Sometimes I think trust is still an iffy thing with most of us.
Children have, or are supposed to have, an innate trust in the adults around them to keep them safe and protected. Our childhoods were snatched away from us, whatever trust we had in the world becoming burned and bullet-ridden, and no matter how old we got we were still trying to patch up the wounds.
When we were soldiers, Duo learned (against my wishes) that he could trust me with his life. However, sometimes I stopped to think what it must have taken for him to follow me back to Dera all those years ago. Trusting me with his own life was one thing, but trusting that his child would be safe based solely on my word alone, that was something different.
Gage may have been spared the horrors of war and battle and starvation, but in spite of his privilege his own trust in adults had been just as completely ravaged, and just when I thought we'd managed to succeed in maybe giving that back to him it was taken away again. I knew that he had the inner grit to recover: whether or not he'd have the willpower this time to use it, I wasn't so sure about.
It wasn't just Gage that I had to worry about after the party was over and we were all back home again to recover. The revelation had affected Duo deeply, bringing his old sleeping demons back up to the surface. Even if he didn't speak about it, I knew that it was all replaying out in his mind, that for the first time in many years those men had the power to hurt him again.
It made me angry, not only at them but (I'll admit it) at him as well. I felt like a failure, that in spite of all the years of love and devotion I'd given him, I'd been unable to... to what? Cure him? Make him forget about it?
He'd tried to talk to me about it from time to time after our first night together, but finally stopped mentioning it. I paced around our dark bedroom that night, and I realized that I'd taken his silence on the subject as an indication that he'd finally put it to rest. I realized for the first time that he'd only stopped bringing it up because it made me uncomfortable to talk about.
And who else could he talk to about it? Not the children, not Wufei... I was the closest person to him, and on this subject I'd failed him as completely as Gage's parents had failed him. It wasn't just the men in their pasts who had hurt Duo and Gage so badly: it was all of the well-intentioned people around them who'd responded by burying their heads in the sand because it hurt US to hear them speak of it.
I headed out to the kitchen, where I found him with his feet up on one of the chairs, staring out the window at the blackness of the farm beyond.
"Hey." He smiled at me and reached out, brushing his fingers against my arm. "Boy, do the Gods of Celebration hate us, or what?"
"Something like that. The fun never stops, does it?"
"He'll get past this, Heero. I believe in him. But I don't know if things will ever be the same between him and his family again. I'm going to try and go see him tomorrow. I don't know if he'll let me, but I'm going to keep trying."
I sat down next to him. "Duo... I'm sorry."
"For doing the same thing to you all these years. For not giving you someone you could talk to about what happened. For making you deal with it all on your own. I'm no better than Gage's parents."
He didn't answer right away, and then sighed. "It's okay. I could have pressed the issue if I'd wanted, made you listen to all the gory details again, but I just hate to see you so upset and unhappy."
"That's the same reason I didn't want you to talk about it. I don't like seeing me upset and unhappy either."
He burst out laughing then, and leaned over to put his head against my shoulder. "It'd be nice, though, if you did let me talk about it sometimes. Not all the time. Just... sometimes."
"I promise. Do you want to talk about it now?"
"No, not tonight. I'm still on overload."
"Dad? Otoson? Are you guys okay?"
"Hey, stranger." Duo waved a sleepy-looking Luke over to join us at the table. "Guess you heard about what happened?"
"Yeah. Glad I missed it."
"So where were you?"
"Just decided to get out for a while, hang out with friends. You're right about me spending too much time on my computer. I really need to take a break."
And that is when I knew Luke was up to something. I could be noble and call it a father's intuition, but I think the credit would go more to Dr. J and Odin and the education I'd received from them. I didn't have to step in bullshit to be able to smell it.
"Great. I'm glad to hear that." Duo nodded. "Now, tell us where you really were."
"I told you... " Luke's face was turning red.
"I know what you told me. Now I'm asking you for the truth. We don't lie in this house."
"Okay. I won't lie." Luke shrugged. "But I'm not going to tell you where I was, either. You'll find out eventually, and you'll go through the roof. But until then, it's my life and my secret. If you can't accept that, then I'll move out."
