Jazz had been eight years old the first time he saw real snow. Every now and then the weather people in the colony would send out a light dusting of the stuff, but it smelled chemical and unpleasant, and never lasted more than a few minutes.
But it was his first winter on Dera, and he had forced himself to stay awake that night, curled up in his window with a blanket around his shoulders, staring up at the bruise-colored sky. Just as he had been about to drift asleep, a tapping against the window glass had snapped his eyes open, and there it was. Thick, white flakes falling from the sky, faster and faster. No longer tired, he watched in amazement as the ground was cover quickly, and soon obscured by a thick layer of the stuff.
He sat for an hour, his forehead against the glass, and his breath fogging it, until he could resist the urge no longer. He dressed quickly and pulled on his coat, tip-toeing down the stairs as quietly as he could. He considered waking Linra, but she'd lived here all of her life. Snow was something she took for granted.
He reached the landing, and was heading for the kitchen, when he heard a voice whisper "Had the same idea I did, huh?"
His father was wearing a coat as well, and his face had a child-like wonder on it. "I haven't seen real snow since I was just a kid." He explained to Jazz. "This is incredible. Come on."
Jazz had grinned and they'd slipped out the door into the backyard together, and into the white storm. It wasn't as cold as he expected, and Duo explained that for some reason, it never did feel as cold when it was snowing. He wasn't sure why.
"Do this." Duo instructed, and tilted his head back, letting snowflakes fall on his tongue, and Jazz repeated the motion, laughing in delight at the taste. His father's hair was still short, for this was not long after the Vire incident, and it was plastered to his skull.
Then Duo had flopped down on his back and showed Jazz how to make snow angels, and then they were both drenched, but not too wet to lob snowballs at each other. All the while they were careful to be quiet. For all the love for the rest of the family, this was their time together.
Finally, exhausted, they had went back inside the house, and Duo built up a fire.
"Surprise for you." He grinned. "Wasn't going to show you until tomorrow, but we got a care package from Quatre today." He opened the lid of a box and Jazz nearly whooped to see packages of marshmallows and hot chocolate.
Jazz was sent upstairs to change into dry pajamas, and when he had returned the chocolate was ready and Duo was putting the marshmallows on poker sticks. They sat near the fire and Duo pulled a quilt around both of them. They drank the hot chocolate and toasted the marshmallows, neither of them saying a word, until the sun was just rising in the sky, when Jazz had fallen asleep leaning against his father's shoulder.
But before he had drifted away, he had heard Duo whisper to him. "Promise me, Jazzy. Promise me that you'll never forget tonight. No matter what."
"I promise, Daddy." Jazz muttered, and in this moment it was okay to call him that; it was okay to not have to be tough, and to just let Duo take care of him. And he knew he would never forget.
I was a good actor.
I'd had to be. To protect myself as a child, I had learned to hide that self. They could hurt what I pretended to be, but no matter how hard they tried, they could never really hurt me. Because I was never really there. Don't we all do that? Play the roles? Be who the people around us expect us to be? Rare are the people in our lives who peel back all the layers, and see us as we truly are. And I was glad they were rare; for a man needs his secrets.
But he knew me better than anyone.
I knew I must be better, therefore, than I had ever been. I must play a role worthy of an award.
He started to smile at my words, waiting for me to return it, waiting for me to make it okay. He was no more than an over-sized child, still thirsty for my approval, and therein lay the danger. I could not afford to think of him as a child right now; he could not afford the luxury of being a child. Rather than ease him into testing his wings, I had no choice at this moment but to hurl him out of the nest ass over beak.
His smile faded, and he stared at me puzzled, trying to read me. I met gaze with one of my own; a soldier's gaze. Solid, unfeeling, cold. I'd learned it well from Heero and Trowa, and perfected it to my liking. I'd never before had to use it on someone I loved. I hoped with all my being for us to live long enough to never have to use it again.
"I said, what do you have in mind?" I snapped. "Are we going to stand around all day?"
Jazz flinched as though I'd struck him. Linra gave me a glare of her own, but under it I thought I saw a hint of understanding. This baby bird had learned to fly long ago, I knew. Her wings were heavy with scars; for all the love Heero and I had raised her with, she ached every day for her real father's laugh and her mother's arms.
