Trowa knew what they were doing after the second day of absolute darkness.
The average person—and he used the term loosely—could last about forty-eight hours before the confusion set it. The pilots could last more. And while he couldn’t match Heero’s two weeks in isolation, Trowa was a deal better than Quatre’s three days. One week was usually how long Trowa could keep track of imprisonment accurate to within twenty seconds.
When he was well, that was, and Trowa most certainly was not.
Trowa wasn’t sure what hurt worst. Occasionally, his wrists were the main concern, slashed open from the too tight, too rough handcuffs. He had finally learned to stop twisting them in a pointless attempt of getting feeling to his fingers, which stopped the blood from being a distracting tickle on his arms and palms. At twenty-seven hours in captivity, though, he had started to feel an unexplained chill, and then the incapacitating heat of a low fever. He wasn’t sure how fast a lethal infection could set it.
The fever could be from his shoulder, however, which hurt much more, and much more often, than his wrists. That had been dislocated, sometime between discovery and imprisonment; he couldn’t remember exactly where. The pain, though, was enough to tell him it was seriously injured. The skin had to be unbearably hot with injury, and unbearable to touch. If he could touch it. Thankfully he couldn’t, not with his hands bound behind his back. The position made the wound ache constantly, and flare with blinding pain every time Trowa dared to shift.
Trowa had to shift to try and ease some of the pressure off his ribs.
He had been unconscious when they had strung him up, so Trowa had woken to three body parts vying for most painful and distracting. His ribs usually won. They had bound his arms behind him and attached the handcuff’s short length of chain to a complicated set of chains, ones that looped around his shoulders and waist and applied perfect, agonizing pressure to cracked ribs. The length of it from the ceiling was just enough that if Trowa could stay on his toes, he could breathe almost comfortably. After ten hours, he had averaged three slips per hour. After twenty-five, it shot up to eleven. He had started shifting to keep from slipping, because slipping made his ribs and his shoulder scream.
And every time they screamed, Trowa blanked for a moment and risked losing track entirely.
So it came as something of a surprise that his internal clock had lasted a full two days under that much strain. Honestly, he had expected it to skip around hour twenty-three, when he had blacked out the first time. But it was hour fifty-one that Trowa had been repeating every few thousand heartbeats. He couldn’t remember anything particularly painful happening at hour fifty-one. The fever then, and its increased heart rate, must of have tripped him up.
Trowa didn’t scramble after the lost hours: not even when his pulse spiked and that traitorous part of him that acted as well as looked his age trembled at the thought of having hung for five days instead of just two. At the very most, three. Trowa didn’t try to console himself or count the number of times he had muttered “fifty-one.” Trowa let time go, because he knew what would happen if he didn’t.
He couldn’t panic. Panic was dangerous. Panic was the first sign he was ready to break, and they wanted him to break. Trowa knew that. What they would do with him if he did, that was the question.
If they were dumb, and Trowa hoped they were, they’d watch him beg before killing him. If they were smart, they’d extract information first—worthless information if he could keep a tiny foothold on his sanity.
If they were brilliant, they’d keep him alive. Decimate his head, reprogram him, and send him to havoc the Preventers from the inside out.
Trowa could not panic. Trowa needed to keep his head clear. He needed an anchor. Time was one, but anything mentally engaging and repetitive would do. So Trowa shifted again, bit back a scream as his shoulder, and started to mumble. Concertos had always been particular favorites of his. He recited notes, with their accompanying beats and speeds, from first bar to last.
He hadn’t played in over six months; he had forgotten more than half of his favorite pieces.
Trowa had already realized he was half-way towards panic when the door finally opened. He wasn’t sure exactly when he had run out of music to recite, other than to realize that it was far too soon. He had then switched to battles, then mobile stats, strategy simulations, suit maintenance, and the physical contortions of the body for acrobatics. With every switch, though, with every topic that failed to keep his attention from the encroaching darkness and the heat of his skin and the thud of his pulse in his ear, he remembered less and less, and squirmed more and more. He had just started reciting every mission mistake, starting with this one, when the light distracted him.
Barely able to lift his head, Trowa bit back a hiss as the floor beneath his feet turned a blinding white. He fought the urge to shift, more to keep his shoulder from complaining than from showing any sort of weakness. His eyes adjusted slowly, his vision swirling with splotches of white and red before finally focusing.
The first thing he saw was hair. His hair, actually, framing his vision in ragged clumps. The auburn strands were filthy, slick with oil, sweat, and the remnants of hair products that had finally lost their hold. They clung greasily to his face when he moved his. Filth was a good judge of time; he had to have been here for at least three days to reach this level of matted disgustingness.