"What, we don't have enough to worry about?" Duo looked ready to explode, and then it drained out of him. "Okay. Okay. You're a grown man. I can't make you tell me. I respect that. And no, you don't have to move out. Just promise me, whatever it is, you're sure you can handle it."
"Not entirely sure. Pretty sure." Luke rubbed his hand on the side of his pajama shirt. "I promise that if I can't, I'll tell you everything."
I grunted, and Luke took that as an agreement on my part. I fully intended to find out what he was up to.
Luke said goodnight and went back to his room, and Duo groaned into his hands. "Great. Just great. What do we do now?"
"What did we do before when there were multiple targets? We'll split the mission. You take Gage. See if you can get him to open up to you, and use that charm of yours to try and mend some fences where his family is concerned. Might want to try and defuse Wufei as well before he decides he as to avenge his son-in-law's honor. I'll set up surveillance on Luke and shadow him. We'll handle the situation with Rylan as it develops. My recommendation is to enlist Jazz's help. I'm sure he'll tell Jazz all about our new friend Brin. We can decide at that time if he's a threat we need to neutralize or not."
"Oh sure, you get the easy job." He was grinning at me, the spark back in his eye tonight. "Come on, Soldier. Let's go back to bed."
"I'm not sure I understand the purpose of that mission." I rose to my feet. "Is there an eminent threat from the bedroom?"
"Oh yeah, definitely. Our bed has been wired to explode if we're not in it within the next 2 minutes."
"Well, we can't let that happen. We'll never get the mess cleaned up."
I took his hand, hauling him up off the chair, and we headed back down the hall.
The heavy morning rains had turned the soft sides of the roads into pits of sticky mud. This had driven the bicyclists into the middle of the busy streets, to the frustration of the bamo pullers and the taxi drivers. The buses were backed up as well, spitting exhaust into the air, and in the heat of the afternoon men sweated in their tiny cars and made rude gestures toward the bicycle riders.
Shin-deep in the mud, the boys watched this and grinned at each other, wondering when the first fight would break out. Sure enough, one man left his car in a fury to confront another man on a rusty bike, and the bicyclist responded with a fist to the motorist's jaw. The children cheered, clapping their hands and stomping in the mud the best that they could.
Three of the boys were brothers. They'd been born in Bali, and would grow old and die here. One day they too would sit angered in traffic jams, but for now as it was not happening to them they could watch in amusement.
The fourth child was taller than his companions, and as fair as they were dark, although weeks in the Bali sunshine had considerably browned his skin. Like them, he wore only a pair of tattered cut-offs and his feet were bare.
"I'm hungry." The youngest child, seven, complained. "Wayan, I want to eat."
"Komang, you're always hungry." The middle brother, Kadek, laughed. "Come on, let's find you something."
They raced down the street together, dodging around the older folks, who gave them smiles in return. Children were treasured in Bali, and much was tolerated here that would not be permitted elsewhere. Still, there were limits. They were expected in return to be polite and considerate, and treat their elders with the utmost respect. The Balinese boys had been taught this from the cradle.
Their friend... well, an effort had been made, in any case.
They moved now along the side of a building, peeking out at a fruit vendor who stood on the corner yelling his pitch to potential customers. Komang's stomach growled and Wayan, nine, giggled.
"Let's go." Kadek whispered. "Do it."
The blond boy walked up to the vender, giving the man his most charming smile. The vendor gave him a watery one in return, having been in his business too long to trust anyone.
"Ajikuda niki?" he pointed at something that resembled a peach. How much?
"For just one? Bah, they look half rotten!" The child peered closer. "Look how soft they look. Maal gati!" Too much.
"You insult me! This fruit is picked fresh today!" The vendor growled. "Go, get out of here!"
"Let me see one." The boy demanded. "If it's fresh I'll buy a dozen off of you. My mother will love them."
The vendor picked up a small fruit and put it in the boy's hand. "See? Very fresh."
"You're right." The boy agreed with him. "It looks delicious." He winked at the man and suddenly took off down the street, the fruit still in his hand.
