Title: Reclamation
Author: Karen Hickman
Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters
Category: AU
Pairing: 1x2, 3x4, poor Wufei--alone again
Warning: Yaoi, violence, angst, language--Lemon in future parts.
Feedback: Yes, please.

Reclamation
by Karen, The Huntress

Part One:

As colonies goes Lagrange 2 was the bastard stepchild. The poorest of the five artificial environments suspended in space, it was considered my most people to be on the edge of nowhere. The residents had long ago been forgotten by their sister settlements and the Earth gave little or no thought as to their conditions. The atmosphere was shot to hell. Water, food, all the basic necessaries were in short supply. The cities were falling apart and the outer regions known as the Outlands were worse. Because of this poverty and the hopelessness it spawned the people of L2 were ripe for revolution.

Unfortunately most of the rebel groups who formed to fight for their homeland were unorganized and ill equipped. They quickly splintered into street gangs each interested in protecting their own city section. With this lack of cooperation and territorial separation the quest for freedom and a better way of life deteriorated into catastrophic devastation leaving the average person worse off than before.

Finally the upheaval and violence came to the attention of the Colony Alliance, the ruling branch of the United Colonial Government. The organization was fractured by its own infighting on how to handle the volatile situation on L2. After many debates the Senators decided the best way to put the troublesome "satellite state" back in its proper place was to send in the Tactical Forces Unit known as OZ. These elite soldiers, specially trained to restore order by any means necessary, descended on the defenseless colony with well-armed troops and mock human fighting machines called Mobile Suits.

Squads of soldiers patrolled the streets keeping the citizenry in line by forceful intimidation. Marshal law was declared, a curfew imposed and everyone put on notice that any unlawful behavior would be dealt with swiftly and without mercy.

Even under the threat of imprisonment or death there were still a few of the originally established "freedom fighters" groups that had maintained their focus and determination. They were committed to the goal that one day L2 would become an independent colony free from Earth's tyrannical oppression and the Alliance's greed and thirst for power.

One such group of about thirty individuals had escaped the city as the first wave of OZ took over. They retreated to the Outlands setting up a series of small camps called Clusters scattered among the outer border fringes. From their concealment among the countryside's tattered ruins they conducted "hit and run" raids on OZ as well as the local authorities whom they viewed as treasonous.

The leaders of the largest Cluster were two half-brothers, Chang Wufei, age eighteen and Heero Yuy, age sixteen. The brothers shared the same mother but different Asian fathers but neither man had bothered to stick around very long after the boy's birth.

Their mother had done the best she could under the abandoned circumstances working for a local businessman who treated her a little better than a slave. Wufei and Heero suspected that sexual favors were part of their mother's job description but she denied it each time they had questioned her. Still there was a certain emptiness in her eyes that told her sons that something was not right.

The boys tried to help supplement their mother's low wages but jobs were scarce. They did what they could even stealing when they had to. Anything to put food on the table and keep a roof, as poor as it was, over their heads. Despite their efforts the stressful conditions soon took their toll. Their mother turned to drinking and drugs to ease her physical and mental pain falling deeper into a substance-induced despair until she became a mere shell of herself. Last year after a short illness she died leaving behind a pair of orphaned bastard "street rats".

When a friend invited Heero and Wufei to the main Cluster's secret meeting they wasted no time in becoming involved. They both displayed natural leadership abilities and soon rose through the ranks to head up one of the most active groups. Their reputation for the tactical knowledge of street fighting and lethal raids put them at the top of the Alliance's terrorist list. The brothers were hardened soldiers in their own right, a deadly match for any troops, OZ or otherwise.

**********

Dark clouds gathered to the west. The approaching storm rolled in on whipping winds that rattled the vacant warehouse's tin roof. The building, divided into a suite of rooms, was now home to Chang, Yuy and a dozen of their most trusted comrades. Also sharing their humble abode were two boyhood friends, Quatre Winner and Trowa Barton.

Trowa and Quatre had come to love each other and decided to become a couple. Their relationship was not well received by their families. Quatre was from a wealthy, more influential family, which had been among the original settlers on L2. Winner had every advantage from better education to social status. Barton was from a modest, working-class household. Although his father earned an honest living, his salary was well below the Winner's fortune that had been amassed by questionable means.

When Quatre's father learned of his son's interest in that second-class Barton boy he strictly forbade him to see Trowa. Quatre ignored his father's demands continuing to sneak out to be with his lover until his father began to issue threats, promising that he would see to it that Trowa's family was ruined. Being of age, as Quatre and Trowa were eighteen, they put their love for each other before their families and ran away together.

They lived on the streets doing what they could to survive. Trowa felt guilty that he had taken his sheltered partner from his comfortable surroundings even going so far as to try to convince him to return home. But Quatre staunchly refused stating that his place was now with Trowa and that he had nothing to return to. When they began to hear rumors about Chang and Yuy's position as the main Cluster's leaders, Trowa and Quatre contacted their friends asking if they could join up with the rebel fighters.

At first Chang hesitated, knowing the danger that his friends would be in if they became part of the rebels. Trowa countered with the logic that it was far more dangerous on the streets. "At least we will be with friends we trust and have the protection of the Cluster." Trowa declared wanting to give Quatre a stable situation even if it was with an outlaw faction.

After serious consideration Wufei and Heero agreed to take in the homeless wanders. Although it would not be exactly like the earlier years it would be good having everyone together again, after all nothing stays the same.

Quatre had proven to be a great help using his higher degree of education to plan out precise strategic operations. Trowa employed his natural agility and daring attitude to breach the security of anything OZ put in his way. There was not a barrier that Barton could not climb over or get through and his skill on a motorcycle was second to none.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. The wind blew with greater force causing a gnarled oak's overhead branches to shiver under the stormy assault. Chang leaned his lanky frame against the tree's trunk staring into the anger clouds with a boldness borne from a hellish childhood and reinforced by his hardened approach towards life. Using his hand to shield the match's flame he lit a cigarette. Inhaling deeply he relaxed letting a steady stream of bluish smoke drift from his nostrils.

Narrowing his ebony eyes Wufei studied the fitful disturbance, "Damn." he swore watching the horizon grow darker by the minute. The wrathful weather was going to put a bombing raid planned for later that night on hold. A thin-lipped smile flickered across his lips, "Those OZ bastards will get a pardon, at least for tonight." he stated taking another long draw.

"Its going to get rough." a voice declared raising in pitch to out-shout the whistling wind. Heero stopped beside his brother pausing for his own survey of the thunderstorm.

Chang nodded, "It is just as well." he replied flicking tiny embers into the swirling gale, "After the injuries we sustained during the last foray we would be short-handed anyway. No, better to wait until we are whole again then we can do more damage." he grinned at the prospect of another fruitful sabotage.

Yuy reach around pulling the dangling cigarette from Wufei's mouth. There was only enough length left for one good inhalation. Heero wrinkled his nose as the bitter smoke burned in his throat. "How can you smoke these horrid things?" he wondered crushing the spent butt under his boot.

Chang shrugged in a noncommittal manner. "You do the best you can with what you have."

"You don't need to smoke anyway." Heero began again mounting his "get Wufei to stop smoking" campaign.

"I will put that on my things to do list." Wufei promised. Zigzag fingers of lightning clawed across the heavens. "How's Quatre?"

"He's quieted down."

"I am still not sure we made the right decision." Chang said pushing off the trunk, "Winner is not a soldier."

Heero sighed, "I know but where else did he and Trowa have to go? You know Kat wouldn't have lasted long on the streets. Besides he won't leave Trowa and as long as they are together he can't go home."

The sky flared again followed by a close crack of thunder. "He does know his stuff when it comes to figuring the best line of attack," Heero praised, "but between him fretting every time Trowa goes on a mission and those damned dreams that won't let him sleep through the night I fear for his health. Still we can't afford to leave Barton behind he is too valuable as an infiltrator."

"We ought to know by now that nothing in this conflict makes sense. All we can do it keep hacking away at OZ and hope that if we cut off enough parts that eventually the whole body will die." Chang reasoned as cold raindrops pelted the tree limbs. "Come on let's get inside."

**********

Trowa stretched out on one of six mattresses lying haphazardly about the floor. With long arms wrapped in a protective embrace he cradled his koi's back against his chest. Some twenty minutes earlier another night terror had gripped Quatre waking him with a start. Hyperventilation and cold sweat had become a routine part of Winner's restless slumber and the unsettling incidents were occurring more frequently.

The dark dreaming, it seemed, could only be kept at bay by Trowa's touch so each night he would hold his precious partner until he fell asleep. If he was lucky Quatre would sleep three or four hours before being jarred awake by elusive memories and the attending fear that plagued each night's rest.

This disjointed pattern of sleep left many marks on Winner. Dark purple circles shadowed under azure eyes that had lost most of their sparkle. He was paler and Trowa could feel every rib under his hand flattened around Quatre's slim waist. Like Chang, Trowa had become concerned for Kat's well being. Again a keen case of guilt lay heavily on his mind and heart. That's why Barton kept fight, kept chiseling away at the enemy hoping that one day he would undermine the foundation and the entire structure would crumble and fall.

A boom of thunder quivered through the building's cold concrete. The resounding echoes rattled loose windowpanes allowing the storm's chilly currents free reign. Quatre flinched under the noisy assault. "No." he whimpered drawing his knees to his chest. Trowa pushed back blond hair tangled in Kat's long eyelashes. "Shhhh." he whispered, "I'm here. Nothing will harm you." he assured tucking a thin blanket over Quatre's thin frame.

On the room's opposite side Chang flopped down on a mattress. Tugging the tie from his shoulder length ponytail he raked through the black mane being careful not to tangle his fingers in the two gold hoops that adorned his left ear. He placed his pistol beside the humble bed. His sword, the only thing his father left him, lay within arm's reach.

Heero sat on his own dingy bed draping a worn blanket around his shoulders. A single lamp illuminated the space but it provided enough light to clearly see Quatre's ashen features. *Trowa doesn't look much better.* Yuy thought observing the entwined pair adrift in that twilight between phantom dreamscapes and reality.

With a sigh Heero pulled off his high-top combat boots, slid his pistol under the mattress' edge and switched off the light. Laying down he tugged the flimsy covering tight against the invading chill. As the storm moved over there were no other sounds except the ghosts of howling wind and rumbling thunder. Intermittent lightning flashed momentarily brightening the dirty window glass then disappeared as quickly as it came.

The rebel brothers settled in for the night knowing that other members were patrolling outside. However an easy rest would elude everyone that called the Outlands home. They would remain in exile until the last remnant of oppression was dissolved. In the same way a rainstorm washes away the city's filth, the Cluster rebels would not rest until their home was cleansed by freedom.

Part Two:

Yuy rolled over waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The storm had run its course and all was still. Wispy clouds fluttered across the sky. Thin streams of moonlight pooled on the floor. Across the way he could just make out the blanket shrouded shapes of Quatre and Trowa. To his right his brother rested peacefully, golden fingers lightly touching his sword.

Heero had the distinct feeling that he had not waked up on his own. Something in his soldier's instincts told him that his sleep had been disturbed but by what was not clear. He laid quietly letting his senses convey bits of information to his puzzled mind. A steady dripping off the trees struck the tin roof. A scraping produced by rats that shared the warehouse with their human hosts told him the nocturnal rodents were on the prowl. Stretching he reminded himself that any number of noises could be responsible for his interrupted slumber.

Suddenly he froze as a heavy bump sounded in the adjoining room. Heero knew that the thud was too solid to have been made by rats. No, something larger was moving about, something foreign and possibly dangerous. Easing his pistol from its hiding place Heero cautiously got to his feet. Padding on sock-silent feet he held the gun at the ready as he narrowed the gap to the opened door.

Bracing his shoulder on the doorframe Yuy peered around the side. Now all his senses were in full force. His eyes darted taking in as much of the dusky room as they could. His ears strained to pick up any sound that might warn him of impending danger. He relaxed his fingers on the pistol's grip then curled them into a firmer hold. A deep breath calmed his caution-heightened nerves. Peeking further into the midnight gloom he took one step over the threshold.

Heero wished he had taken the time to wake Wufei as the noise became louder. There was definitely movement to his left. A shadow-veiled shape stopped in front of a window. The outline silhouetted in muted moonlight stood upright. A head atop a torso told Heero that the form was human in composition. From his vantage point, however, the outline's identity was not known. He hoped for the intruder's sake that he or she was not wearing an OZ uniform for that could be grounds for immediate termination.

The trespasser was either brave or stupid or perhaps merely ignorant of the outlaw stronghold they had decided to enter. Whatever the reason Heero was taking no chances. Slipping along the wall the rebel leader moved closer. Foot by foot he stalked with predatory grace until he could hear the person's breathing. The figure moved again this time in Heero's direction. "Good." he thought, "Come to me." he mentally willed the intruder to step within striking range.

With lightning reflexes Yuy sprang from the concealing darkness taking the prowler totally by surprise. "Don't move." he growled leveling the gun to emphasis his demands.

The form stopped short stiffening at the unexpected voice hissing from the shadows. Intermittent light danced on a high cheek bone and along a slender jaw line. The head turned slightly allowing the filtered light to glint in one eye partly covered by long bangs. The gun rose higher picking up the same luminous glow.

"Stay still and I won't fire." Heero instructed taking another calculated step.

Flickering moonbeams shone on the mysterious features but the substance of the face and form was still not known. "Show yourself." he ordered letting his stern tone reinforce the seriousness of the situation. One step closer.

Out of the murky space a hand sprung forward. A balled fist hit across Heero's wrist jarring the gun from his grasp. In the same instant the trespasser tried to race by. Heero quickly recovered from the swift strike reaching out to snag the retreating body. Letting the other's momentum carry the person to him, Yuy took a single sidestep encircling his other arm around the opposite side.

Arms flailed, fists beat against Heero's hold. A husky growl rose through a fear-constricted throat as his captive fought to get free. Heero steadied his stance using the improved leverage to keep his balance. Despite the struggle he managed to pin the beating appendages to the person's side. "Stop!" he ordered even though he doubted the entrapped figure would listen.

The answer to his stern request came in the form of teeth baring down on Yuy's forearm. The hard bite sent pain rushing up his arm and adrenaline surging to his reflexes. "SHIT!" Heero shouted in reaction to the unexpected attack. Without thinking, acting on pure instinct, he reared back a fist and sent it squarely into the biter's jaw.

Detached teeth scraped over already bleeding flesh. The punched form reeled backwards before their back hit the wall. A sudden puff of air accented the force of the collision. A moan was all that was heard as the stunned person slid down the wall more flopping than sitting on the floor.

Heero remained a few feet from his downed assailant. His exerted breathing hissed in the moon speckled gloom. Pain stung sharply along his arm. Checking the damage he found blood oozing from twin rows of perfect punctures.

The struck figure groaned raising a hand to touch the swelling that had already begun on his jaw. Heero took a deep breath to regain some composure then leaned forward bracing his hands on his knees. The muted moonlight still did not disclose the intruder's identity showing nothing but slumped shoulders and dull hair curtaining a face.

Seconds after footsteps echoed near the door the overhead light flared on. Standing in the doorframe, sword held high in a double-gripped defensive posture, Wufei stared passed his bitten brother to the defeated interloper. "What in the hell is going on?" he panted a bit winded from his own exertion. Before Heero could answer a drowsy Quatre and his more awake lover appeared behind the sword-welding warrior.

"Better yet what in the hell is that?" Trowa wondered loudly as he beheld the strange sight who flinched at the brash inquiry.

Now both brothers got their first look at the stranger who had invaded their territory. At the sudden illumination the figure drew their knees to their chest. wrapped quivering arms around the bent legs and drew up into the smallest ball possible. At least three feet of damp stringy hair formed a cape over the person's front and back pooling for several more inches on the floor. In spite of the lengthy tresses the person was obviously male.

Heero straightened taking a moment to study the newly revealed invader. The only description that came to mind was a half-drowned, malnourished scarecrow. Even from his distance observation point he could clearly see the bony frame that was partly concealed by threadbare clothing clinging like wet rags. Stepping forward Heero eased up on the huddled form. The closer Heero stepped the tighter the human ball became. The "scarecrow" tucked his head shivering as if the light had bared both body and soul to leave him naked and vulnerable.

Bracing one knee on the floor Heero carefully bent over hoping that the boy would not strike out again, but he had no need to worry. Reaching out he hooked two fingers under the dirty, ratted mane. At the slight touch the boy sucked in a fearful breath and drew up further. A raspy wheeze rattled in his heaving chest.

"I won't hurt you." Heero promised in a soft voice so he wouldn't frighten the cowering boy any more than he already was.

*You just hit him hard enough to knock him to the floor.* Heero's inner voiced chided him. *Do you think he will believe you won't hurt him?* it questioned.

Heero nodded in response to the mental conversation. "I am sorry I hit you but you surprised me." he confessed as another strong shiver coursed through the terrified youth. Nothing changed. No reply, no alteration in the spherical placement.

Pushing the hair aside Heero leaned nearer for a better view. The boy was about his age. Blotched bruises had already formed at the fist's contact point. Drops of blood seeped from the boy's nose and a cut on his lower lip. His face was gaunt but too grimy to tell the exact skin tone. One fact was clear, the emaciated youth was so frail that he made Quatre look healthy in comparison.

"I promise I won't hurt you." Heero repeated lifting the tangled hair higher.

At the sound of Yuy's coaxing voice the drooped head rose a few inches. A pair of wide orbs shimmering like pools of lavender could barely be seen through a veil of matted bangs. They searched the kneeling man's countenance studying his eyes for some sign that he was telling the truth.

Heero nodded in a positive gesture hoping to entice the boy's cooperation, "It's all right." Daring to push the contact further he let one finger gently slid down a tacky cheek stopping on the bluish bruise. The skin was so cold to the touch that Heero's experienced an involuntary shiver of his own.

The unusual eyes remained fixed in their studying stare. Despite the youth's disheveled appearance and the unpleasant odor wafting from his tattered clothes there was something hauntingly beautiful about the boy. "Come on let me help you up."

A hard shaking of his head told Heero that the line had been drawn. The boy was not going to open himself up to the slightest possibility of being battered again. Shoulders drew inward, still the captivating eyes stayed centered. Heero's hand dropped away, he didn't want to force the issue.

Quatre had quietly observed the unfolding events doing some studying of his own. Now his compassion urged him to help the frightened lad. He started forward never taking his eyes from the heart-wrenching scene. Trowa placed a hand on his partner's arm. "No stay here."

"I can not." Kat whispered slipping free, "I can help him. Besides," he said cutting his eyes from Heero back to Wufei and his sword, "I believe I am the least threatening of the lot." he concluded completely correct in his statement. Trowa let him go knowing he would be but a few feet from his lover should he need him.

Silently Quatre joined Heero sitting down cross-legged beside the shivering male. Tears welled up behind his blond-lashed eyelids but Kat ignored the gathering moisture. "I know you are hurt and frightened," he acknowledged the boy's distress, "but you have to trust us." he stated hoping logic would overcome the uncertainty. "You are sick." he continued stating the boy's unmistakable condition.

The lavender eyes shifted to the second individual. Another study, another search into expressive azure eyes that held not a hint of malice. The damp head lifted a little higher. Bluish lips quivered spurred on by the clammy clothing and the room's chill. By now the shivering had almost become uncontrollable.

"Will you let us help you?" Quatre begged tucking a length of hair behind the youth's ear. Now the "visitor's" full features were disclosed. The weak eyes that seemed too large for his face. The filthy film staining what was once delicate skin. Dark circles so much like Winner's. Quatre ran his hand under the boy's matted bangs resting it lightly on his forehead. Even though his cheeks were cold, his head was much too warm to the touch. The boy was clearly lost, alone and on the verge of passing out.

Realizing that he could do nothing to help himself, the invited trespasser decided that, even if he was later abused by the quartet, at that moment he had no other choice but to stay. He also knew that returning to the rain-soaked night could very well be a death sentence. Affirmatively he shook his head slumping heavily against the wall.

Quatre smiled as relief surged over him, "Heero get a blanket." he requested rubbing the trembling youth's shoulder.

**********

Soon a blanket was wrapped snuggly around the Cluster's "guest". It would be better if the damp clothes were removed but that was not a viable option. The youth would barely let Winner touch him much less consent to be stripped down. The worse of the trembling had subsided but he was far from any degree of recovery. There was no question that it would be quite awhile before he was back to normal.

Trowa had been dispatched to find some food as there was no doubt that the boy hadn't eaten in a long time. A crude sandwich, lukewarm soup and warmer beer were set on the floor but he made no attempt to eat. The meal was coveted with hungry desire but fear was still stronger than his empty stomach's influence.

Heero stood with Wufei and Trowa by the door. Quatre squatted in front of the reluctant youth earnestly trying to persuade him to eat. Finally Kat joined his comrades. "Let us leave him alone." he suggested wanting to give the haggard boy more breathing room. "He needs his privacy."

**********

The rebels sat on assorted mattresses having a serious discussion concerning the new arrival. "What are we suppose to do with him?" Wufei asked, "We barely have enough to take care of the Cluster and now you want to include another mouth to feed." he spoke as frankly as he always did.

Trowa agreed, "You know the rules no one joins the Cluster unless they can improve it in some way. I sorry Kat but we can't allow freeloaders."

Quatre crossed his arms over his chest letting his body language show that he would not be dissuaded, "You will not have to worry about taking from the others, I will share my portion." he stated with firm resolve.

Trowa shook his head, "You know you can't do that, you're already too thin. No I won't hear of that."

"Then what to do propose to do?" Quatre snapped back with an uncharacteristic hardness, "We can not turn him out. You know he would not live long if we did. If I remember correctly," he addressed Wufei and Heero, "you did not know if Trowa and I could contribute to the Cluster when you took us in."

*Yeah that's Quatre, always the logical one.* Heero thought to himself.

"That was different." Chang made the counter-argument.

"How so?"

"You are our friends."

"Well that sick boy is now my friend." Kat announced locking his narrowed sight on the rebel trio.

Wufei snorted puffing a hard breath up through loose hair hanging over his face, "I give up." he conceded to the stubborn blond who didn't bother to hide his pleasure at the Chinese rebel's defeat. Chang's face immediately took on a tinge of red at the boastful display.

Heero raised a hand before his often hot-headed brother could attack the very pleased Quatre, "We will work something out. We'll just have to relieve OZ of a few more possessions. After all, everything is the property of L2 and we are the colony's deserving citizens."

Trowa stretched pulling his koi against his chest. "Can we figure out the particulars in the morning?" he requested, "Which won't be long coming." he added watching the moon through the window as it slipped steadily toward the horizon.

"We need to bring the boy in here." Quatre declared, "He does not need to sleep on the cold floor and I want him where I can check his breathing."

"You think he will cooperate?" Heero asked touching the raised bite marks decorating his arm.

"He will have to." Quatre declared.

Winner, his friends serving as backup, quietly peered through the door. Every morsel of food was gone. The boy had laid down and curled up into his comforting tight ball so only the top of his head could be seen under the blanket.

Heero slid his arms under the sleeping figure fully prepared to have the boy wake with a start and begin to gnaw again. But illness-induced weakness and too long exposure to the unfriendly elements had forced him into a deep slumber. The stranger in the rebel's midst was placed on a mattress next to the one Kat and Trowa shared. Quatre satisfied himself that his new assignment was securely covered and that his raspy breathing had not become worse.

Finally the outlaws settled into their own much needed rest. Quatre snuggled against his lover watching the boy's chest rise and fall in surprisingly peaceful sleep. "Do you think he will stay?" he whispered giving Trowa a goodnight kiss.

"I don't know. That will be his decision."

"I hope he does, he needs someone." Quatre sighed closing his eyes in answer to the sandman's calling.

Part Three:

Pale pink painted the morning. Dawn drifted in quietly, the night patrol had been relieved and the rebel compound was gearing up for another day of "Let's piss off OZ".

Quatre stirred beside Trowa rearranging his position on the lumpy mattress. For a brief moment the thought that the rescued boy had snuck out flickered through his mind. An anxious glance confirmed that the mysterious intruder was still in place. Kat pushed up on his elbows for a better look. His taller lover sighed, shifted a bit then settled down again. Carefully Quatre slipped out sitting cross-legged, resting his rear end on the mattress's edge and his ankles on the floor.

The boy laid facing Winner. His lengthy hair tangled about his shoulders and snarled up with the blanket. One grimy hand was tucked under his chin. A dark puffy bruise, proof of the power of Heero's punch, ran along his jaw. There was also some swelling on his lower lip. Under his bluish eyelids his eyes moved rapidly. Judging by the twisted grimace on the boy's filth-streaked face Quatre guessed that he was dreaming and that the night visions were not pleasant.

The boy held his breath as the tension grew worse then his entire body jumped recoiling from whatever lurked in his subconscious. A scowl creased his features. His lips parted allowing a mournful groan to escape. A harder flinch almost rolled him off his crude pallet. Quatre laid a hand on the quaking boy's arm rubbing lightly. "It is all right." he whispered hoping that either the touch or the words would penetrate the nightmare's solid grip.

**********

Bright scarlet swirled in a sucking vortex dragging a thrashing figure into a bottomless abyss. A mouth gaps wide but no sound can be heard above the funneling liquid's roar. Hands grope, grappling into the murky tide for anything to catch onto, any handhold to liberate the drowning form. Lungs burn for a single breath. A heart pumps hard against the labored breathing until it feels as though it will burst apart. Deeper. Water not breath fills the lungs. A glassy film covers over pleading eyes growing dimmer by the second. Blackness, a smothering void then nothing but absolute silence.

The figure gazes with a sightless stare as his body bobs in the whirlpool's current. Caught between the top and bottom it floats submerged in a bloody fluid shroud. Limp arms and legs wave with the ebb and flow. A sense of utter aloneness, a complete disconnection is the only sensation. Mind numb, body bloated, abandoned to the watery elements never to be reclaimed.

Then a tingle touches his mind--a faint voice's distant calling. His name, it is calling his name. But the water and silt clogs his mouth, strangles in his throat. "Please find me!" his mind screams as the voice fades further into the foggy emptiness. "Oh merciful saints please save me." he begs as his lifeless body sinks to the bottom. All is lost, all is forsaken.