Past his hair, Trowa saw his legs. He tried not to dwell on his trembling knees, or the too dark stretch of dry, sticky denim that ran down the inside of his thighs; there was no smell at least. Instead, Trowa focused on his feet, still straining to stay on his toes. And when they stopped in the swath of light beneath him, Trowa focused on the well-polished dress shoes.
He had expected a hair pull, so Trowa was able to silence his pain to a sharp intake of breath. Fingers laced tightly in Trowa’s greasy hair, his jailer tugged his head back until Trowa’s skull nearly touched his back. Trowa struggled not to choke.
His jailer was a shadow against the light, featureless save for a few stray wisps of hair that has escaped the gel or hairspray. But Trowa could tell by the square stance of his shoulders and the arrogant tilt in his hips that he was ex-military. An officer. An ex-OZ officer. That ex-OZ officer, the one who had transferred bases just after Trowa had infiltrated OZ’s ranks. The one who had escaped Trowa’s list when he was purging the earth and colonies of loose ends before accepting an espionage position with the Preventers.
The officer had ruined everything.
No, you ruined everything. The group he slipped into was a fledging, barely an infant in the ranks of terrorism. It came under Preventer notice only because of the connections it had to several well-stock weapons markets—markets that had stayed well out of sight of any faction in the war. Its leaders, well-connected but mostly spineless politicians, had planned on rising up out of the rumble of the rebuild. They had been taken out and replaced quickly by some of the better mercenaries after the cease fire.
Trowa had been sure no one knew him. None of the new leaders matched with any, dead or alive, that the Preventers had on records as war-affiliated. None of the merged groups had ever seen a Gundam. None of the suppliers had ever seen his face. Trowa had been certain. He had been overconfident. He had been stupid and slipped in as a gun-for-hire with everything but a new face.
And one of the leaders had recognized him because he saw him for ten minutes in an OZ recruitment center and probably ran his face through a database.
Trowa was too tired to keep his face expressionless. Unfortunately the officer mistook his self-loathing for defiance. He released his hair and backhanded Trowa before his head managed to fall out of range.
Now he could add a split lip to the list. It hurt less than his wrists at least.
Trowa expected the usual blustering that came with OZ officers. Shouting. Death threats. At the very least, another blow. The officer, however, was silent, which was unnerving. Knowing that it would hurt, knowing that it was a bad idea, Trowa tilted his head enough to get a glimpse through his hair.
The officer stared down at him, face hidden in shadow. Even without an expression, Trowa knew he was considering him intently, in probably a number of equally unpleasant ways. As he stared, he rubbed his fingers together. The fingers that had held his hair. He dropped his hand and bent over Trowa’s head. Trowa’s stomach suddenly rolled with something too much like fear.
“Some water, first, I think.”
The bright side was that Trowa could at least drink a little every time they shoved his head in.
The not so bright side was that he usually retched it right back up.
The horrible side was they'd still shove his face into the the tub of water, and now stomach acid, even if he did.
Through the heavy pressure, Trowa heard that low, distant click that always came just before he was ripped from the water. Then there was the sharp pain at the back of his head and the sharper pain of ice against his cheek as he was pulled out. Trowa, limp in the grip of the current guard, slumped back onto his heels, gasping and coughing. He choked on the water and hair that dribble into his mouth. The hand in his hair shifted. Trowa tensed.
His chin met cement instead of water. It was only mildly better.
The guard rose, swearing. Trowa heard the slosh of water. He rolled onto his side and watched with a rolling stomach and pounding pulse as one of the four other guards poured a fresh bucket of ice into the water. Across the room, the first guard peeled off the glove and tossed it to a third. The skin beneath it was a pale pink from the cold. Trowa had lost most of the feeling to his face after the fifth dunk. Now though, lying on the floor, with the stuffiness of fluorescent bulbs overhead and the cloying heat of bodies to warm him, he felt the burn of a cold ravaged face. Trowa twisted his hands useless, unable to stop them from trying to reach his aching skin.
And the officer leaned against the wall, watching.
He hadn’t told him his name, and Trowa had long since given up trying to remember it. He hadn’t told Trowa why he was still alive or what he wanted. He hadn’t even told Trowa to die. All he had said since dragging Trowa down from the chain was that he needed a bath.
He hadn’t even smiled when he said it.
The officer hadn’t smiled when the five guards came in, or when they filled the tub with water. He hadn’t smiled when the first grabbed him, or when Trowa put up the weakest fight of his life. He hadn’t smiled when Trowa vomited for the first time, or when they shoved his face in the sick. The officer hadn’t done anything, just leaned against the wall and watched.
Trowa knew what he was doing, leaning throughout it, with his arms and legs crossed so casually, a mildly curious expression occasionally playing across his face. He was waiting for Trowa to beg. He was waiting for him to admit that it hurt, that it scared him, that he wanted it to stop. He was waiting for Trowa to surrender.
