Big bus headed southeast
from the courthouse
But I'm not headed southeast from the courthouse
Let some mysterious chunk of space debris
Puncture the roof and set me free
-Mountain Goats, "Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of"
Yang style t'ai chi, especially the short form, wasn't a particularly strenuous form of exercise nor was it overly complicated, but it did take a considerable amount of concentration to do properly. More than that, it took years of practice to achieve synthesis of mind and body, to make it both martial art and meditation. Watching Heero in the wall-size mirror of the physical therapy unit as he copied my steps, I could see that he knew the forms, but not their meaning. He followed me and simultaneously watched the way my torso twisted and my knee bent and extended. He watched for signs of discomfort or a sign that I was tiring. The physical therapist watched as well from the sidelines, bemused--as most health professionals tended to be around us--and taking the occasional note on a few of the steps. I mostly ignored her and focused on controlling the movement of the new muscle and tendon in my body, trying to get it to feel like it belonged to me.
It was interesting to watch Heero's body move when he wasn't trying to pin me flat on my back. His bare feet really weren't all that big, but they kept him so firmly rooted to the ground that they seemed somehow heavier and broader. He moved with the easy confidence of someone utterly at home in his own skin. Even though he'd only learned these forms two short weeks ago in anticipation of helping me train my back and legs to work again, he pivoted and stretched and shifted his weight as if he'd known them for much longer. Only people who knew their bodies could move like that.
I was willing to admit that Heero had the sort of body worth maintaining. Watching his meticulous attention to how we both moved--pushing with relaxed palms, leaning his weight on his back leg, rocking forward onto his other leg, bending forward over it, fingers angled in an open fist--helped take my mind off the trembling muscles in my back and my knee which threatened to dump me onto the mat.
The short form worked all the right muscles for me, but even better, it helped restore my balance, forcing me to trust both my left and right legs to hold me up on their own. And it showed me that I was in no way ready for my family's Chen style, which combined soft and hard, slow and quick movements that would have devastated my back. I imagined that it was a style Heero would have felt closer to, though he certainly wouldn't have been able to pick up even the basics in two weeks.
He had done a lot to make sure that I was well looked after and comfortable at the hospital. The effort he had made spoke volumes without him having to say a word to me about it which, honestly, was why Heero and I got along so well. In this situation, however, where muscle control, breathing, flexibility and endurance focused our time together, Heero was as stubborn as he'd ever been during the wars. He wouldn't give an inch and despite the difficulty of maintaining the forms and moving fluidly through them, I wouldn't have wanted it to be any different. Finding me hospital scrubs and bringing spare sweatpants and t-shirts was one thing; coddling during training was something else entirely.
After this, I had fifteen minutes of vigorous stretches to look forward to, with Heero literally pushing and pulling my body to its limits. The physical therapist would watch us then, too, and have to admit that when it came to the human body, Heero knew what he was about. He knew what my body could handle because he knew how injuries worked, as well as how quickly Gundam pilots' bodies recovered from them. Despite this assurance that I wouldn't hurt myself when working with him, I spent a considerable portion of the stretching exercises plotting ways to get back at him in a similar fashion, ideally when I was again his equal in physical strength.
However, even as exhausting as this was, the fact that I could do it at all--coupled with all the coiled energy I could see building in Heero's limbs--made me itch for a time when we could forgo sequences of forms and go at it for real. Heero wasn't built for exercises that cultivated and increased energy; he had more than enough of that already. I met Heero's eyes in the mirror and knew he was thinking the same thing.
It was a simple friendship and unlike others, didn't require much to keep us entertained.
"When do we get to do this facing each other without a guard waiting outside the door?" he asked, the smile on his lips incongruous with the fluid movements of his arms. One didn't generally look eager when doing t'ai chi.
I held the proper posture and stance but looked off to middle distance. "Same as before, Yuy--ten months."
Heero stopped and held his pose, weight on his back leg, the toes of his other foot just touching the mat.
"Lower your elbows, Yuy; your arms aren't wings."
A growl rumbled in his chest, but he relaxed his arms into the proper position. We stepped our feet together and then shifted to the side, open palms pushing in the same direction.
