thought in his head for longer than two seconds. And you. You were this ferocious, bleak, angry child soldier. You never would have let me this close to you then. But all of you grew up into such wonderful men, men with good hearts and love for each other and-- and all this determination to put it all behind you. Well, for better or worse, maybe things never changed that much, or maybe they've just changed back to what it was before, but you've got the bug. We all started to just accept things again. Probably it's part of growing older. But now Duo's little boy needs you to stop being scared of taking that step up.'

'Trowa says that Duo was the only one who...' Her hand on his chest seemed to be pressing down on him, but it anchored him, too. 'The only one who never thought the war was over. He tried to tell me, once. The last time I saw him. He said-- Heero, if you only knew what's out there still. I told him I thought he was paranoid to imagine it was there in his backyard. And that's where he died, right on his own street.'

'We can't change what's done. All we can do is hope the change we make now will be better.'

'We'll get Six back.'

'I know you will. I have faith in all of you.'

One of the doctors was making notes on a chart attached to Quatre's bed. They lifted his hand to adjust the pulse indicator on his finger, and his hand was limp. Heero said, 'I've always wondered why all the women I know say things like that.'

'Because we're smart. And we know what you're capable of accomplishing.'

Quietly, he answered, 'I hope I'm worthy of it.' He bent his neck, to brush her cheek with his mouth, not even cringing at the contact. She held very still for it, helpfully, and smiled at him when he straightened. He said then, 'Trowa's very upset with Wufei.'

'I know.' She wrapped her hands about his biceps and leant against him, watching with him as they began to push Quatre's bed toward swinging doors inside. 'They're both very stubborn.'

'I think this may go beyond stubborn. He wants to send Quatre back to Earth, and I think it's at least partly an excuse to send Wufei with him.'

'Maybe he's not wrong to, Heero. If they can't be in the same room together, how are they going to work together?'

'You agree with Trowa then?'

'No, I really don't. But I know how he thinks. And I know he's going to box himself in if something doesn't break. Quatre will need help. Maybe we should encourage Wufei to give it to him and work from there.' They moved Quatre through the doors, and then he was gone from their view. She sighed. 'Try not to be so hard on him, please. This has been tough on him and having Six with us has been the first true happiness I've observed in Trowa since-- well, for a long time.'

'Then I will suggest to Wufei that he should go back to Earth with Quatre. Not Trowa. It will be better coming from me.'

'It might be best,' she agreed sadly. 'Or I can talk to him.'

'I would like it if you would, because sometimes you explain things better, but the words should come from me first.' He separated gingerly from her hold. 'I'll go speak to him. Please... will you find out where they're taking Quatre for me?'

'I will, Heero. Go on.'

[part 2] [part 4] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]