Around the edge of the tub and through the slack-clad legs of his guards, Trowa fixed the officer with a stare. Drenched and shivering, wet hair clinging to one eye, Trowa stared, grinding his teeth and daring him to call him beaten yet.
The smooth expressionlessness melted from the officer’s face into a frown that made Trowa shiver with something other than the cold.
The officer stepped off the wall when the next guard pulled Trowa to his knees with a gloved hand. After the second dunk, held for much longer than the first, until Trowa thrashed for air, the officer was a few feet from the wall, near the table where they kept the bucket. After the fourth, he had a glove of his own on. And after the seventh, when Trowa had vomited again but before they could shove his gasping mouth into it, the officer was squatting by the tub.
“Exasperating and impressive,” he scolded. “I guess I shouldn’t expect anything less from a pilot and Preventer dog.”
Trowa finally managed to close his mouth. He breathd heavily through his nose. The officer leaned closer. Trowa felt his breath on his ear, smelled coffee and bread. His stomach lurched with want. The officer finally smiled: a thin, grotesque expression on his white face.
"I bet you're wishing you'd done better," he muttered against his ear. His fingers slid up the side of Trowa's neck. Trowa shifted away until the guard behind him gripped his shoulders and made him gasp on pain. “I bet you’re wishing you’d remember this,” the officer said with an emphatic pull on his hair. “No one’s stupid enough to forget that look. There was a bet going around before I transferred outthat your first care package was going to be hair gel.”
Trowa grit his teeth and jerked his head. The officer held his hair tight.
“You’re so wishing you’d remember. You’re wishing you’d been smart. How about I help you remember, in case you somehow manage a next time?”
Trowa barely caught the glint of the knife before the officer shoved him beneath the water.
The officer wasn’t keeping a sturdy grasp on his head, opting instead for a tight, strand-ripping grip on his hair. Trowa twisted his shoulders, pushing for leverage with all the strength he had left. It took two sets of hands on his shoulders, shoving them into the water, to keep him still. Then the knife plunged into the water.
Trowa’s lungs burned for air, and then burned with water as he opened his mouth to scream, the knife cutting close to his scalp. He felt rather than heard the sharp sawing of the blade through his hair. The drag and pull of the metal as it ripped through. His vision was blackening around the edges when he was dragged up.
By the shoulders.
Two guards held him by the shoulders as he pitched forward over the water, trembling. The officer held a large wet clump of hair in his hand. The auburn looked almost black from dirt and water. He watched Trowa expectantly as he dropped the clump in the water, and Trowa couldn’t stop himself from following the fall with wide eyes.
The officer made a noise almost like a chuckle and gripped another clump of hair. The two guards pushed Trowa forward so that when he screamed, his mouth filled with ice and hair.
At some point, someone fed him. The small, clinging bit of sanity told him he had been here long enough to make starvation possible. They wanted him alive. Trowa hoped it was for more than just convenience.
Someone fed him. Not the officer, though. No, the officer only touched him when there was hair. And since the water, and then the razor, there had been no hair to touch. Only a fine layer of stubble that itched and a leaking wound from where the blade had slipped beneath Trowa’s scalp.
Of course hair grew back. And when it did, the officer would return with the razor and the straps and remind Trowa that if he didn’t want to be scalped, he needed to stay still. Trowa could barely find the energy to breathe when lying back on that table, strapped down at the hip and ankles. If his head ever moved, the officer could blame whichever guard was between his legs.
Trowa had snapped that the last time, which was when the razor slipped beneath his skin and pulled a six-inch patch from his skull.
Besides, the hands propping him up against the wall were too rough to be the officer’s. One of the guards, then. The calloused hands shoved Trowa’s head back against the wall. The concrete dug into the bare skin as he forced Trowa’s chin up. Trowa let out a strangled gasp. The guard took advantage of his opened mouth, hooking his fingers on his lower teeth. Trowa squirmed and tried to bite, until the stale water filled his mouth.
The guard forced the warm, foul water down his throat without any heed for choking, stopping only once to sop stale bread in the liquid before tipping the lumpy mixture into his mouth. He apparently expected Trowa to reject it, because when he pitched forward and retched, the disgusting mix of bread, water, and stomach acid hit a pan.
He at least waited for Trowa to stop coughing before nudging his head back again.
Trowa tasted metal against his lips and lashed out as hard as his shaking legs allowed. The guard grunted, swayed back, but managed to keep a hold of the pan, dropping only a dollop onto Trowa’s thighs. Trowa squirmed, aiming for another kick when the guard straddled his legs and held them still too easily with his knees. Trowa heard the faint ring of metal as the tray was set down, thrashed as a hand crept up his neck, and went completely still as blunt nails scraped across his scalp, skirting the badly-healing wound.