**********

Quatre leaned closer as a garbled mixture of breath and sounds hissed from the boy's slack mouth. Again he held his breath but this time it appeared that the arrested inhalations might become a permanent condition. His lips took on a blue hue, his face became chalky. The fact he was not breathing suddenly struck Winner like a bolt of lightning. "OH NO!" Quatre exclaimed loudly as shock spurred him to action.

Trowa woke abruptly rattled by Kat's noisy exclamation. His adjusting eyesight found Quatre kneeling beside the boy's lax form. He had grabbed up the youth and was shaking him like a large dog would an old rag. "Quatre what in the hell are you doing?" Barton yelled quickly moving to join his panicked lover.

"He stopped breathing." came the fretful reply. "Come on." Quatre continued to shake. "Trowa do something." he demanded with fright-enhanced tension putting a sharp edge on his normally even voice.

Trowa crawled around taking a second to study the boy. He was pale and there was an ashen cast to his features. He was obviously in trouble. "Kat move away." he ordered gently but firmly pushing his lover aside.

Barton straightened the boy's neck, pinched his nose shut and covered his parted lips with his mouth. A steady breath was delivered. The lad's chest responded to the rushing air rising like an inflated balloon. Trowa leaned back watching as the forced air was expelled. Nothing changed. He repeated the process daring to add more pressure. This time when he leaned back a raspy wheeze caught in the boy's lungs. A heaving hesitation rattled through his chest but he did begin to breathe.

At the sudden revival arms flung out batting at some invisible obstruction. Fingers clawed into the thin air barely missing Quatre's head. Trowa intercepted the waving hands pinning them to the boy's chest. Quatre gathered up handfuls of stringy hair that was becoming tangle about his neck. The boy's eyes popped opened. Pure terror shone in their enlarged pupils showing that whatever he had experienced in his dream state had followed him into the waking realm.

"Calm down." Kat urged moping back sweat-soaked bangs from his wild eyes. The agitated boy gulped in air like he was breathing through syrup. He struggled under Trowa's hold. "Easy." Kat encouraged the boy to calm down before the exertion put him at greater risk.

Gradually his breathing evened out. With less strain on his system the shaking subsided to small tremors. His color improved. "You had a bad dream." Quatre stated stroking the damp bangs in a reassuring rhythm.

Meanwhile both Heero and Wufei had also been rudely aroused from their slumber. Wufei sat up taking in the scene simply shaking his head as he watched Barton and Winner wrestle with the feral youth. "Just what we need another damn stray," he thought to himself, "and a wild one at that."

Heero, too, sat for a moment watching his friends fight to control the frightened boy. But he didn't view the thrashing figure as a pesky problem; rather he felt a certain empathy. In their own way each of the rebels were as insecure, all on the verge of crumbling under the strain of living with an uncertain tomorrow. Each day was a struggle to survive; each moment could be their last. The sands of time were steadily slipping through the hourglass of life and if OZ or the Alliance had their way the grainy seconds of existence would be flushed away with violent retribution.

But at least they had the Cluster, they had each other. One member would not fall without the other's intervention even if death was visited on every person. United they created a formidable force. Together they had a chance to free L2 but this lone vulnerable boy had no support, no safe port in the storm.

Heero was not surprised at the young man's reaction, his mistrust. He could only imagine what turbulent circumstances had shaped him. He had clearly been beaten before and Yuy hitting him had not helped. For that fact Heero felt a very real sense of guilt.

Oddly though there was an underlying strength despite the weakness and fear. The boy had not lost all his determination. Every bit of intestinal fortitude had not been defeated. This quite apparent resilient courage challenged Heero's best efforts not to become involved. There was definitely more to the lad than the surface coating of dirt and far more to his soul. There was an alluring quality about the young man that not only peaked Yuy's interest but tugged at his heart as well.

As he watched the pale youth give out from the strain and succumb to the resulting frailty Heero was pressed to do all he could to make things right again. But could he risk his own wounded emotions for the young man's sake? With a worn sigh he made his way to Quatre, Trowa and the newest Cluster member. Slowly he knelt beside the still trembling youth. Quatre looked up into Yuy's normally steely blue eyes and found that a hint of softness had lessened the chill.

"What happened?" Heero wondered knowing something of a most disturbing nature had triggered the outburst.

"He was dreaming and then stopping breathing." Kat explained.

At the sound of Yuy's voice the boy flinched locking his terror-widened eyes on the Japanese male. Memories of the night before and the solid punch that put him on the floor sent a renewed bout of quivering coursing through his fragile frame.

Increased pangs of guilt stabbed through Heero's gut. "It's all right I promised last night I wouldn't hurt you. Remember?" The boy drew up as if he believed that if he stayed quiet he would be spared further pain.

Heero took the chance that he would not send the boy into another fit of fright reaching down to lightly touch his damp forehead. "I know you don't trust me." he stated knowing that he had not given the boy any reason to. "Please give me a chance to prove myself."

Quatre nodded his encouragement. Large lavender eyes studied Yuy's face. The swollen bottom lip moved as if the boy wanted to say something then went still once more. "You have been through a lot." Quatre confirmed that he understood, "It will take some time for us to get use to each other but you are safe here and that is all that matters for now."

Heero's eyes narrowed as he concentrated on a strategic plan to win the boy's trust. "First of all let's get you some breakfast." he announced knowing that last night's poor rations had not been nearly sufficient. "Then I think a bath and change of clothes are in order. I'll sit with you while Quatre and Trowa fixes something to eat. Do you mind?" he asked Kat again displaying a remarkable thaw in his usually stoic demeanor.

Quatre let one of his sweetest smiles caress his angelic face. "Of course we don't mind. Breakfast might not be fancy but it will be filling." he promised taking Trowa by the hand.

Chang watched the unfolding events with curiosity combined with a stout measure of concern. He still had his doubts about the sanity of keeping the wild intruder but Quatre had taken him under his wing and no one messed with Winner's nesting instincts. "Besides," he reasoned, "this will give Kat something to keep his mind occupied. Maybe he will be worn out enough to sleep."

The most surprising aspect of the entire scene, however, was his brother's reaction. Even though Wufei came across as the no-nonsense rebel leader he had managed to maintain an optimistic attitude. One day he hoped he and Heero could have something that approached a normal life, at least as normal as it could be on L2. But Heero had long ago given up the idea that things would change for the better. He stubbornly held onto the belief that his only true liberation would come in death.

It was not that Yuy had a death wish but, in his opinion, a more realistic view of life. This hardened attitude had manifested itself in a coldness, an icy barrier, that had been erected to guard his heart and not even Heero's strong kinship with his last remaining relative would dissuade his beliefs.

Wufei shook his head. Could it be possible that this feral youth that had literally stumbled into the outlaw faction be the one influence that could change his brother's feelings? In the same way that the boy might give Quatre a focus in his day to day activities could he also give Heero a reason to view life as more than a daily drudgery? "This could prove to be interesting." Chang thought pulling on his boots.

As he secured his hair into a long ponytail the Chinese rebel couldn't help the small glimmer of hope that the interaction between his fatalist brother and the stranger that had turned everyone's world upside down would evoke a change. "Yes things will definitely be interesting."

**********

Breakfast would be hardier than the pervious night's pitiful fare. The day before two females had managed to "charm" a shopkeeper into giving them fresh eggs. Another group had used the "five finger discount" to procure apples and several cans of orange juice. On one glowing coil of a twin burner stove Quatre scrambled eggs. On the other a pot of coffee bubbled. Before long the scent of the cooking delights drifted into the makeshift bedroom.

Heero had helped the now calmer boy to sit up. A blanket wrapped around slender shoulders warded off the early morning chill. Heero engaged in uncharacteristic light chatter. Yet another strange effect the oddly fascinating young man had on the normally quiet dissenter.

The fact that throughout the series of encounters the boy had not uttered a word did not escape Heero's notice. He knew he could make noises. The groaning after he was hit, the moans in the throes of his dark dreaming, all confirmed that the boy was not totally mute. Silence, it seemed, was as much of a protective barrier as Yuy's icy emotional wall. Heero also knew that no amount of prodding would breach the self-imposed barricade.

Wufei had tried for almost a year to break down his brother's wall but the more he pressed the more solid it became. No, the only one who could open a door was the person who closed it. Right then, though, the young man's silence was not the most important concern. His shabby condition, his gaunt frame and his mistrust of everyone...those were enough walls to overcome. When he decided the time was right to speak he would and not before. Physical recovery was the first priority, mental and emotional wellness, that was another challenge altogether.

Quatre happily set a down a plate of steaming eggs, a cup of juice and a cup of coffee before his new found fledging. "There is sugar but no milk." he stated. "If you want more food let me know we have plenty." he said stretching the truth as to the abundance of the rebel's pantry.

The boy's expressive sight offered a humble "thank you" as he looked from the kind blond to the Japanese male that didn't seem to be as much of a threat as before. "Eat." Heero urged, "With the chill in here the food will cool off quickly." He wished he had gotten the boy to wash up. One could only guess what germs were breeding in the grimy film calling the boy's hands home.

Cautiously the young man picked up the plate and a fork. Holding the eggs level with his mouth he more shoveled the food than used the provided utensil in the proper manner. "Slow down no one is going to take it away from you." Heero smiled trying his best to put the boy at ease. The shoveling did slow down as the boy took time to chew. The juice was downed in one long gulp. Then he made short work of the remaining eggs. "Want more?"

The mane of ratted hair switched over his shoulder as hunger reflexes triggered the boy to nod for more. Heero left the coffee returning to the "kitchen" for anything that was left. The eggs were gone but another glass of juice and two apples were gratefully accepted.

As the boy finished the last apple Wufei strode in. His sword dangled loosely from his fingers as he took in the ravenous youth's satisfied countenance. The sword's tip scraped on the floor as Wufei relaxed. The sharp sound cause the boy to jump and nearly choke on the last bite. Heero patted his back until the coughing stopped. "You are going to have to get over being so jumpy." he announced as the boy wiped his tearing eyes.

Wufei motioned to his brother indicating that he wanted a private conversation. "I don't want to sound harsh but that boy NEEDS a bath." he whispered wrinkling his nose at the unpleasant smell wafting from the lad's general direction.

"We have all smelled at one time or the other." Heero came to the stranger's defense.

"True but I don't think anyone had been quite as ripe." Wufei countered.

Heero glanced over at the boy who was taking in the exchange with keen interest. "That is the next order of business. But if we are going to use the water we might as well go all the way and wash his hair." he declared looking at the stringy strands hanging about the boy's body. "And there is no way I can wash that mess until I pick through the rat's nests." he concluded with a sigh, as the amount of work involved in the combing out process was very apparent.

Wufei rested his hand on his brother's shoulder, "Good luck." he smiled, "And Heero," he called as he turned to leave, "Watch out I think his bite IS worse than his bark."

Heero, not as amused as Wufei thought he should be, flipped his brother the bird, "I can handle a little biting." he announced glancing back at the boy who despite his poor condition did seem to have good teeth.

"This ought to be fun." he sighed under his breath kneeling before the wide-eyed boy. "I am going to comb out your hair and then you are getting a bath." he said sternly leaving no room for argument.

At the last declaration the lad's lavender eyes widen even more if that was possible but he shook his head affirmatively. Gathering his hair he guided the lengthy locks over his shoulders letting the mane cascaded down his back. Heero had no doubt that combed out and clean the boy's tresses would be beautiful but getting to the goal was going to take some time.

Fetching a comb from his personal belongings Heero sat on the mattress while the cooperative boy sat with his back towards him. "No need to rush and no need to hurt." he reminded himself as he began the time-consuming procedure. When bath time came he would see if the boy would be as cooperative.

Part Four:

Thirty minutes later: Heero reached the halfway point in his hair detangling assignment. He congratulated himself on the short time frame considering that there was not a single stand that was not snarled, tangled and knotted beyond belief. He also wondered more than once why the boy kept it so long since he had no means of properly maintaining the length. But he didn't question the young man's reasons or if he would allow the mane to be trimmed. Somehow Heero was sure that just the mention of a haircut would send the boy into another panic.

Throughout the ordeal the boy remained silence. Occasionally he would wince when Heero hit a particularly tough snag but no words of complaint were forthcoming. Quatre made an appearance to check on his friend's progress and bring two bottles of beer. Water was a precious commodity but beer was always in good supply. The fermented brew was imported from L1 where the water filtration systems were still operational. Of course beer was not cheap but the rebels had discovered some time ago that stealing made everything free.

Finally the persistence rebel began to reach the end of his task. The hair was thinner at the bottom, less entwined. He paused stretching his back and was rewarded with a soft pop as the kinks unraveled. The boy, too, used the break to do some flexing of his own but halfway though the spinal realignment he drew in a halting breath as something in his shoulders caught. Heero slid his hands over the junction between the knotted muscles and the youth's neck gently kneading out the tension.

A barely audible sigh flowed as the boy relaxed under the masterful stokes. Gradually he leaned back until his back rested against Yuy's chest. Heero had been so absorbed in the massaging that he didn't notice the closeness until the boy let out a second contented sigh. At the light feathering of breath Heero froze. The warmth of two bodies so close together caught him totally off guard. The boy must have also sensed the shared space. His previously lax posture stiffened then he quickly straightened up. Believing he had overstepped his bounds his head bowed in an apologetic fashion.

"Let me finish the...combing," Heero muttered taking a moment to regroup his stunned senses, "so you can get...cleaned up." he fumbled over the words as an unaccustomed quiver sounded in his voice. The boy nodded lifting his head. Fifteen minutes more and the job was done.

**********

The bathroom was a large room divided into three parts. One section held the toilets. They worked, sometimes, depending on the amount of gravity-fed water collected in the underground pressure tank. The rebels had discovered that the surrounding forest was just as suited to relieving "nature's callings" as the cranky plumbing. A set of sinks, also dependent on the unreliable water flow, occupied the second section. The third was a smaller room containing a scratched, discolored bathtub and a wood-burning stove.

A formal bath was a luxury. First the water, when there was enough, had to be turned on at least twenty minutes ahead. While the tub was filling the stove was loaded, lit and a pot of water put on to heat. Right before one was ready to bathe the hot water was mixed with the cold. Again the rebels found that a nearby stream they dammed up to form a pond was less hassle and a wonderful place for skinny-dipping.

Winner decided given the new arrival's overly soiled condition that a formal bath was not frivolous but necessary. He started the water and set a pot on the stove to heat. Towels also plundered on one of the outlaw's forging trips were laid out. Figuring that the boy was about his size, Kat picked out a change of clothing from his meager wardrobe. He stood back proudly surveying a bath that was as good as any he ever had at home.

"Your bath is ready." he informed the young man who displayed an uncertain look at the announcement. "Do you want Heero or me to help you?"

The quiet lad locked his sight on Heero remembering how good it felt when they shared their brief moment of closeness. "All right." Heero conceded.

Kat was mixing the water when Yuy, with the reluctant youth in tow, stepped inside the small space. The wood stove had not only heated the water but the air as well making for a toasty atmosphere. "There is plenty of soap but go easy on the shampoo." Kat informed realizing that maybe by a miraculous twist of fate the shampoo might last.

Shutting the door for privacy Quatre left the tentative pair alone. The boy stood in silence turning his head to take in the scene. Heero sighed hoping that the bath would not take as long as the combing. "You need to get undressed." he instructed noticing the boy's preoccupation.

The boy drew up a little when Heero began to undo his shirt. Heero tilted in a his head in a slightly coy fashion letting a grin flickering over his lips. The boy returned the slight smile seeming to be put more at ease as the shirt was removed.

Grubby skin stretched over a gaunt skeletal frame best described the unveiled body. Heero sucked in a startled breath when he saw the large amount of old scaring on the boy's torso. Once more the lad lowered his head in shame at Yuy's reaction. "It's all right I have scars, too." Heero declared, "Do you want to see mine?"

The young man slowly raised his head letting his eyes rest on Yuy's chest as he unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it off his shoulders to reveal three long scars running diagonally from his right shoulder almost to his waist. A thicker rounded scar was on his upper arm. "I got these in a knife fight." he indicated pointing at the triple lines. "And this one was when I was shot." he continued the tour.

The boy tilted his head using his sight to track the scar's path across Heero's toned chest. Timidly he lifted a finger then left it to hover above the middle line. "Go on." Heero invited the curious lad to continue. The finger's tip lightly traced along the whitish line. It was all Heero could do to keep from shivering as the gliding touch set him on fire. A tingle rippled along leaving behind a lingering hint of heat. The sensuous investigation mercifully ended but not before the hot fingertip brushed over Heero's navel.

Then the inquisitive explorer caught sight of the twin set of swollen bite marks on Yuy's arm. Heero followed his line of sight twisting his arm to examine the teeth prints. "Nice job." he proclaimed not wanting the boy to feel badly for defending himself. "A few more scars won't be noticed," he joked, "just gives me more character."

Again the slightest pressure was applied to the duel rows before the boy removed his finger gazing up at Heero to search his expression for any sign of annoyance or anger. He found only unusually soft eyes and a warm smile.

That was a kindness in the boy's delicate touch, a childlike innocence that Heero found refreshing but also surprising. The boy's physical scars told a tale of abuse, his silence spoke volumes to explain his guarded emotional state. It was clear that the young man needed a safe haven, someone he could trust but had there been too much negative reinforcement to overcome his fear? Heero had to tread carefully if he had any hope of gaining the boy's confidence but could he let down his own emotional barriers and risk laying bare his heart?

"You need to get in the tub before the water cools off." Heero instructed forcing his scattered senses to refocus. "Let me help you finish undressing."

Scuffed boots and threadbare socks were removed. Increased hesitation was displayed as hid stiff, grubby trousers slid down thin legs and were pulled free. With each step of the disrobing Heero spoke encouraging words allowing the boy to set the pace. Now naked except for equally dirty boxers the youth's mounting uneasiness showed itself in a quivering vacillation.

Sensing the boy's nervousness Heero offered a solution, "I will turn around until you finish stripping off and get into the tub." he promised pivoting to face the wall. Gathering up the nasty clothes that were destined to be discarded Heero kept busy while he waited.

A splashing sound gave Yuy permission to turn back around. The boy sat huddled in water a little higher than his waist. Knees drawn to his chest modestly hid his private regions. Heero knelt on the flood, dipped a washcloth and began to soap it up. "Pull your hair over your shoulder so I can wash your back." No resistance was forthcoming as Heero worked up a good lather. He stated in small circles increasing the outer perimeter.

Layers of grim slid off leaving in its wake creamy skin. There was another hidden treasure uncovered, one that made Yuy take immediate notice. A dragon tattoo graced the boy's left shoulder blade placed so that it rippled with the muscle's movement. *I didn't take him for the tattoo type.* Heero thought to himself then decided that it was the boy's business so he made no mention of it.

It didn't take long for the water to go from clear to tainted. A combination of dirt, oil and soap soon clouded the bath. Heero handed the boy the washcloth, "You scrub down, I'm going to put some more water on to heat so we can wash your hair."

The old water was drained out. The second drawing was slower but there was enough to put about ten inches in the tub. Heero carefully added the heated water raising the level a few inches further. "This is going to be a job." he announced using a cup to wet the youth's abundant locks.

Alternating between shampooing up and rinsing out it took at least fifteen minutes to get the last of the suds out but the time was well worth the effort. A chestnut colored mane with a blaze of red highlights was his hair-washing reward. Heero also discovered that the boy's skin tone was about two shades lighter minus the grimy coating. "You clear up nice." Heero commented handing over a towel. "I'll wait outside while you dry off and dress." he stated wanting to give the bathed boy privacy. "There is a comb with the clothes. Take all the time you need."

Large pupils shining with an inner glow that expressed the boy's gratitude locked on the Japanese man. "You are welcomed." Heero answered the silence thank you. "I know you don't know want to talk but could you at least tell me your name?" he requested, "I would like to refer to you as something other than "the boy"." Once more only visual communication was employed. "You will tell me when you're ready."

**********

Like a creature reborn the boy emerged from the bathroom cocoon. Dressed in clean clothes and hair sparkling in the midmorning sun he was indeed a stunning transformation. Contentment brightened his face. His eye's ever-present inner glow shone with an effervescent intensity that put the stars to shame. Heero couldn't help but stare at the metamorphosis from ragamuffin to magnificent and his heart couldn't help being captivated.

"Now that your hair is clean and combed," Heero stated admiring the shiny strands, "something needs to be done to keep it that way and I have the solution." he announced reaching into this pocket. "Turn around."

With expert efficiency Heero divided the long locks into three sections then braided the divisions into a thick chestnut rope tying off the end with a black cord. He stood back taking a moment to study his workmanship. "Yes that will do the trick." he announced not bothering to hide the pleasure of his achievement.

The boy reached around tugging the braid over his shoulder. A grin graced his lips as he admired the Japanese man's handiwork. Twirling the tip in his fingers, the grin blossomed into a smile that was the best compensation Heero could have received. "I used to braid my mother's hair." Heero explained running his hand over the long braid. A faraway gaze as the remembrance stirred secret memories moved briefly across Heero's eyes. "Your hair is just as beautiful and so are you."

At the unexpected praise the young man blushed, the flush adding a healthier tint to his pale skin. He lowered his head directing his sight at the ground and away from the male's attention. Heero stepped up slipping his thumb under the embarrassed boy's chin. "Don't be uncomfortable, you deserve the notice." he proclaimed lifting the blushed face in line with his. A pang of guilt stabbed at Heero's heart as the rearranging showed the bluish bruise along the boy's jaw line.

The boy lifted his hand running trembling fingers along Yuy's golden cheekbone. Wide lavender eyes held a soft appearance as they studied the young Cluster leader. Suddenly tears pooled behind his long eyelashes. Squeezing his eyes shut the salty moisture trailed over the edges tracking down his creamy face.

"Hey now don't do that." Heero whispered using a single finger to wiped away the tears. "I am sorry I didn't mean to make you cry." he apologized amazed at his remorse because Heero Yuy never apologized to anyone for anything.

Shaking his head the boy tried to make Heero understand that he had no reason to feel bad. Tears of joy not sorry were being shed. At that moment the lone stray, while not completely at ease with his new surroundings, knew that he had found a sanctuary. He was a long way from total trust but his street-smart instincts told him that when he did lie down that night he could rest easy without fear of assault. There were obvious dangers as both OZ and the Alliance hunted the rebels but the fugitive situation it was still far safer than the streets.

Heero read the body language, understood the appreciative boy's meaning. He could sense the relief, the security of belonging. But with the boy's reclaiming came an awesome responsibility. Heero and the entire Cluster was being charged with the care of a lost soul and they could not fail for Heero knew that any betrayal would be the end of the young man. The lonely lad had been through too much, was too emotional scarred to survive another unfaithful act.

"I understand." Heero answered the soundless animated response. "You are worn out," he stated fully aware of the dark circles that shadowed under the boy's eyes and his sagging posture. "I am going to get you some more to eat and then you are going back to bed."

The boy wiped back several lingering tears and allowed a smile to replace the weeping. Instead of following the rebel leader he fell in step beside his guardian. The Japanese man had accepted him but would the Cluster welcome him? In the same way that the boy demanded the outlaw's trust he, too, had to earn the group's confidence. *One day I will be a Cluster member.* he thought setting the goal that could prove to be his salvation.

Part Five:

Once again storm clouds loomed in high banks to the east. Like everything else on the forsaken colony the Weather Control Systems were always breaking down. It was not unusual for the climate to go from chilly to hot and back again in a matter of hours. Rain showers sprang up without warning, lasted long enough to make everyone miserable then dissipated before dropping sufficient moisture to improve the water tables.

Wufei sat under a tree at the warehouse's corner watching the storm's approach. A thin wisp of smoke curled from a cigarette. He was trying, for his brother's sake, to stop smoking. Cutting back was a good start but the quitting had been an uphill battle. "You can beat the hell out of anyone you choose to oppose," he chided himself staring down at the nasty habit in his hand, "yet you let a simple cigarette get the better of you."

Voices brought Chang back from his self-debate. Heero and the "wild boy" as he had nicknamed him were returning from the bath area. He had to admit that in his clean state the young man was not as primitive looking, in fact he could now pass for normal. However in the boy's case "normal" was a relative term.

It was good to see Heero engaged in simple conversation, to have him so much at ease as they hurried ahead of the storm. On the one hand Wufei did wish that his brother would open up a bit. A friend, a confidant, would do him a world of good but an outsider was not what Wufei had in mind. Chang was not about to let his guard down. His doubts over the boy becoming a permanent resident had not been allayed and he certainly did not like his affect on Heero. This young man was unstable and the situation was ripe for Heero to get hurt.

His eyes narrowed, he straightened sharply as the pair walked passed, "What in the hell?" he muttered under his breath. Wufei could now see the boy's back, see the braid slipping along his spine. His instincts told him that the intruder had not braided his hair leaving only one person responsible. "Is Heero...crazy?" came the next sputtered question.

Memories of Heero's grief after their mother's death came flooding back. His younger brother had been torn apart by the loss. He had blamed himself for not being able to save her. He had cried, become despondent, even talked of ending his life so he could join her. It had taken many months before Wufei was comfortable leaving Heero alone and many more before Yuy had settled into a shaky acceptance.

"No! This has to stop now!" Chang growled, "I will not allow Heero to risk his sanity over his need to rescue this stray. He can not transfer his loneliness, his separation anxiety to this stranger. Heero...you and I are going to have a serious talk." Wufei promised stomping out the cigarette.

**********

His stomach full, the young man had been snuggled under two thin blankets and tucked in for an afternoon nap. Although his weak condition had been improved by food, the strain of the entire cleansing process had used up the last of his reserves. Heero swore when Quatre inquired of the boy's state of health that he had fallen asleep before his head hit the pillow. Now he slept soundly by the wall. "I hope that awful dream does not come back" Winner wished watching the lad's apparent peaceful slumber.

Yuy nodded in agreement studying how the sunlight washed over the boy's alabaster skin. He considered every inch of perfection, the way reddish highlights sparkled in the hair feathering about his face. Lying there curled into a fetal ball the young man seemed so exposed that suddenly Heero felt the overwhelming need to protect this boy who, in his own way, was as insecure as Heero.

Wise for his years, Quatre caught the subtle smile that quivered on Yuy's mouth. He covertly observed the contentment playing across Heero's normally hardened sight that seemed to be yielding in its stoic attitude. But Kat, too, was concerned that Heero might be tempted to lay bare his heart. He also knew that if Heero's heart was broken again it could never be repaired.