"Hey!" The vendor screamed. "You come back here, you little thief!" He ran after the boy in fury, leaving his cart unattended.
Quickly, the three brothers were on it, grabbing handfuls of fruit before anyone could stop them. The vendor returned panting to find a good portion of his stock had been appropriated. He swore and demanded names, but the other vendors just smiled at him and shook their heads in confusion. As long as it wasn't their carts being robbed, it didn't concern them.
Laughing, the boys stood behind a tavern devouring their fruit, the juice running down their chins and bare chests. Their friend had rejoined them, his face still a little red from the chase the vendor had given him.
"Did you see that fat thing trying to catch Slick?" Wayan bit into another fruit. "Slick could have stood still, he still wouldn't have caught him."
Slick stuck out his tongue in the direction of the vendor. "It isn't good enough fruit to chase anyway. He overcharges; he deserves to be robbed."
The boys jumped, and Slick saw a man he didn't know approaching them, thunder in his eyes. He was tall and dark, his hair under one of those funny hats the men of Bali loved to wear, and his hands were big and scarred.
"Hello, Papa!" Komang said cheerfuly, and then offered the man a piece of fruit. Kadek tried to shush him.
"Where did you get this fruit?" their father demanded in fury. He grabbed Wayan's arm. "Did you steal this?" He shook the child. "Did you?"
Wayan began to cry, shaking his head no.
"I bought it for them!" Slick yelled, and the big man turned to face him. "Leave him alone! We didn't steal anything!"
"You bought them this fruit?" The man asked in disbelief, and the boy nodded. "I bought it with money my mother gave me! She's rich! She gives me lots of money to spend!"
"And who is this rich Mama of yours?" Wayan's father demanded.
The man's eyes widened in disbelief. He examined the child closer, trying to see in the muddy little thing the same boy he'd seen in pictures. The visit of the Vice-Foreign Minister to the little island had been all anyone had spoken of for days, and many people had been curious to see the child she'd brought along. However, rumor had it that the boy had been kept safely in his hotel room, away from the supposed dangers of the city.
"Go back to your Mama." The man said gruffly. "Are you a total fool?"
The boy glared at him, and the man suddenly knelt until they were eye-level. "There are men in this city, child, who would take you and hold you until your Mama gave up everything to have you returned, and then you would be returned to her in pieces. Do you know how valuable you would be to a man with no money? Your Mama lets you run around the city like this? Idiotic!"
"She doesn't know." The boy shrugged. "I'm asleep when she and my father leave, and I'm asleep when they get home. They don't know I go out on my own. I can take care of myself, you know." His friends were starring at him in awe, and he felt more than understood that even if he was able to play with them again, nothing would ever be the same. They had assumed that he was as poor as they were, and he hadn't done anything to change their minds. For just a little while, it had felt good to fit in.
"Wayan, take your brothers home." The man instructed. "I will take your friend back to his hotel."
With a shy look back at the boy they called Slick, the brothers hurried off through the mud back toward their apartment building. Somehow, Slick knew he'd never see them again.
With his hand on the boy's shoulder, Wayan's father steered him down the street and hailed a bamo, pushing the boy inside and climbing in after him. Neither of them spoke on the way to the hotel.
"I think he was worried that if something did happen to me, his children would get blamed for it." Gage glanced over at his mate, who sat next to him on the bed. "Maybe he really was worried about me. Ironic isn't it? I ran around the streets of Bali for two weeks and nothing ever happened. Then two years later, a mile from my home..." his voice trailed off.
"Did you ever go back?"
"No. It wouldn't be the same now. I'm a bit old to go around stealing from fruit vendors. And it's not like I could find my old friends anyway. I never knew their last name. I had fun, though. They used to sneak me in to watch rooster fights."
"Did you mother ever find out?"
"Oh sure. When we were ready to leave she happened to notice how dark I'd gotten, and she didn't buy it for a minute that it had happened at the pool. For about a month, I irritated the hell out of them by responding to all of their questions in Balinese. She was beside herself to think that I'd been whooping it up on the island right under her nose."
Shan shook his head. "Well, it sounds like you had a good time, anyway. What made you remember it now?"