Only the officer touched his head, because of the hair, but there was no hair to be touched. He couldn’t be sure that the guard hadn’t brought a razor, or worse a knife, to the cell. He could be sure, however, that if it slipped beneath his skin, there would be no faint, tricking warmth before the pain of his severed skin. There would only be jagged, brutal rip of steel through skin.
Trowa sat very still, the guard’s fingers pressed hot against his scalp, as the pan was brought back to his lips. He pulled away once. The fingers dug in. Trowa opened his mouth. The guard let him choke it down slowly. He kept a warning hand on the back of Trowa’s head as he chased the vile fluid down with semen.
Heero had known there was a problem the first time Trowa missed a scheduled fifteen-second check-in. Most of the building, however, was inclined to ignore his suspicions. Heero was, admittedly, slightly paranoid and more than a little judgmental when it came to the skills of most of the Preventers. He always thought the current task force was screwing up—and had yet to be proven wrong more than fifteen percent of the time. The fact that Duo agreed with him, however, gave more than half the building, and more importantly Une, pause. She agreed to monitor the situation personally.
When the first of the fail-safes failed to initialize, Une ordered an immediate pullout.
Heero understood that things happened to undercover agents just as easily as field agents. Sometimes, they got hurt or sick. Sometimes, they got distracted, or worse lazy. Sometimes, they were too closely monitored to call in. Things, however, did not happen to Trowa Barton. Trowa was too dedicated to get distracted, too healthy to get hurt, and far too precautious to not secure fifteen seconds every other week.
Even if something were to happen, however, there were the fail safes: avenues of contact that were roundabout but safer, people at a shallower depth within the target he could use as messengers. But those avenues had been cut off, and those contacts had all confirmed that they had never been approached with the proper sequence.
Which meant that Trowa had dropped off the radar, somewhere in the vicinity of at least three days ago. For a Preventer, three days was a long time.
For Heero, it was damn close to an eternity.
The strike on Trowa’s initial location didn’t happen until halfway through the fourth day, after most of the shallower-depth operatives had been either silently evacuated or prepared for the firefight. Une let him lead, under the promise that he would keep causalities to a minimum. It had been an easy agreement until the raid itself, where Trowa failed to turn up anywhere in the sprawling complex. They did find, however, dried blood splatter in the hall that most directly led to his “room.”
Heero had examined the stain for a full minute before discreetly emptying his gun and passing the bullets to Duo. It would be much harder to “accidentally” break someone’s neck.
Unfortunately, a couple of captives arrived at headquarters with more-than-usual bruising. During the debriefing, Heero had made no comment, and Une wouldn’t even acknowledge Duo’s “They tripped.” Une had given him a look torn between unwilling approval and blatant disappointment. The look had made him inwardly shiver, a discomfort his displayed with a minor shifting of his feet. Heero was only partially surprised when he was barred from the next step of Trowa’s rescue.
Une had the decency to look apologetic.
“It wasn’t my choice.”
Heero, having declined a chair at the beginning of the meeting, dug his fingers into his palms behind his back. “You’ve defied the higher-ups before.”
“I’ve convinced them before. Never defied. I’d lose my job if I was that insubordinate.”
“Convince them now.”
“No. They think you’re too emotionally invested, and frankly I agree.”
Heero frowned. Their relationship wasn’t much of a secret. Everyone knew that Trowa and Heero lived together; half of the building assumed they shared a bed, and some of them were still taking bets about who went where. A handful of Preventers had seen them hold hands, discreetly, briefly, when they had the time for lunch. And half a dozen Preventers had seen Heero take a former-college quarterback down in the training hall after he had openly and verbally appreciated Trowa’s ass.
He was, sometimes very uncomfortably, possessive of Trowa, and he failed to see how that precluded him from the rescue. If anything, it should have cemented him as lead; he’d certainly find Trowa the fastest.
Une apparently could see his train of thought. “I need them alive, Heero Yuy, not just Trowa. I need people arrested and interrogated, and I remember what you did to Barnes when he looked at Trowa funny.”
“He didn’t need those stitches.”
“Whoever has Trowa is going to need more than stitches if you go.”
Heero couldn’t deny that.
Une sighed. “Go back to the Martell case, Heero. Get distracted, if you can.”
Heero hadn’t been able to focus since the raid. Distraction was a distinct impossibility. He bowed his head stiffly all the same.
“We’ll find him, Heero,” Une said as he turned. “And you’ll be the first to know.”
Impossible; he wasn’t going.
Duo left with thirty-two other Preventers on the fifth day. They had isolated, from a list of locales at the group’s disposal, one warehouse and two complexes where a valuable and/or hostile captive could be held. Duo would lead one of three ten-men teams. They would strike at the same time, to minimize the risk of Trowa being moved.