Kat was about to suggest that they shut the door and leave the lad to his rest when Wufei walked into the room. He took a long moment to do some studying of his own. Piercing black eyes stared at the sleeping newcomer. Short puffs punched through his chest as he struggled to keep calm. Chang knew his brother and his stubborn ways. If Heero believed he was right and someone challenged his beliefs, he would dig in his heels and no force on earth would move him. Wufei's words would have to be chosen carefully or he would achieve the opposite of his intensions and drive his brother straight into the stranger's arms.

"We need to talk." he announced moving into the adjoining room.

"Do you want me to leave?" Quatre asked aware of the stormy cast in Wufei's eyes.

"No you might be needed." Chang gave the odd reply.

The door closed. Wufei sat down at a small table. Winner took a seat on the other side. Heero remained standing sensing that before the discussion was over he would probably become agitated because his brother had that "tone" in his voice.

"Now what?" Heero snorted using some "tone" of his own.

Wufei cut his eyes at Kat taking in a steadying breath. "We need to talk about the boy." he stated seeing no need to mince words.

Heero titled his head sideways. First Wufei's tone, now his body language, all conveyed a certain displeasure and Yuy didn't like the implications. "What about him?" he asked determined not to make the exchange easy for his older brother.

Again Wufei decided that the direct approach was the best route. "I don't think you should become too involved." he spoke frankly, "In a few days he will probably leave. People like that don't stay in one place too long." he added hoping that Heero would follow his line of thought.

"People like that," Heero repeated, "and what sort of person is "like that"?"

Wanting to avoid a confrontational situation Wufei leaned forward resting his elbows on the table. "Heero you know the boy is a wanderer." he said softening his tone, "Hell, he broke in here and would have snuck out with what he could steal if you hadn't caught him."

"We steal all the time." Heero reminded his elder sibling, "At least he wasn't trying to kill someone in their sleep."

"I know," Wufei agreed, "but that is not the point. I don't want to see you put an emotional investment in this boy only to have him betray your trust. No, better to let him go before you get hurt."

"Are YOU going to make him leave?" Heero hissed putting his brother on notice that they shared the Cluster's leadership and that the decision was not his alone to make.

Chang sighed settling back in his seat. The mounting tension was the last thing he wanted. He didn't want to argue with Heero but he also could not keep silent when he feared for his brother's well being. Heero's attachment had come on so suddenly. It had been less than twenty-four hours since the rebels had stared down at the wet and rather smelly figure huddled against the wall. Only a short time since the stranger had gone from trespasser to invited guest. And Kat wasn't helping matters, as his mothering instincts were on high alert.

"No one is going to force him to leave." Wufei replied watching his brother pace in an impatient manner. "I believe he will go on his own."

Heero pulled up in mid-pace, pivoted abruptly and centered an acidic glare squarely on his interfering brother. " Damn you Wufei I swear if you say anything," his voice raised in pitch, "make any move towards him, I will..." he stammered losing his composure, "I will not be responsible for the consequences." he growled shaking an anger-clenched fist at Chang and Winner who both shrunk back from the threatening gesture.

Quickly Quatre knew why Wufei had asked him to stay. Once more his role as peacemaker was being called into service. "Please both of you calm down." he urged the warring brothers not to let their tempers get the best of them.

"Kat you stay out of this." Heero warned refusing to unlock his centered sight on Wufei, "We have reached the end of this discussion." he firmly declared leaving no room for misinterpretation as thunder rumbled overhead.

"But Heero..."

Heero stepped forward to emphasize the declared conclusion, "But nothing. Both of you may have good intensions but I keep my own council." he stated turning towards the door.

Wufei was immediately on his feet. His point was too important to be ignored. In three long strides he caught up with his exiting brother. "Heero wait." he called reaching out to grab Yuy's arm. The movement was seen in Heero's side vision. With cat-like reflexes the Japanese man shifted his weight and twirled about. A downward chop across Wufei's wrist redirected the reaching hand.

Kinship or not Chang did not take shit from anyone when it came to physical altercations. With expert proficiency he slid into a back stance preparing for a countermove. Heero, too, never retreated from a fight. Leveling both fists he dared Wufei to make the first move. The equally stubborn siblings stood their ground, muscles taunt and eyes never wavering from their opponent.

Quatre kept at safe margin outside the fuming combatant's range. He had no desire to incur either man's wrath. "Please." he begged afraid that the irritated brothers would do something they both would later regret. "There is no need for fighting. I am sure words can be just as effective as fists."

Heero shook his head, "If my bitchy brother will stop trying to pull rank on me there will be no need for fighting."

"If that is the case," Kat replied, "then I suggest that both of you act like you have good sense." he said hoping that cooler heads would prevail.

"I am going to turn around and leave." Heero stated lowering his fists, "I would take Kat's suggestion if I were you." he informed his hotheaded brother. "And there will be no more talk about the boy or his leaving."

With an exasperated puff Wufei relaxed but maintained his readiness should Heero decide to land a punch for good measure. "All right but the subject is not closed." he conceded but only for the moment.

**********

Storm-induced darkness swallowed up the afternoon brightness casting eerie shadows over the room. Vibrations trembled through the wall prodding the boy from his sleep. The window's margins flared as lightening zigzag across the sky. The momentary flash stabbed behind his closed eyelids erupting into mass of white light. Catching breaths pounded in his lungs. Muscles wound tight drawing his arms and legs closer to his body.

Again the lightning flashed seconds before a boom of thunder rattled the roof. With the deafening report every muscle recoiled like a taut spring. The solid convulsive jerk sent arms flinging out fighting against the sensorial assault. "NO!" he screamed but his alarmed pleas were drowned out by another vicious boom.

Cold sweat beaded on his skin. Terror-widened eyes darted, searching the unnatural gloom for his unseen attacker. But all he could see was a flood of white capturing him in a glaring spotlight. All he could hear were voices screaming in panic, begging to be spared then falling silent in a hail of gunfire.

Again the malevolent sky spewed forth its fury. In the brief instant as the energy blaze illuminated the room the trembling boy saw his father's bloody body, his chalky face, his vacant eyes devoid of any life. In the temporary clash of sight and sound he heard his mother's voice yelling for him to run. His body quaked as he felt her final touch before she pushed him into the river. Struggling to breathe he remembered the heaviness of her bullet-ridden body as it tumbled from the bank pinning him beneath her death weight.

A queasy wave rolled through his stomach. Raising up on his hands and knees the terror-struck boy fought to keep faintness at bay. Tangled in the blankets the imaginary white tide turned red blinding him with bloody water. Gaunt fingers reached out snagging his thrashing body. Then suddenly he was free, the phantom liquid parted and he gulped in a deep desperate intake of air. Faltering under the mauling memories his strength gave out pitching him forward. Entwined in the binding blankets, swamped by the waking nightmare, the boy quivered chilled by the cold sweat and the pure fright that threatened to stop his heart.

"Heero." his mind whispered in its utter helplessness. "Find Heero." It ordered nudging the boy's stunned senses back from the horrid night demon's grasp.

Dry heaves churned in his gut. Sucking in several hard breaths he managed to ward off the urge to regurgitate his last meager meal. Standing on quivering legs he braced his hand along the wall steadying his compromised balance. He had to find his Japanese savor for Heero was the only one who could rescue him from the recurring dream state that trapped him in its repetitive purgatory.

Wind-whipped rain beat against the windowpanes rapping with ghostly persistence. Intermittent flickers of heavenly fire danced to the thunder's macabre music. Guided by pure perception the frightened boy inched towards the door. His sixth- sense showed him the way, moving his feet without his aide or the knowledge of where he was going. "Heero." he whispered grabbing onto the doorframe to fend off a strong dose of vertigo.

Trembling fingers closes around the doorknob. A soft click was barely heard above the raging storm as the latch came undone. Quietly the door opened. Cautiously the searching boy peered around the edge. Blinking his eyes he squinted to readjust his vision. Three figures slowly materialized from the bright backwash. The kind blond stood by a table. The further form he recognized as the taller man with the black ponytail who had kept a distant watchfulness since his arrival.

Then his eyes focused on the nearest person's back. His bottom lip quivered, as he knew without a doubt that the broad shoulders, the muscular physique and the chocolate crop of tousled hair belonged to the object of his hunt. Relief flooded through his waning fortitude. "Heero." he sighed realizing that his salvation was just a few short steps away.

But something halted his advancement. There was an odd tension running throughout the room and the raging storm was not responsible. Heero and the older man were displaying defensive postures and he was clear that the blond boy was upset. The boy's shoulder flopped against the door. He had to know what was happening, why these two men were obviously mad with one another.

It was at that moment that the storm became oddly quiet. The whining wind lessened his mournful wail. The blinding brilliance flickered in fitful glimmers. Even the roaring thunder lowered its grumbling voice as if to allow the quaking boy to hear the tense conversation.

"If my bitchy brother will stop trying to pull rank on me there will be no need for fighting." he heard Heero say.

*The tall man is Heero's brother.* the boy confirmed under his breath allowing the new information ample time to sink in. Besieged by his rubbery legs the curious lad concentrated on the exchange and not on his increasing feebleness. The blond said something but he was too far away to be understood. Whatever it was his words seemed to have a calming affect because Heero and his brother appeared to relax.

After a brief respite the fickle wind changed its mind once again battering the warehouse's tin roof with forceful gales. Of course the whipping current's return interfered with the boy's ability to hear the last of the brother's dialogue. But the rest was not important he had found Heero.

Starting to step through the door the anxious boy picked out a few scattered words that managed to rise above the howling winds. "The boy" and "leaving" lingered in the energy charged air to make sure that each syllable was heard and understood. A knot twisted in the boy's stomach as each division of sound and meaning hit him with full force.

"Heero wants me to leave." The mistaken realization hit hard like a shot through the heart. "He wants...." the remainder of the thought vanished as his mind went numb Abandoned again. First his mother and father, then months without freedom and now the savor of his world had also deserted him. Tears tracked down his pale cheeks. He had been alone before, yes, alone was better. Better that it happened now and not after he had become a total fool for chasing after someone who could not return his commitment.

Spurred by pain, a hurting in his heart, the boy pushed away from the door. "I'll go now and save him the trouble of kicking me out." he hissed stumbling over the tangled blankets on the floor. "No one will ever hurt me again." he promised himself. Throwing the back the outside door pelting rain struck him in the face mixing with his free flowing tears.

A blast of chilled air scented with rain met Heero as he left Wufei to brooded over losing the argument. Looking across the room he saw the end of a braid flop through an opened door. "What in the...." he never finished the thought as he noticed the mattress was empty and the boy was gone. Rushing to the door he saw a figure shrouded over with rain running toward the surrounding woods.

Without thinking, with no question at all in his mind, Heero raced after the retreating boy. "Hey." he called shouting above the wind's wailing and the thunder's rumbling.

The boy paused, turned to look back over his shoulder then took off like he was trying to outrun the lightning crisscrossing the angry sky. Puzzlement momentarily held the Japanese man in place. What could have prompted such a response? Why would the boy take off like that after all the kindness shone to him?

"Why?" The question kept repeating in his mind. "Damn he must have overheard the argument." Yuy realized as the puzzle pieces slow fell into place. "Go after him you fool!" his mind demanded. "You can't lose him now." his heart took up the call for action.

Ignoring the stinging downpour and the dangerous elements Heero broke into a full out run. The boy reached the forest's border about fifty yards ahead of Yuy. If he got too far into the dense woods Heero might never pick up his trail. Pushing harder Heero quickly closed the gap. "Wait!" he shouted hoping that for some reason the beautiful stranger would heed his call to stop.

If the boy heard he gave no indication of stopping. Groping blindly as the rain soaked his clothing, binding his movements and his saturated bangs covered his eyes, adrenaline and pain drove the heartbroken boy. He could not let the betraying man with the haunting blue eyes capture his attention for it might be too hard to resist his lies.

"Get away." his frail body ordered even though he had no more strength to go on. His lungs burned, his legs ached. A thorough weakness was rapidly winning the battle between his willingness to flee and his ability to do so. Branches snagged his braid, underbrush snarled under his boots. And somewhere close behind he could hear Heero's footsteps coming nearer.

Finally he emerged into a clearing outside a deserted part of the city. Not much longer and he could become lost in the labyrinth of vacant buildings. Heero Yuy would never find him there among the dregs that were once a thriving community. Standing there amid the broken structures, the shattered glass and shattered lives confusion suddenly set in. Which way to go? Where to hide? How to melt into the desolation. He was suddenly afraid to be alone. Cold and hunger and violence was all that awaited him. But death in the streets was preferred to life without trust and the sincerity of true feelings.

Sheets of rain beat down unmercifully. It was as if the sky had torn open a torrent of tears for the lost and lonely. The spillway of crushed hope and nightmares of the past had release a deluge of despair. Falling to his knees the boy gave into the pain piercing his body and his soul. Weeping so hard that the sobs shook his entire frail frame he surrendered. Lifting up a prayer he begged the angels to drive the lightning's spiking energy straight into his morally wounded heart and end his suffering forever.

Something took a firm hold on his arm. A voice, accented with an edge of concern, was also asking "why". With the last of his failing energy the boy lifted his heavy head. His redden, tear-stained sight gazed up into the face of a blue eyed angel with matted chocolate hair clinging to his bronzed cheekbones. He tried to pull away, to extract himself from fingertips that were hot on his skin despite the bone-chilling shiver that had seized him completely.

"It is all right." Heero proclaimed as he guided the boy back against his chest. "You don't have to explain anything just let me take you back." he continued mopping back stringy hair from the boy's wet face.

"Kat is definitely going to be perturbed with me." Yuy announced picturing Winner's azure eyes sparking with ire at his failure to keep his newly adopted friend safe.

All his energy was spent. The exhausted boy could do nothing but lay back and let strong arms enfold his quivering body. He wanted to speak, wanted to scream, to tell his fallen savor of his pain and extract a promise that everything would be better. But all he could do as his teeth chattered and his body shivered uncontrollably was collapse under the debilitating shock that was quickly claiming his consciousness. The boy lay like a limp rag doll arms sprawled, hands slopped in mucky puddles. His head lopped to the side. Half-closed eyes had already begun to lose their inner light.

Yuy slipped one arm under the boy's back, the other under his knees and prepared to lift him. Heero knew time was running out. The young stranger had not recovered from the previous night when his was discovered soaked and chilled. The raspy wheezing was starting again. Shallow respirations rattled in his chest. To add to their problems Heero was beginning to shiver under the storm's watery harassment. They both needed to get back to the Cluster's shelter. Dry clothing, dry hair and a warm bed, the pattern of sickness and recuperation was repeating itself.

"Come on let's get you back home." the rebel leader declared with real urgency in his voice.

"Well what do we have here a couple of drowned street rats?" A disembodied voice wondered from the rain's misty concealment.

Heero jumped at the sudden sound. Gazing up into the pouring precipitation he could just make out two sets of knee-high boots several feet from he and the retrieved boy. His steely eyes narrowed as they moved up legs encased in blue pants. A mixture of shock and anger surged through his gut as a higher survey showed blue uniform jackets embossed with the scarlet "Cross-Swords" OZ insignia.

Part Six:

One trooper aimed a large caliber rifle in the seated pair's general direction. Heero knew that type of weapon didn't require an extreme degree of accuracy because any shot always resulted in serious injury. The blue-suited bastard's partner leveled a pistol at the boy's head just looking for an excuse to splatter his brains all over the rain-slick ground.

In his haste to retrieve the retreating boy Heero had left all manner of protection behind. He could hear his brother now, railing him for not keeping his pistol with him. "How many times do I have to remind you?" Wufei would mount his rebuke and Heero would have no rebuttal to offer in his defense. But none of that matter now, not with trained weapons bearing down on Yuy and his helpless comrade. Under the circumstances Heero could see no way out but still he had to try.

"Hey there." Heero plastered on a stupid grin acting as though he was not surprised to find the Alliance's hired mercenaries hovering over him. "I guess you're wonder'n why my buddy and me are sitti'n in the rain." he slurred his words to make the soldiers believe that he and his friend had imbibed in too many drinks.

The pistol's owner cocked his head in amusement, "This is even better." he told his fellow trooper, "Two half-drowned drunk street rats."

The cunning rebel widened the silly grin trying to put a hazy overcast in his eyes. Letting his arm slide down the boy's back he crocked it around his waist. Scooting on his bottom the pseudo drunk used a wobbly movement to emphasize his supposed inebriated condition. "Come on," he called adding a lazy lisp to his speech, "Hey you awake?" he drawled out the question to his equally "sodden" friend. "Never could hold his liquor." he commented lifting his unfocused sight to secretly size up the situation. Unfortunately the pistol was still aimed squarely at the back of the boy's head.

Heero braced his other hand on a patch of cracked pavement and began to stand pulling his drinking partner up with him. Of course the boy was not drunk but his feeble reactions played the part well. He even gave out a low groan that was sure to convince the OZ bastards that he, too, was sloshed out of his mind. Reeling back and forth Heero kept up the charade pretending to struggle with his uncooperative cohort.

By now the rain had eased to a trickle. The thunder was merely an echo through the manmade canyons of dilapidated buildings and litter-strewn streets. Heero knew that his and the boy's only hope of escape was a good bluff and a lot of luck. If they presented themselves as two worthless citizens of the crumpling colony they might have a chance and right then false intoxication was the best chance they had.

"Damn its wet out here." Heero declared using a board sweep of his hand to further distract the enemy. He swayed once more wrapping his arm tighter around the slumping boy whose legs refused to support his weight. "Guess we should find somewhere to sleep this off." he said planting the idea in the soldier's dim-witted reasoning.

From experience Heero had discovered that most soldiers, especially those who were conscripted by OZ, were chosen for their brawn not their brains. Most were robotic in their actions and simple-minded in their thoughts. If a superior was not around to give them orders they were easily confused.

There were advantages and disadvantages to this group mentality. The advantage was that their judgment could be circumvented with a few well-placed suggestions. However the disadvantage was that the bewildered troopers were more inclined to be trigger happy, often shooting first and figuring out the particulars after the fact. Heero had to walk a thin line between redirecting the soldier's thought processes and overloading their circuits.

The rifle welding military moron tugged at his wet uniform jacket's high collar that was beginning to bind around his neck. He was bore, hungry and not in the mood to mess with the L2 lushes. His mind ran the gambit of possible solutions to deal with the problem pair. Shooting them was the simplest idea, one shot each and be done with it but shooting involved paperwork. Even though OZ didn't care about the demise of a couple of colonist the Alliance still believed in bureaucracy. The local officials had a damned form for everything and expected them filled on in triplicate.

While the soldier doubted that the Japanese man and his buddy would be missed or mourned, if his Commanding Officer found out about the unauthorized termination there could be hell to pay. The more viable option was to let them leave and forget about the entire encounter.

"You have five minutes to get off the street or I will put you under it." the soldier ordered using his rifle to point across the way to a row of boarded up buildings.

Heero reinforced the cocky grin tightening his hold on the dazed boy. "Yes Sir!"

he replied offering a sloppy salute. "Won't take five minutes." he added starting to half-carry his buddy away from the dim witted warriors.

"Hold on a little longer." he whispered to the boy in his arms resisting the urge to become too anxious.

About ten feet from the enemy troopers the boy who had become more lax and a lot heavier began to slip from Yuy's grasp. His damp, muddy clothing made getting a better embrace tricky. As he grabbed a handful of shirt the odd thought that staining Quatre's clothes was going to meet with the same disapproval that Wufei was going to give him for forgetting his weapon marched through his mind. "I am in deep shit." he reminded himself fighting to keep the boy upright.

Without warning the braided youth's shifted as his knees gave way. Heero entangled his hand in the thin shirt fabric. His fingers suddenly punched through the weak threads tearing the shoulder seam loose and pulling the rent sleeve partly down his arm. "Oops!" he exclaimed glancing back at the soldiers hoping they would not become irritated with the slow progress.

The pistol's owner shook his head in disgust, "Damn drunks." he yelled reconsidering the option of dropping the pair where they stood.

His partner, however, was neither amused nor appalled. The sight of something interesting had captured his attention. The torn sleeve had revealed more than a shoulder, a bluish mark that appear foreign on the creamy skin, was inviting a closer inspection. "HALT!" he shouted raising the rifle to underscore the gravity of the order.

Heero paused. A sinking feeling deep in the pit of his stomach told him their escape attempt had gone sour. If he had been alone he would have challenged the soldiers and let the consequences be damned. But he was not alone and he, in all good conscience, could not risk a confrontation. Maybe he could still bluff his way out of the mess, maybe.

"Hey we're going like you said." Yuy declared tugging at the boy's mostly limp body. "You don't have to get nasty."

The shouting put the pistol-packing partner on notice that something was not right. Once more duel weapons were leveled squarely at the retreating youths. The rifle came up beside Heero's head as the OZ trooper leaned over for a better look at the boy's bared shoulder. Now he had a clear view of the dragon tattoo gracing the pale shoulder blade.

"He's a member of the Blue Dragon Gang." the soldier proclaimed recognizing the tattoo. At the announcement the other soldier raced around to flank Heero and the boy.

The sinking feeling formed a fist-size knot in Yuy's gut. He had heard of the four rival "Dragon Gangs". Each had taken a color...red, blue, yellow and green...to mark their territory. Made up of street thugs the gangs ruled the city's poorer sections. Some colonists saw them as savors, some saw them as criminals but the Alliance saw them as nuisances to be exterminated like any other pests infecting the city. OZ had been given free reign when it came to dealing with the gangs and they had become quite efficient in their elimination.

"Shit." Heero whispered under his breath, "I think you just signed our death warrants." he informed the half-lucid boy who gave no indication that he heard or understood. *Guilt by association."* his inner voice stated.

The rifle's hollow barrel pressed into Heero's temple so hard that it made his head hurt. A soft click told him the powerful weapon had been cocked and ready to deliver its deadly package. "You first then I can enjoy separating this son of a bitch from his soul." the soldier informed his target.

Heero shored up the boy holding him nearer. He thanked the fates or whatever deities ruled his destiny that the lavender-eyed young man was not aware he was seconds from death. At least he would be spared the anguish and fear. He would just hear a sharp crack and in a moment it would be over. The kill would be clean for that Heero was grateful.

He locked his eyes on his executioner drawing in a steadying breath. Heero wanted the last thing the man saw to be his hate-hardened sight. He wanted the pure loathing to be forever etched in man's mind and be revisited again and again in his dreams. Heero might be on the verge of his eternal rest but there would be not a single night of undisturbed sleep for the gunman. If there was a spark of morals in the OZ trooper he hoped they would be altered beyond recovery.

"Rest easy." he sighed covering the boy's eyes so he wouldn't catch a last minute glimpse of the final, fatal moments. Strangely the boy answered the sighed appearing to become content in his guardian's grasp.

Sight centered Yuy never wavered. "Go on." he hissed daring the soldier to pull the trigger, "Get it over with."

The rifle shivered slightly as pressure was increased on the trigger. For one brief moment Heero saw dread flicker across the soldier's black pupils. In the same single instant fear joined the betraying display.

"Got you, you son of Satan." Heero declared lowly letting a thin-lipped smile tug at his mouth.

"WAIT!" came a shout from behind the targeted rebels. The rifle eased its pressure slipping a bit leaving behind a red, rounded mark. The pistol drooped but not nearly enough to stay its lethal aim. Both soldiers searched to find the person redirecting their deadly intensions.

A tall slender man with a long silvery mane stepped from the shadows. The insignia on his jacket identified his rank as Commander. He held a pearl-handled pistol and a sword hung from the leather belt around his slim waist. Immediate recognition showed in the soldier's surprised expression and sprung into action as they snapped to attention. Zechs Merquise, Senior Officer in charge of the Tactical Forces, stalked forward with cat-like grace never easing his steely stare.

**********

Yuy had witnessed firsthand Commander Merquise's cold and calculated combat. Only hours after the first OZ units arrived on L2 Heero and Wufei hid in an alley and watched as Merquise piloted a huge Mecha named the Gundam Epyon through the streets. Leading seven smaller Leo Class suits he and his squad unleashed a barrage of firepower that leveled everything in their path. The lethal display was carried out with a ruthless proficiency that left no doubt that his authority was absolute.

That day the brothers pledged that they would never surrender to the despotic Alliance or the silver-haired devil aptly called the Lightning Count who carried out their tyrannical wishes. That night Chang, Yuy and other loyal Outlanders fled the city and established the first Cluster forging a united coalition that would fight to the last man to regain their freedom.

**********

"What is going one here?" Merquise asked taking a wide route around the Japanese male and his less than lucid friend.

"Sir, we found these dangerous members of the Blue Dragons and were about to terminate them." the rifle's owner dutifully reported.

"Dangerous." Merquise repeated with a hint of amusement in his husky voice. "They don't look too dangerous to me."

He moved closer taking a moment to study the damp duet. Using his pistol' barrel he carefully lifted the braid's end letting the platted tresses slip over the end. "This one is too pretty to kill." he announced. Tilting his head sideways silky stands of platinum hair cascaded over his broad shoulders. "Bring them back to Headquarters." he ordered holstering his pistol certain even a pair of Privates could handle the "dangerous" male and his pretty partner.

Heero took exception to Commander Merquise's attitude. In fact he decided that the man's entire mindset was in serious need of a readjustment. It would probably make matters worse but, hell, sometimes pride can be more important than pain.

"The Lighting Count." Heero hissed out the title putting every bit of contempt he could muster into his tone.

If Merquise took notice of Heero's deliberate vulgarity it was not apparent in either his expression or his posture. "So you know who I am?"

"Everyone knows you are the murdering bastard who is the Alliance's lapdog."

"Ah I see that my reputation has proceeded me." Merquise stated bowing in mock politeness.

"You wouldn't be so brave if you didn't have your lackeys to hide behind." Heero issued the insult. *That ought to do it, Yuy.* his inner voice confirmed the brashness of the challenge.

Merquise lifted one eyebrow but Heero couldn't tell if the gesture was one of interest or annoyance or a little of both. "If you cooperate and tell me what I want to know I will give you a chance to test my bravery." he promised.

"If I don't cooperate?"