"You spoke with Prescott, then?" he prodded when I didn't volunteer any new information.
I nodded and, by silent agreement, we ended the sequence, folding our hands and turning to bow to each other. I succeeded in lowering myself to the mat without shaking and then lay back, stretching my arms over my head. "We spoke last week. I'm surprised Une didn't give you the update herself since she seems to know what Prescott is up to before I do."
Heero knelt beside me, ready to help/torture with flexibility exercises. "I haven't spoken to her at length recently." We both knew it was because he'd been taking time off to come here. I drew my left knee up to my chest and Heero pounced like he'd been waiting to do this all day. He pressed his hand to the back of my leg and leaned what felt like his whole weight on it. For a few seconds it felt really good on my lower back, stretching the new muscle and reducing the stress on other muscle groups that had been compensating for the weaker ones. It stopped feeling good as soon as the stretch felt more like work and Heero let up when he saw the strain in my face. "Do you want to tell me what Prescott told you will happen now that they recognize you're no longer safe with them?"
We switched to my right leg, which was a more delicate operation. Instead of pushing my knee right into my nose, Heero pushed my leg up to a ninety degree angle and then held it there, pressing at both my ankle and thigh, urging the knee to extend as far as it could. "Not really," I said through clenched teeth. "But it'd be rude not to. Is Trowa coming by today? I'd just as soon tell both of you together so I don't have to repeat myself."
Heero nodded, understanding that impulse thoroughly. "He'll be in by the time we're finished here." He let go of my leg and I folded both down against my chest, clasping my hands together around them. Then I rolled upright and Heero shifted to sit across from me, laying his legs flat and then spreading them wide. I did the same and scooted forward until our heels touched.
"Have you heard from Duo?" I asked, annoyed with myself and the question the second it was out of my mouth. I leaned forward and Heero took hold of my wrists. Then I had to focus on breathing properly as he tried to bend me in half.
"No, we haven't." And he didn't sound too pleased about that either. "He left Cathy and Trowa's apartment a week ago and told her not to worry and to not let us worry either. That was the only communication we had with him." He released the pressure on my wrists and I straightened with a small sigh of relief before leaning back and tugging him forward. He grunted in surprise and then pressed his forehead nearly to the floor without another sound.
I scowled at the top of his head and vowed that I would be able to do that again myself within another week. Maybe two. "He's not going to like what I have to tell him."
I leaned forward again so that he could sit up. "Why not?"
I gave a short, uncomfortable shrug. "Because he's not as good at following the rules as you two."
Heero looked like he was thinking about being affronted and then returned the shrug. "For a long time, the rules didn't apply to us. I think Duo still wants it to be that way. I think it's why he takes off like this sometimes, to do things his own way before anyone can try to tell him otherwise." I nodded because what he said made sense. Then he pulled on my wrists again and I exhaled into a slightly lower position than before.
I refused the offer of a wheelchair for the trek back to my room and I made it the whole way without limping, a cold sweat on my upper lip and temples the only evidence of any discomfort.
Safely back and in my own bathroom, I hoisted myself up to sit on the sink counter before I collapsed, bending forward to stretch out the muscle and to reach for the vitamin E cream on the back of the toilet. Scooping out a bunch of it, I slathered it all over the new scar, and twisted around to get a look at it in the mirror. It was still livid and red, but more than marking where a jackknife had stabbed my kidney, it hid all the real work that had been done underneath the skin. The knife had missed the renal artery, which was the only reason I was still alive. As it was, the organ had already failed by the time I was flown to the hospital, my body coping and rerouting urinary tract function to the right kidney--just as if I'd lost a lung, the other would take over oxygenating my blood. Thankfully, these processes did not require conscious thought for them to work.