Duo told him he would call. If they found Trowa, he told them he would give Heero the phone, protocol be damned. And if they didn’t, he promised to put it on speaker so Heero could hear every last bullet. Only if he wanted to, of course, and Heero didn’t.
On the seventh day, Duo called. Heero had been home for less than ten minutes, laptop tucked under his arm, the casing cracking beneath his fingers as he realized with an unfamiliar, unwanted sense of dread that he couldn’t stay in this house, alone. He didn’t feel his cellphone vibrating against his hip; it was, at that moment, just one trembling appendage in a mess of shivering skin. It wasn’t until he forced himself to take a step, because he needed to work and he needed to eat and he needed to sleep, that Heero felt it. Heero flipped it open without even looking at it.
Duo spared him pleasantries. “They found him.”
Heero would realize later that the use of “they” meant that Trowa wasn’t with his group, that Duo probably hadn’t seen him yet, and that he really couldn’t tell him much more than if he was alive. He would realize later, after blowing half of the red lights between home and work without getting a ticket, that it hadn’t been particularly fair of him to snap that “I don’t know” was an unacceptable answer to all of Heero’s questions. He would make it up to him, of course. Later, much later.
The infirmary was on the fifteenth floor. Heero took the stairs.
Une had insisted on a private medical facility when she took over day-to-day operations of the Preventers. Hospitals asked too many questions, and Preventers knew too many facts that did not need to be aired to loose-lipped public doctors if they reacted badly to sedatives. There was also the small but plausible risk of “accidental” death in a local ER. An oath, after all, wouldn’t stop everyone from accepting a monetary fee, or bending to a physical threat, to quietly put an operative down.
The infirmary was small, with only a handful of rooms to designate for beds, storage, tests, and procedures, but well equipped. It couldn’t handle prolonged injuries or illnesses but it could provide more-than-adequate care for all standard injuries and most severe-to-fatal ones. Most of the staff had significant experience in severe bodily trauma and reparative surgery. And all of them, having at least some military experience, were hard to rattle.
So the fact that Heero ran out of the stairwell into mild chaos was disconcerting.
Heero saw, through the small crowd of white coats and gun-grey Preventer uniforms, a flash of skin. Pale, mottled with purple bruises. Heero tracked the arc of the wildly moving hand as it disappeared and reappeared behind shoulders and heads, and for a moment he couldn’t hear the panic and barked orders over the heavy pounding in his head. He rocked back, stepped forward—
And then Duo was at his side, gripping his elbow with a strength he usually chose not display. He tugged Heero back to the stairs.
“I need coffee and I need it now.”
Heero could break the bruising grip, but the staff had enough to deal with. They wouldn’t thank him for giving them a knocked-out Preventer. And Heero’s medical knowledge, apart from setting his own bones for limited functioning, was minimal at best. Staying would be problematic. But as he took a step towards the stairwell, he saw that same pale, thin arm shudder and drop. It bent clumsily, almost awkwardly, over a doctor’s arm. And when someone moved the limp, pale body, and the arm slid off the white sleeve, there was a narrow strip of blood.
Heero nearly tripped down the stairs when Duo tugged on him again.
Heero followed him down to their floor, around their desks, and into the very small break room. He lingered by the door while Duo poured himself a cup and drank it. Cold and black. The second cup he at least put in the microwave.
Duo drank it black only when there was a “taste” he needed to get rid of.
“How long was he there?”
“Ten days. Someone pegged him as a spy day before his check. Fail safe didn’t come up until two days after that.”
“Who found him?”
“Wufei. He had Wilkins with him and was able to pick the lock on his cuffs while the place was secured.”
“How bad is it?”
Duo took a long sip of his lukewarm coffee. “I didn’t see him until we got here, but Wufei called. He said it was bad and, yeah, it’s bad.”
Heero was tempted to get coffee just to have something to do with his hands, but then there would be ceramic all over the break room.
“Wufei said they found the bastard who,” Heero didn’t miss the minor, choking pause. “worked him over.”
Heero’s eyebrows rose. He had, admittedly, very little experience with torture—plenty with captivity—but had been under the impression that people didn’t actually confess to torturing prisoners until at least interrogation.
“How many people were in the facility?”
“Less than fifty. It wasn’t one of their popular destinations. Limited capabilities, limited weapons. I think they had maybe five guys who actually knew how to fire a gun.”
Less of a pool than Heero had thought, but not the point. “Fifty people would take time.”
“He was in the first wave. He apparently was a pretty good shot. Hit Eric in the shoulder.”
“When exactly did Wufei find the time to ask him, then?”
Duo stared into his mug. “A plastic bag fell out of his pocket when Wufei got him on the floor,” he muttered, running a hand over the back of his neck. “It was full of hair.”