"When she realized what I'd been doing, she hugged me, and she looked into my eyes, and that surprised me. We weren't exactly the touchy feely sort of family, you know. She looked at me and she said 'Don't ever do anything like that again. I don't know what I'd do if something ever happened to you.' I guess she really didn't know what to do."
"She called a little while again. I told her that you were sleeping."
Gage swung his legs out of bed. "Well, next time you can be honest. I won't be here."
"And where do you think you're going?" Shan wanted to know.
Gage lifted up the helmet of the VR machine and fit it over his head. " I've changed my mind. I'm going to Bali."
Perplexed, Duo looked around at the loud, bustling city he suddenly found himself in the middle of. Street venders shook colorful, exotic clothing in his direction and the air was filled with the rich smell of curry. In spite of having eaten just a few hours ago, Duo's stomach growled. From a window above his head, he could hear the rapid tempo of bhangra music, and a woman's laughter.
Shan led the way past a line of buildings, some made of little more than bare logs, some gleaming metal. "His parents took him there once when he was a kid, some kind of business trip of his mother's."
They stepped over nearly-nude man laying face down in the street, giggling something in Balinese. "I've never seen a VR this detailed." Duo eyed the broken bottle lying near the man's hand.
Shan shrugged and shook his head. "He's never lacked imagination, that's for sure. And that's my problem right now. It's too good. I can't get him to leave. He just keeps saying he's not ready to face the world yet. I thought maybe you could say something to him... I don't know what I thought. Thank you for coming, anyway."
"Of course I'd come. I'm worried sick about him; we've all been worried sick. I wanted to give him time, but the last thing we want him to do is end up like Joey."
"Poor Joey." Shan led Duo up a flight of stairs in a run-down apartment building. "He really wanted everyone to have a good time at that party. He doesn't blame any of us; he blames himself for not stopping the trouble before it started."
"Joey is a good kid. Meishel should be able to convince him that our disasters would happen with or without him."
"Tell me about it." Shan said mournfully, unlocking a wooden door. "If the poor guy knows what's good for him, he'll never speak to any of us again."
Gage was lying on a cot in the middle of the tiny apartment, staring at the ceiling. He started to smile when he saw Shan, but it quickly changed to a glare. "Wh..."
"Because I wanted you to speak to him." Shan interrupted. "You're not mad at him, remember? He did nothing to you, expect love you and give you a home when your own family let you down!" He sat down next to the cot. "Gage... please talk to him." He reached over and touched his mate's hair gently. "You're scaring me right now, this is scaring me. " He pointed at the apartment.
"I've been here less than a day, idiot." It was not said unkindly.
"Less than a day too long. I bet that when Joey got afraid to leave his house, he kept saying that it was just another day, and pretty soon it turned into a lifetime. Besides, and I know you don't want to hear this, some people have addictive personalities. You're not going to solve your problems with a drug this time, but VR can be a drug too. Either way it's a way to avoid dealing with reality. I'm not going to lose you like that."
Duo sat down next to them. "Did I ever tell you about when my wife died?"
"No." Gage looked back at the ceiling.
"I tried to hide away from the world, with Jazz. I thought if I could build this safe little world for the two of us, no one could ever hurt us again, no one could ever hurt him. I probably would have stayed there a long time if Wufei hadn't come and threatened to take Jazz away from me. You can't win an argument with the Changs, Gage. They're too stubborn, they never give in, and they'll use every dirty trick in the book to get their own way. You of all people should know that by now."
Gage's lips twitched and he glanced at Shan, reaching out to touch his hand. "I've realized that. But God..." He rolled over to face them. "I don't know what to do. What do I say to them?"
"Well, for one thing your Dad is doing a little better. Amy's gene is keeping him alive for now. Not better, but it's got him stablized. They're still trying to work up a synthetic, or come up with a way to mutate Amy's gene to be an exact match for his. But he was asking for you earlier. We didn't tell him what happened; we didn't want to upset him, but he knows something is up. What do you want to say to him?"
"He killed Chester because of what Chester did to me. Does Hallmark make a card for that?" He laughed for a second. "What a mess."