"Then we will have a very short relationship."

Yuy carefully eased down his braided bundle who offered no resistance as he settled onto the pavement. It might be his last act but Heero was not going anywhere voluntarily. "*What about the boy?* his voice inquired. *Both of us are already dead.* Heero mentally replied willingly accepting his and the boy's fate.

"Why don't we dance now?" he growled charging for Merquise with a murderous gleam in his rage-narrowed eyes.

Inches away from the Lightning Count who unflinchingly stood his ground the rifle-welding soldier intervened. Sliding the stock into his hands he rotated the butt up in a high arc then brought the end to bear between Heero's shoulders. An explosion of white light flashed behind Yuy's eyes. Sharp pain raced from the contact site up and down at the same time with such force that he never saw the ground as it came up to meet him. A solid thud and a powerful expelling of air accented Heero's journey into the ebony void of oblivion.

Merquise squatted beside his fallen challenger who lay next to the fascinating braided boy. "We will dance soon."

**********

Heero floated surrounded by rushing air. A vague sensation of tingling currents prickled over his body. This formless buoyancy was not frightening; he did not seem lost. There was an actual comfort to the weightless drifting as he felt free from the confines of his fleshy body's mass and heaviness. His mind was filled with flickers of soft multi-colored lights. Whispered sounds fluttered like a thousand brilliant butterflies batting and bumping inside his head.

From the phantom periphery voices mingled with the butterflies. At first the undistinguishable bits of noise swirled in a haphazard manner. Slowly the resonance drew together but he could not assemble the sounds into a recognizable pattern.

His mind fought to followed the voices. A stronger perception scattered the bothersome butterflies. The tingle stung urging him to travel passed the black barrier of unconsciousness. The feathery feeling gave way to a sluggish alertness. Now his brain felt as though it was totally tangled in cobwebs. A dull ache made his head seem twice its size and a raw tenderness pulsed along his shoulders.

Bit by bit Yuy was aware of warmth mixing with the soreness that inundated every part of his body. Eyelids parted but his clouded eyes offered limited insight to the world around him. He blinked several times to wash away the tacky coating. As his vision improved a shadowy shape emerged from the reawaking twilight.

*Merquise!* Heero's mind warned as the OZ Commander was the last person his muddled senses remembered.

An adrenaline surge turned the tingle into searing pain as if boiling water was coursing through his veins. Blindly he struck out at his nemesis spurred on by fear and unadulterated hatred. Hands balled into anger-clenched fists. Arms swung wildly at the Alliance's hired assassin but it didn't take long for his impaired condition to give out completely.

As Heero heaved for air, drenched in a cold sweat he realized that the shape was a fabrication of his altered senses. He forced himself to relax. A deep breath calmed his nerves; a couple of blinks further cleared his sight. Gradually his vision adjusted presenting a more accurate picture of his surroundings. The first thing that came into view was a bare light bulb glaring overhead. Secondly his eyesight's expanding scope told him that he was in a small windowless room with a single door. Next his ears took over the investigative exploring. He could hear faint voices and footsteps outside the door.

*Take them back to Headquarters.* the Commander's order echoed in his mind. Heero was a prisoner of OZ and if they found out who he really was, well, let's just say Merquise would have a valuable prize to brag about.

Then a difference series of sounds caught his attention. With some effort he turned his head ignoring the stiffness in his neck and shoulders. Huddled about a yard away the boy beheld Heero with a soft, sad gaze. The frayed braid hung over his right shoulder. He was pale, shaky and Heero did not like the way each halting breath rattled in his lungs. The bath had been undone by the rain and muddy streets causing the boy to again resemble a forsaken urchin.

Yuy pushed up resting against the wall. "Are you all right?" he asked even though he could clearly see the boy shiver with each labored intake of air. The boy pulled his knees closer to his chest. He nodded "yes" but Heero knew he was lying.

Carefully testing his marginal mobility Heero sat straighter. "I feel like I have been run over by a truck." he stated rubbing his neck to ease the hammering in his head.

The boy shifted in place leaning forward. His lips quivered and Heero was certain that he was fighting back tears. "It's going to be all right. Wufei will come for us." he offered the reassurance as a tear tracked down the boy's dirt-streaked cheek.

Moving with extreme caution, afraid that any sudden movement might cause his head to fall from his shoulders, Yuy braced on his hands and knees and crawled to the scared boy. Tentatively he reached to intercept the single salty droplet. The boy drew up turning his head away but Heero was persistence. "I won't hurt you. Come on I know you trust me."

The newest Cluster member quivered so hard that he almost lost his balance. "Let me hold you." Heero requested sliding to sit beside the wobbly boy. Wrapping his arms about the young man's much too thin frame Heero pulled him closer.

At the tender touch all remaining fortitude faded. The boy collapsed into a heap flopping down to lay his head in Yuy's lap. "I won't leave you," Heero promised tucking wispy hair behind the boy's ear, "no matter what happens."

The boy twisted onto his back looking up at his pledged guardian. He lifted his hand laying it lightly on Heero cheek. The loneliness, the fright in his eyes was heartbreaking. Underlying the fear was a longing that spoke volumes about a life almost ruined beyond reclaiming. Heero curved his hand over the boy's trembling fingers. He raised the grimy palm placing a gentle kiss in its center.

This time the boy didn't resist. Heero kissed down the equally grubby wrist lowering his face until it was inches from lips that were still luscious in spite of being chapped and cracked. He studied the boy's expression for any sign that he had gone too far, none was given. Now Heero was compelled to fulfill an overwhelming desire that sudden sprang to the surface. The first brushing kiss sent a teasing tingle thoroughly through his body. The boy closed his eyes cupping his hand behind his savor's head with an insistence pressure that left to room for misunderstanding.

The kiss deepened. Breathes came in pounding puffs. The willing youth slid his tongue inside Heero's mouth to taste and be tasted. Drawing the intriguing boy closer Yuy gave into the passion that had been hiding in his heart. It was not lust that directed the kiss but his need to be wanted. Heero knew the first moment he saw the boy cowering by the wall that his heart had been touched as it had never been before. For the first time since his mother's death something stirred in the dormant recesses of his soul.

Since everyone except Wufei had abandoned him Heero had hardened his heart, locked it away from the pain of separation and loss. He required nothing more than a mere existence free from the shackles of love but now a single kiss unfettered his chained emotions. Sliding his knee between the beautiful boy's legs he used it to build up friction over his groin. A soft moan flowed through the kiss.

Moving one hand down the boy's stomach it stayed on a straightway path until it slipped between his knee and the young man's crotch. More rubbing, more friction. Anxiously Yuy tightened his grip grounding his own growing erection against the boy's hip.

At the rougher, more insistence touches the boy's eyes flew opened. Putting his hands on Yuy's chest he pushed back as hard as he could. A strangled whimper broke the kiss as the alarmed boy struggled under Heero's weight. "No, I can't."

Heero froze taken aback by the suddenly change from passionate to panic. He quickly sat back on his heels freeing the terrified boy who immediately scooted backwards and curled into a protective ball. Hiding his face with his arms he quivered like a leaf in a windstorm.

Remorse tore through Heero's heart that moments before felt so alive."Please look at me." he begged leaning closer to better see the young man's face. "Please."

Peering through a cascade of bangs stuck over his forehead the boy's enlarged pupils glared causing Yuy to recoil from the cynical sight staring back. "I'm sorry." Heero whispered realizing that he had indeed allowed lust to take over. "I had no right to impose myself on you. Can you forgive my weakness?"

One arm lifted but only enough for a guarded look. A quivering breath escaped from lungs that had again begun to seize up. The arm rose higher. Trust is such a simple yet complicated concept. Like a double-edged sword it can be the innocence of a child, the steadfast devotion of a friend or the ultimate sacrifice of a lover but it can also destroy one's faith if it is betrayed. Heero asked for forgiveness but could the confused youth risk his soul's last tattered remnants by granting that absolution?

The boy was well aware of his and Heero's perilous circumstances. There was no one else to trust, no other hope of survival and if death was to be their destiny no one else to share the journey into the afterlife. All he had was trust and the risk of being hurt was overshadowed by his fear of dying alone. Slowly he shook his head "yes" lowering his self-protective embrace.

Heero breathed out a relieved sigh but made no move toward the gentle one who had given him yet another pardon. "I know Wufei will come for us," he reiterated his confidence in his brother and the Cluster, "but if something should happen..." he paused not wanted to create any negative vibrations. The boy shook his head telling Yuy that he understood.

Heero leaned nearer and with an uncharacteristic timidness touched the boy's hand. "Could you please grant me one more favor?" The boy nodded affirmatively. "Could you tell me your name?"

Lavender eyes locked onto Heero's face. Ashen lips quivered as if trying to form long ago forgotten syllables. Faint sounds rose from his throat in a tentative attempt to offer up the final barrier guarding the boy's identity. His name...trust pure and simple. "Duo."

Part Seven:

Duo. The name carried the connotation of a double not a single existence yet the duality was in total disagreement with the boy's aloneness. But in an odd way Heero thought it fit. The boy was certainly a contradiction. On the surface he seemed so vulnerable but there was an underlying strength that had allowed him to survive on the streets. And if the dragon tattoo was any indication of his deceptive hardness then maybe he did not need the Cluster leader to be his savor after all.

A smile lit up Heero's face as he repeated the beautiful boy's name. "Duo." Dual parts making up a whole. A twosome...perhaps he and Heero.

Duo returned the smile momentarily forgetting their captive condition. Heero held out his hand. Without hesitation Duo took the offered hand settling down beside his newly found friend.

"Thank you." Heero whispered stroking his thumb over Duo's bruised knuckles.

Duo silently studied the thumb's movement and for a moment Yuy was afraid that he would revert back to his self-imposed muteness. "For what?" came the soft question that seemed to echo over the room's bare white walls.

"For forgiving me yet again." Heero answered truly sorry for their shaky beginning, "We didn't start out very well did we?"

Duo shook his head "no". That same sad gaze moved up until he studied Heero face. "We can start over." he declared, "Hello I'm Duo."

"Just Duo?"

"Yes...for now...just Duo."

"Fair enough." Heero agreed thankful that the boy was at least talking. "I don't want to push but I do have a question that must be answered."

"I will answer the question if I can." Duo stated setting the rules of conversation.

"The soldiers said your tattoo meant you were a member of the Blue Dragon Gang, are you?"

At the question Duo's poignant demeanor degenerated into a keen case of trembling. His already impaired breathing came in catching gulps. Color drained from his face and he showed all the signs of immediate collapse. Heero reached out wrapping the hyperventilating boy in a supportive embrace. Now a good case of apprehension mirrored Duo's fearful reaction.

"Take it easy." Heero encouraged the panting boy. Rubbing his back to help Duo regulate his breathing he was stuck with his own fearful response. "You don't have to answer." he stated wanting nothing more than to have Duo calm down.

"No." came the winded reply as Duo struggled to take in one good breath. "I need to tell you...I have to." he wheezed laying his clammy head on Heero's chest.

Heero eased back against the wall pulling Duo with him. Gentle he mopped back damp hair from Duo's eyes." All right take you time. You don't have to talk about anything you don't want to."

Duo slid his arm around Heero's waist clutching onto him like a lifeline as an overpowering flood of fear crashed over him. All the trepidation, the night terrors that had plagued his sleep now swirled about him in a sucking vortex. He knew the only way to free himself from the waking nightmares was to meet them head on. For his sanity, for Heero's sake, Duo had to exorcise the demons.

Finally exhaustion won out over the emotional tide. The panting gave way to halting hiccups and soft sobbing. Heero rocked the boy's limp frame aware for the first time just how fragile he was. It was a wonder Duo was functioning at all.

**********

Wufei needed to come before the OZ interrogators decided to ask questions that, for the Cluster's security, Yuy could not answer. He had promised Duo that he would not leave him but he could not give into OZ or give up any information.

At the moment Heero was certain that Commander Merquise did not know his true identity, not being shackled in a more secure cell was proof of that. But the Alliance's merciless mercenaries had their informational sources. It was only a matter of time before his temporary anonymity would run out and they would discover he was a Cluster leader with a bounty on his head.

Heero wasn't worried about the resulting questioning and torture; he viewed the physical brutality as another step in the eternal journey that would reunite him with the mother. It was breaking his promise that burdened his mind. Duo could not survive another abandonment. Heero had not heard the troubled boy's whole story but he sensed in his soul the horrid details even before Duo began to put them into words. *Wufei where are you?* Heero willed his brother to rescue him and Duo before it was too late.

**********

Duo wiped his eyes with the back of his hand leaning against Heero's shoulder. Another trembling breath was taken in then forced out to quiet the shudders. "I have the tattoo," he began to explain, "but I am not a member of the Blue Dragons. The symbol was forced on me as well as my inclusion in the gang."

Duo straightened bravely centering his eyes on Heero. He was going to tell it all, the total terrifying story. Once and for all he was going to face his fears, purge the painful memories and put his awful experiences behind him. Translating his thoughts into words and hearing the words out loud was the only way Duo could be free. Yes, the time for silence was over!

Of all the people caught in the cruel circumstances of Lagrange 2 Heero Yuy would not judge or think himself superior to a deserted street rat. He would listen and he would understand because the young Cluster leader had known the same lost in his life.

"I don't know where to start." Duo stated as the deluge of memories all vied for verbal attention at once. Heero nodded his encouragement. "Start at the beginning." he advised. Duo fought another onslaught of panic taking solace in Heero's reassuring touch.

"About a month after OZ took over my mother, father and I were forced from our home. We found our way to the Outlands where other people who had also been displaced by the destruction had settled in a makeshift refugee camp. We didn't know it at the time but some of the people worked for an underground network supplying stolen information to the Resistance Forces.

One night my mother woke me, told me to be quiet and quickly get dressed. There were local officials in the camp asking questions and looking for "traitorous insurrectionists". As my father led my mother and I towards the forest an OZ Ground Unit supported by two Leo Suits arrived. I could hear them shouting, ordering everyone to freeze then gunshots echoed through the camp. I can still hear the screams amidst the rifle blasts. I will never forget the sizzling sounds and bright flashes of energy beams exploding over the tree line."

A faltering shiver caught in Duo's voice as the horrible remembrances were replayed in his mind. Heero drew him closer. He might not be able to quiet the ruinous recollections but he could help Duo traverse the nightmarish maze on the way to his soul's freedom. "I'm here, go on." he urged Duo in the retelling.

Duo settled more of his weight on his protector. "Right before we reached the wood's edge my father yelled for us to run then turned to face the pursuing soldiers pouring from the forest like a swarm of anger hornets.

My mother and I raced into the woods being whipped by branches and tripped by exposed roots. Once I stopped and looked back but I couldn't see my father...just a sea of blue uniforms fanning out in all directions. My mother tugged me away as I was held spellbound by the unimaginable carnage."

Duo paused wiping his runny nose on his shirtsleeve. The method was primitive but effective. A steadying sigh replenished much need oxygen before he continued. "We ran as hard as we could hoping to lose the soldiers in the thick underbrush. We knew there was a runoff reservoir on the far side. My mother thought that if we could make it passed the opened pool we might have a chance to escape."

Now the words spilled out through an opened floodgate. If his life had depended on it Duo could not have stopped as the verbalizing took over and he was powerless to quiet the word's raging currents.

"We started around the stagnant water staying as close to the rim as possible. There was a shout from behind but I couldn't understand the words, all I knew was that we couldn't stop. Suddenly my mother grabbed my arm tugging me around to face her. "I love you." she whispered laying her hand on my cheek, "Don't ever forget that."

In that single second that seemed to stretch on for an eternity I saw in my mother's eyes all the hopes and dreams she had for me and the sorrow of never seeing them happen. A shot rang out. Her hand slipped from my cheek, the sorrow faded away replaced by a vacant stare. She pitched forward catching me in her arms as we both plunged into the murky water."

Duo drew in a shivering breath fighting with what little strength he had left to keep the demons at bay. "I couldn't move...couldn't breathe as I was pinned under my mother's shielding body. The soldiers must have thought that I was....."

Pure pain stabbed through Duo's heart. It was the first time he had allowed himself to remember. In five months not once had he let his barrier down. Not when he wandered the cold, cruel streets. Not when hunger pangs hurt so hard that he couldn't sleep and not when he was too sick and exhausted to do anything but sleep. Only when his dark dreaming unleashed the demons did he vaguely recall the trauma and how he had been baptized in bloody water. That fateful night Duo's soul was not saved but lost forever in the twilight realm between living and dying.

"Oh God...Mother." he whispered as an acute ache threatened to halt his heartbeat. "Oh...merciful saints...why?"

Hot tears pooled behind Heero's long eyelashes. His memories of death's forced separation cut with the same sharp pain severing his threadbare hold on his own guarded emotions. At that moment of shared loss a bond was formed between the Cluster leader and the orphaned street foundling who had sudden become the center of his world. "I know." Heero sighed as the freely offered an empathetic connection to the brave boy with the sad lavender eyes.

Duo gazed up into the Japanese rebel's misty eyes. Tears tempered their cold blue steel. Heero let his finger lightly trace over the tattletale bruise along Duo's jaw regretting the angry strike. The beautiful boy was alluring in a blameless way. In his simple {1}naiveté Duo didn't know he was beautiful, didn't know how his lips begged to be kissed.

Heero leaned closer as his body compelled him to take another taste. The knowledge that at any moment the guards might come and tear him away from his newly discovered soul mate pressed him to let Duo know how he had completely captured his heart.

Duo tensed as the gap narrowed. His body also reacted not from desire but increasing alarm. His mind told him that he trusted Heero but the scarring on his soul had not healed. It still hurt where raw fleshy memories festered under thin, transparent skin that had only recently begun to protect the deep wounds.

"No. Please. I can't." Duo pleaded even though he longed to be loved. "I can't." he repeated trying to explain that his refusal was not a rejection but self-preservation.

Heero felt the reluctant boy's fear then cursed under his breath as he recalled what Duo said about the gang forcing the tattoo on him. What else had he been forced to do? *Great Yuy dredging up the past is the last thing the boy's needs now.* his inner voice scolded his failure to see beyond his bodily urges.

"I can not ask your forgiveness this time." Heero stated soberly knowing his ignorance might have cost him Duo's love.

"It's not your fault." Duo declared not wanting Heero to believe that his attention was totally out of line. "It's just that I....." A disheartened sigh cut off his words.

Heero bowed his head as he berated himself for his callous attitude. "We don't have to talk about this anymore." he said not wanting to force the issue.

Duo put his hand under Yuy's chin and with gentle pressure coaxed him to look up. "I need to finish." he whispered. Heero nodded directing his full attention on the brave boy.

"I'm not sure how long I lived on the streets." Duo began again, "After awhile the days and nights blended into a dim mass of time. One night during a rare storm I was huddled in a doorway trying to stay dry. I hadn't eaten in two days and had a chill that refused to leave. I was so tired but I was fighting sleep afraid that if I gave into the drowsiness I might not wake up again.

I must have lost the battle and dozed off because I was suddenly jarred awake as a bolt of lightning speared the weeping sky. In that nightmare moment, as the blue brilliance flashed overhead, the memory of the Leo's energy beams exploding in the camp were brought back with frightening clarity. All I wanted to do was run, to flee the sickening terror." Duo paused taking in a forced inhalation, as it seemed that he had forgotten to breathe.

"I raced into the street, into the pelting downpour laced with lightning but my weakness could not handle the stress. My legs gave way and I hit the pavement hard. The chill quickly turned into a gut-deep shiver. I couldn't catch my breath. My empty stomach seized and dry heaves tried to retch up something that was not there. Then I heard a voice shouting above the storm's angry wailing. It was asking if I was all right.

A tall man hovered over me. A long black coat whipped around his legs and shaggy wet hair hung about his face. I should have been cautious of this stranger but failing physical fortitude and mental feebleness muddled my instincts. When he offered me food and shelter I agreed without giving any thought as to where I might end up. All I could think of as I shivered in the rain was a full stomach and a dry warm bed.

I remember the man carrying me but I must have been seriously ill because even now I can't separate what really happened and what was a product of the high fever. When I recovered I learned that the Blue Dragons had taken me in. I knew the gang's ruthless reputation, that they didn't need much reason to maim or murder. I also knew that once someone was included that they were very reluctant to let them go. It was then that I realized that I was trapped and in trouble.

The leader was Treize Khurshrenada. He once held a high rank with OZ but was court-martialed for disobeying orders and killing surrendering soldiers instead of taking them prisoner. He was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to a life term in the Military Prison on L4. Less than a year later he led a prison revolt, broke out and disappeared. He then showed up on L2 and formed the Blue Dragons.

Khushrenada ran the gang like an army demanding blind obedience and absolute loyalty. He viewed himself as a brilliant leader but he was nothing more than a deranged psychopath. If Treize had even a notion that someone was disloyal he would fly into a fit of rage then chain them up in what he called his "play room" where he would beat or whip them often to death. Violence and fear were his persuasive tools and no one dared to oppose him."

Pain piercing his expressive sight Duo gazed up at Heero. He had gone pale and a sheen of sweat glistened on his face. "I tried to run away." he whispered so lowly that Heero could barely hear. He didn't have to paint a picture, didn't have to explain the scars that had been clearly seen during his bath.

"Duo I am so sorry." Heero offered the completely inadequate words. Feeling helpless to ease Duo's pain all the Cluster leader could do was hold his comrade as close as he could.

Duo nodded grateful for Heero's concern, "You know I can be a stubborn bastard." he stated reaffirming Yuy's previous assertion of the boy's underlying strength. "The first time I was caught they took me to Khurshrenada's private quarters and he just beat me. The second time I spent two days in his play room. After that whenever Treize descended into a dark mood he used me for his whipping boy. But by then I didn't care anymore. I gave up my quest for freedom because I believed I had no reason to hope of anything better."

"But you survived and there is hope in that." Heero proclaimed.

"Yes I survived but only because I agreed to trade sex for the beatings. That was when Treize marked me with the tattoo claiming me as his personal whore. I also learned that silence was the best defense against Khurshrenada's volatile temper. Each time that son of a bitch took me, as he roughly rutted and growled out his claim on me I would close my mouth and my heart. I would shut away my feelings and become numb. You are right I did survive but at what cost?"

A tense silence so much like Duo's defensive refusal to utter a sound hung in the air. The light bulb's harsh glare accented the stark reality of war's cruelty for the Cluster's resistance against the Colonial Alliance, their hatred of OZ was as much a war as any other declared conflict.

Heero could not give an answer to Duo. He could not begin to calculate the high price that the abandonment and abuse had expected him to pay. All he could do was stay by his side and lend his support.

Duo craved closure. He needed to finish the woeful tale for his sanity's sake. "One night after an extended sex session when I was sure Treize was sound asleep I decided that dying in an escape attempt was kinder than losing my will to live. With only the clothes on my back I snuck out a window, evaded the guards and disappeared into the night. Since then I have spent every day hiding and every night doing what I had to do to keep one step ahead of death."

Heero tucked silky chestnut stands behind Duo's ear. "I will do all I can to help you get your life back." he pledged. "Khurshrenada will pay dearly."

"Can I ask you a question?" Duo asked with a sudden turnabout request.

"Of course."

"Are you a virgin?"

"Yes I afraid I am." Heero answered a little embarrassed that at sixteen he had not had much experience in the matters of the flesh.

A faraway gaze drifted across Duo's somber sight. His mind focused somewhere other than the bare room that served as their cage. Heero remained quiet not wanting to disturb the boy's distant daydreams. "That's all right." Duo whispered his sight and mind still centered on whatever invisible agents held his attention. "I wish I was still a virgin." he stated with a forlorn sigh that tore Yuy's heart in two.

"You will always be pure to me." Heero proclaimed judging the purity of the boy's soul and not the rape of his body. "Let me hold you." he encouraged Duo to lie back in his arms. "I want to protect you. I want to offer love not lust. I know I will have to earn your devotion but I am willing to do what I must to win your trust" he promised the beautiful boy who had captured his heart.

Duo snuggled securely in his guardian's embrace. He was not sure how long he and Heero had shared their imprisonment or how much longer they would be allowed to be together. Every moment was precious for the two lost souls seeking peace and solace in each other's arms.

"If they come for me..." Heero began.

"Shhhh." Duo whispered placing a finger on Yuy's lips.

Heero closed his eyes listening to Duo's steady breathing, feeling his heartbeat against his chest and basking in his warmth. Everything was right, as it should be. Even in their desolate situation there was hope. But if the oftentimes fickle fates would not permit them to share that hope in life their souls would share it in death.

The entwined pair did not hear a key being inserted into the lock. They didn't hear the soft snap as the bolt slid back or sensed the shift of light shining in from the hall. A shadow cast a gloomy outline over the contented pair. Liquid blue eyes observed the tender scene then a voice desecrated the soul mates shared sanctuary.

"Well isn't this touching!" Commander Merquise boomed as the door slammed shut behind him.

Part Eight:

Sitting at a table Wufei tensely ran a soft cloth along his sword's finely honed blade. Lifting the tempered steel to eyelevel he studied his fretful reflection in the polished metal. Also sitting at the table two of his trusted friends anxiously watched the Chinese warrior clean his most prized possession. Silently they sat thankful that they were not on the receiving end of Chang's mounting edginess or the weapon's thirst for blood.

It had been six hours since Wufei had seen his brother. His last glimpse of Heero had been of him racing out of camp into the gathering storm as he chased after that boy. Chang knew the wild stray would be trouble but he had, against his better judgment, foolishly let Heero and Quatre persuade him otherwise. Now both his brother and that braided bundle of trouble had gone missing.

There were at least three plausible explanations for their absence. The one Wufei hoped was true was that Heero had caught up with the boy and that they were somewhere private working out their differences. Even if it meant that the two horny youths were engaged in "making up" he was willing to view that as an acceptable alternative considering the other, more serious, prospects.

The second and third possibilities were not reasons that Wufei wanted to think about. The second was being captured by a street gang. Thirdly and worse of all was being captured by OZ. While the gang might give the two absentees a hard time he knew that Heero was smart enough and rough enough to handle himself. Hell, Yuy had the balls to take over if he wanted to. However if OZ was the cause then matters were indeed grave.