Auburn hair, no doubt. Stiff with gel, or limp with oils and sweat. Preserved deliberately, obviously, out of some demented sense of accomplishment or care. A prize. Heero’s fingers clenched. He watched Duo drain his mug as he tried, with far too much success, imagining the kind of person who would keep such a peculiar, disturbing item.
“Where is he?”
“Hospital,” Duo said as he set the mug down. “Funny thing. Somehow, the poor bastard got shot in the back. Twice.”
Wufei came down during their third pot of coffee. Neither of them could go upstairs—Une had slid in between hurried trips to tell them that much—and neither of them could work, or worse leave. So they drank coffee while Heero watched Duo lose game after game of solitaire. He never could be completely idle. At least he had stopped asking Heero to play something after the first hour.
Heero was at the pot, topping off, when Wufei tapped his knuckles against the wall. He hadn’t changed yet; there were blood stains on his pants and lining the crooks of his elbows.
They made it as far as the stairs before Wufei tugged Duo away. Une wanted reports right away, he said. Duo gave him the shortest look of irritation Heero had ever seen before agreeing. Heero supposed it was slightly better than being told “you two need time alone.”
They did, of course; Heero just didn’t want to hear it.
The infirmary was oddly quiet, considering the earlier chaos, and nearly deserted, save for a nurse moving a bundle of linens and a small knot of people halfway down the hall. Heero recognized Une immediately, although her face was mostly hidden by her hand as she pinched the bridge of her nose. The man took a bit longer. He wore the white coat of a doctor, but there were several male doctors on staff. When he scratched the side of his nose three times in forty-five seconds, however, Heero recognized him as the head of staff. He had done the same thing while attempting to order Heero a week of bed rest for a shoulder wound.
The other woman was completely unfamiliar, but if he remembered protocol correctly, Heero at least knew why she was here. He hoped, though, that she wasn’t the therapist Trowa would actually have to see. Trowa was going to need someone firmer, physically and emotionally, than a thin strip of a woman red-rimmed and red cheeked like she had just been crying. Trowa didn’t handle pity or “emotional support” well.
Heero walked towards them, the movement finally registering with the group only when he was feet away. The head doctor looked at him once, rubbed his nose and squared his shoulders before Une waved him away.
“Don’t even bother, Vince. He’ll just break in here later,” Une said, eyeing Heero with a mixture of irritation and approval.
The stairwells were never locked, so it wouldn’t actually be breaking in. Unless they locked Trowa’s door, and that would be counterintuitive as doctors.
Vince’s expression was not nearly as understanding. “Fine, but in ten minutes, he’s getting painkillers and sleep.”
He apparently underestimated their tolerance for medication. Unless he was giving Trowa much more than recommend dosage, and as a doctor he probably wasn’t, Trowa wouldn’t feel that sleepy. Or that much relief.
“The sedatives have mostly worn off, but he’s still groggy and,” Vince glanced at the red-eyed woman, “a bit combative.”
The red-eyed woman’s mouth twitched, first into a quavering line that threatened more tears, and then into a harder, surprisingly aggressive one.
“If you’ll excuse me Doctor, Lady Une,” she said, walking toward the elevator without a dismissal.
“She’s going to file a report,” Vince muttered.
“I’m aware of that,” Une muttered, pinching her nose again before heading towards the stairs. Heero heard her mumbling. “Forty-eight hours, I said. He won’t be at his best, I said. He’s injured, I said, and they send her.”
Vince sighed, shrugged, and glanced at his watch after she had disappeared into the stairwell. He waved Heero towards the nearest door.
“Now you have eight minutes.”
Heero frowned; he’d like to see him try to remove him.
The door itself was mostly closed. Heero could see a sliver of fluorescent-lit tile and a bit of a bed. Heero gripped the handle and eased it open carefully. He didn’t delude himself into thinking it was all for Trowa’s benefit—that he might upset or even scare him with a sudden movement. Heero needed a chance to breathe if necessary, because even though Duo had warned him, with an excellently detailed reiteration of everything Wufei revealed over the phone, and even though Heero had imagined for those long, silent hours his lover’s sufferings—and how exactly the hair ended up in a plastic bag—Heero had long since learned that his imagination very rarely compared to reality.
Heero stepped into the room and realized his imagination was worse than he thought.
Trowa wasn’t dark; rather, he had a natural, beautiful olive tone, shades darker than Heero’s paler skin, which was absolutely fascinating to look at when they were curled together. Even when he was ill, rare as it was, Trowa’s skin only lightened a fraction, and occasionally it took on a red tint along his cheekbones. But Trowa now looked like he had been dipped in paint. White-washed. Drained. Trowa must have been in limited lighting to total darkness for most of his imprisonment. The pale skin not covered by blankets or hospital gown or bandages was mottled with bruises, or else red with infection, irritation, and fever.
