Chapter Eleven: The Last Vestige of Grace
by Casey Valhalla
/Azurmala, this is Echo 1, over./
/Detecting movement on Dorobo, investigating, over./
/Confirm mission, Azurmala./
/Azurmala, this is Echo 1, come in./
/Movement on Dorobo confirmed! Come in, Azurmala./
/Come inÖ WHAT THE FUCK??/
Heero lowered the missile launcher and exchanged a glance with Trowa. "What now?"
The elf smirked. "Check for survivors?"
The fighter had taken a blast to the left wing, but was otherwise in decent condition. The two pilots who stumbled out of the downed ship were another matter entirely.
The first, a scruffy young man with tousled blond hair, found himself with a sword at his throat. He looked up to see a pair of glittering blue eyes glaring daggers at him. His gunner, a female cadet with a closely shorn head, was held up by a crossbow.
"Hands on your head."
The command was low, and came from the crossbowís owner, an elf with a shock of tawny hair that fell over his eyes. Having no idea at all who these people were Ėor what they were capable of Ė the two obediently raised their hands and locked their fingers behind their heads.
The elf nodded and jerked his chin at the blue-eyed swordsman. "Damage?"
A quick glance to the side was all the relief the pilot got from the frosty glare. "Repairable. Why?"
The elf smiled, a small, smug expression. "I have an idea."
The sun rose on the battlefield.
Duo was sitting on the casement of the balustrades, in the wedge between two square stones. One leg dangled over the outside edge of the wall, the other was pulled up to his chest. Yoko sat atop his knee.
He scrolled through the datareader in his hands, brows furrowed in concentration. Brightening, he turned the screen to the cat for her inspection. "How about that one?"
Yoko flicked her tail. "Mrow."
"Okay, fine." Scowling, he flipped the datareader back to face him and continued scrolling.
"There!" A self-satisfied grin lit up his features. "Oh yeah, this is it!"
Green eyes blinked at the spell displayed on the screen. She licked one paw dismissively.
"Oh, come on!"
Duo narrowed his eyes at the cat. "What have you got against Kirinís spellbook, anyway?"
She lowered her pawn and flicked her ears, making a low, exasperated sound in her throat.
"I do *so* know what Iím doing!"
Yoko turned her face away. If a cat could sigh in resignation, she would have.
"Fine, Iíll prove it." Duo dislodged the cat from her perch and stood in the space between the two stones. Choosing a fighter at random, he twisted the fingers of both his hands together into an intricate knot, and pushed outwards from his chest. "Chaos Burst."
The fighter stopped dead in midair, and began Ö writhing. The metal of the hull wriggled and turned in on itself, exposing a dripping, amorphous liquid that shifted from black to green to violet and back. Within moments the concoction had eaten away the entire ship, and fell to pool in a hollow between three shallow sand dunes.
Then, gradually, it started growing.
Duo looked down at Yoko dubiously. "UhÖ oops?"
"Whatís going on?"
Quatre, looking much the worse for wear, stumbled onto the balustrades from the main stairs. He was leaning heavily on a long, polished staff of white oak, and his sea-blue eyes blinked wearily at Duo.
Duo grinned amicably. "Well, about a quarter of the fighters are downed, and two battle cruisers. Thereís a freighter a mile and a half out unloading more ground troops, and you now have a lovely sea of chaos on your front lawn."
"Oh. So everythingís under control, then?" Quatre yawned.
"Yep, no problems here!" Duo spread his grin as wide as it would go and surreptitiously blocked Quatreís view of the ground in front of the Talmac.
"Okay," the Minister yawned again. "Iím gonna go take a nap. Have fun." He turned and wobbled back down the stairs.
The moment he was out of sight and sound, Duo snatched the datareader out of his pocket and began frantically scrolling through the information. "Come on, Kirin, you had to put *something* in here that tells me how to dispose of chaos once Iíve formed it!"
"Donít you *dare* say ĎI told you soí!"
The two cadets sat side by side, immobile in a matching pair of wooden chairs. The room they were imprisoned in suggested a parlor, but all the furniture was draped in stained white dust covers. Across from them, on a covered white sofa, sat the blue-eyed young man who had detained them. His posture was relaxed, but alert, and his sword was lying across his knees. He was casually cleaning it with a gray cloth.
The male cadet turned slightly to whisper to his companion. "What clan colors are green-on-black?"
"Quiet, Chea!" the female hushed him with a hiss, and the swordsman looked up from his work to aim sharp glares at both of them in turn. The male cadet ducked his head sheepishly and darted a nervous glance at his captor. "Uhh, excuse me, sir, butÖwho are you?"
One eyebrow raised, slowly. "You donít know?"
"Hmm." The cool blue eyes turned back to the sword. "Outer Rim natives?"
The two nodded silently.
The young man lifted his scabbard and gently replaced his sword, and set it aside. Then he pulled a gun from a holster at his back and began disassembling it. "Youíre both soldiers," he commented idly, setting the magazine on one knee. "Just out of basic training, Iíd guess."
"Sir," the female muttered, her jaw set, eyes flashing.
"Do you know what that means?" The swordsman waited patiently, his eyes fixed on his hands. When no response came, he continued. "Youíre expendable."