"We have two missions." Her voice was clipped and deeper than I ever recalled it. "The first mission is to rescue the girls. All five are still alive. This is Rylan." She nodded to a small boy who had been standing behind her, peering out at us from uncertain eyes. "He knows where they are."
She took a second breath. "Rylan is a child of the last Harvest. There ten more children, half-Setan children, on this Station. On the third level. That's our second goal; to rescue the children. And Rylan's price for his help."
"How many kids are we talking about here?" I asked.
Rylan spoke up. His voice was laden with suspicion. Why should he trust us, I thought? Why should we trust him? His little wings were scarred as well, I mused. "Ten. Besides me."
"What about the women from the last Harvest? Are any still alive?"
"No." It was a whisper. "They're all gone. So's my mother."
Heero and I looked at each other. "We can't fit everyone on the two good ships." Heero commented. "We'll have to take one of the bad ones."
"Bad ones?" Jazz spoke up for the first time.
"The ships you took had engine trouble. That's why they were left behind." I said tersely. He waited for me to add something to that, a "You're lucky you weren't killed!" but I did not. "We'll have to split up." I said after a second of thought. "Linra and I will go after the other children. Heero, go with Jazz and Rylan to where the girls are."
"Cool." Jazz's voice was like ice. I could almost hear his thoughts. Fine. Fine, be like that. Send me away. You needed me. I saved your life out there.
"Come on. They're this way." Rylan had ahold of Jazz's hand and was pulling him along. Heero turned to look at me, and my mask slipped.
"Be careful." He said softly. "Both of you."
"We will." Linra promised. "You be careful as well."
My son glanced back at me, a moment of hope in his eyes, but my mask was back in place. He swallowed hard and then vanished out the door.
"I think there's an access panel to the elevator shaft back this way. Let's go."
We hurried along in silence for a while, and I tugged off the panel. We slipped inside, and out onto a wide-runged ladder. Linra was ahead of me and started climbing, and I put the panel back in place, following her.
"You didn't need to hurt him like that." She spoke up suddenly.
I said nothing.
"Duo, you might as well have hit him." She continued.
"What did you want me to do? Give him a pat on the head and say good boy?" I was panting for breath as we climbed.
"He did a good job out there and you know it!"
"Can we talk about this later, please?" I asked testily.
"I don't think I want to speak to you any more at all." She reached the landing. "Jerk."
I was up next to her, still breathing hard, and I had been pushed past my limits. "You listen to me, little girl, and you listen good! The only way my son is going to live through this is to start thinking like a soldier. And soldiers don't always have their fathers wiping their noses for them. If he gets into trouble, I might not be able to save him this time. He's got to be willing to save himself. He's amazed the hell out of me today, but this is no time to backslide. No time for him to think 'Well, the folks are here. I can take a nap now.' I had to make that as clear as I knew how. Now come on. We have a job to do."
I stalked toward the shaft entrance and listened for Wronith.
Heero and Jazz followed Rylan through a rat's next of rooms and hallways. Several times they came close to being nabbed by the Wronith, but Rylan was an expert at avoiding them.
He looked up at Jazz. "Who's the guy who was mad at you?"
"My father." Jazz said shortly.
"Why was he mad?"
Jazz said nothing.
"We told him to stay at home away from the fighting. He came anyway." Heero explained to the boy. "We upset with him because we're afraid we might lose him."
"Who are you?"
Rylan was confused. "You can have two fathers?"
Jazz bit his lip. "I had a mother. She's dead now."
"Oh. Sorry." Rylan said sincerely. "I miss my mother. I guess one of these Seeder guys is my father, but I don't like to think about that." He gazed up at Jazz. "You're lucky. Two fathers would be cool."
"Through this door." Rylan pointed. "That's where the girls are."
Heero cocked his head, listening, and then shoved the door aside. His neuralizer was raised high, as was Jazz's, but no guards rushed to meet them.
Rylan ran to the first cell. "Zea! Zea, I'm back. I brought... Zea?" He ran to the next one. "They're gone. And they never take more than one to Seed at a time."
"Is there somewhere else they could be taking them to hide them from us?"
Rylan shook his head. "No place like this." His skin turned pale. "The only other time they took everyone at once was when they..."
"Oh my God." Heero whispered. "They're going to kill them, aren't they? They'd rather see them dead than free."
"This way. There's a chemical chamber they use." Rylan began to run. Oh, please, Zea. Please be alive. Please, please please.
Please don't be dead like my mother.