Chapter 4: An Alliance of Contradictions
by Casey Valhalla
He had trained until the very thought of lifting the katana again made him want to collapse, and although the heated rush of anger had passed, he was still irritated, and Heero wasn’t helping matters. Duo couldn’t puzzle out why he had expected – or wanted – Heero to hit him; nothing had made much sense at the time. Such things hadn’t been uncommon among several of his previous controllers, but Heero’s father had never once even considered raising his fists on his Relic, and his son had inherited his integrity if not his amiable attitude.
Duo lost focus on his frustration, however, when he felt a hand settle over the top of his head and begin moving in slow, stroking motions. The weariness of the passing day descended into his bones, and he closed his eyes to lean up against the chair and let the tension drain out of his body. ~Damn, but I’ve missed him. I have no idea why, but I did. He didn’t even look happy to see me.~ The quiet show of affection eased those thoughts, slipping into contentment, lost in the feeling of fingers caressing his hair, fingers that were working their way dangerously close to his ear and the sensitive skin of his neck…
Duo barely registered the sound of the door opening and someone entering the room, standing near him, but when the movement of air in the room stilled he caught a faint scent – like lemon balm and green wood—
In a flash he was completely alert and had caught the stranger by the wrist in a firm but unthreatening grip, at the same time sending a warning through the Bond to Heero. The figure in front of him he recognized as the errand boy who was among the assembly at the security checkpoint the day before, but now, up close, he knew instinctively that this was no boy – that this was no human at all.
"My Relic smells White Magic."
The messenger did not seem at all put off by this. In fact, he relaxed somewhat and the ghost of a smile played across his face. Green eyes slid closed and he held up both hands in a calm show of innocence when Duo released his hold. "My name is Trowa Barton. May I sit down?"
Duo grinned suddenly and slid to his feet in one flud movement, bowing slightly at the waist. "What fairer name could grace my table?"
"Only yours," Trowa replied, staring at the demon with a look of incredulity. "How did you know?"
"I’m familiar with the traditions of the Niccon system. Ease up, guys," he said with a wave at the two seated men, both of whom were toying with sword hilts. "He’s an elf, and a ranger at that if the surname doesn’t deceive me."
"That doesn’t explain why you smell White Magic on him," Heero replied, only retreating marginally, "or why he’s spying on us."
Duo sniffed speculatively. "No, it doesn’t."
Wufei raised a hand. "I assume, if he’s worked his way this deep into my defenses, he would have already carried out any malignant intentions towards me or either of you had he possessed any." He quirked an eyebrow at the elf. "Well?"
A grim half-smile turned the corners of his mouth. "Astute. Feel free to check me for weapons."
The Mandate exchanged a glance with Heero, and the assassin looked their spy over from top to bottom, then back. He shook his head at Wufei, who nodded in turn. "We will hear you out. Have a seat."
"Thank you." Trowa moved to sit on a low wooden stool facing them, as an afterthought removing the servant’s cap to reveal a pair of delicately pointed ears. Duo returned to his seat on the floor, vaguely hoping Heero would resume his earlier ministrations. "To begin with, I believe it would be pertinent to answer your initial questions. I am here on the orders of Quatre Winner, and any residual White Magic on my person is due to the fact that I contacted him recently."
"He’s the new Grand Minister of Sabaku, isn’t he?" Heero asked, leaning forward.
"Yes, as well as the new prime operative of the Resistance. He sent me here to gather information on Mandate Chang, because he knew you had considerable influence in the Resistance and was concerned as to how you might react to him taking control. That is all. I have been merely observing and sharing my thoughts with him. He and his nation are at a disadvantage right now."
Duo frowned in thought. "But how did an elven ranger from Niccon end up working for the Winner heir?"
Trowa’s eyes turned down to where Yoko was sniffing at his feet, determining his presence. He reached down to ruffle her ears gently. "My clan no longer resides on Niccon. Sabaku received refugees from my home system some years ago, and I was one of them."
The black-haired boy regarded the cat, who leapt into the elf’s lap and began purring contentedly. Animals could often be the best judges of character. "What exactly does he hope to gain by this?"