Including his hairless scalp.
He had seen Trowa with his hair down, most often in the morning, in bed, after the gel had lost all of its hold. He had seen the strands spread across the pillow or lazily gracing his cheek. Heero had seen it clinging wetly to his neck after a shower, or to his forehead when he was gasping beneath him. Heero appreciated Trowa’s need for his mask, for the momentary shield; he could even say he liked the style, but he preferred Trowa’s hair down. When his hair was down, Trowa looked younger, sometimes vulnerable but always open and inviting.
Without his hair, Trowa looked small.
Somewhere behind the overwhelming pounding in his head, Heero felt a distant pain. It took him a moment to realize he was gripping the handle hard enough to crush.
Heero released it and stepped forward. Trowa, whose head had been turned away, shifted. He let out a low, rattling hiss of pain. Heero couldn’t it tell if it was from the bound shoulder or the damaged ribs. When Heero neared the bed, raking his eyes along the blanketed legs and the bandaged torso and the arm attached to the broken shoulder strapped tightly across his chest, Trowa turned his head. Both emerald eyes, glassy with pain, pinned Heero to his place. They flickered for a moment, twitching at the corners with relief, then discomfort, misery, and finally returning to crinkle in extreme pain.
Heero wanted to sink onto the mattress but wasn’t sure that the dipping wouldn’t aggravate him. He gripped the end of the bed instead. Trowa looked at his hand. The grimace of pain shifted into one of unusually obvious anger.
Trowa wasn’t combative; Trowa was furious, and Heero didn’t need to guess about what. And because Trowa was even more stubborn when angry, and that much more likely to reject anything perceived as pity, Heero had to wait to find one piece of uninjured Trowa to clutch and tell him how much he wanted to break into the hospital and shot the man repeatedly in the head.
Heero leaned his hips against the baseboard and crossed his arms. “You are going to have to talk to her, you know.”
Trowa’s face somehow turned even darker. The hand over his stomach, red and swollen from extended lack of circulation, tightened in the bedding.
“I am not traumatized,” he bit.
If that was how the woman introduced herself, Heero wasn’t the least bit sorry for Trowa’s reaction to her. Even if a part of him wanted to agree, although he disliked the word “trauma” because it implied Trowa was broken or at the very least unable to function. But Trowa was something because the flicking of his eyes and the tremors in his hands and the simple inability to control his breathing just weren’t normal for Trowa. Not even after nightmares.
“No,” he lied. “But you’re going to have to talk to someone. Protocol—”
Heero’s eyebrows rose. “You were captured—”
“I’m aware of that.”
Trowa’s sneer slipped for a part of a second. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“They’ll dismiss you.”
“You don’t mean that.”
It was said without inflection, without anger or surprise, because Trowa didn’t mean it. Heero knew he didn’t. Trowa hated stagnation as much as the rest of them. He hated the quiet. He hated the atrophy in civilian life. He hated the fact that in that sphere, nothing satisfied. He hated that the circus had turned suffocating instead of safe. He wanted to be useful, to be excellent, and that as a civilian, he was next to worthless. The Preventers gave him purpose. Rules to obey and protocols to bow to, but purpose. Trowa would wither without it.
Heero saw the twitch to Trowa’s mouth: the one that revealed he was on the verge of a serious, emotional slip. As he always did when those muscles twitched shortly but sharply, Trowa turned his head. A bit to the side, a bit down, just enough that he could hide fully behind the sweep of hair as the wall shattered and rebuilt itself. Because that shield simply wasn’t there, Heero watched Trowa’s expression collapse into grief. And when Trowa realized there was no place to hide, that grief collapsed into a shame that hitched his breath and turned his face into the pillow.
By the time Heero realized what had happened, by the time he managed to connect the shaking of his shoulders and the strange gasping sounds Trowa made into the bedding, Vince had come in. And when he realized he needed to wrap his arms around him, wounds or no wounds, Heero was already in the hall and the door was closed.
Heero was at his desk, pretending to be running over the intricacies of the Martell sting, when the file came through. Heero glanced at the time display in the lower right corner of the laptop. Accurate to within a minute. It was just like Wufei.
Sharing reports with operatives outside of a mission was ill-advised, if not occasionally entirely against regulations. Sharing reports with partners and teammates, for the sake of data correlation, was acceptable. The sharing of laptops with partners, while not exactly encouraged, was also allowed; Preventers, after all, could be forgetful. Of course, if Une discovered that that was how Heero had gotten hold of Wufei’s preliminary report regarding Trowa’s capture, sharing laptops would be discouraged—unless she kept it from reaching the higher-ups.
Depending on her mood, she might.