Like my back, the scar on the back of my knee marked a surgical site, underneath which tendon had been re-grown and knit to muscle and bone. The Regen process itself took many days of eight-hour sessions spent under a carefully monitored combination of UV rays that encouraged rapid cell growth. The way I understood it, they'd put a kind of controlled cancer into my muscles. The new cells were all mine but I had to train them to be like normal muscle and tendon. On the surface, it was scary as hell because no one wants cells that behave abnormally in their bodies, but the payoff was huge. I was already on my feet and able to do up to 30 minutes of light exercise. That would only improve over the next two weeks, by the end of which, I could expect to be able to get around easily and to do most of the things I'd done before.
It would take considerably longer to make up for all the muscle mass I'd lost over the last four weeks. This most recent incident, coupled with my illness from two weeks ago, had sapped a lot of my strength, along with a distressing amount of weight. Duo had expressed his concern discreetly, by his standards, commenting "you're pretty tiny these days" a week ago; Heero had taken it upon himself to train with me until he was satisfied I was strong enough and Trowa, unsurprisingly, had started slipping me protein bars on his visits. They tasted terrible and reminded me of the ration bars we'd had to resort to on occasion during the wars, but I was grateful. The doctor was confident I'd make a full recovery with only a few more scars to show for the whole ordeal.
Without the Regeneration Unit, none of that would have been even remotely possible. Without it, I was looking at six to eight weeks recovery time, and then at least a year of painful therapy to regain the use of my legs and back. Without it, I'd have been crippled, maybe permanently. Most people who received a similar injury would not have had the option of anything else, as Regen was still new, expensive and controversial.
"Somebody must still like me," I muttered, sliding off the sink and pulling off the scrubs to put cream on the back of my knee. Prescott had authorized the time in the Regen Unit, which meant she pretty much had to be that 'somebody.' And that, I had been realizing over the past few days, posed a long list of very difficult questions regarding the assumptions I'd made about her and her intentions for me. If, as I had originally suspected, Karl had sent Brandt to her about his and my involvement with Duo, then the attack that killed my roommate, I could only assume, had served as both a solution to the threat I posed and punishment for my actions. Karl's betrayal and the attack couldn't be unrelated; they just couldn't.
And when I'd survived, Prescott could have easily orchestrated my later demise. She could have kept me at RCNP, for instance, and left me to the resident doctor who probably didn't have enough of the right blood on hand and didn't have a surgical team to deal with my injury. I would have died within the hour. Or she could have sent me to Rome in an ambulance and I would have died along the way. Instead, she called in a helicopter and ordered muscle regeneration--the sort of procedure reserved primarily for military personnel and the incredibly wealthy.
The simple truth of it was, someone who wanted me dead would not have done what Prescott did. Which meant that--
"Why do you sound so shocked? You're a likable person." I straightened, flustered, quickly settling the waist of the clean pair of sweats I'd just pulled on over my hips. I tied the drawstring and I sifted through what I'd just been thinking, hoping that I hadn't said any of it aloud. Oh, right. 'Somebody must still like me.'
"You're one to talk," I replied, turning and reaching for the t-shirt I'd set on the sink. I looked up to meet Heero's eyes in the reflection of the mirror and found him leaning against the door frame, toeing the heavy door open a little further. "I don't understand how anyone can tolerate either of us."
"Most people can't." He raised an eyebrow and cast a pointed look at the shirt I'd just shrugged into. I looked down at it and rolled my eyes. Unlike most other patients in this hospital, I didn't have my own clothes at home that I could send my friends to fetch for me. I only had hospital scrubs and what my friends brought from their wardrobes. So Heero's sweats were too big, Trowa's were too long and Duo's t-shirts had screen prints of mobile suits with flower wreathes around their heads and big letters that read 'Make Love, Not War.' I laughed in spite of myself and pulled it back over my head, turning it inside out before putting it back on. Heero's mouth was pressed into a flat smile. "We got lucky," he added.
I busied myself looking for a hair tie. "That's not what I'd call it, but whatever." When I looked up, I caught him staring at my back. I hadn't realized the hem of the shirt was folded up a few inches on the left side, exposing the scar in all its red, shiny ugliness. I quickly fixed it and shot him a defensive glare. "It's no different from any of yours."
His eyes swung up to meet mine in the mirror. "Technically, no."
"I wouldn't expect you to treat it differently."