"He hopes, Mandate, to become your ally. He has been very curious about the inner workings of the Modicum, and we have both been intrigued for the past few days as to your choice of friends."
Wufei’s eyebrows rose. "My friends?"
"The infamous assassin Heero Yuy and the Eldest Relic. I’m assuming they work for you."
"When it suits us," Heero said flatly.
"Heero became a ward of my clan when we were very young," Wufei offered, "and Duo is his birthright. I believe that explains enough."
"Indeed." Trowa shifted slightly and flicked his eyes over the three. "He wishes to unite the network and move quickly, before the ISG has a chance to attack Sabaku."
Heero nodded, sitting back and formulating thoughts in the privacy of his headspace. He didn’t notice his fingers returning to Duo’s hair, stroking in small circles and burying themselves in the base of his braid, scratching softly. "I agree. We need to establish a base of operations."
"It is already done," Trowa said, smiling slightly at the demon dozing on the arm of his controller’s chair, then wiping the look from his face when he saw that the assassin didn’t realize what he was doing. "You need only accompany me to meet with him. Your assistance in formulating a plan will be invaluable."
Wufei pressed his palms together and tapped to fingers to his chin, considering. "I’m going to need some information from you before we start traipsing around the galaxy together. I do *not* make alliances lightly."
"As soon as you’re prepared. I’ll contact Quatre and let him know—"
"Wait." Heero held up a hand – his right hand, the one that wasn’t currently tracing the outline of Duo’s braid, but rather encased in silver mesh that glinted in the late sunlight pouring through the windows. "As much as we understand your Minister’s concerns, my esteemed host and I have never been appreciative of spies. We will send someone ahead of us."
Wufei grinned in understanding, while Trowa stared in confusion. "And just who could we possibly get to do that?"
A small smirk played over Heero’s face. "Duo, didn’t you say you were bored?"
~Damn him, damn him, damn him! Damn him to the lowest pits of Hell!~
Duo slammed his fist on the release catch to his spaceship’s cargo ramp and stormed up the short corridor, flinging his trenchcoat through the open door of the bunkroom as he passed. Yoko trailed behind him, watching her person’s display of temper in the bemused way only a cat can manage. She hovered beside the pilot’s chair as he threw himself into it, seating herself quietly and following his every movement with cool green eyes. When it seemed the outburst had abated somewhat, she offered a commiserating meow.
Softly glowing violet eyes turned to take in the cat’s presence, and Duo let out a long sigh of resignation. "Not even a whole day, girl."
"Should’ve known he’d get rid of me at the first available opportunity."
She had no reply for that. There were some things even a cat couldn’t offer comfort for.
Wisdom is a practice of time and experience, and it generally helps if one has a considerable life span. Trowa Barton was lucky in that area. A few hundred years of observing the actions and effects of the many races of the universe – in most instances being party to them himself – had broadened his general perceptions and prepared him for nearly every encounter he might face for the next hundred or so years before his life force petered out or, more unfortunately, until he managed to get himself killed.
Sitting in the library of Dirin Roth in the wee hours of the morning having his brain picked by the Mandate of the Kaji syndicate was not one of them.
"Tell me about this Talmac fortress of yours, how is it fortified? What are the main defensive points? What’s the civilian count?"
Wufei discarded yet another book into the growing piles surrounding his seat on the carpeted floor in the center of the high-ceilinged vault of a room that acted as the library’s main area. He had shed his Mandate’s raiment in favor of a pair of black cotton pants and an overly large white shirt, the collar of which kept falling down over one or the other of his shoulders. He studiously ignored the behavior of his clothing and paid more attention to the spectacles slipping down his nose than he did to his rather discomfited guest, who was sitting behind a desk examining the most recent satellite readouts of ISG military locations available. Or, at least, that was what he was supposed to be doing. The assassin, for his part, was busy pretending there was no one else in the room, and had been staring blankly at the same sheet of paper for the last half-hour
Humans could be so odd.
"The outer walls of the Talmac can resist magical attacks and projectile weapons of a power up to and including ion missiles."
Wufei hummed to himself, flipping through yet another book. Trowa had no idea what he was even looking for. "Anything bigger than that and it’s a crater, right?"
"I’d much rather not consider the possibility."