Heero was not the type to dawdle; he knew the dangers of being too far from the Cluster. Even if sex had delayed him for awhile he would have returned as soon as he had satisfied his urges. No, he had been gone too long and each passing minute was doing nothing to alleviate Wufei's growing anxiousness.

Chang had assembled his Security Lieutenant and Trowa to offer their input in regards to the missing pair and help come up with a plan of action. The only other voice of wise council not present was Quatre.

As in many pervious nights Kat slept only a couple of hours. Earlier that afternoon Trowa had insisted that his lover lie down and he had offered no resistance. Now Quatre rested peacefully unaware of Heero and the boy's status. "It is just as well." Trowa reasoned. "Kat certainly didn't need any more upheaval in his shaky emotional equilibrium and there was nothing he could do at the moment but worry. Better to let him sleep until something was decided."

Lying the sword crossways on the table Chang leaned over the deadly weapon. "I think we need to act on the assumption that either a gang or OZ has Heero and the stray." he announced evenly moving his ebony gaze from one man to the other.

Despite his growing apprehension Wufei had to keep his wits in tact. When Heero was safe and after he had sternly lectured his brother about his reckless behavior then Wufei would allow himself a moment of emotions.

"You can't be sure they are together." the auburn haired Lieutenant named Ken replied to the duel reference.

Chang shook his head, "No but my instincts tell me that they are together. But whether they are or not Heero is my main concern. I have already sent a recon team to scout out the streets. If they are with a gang that information should be easy to come by. There are plenty of gang members more than willing to talk for the right price."

"How long will it be before the team gets back?' Trowa wondered. The group left while he was getting Quatre settled so he had no point of reference as to their departure.

"It shouldn't be much longer." Chang hoped knowing that with each tick of the clock Heero could be in more danger. "Since they aren't back yet let's discuss what we will do if OZ is responsible for their vanishing." he instructed knowing he and his comrades couldn't afford to waste precious time.

"If OZ captured them they would be taken to the Main Headquarters for questioning." Ken stated from his pervious experience of being a "guest" of OZ.

Chang nodded grateful for Ken's firsthand knowledge that was obtained from a month of incarceration and affirmed by a permanent limp where his left leg didn't heal properly after it had been broken in two places by the overzealous Interrogation Unit.

"The building is located near the Alliance Administration Complex." he continued rubbing his leg, as a dull ache was an ever-present reminder of his imprisonment. "We're going to have to be sure Heero is there before we move on this. We will need to know exactly where is he and the guard count if we have any hope of getting in and getting him and ourselves out alive."

"Any suggestions?"

"If we could steal an AAC Security ID we could get into to the building across from OZ Headquarters and use a computer to hack into the prisoner list. Once we know Heero is there and where they have him then we can plan a rescue mission."

"Is that the only way?" Chang inquired realizing that infiltration takes time and that time was something Heero might not have much of. "It sounds like a lengthy process."

"There is a faster way." Trowa declared locking his expressive eyes on Wufei.

Knowing Trowa too well Wufei read his mind as he studied Barton's thin-lipped grin and the calculating gleam in his green sight. "No that is too dangerous." he proclaimed shaking his head so hard that his ponytail whipped over his shoulder.

"It is the quickest way and you know it." Trowa rebutted the Cluster leader's refusal to even consider the tactic.

Ken listened carefully to the disjointed conversation but try as he might he couldn't follow the flow. "Do you mind filling me in on your disagreement?"

Chang cut his eyes at Trowa and his smug grin that was firmly fixed in place. "Cocky bastard." he hissed as Trowa tilted his head at a challenging angle.

"Barton believes the fastest way to handle this is to place someone on the inside, find Heero and get the information back to us." he informed Ken with a matter-of-fact attitude that told Trowa he knew it was the best way to go.

"You got all that from just looking at him?" Ken stated still amazed at the eerie connection that had been evident in past interactions between the brothers as well as their friends. And he didn't even want to guess how many times Kat and Trowa had finished each other's sentences.

Chang smiled.

"If you do get inside how do you plan to pass on your information?" Ken asked the next logical question deciding that his brain was better off not wondering about the wordless exchanges.

Trowa continued to grin like a rat that had outsmarted a trap. "Quatre has a pair ofmarvelous devices that contain a tiny but powerful transmit-receiver. All you have to do is be within receiving range and I can relay any juicy tidbits I choose."

At Barton's announcement Wufei and Ken leaned forward in unison. "Where did Kat get that kind...of equipment?" Chang stammered as the implications of a faster recovery time sunk in.

Trowa shrugged. "I don't know I didn't ask him."

"Quatre is not going to like this plan." Wufei stated with surety.

"I know but there is no way we can do it without him because I don't know how the transceivers work. You know as upset as he might be he would not let Heero down. And if the boy is there too he will not stop until they are free."

"Will you talk to him?"

Trowa nodded "yes". As much as he wanted to spare his lover. As much as he knew this latest crisis would further entrench the demons that plagued his sleep Trowa could see no other alternative. This time, though, Kat could come along, become part of the mission. He would not have to stay behind waiting and worrying about Baton or Chang or the other brave Cluster members.

No more shelter, no more uncertainty. But sadly it also meant the end of what little innocence the war had not already stripped away. After this Quatre would forever be changed and Trowa deeply regretted his lover's final loss.

**********

Quatre twitched in his sleep. Fingers curled around the blanket's hem. In his dream state he stood surrounded by a stark white circle of light. Shielding his eyes from the blinding brightness he strained to see pass the spotlight's edge. Through the glaring luminosity two shapes came into focus. Slowly the outlines emerged from the outer dim fringes taking on a recognizable quality.

Heero lay on his back with arms and legs stretched out in a spread eagle form. His head was tilted at an odd angle. His eyes were opened but showed no signs of seeing. Draped across Yuy's chest the boy was sprawled on his stomach in a similarly strange contour. His loose hair covered over he and Heero like a confused chestnut cape.

Quatre suddenly found himself standing next to the peculiar pair but he had no memory of moving from his place inside the light. His mind was numb, as it seemed that his usually strong empathic link had deserted him. Bracing on one knee Winner leaned over and with trembling fingers raked through the tangled silken strands. Gently he brushed back enough hair to see the boy's profile. His eyes were closed and what could be seen of his face was chalky.

Taking the boy by the arm Quatre carefully turned him over. Limply his head lopped to the side. His bluish lips parted and a barely audible hiss of air filtered through the lax mouth. He shook the boy, called out Heero's name but nothing Winner did or said made them wake up.

Then in horror he drew back as both chilled bodies began to sink below a crimson tide bubbling up under his feet. Red was everywhere. The white light was scarlet. The boy, Heero, Quatre's hands, everything was tinged with the same deep ruddy hue.

"NO!" Quatre screamed inside his head as his comrades disappeared beneath the bloody deluge. Quickly the blood surged around his ankles, swelled to his knees. It rose relentlessly until the red fluid strangled in Kat's mouth and nose. Just before the churning current chocked off his breath Quatre had one final vision. A single word, written in the thick blood, was suspended before his terror-widened eyes....OZ.

Quatre let out a groan. His face frowned from the effort as he tried to push passed the nightmare's shadowy barrier and escape back into the waking world. The screams inside his head clawed up his throat. A gut-deep wail shattered the silence. His entire body jerked in a wrenching seizure.

Across the hall Trowa straighten sharply as his lover's mournful howl reached his ears. Bolting from his seat it took only seconds to arrive at Kat's side. "Quatre." he called cradling his convulsing partner in a supporting embrace. "Quatre can you hear me?" he shouted above the moans. Fighting the increasingly hard shudders that threatened to tear Kat from his grasp Trowa was afraid that the force would pull his muscles or worse yet break a bone.

Ken held down kicking feet, Wufei caught hold of Kat's trembling arms pinning them to his heaving chest. Together the Cluster members protected the quaking blond. Trowa placed his hand under Kat's jaw keeping him from twisting his neck. He knew from experience that once Quatre's black visions had a good grip all he could do was keep his lover safe until the awful night terrors ran their course.

Finally the trembling eased. Quatre began to quiet down. Trowa shored up Kat's shoulders letting his head rest on his chest. "Quatre." he called again. This time a whimper answered the calling. "Wake up love." Trowa encouraged.

Winner's eyelids fluttered then opened enough for him to realize he was awake. Another blink and he was aware of emerald eyes looking back. "Tro..." he began before his strength gave out.

"Be still." Trowa replied as Kat tried to move.

"Heero...no." Kat whispered his eyes searching for Heero's face among the others hovering over him. "The boy." he wheezed, "You have to help them."

Although Quatre was asleep when Yuy left he knew he was gone. He might not have seen the boy run out into the storm or Heero go after him but he knew they were missing and in trouble. "They have them." he proclaimed with more power in his voice.

Chang leaned closer to be certain Quatre understood his question. "Who has them?" he asked even though his mounting fear told him the answer.

Quatre settled back in his lover's arms and locked his surprisingly strong sight on the Chinese Cluster leader. "OZ."

**********

The door slamming behind Merquise banged like a pistol shot causing both prisoners to jump. Following closely after the sharp sound, Merquise's voice resounded off the bare walls echoing again and again until it faded into silence.

Heero tightened his arms enclosing Duo in a secure embrace. His steely cobalt eyes met the Commander's cooler sapphire sight with a determination that put Merquise on notice that he was not in the mood for polite conversation.

Zechs stood in a relaxed stance displaying a casual yet controlled posture. His arms were folded over his chest. Long legs and slender hips gave the illusion that he was taller than his six-foot height as he towered over the seated young men. There were no visible weapons but Heero did not discount the unarmed appearance as he studied his possible escape options. Merquise was the larger man and considering the limited space in the locked room he had the advantage, for then anyway.

"Well aren't you two cozy." Merquise stated with more than a hint of sarcasm ringing in his baritone voice.

"We were until you interrupted." Heero shot back with his own hefty measure of disdain. "Why don't you go away and play soldier?" he declared making a mockery of the Commander's superior position with OZ.

A slight smile tugged at Zechs' mouth but whether it was from amusement or annoyance at the brazen youth's blatant dismissal Heero couldn't tell. "But why would I want to leave such a pretty pair alone? No I think you would be wise to convince me to stay." he advised letting his eyes roam over the two tempting captives.

"Go to hell." Heero urged the damnable devil to return to his lair.

"Oh I have been there and back," Merquise declared, "but the dark angels couldn't keep up with me." He took a couple of steps forward never easing his lustful stare. "You," he called pointing down at Duo, "come here."

Heero held onto his comrade shooting a searing glare at the Commander. He had sworn his protection and judging by the lewd look in Merquise's eyes and the huskiness in his tone Duo, as well as his virtue, was in need of defence.

Merquise studied the unmoving braided beauty. "You are not going to be stubborn are you? I don't believe you want to try my patience." he warned with a no nonsense attitude that left nothing to question.

But it was Yuy who moved first. Duo quivered as Heero loosened his hold. "Heero?" he whispered as his defender slid his arms away.

Ignoring Duo's whispered plea Heero braced his hands against the floor and prepared to stand. Stiff neck muscles slowed his movements. The lofty rearrangement caused his head to swim but Yuy kept the symptoms hidden behind a well-practiced stoic mask. A deep breath restored some steadiness as Heero hoped his rubbery legs would not betray his falsely fortified facade.

Merquise let another elusive grin flicker across his lips. His thoughts reverted back to the street scene hours earlier. He vividly recalled the Japanese man's brave but foolish disregard for the armed soldiers. The grin widened as Zechs envisioned his daring charge. There had been a fiery passion in the youth's eyes that had sent a potent tingle to the Commander's groin. Then Heero's words as he raced forward to strike out at his intended target echoed in a sensuous resonance that started the tingle all over again.

Zechs moved again stopping only inches from the enticing young man and his steely glare. He reached forward to let his fingers trail lightly along a strong jaw line and perhaps to trace the ridge of a gracefully high cheekbone. "On second thought you might be better." he announced believing that this young firebrand would be more his equal.

Without hesitation Heero batted the advancing hand away. Then his own hand balled into an anger-clenched fist and swung around with all the power he could muster.

With reflexes befitting his title of Lightning Count, Merquise intercepted the flying fist locking a painfully tight grip on Heero's wrist. Heero brought his other hand to join the first having to use a double grip just to counteract Zechs dominant hold.

Muscles burned from the standoff between the Commander and the captive as they grappled for control. Glowing orbs ignited by an inner fire of fury blazed with dangerous intensity. Winded panting hissed, the powerful puffing sounding like the enraged snorts of angry bulls. Neither Yuy nor Merquise was about to give in. Neither would yield as pride played out in a tense contest of strength and willpower.

**********

Behind the dueling warriors Duo fought to stand but faintness quivered through his legs and a nauseous wave threatened to turn his stomach inside out. A cold sweat soak his skin and a stout tremble sat him back down hard on his backside. It was all he could do to keep the tiny black dots swimming over his eyes from completely blocking his sight of his defender and the platinum-haired Lightning Count.

**********

Yuy gritted his teeth. Sweat glistened on his golden skin adding an even more inviting glow to his features. His shirt had begun to cling in the perspired moisture. The damp material stuck to his chest plastering into the pattern of taut toned muscles and nipples hardened from the exertion.

Zechs held his position but allowed his eyes to wander down the rippling muscles to Heero's waist and beyond as his snug pants presented a pleasant picture. A renewed desire rekindled Merquise's lustful appetite. Once more the Japanese challenger's daring actions reinforced the Commander's resolve to find out if he was a good as he looked and if the same fire that burned in his eyes also burned in his manhood. But in order to carry out his investigation of Yuy's sexual prowess Zechs first needed to persuaded him to cooperate.

Heero's attention was so focused that he didn't sense the slight movement in his opponent. He concentration was so centered that he didn't see the overhead light glint off a silver surface. Suddenly a long slender blade moved into Yuy's side sight. The knife's pointed tip hovered closely before his right eye. Then the point slashed down grazing Heero's cheek, opening up a thin scarlet gash.

**********

Duo saw the knife as Zechs pulled it from his boot top. He watched in terror as the bladed weapon moved toward Heero's face. A shout of warning stuck in his throat as the glint of light off of steel blinded his vision and froze his senses. Then his horrified heart slammed into his chest pounding like a shuttle engine on overload. "HEERO!" he shouted as a single drop of crimson struck Heero's shoulder.

**********

Surprised multiplied by pain broke Heero's focus. In the split second of inattention Merquise gained the upper hand. Heero's wrist was released but before he could react, as the cut on his cheek stung and oozed out a bloody line, Zechs twisted his fingers in a handful of chocolate hair. Gripping the entangled stands he jerked back Yuy's head exposing his throat to the knife's honed edge. Now Heero had no chose but to surrender to the victorious Commander. His arms dropped to his sides and he offered no more resistance.

The pervious sneer on Merquise's lips was now a full smile. He increased the pressure tilting Heero's head back until it seemed that his neck would snap. Leaning closer the Lightning Count let a contented sigh feather over Heero's cheek. His tongue darted out like a snake testing the air then the tip licked at the bloody discharge. The crimson-coated tip moved to brush over his defeated foe's lips to share the exotic taste. Heero tried to draw back from the lascivious attention but he was held in place by his hair and the knife's deadly influence.

From over Heero's shoulder Zechs saw the beautiful braided boy trying to get to his feet again. Adrenaline gave Duo the extra strength but hatred was the driving force. All he wanted to do was free Heero, relieve Merquise of his weapon and set the knife hilt deep into his black heart.

"If you don't want his head in your lap you will stay still." Zechs growled out the warning pressing the blade into the soft flesh along Yuy's throat.

Duo relaxed not wanting to give Merquise any reason to follow through with his promise. "That's better." he praised the boy's intelligent decision.

Zechs brought his mouth to Heero's ear taking the opportunity to lick over the lobe before delivering a playful nip. "Do you remember what you said to me in the street when you thought you could take me down?" he asked with a breathy sigh.

Heero nodded clearly recalling every moment of their first encounter. Every word, every phrase, every promise.

Merquise raised his knee bringing it up between Heero's legs. He pushed until he could feel the prominence of his penis. "You owe me a dance."

Part Nine:

Purple haze painted the streets with dusky hues. The artificial daylight had disappeared signaling the curfew's beginning. Now nocturnal creatures, gang members and crazy street people were all who dared the nightly clampdown enforced by patrolling soldiers.

Most buildings were dark except for the security lighting that cut through the gloom. Behind the two-story Alliance Administration Complex three ghostly shapes dressed entirely in black darted from one cover point to another. Two figures pushed motorcycles that rolled along in a silent out-of-gear mode. Tires crunched in the gravel that made up the Complex's alley as the secretive silhouettes skirted the narrow passage.

A basement at the building's rear put the first set of windows on the second floor. The front was on street level but the rebels knew better than to try to breach the main entrance making the backward route their only option.

The Cluster trio huddled behind a Waste Disposal Unit. Trowa knelt between Quatre and Wufei craning his neck, mentally calculating the upward distance to one dirt-clouded windowpane. As he studied the rough wall of brick and mortar picking out hand and toe holds, Quatre pulled two headsets and a pair of small black boxes from his backpack. He plugged a headset into each box. One headset went on his head and the attending box was attached to his belt. The other set was handed to Trowa who followed the same procedure electronically linking the lovers.

Giving Quatre a quick kiss Trowa left his brothers-in-arms in the trash bin's shelter and pushed his motorcycle to the wall. He made certain the bi-wheeled machine was firmly balanced then stood up on the seat so he could to reach the junction where the smoother foundation met the first row of bricks. Adjusting the transceiver's mini-microphone close to his mouth he whispered into the pickup. "I love you." he said testing the connection.

Quatre smiled as the endearing words floated through his earpiece. "I love you, too." he replied to make sure Trowa's channel was receiving a strong signal. "Be careful." he added fighting the urge to join his soul mate.

"I will maintain radio silence until I hack into a computer." Trowa declared curling his fingers into a deep seam where the mortar had fallen out. "Watch my technique and learn." he teased as he tested his grip.

Toeing into another gap Trowa's lean ebony outline blended with the dark wall. Like a stealthy chameleon he seemed to defy gravity as he effortlessly climbed to the window. Hand over hand he put his daily workout routine to good use. All the sit-ups, pushups and endless practice sessions scaling the warehouse wall were now bearing fruit. Arm and leg muscles bulged under his skintight clothing. With each pull his body moved in a rhythmic dance of graceful strength.

From his distant observation point Quatre leaned back against the bin's cold metal side enjoying the view of Trowa's trim ass swaying from side to side. For a moment he became mesmerized by the sensual sliding as first one long leg then the other ascended the vertical surface.

Images of those same long legs wrapping around his waist for leverage as Quatre and his lean lover ravaged each other temporarily let him forget the danger. Then the fact that one wrong move could send Trowa to the solid ground below quickly replaced the sexual daydreaming.

Unfortunately the danger would not end when Trowa reached the window. Getting inside without tripping an alarm was one more hazard. After he entered the Complex he would have to traverse the corridors unseen, break into the main computer area and hope that the Security Override Code given to Ken by an Alliance employee loyal to the Resistance still worked. The same inside source had drawn a crude floor plan so at least Trowa would not waste time searching for his objective.

Once he hacked into OZ the trespassing rebel would have only minutes to pull up the prisoner roster, locate Heero and the boy then relay the information to Quatre before shutting down the system and getting the hell out. The modified plan had sounded simple enough when he, Wufei, Quatre and Ken worked out the final details. But now as he struggled to pull up the last yard, as his muscles burned and his arms and legs trembled from the strain Trowa realized that research and preparation were only part of the plan.

Intestinal fortitude, luck and a slight case of insanity had to be added in for good measure. *If you get out of this one.* Trowa's inner voice stated. "I know," he wheezed acknowledging the internal proclamation, "but it is not if but when." he argued back against his wise council that should have offered its voice of reason before he was precariously perched on the building's side.

**********

"Be careful my love." Quatre sighed willing Trowa to be safe.

"What?" Wufei asked leaning back against the same cold surface.

"Just wishing Trowa a safe journey."

Noticing Chang's worried expression Quatre put a hand on his arm. "It is going to be all right. It will not be long before we have Heero home again." he assured his comrade that his brother would return. "I know you do not care for the boy," Quatre stated knowing Wufei had made no secret of his feelings, "but you certainly could not deny him a safe return also."

Wufei bowed his head staring at his boots. "No I would not wish anyone to be held by OZ." he truthfully declared, "I want them both back." he sighed not brothering to hide his fear for the only family member he had left. "Please Heero come back. You can bring the boy just come back." he begged under his breath.

**********

Another of Trowa's practiced skills easily unlatched the window. As he pushed it up he held his breath waiting for an alarm to sound but nothing announced his intrusion as he silently slipped inside and lowered the window. Using his excellent night vision he found the door and cautiously cracked it opened. A thin shaft of light poured in from the vacant corridor. Extracting a pistol from his back holster Trowa surveyed the area for any surveillance devices then slowly began to slink down the gloomy hall.

The thought that Heero was with OZ but not listed in their files tugged at Trowa's mind but he dismissed the nagging negativity. Quatre's night terrors told him that Heero and the boy were in OZ custody and sadly his lover's dreams were seldom wrong. Trowa was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Quatre's "second sight". The dreams were more frequent, more intense and he worried about what long term affects the terrible nightmares would have on his precious partner. But as horrible as the night visions might be strangely they were the still the most accurate informational source the Cluster had.

Muffled voices met Trowa's hearing. He stopped short at an intersecting hallway. The overhead lights had been set in the mandatory Energy Conservation Mode. Mentally thanking the Alliance for obeying the rules he flattened against the wall blending perfectly with the muted tones and shadowy textures. Resting the pistol against his chest Trowa's frowned as he noticed the stark contrast between the weapon's shiny metal and his black turtleneck shirt.

The voices grew louder. Trowa withdrew further into the dim recesses. Two men dressed in the Alliance's dark blue "security" uniforms walked side by side. Their guns were holstered and their casual attitude told Trowa that they were not expecting trouble. After all they reasoned, as one uneventful night drifted into the next, who would be foolish enough to enter their territory? A Resistance Rebel with piss and fire in the green eyes would be so bold.

They paused. "Are you still screwing that girl from Sector Five?" one asked pulling a cigarette from his jacket pocket. The flame from his lighter momentarily lit up the corridor.

"Yeah."

"Damn I bet she's good."

"She's a good lay but not the brightest bitch if you know what I mean."

"All the fun without that damn boring conversation. Sounds good to me." the smokers stated taking a long draw. "Come on let's finish this round, I want some coffee." They moved on unaware of how close that had come to the Cluster intruder and his deadly hatred for their employer.

The remainder of Trowa's journey into the viper pit passed without any more close encounters. One time he had to duck under the large window of a Guard Station. Relaxing inside the small cubical the night sentries looked as bored as the uninspired pair he had eluded earlier. Such lax attitudes were comforting to Trowa. Let the enemy be lulled into false security, let them lower their guard. Their inattentiveness was another weak link in their already frail chain of command and one more advantage for the Resistance. One more hope for L2's freedom.

If it had not been for OZ's intervention the battle with the United Colonial Government would have been over long ago. It was only by the Senate's hired henchmen's cruel oppression that the citizens were kept in line. Trowa had his doubts about the Alliance's control over OZ. Wufei and Heero had expressed the same theory that the local authorities were merely puppets and that OZ was pulling the strings.

Wufei had been told by a reliable informant that a secret coalition had been formed between all the colonies. Another persistent rumor, that Chang believed was based in fact, told of a secret research facility where huge fighting machines like the Epyon were being constructed. If such tales were true the Outland outlaws might soon have a means to stand against the Colonial Government and have a chance to finally defeat OZ.

But first to the business at hand. The Cluster was incomplete and it was Trowa's mission to reunite the rebel faction. Finally his objective came into view.

"COMPUTER SYSTEMS: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY"

"This must be the place." Trowa proclaimed as he read the sign on the door. Of course the twenty or so computers, clearly seen through the reinforced window, sitting in neat twin rows were the most obvious clue.

The locked door was no problem. Trowa eased behind a desk in the farthest corner. If any patrolling lackeys came his way it would be easy to crouch down and hide. Dividing his attention between the outside corridor and his spying assignment might make the hacking slower but if he was caught, well, everything would quickly grind to a halt.

The activated monitor cast a bluish tint on Trowa's face. Leaning closer he grinned as the official Alliance Administration Complex logo that took up most of the screen. Clicking on the green "ENTER" in the bottom right corner the logo disappeared and a rectangle box replaced it. "ENTER AUTHORIZATION CODE" it demanded in bold letters. Trowa's fingers flew over the keyboard as the eight digit number disguised with those damned little asterisks filled the box. He hit the enter key and held his breath as the computer digested the numerical code.

"ACCESS GRANTED" flashed on the screen giving Trowa permission to breath again. "OZ." he typed in the desire location. The computer hummed as it rerouted the request. The screen changed displaying the OZ Crossed Swords Insignia telling Trowa that one more bridge had been crossed. "Interrogation Unit" Hit enter and wait.

"IDENTIFICATION NAME & NUMBER" "Damn they are being difficult" Trowa swore becoming impatient with the endless layers of security. The keyboard's clatter was the only noise in the large room but each strike of the keys seemed to multiply until Trowa was certain that everyone in the entire building could hear. "Merquise, Commander, LC265" A longer pause while the bitchy machine crosschecked the data. "Come on." Trowa whispered becoming jumper with each painfully slow second.

"ACCESS GRANTED" "All right now we are getting somewhere." Trowa congratulated himself, "Don't get too cocky." he chided his prideful backslapping realizing that he had only cleared one hurdle but had not finished the race.

Another search box. "Prisoner Roster" The screen changed once more. A list arranged in order by date popped on. Trowa scrolled down until the correct date are found. No Yuy listed among the detainees. "SHIT!" he exclaimed with a bit more volume. "All right don't panic. There is always more than one way to get the job done."

Checking the menu he located "Identify by Description". A general description of Heero's height, weight and nationality was supplied. "Prisoner 125--best match."

"Prisoner 125, location." The computer hummed then gave Trowa his reward for his persistence. "Interrogation Unit--Holding Room 4."

Trowa repeated the process typing in the boy's description. This was one case where the young man's unusual braid was a help. After all OZ shouldn't have too many long braided pony-tailed prisoners. Holding Room 4. They were together.

"That has to be right." Trowa hoped that all the risk had been justified. "Please let it be right." he begged the fates to cooperate.