He shrugged. "Scar tissue is scar tissue."
"Then why were you staring? Why does everyone stare at it? It's just like all the others."
"Because that jackknife wasn't an indiscriminate attack aimed at a Gundam or an enemy wearing the right uniform; it was meant for you alone."
"Well, if you or Duo or Trowa had been there, you'd be in my place right now." That was probably a lie, but Prescott's reasons for the attack were much easier to voice, and they were all I could express to Heero right then, unsure as I was now about her role in the attempt on my life. "They found out I was one of the five Gundam Pilots and they didn't want me sharing the same space with them anymore. I'm honestly surprised it didn't happen sooner. It could have happened to any of us."
I crossed my arms over my chest and turned around to lean back against the sink. Heero watched me as if he were suspicious of my answer. We probably would have remained in our stubborn stalemate, but Trowa strode into the room then and paused in the doorway to the bathroom, raising a slim eyebrow at both of us. With the arrival of his partner, Heero dropped his eyes from mine and let the tense moment go, turning to head out into the main room. Trowa angled himself enough out of the way so he could pass, but not so far that Heero's shoulder didn't brush his chest. I fought down the knee-jerk resentment I'd felt every day that Trowa showed up after Heero and I had trained together. Perhaps it stemmed from being an only child, but I didn't want anyone else to see what we shared on those days. Or maybe living in a giant room with dozens of other men had made me selfishly cling to the time I had alone with one of my only friends.
"How did rehab go today?" Trowa asked as I carefully leaned down to pick up the scrubs I'd been wearing. A few stray hairs fell in my face and I wished for Duo's bandanna. It obviously hadn't made the trip to Rome with me.
"It went very well, thank you," I said, finally allowing myself to limp back to bed. Trowa didn't offer his hand and I wouldn't have taken it anyway.
Once settled, the three of us sat in silence, Trowa casually slouched in one of the chairs with his legs crossed, Heero leaning back in his with one foot propped up on the hard plastic bed frame. I sat cross-legged on top of the blankets and gulped down half the water in my cup. The three of us weren't big talkers and when we were together, it was even worse. It wasn't altogether uncomfortable, but I knew they were both waiting for me to start.
"So," Trowa finally began. "Heard any interesting news lately?"
"I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the news, actually. I liked the insulated bubble I'd cultivated on the inside."
Trowa's lips twitched. "Not what I meant, Chang."
"Yes, I know, Barton."
Trowa uncrossed his legs and then lifted right over left. "So, what's the verdict? Heero's dying to know. Can't you tell?"
I looked to Heero and he raised his shoulders in a small shrug, his body language apologizing for Trowa. I shook my head in reply; he is who he is.
"I'm honestly surprised that Une didn't give you the scoop herself; she must know by now," I said.
Heero looked to Trowa, but his partner was looking at me with a small, empty smile that said, 'Even if I knew, I'd want to hear it from you first, so get on with it.' I clenched my jaw and my fists in my lap and then relaxed them. "The verdict is protective custody," I said, meeting Heero's gaze and glancing to see Trowa's reaction. He nodded once and looked away. "Prescott and Rorty are still working out the details, but the plan is that, since they both live on-site, I'll stay with one of them for the remainder of my sentence--under their direct supervision and protection. It goes without saying that they think the quote un-quote dorms are no longer safe for me, but neither are my classes, my duties in the laundry or the kitchen, or any time I spend in the common areas with the other inmates. Instead, to keep up the 'work study' element of the program, I'll take on personal assistant duties for them. Now, they can lay off a paid administrative assistant and spend that money elsewhere." I stopped to take a breath and to let either of them speak if they chose to.
Trowa's mouth was pressed into a thin line as he examined the hem of his Preventer jacket. Heero rubbed a hand over his thigh and looked like he was formulating a response. Finally, "Will you continue your studies?"
I nodded. "I'll complete my degree in literature through private tutoring from both of them. They're certified."
Heero shook his head. "But it's not just about classes. It's about socialization and preparing you to reintegrate into a community. How are you supposed to do that if you don't see anyone other than Prescott and Rorty?"