"What about the rest, then?"
"Quatre commands a small elite force as an armed defense. There are twenty manned stations in the interior of the fortress and ten surrounding it, as well as a cannon turret at each corner. Civilians number less than two hundred."
"Sand skimmers. They’re nearly impossible to target and can carry about twenty apiece."
Dark eyes flashed up at him. "Sand skimmers?"
"They’re hard to describe."
Wufei hummed some more and tossed another book aside. "Protection from ion missiles isn’t going to cover it. The ISG has stronger weapons than that."
Trowa nodded, and noted that Heero had yet to move on from his page.
"I’m surprised the ISG forces didn’t attack immediately."
"Quatre challenged them. They take time to plan if they expect resistance."
"Then your Grand Minister is going to have a siege on his hands very soon." The Mandate abandoned his stacks of books in favor of a data reader and turned to the young man behind the desk. "What’s their current location?"
The assassin jumped slightly, the page slipping out of his hand and sliding across the varnished wood desk top. Trowa raised an eyebrow at the show of inattention, leaving Wufei to come up with a sarcastic remark.
"So, what solar system are you currently traveling in, Yuy?"
He composed himself quickly and leveled a glare at his friend. "The main forces have yet to leave headquarters on Niccon III."
"Anyone behaving in a reconnaissance-like fashion?"
"From what I see here, no. But there are a few cruisers in the neighboring systems."
"The window is going to be brief," Trowa offered. "We’re still hoping they won’t respond to Quatre’s challenge, but I expect to have no more than three days before an invasion attempt."
"How much easier could he have planned to blow our cover?" Heero’s voice came out in a hiss.
"I said we had a base of operations. I never said it was on Sabaku."
"I’m afraid I’m missing your point."
"Gentlemen," the elf said, waving one hand in a gesture for silence, "I do not have all the answers. I was sent here to gather information and I can only provide so much." He focused his green eyes on both of them in turn. "The prime operative of the New Resistance has sent a request for backup. It is necessary that he be guarded for the duration of the inevitable siege on Sabaku. His survival is imperative. It is my duty to ensure his safe arrival at our established base."
"Where *is* the base?" Heero demanded.
"Why can’t he just leave now?" Wufei interjected.
Trowa smirked. "Classified. Besides, you don’t expect him to simply leave his homeland defenseless, do you?"
The Mandate frowned. "No, but he seems to be expecting me to do just that."
"You aren’t under the ISG’s shadow, yet. Though you certainly will be if they take Sabaku. And I would hardly call this planet defenseless."
"Once again," Heero growled, "I’m missing your point."
"I am asking," Trowa replied in a low voice, "if you will help us or not."
Wufei leveled a studious gaze at the elven spy. "Do you truly believe he can lead the Resistance? That he can unite us and destroy the ISG?"
Another secretive smile crossed Trowa's face. "I was a Resistance operative a century before you were born, my friend. I have seen many worthy leaders take up the position of prime operative in that time, only to fail. Quatre; he is different. I would not be working for him if I did not believe he could accomplish what others could not."
The Mandate and the assassin exchanged a long look, Wufei being the one to break it and sigh. "I'll admit I am not completely convinced. Nevertheless, though Heero and I both have our own duties, we have always been operatives of the Resistance, first and foremost. Yes, we will help you." Heero nodded in agreement.
Trowa let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding and sank back into his chair. "Very good."
Neither of them had any idea how relieved he was to hear that.
He was thirteen years old again.
The foundations of Dirin Roth vibrated slightly, signaling yet another explosion from somewhere outside the fortified walls. He drew the blanket tighter around himself and Wufei, the younger boy sleeping on his shoulder oblivious to the chaos erupting beyond the small parlor they were ensconced in. A three-pronged candelabra provided a dim light, casting eerie shadows around the room. He knew he should try and rest – in the morning the castle would be active with wounded and hungry soldiers; his assistance would be needed.
But he couldn’t sleep. Duo was out there.
Again he steered his thoughts away from the Bond, forcing himself not to call out for his Relic. Distracting Duo at this point would only cause problems, regardless of Heero's unyielding need to protect and be protected. He did his best to quell the desire to remove the demon from the vicious clan war that was raging outside.