As if on cue, the tawny-haired elf emerged from a side door, crossbow slung over his shoulder. The swordsman canted his head to look at his partner, and indicated the male cadet with a jerk of his chin. The elf nodded, tossed the blue-eyed man a communicator, and moved behind the male cadetís chair to loosen some of the bindings.
The femaleís eyes went wide when she realized what was happening, but to her credit, she neither moved nor made a sound. The male, however, panicked as he was nudged to his feet by the point of the crossbow. He squirmed in his bonds, twisting to look at his companion. "JanusÖ"
"No need to get worked up," the blue-eyed manís cool voice broke in. He leveled an emotionless stare at the wriggling cadet. "Iím going to have a private conversation with your friend, here, thatís all."
Chea allowed himself to be led out, casting furtive glances over his shoulder at the other cadet, who gazed back solemnly. The door closed, and the room fell silent.
The swordsman began cleaning the disassembled gun in smooth, practiced movements. The cadet watched him, face set into an impenetrable mask.
"Janus, is it?" The words broke the silence suddenly, but she prided herself for not flinching. The young manís blue eyes flickered up to lock with hers. "A pleasure to meet you."
"We havenít met," she replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. "I still donít know *your* name."
A slow, dark smile slid over his face. "Call me Wing."
Janus narrowed her eyes. "Thatís a Resistance code name."
"Is it really?"
The innocent tone and raised brows made her snort derisively. "Yes, *really*. Operative Wing was responsible for the assassination of three ISG Colonels on Niccon III last year."
"Intriguing." The com at his side erupted into a flurry of static, and he lifted it with a fluorish. "Now, Cadet Janus, just so we understand each otherÖ"
"Where is Chea?"
A voice crackled over the com, the link disrupted by the same scrambling signal that had afflicted the cadetsí fighter. "Awaiting orders." The elfís voice.
"Confirmed," Wing announced into the device. "Youíre going to tell me what I want to know," he said, glittering blue eyes boring into hers. He waved the com in his hand. "If you refuseÖ"
Janus understood every implication of the hanging sentence, and gritted her teeth, but her mask remained firmly in place. She didnít reply.
"Good." The young man set the com aside and began methodically reassembling the gun in his lap. "JanusÖ that canít be your clan name. Iím familiar with all of them."
"Tzumara," she spat, "if you must know, *Wing*."
He offered an amicable smile that didnít reach his eyes. "And your friend?"
"Daxiel Chea. Get on with it."
"I donít feel the need to rush," Wing replied, coming to his feet and holstering his gun in a single, smooth movement. He wandered to a table at one side of the room and lifted a bottle of amber liquid. "May I offer you a drink?"
Janus followed him with her eyes, and turned her head away sharply. "No."
"Suit yourself." The assassin poured himself a glass and swirled it thoughtfully in his hand. "Who is your commanding officer, Cadet Tzumara?" He tilted his head to cast a glance at her. "A lieutenant, I imagine, at your rank. Someone under Captain Suhara, perhaps?"
She jerked back around to face him, a startled look almost breaking through her mask. Wing chuckled humorlessly. "No, he has more sense than to let a pair of cadets wander so far from the command ship."
Janusís mind scrambled to come up with an answer, anything that might throw this man off. Her face betrayed nothing, and her voice came out in a low hiss. "I report to Lieutenant Umba, under Captain Zigane." If this man intended to intimidate her, she had her own methods of manipulation. She could play this game.
A lazy smirk spread across the assassinís face. Abruptly he lifted the com and flicked it open. "Start with the feet, this time."
Whatever response the elf gave was so garbled by static she couldnít make it out. She strained to hear some indication of Cheaís presence, but Wing closed the device. He grabbed the empty chair beside her and spun it around, straddling it in front of her, arms crossed over the curved backrest. His blue eyes glittered dangerously, and the moment of feigned amusement vanished. "Donít fuck with me."
Janus sucked in a breath and clenched her jaw. Her eyes flickered to the com in Wingís hand. "Lieutenant Umba reports to Captain Ragi Memphis." This wasnít going to be as easy as she thought.
"There now, that wasnít so hard, was it?" The assassin chucked her under the chin and smiled congenially, taking a sip of his drink. Janus glared.
Wing ignored her and continued. "Iím curious about this command ship of yours." He turned the glass in his hand slowly, watching the light reflect on the faceted surface. "What model is it?"
Janus found her eyes drawn to the glinting tumbler, the light reflected in her eyes hypnotically. Her mouth opened almost of its own accord. She shut it quickly, jerking her gaze away.
The assassin tilted his head and stared at her impassive face until she met his eyes. His finger tapped on the com. She looked away.
Janus heard a metallic click, and static. "Hands."
She clenched her fists where they were tied behind her back. She could almost make out the sound of pained breaths underlying the garbled response. Janus turned her head sharply to glare at Wing just as he closed the com. "Itís a Corellian Mothership, model A-8140-DC. What the fuck does it matter?"
He raised one eyebrow, and took another drink. "It matters a lot, since Iím going there. Thatís why I need your fighterís password, and your clearance codes."