I kept my face as blank as I could manage, but a mean, spiteful part of me wanted to sneer and laugh in his face at the very notion that I needed any more "socialization" training that either he or Trowa did, that I was so different from them that I needed three years of schooling and therapy in order to return to society as a fully functional citizen. But Heero really did sound like the system had betrayed him, like it wasn't working the way he genuinely thought it was supposed to, so I tried to keep my irritation to myself.
"I guess they figure they'd rather see me kept alive than ambushed in the laundry again just so I can still interact with the other inmates."
Trowa gave me a sharp glare. If Duo were here, this conversation would have been going a lot more smoothly, I was sure of it.
"He means, asshole, that there would seem to be other, more constructive ways of keeping you safe than locking you up with the warden for the next ten months."
I nodded a sort of apology. "Tell me about it. But what can I do? They've already convinced the Board that I'm at risk in the main facility. And it's only for ten months."
"We should talk to Une about it," Heero offered, thumping the front two legs of his chair back to the floor.
"Une already knows about it." Trowa murmured, looking a little sheepish when Heero's gaze snapped to his. "I talked to her today and she thinks it's a good idea." Then, turning to me, "She wants you kept out of trouble until you can come work with us."
"What about staying with us?" Heero interjected.
We both looked at him as if he were crazy.
He shook his head at us. "I'm serious. If RCNP is where the danger is, why can't you be under our supervision? It'd remove you from the inmates who want to hurt you and you'd still be in the vicinity with Preventers looking out for your safety and training."
I didn't want to be a jerk, not to Heero, but, at that point, I also hated to feel hopeful. The prospect of living with Heero and Trowa, in Rome, for the next ten months was worlds away from being essentially chained in Prescott's basement. But it was also essentially impossible.
"It's protective custody, Yuy, not house arrest," I grumbled. "You can't just put a bracelet around my ankle and tell me not to leave the apartment while you're at work. They don't do that for war criminals."
"And it's a bit of a conflict of interest," Trowa added softly.
"Not to mention nepotism."
"So what?" Heero snapped, surprising us both. He turned to Trowa. "What wouldn't you have done for Quatre?" he asked. "What wouldn't you do for me?"
I stared at him and thought that, in Duo's absence, Heero had stepped up to fill his shoes. And I realized that I really didn't know how to handle people like them. From the looks of it, Trowa didn't either.
"I...we should talk to Une again, I guess," he said, giving his partner a strange look.
"No!" I blurted and they both jumped in their seats. Heero met my gaze and I realized that I had to make him see that this was like our t'ai chi in the physical therapy gym. This was something they couldn't do for me; it was something I had to see through to the end, on my own, for more reasons than they knew. "If word got around--and you know that it would--that two ex-Gundam pilot Preventers were sheltering another ex-pilot war criminal, how do you think that would go over with the kinds of people who tried to kill me? You would be in as much, if not more, danger than I am."
Trowa was still staring at Heero like his partner had punched him in the gut and I had a feeling it was because he'd never been forced to really confront Heero's question before--at least not concerning Heero, who, I was nearly certain now, was more than just a fellow pilot. He didn't look particularly happy to be contemplating that question, either; in fact, he looked like he'd rather be anywhere but in an uncomfortable hospital chair contemplating that question with me three feet away from them.
"You should just let this happen the way it's going to; let them handle it and let me handle it," I added, needing to fill their silence. "I'm...I'm not saying that I don't want your help and I don't want you to stop coming to visit, but just... leave it alone for awhile."
Heero was watching Trowa from the corner of his eye with poorly veiled resignation, indicating that he knew he and his partner had a long private conversation ahead of them. I wished that they would go ahead and get on with it and leave me alone. I'd already had a week to contemplate the rest of my time at RCNP and I was coming to grips with it--I was almost glad Duo wasn't around to freak out about it. Listening to Heero's reaction wasn't inspiring much confidence that Duo would be fine with Prescott's decision when he finally heard the news. If he didn't know already, I had to figure out a way to tell him so that he wouldn't do something stupid. Among other things, I also had to figure out how Prescott or Rorty and I were going to get along in close quarters for the next five-sixths of a year.