It was too dark. The small candelabra was the only source of light he could find. Magic-dampening spells had been cast by the enemy, and even had they not been he would have to drain magic from his sleeping friend to conjure a lamp, which would weaken the younger boy. No. He was not afraid of the dark. He was not afraid of the enemy clan breaking through their defenses and finding him and Wufei. He was not afraid for Duo…
He would not call him back.
Wufei’s parents and brother were out there, too. The only family he remembered. The people who had taken him in, a three-year-old child toddling unsteadily at the side of his instructor and his family’s loyal retainer, Odin; his right hand fisted around a thick length of silver chain, his left hand clutching his father’s sword to his chest, taller than he was at the time. That was his first memory.
The thirteen-year-old fingered the mesh that now wrapped his right hand – fine chain work, silver, heavily enchanted. It covered the twisting blue lines of the birthmark that circled his palm, the family curse, the hand that sucked magic uncontrollably from anything and everything it encountered. Odin made the fingerless mail glove and taught him to control the drain, to use the rare skill of Blue Magic to his own advantage. And Odin instructed him in the use of his other birthright…
He called Duo for the first time on the morning of his seventh birthday, when the Bond woke inside his mind. Three weeks after Odin died. The day he fully took his place as the last survivor of his clan. He remembered waking that morning, feeling an unfamiliar presence lurking in the back of his mind. He knew from his studies with Odin that this was his Relic, and he knew by Bond-developed instinct that the demon was on the planet Torreldaeo, fast asleep. Duo had probably spent the past four years on that planet, among his kin, stuck at a level thirteen restriction instgated by the breaking of his previous controller's Bond. It was almost a state of limbo, that in-between time bereft of any magic, waiting for Heero to reach his seventh year. The age he would be old enough to manage being the controller of a demon.
Another distant rumble sounded against the walls of Dirin Roth. Heero snuggled deeper into the cushions spread out in the corner he and Wufei were curled up in, and was beginning to doze off when he heard the soft click of the door opening. His fingers closed over the hilt of his sword instantly, and relaxed when he saw luminous violet eyes peering at him in the dim light.
Duo nodded to him and closed the door without a word, dropping the crossbar and turning to pull a heavy chest across the floor to brace it shut. His hair had come loose from it’s braid and hung raggedly about his waist, as though the end had been chopped off in the battle. His hands and arms were mottled with dark splotches, his face dotted with the same, as well as the iron pike he was carrying. Blood. None of it his own – Heero knew through the Bond that he was uninjured.
The Relic stacked a second chest on top of the first, and stalked across the room to peer through a slit in the curtains. Pacing the small parlor, Duo's hair flowed behind him like a cape, his eyes glowing with a nearly feral light. Like a lioness guarding her kits. Eternally young, trapped in the body of a boy of sixteen years. Eighteen, perhaps, depending on his mood or the quality of light. The form he had taken when he was Bound. He was elegant. He was deadly.
He was devastatingly beautiful.
The thought made Heero’s heart race, a warmth spreading through his blood that began somewhere in his abdomen and burned his veins like fire. He couldn’t avert his gaze from the restlessly moving demon, noting the shift of muscle beneath fabric, the hint of pale skin through a rip in his black shirt. The teenage boy swallowed, his breath coming in short gasps. His eyes were further fixated by the curl of fingers around the handle of the pike, the caress of hair against flesh, the soft curves of Duo's mouth drawn into a tight line of concern. His body tensed and flushed, the first stirrings of desire…
"Wh – what are you doing here?" He would never know just how he managed to get the words out of his mouth. "You’re supposed to be
"Change of plans." Duo was looking out the window again. He turned to cast a weary gaze at the two boys curled together in the corner. "There have been a few breaches to the inner wall. I’m here to guard my controller and the heir to the Chang clan."
Heero felt dazed. He couldn’t possibly mean – "But Wufei … his brother…"
The purple glow dropped and glimmered faintly in the dim light.
"No…" His family. The only family he had ever known. "No! You were supposed to be protecting them!"
Duo leaned heavily against his pike, not looking at Heero. "I did all I could."