**********

Quatre straightened up as his lover's voice sounded through his headset. A wide smile told Wufei that Trowa's report must be good. "Trowa found Heero." he relayed the information. "The boy is with him. They are in the Interrogation Unit, Room 4."

"All right my love, good job." Quatre praised Trowa's infiltration expertises, "Now get you trim ass back here and we will get Heero and the boy."

Trowa switched off the computer taking a moment to sit in the dark and think about Quatre and how much his blond lover wanted his trim ass. "Kat you are a very bad boy." he sighed adjusting his pants where they had suddenly tightened up in front.

Quatre was waiting by the motorcycle by the time Trowa's boots settled on the seat. As soon as Trowa's feet hit the ground he raised up on his toes, slid his arms around his partner's neck and put him into a proper lip lock.

The breathy kiss broke when Wufei loudly cleared his throat. "Could you two hold off on the screwing until we find Heero?"

A slight blush tinted Quatre's face as he climbed up behind Trowa. Wufei mounted his motorized beast. "Let's go kick some OZ ass." Wufei set the attack tone.

The roar of engines echoed in the curfew's quiet. A pair of headlights sliced through the gloom. A trio of Cluster rebels raced out into the night to rescue their comrades and strike another blow for freedom.

Part Ten:

Dance...to move or cause to move in a rhythmical way. Zechs envisioned a dance, a movement of two bodies united in the throes of desire. After all the enticing young man with the brooding eyes had issued the invitation and how could he refused. Of course he knew that the term was meant as a challenge to fight but isn't the passion of hate and the passion of love so closely related that one could lead to the other?

Zechs leaned closer locking his sapphire sight on his "dancing" partner. "Show me how well you can fall into step." he sneered licking at Heero's lips once more.

Yuy's steely sight never wavered from the lusty stare as the tip of the Commander's tongue teased along his chin. The sting from the cut had eased, the blood had congealed but the anger the attack generated had increased tenfold. Oh yes, Heero wanted to dance. All his energy, his complete attention was focused on one thing, taking the knife away from Merquise and sending him to permanently dance with the Devil.

Using the knife as leverage Zechs backed Heero up until he bumped against the wall a few feet to Duo's right. While the persuasive blade held its position the Commander's free hand curled between Heero's legs. Pressing his flattened palm into the pant's crotch he took his time to rub and explore his fiery opponent's genital attributes. Despite Heero's willpower his body betrayed him as it reacted of its own accord.

"Mmmm." Zechs smiled probing the enlarged bulge. "Yes that's it," he continued his lewd review of the young man's penile feedback, "let me know how much you want me."

With the blade in place and Zechs body applying equal force Heero was unable to move much less draw away from the unwanted attention. The prolonged fondling was creating a stiff swelling. Heero inwardly cursed his anatomy for not listening to his mind's orders to ignore the physical stimulus. Reverting his eyes Heero tried to put on a mantle of disinterest but the colder he acted the harder Zechs tried to heat him up.

**********

Realizing that Zechs awareness was otherwise engaged, Duo slid his back up the same wall using the firm surface to help him stand. *If I can edge up while he isn't looking...* his mind reasoned before light glinting across the knife's shiny blade cut off the thought. *Movement might set him off." it further debated the course of action, *Talk to him, make him want you more than Heero.* the final decision declared.

Duo straightened putting on his best practiced "come-hither" expression. "Merquise." he purred out the Commander's name.

Zechs didn't notice the calling as his concentration was centered elsewhere. Duo took a deep breath, "Commander Merquise." he called again with more volume. This time Zechs turned his head but didn't stop his manipulations. "Be quiet boy." he growled at the verbal intrusion into his foreplay.

Fighting the urge to be sick at the thought of being touched by the OZ soldier Duo shored up his stomach and his nerve. "I can't believe you would want him over me." he remarked with point blank frankness.

Either something in Duo's tone or posture must have triggered some interest. Zechs stopped his stroking but didn't move the knife. "What?" he asked not certain that he had heard correctly.

"I can give you a better time." Duo dangled the bait by adding a suggestive tilt to his body. "You do think I am pretty don't you?" he inquired recalling Zechs' earlier description of he and Heero as a pretty pair.

An odd grin smoothed out Zechs' lips. "Don't worry I haven't forgotten about you." he stated with a huskiness that made Duo's skin crawl. "You will get you turn." he promised as the thought of dancing with both beautiful boys heightened his lust.

Heero gritted his teeth moving carefully under the knife's influence. He could feel the honed edge digging into his neck but the pain was not enough to keep him still as he turned his head to look at his comrade. "Shut up." he hissed remembering everything that Duo had experience at Treize's hands and the lasting torment it had caused. He could not now let his partner endured anymore abuse of body or trauma of mind and spirit.

Duo's alluring lavender eyes held a feigned fire designed to take Zechs' carnal appetite off of Heero and redirect it to the growing tautness in his pants. He had learned the trick and applied it each time Treize demanded release. Duo had become an expert knowing exactly how to let his body take over while his mind remained void of any feelings.

"You know you want me." he breathed out the statement daring to take a step forward.

Zechs tiled his head and it was clear that he was at least considering the offered option. "You are beautiful." he admitted recalling his words earlier that evening.

Duo smiled seemingly delighted with Zechs attention. Heero felt the knife bite deeper as he tried to push away from the wall. "Duo I said shut the hell up!" he exclaimed determined not to allow him to sacrifice himself again.

Heero knew he had pushed too far an instant before Zechs' hand slapped across his face. The keen sound snapped in the air followed closely by the thud of Heero's head hitting the wall. Pinpoints of white light bounced inside his head then materialized in the form of dazzling starbursts flaring before his eyes. Blood seeped from his lower lip generating a tangy taste in his mouth.

"YOU SHUT UP!" Zechs screamed as he willingness to gently persuade the object of his lust to cooperate had run out.

Duo sucked in a troubled breath fighting to keep from charging the madman. His only hope to save Heero was to appeal to the Commander's animal appetite and he would do whatever necessary to achieve his goal. Heero would not become tainted like he was. He would stay pure for that special person who would one day share his love.

Heero wiped away the gathering blood. His eyes flashed with murderous rage. He had lost his mother to the Alliance's tyranny. On several occasions he had almost lost his life. He would not now stand by and let this vile creature take away Duo's last trace of humanity. It was time to dance and Commander Merquise was going to learn a new step.

But as Heero shifted his weight, as every muscle tensed for the final confrontation, Zechs suddenly recovered from his blinding rage. But this time the knife was not aimed at the smart mouthed Japanese youth but at the beautiful braded boy. Heero reined in his mounting anger as Zechs reached out and jerked Duo towards the wavering blade. He held his breath as the pointed tip was trained under Duo's chin.

"We are going to play this game by my rules." he announced as blue sparks exploded in his eyes. "Back up against the wall." he ordered Heero. He didn't hesitate to comply spurred on by the knife's closeness to Duo's windpipe.

"Turn around and brace your hands on the wall." came the next order. Heero did as he was told.

Painfully gripping Duo's arm Zechs guided him to Heero. Another strong jerk put Duo on his knees. "Since you are so eager to dance we all might as well have a good time." he declared slipping his hand behind Duo's neck and grabbing a handful of braid. He let the knife droop but not enough to put Duo out of danger.

"Pull your pants down." Heero quickly undid his belt, hooked his thumbs into the pant's waistband and lowered them to his knees.

"Underwear, too." Heero's blue boxers joined the pants.

"Heero no." Duo whispered feeling helpless to stop Zechs' intended rape.

Zechs leered down at Duo, "Let's see if together we can give your friend a good time." he proclaimed using the braid to make Duo slide between Heero and the wall until his face was inches from Heero's manhood.

"Show me your talent and if I like what I see maybe I won't kill both of you."

Tears pooled in Duo's eyes as he gazed up at Heero. Heero momentarily let his eyes meet his comrade's misty pupils then quickly averted his own teary sight. "It's all right." he more mouthed out the words than said them out loud. Duo began to say something but a strong glare from Heero silenced him. "Go on." he whispered so lowly that only Duo could hear.

Duo glanced up at Zechs knowing he did indeed have no choice. With trembling hands he gently took Heero's manhood wrapping his fingers around the rigid length. As he had so many times with Treize he put himself into shutdown mode. He disengaged his emotions and performed like a robot. Automatically he hands moved up and down stroking in a measured rhythm

Duo could feel Heero's penis twitch with each stroke. He could see him fighting not to give the OZ Commander any satisfaction, not one moment of pleasure from his vulgar voyeurism. Duo, too, put on his mask. Zechs would not see his pain or know how his heart hurt for Heero.

Zechs was quickly becoming bored with the slow pace. "Use you mouth."

Duo swallowed hard pushing down a lump in his throat. Images of Trieze sprawled on his bed as Duo bent between his legs pounded through his mind. The taste of his seed spilling into his mouth, the smell of Treize's body sticky with sweat and semen made it hard not to gag and retch.

A bare breath hissed passed Heero's lips as Duo's hot mouth closed around his manhood. His eyes closed tighter as he slid his tongue up and down then tickled over the tip. Duo had to put on a good show. *Heero please forgive me* his heart cried as it broke in two.

Bringing the knife around Zechs poised it near Heero's neck until the glistening blade was clearly seen in his side vision. There was a barely audible swishing sound then Heero felt the unmistakable touch of skin on skin. Draping his other arm over Heero's shoulder Zechs leaned most of his weight on his intended paramour's back. His excited manhood nudged at Heero's anal opening. "Are you man enough to take it both ways?" he whispered with a huskiness that dripped with desire.

Heero offered no answer. It was all he could do to keep his sexually assaulted body under control. He would be damned if he would give the Commander one moment of gratification. Whatever the Lightning Count would do to him Heero Yuy was not going to react with anything but distain.

"Too hot to talk?" Zechs stated rubbing it genitals against the young man's firm buttocks. "Before this is over I will make you scream." he promised as his arm slipped off Heero's shoulder.

Zechs caught hold of his quivering length lining it up with the tightly puckered entrance. Even though Duo had continued his oral manipulations he as still aware of everything that was happening. The standoff had reached the point of decision. Duo could not allow the depraved Commander to follow through with quenching his lustful thirst. Something had to be done and it had to happen now.

Duo pulled back his mouth and moved his head passed Heero's hips. "I thought you wanted me." he declared licking around his lips to entice Zechs.

Zechs leered down at the boy's wide eyes and luscious lips. Sure he was willing but it would be much more gratifying to take what was not freely offered. "I haven't forgotten you." he replied leaning more heavily into Heero. "You finish him on that side; I will take him from this side then you will have my undivided attention. Now get back to your assignment before I change my mind and kill both of you.

"NO!" Duo stated with determination in his tone. No matter what the price Heero was not going to lose his virginity.

Without a word Zechs shifted his weight to his right side. Still in complete silence he pivoted and sent his black-booted foot crashing into Duo's chest. With a forceful whoosh all the air rushed out of Duo's lungs. The resulting faintness sent him reeling over sideways until the floor broke his fall with another bone-jarring impact. Duo curled up into a ball as pain lanced through his entire body. He couldn't breath, he couldn't see. All he could do was gasp for a single intake of air as he shivered on the cold concrete.

"Just as I thought," Zechs screamed as another wave of madness swamped his mind, "Neither of you street whores are good for anything. Can't even take simple orders." he mumbled shaking his head hard enough to send a silver cascade of hair over one shoulder.

"You stay down or I will slit his throat from ear to ear."

Heero tensed. The knife pushed harder in response. "Give me any excuse." Zechs hissed. "Just one."

Knowing that surrender was his only choice Heero became still. For Duo's sake he would endure whatever he had to. *Hell,* he thought to himself, "now I won't be embarrassed about being a virgin.* He would have laughed out loud if the irony had not been so cruel. He had finally found someone to relate to, another misfit orphaned by man's thirst for power and fate's vindictiveness. The only thing Heero had to offer Duo was his purity and now that, too, was being taken from him.

Feeling Zechs' hot breath on his neck, the sharp point of the blade at his throat he sighed, "I won't fight you." Heero whispered watching Duo clutch his stomach in agony as he struggled to breathe. "Please leave him alone." he begged unashamedly.

"Please." Zechs repeated the boy's beseeching plea. He smiled relishing in the delight of his victory. "You will give yourself to me?"

"Yes."

"Freely?"

"Yes."

"Then beg me to fuck you." Zechs demanded sliding his arm around Heero's waist and pulling his back into his chest.

"Fuck me." Heero replied as Duo rolled onto his back and stared unforced at the bare light bulb. His face was pale, lips bluish. A glean of sweat streaked his cheeks. As much as it frightened Heero to see Duo's condition he gained some solace from knowing that his precious partner was not aware of his imminent rape.

Zechs poised his penis then licked hungrily along Heero's earlobe, "Ask me nicely."

Heero swallowed then closed his eyes. "Please fuck me."

Zechs used his taller height to his advantage. Heero squeezed his eyes tighter as the penis' head began to push passed his unprepared opening. He forced himself to relax despite the fact that every nerve was on edge and every muscle was drawn up like a taut spring. Inch by raw inch the engorged member kept to its excruciating course. Heero's arms quivered from trying to support Zechs' full weight. His legs became rubbery as he fought the faintness of feeling as though he was being torn in two.

The Lightning Count was going to take his time, enjoy to the fullest degree his claiming of the young man. It had been months since he had ravished such tight heat and he was not about to rush the deflowering. Increased blasts of breath feathered Heero's hair as Zechs panted in sheer copulatory ecstasy.

Heero hissed in pain as Zechs pulled halfway out then plunged in with one solid thrust. Something wet and sticky had begun to coat Heero's inner legs and he didn't have to look to know that he was bleeding. Gritting his teeth he fought the overpowering need to scream as the rutting increased to a pounding of flesh against flesh. Now Zechs' arm about his waist bore into his ribs feeling like it would break the bones. The knife cut a slight line under his chin but he was not aware of the added pain.

Zechs picked up the pace driven on by his insatiable appetite. White knuckles gripped Heero's shoulder. The knife quivered dangerously near Heero's carotid artery. Heero squeezed his eyes shut, sucked in a deep breath and prayed that the whole horrible assault would soon be over.

Duo lay on his back viewing the horrific scene with a sense of total disbelief. Like looking through a clouded windowpane he seemed somehow detached from the reality of the rape. The phantom dreamscape unfolded in slow motion. He could not see Zechs' face for the curtain of silver hair but his bodily motion clearly defined the act. Stomachs muscles ached as Duo pushed up on his elbows. The room wanted to spin and black dots danced over his eyes.

"Heero." he called weakly certain that his mind was playing tricks. Then his heart skipped a beat and another portion of his soul died. He strained to get up and all the while he cursed his inability to save his newly found soul mate. Bathed in cold sweat all Duo could do was drop to the floor and helplessly listen to every grunt and groan, as Zechs made no effort to hide the verbal announcement of his impending climax.

"Touch yourself." Duo heard Zechs order through the nightmarish fog.

Heero heard the huskily whispered command but his pain-confused mind could not process the words much less translate them into action. Zechs increased the blade's pressure. "I said touch yourself you wanton whore." he growled never easing his violating barrage, "Now!" he screamed knowing that he could not hold back his climax much longer.

Without being aware of moving Heero took one hand away and wrapped it around his manhood. He couldn't feel the touch, wasn't sure that he doing anything at all. Mercifully Heero discovered that he had become almost completely numb. From the force that jolted his entire body he knew that Zechs was still thrusting into him but there was only a slight twinge of pain. In fact Heero wasn't certain that he was still standing until his single arm braced on the wall failed to bare both his and his assailant's weight. Now all that was holding him upright was Zechs' arm about his waist.

Heero's hand clumsily stroked his manhood but if he ejaculated he didn't feel it. But despite his numbed condition he did feel Zechs straighten and deliver one final thrust. He heard the hiss of air as the Lightning Count threw back his head savoring the tingle growing in his groin. Zechs came hard sending a shudder coursing over every inch of his sweat-soaked body. Then all motion stopped and no sound was heard except Zechs panting as his penis pumped the last of his claiming seed inside Heero.

"Did you enjoy the dance?" he taunted resting his damp head on Heero's shoulder as the last twitching melted into a sexual afterglow.

All Heero could do was nod "yes" as the last of his strength gave out. His hand fell away dangling limply at his side. His legs also lost their willingness to shore him up. Then Heero flinched as the deadened sensation suddenly disappeared. Hot pain shot over his back and down both legs as Zechs pulled out. As the same time that Heero was freed Zechs slid his arm from his waist.

Heero went down, his legs having no more potency to hold him in place. Shaking on his hands and knees he felt semen seep from his torn anal opening. He smelled the foul odor of sweat and blood and milky seed leaking between his legs and saw it dripping on the floor.

Zechs hovered over his victim. His hair hung in string stands around his face. An expression of conquest curled his lips into a satisfied smile. He toss back his head sending his damp mane sliding over his shoulder. With a victorious sigh he pulled up his pants and smoothed out his rumpled uniform jacket.

Squatting down beside Heero he was careful not to step in the bloody spatters speckling the dirty floor. "Next time your braided friend will be my dancing partner." he declared running his fingers down Heero's bowed spine. "Maybe you can teach him some new steps." he sneered standing up.

Gazing down at the beautiful boy whose less blurry eyes showed that he had partly recovered from Zechs planting his boot in his chest Zechs leaned over and tiled his head at a studying angle. "Don't worry I haven't forgotten you but right now duty calls. Besides I want to be at my best for you since you think you can give me a better screwing." he grinned as the thought of a second visit later in the evening made his pants tighten once more.

A thin shaft of light shone in from the corridor then the door slammed shut behind OZ's psychopathic Commander. A somber silence like inside a tomb blanketed the room. Duo sat up. Spurred on by fear for Heero as he was now certain that what he had witnessed was real and not the product of a hallucinatory nightmare, Duo found the strength to crawl to his fallen comrade.

His hand trembled as he touched his friend's arm. "Heero can you hear me." he asked seeing the unfocused glaze over his eyes. "Heero it's Duo. Please look at me."

Heero shuddered quickly losing the battle to stay alert. Pain seared through his body. The stench of spoiled body fluids wafted into his nose and threatened to retch in his stomach. He was cold, so very cold from the hefty soaking of sweat that was chilling quickly in the unheated room. Loss of blood was another contributing factor but fortunately the flow had slowed to a trickle. Unfortunately any strain could trigger a renewed surge and Heero did not have the strength to overcome any more trauma to his battered system.

Heero swayed as his arms began to fold under him. Duo slipped his arm over Heero's back gently guiding him to the lay back against his chest. Now Duo fought the urge to vomit as the bloody solution smeared across the floor. "Oh merciful saints." he breathed out his plea to any angels that might be looking down on the pitiful sight below.

Heero's head lopped to the side. Mopping back matted hair from Heero's ashen face Duo sucked in a stronger breath. There was no recognition in his comrade's dull blue sight only a blank stare that spoke volumes of the rape's resulting withdrawal. A thin line of frothy drool leaked from his mouth as Heero's lips parted with a slight hiss of air.

"Heero." Duo called again the pleading in his voice raising it to a higher pitch. "No you can't leave me. Damnit I will not let you go." he swore placing his hand under Heero's chin and centering his head. A small shake...nothing. Panic was beginning to set in. Duo had to do something to stem the swamping tide drowning Heero's senses. "Forgive me." Duo whispered as tears tracked down his face, then he slapped Heero hard enough for the sharp sting to be heard.

Heero jumped as the pain raced from his cheek to his already throbbing head. Muscles tensed, arms and legs shook but thankfully the cloudy cover had begun to slip from his eyes. Suddenly arms flung out, hands batted at the vivid images etched inside his head. "NO!" he shouted his animation set in motion by a stout adrenaline surge.

It took all of Duo's power to hold onto his panicked partner. Even though he was thankful for the response Duo knew the frantic activity could be counterproductive. Heero could not afford to bleed anymore nor could he continue to thrash about. Duo tightened his hold hoping to ride on the alarmed wave until Heero had no more fortitude to fight.

I didn't take long for Heero's limited energy to run out. As hyperventilation took over the Japanese youth clutched onto Duo's arm as if his very life depended on the anchor. Sobs shook his frail frame. Trying to preserve what little modesty remain, Duo tugged Heero's pants back over his hips. He stroked Heero's hair, whispered soothing words and rocked back and forth, anything to comfort his Cluster comrade. "I'm here." he promised. "Hold on I won't let you fall."

Duo cried, too. He wept for Heero's loss of innocence and his failure to stop it. He cried for all the victims of the Alliance's oppression and OZ's inhuman cruelty. And he cried for himself. Memories of his past losses, his family, his friends, all the recollections came rushing back slamming into his mind like a bright and burning shooting star.

"Merquise will pay for this." he proclaimed pulling his friend and, hopefully one day, his lover as close as possible. "If it takes my last breath, if it means eternal severance from you I will send that Son of Satin to live with the demons that spawn him. As much as I want to spend my life with you," he confessed hoping that Heero would understand his need for commentment, "my heart could never be at peace as long as that vile creatures walks this world. This is my oath to you Heero Yuy until the end of time."

Heero settled down laying his head in Duo's lap. Curled up like a frightening fawn the rebel that had offer heart to a rescued "street rat" finally drifted off into a restless slumber. Duo leaned against the wall totally exhausted. He stomach cramped and his ribs ached. He was angry, he was hurt. But most of all heartsick for the irreversible circumstances that would have not come about if he had died the first time Khrushrenada beat him. "Damn my stubborn will to live." he scorned his survival. "But I will make it right, I swear by my soul, I will make it right."

An uneasy quiet shrouded the chilled cage. The hum of ventilation equipment, voices and footsteps from the hall and Heero's ragged breathing seemed to scream along the bare walls. Duo closed his eyes. In his thoughts he played out a murderous scenario. In his mind's eye he could picture the Lightning Count's prone body sprawled at his feet gazing up with a sightless stare. He could see blackened blood, smell the congealing pools and experience the peace of watching Zechs Merquise passed on to dwell in hell.

"Oh yes, Merquise, we will dance." Duo breathed on the promised retribution.

Part Eleven:

The sentry went down soundlessly from Wufei's perfectly executed sword hand chop. Trowa dragged the limp body into a storage closet then joined his fellow infiltrators in the dimly lit corridor. Getting passed the first stage security had been simple. Although the guards travelled in twos, Wufei and Trowa had been equally skilled in the quick and silent elimination of the patrolling pair.

Trowa took the point holding his pistol snugly against his chest. Quatre kept the middle position also armed with a similar weapon. Wufei served as rear guard. A larger caliber automatic was his choice of defence. And if the pistols were too loud to maintain the rebel's secretive trek, Wufei's sword hanging from his belt would be more than adequate for the job.

The lateness of the hour aided the trespassers in their unobserved movements. As Trowa had discovered during his "visit" to the AAC the overall security whether Alliance or OZ was woefully lacking in any degree of diligence.

It was common knowledge that most OZ soldiers did not generate much brainpower. In fact it appeared that the dumber the better was the criteria as far as the bottom ranking troopers were concerned. Add boredom and a cocky attitude and it was easy to see why the Resistance despite their meager resources continued to gain ground in their fight for freedom.

Trowa flattened against the wall and cocked his head around the corner. Again the early morning hour seemed to be on their side. With a hand gesture he motioned for his fellow rebels to move out. One more turn put them on the correct hallway. Matching reinforced doors lined either side. Even numbers were on the left, odd on the right. Of course as luck would have it the trespassing trio had entered on the higher numbered end.

"Damn!" Trowa swore reading "16" on the nearest door. "Kat stay close to me." he whispered starting forward.

Wufei glanced over his shoulder, readjusted his grip on his weapon and fell in behind Quatre. "Keep your eyes open." he instructed as his ebony sight darted from side to side. "It is too quiet for my taste."

Trowa turned slightly peering over Quatre's head. "I thought you preferred the quiet."

"Yes but in this case too quiet could mean trouble. You know the tiger is always silent before it pounces."

Trowa shrugged then gave Quatre a quick wink. "Pouncing sounds nice, doesn't it?" he declared remembering his lover's earlier appreciation of his ass.

A rosy blush heated up Quatre's cheeks adding a tint of color to his usually pale face. He had not meant for the review of his partner's sexy anal anatomy to become public knowledge. "Trowa please." he whispered keenly feeling the hot flush in the hall's cooler air.

Trowa couldn't pass up the opportunity to tease his lover. "Did you hear that Wufei he's begging for it." Before Quatre could register further protest Trowa planted a kiss on top of his blond head. "Have patience lover." he whispered into the silky tresses.

To an outside observer the playful exchange might seem strange considering the seriousness of the situation; each Cluster member knew all too well the gravity of their mission. Trowa's teasing was not meant as frivolous foreplay but it was his attempt to lessen Quatre's worry for Heero and the boy.

Wufei understood that there was a method to Trowa's madness. Although the good-natured taunting did seem to temporarily ease Quarte's tension, nothing short of rescuing his brother and the stray who had obviously captured his heart would alleviate his fretful fear.

The slamming of a door suddenly stopped the teasing. Three black-clad outlines scurried around the corner. Trowa and Wufei crouched on opposite sides of the intersection. Quatre ducked behind his taller lover trembling despite his efforts to put up a brave facade. Boots struck the tile floor; the footsteps resounded with a metered tapping that grew louder by the second.

"One man." Wufei mouthed the words across the opened space. Trowa nodded then pointed to Wufei telling him he could have the honor of eliminating the lone trooper.

Closer the footfalls came. The sole's snap increased to bounce alone the walls. Wufei tucked his automatic in his belt, raised up on his haunches and steadied his balance. Muscles coiled like a spring. Energy was transferred to his legs and power to hands that were deadly weapons in their own right.

A few more feet. "Come on you bastard." Wufei willed the single sentry to move within his striking range. Like his pouncing tiger the Chinese Cluster leader prepare to take down his prey.

"Commander." a voice called from the furthest end of the hall. The footsteps fell silent.

"What is it Captain?" a husky voice asked. The baritone tenor was so close that Wufei could almost feel the breath that carried the question.

"You have a call from Senator Dermail."

"I'm too tired to make polite conversation with that old man." the phantom voice declared, "Tell him I will talk with him in the morning."