I had a lot to think about and I couldn't do it with them here.
They got the message without me having to say a word--probably due to some subconscious communication skill among the anti-social. We knew when we were no longer wanted, most likely because we hadn't really wanted to be there in the first place. They both stood up and simultaneously started emptying their pockets onto the bedside table--Trowa stacking the usual protein bars one on top of the next, Heero laying out some fresh fruit and a bag of carrot sticks.
"Thank you," I said, again relying on non-verbal communication to convey that it wasn't just carrot sticks I was grateful for. They nodded and Trowa gestured for Heero to leave first. As they filed out, Trowa tossed in my direction, "Keep it together, okay? We can't take much more of this."
Then the room was empty. I slumped back against the pillow and grabbed an apple. "No kidding."
I recognized his footsteps before I heard his voice. He was coming down the hall at his usual unhurried pace and then he called a greeting to the night guards stationed outside my room--Bernardo and Matthew. He'd been on a first-name basis with them since before I'd even woken up, apparently.
"Yo, Matt-man, long time no see! And 'Nardo, you're lookin' pretty trim. Have you lost weight since I've been away?"
"Yeah, you think so? Maria says I've gotta slim down for a wedding this fall. She thinks I won't fit into my tux otherwise."
"Aw, man, is that coffee for us?"
"Sure is. These night shifts have gotta be killer boring for you. Thought I'd at least give you an edge on it, keep your heart racing for a few hours anyway. This is the good stuff from that place you like down by the flower shop. Me, I can't drink it, makes me talk a blue streak--which, if you think I talk a lot now, boyo, you haven't seen a caffeine buzz until you've seen Duo Maxwell with espresso."
"Sounds pretty terrifying. Oh, are you stayin' late tonight? He's been passing out by about ten these days."
"Nah, I'm just stoppin' in to say 'hey' since I've been gone for awhile."
"Where'd you get to, anyway?"
"Eh, I was here, there and everywhere."
His voice was getting closer as he came into my room's small entryway. I was absurdly glad to hear it. He'd been gone for two weeks. Fourteen days of silence and I'd started to worry that Prescott had been right and that it really was because I was a Gundam pilot that I'd been targeted. And if that were the case, then maybe Duo had been next--his small ship sabotaged so that a malfunction after he'd taken off, when he was in deep space between colony clusters, had caused his ship to turn to scrap without anyone--least of all me--knowing what had happened.
But he was here, so I was obviously paranoid. And bored.
I slid out of bed just as he rounded the corner, straightening my clothes and smoothing back my hair, even though it was a hopeless cause. The hair at my temples had started to grow in again and looked terrible next to the rest of it. I was pretty sure I'd have to shave it all off again once I was back at RCNP. But this was Duo and he was the last person I needed to impress with a tidy appearance--as evidenced by his dirty work pants and the gray thermal shirt he wore that had probably been white at some point.
"You're back," I said, watching him slip the duffel from his shoulder and set an opened bottle of iced tea on the table. Right then, it felt like watching these ordinary things could keep a person fed and healthy. I'd missed him. It'd become apparent to me and anyone who had seen us together at all recently, that I really liked Duo. When he was around, I was different. It was the truth and I wasn't so blind that I couldn't admit it to myself. His absences were good for that sort of thing.
He scratched a hand through his bangs and said, distracted, "Yeah, I'm back." I sought his gaze and when he finally looked up at me and realized that I was standing without the rigid posture of someone in pain, his face lit up in a bright grin. I stepped forward to greet him and his smile grew impossibly wide. He gripped my elbows and gave me a gentle shake. "Wu, you look amazing on your feet! Not even limping!" I grabbed his elbows in return and couldn't think of a thing to say that wouldn't sound stupid or be too embarrassing. We stood like that, toe to toe, for a few more seconds and I wasn't so dense that I didn't realize now that his closeness was both unnerving and exciting. I grabbed hold of that feeling and put a name to it or at least attached it to a complete thought. Anything was possible with Duo.
On to part fifteen. Back to part thirteen.