"You were supposed to be protecting them!" His voice was cracking, he was trembling, clutching at the still sleeping form of his friend and foster brother. "You were supposed to protect my father!" The rush of hormones gave way to anger, fierce fleeting anger that left him gasping for air. "You failed them, just like you failed him!"
In a flash too fast to see Duo was in front of him, not a hand’s span away from his face, boring a purple flare into his eyes. "Were you there? How would you know? Do you have any idea—" Duo's voice caught in his throat, the harsh tones receding into the dark spaces of the room.
Heero was already sorry, but quieted the sudden urge to crawl into Duo’s lap and be comforted as though he was seven years old again. The demon was settling down beside him, discarding the pike and reaching out to smooth dark strands of hair out of Wufei’s face. His voice was softer this time.
"Your father died on Galgadion ten years ago."
"I know the story." It wasn't one Heero was fond of, either. It rose too many questions, especially concerning his Relic.
"Let me tell it again anyway." The tone in Duo's voice promised further information, and a need to purge it. Heero nodded slightly, keeping his eyes on the demon's face.
"I was with your father then, yes. We were fighting the Valdoc clan, and were ambushed by the council. Twelve mages and twenty swordsmen against a handful of thieves and assassins. In the end, he and I were the only ones left standing. He knew he was going to die."
Heero knew the name of the clan that had killed his father; Odin had practically bored it into his memory. "And then the Valdoc council vanished without a trace. No leads, no bodies, nothing. No one ever found them." The boy's voice was bitter. He didn't remember his father, but the destruction of his small clan, his blood-kin, demanded revenge.
A cold fire burned in the demon’s eyes. "And no one ever will, unless they sift Galgadion’s atmosphere for particles."
Heero stared at his Relic in shock, mouth moving soundlessly, searching for a grasp on the moment. "Wh – what do you mean?"
"Every once in a great while, when a controller dies and the Bond is transferred, it will kind of – hitch – and disappear for a few minutes." Duo leaned back and closed his eyes. "It had never happened to me before. I had heard stories from the others – Kirin said once it had hitched for a full five minutes; he was able to shift form again, and he spent the entirety of it flying. Saedra – she threw herself off a tower on Sen’Darven. Killed herself. When your father died, my Bond hitched. For fifteen minutes." His eyes fluttered open and locked with Heero’s in an intense stare. "I was free. Truly and completely free. I could have done anything. I could have destroyed myself. I could have found a way to break the Bond permanently. I could have decimated a few planets. Instead I killed the Valdoc council. Vaporized. No witnesses, nothing left but the stink of them in the air. It took less than a minute. Do you know what I did for the remaining fourteen?"
Heero shook his head, not breaking his gaze.
The boy couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. All he could do was drown in the chilly violet glow of Duo’s eyes.
"I cried because I could have saved him if I was free. Do you understand, Heero? There is no glory in this life. There is love, war, retribution and death, but there is no glory."
Heero nodded mutely. He wasn’t sure if he really understood what Duo was trying to tell him, if he would ever understand, but the deep regret seeping through the Bond was answer enough to his doubts. He shivered and pulled the blanket tighter, snuggling closer to Wufei. Duo eased himself behind the two, one arm wrapped around them, the other grasping the pike. "Sleep now. It should be over by sunrise."
The teenager drifted off, head pillowed against his Relic’s chest. Within seconds he was asleep and dreaming of the scent of blood, and the day when he would be tall enough to look Duo in the eye, to run his fingers through that impossible mass of hair, to claim those soft lips with his own.
Heero blinked in the darkness and rolled onto his back. ~Why did I dream that? It’s been … eight years. Eight years since they died.~ He turned and pulled the covers up over his head, burying his face into the pillow, and he caught it. That faint scent, the one he could never describe. ~He slept here last night. Oh gods…~
Curling up around himself under the sheets, he began reciting the same litany he had that night in the parlor, with a war raging outside. The same one he had repeated again and again over the course of the ensuing years, for so many different reasons.
~I will not call him back. I will NOT call him back…~
The shout brought him to full awareness, and he was out of bed and scrabbling for his clothes by the time Wufei burst into the room. "What is it?"
"We have a situation."
The statement was marked by the distant sound of an explosion.