Janus trained her eyes anywhere in the room except on the man in the chair. Her nerves twinged, every instinct running towards the animalistic realization that she was being backed into a corner. Her heart beat a furious rhythm against her ribs. "Fuck you."
"Wrong answer." The tone was wry, and another click signaled the use of the com yet again. "Knees." When Janus glanced sidelong at him, he frowned and added, "both of them."
Was that a shriek she heard in the background, almost drowned by static? Wing scowled at the elfís scrambled voice. "I donít know, didnít we bring salt in with the supplies?"
The sound of the device closing was drowned out by the growl rising in Janusís throat. "Youíre a monster."
"Are you going to cooperate now, Cadet Tzumara, or do I have to prove you right?" The amused smirk returned to his face, and his eyes were chips of ice.
"Rot in the Seventh Hell, Operative Wing."
The com opened again. "Fingers. One at a time." Wing ignored the reply and let the static sting both their ears. His voice was low and melodious, his eyes fixed on hers. "Would you like to keep going?"
The white noise emitting over the com provided her imagination with a million possibilities. The image of Chea, broken and bleeding, rose in her mind. She closed her eyes on it.
"If I tell you," she whispered, "will you let him live?"
Wing leaned over the back of his chair until his nose was a hairís breadth away from hers. "There are a thousand and one things worse than death, Tzumara."
She shuddered under the chill of his gaze. Then, voice cracking, she told him.
Trowa tossed a torque wrench back into the toolbox and glanced over at the boy seated in the grass, leaning against the hull of the downed fighter. The cadetís hands were tied in front of him, and he was reading over the shipís manual on a datareader. The elf pushed away from the damaged wing and stretched. "You wouldnít happen to have replacement parts onboard, would you?"
"Rear maintenance panel," Che replied, blowing a lock of hair out of his face. "What were you talking about on the communicator?"
"Iím afraid I canít release that information to prisoners," Trowa replied, and circled the ship to the location indicated, keeping a careful eye on the seated cadet.
"Well, thatís it, Iím *out*" Duo sighed, flopping to the stones beside Yoko.
"Yeah, yeah, I knowÖ"
Quatre bounded up the stairs, and stepped briskly over to the two. The animation spell had provided him with more freedom to tend to the Talmacís defenses, and his appearances on the balustrades were becoming more and more frequent. "Done for the day already?" He raised and eyebrow and turned to examine the position of the sun. "Itís not even twilight yet Ė what is THAT?"
Duo flinched. "Um, a somewhat contained sea of chaos?"
The Minister turned back around slowly, a line forming along his forehead. "What is a sea of chaos doing in front of my fortress?"
"Currently, eating ground troops."
"Iím working on it," the demon groaned. "Itís one of Kirinís spells, and I canít get a hold of him."
Quatre nodded, a noncommittal expression on his face. He slid down to sit against the casement, facing Duo, and accepted Yoko into his lap. The demon sighed, and after a long period of silence his gaze wandered up to the sky, where the command ship was a glint among clouds.
"Who is it?" Quatre asked suddenly. "The Relic, I mean."
Duo met the blondís eyes, and his features went blank. "His name is Mishide, and heís the 28th."
After another stretch of silence, when it appeared Duo wasnít going to provide any more information, Quatre fidgeted, and Yoko made a low noise in protest. The demon sighed. "Why do you want to know?"
The Minister shrugged. "Iím curious. Youíre justÖ not what Iíve come to expect, and I want to know more."
Duo folded his arms and stared into the empty space between himself and the intermittent stones that lined the top of the casement. "Most of the Relics after the 20th didnít live through the wars. Mishide was one of the luckier of the young ones, butÖ"
The demonís voice trailed off, and Quatre cocked his head, motioning Duo to continue. The Relic closed his eyes. "Remember yesterday, when I told you I didnít remember just how I found Yoko?" The blond nodded. "I donít remember anything before fifty years ago, Q."
Quatreís eyes widened. "Why not?"
"Think about it." Duo wriggled lower against the wall, crossing his legs in front of him. "Two thousand years is a long time, and we all stand to live a lot longer than that. Most of us decided to give up our memories, just to keep our sanity." He paused, and his eyes opened, blinking slowly at the distant ship. "MishideÖ he remembers everything."
The Minister opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was forgotten when the demon turned suddenly to fix his gaze on Dorobo, a brown crescent on the eastern horizon.
A small cry escaped Duoís lips.
Heero splashed freezing cold water over his face and leaned panting over the bathroom sink. He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. He wanted to dig his fingers into his hair and rip his skull apart.
He did none of this.
~It would have been kinder to kill her. There are a thousand and one things worse than death Ė thatís what I told her, isnít it?~
Another splash, and he looked up at the mirror hanging over the sink. His reflection stared back, face dripping, eyes wide and darkened to the color of the sky at midnight. A damp strand of hair was plastered to the bridge of his nose, and his skin stood out stark and pale against the dark colors. His mouth was set in a rigid line.
~Sheís just a kid. Just a cadet fresh out of basic training. And I broke her.~
"Youíre a bastard, you know that?"
The whisper might have belonged to Heero, or to his reflection.