Heero read the report in less than twenty minutes. It was shorter than he was used to but concise and detailed in the most important areas. He stared at Wufei’s final assessment for nearly five minutes before closing the file, remarking the email as “new,” and deleting the opening timestamp from the computer’s internal log. Only then did he dive into the main storage system of the Preventers.
Finding the medical file was suspiciously easy. Decrypting it without leaving a noticeable trace was not. Once again, Heero felt a momentary regret for being forced out of a pilot’s life, where there had been fewer consequences for illegal actions. He could expect a reprimand at the very least, and preferred not to think about the very worst, if he was caught. He still opened the file.
Heero read the medical report in less than five minutes. He read it a second time in less than ten.
Trowa's core temperature had dropped at some point during imprisonment. He had a fever of ninety-seven.
There were four broken and three cracked ribs. The fact that none had pierced a lung was, as Vince called it, “a miracle.”
The abrasions around his wrists had required cleaning and a tetanus shot. The swelling needed to be monitored, as lack of improvement could indicate serious damage that would diminish dexterity.
His right shoulder was dislocated: a clean break that had been exacerbated into complicated by constant pressure and grinding of the broken bones. It could be nearly a year before Trowa could put weight on it.
There were a total of fifty stitches in his body. Thirty-nine of them closed up gashes in his scalp where someone had attempted to scalp him twice.
The other eleven closed up anal tearing.
Heero at least managed to check the security feed and staff schedules before heading up to the infirmary at a pace he would never admit was a run.
One of the nurses and a doctor most certainly not Vince were leaving the room when Heero peered around the edge of the stairwell door. He waited a full forty-five seconds, long enough for them to be on their way to their office, before slipping out. Heero kept his pace even and his step light. He slipped into the room backwards.
The room was dark, probably to encourage the sleep Trowa was more than likely not getting, but there was enough light coming from beneath the door and the monitors to easily see the bed. Trowa had managed to roll onto his side—most likely against doctor’s orders—and had his back to the door. A sliver of pale back peaked out between blanket and hospital gown. It was curled unusually forward. Heero’s gaze drifted down and noted the tight way Trowa bent his knees.
Heero approached the bed, gaze shifting from the huddled body to the monitors and back again. He heard the soft, rapid beeping of the machines. Elevated pulse and breathing. The early signs of a potential panic attack. Heero sat on the bed carefully.
Trowa’s knees curled imperceptibly closer.
Heero couldn’t stroke his shoulder like he wanted to. He trailed his fingers gently down Trowa’s side in another gesture Trowa, under normal circumstances, adored. His fingers stayed light as they brushed over wounded ribs, pressed with a more pleasing pressure as they passed for the small dip of his side, before climbing his bony hip. Heero splayed his hand carefully before rubbing slowly circles into the muscle and bone with his thumb.
Trowa’s breathing hitched, first in upset and then in pain as he was unable to stop himself from rolling his shoulder forward.
Heero knew that Trowa didn’t handle personal problems well. He knew that he didn’t try to. Trowa compartmentalized, with astonishing skill. He took whatever pain or grief or agony he felt and locked away in small boxes he couldn’t easily reach. Heero had seen him do it before. He had also seen the soul-crushing flinch Trowa gave every time one of those boxes slipped off whatever shelf he put them on. Most of them can get put back again. One of them shattered. It was not something Heero wanted to see him go through again.
Slowly, Heero toed off his shoes and stretched out behind him. He felt Trowa shiver as he slid an arm beneath Trowa’s waist, his hand coming up to rest on his stomach. The muscles contracted tightly beneath his fingers. Stroking his hip once, Heero slid his hand back up his side. At his bound elbow, the fingers turned inward. They stroked his forearm for a moment before drifting up.
Heero laid his hand gently across his face.
Trowa stiffened against him, the hot breath that had been against his palm stopping completely as Heero carefully arranged his hand. Heel of the palm resting carefully near his mouth, his fingers stretching across the bridge of his nose, covering one eye, reaching for the hairline that was no longer there. He stroked the smooth skin of his scalp once.
When Trowa finally breathed again, the air puffed against Heero’s hand in short, irregular bursts. His stomach seized and trembled beneath his hand. Heero shifted his fingers in slow, soothing circles. Trowa twitched between his arms. Heero felt him shift, and then there were cold, trembling fingers pawing at his arm. They struggled over his wrist before gripping the hand spanning his face surprisingly hard.
Trowa let out a low, shuddering moan before the tears started.
Heero settled his cheek against the back of his head, careful of the stitches. Trowa choked out a sob. Heero turned and murmured softly against the skin.
And when Trowa let him, Heero traced his damp cheeks and trembling lips with his fingers. He twisted his hand carefully in the quivering hand’s grip, holding it gently as he brought it back to the bed. He laced their fingers and squeezed softly with every cry.