"Yeah, tell me about it, kiddo. Your parents do love you, you know. No matter what it may seem like. Like I told you years ago, they're not bad people. They just weren't cut out to raise kids. I know that doesn't undo the damage they've done to you."
"No, it doesn't." Gage's voice was clipped. "Maybe in time I can forgive them for it, but not yet. I need to be angry for while."
He paused, gathering his thoughts. "Does it ever go away? That feeling, that shame? Does it ever leave you?"
"Not entirely, no." Duo couldn't be anything but honest with the young man. "It's harder for people like us, I think. See... even when I was a kid, I never thought of myself as a child. I was just a man trapped in a small body. You were the same way. So whereas someone else can look back on something they did as a kid and think 'well, I was too young to know better' we can't do that, can we? We can't tell ourselves that we were just kids because we can't believe that we ever were kids. Does that make sense?"
"So we can't forgive ourselves for the stupid things we did, in other words."
"Yeah. I didn't start to forgive myself until Jazz was the same age as I was when it happened. I kept looking at him, how little he was, how innocent, and I kept thinking that there was no way someone that small could have ever been to blame for anything that happened to him. And neither was I. In theory I know that, but it's still there sometimes."
"But you moved on with your life." Gage pointed out.
"And so did you. I got the Kick story out of Wufei. You beat a drug addiction by yourself. You fell in love, you finished school, you're going to college. You fought for this life, Gage. You fought hard for it. When you and Shan ran off together, isn't this what you imagined you were fighting for? The right to be with him every day, to build a marriage with him, maybe raise a family of your own one day?"
"It was all I wanted." He sat up and put his arm around Shan's shoulder, pressing his lips to his mate's hair and then leaning his forehead against it as Shan's arms closed around him. "Everything I wanted."
"And you have it. But it's out there, not here. Don't let those idiots take that away from you, Gage. Don't let Chester get the last laugh."
Shan kissed him on the cheek. "Hey, I'm going to leave you guys alone. I'll be at home waiting for you."
Gage looked a little hurt and confused by that. "I think there's things Duo isn't going to be comfortable talking about with me around. Am I right?"
The older man nodded. "Shan, it's not personal... "
"I know that. Later guys. I love you, Sweet Prince." He vanished from the VR.
For a little while neither of them said anything, suddenly feeling naked and exposed with Shan gone. Finally Gage broke the silence.
"I don't know if I can be the same anymore. I don't feel the same. I feel raw, like they've ripped my guts out and replaced them with barbed wire."
"Then go with that. Don't smile and pretend you're not pissed as hell. Let them know exactly how you feel. If you need to be an angry shithead for the next few months go for it. I think your mother is expecting you to just forgive and forget. She doesn't understand how much she hurt you and she won't unless she sees it with her own eyes."
"When I woke up this morning, something hit me, Duo. Something I never thought about before."
"I always told myself I let Chester... you know... because I wanted all the cheap crap he gave me in return. But I started thinking harder about that, and I realized that wasn't all of it. Yeah, I wanted the toys and stuff, but there was more."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"I knew how disgusted my parents would be. And I didn't want them to know, but at the same time I think I enjoyed knowing that they would be upset about it. That by letting Chester use me, I was letting him punish them as well. There were all these pictures of us in the media and on TV and shit. And we were all smiling and we looked like this perfect family but we weren't. Every time I looked at those pictures of myself I thought about how no one knew what I'd been doing just a few hours earlier. I thought about how they'd look at my parents if they found out, and God help me, Duo, I wanted that to happen."
"I think you're confusing cause with effect there, buddy. You didn't start going to Chester because you wanted to punish your parents. And after he did start molesting you, inside you were furious and hurt that your parents didn't know and weren't stopping it. So mentally, you started to make the best of a bad situation."
"It doesn't change anything."
"No, it doesn't. But neither does staying here in Virtual Bali. Let's go get something to eat and go visit your father. And we'll talk more. We'll talk about all of it."
"Will you tell me about what happened to you? If I'm going to be spilling my guts... "
"Deal. Maybe we can stay here a little while longer."
"Cool. Come on. I know this great fruit-stand... "
Back to part thirty-four.