"But sir," the second voice replied, "he says it is important."

A pause, one that seemed to go on forever. Wufei cut his eyes across the way maintaining his ready posture.

"All right tell him I will pick up the call in my office." Steps sounded again but this time they were moving away.

In unison the three rebels dared a peek at the retreating Commander. All that could be seen as the elusive soldier melted into the shadows was a blue uniform and a mane of platinum hair swishing from side to side.

"Merquise." Wufei growled out the despicable name. "I swear on my heart that we will meet face to face and when we do you will die."

The intruders into OZ's lair crept forward once more. Determination showed in their sure steps, resolve controlled their body language and the fire of revenge flashed in their eyes.

**********

Duo struggled to keep Heero sitting upright. He had discovered that allowing Heero to lay on the floor, even if he did use Duo's lap as a pillow, caused his breathing to deteriorate into raspy wheezing. Duo had debated with himself if he should call a guard in hopes that he could persuade his watcher to at least give them water and a blanket.

OZ's reputation for assault, especially the sexual kind, was well known and Duo doubted that the abuse was limited only to the Command Staff. No calling attention to themselves was not the best idea. "Besides," Duo sighed as his partner lopped limply to one side, "it will all be over in the morning."

Duo knew it was only a matter of time before Zechs' return. When the psychopath came back for his second dance Duo would be ready. Heero was failing fast. He was chalky and clammy and each intake of air rattled in his chest. The bleeding had stopped but had it halted before too much of the life fluid had drained away?

If Heero didn't make it Duo would have no reason to go on. He had resigned himself to avenging his precious partner. It might be his last act but Duo would gladly perish if he could take the Son of Satin with him. When it over, when Merquise had been sent to hell, then he and Heero could be together for eternity. Death was a small price to pay if it meant holding Heero in heaven.

Heero moaned against Duo's shoulder. "Duo." The sound of his name was all but whispered on a sigh.

"I'm here," Duo answered tightening his hold. "Can you feel me?" he asked wondering if his words or his touch were registering through Heero's fading senses.

Heero sucked in a labored breath quivering from the effort. "I have to go."

Duo swallowed to push his voice passed the emotional lump clogging his throat. "Where do you want to go?" As soon as the question left his lips he realized how stupid it sounded, "We will go soon." he added hoping to ease Heero increasing anxiousness with a promise of their quick departure.

Heero gazed up at the ceiling with an unforced stare. Duo placed a hand on Heero's forehead to shield his eyes from the lone light bulb's brightness. "Close your eyes." he urged knowing the glaring light was bad for Heero's eyes.

"Do you see?" Came the odd question.

Duo followed Heero's glazed sight but saw nothing, only the locked door and bare walls. "What do you see?"

"Angels"

Now it was Duo who closed his eyes. "Oh merciful saints," he sighed as fear stabbed through his soul, "please don't take him away. Please if you must claim someone let it be me." he begged as tears tracked down his dirty cheeks to fall silently on Heero's upturned face.

**********

"Room 4, this is it." Trowa proclaimed leaning forward to make certain it was the correct door.

"Stand aside." Wufei ordered pulling a master key from his pocket. "Let's hope the bastards haven't changed the locks." he muttered working the key in the hole below the doorknob.

When OZ arrived they had taken over existing buildings not having the time or resources to construct their own. The Holding Area was merely a series of offices and the only modifications had been reinforcing the doors. But despite the door's strengthening the locks had remained the same. Again the haughty organization's belief that they were untouchable had led them to another foolish mistake.

A click told Wufei that the lock had been compromised. As the doorknob turned in his hand he held his breath. "If they are not inside..." the thought began before he forcible shoved it aside.

Quatre nodded at his fellow Cluster members. "They are there." he announced as an empathic tingle pulsed through his mind.

**********

"Do you see?" Heero repeated straining to get his feet beneath him. The cold sweat soaking his shirt caused another stronger shiver to course over his already quivering body.

"Heero you have to be still." Duo ordered using all the power he dared to hold his friend in place. "Damn," he swore under his breath, "where is all this sudden strength coming from?" he wondered even though he knew from past experiences that great willpower could be called up when the right persuasion was applied.

Heero continued to struggle. Mumbling something about "finding the light" he staunchly refused to listen or be still. "Can't you see?" he kept asking over and over again. Each time he wheezed out the question his eyes would temporally focus as if they were centering on something beyond Duo's field of vision.

Finally his false energy began to give out. Trembling, drenched in clammy moisture, he lost all ability to fight. Flopping in Duo's arms the young Cluster leader sprawled like a rag doll, arms and legs limp, head tiled at an odd angle.

Now every breath took almost more effort than Heero could muster. All Duo could do was support the failing partner and wait for the last hiss of air to flow over Heero's bluish lips. "Heero please don't leave me." Duo pleaded. Did the begging sound selfish? Was it fair to want to hold on when Heero was in such agony?

"Please," Duo implored lowering his head to align his tear-streaked face with Heero's vacant sight. "I can't lose you, too. I can't..." The rest of the words were cut off by the sound of hinges creaking.

Duo straightened redirecting his eyes to the opening door. "Merquise." he hissed feeling his entire body tense up as the devil's name left his lips.

Carefully propping Heero against the wall Duo slipped from under his friend. Bracing on his hands and knees he leaned closer placing a brushing kiss on Heero's cheek. "I'm sorry but that demon has to be stopped." he whispered pushing back stringy bangs from Heero's forehead. All they revealed were glassy eyes still captured by his hallucinatory delirium.

"It is better this way." Duo continued putting a hand on the wall to steady his standing up. "This way we both win our freedom." he declared fighting the faintness the vertical rearranging produced. A deep breath supplied enough oxygen to shore up his legs and take a step towards the door. "Heero, I love you."

Light from the hall brightened the bare walls. A lone figure emerged from the blinding backwash. Duo balled up his fist, cocked back his arm and let his best punch fly at the haloed outline. It was not merely physical strength that guided the punch but an avenging power borne from his promise of protection. However the sudden forward movement had the opposite effect. Instead of landing a solid punch Duo's totally off-balanced strike sent him pitching towards the floor.

An arm sprang from the shadows snagging the falling form. Instinctively Duo struck out at his perceived assailant but his weakened blow only glanced off the intended target. "Hey!" a startled voice exclaimed. A blur of motion was all Duo could see.

"It is all right." Another voice joined the first. The optical haze melted away with the reassuring proclamation.

Duo blinked twice before the face's full aspect became clear. Wide eyes framed by blond bangs held a soft gaze. "Quatre?" Duo questioned his puzzled mind's interpretation. Then his eyes looked up the enfolded arm to find its owner's face. "Trowa?" came the next uncertain inquiry. Emerald eyes and strange brown bangs confirmed that Trowa was indeed responsibly for saving Duo from a nasty collision with the concrete floor. "How..." he began before a dizzy wave washed over effectively stopping any further questions.

**********

The opened door bathed Heero in a broad band of light. Wufei's heart skipped a beat at the sight of his battered brother. He didn't remember the short trip to Heero's side. Dropping to his knees Wufei didn't hesitate as he wrapped his arms around his younger sibling. "Heero." His heartsick calling seemed to fall on deaf ears as he leaned over Heero's lax body.

"No." Wufei whispered upon finding no evidence that Heero knew his brother was there. "Heero can you hear me?" he spoke louder hoping to coax at least some small reaction.

In Wufei's arms his brother flinched as a sharp intake of air spurred his scattered senses from their clouded confusion. His glazed eyes wandered back from whatever had held them spellbound. Their quest completed, Heero's blue orbs settled on a familiar face. Tears helped to wash away the dull film clouding his sight. His dry lips parted but garbled noises replaced the words.

"Don't try to talk." Wufei urged wiping away beads of sweat from Heero's brow. "We have to get out of here." he stated with urgency struggling under Heero's lax weight.

Trowa transferred Duo to Quatre's care and went to help his friends. "Let me have him." he said sliding one arm under Heero's shoulders and the other under his hips. Using his larger frame and muscular build Trowa easily lifted his fallen comrade. Fortunately the trio of rescuing rebels failed to notice the dried blood that had stiffened Heero's pants.

Quatre laced an arm about Duo's waist to help him walk then they fell in behind his lover as he bore his frail cargo. Wufei took the forward point. As worried as he was about Heero he knew that he couldn't help his brother until they were back in the Cluster's security. If they got caught or killed the worry wouldn't matter so the rebel's first priority was escape.

Finding the corridor clear Wufei used his pistol to motion for the others to follow. "End of the hall, turn left. About three hundred yards to the outside door. A short trek through a wooded area and meet up with a second squad that has a truck." Wufei ran the plan over in his mind. "The Medic will be there. "The boy and I will ride in the back with Heero. Trowa and Quatre will follow on the motorcycles and hopefully we will be back home before dawn."

Wufei glanced back at his brother whose face looked even paler in contrast to Trowa's black shirt. As much as he wanted to check on Heero he and the others could not stop. One hundred yards, the end was in sight. The outside door materialized from the dim light. "It won't be much longer." he promised counting on Heero's stubborn nature to keep him one step ahead of death's icy embrace.

Duo looked over at his comrade and, if he had his way, his lover as well. Even if Wufei objected, even if Duo had to fight the entire Cluster, he would do whatever necessary to make Heero Yuy his partner for life.

Wufei paused by the door listening for sounds from the other side. Closing his hand around the knob he dared to let out the breath that until that moment he didn't realize he was holding. The knob turned, the door moved back. A tint of night air wafted through the crack.

A sudden snap froze everyone in place. It was the unmistakable sound of a weapon being cocked and readied for firing. Closely behind the first dreaded noise an equally clear click confirmed that the weapon was not alone. Slowly the Chinese Cluster leader pivoted on his heels to see passed his fellow rebels. Two solders armed with high-powered rifles had taken a sure aim at the retreating trespassers.

Trowa's weapon was in his belt and his hands occupied with Heero. Likewise Quatre was in the same quandary as Duo was blocking his pistol. Wufei alone was in the position to defend his comrades but the pair of already trained rifles had the advantage. Wufei was fast but not fast enough to drop the soldiers without risking his brothers-in-arms lives.

A standoff! One pistol against two lethal rifles. Wufei drew in a breath and made the only decision he could...surrender.

Part Twelve:

The soldiers prodded their captives like cattle hopefully not to the slaughter. Stripped of their weapons the Cluster rebels walked in two groups down the dim hall. Duo had recovered enough to move under his own power. Refusing to leave his partner he walked beside as Trowa carried Heero. They kept one guard's attention. Quatre and Wufei had been taken aside and under the watchful eye of the second OZ lackey walked a little behind the others.

If Heero had been able to take care of himself the trip down the hall would be happening, not by any upright means. The insurgents would have either overcome the guards and escaped or died in the attempt. In the latter case fearful soldiers would be delivering five lifeless bodies to Merquise and suffering under his violent wrath for depriving the phycho-Commander of the pleasure of torturing them before putting them out of the misery.

It was early morning but Wufei was certain that they would not be locked away until a more reasonable hour. No, the prodded prisoners were too valuable to wait; Merquise would want to see them now. Finally the "parade" halted in front of a door bearing with a simple sign that said Commander. The lead soldier knocked timidly at first then with more force.

No invitation to enter came from the other side. The sentries exchanged anxious glances as neither was sure what to do. "Try again." one instructed more afraid of Merquise's anger should he not be informed about the new captives.

Another, louder, knock. Faint noises could be heard beyond the closed portal. "What?" a voice demanded in an irritated tone.

"I have prisoners you need to see." the knocking soldier announced. He deliberately decided not to mention that the gathered group had been apprehended during a rescue attempt that almost succeeded. After all why risk a great amount of trouble and possible painful retributions.

"Come in." was grumbled in the same annoyed fashion.

The opened door revealed Commander Merquise dressed in silky gray lounging pants and a pale blue tee shirt that enhanced the rippling muscles across his chest. Soft cloth shoes had replaced his knee-high boots. His silver hair, tied back in a loose ponytail, shimmered in a single lamp's muted light.

Somehow without his OZ uniform Zechs Merquise didn't seem quite as dangerous but the Cluster rebels had learned that looks could be deceiving. Merquise was still unpredictable and extremely volatile. It would be a very deadly mistake to forget that his rabid psychosis could erupt at any time

A mixture of surprise and pleasure showed in the Commander's steely eyes as he studied the detained quintet. Then his hardened sight fell on the Japanese youth being protectively cradled in Trowa's arms. A thin-lipped smile graced Merquise's lips as he remembered his claiming.

"It appears he wasn't as tough as he acted." Merquise stated nodding at Heero's lax form. "Put him down." he ordered.

Trowa glanced at Wufei. Wufei nodded telling Trowa to follow the order. Gently he lowered Heero to the floor and slid his arms away. Before Heero settled completely on the patterned carpet Duo slipped underneath to let his partner's head rest in his lap. A low moan was the only response to the transfer.

"Still trying to protect the whore?" Merquise sneered tilting his head downward, "I hope you do a better job than you did before." he added to rub salt into Duo's wounded soul.

Duo poised his mouth readying a bitter reply. He intended to tell the bastard exactly what he thought of him and what he could do with his smart-ass comments but a stern glare from Wufei told Duo to keep his acidic insults to himself. The time for words had passed, now actions were the answer and the reply would not be long in coming.

"Cut the small talk." Wufei demanded letting Merquise know by his tone and attitude that he was the group's leader and the Commander would deal with him.

Merquise paused studying the Chinese man whose veins were obviously filled with piss and fire. "All right this is how it is going to be. You will give me information or you will regret not cooperating. Is that simply enough for you?"

Ebony orbs bore into Merquise with a resolve that would not be defeated. "You are a fool to believe that you hold any authority over me. I answer to no one especially the Alliance's lapdog." Wufei stated bluntly leaving no room for misinterpretation.

"I see the desire for punishment is not limited to the two beautiful boys." Merquise proclaimed casting a lecherous look at his forced lover and the braided boy who had failed to save him. "Maybe you need to be reminded of my authority." he stated stepping closer to Duo and Heero. "Private, your rifle." The soldier immediately handed over the weapon then replaced it with a pistol drawn from his belt holster.

Merquise leveled the rifle's slender barrel at Heero's chest. "This one is no longer good for anything so he will be eliminated first." he announced with malice as cold as the blood pumping through his hollow heart.

Without pause Duo laid over Heero using his body as a shield. "If you kill him you will have to shoot through me."

Beside Trowa, Quatre sucked in a quick breath. "No." he whispered as his empathy told him that Merquise had every intension of pulling the trigger. Wufei was clearly the leader and Merquise was only interesting in the highest-ranking officer. The other underlings were only a means of persuasion, pawns to be used as he saw fit. One dead rebel, or two, it made no difference as long as he got what he wanted.

Hatred boiled inside Wufei. A deep-seeded loathing that wanted to wrap around Merquise's throat and choke the lunacy from his lustful body and deranged mind one drop of life force at a time. But as much as he wanted to extinguish the Commander's fiery madness, Wufei knew that the dousing would have to be carefully put into motion. The unpredictable madman plus two equally armed soldiers would have to be handled with the greatest of care.

Merquise's finger tightened, the rifle quivered from the tension. Duo closed his eyes concentrating on Heero's heartbeat so he would not hear the crack of the deadly discharge. He whispered a prayer for his and his comrade's safe journey into the next realm. Just as reverently he expressed his gratitude that Heero's clouded mind was not aware of his impending death.

"Any last words for your traitorous collaborators?" Merquise asked his voice husky with murder. "Don't you at least want to beg?" he hissed putting all the sarcasm he could into the mocking question.

"You offered yourself before." he reminded Duo of his pervious attempt at sexual persuasion, "Your whoring won't save your friend but it might save you, that is if you are good enough to make it worth keeping you alive."

Duo would not be taunted by the insane Commander who had slipped beyond any rational reason. He would not beg, would not give the unbalanced bastard one moment of satisfaction. Duo had long ago resigned himself to death. He knew it was only a matter of time before he failed to outsmart the Soul Stealer. His regret was not for his demise but for Heero. Because of Heero's determination to save an undeserving street rat now his guardian would share Duo's fate. Duo squeezed his eyes tighter and braced for the end. "Heero please forgive me."

**********

A dozen plans and possibilities raced through Wufei's mind swirling into a sucking whirlpool. He knew if he didn't sort out the correct strategy, pull the right answer from the watery depths, the last saving solution would drown with him. The rifle was trained and Merquise showed no sign of changing his mind. In fact he seemed pleased with the prospect of sending the two "Betrayers of the Cause" to their eternal rest.

Wufei forced the mounting doubts aside and did what had served him well in the past...he followed his instincts. Swallowing hard to shore up his nerve Heero's brother found his voice. "Merquise." he called deliberately putting a demanding tone in his voice.

Merquise did not react, giving no indication that he heard his name. Wufei's heart skipped a beat. He had to make the OZ executioner listen before it was too late. Maybe a little insolence would get Merquise's attention. All it could do was make him mad and, hell, he was already over the edge so what was the worse that could happen? If Wufei didn't stop the planned slaughter he and his friends were dead anyway.

"COMMANDER!" he shouted displaying his own authority as leader of the Cluster. "You will listen!"

The barrel drooped but not enough to clear the targets. Merquise looked around locking his wild eyes on the brazen Cluster leader. "How dare you challenge me!" he growled angered by the Chinese man's audacity.

A single word bounced inside Wufei's head. *Challenge.* Merquise would like nothing better than a challenge. The Commander's cocky attitude was positive proof of his need to validate his great leadership and fighting skills. His frequent sexual references were yet another method used to brag about his manhood. If Wufei could get Merquise to go one on one, if in the process the fight distracted the guards perhaps he and his fellow rebels could turn the tide.

"You are either very brave or very stupid." Merquise declared as an angry cloud settled over his entire countenance, "No you are neither," he decided, "you are crazy."

Wufei locked his angry eyes with the Commander's anything but lucid sight. "Would you like to find out how crazy I am?"

"How do you mean to show me?"

"A challenge, man to man." Wufei replied loudly so everyone could hear, so the OZ soldiers and rebels alike would know that the Cluster leader had flung down the gauntlet. That a verbal symbol of defiance had been presented to the great Commander.

Now Wufei had him. Merquise could not deny the challenge, not one issued by a lowly Resistance rebel who could never be his equal. To save face in front of his soldiers meant he had to accept the dare. However no fight was worth the effort without the promise of a victorious reward.

"Very well." Merquise agreed narrowing his eyes until he viewed his challenger through thin slits. "But there should be a wager, something to make the fight more interesting."

"What do you propose?"

A full smile flowed over Merquise's face, "If you win I will let you and your comrades go free. If I win you will tell me anything I want to know. Do you agree?"

Wufei tiled his head as he considered the terms. "Why should I trust you?" There was no point in mincing words since he and the Commander were both pass the point of polite conversation.

"You have my oath as an Officer of OZ." Merquise answered truthfully. He might be crazy but he took his position with OZ seriously. It would go against his Officer's Honor to break his promise even if it did mean letting the rebels go.

Wufei cut his eyes at Trowa and Quatre then redirected them at Duo and Heero. His brother had begun to stir in Duo's arms. His eyes were open but Wufei was not sure that Heero's sight or his mind was focused enough for him to understand what was happening. Glancing back at Trowa the taller rebel nodded letting Wufei know that he had complete faith in his decision. Likewise Quatre let his azure sight convey his total trust.

"I agree."

"There is no room for proper combat here." Merquise indicated with a sweep of his hand, "Our arena shall be outside where natural laws, not man's rules, will keep the score." he proclaimed. "Private, take my opponent and his comrades to the clearing behind this building. As soon as I am properly attired I will join you then we will see how you measure as a man."

Wufei bowed from the waist in a show of respect. Merquise was his enemy but he was deserving of a soldier's honor. "I will be waiting."

As Trowa carried Heero and Duo kept his watch at their side, Quatre fell into step with Wufei. "Can you trust Merquise?" Quatre questioned.

"I am not sure but I have no other choice." Wufei replied putting all his focus into the last chance he had to save his brother and his friends.

Part Thirteen:

The first rays of dawn created a gloomy backdrop for the upcoming combat. The building on one side and a stand of trees on the other formed a makeshift arena. Between the natural and unnatural barriers a security spotlight cast a large circle of yellowish light over the clearing.

One soldier watched as Duo sat under a tree holding Heero against his chest. Heero was more alert, better able to follow as Duo explained what was about to transpire. To Duo's right Trowa and Quatre had been seated on the ground by the second sentry who like his counterpart dutifully kept watch.

Wufei limbered up, stretching and practicing his martial arts strikes and stances. His body prepared he sat cross-legged using meditation to focus his mind and spirit. He chanted calling on his ancestors to guide him in the most importance thing he had ever done. Heero was the only family he had and he would not allow his brother to join those who had died before. Life without his brother was unacceptable. No, Wufei would not live alone.

Merquise wasted no time changing for the contest. He soon appeared in his full dress uniform complete with a hip-length cape. A wide black leather belt held a holstered pistol. In one gloved hand he carried Wufei's sword. He no doubt planned to use the bladed weapon as part of the challenge. Why not make the stakes a little higher by including Wufei's sword as part of the victory spoils.

The Commander made a grand performance of removing his cape and folding it neatly before draping it over a tree's lower branch. He made an equally showy spectacle of unbuckling his belt which held the sidearm that he, in his over-confidence, believed he would not have to use. The belt and pistol were laid on the ground.

He placed Wufei's sword beside the pistol. "If you want this you will have to prove that you deserve it." he stated as a sneer curled on his mouth.

Wufei ignored the taunting using the interval while Merquise put on his one-man show to finalize his strategy and shore us his nerve. Once he glanced over at Trowa and Quatre. Again they gave him a reassuring nod. If they were worried that he might lose they hid it well. He didn't dare look at his brother or the boy who had proven his loyalty, that would be too great a strain on his already overstressed mental reserves.

With much physical fanfare Merquise shrove into the spotlight's circular patch of light. Wufei bowed then took up a defensive stance silently studying his haughty adversary who continued to do a great amount of posturing. Wufei hoped his challenger's strutting about was more pompous exhibitionism than any actual fighting potency.

Wufei was certain of one fact; there would be no rules, no sense of fair play and no congenial combat of tag and retreat. Merquise would use every means to win because nothing short of total mastery of his opponent would satisfy his inflated vanity.

"I am going to enjoy this." the cocky Commander reminded his Cluster foe. "I would have liked the opportunity to examine your sexual prowess," he wished out loud, "to find out if you are as good as you look but I suppose I will have to test your stamina in another, less satisfying, way."

The Cluster leader and the OZ Commander squared off. Merquise made the initial charge. Wufei ducked under a right cross then fluidly dodged a left jab. Of course Merquise's failure to make contact with either blow did nothing to improve his mood or discourage his malevolent wish to inflect as much harm as possible.

Wufei's answering punch struck along Merquise's shoulder heightening his frustration. The next uppercut hit with the same force under Merquise's jaw. The combination unbalanced the OZ Officer. He started down but caught himself. Teetering on one knee his hand clutched at the sandy soil for balance.

The Chinese man landing the first strike added further insult to Merquise's already injured ego. As his jaw throbbed a forceful snort accented his outrage at Wufei outwitting his advances. Suddenly a handful of the grainy particles were flung up. The grit exploded on Wufei's chest invading his eyes in a blinding broadcast.

As Wufei clawed at his stinging sight Merquise took advantage of his opponent's compromised position and charged forward. His forearm struck across Wufei's neck. With his arm centered and his wrist firmly set under Wufei's chin he dug his boots into the ground pushing Wufei backwards, driving his back hard into the a rough tree trunk.

Merquise eased off but only enough to twist around before shoving his shoulder into Wufei's diaphragm successfully expelling most of the air from his lungs. Stunned and winded, his eyes still clouded by dirt and tears Wufei grabbed out wildly as Merquise planted his feet and prepared for a second assault. Using his shoulder for leverage he increased the pressure pinning Wufe's against the tree.

The Commander cocked back his right fist and sent it with full force into Wufei's chin. The follow up attack came in a volley of alternating punches aimed at Wufei's head and chest. Wufei instinctively threw up his arms blocking the first two punches but the third solid strike caught along his cheekbone. A flash of white light burst over his blurred vision. The jolting connection opened a gash on his cheek and sent sharp pain racing from his face to his brain. Blood seeped from one nostril.

With the further shocking of his senses Wufei never saw Merquise's left fist before it plowed into his jaw line. The impact jerked back Wufei's head bouncing it off the tree. The inflexible contact sent dizzy waves shivering through his entire body. Black dots danced over his eyesight before merging into an opaque veil.

At the same instant a splintered piece of bark pierced Wufei's shoulder. A searing spasm tore through his upper arm. Hot rivulets ran down shooting from his fingertips. The resulting numbness rendered the appendage almost useless. The new wound bleed freely. Wufei reached around touching the painful spot. His hand came back red and sticky.

********

Duo drew in a panicked breath, as the battle seemed to shift in Merquies's favor. Heero stared at the combatants having a hard time separating reality from his brain's muddled interpretation of the unfolding events. In his gut he felt his brother's pain as deeply as if it was his own but he could not make the scattered mental pieces come together to form a coherent picture. Fighting the frightening confusion he drew up in Duo's arms like a child seeking shelter in his mother's reassuring embrace. All Duo could do was hold his partner tightly and pray for Wufei's deliverance.

On the clearing's opposite side Quatre, seeking comfort, discreetly took Trowa's hand. He, too, was having a difficult time reading the deluge of multi-layered empathic input flooding his thoughts. Much like Heero's uncertain understanding Quatre was fighting his own perplexity between real and mirage imagines.

Trowa squeezed his hand, "its all right Wufei will not go down that easily."

**********

Wheezing Wufei fought to suck air into his deflated lungs. His chest heaved with each seizing breath. Swear and dirt settled into the folds of his face His shoulder burned, the ache wrapping so tightly around his upper body that it bent him over at the waist. Watering eyes interfered with his sight, sweat stung in the many cuts and scrapes the fight had produced.

With his thumb he wiped away a reddish stream of sweat diluted blood oozing from a cut midway below his hairline before the steady seepage eased its way into his eyes. Holding his sticky finger up for closer inspection the Cluster rebel was now enraged by the blood letting.

**********

Merquise stepped back surveying the damage and revelling in the pleasure of his battered victim's defeat. The sight of blood heightened the crazy Commander's maniacal rage. Like a wild animal closing in for the kill Merquise moved forward muscles taut in a stalking posture. He approached his quarry like a stealthy hunter ready to deliver the final fatal strike that would assure his victory.

Merquise had one annihilative goal...to make extinct the inferior species. He desired to end Wufei and his kind's worthless existence forever. The traitor's cessation would rid the Commander of one more interference in OZ's rise to ultimate power. "This is it rebel." he growled under his breath, "This is the end."

**********

At that moment Wufei's fight was not with Zechs Merquise but with himself. The fight was mental as well as physical. It had never been in Wufei's nature to give up and he wasn't going to resign now. For Heero's sake he could not lose. His Cluster comrades had followed him and trusted his leadership. He could not betray their loyalty. The battle came down to this...triumph or death...there was no other choice.

Shaking his head to dislodge the fuzzy imagines his hair that had slipped from the ponytail curtained about his high cheekbones. With much effort he drew in a single, strong inhalation breaking the binding constrictions. The improved oxygen flow gave him the second wind he needed push away from the tree. Clenching his teeth he summoned up every ounce of energy he could muster to reinforce his fading fortitude.

The upright placement and clearer head came just in time as Merquise lunged with crazed determination. Wufei knew he couldn't count on his party numb arm so he compensated with a high side kick. His swiftly rising boot crashed into the Commander's ribs sending him sprawling hard on his blue-clad ass.

Staring down at Merquise as he sat more humbled in the dirt, taking his turn at catching his breath, Wufei hissed, "Don't you know Commander our war is over." he declared wiping his blood stained thumb on his shirt, "It was over the moment you agreed to the fight."

"Over." Merquise replied huskily, "Oh no rebel it will never be over."

Wufei pointed a trembling finger down at the now not so cocky Commander, "Then this farce has gone on long enough. Get up you bastard!" he ordered harshly, "Let's finish this now!" he screamed.

Merquise rose from the ground with the wild look of a man who had loss his last grip on reality. The frenzied glaze gleaming over his eyes told Wufei that Zechs Merquise had finally slipped over the edge plunging into a psychotic abyss from which there was no way out.

Wufei had succeeded in pushing Merquise into the ultimate state of insanity but the forceful unhinging of his mind had unleashed a most primitive bloodlust. Now Wufei had to question whether he could defeat the demons he had let loose. In his impaired condition, as he arm hung limply at his side, could Wufei take on someone who had lapsed completely beyond rational reasoning or actions? With the knowledge of Merquise's madness fixed in his mind Wufei braced for the final offensive knowing that only one man would survive.

Shaking from pure rage Merquise narrowed his eyes then lunged with a frontal kick quickly followed by a straight arm punch. Wufei parried the blows with his forearm but stiffness and pain impaired his reflexes. This lack of mobility slowed his reaction time allowing Merquise to get in close enough to grab Wufei's wrist.

Hooking his foot behind Wufei's ankle Merquise swept forward upsetting his opponent's balance. Both men went down, each with a firm hold on the other. Twisting and grappling, arms and legs entwined and muscles burning from the struggle, the Cluster leader and the OZ Commander played out the last hand in their game of life and death.

**********

The fight did have one good side effect; it had captured both guard's attention. Neither of the soldiers was keeping a proper watch as they had become absorbed in the combat. Trowa cut his eyes at Quatre who gave him a sly grin and a quick nod. Both men carefully shifted their weight and eased into a squatting stance.

With startling reflexes Trowa jumped to his feet and executed a perfect upward jab squarely in the nearest watcher's gut. The sudden thrust bent the man over offering an excellence opportunity for Quatre to follow through with an well placed elbow strike under the winding man's chin. Without a sound he crumbled into a boneless heap.

The furry of motion diverted the second guard's attention from the fight and redirected it in the opposite direction. Realizing he had neglected his duty he raced at the rebel pair. Trowa intercepted the charging man whirling around and cracking a rigid back fist and forearm along the guard's nose and mouth with sufficient power to loosen a few teeth. A weak groan was the only sound as the shocked soldier collapsed falling over his counterpart, adding another body to the pile.

With the guard's threat neutralized Quatre ran to Duo and Heero. Trowa moved nearer to Wufei and Merquise stopping a short distance away. "It's all clear." he yelled, "Finish the son of a bitch so we can go home."

**********

Ever so slowly both Wufei and Merquise were nearing exhaustion. Soon it would come down to which one had the most desire and drive to win. Merquise had his dreams of conquest and the recognition from OZ that would be his reward as the result of the Resistance downfall.

Wufei already had something more precious than glory and power, he had friendship and the love of a brother he would gladly die for. But living to see Heero free from OZ would be his greatest reward.

Digging his boots into the soft soil Merquise managed to roll Wufei onto his back. Straddling the Cluster rebel he reached for Wufei's throat. Beyond the Commander's anger-demented eyes, passed his face flushed with exertion, Wufei could see Heero curled up in the boy's arms like a frightened fawn. Dimly through the dust kicked up by the fight he caught a glimpse of the fear and confusion in his brother's eyes.

It seemed like a dream this strange picture reflected in the marginal recesses of his sight. Heero's pale features appeared so much like a delusional mirage but Wufei knew that the disturbing images were not a figment of shock-induced delirium. Heero was not some phantom illusion but real flesh and bone. The same blood flowed through their bodies, the same memories bound the brothers in a kinship stronger than any earthy fates or forces. "Brother." Wufei whispered as Merquise's hands encircle his throat and squeezed with murderous intend.

Gaining power from his need to protect Heero, his need to make their shattered world whole again, Wufei found a renewed strength source. The power came not from his body or mind but from his heart. "This is for you Heero." Wufei growled as his hands grabbed onto Merquise's wrists.

Merquise's eyes widen as his fingers were detached from the rebel's windpipe. Bewilderment flickered through his mind as his opponent displayed a sudden increase in stamina, a resiliency borne from brotherly love. As Merquise's hands slipped free Wufei let go with one hand, cocked back a wrath-curled fist and with every ounce of power he had dealt the decisive blow. With a splattering gush of blood Merquise's head snapped back. The reverse reaction successfully disengaged his hands and sent him tumbling over with a heavy thud.

It was now Wufei's turn to bestride his enemy. With his own brand of combat borne insanity the Cluster rebel let his fists fly free. Over and over he pummelled his stupefied challenger. Again and again he beat about Merquise's face and body until splashes of crimson bestrewed over both men.

Flashes of red exploded behind Heero's eyes rousing the dull orbs from their unfocused stare. Duo pitched backward as his partner pushed against his chest. Before Duo could react to the unexpected movement Heero was on his hands and knees and had begun to crawl towards his brother. "Wufei." he choked out the name through a raspy throat that had been silent for too long. "Stop." came the strange demand causing Heero's fellow freedom fighters to gasp in unison.

Blinded by his anger-clouded senses Wufei never decreased the severity of his punches. Heero's weak calling fell on deaf ears as the bloodlust boiling up from Wufei's heart roared inside his head.

Heero's limited strength gave out setting him over on his hip. Wincing from the strain he took in a shaky breath, "Wufei, please." he begged louder finally finding his voice. He did not personally care if Merquise didn't survive the battering but for Wufei's sake he didn't want the dying to come by his brother's hand.

There had been too much death and not enough healing. As much as Heero detested OZ for their repression and cruelty, as fiercely as he hated Merquise for stealing his virginity Heero could not watch his brother kill another human. "WUFEI!" came the wailing cry that came from deep inside Heero's shattered soul.

The sound of his name carried on his brother's pleading voice froze Wufei in place. As his bloodstained fists quivered inches from the Commander's equally bloodied and swollen face, Wufei turned to see Heero rocking back and forth in the dirt. Arms folded tightly around his body Heero sobbed silently with only occasional catching gasps for air betraying his weeping.

The Wufei gazed down at his almost unconscious rival seeing for the first time the crimson coloring his face and tainting his once lustrous hair. With Heero's heartbroken plea the bloodthirsty beast driving Wufei's punishing blows withdrew into the last traces of meekness that OZ and the war had not stripped away.

As tears made tracks in the mixture of grim and sweat and blood coating Wufei's golden features the Cluster leader deferred to his brother's humble wishes. "For my brother's sake I will spare you," he announced, "but you will remember this as the moment you suffered your definitive defeat."

Grabbing Merquise by his uniform jacket Wufei pulled the Commander into a seated position. One last blow. Soundlessly Merquise slumped against his conqueror. Wufei guided the limp form aside laying the stunned man back in the gritty soil. Wheezing and groaning and, no doubt, experiencing the raw anguish of his defeat the Lightning Count offered no response as Wufei wiggled out from under his prone body.

Wufei rolled over resting beside his bested foe. Panting and hurting but happy, he gazed overhead as the early morning sun painted the sky with rosy hues. Heero got to his feet weaving with an unsteady gait as he walked to his brother. Duo started to come to his partner's aide but was stopped by Quarte's gentle touch on his arm. "Let him do this alone." he wisely advised.

Kneeling down by his last living relative Heero Yuy placed his hand behind Wufei's head intertwining his fingers in his brother's damp ebony hair. Tucking the stringy stands behind his ears Heero got his first look at Wufei's bruised face. Drawing in a troubled breath he carefully laid his fingers on Wufei's cracked lips brushing away the reddish encrustations. "Wufei I..." his voice caught as renewed crying halted his words.

Wufei reached up letting his stiff fingers bathe in the cleansing tears. "I know." he whispered as an emotional lump also interfered in his speech. "It is over now. I will take you home."

Duo helped Heero to stand supporting him as he swayed on wobbly legs. Trowa took Wufei's right arm, Quatre his left and together they pulled their victorious comrade to his feet. Wufei hurt in places he didn't know he had but the pain was worth the price of freedom. "Let's go." he said glancing back at Merquise who was still emitting low moans.

"What about him?" Trowa asked uncertain as to what their next move should be.

"Leave the bastard to his misery." Wufei answered, "The shame of his defeat at the hands of Resistance rebels will be his just reward. Maybe OZ will finally recognize his incompetence and remove his worthless ass from service. Yes, his failure will be his own undoing." he declared then spat on the fallen Commander.

**********

As the Cluster members walked away Merquise raised up on his elbows taking in the defeatist atmosphere surrounding him. Zechs Meruqise the great Commander. The Lightning Count of noble birth, foreordained for greatness. He was destined to issue in a new regime that would be recorded in history as the turning point in the Colony's restoration. But all around the fallen hero was stark evidence of his downfall. His disgraceful station in the dirt, the degrading loss and the scorn it would inspire could not go unanswered.

He swore bitterly. No matter his status, even if every inferential element of law and nature conspired against him, Zechs Merquise would not capitulate. Not while there was breath in his body and burning hatred in his soul.

Merquise literally slithered dragging himself to the pile containing his sidearm and the rebel leader's sword. Even though the sword was the last treasure from his past, in Wufei's relief of rescuing his brother and his friends the bladed weapon's importance had temporally been forgotten. Concealed by the tree's shadowy overcast Merquise reached for his pistol, his dark blue uniform blended perfectly masking the withdrawal of his weapon.

"This is not over yet rebel." he pledged wiping blood's coppery taste from his lips. Swearing under his breath the weapon rose without deviation until its blackened end centered at the back of Wufei's head.

The glimmer of something silver caught in Duo's side vision seconds before his mind realized what had caused the glint. "LOOK OUT!" he yelled leaping towards the targeted pistol.

Wufei and the others spun around. All they heard was the crack of a single shot. All they saw was a bright blue flash as the muzzle belched fire and Duo fell face forward to the ground. The terror of what they saw held them in stunned disbelief.

"DUO! NO!" Heero screamed racing to the crumpled body lying to one side.

Heero dropped to one knee scooping up his soul mate, guiding Duo's sprawled form until his head rested against his shoulder. Now the roles were reversed, now it was Heero who was begging Duo not to leave him. Frantically Heero examined Duo for signs of blood or damage. "Please." he implored the fates or whatever deities ruled their lives. "Duo can you hear me?" he asked pulling his partner closer. A faint moan was the only response.

"Heero?" Duo whispered turning dazed eyes up to find his comrade.

Heero leaned over putting his mouth near Duo's ear, "I'm here."

A wicked laugh bounced off the tree line with a booming repercussion. Merquise, pistol still firmly griped in his hand, stood up. "Well," he sneered directing his maddened sight at Heero and Duo, "looks like someone got in the way."

Heero trembled not from rage but from a chill that ran down into his soul. He was fearful and hurt and angry but this time Merquise's taunting would do no good. Cradling Duo in his arms Heero didn't care anymore about the Commander or the conflict. All he wanted was for Duo to be all right.

"What's wrong rebel," Merquise asked leveling the pistol at Heero's head, "used up all your fight?" he smiled satisfied that he had won.

Heero leaned forward ignoring Merquise and his threat. "It's all right." he promised, his concern now fully on Duo and not the pistol.

This blatant disregard for the Commander's supreme authority and his climactic conquest enraged the Lightning Count. Bending at the waist he extended his arm. The pistol, shaking with his fury, drew up inches from the rebel pair.

"You don't seem to appreciate my granting you a few, final moments with your whore." he directed his statement to Heero, "It is unfortunate that you chose to defend the street rat, you might have been good for something on long cold nights. But now it is time I ended your insolent ingratitude" he announced fixing his aim.

Suddenly Merquise froze in place. His eyes widened and his mouth gaped opened. A strange garbled noise rose from his throat as his upper body jerked violently. Heero stared in horror at the scarlet overlay soaking through the rent fabric of Merquise's jacket front. Wufei's sword had entered his back, penetrated just below his breastbone and emerged from his chest.

A wrenching convulsive fit of agony snapped his head back. The dislodging contortion sent Merquise to the ground where he laid withering as his heart slowed in its beating. Little by little the tremors lessened until only his hands twitched as the death throe twisted his body and death's glassy glaze filmed over his sight. In the final moment as his life drained away Zechs Merquise knew he had lost. That his dreams of a higher order had dissolved into fleeting bits of consciousness. Then all motion stopped.

Heero's sight shifted looking passed the Commander's still body. Wufei stood numbly. The blood-drenched sword was clutched firmly in his quivering hand and his dark eyes were held fast by the macabre scene. Silent tears streaked down his cheeks.

Heero knew of his brother's beliefs concerning the sanctity of all living beings. He also knew what price Wufei had paid by delivering the fatal blow. It was his act of love for Heero and loyalty for his friends. And perhaps an act of redemptive release for his own sake but at what cost?

Duo's moving about refocused Heero's attention. Slowly Duo opened his eyes and beheld the most endearing sight he had ever seen. The clear blue eyes of his soul mate totally captured his heart.

"Do you hurt anywhere?" Heero asked anxiously. "Are you all right?"

Duo nodded, "The devil missed." he replied, "I'm a little shaken but I will be fine."

Heero leaned over placing a gentle kiss on his partner's lips. "Will you stay with me forever?" he asked never wanting to be parted from the beautiful braided boy.

"Forever." Duo promised raising up for another kiss. Together Duo and Heero had forged a bond that would never be broken. "Heero I love you." Duo breathed out his devotion.

Wufei knelt beside his brother and the newest Cluster member. "Why?" was all he could say before he broke down and wept unashamedly.

Duo understood the unfinished question. "I know what it is like to lose your family, to be alone. I could not let Heero lose his brother. I could not let him be alone."

Wufei drew both Duo and Heero into a strong embrace, "Thank you." he expressed his heartfelt gratitude. "I will always be in your debt. How can I ever repay your bravery?"

Heero smiled at his brother then at his lover and partner for life. "Just be happy for us."

Epilogue:

In some ways the last month had raced by like sands leaking through a broken hourglass. In other ways the minutes and hours and days had crawled at a snail's pace. But whatever the rate of passing each day had been better than the pervious one.

It had taken Wufei about two weeks to recover from his injuries. Of course the time would have been less if the Chinese Cluster leader had not tried to do more than he was able. He insisted on maintaining his busy agenda of hit and run and giving OZ hell. While Heero and his comrades were able to keep Wufei in camp he was still determined to attend ever strategy session, check and double check the mission plans and review every bit of informant information so no one in OZ or the Alliance could piss without his knowledge.

Add to Wufei's hectic schedule more restless hours at night making sure everything was running smoothly and Heero was finally forced to issue threats of bodily harm to make his brother rest and eat as he should. It was an uphill battle but Heero proved that he could be as stubborn and hard headed as his older sibling. There were tense confrontations and shouted arguments and begging from Quatre for the brothers to get along but there was never a lack of love between Wufei and Heero.

**********

Heero and Duo had become inseparable. Taking care of Wufei did help to ease Heero back into a daily routine but Zechs Merquise's physical violation and mental abuse was difficult to overcome. Each day Duo worked at Heero's side doing what he could to assist his lover in his recovery. Every night he shared Heero's bed cradling him as he fell asleep and comforting him when nightmares jolted him awake.

Heero and Duo had not done much more than kiss and cuddle. An occasional manually stimulated release was performed but they were not ready to take the next step. Too many memories and too much pain still lingered so they wisely decided that limited lovemaking was the best way to go. It wasn't that they did not desire each other but sex done in desperation or to satisfy bodily urges was not how they wanted their first time to be. They were both willing to wait until the time was right, when they could share pure love free from the demons of their pasts. Each day Heero improved thanks to Duo's love, his brother's devotion and his friend's and comrade's support.

**********

Shortly after the rebels returned to the Outlands Quatre decided that it was time for closure concerning his family's objections to his and Trowa's relationship. Quatre contacted his father and set up a meeting. Trowa went with him for moral support. Employing the maturity he had developed since joining the Cluster Quatre told his father that he would always respect his family but that Trowa came first. He boldly declared that Trowa was his partner and that if his family could not accept that then Quatre would no longer consider himself part of the Winner clan.

Quatre's father was amazed by the profound change in his son. He admitted that Quatre was now a man able to make his own decisions. Everyone put aside their differences and a tearful reunion followed. Although Quatre's parents were worried about his involvement with the underground faction they didn't try to persuade him to come home. Instead they pledged their support offering their wealth and unlimited resources to aid the Cluster's cause.

Trowa was welcomed unconditionally. To prove the family's acceptance of their son and his lover their union was blessed with a Joining Ceremony. Then Trowa Barton and Quatre Winner-Barton returned to the Cluster as partners for life.

**********

Two months later:

It had been two weeks since Quatre's father paid for the shuttle that secretly carried his son and his fellow Cluster rebels to Lagrange 1. The rumors had been true; there was a covert research facility. There was a team of scientists and engineers who had used Gundanium to construct five advanced mobile suits that would rival any of OZ's fighting machines.

For the first time in over a year the five young freedom fighters were safe. They able to move freely about a secure compound staffed by men and women who were dedicated to uniting the Colonies. They were to be trained as pilots, to engage in guerilla warfare that would end the Alliance's tyrannical oppression and destroy OZ.

The rebels had been assigned three rooms in an apartment building on base. Of course everyone enjoyed the privacy. Quatre and Trowa shared one room, Heero and Duo another. Even Wufei benefited from the singular accommodations. Shortly after they arrived he met a woman named Sally Po and there had been an instant attraction. Now Wufei, too, had someone special to love.

**********

Quatre had been sleeping better. In the compound's safer environment the dark dreams had all but disappeared. The tender care of his soul mate allowed him to find his own path and the courage to face the rigorous pilot training with confidence.

Trowa was experiencing his own liberation as he watched Quatre's health improve. As Quatre grew stronger in body, mind and spirit their empathic connection became stronger as well. Now Trowa could draw from his own strength and with his lover forge a future. He and Quatre would face many dangers but he knew whatever happened they would face it together without fear and that was the best freedom of all.

********

Heero lay beside Duo snuggled under warm blankets in a cozy bed. No more cold seeping through cracked windows or wind wailing over cold concrete. No more lumpy mattress and threadbare coverings. The hunger was gone not just from his stomach but his heart as well. Tonight the rain pelted so gently that it could barely be heard on the roof.

Duo faced his lover. In the soothing darkness there were no monsters, no demons to come between them. Wrapping his arms around Heero's waist he pulled him as close as physically possible. A brushing of lips then the kiss became more demanding. It was time as the raindrops tapped against the windows to love his savoir. There were no more doubts in his mind or heart, no hesitation in his soul.

"Duo," Heero whispered as they broke the breathless kiss, "love me."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes I want you to know how much I love you. We are not promised tomorrow and I can't bear to spend one more moment without you."

"I only want to love you if you are comfortable with it." Duo declared giving Heero a choice.

A rare smile brightened Heero's face. "I know you wouldn't hurt me, I trust you with my life."

"We'll take it slow," Duo replied, "and anytime you want to stop we can, I promise I won't be mad." he reassured his partner.

Heero nodded then started to pull his tee shirt over his head. Duo laid a hand on his chest. "Lay still and let me do everything."

Without hesitation Heero obeyed relaxing under Duo's expert care. Duo raised up leaning over to let his lips brush over Heero's mouth. A sigh feather across the parted lips before his tongue slipped inside. As much as Heero wanted to comply with his lover's request he could not stay still, not when Duo was igniting a fire over every inch of his body.

Lips pressed together and tongue tasting Duo slid his hands under Heero's shirt until they found a taunt nipple. A moan was his reward for the treasure hunting. Kneading the rounded nub Duo soon had Heero withering under his masterful strokes. The tee shirt was pulled over his head exposing Heero's firm chest and rippling muscles.

"Damn." was all Duo could say. It was not the first time he had seen Heero without his shirt but knowing that they would go farther than they had before triggered something hot that tingled up both legs and fueled a fire in Duo's groin.

Anxiously Heero tugged at Duo's shirt aching to feel bare flesh against bare flesh. Warm damp skin stoked the flames higher. Bulging erections rubbed together, the friction threatening to a climax both of them before they were ready.

"Duo please." Heero begged trying to pull down his boxes to free his throbbing manhood.

Duo honored the urgent request quickly divesting both himself and his lover of the last barrier to their complete state of nakedness. The bedcovers tangled about the bare bodies. With one fluid motion Duo threw back the binding sheet and blanket fully freeing their movements. Now nothing interfered as Heero raised his legs to encircle Duo's waist until he could feel Duo's penis nudge his anal entrance.

As Duo suckled and kissed his way down his lover's trembling body as the increasing volume of Heero's moans and whimpers prodded him on. Finally his mouth stopped just above his desired target. Flicking his tongue over the milky tip caused Heero's entire body to jerk. A sly smile crossed Duo's lips at the intense reaction. Again the teasing touch was applied and once more Heero sucked in a breath and shook from the stimulation.

"You taste good lover." Duo declared running his tongue over the slit to further kindle the fire.

Heero's mouth gaped opened but strange sounds not words flowed out. Something akin to a garbled plea was filtered through a hiss of air, as Heero was too breathless to talk. Finally deciding to have mercy on his tortured lover Duo opened his mouth and began to take in the swollen member one inch at a time. Heero's eyes closed at the sheer sensations as Duo's wet mouth continued to engulf his rigid arousal. Then Duo set a rhythm designed to drive his partner to the brink without pushing him over the edge.

Heero clutch up handfuls of the bottom sheet as he struggled to maintain his last bit of control. His eyes closed tighter as Duo tongue slithered from base to tip and back again. At the same time Duo probed Heero's entrance with one finger. Then he suddenly sat back on his heels.

This was as far as they had ever gone and suddenly Duo was not certain he should continue. As hard as it would be to stop now he did not want to do anything that would upset his precious partner. Heero's emotions were still raw, the dreams too vivid and Duo was afraid that he might dredge up memories that could prove too harmful.

Even though the sensual haze Heero felt the absence of Duo's body. "Don't stop." he insisted pushing back against Duo's hand. Duo studied Heero's eyes searching for any sign of uncertainty. He could not live with himself if he hurt Heero in any way.

"Please." Heero insisted sliding his arms around Duo's neck, "It is the only way I can be freed from the memories. Show me that love doesn't hurt."

Capturing Heero's mouth Duo let a kiss glimmer like a star burst across the heavens. "Now?" he asked as their lips parted.

"Now my love." Heero replied gripping his legs and centering his opening.

With gentle care Duo prepared his lover. One by one a finger was inserted relaxing the tight muscle ring. The fingers were withdrawn and his manhood pressed in place. Carefully he pushed inside keeping a close watch on Heero's face but his expression never showed any discomfort or distress. Duo pushed then paused to let Heero adjust. Finally he was fully seated, united both physically and emotionally with his beautiful soul mate.

Heero opened his eyes locking his steely sight on Duo. There was trust in the blue orbs, a placid serenity that told Duo his partner was not afraid. Duo pulled halfway out then rocked forward with a steady motion. A soft sigh flowed over Heero's lips as he matched Duo's movements. Then as if they had been lovers for a thousand years Heero and Duo became united with a single heart and soul as they moved as one.

Higher the passion rose. Both lovers groaned and panted and urged the other on to a thundering climax. Duo pumped Heero's erection adding one more tactile sensation to his already overloaded system as he quivered under Duo's masterful manipulations. A shudder coursed over Heero seconds before he gave up his seed. Duo kept to his task feeling his own approaching orgasm race through his groin. Duo threw back his head and reverently called Heero's name as he claimed his lover.

Laying his head on Heero's chest Duo listened to the heightened heartbeat and savored the scent of sex. Bathing in the afterglow Duo whispered endearing promises of his protection and care. He pledged a lifetime together that only death would sever. Pulling out gently Duo gathered the sheet and blanket covering he and Heero to ward off a chill. The showers had ended and a thin shift of moonlight caressed the snuggling lovers with a silvery glow.

In two days they would begin their pilot training. After months of intense study and practice they would be ready to take back what the Alliance and OZ had stolen from them. Five massive Mechas would be unleashed to rain fire on their oppressors until the light of freedom revealed every hiding place. There would be no reprieves for the wicked, no redemption or forgiveness for their sins against every Colony citizen.

But tonight there would be no talk of war or revenge. Now two rebels were no longer lonely outcasts facing an uncertain future. Together they could overcome any obstacle for unitied they were invincible.

- End -

{1} Naiveté: The state or quality of being naive. A simple understanding.

Reclamation--Karen Hickman--October 2002

Thank you for reading!!