Part Three, Chapter XXVI
"Do you need a hand, Lady?"
She turned and shook her head politely. "I'll be fine, thank you."
Ahmud responded with a courteous nod. "Just ask if you need help, then."
Relena acknowledged that with a smile, then began unpacking her own belongings. Not long ago, she may have accepted his offer without a second thought, but when even Milliardo - or Zechs, as he now insisted on being called - seemed perfectly willing to look after himself, she felt uneasy about relying on the assistance of the Maguanacs. Besides, Quatre had informed her about the mercenaries' status as allies, and she had no desire to offend by appearing to take their assistance for granted.
As though sensing her thoughts, the Healer looked over from where he stood beside Trowa. He murmured something to the taller youth then walked over to where she knelt on the ground. "Here," he said, taking the rope from her hand. He tied it deftly to the pole, giving it a hard yank to ensure it was sturdy. Smiling, he stood and offered her his hand. "Next time, hold the end and tug it into a flower knot, then take the loop of that and circle it back over the body of the knot."
"Oh," Relena said. She pictured it in her mind and discovered that it did indeed work. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," the blonde replied. Then, with a self-deprecating grin, he added, "One learns all sorts of strange things as a Healer trainee."
She smiled back. "Strange, perhaps, but useful."
A quiet laugh. "That particular knot combination was designed for fastening loose slings for young children."
"Oh," she murmured again. Quatre showed no sign of wanting to leave, so she wracked her head for something to say. "You - do you..." He turned towards her questioningly so she settled on asking a question she had been pondering over. "What is it like, being a Healer and being forced to..."
"Kill?" he finished gently. Relena bit her lip. The blonde sighed, the innocence fading from his expression as he gazed into the night sky. His eyes lingered momentarily on the moon, then focused back on her face. "Do you remember what I said at the last meeting? About having to fight to prevent more deaths?"
She thought back and nodded. Quatre sighed again. "Well, that is what I think about, every time I take a life. Is it worth it? Am I killing, or do I truly believe that this will ultimately mean fewer deaths?" He paused. "Those... aren't easy questions. I'm never absolutely certain about the answer, though I doubt myself more in some situations. But the fact remains that choosing not to act, not to kill might be a form of killing as well. Or at least, it may lead to deaths of other innocent people."
Looking away, he continued, "My conscience doesn't like having deaths linked to it, but it won't rest easy if I let myself become paralysed by doubt either. So I just try my best to make the right decisions at the right times. They might not always be the best ones, but... I can't do more than try. I wish I could."
Relena felt a twinge of guilt at having brought up what was obviously an uncomfortable topic. After some time, Quatre gave her a slight smile. "Don't worry, Relena. I think about it often enough myself."
"I'm sorry," she said awkwardly.
"It's okay." He was silent for several moments, then he glanced at her. "Besides, at times when I am confused, I still have a group of friends to share the burden with. I trust their decisions as much as - if not more than - I trust my own."
She could not stop herself from asking the next question. "But what if they're wrong too?"
"Then they're wrong, and they will feel as guilty about it as I do." His eyes searched hers intently. "We're all human, Relena - even Zechs... even Heero. We all make mistakes. The most we can do is try to make as few of them as possible."
"I know. I wasn't try to blame you, or..." She fingered a single strand of hair, trying to formulate a response.
A nod. "I understand. I would understand even if you did blame us, because any mistakes would still be mistakes, whether we had intended to make them or not."
"But isn't intent the thing that matters?"
Quatre sighed again. "I used to believe that, but I'm not sure I can any more." He turned to look at her. "Think about the person you care the most about. If - accidently - you somehow managed hurt him or her, would you not feel guilty? In spite of the fact that you had not intended to do what you did? The person may forgive you, but you might never forgive yourself completely."
Relena studied his expression, noting the hint of sadness that accompanied his words. Finally, she gave a nod. "It's not exactly clear, is it?"
"No," he answered softly, "and that is what makes it so difficult. Neither the motivation behind an action nor the act itself can completely determine whether something is 'right' or 'wrong'. Take our actions, for example. We are trying to stop Anokiv Ronterdo from taking any more unnecessary lives, but in the process, we may have caused unnecessary deaths also. We can't justify the deaths by saying that it was Anokiv's fault because although he played a part in causing those deaths, so too did we, because we were the ones who chose to respond in that particular way."
Quatre glanced at her. "We could have taken a pacifist approach, or tried to negotiate, but we did not because we believed it would not work, and that an unsuccessful attempt would jeopardise any other chances we may have had. But that was our choice." He paused. "Am I making sense?" Relena nodded but did not speak. He regarded her for a moment, then his face became apologetic. "I'm sorry. You are tired, and I have been using you as a sounding board." She made a negating noise but he waved it aside. "Don't mind me; go and rest. We don't get much as it is."
Relena hesitated. "Good night, then."
"And to you." He smiled at her, then walked off into the chilly night.
For several moments, she remained staring at where he had stood, then she closed her eyes. The war had changed all of them, it seemed. Gone was the shy, unassuming Healer trainee she had known from her childhood; in his place stood a youth who, in spite of his gentle nature, possessed an aura of strength. Of integrity.
Have I changed too? The question, unbidden, now lingered in her mind. Her past had been stripped from her, along with everything she had known, everything she had grown up knowing. She could never return to her past. The old Relena - her mother's 'little princess' - was gone... but replaced by whom? Her companions had their purpose, but what was hers?
...I cannot help but wonder if there is another way to attain peace. Through words, perhaps. By changing peoples' hearts, by making them see that they do not need to fight...
Was it only days ago that she had uttered those words? It seemed like an age had passed. And yet... they gave her hope. Quatre had said that he and the others had already chosen their own paths, but he also said that there were other options. And she could take one of those, could she not? Was there really anything to stop her from trying to achieve peace through peaceful means if the situation arose? No. Perhaps she was being idealistic, but she could try. As Quatre was trying.
As Heero was trying.
Almost in spite of herself, Relena glanced up at the moon. The pale orb hung in the sky, its hazy glow steady but mysterious. Heero - wherever he was - would be resting under the light of the same white moon. His parting words murmured in her mind and she bit her lip. Heero, be safe, wherever you are...
"Am I interrupting?"
The person turned slowly, indicating negative with a single shake of his head. "I was merely thinking."
An elderly man stepped towards him. "Would it be probing if I asked you what - or whom - you were thinking about?"
A slight smile. "I think you know, Elder."
He tilted his head slightly. "I prefer not to presume." Then, he waited, expectantly.
"Very well. I was thinking about my child."
A nod. "It was as I guessed, then."
The person raised an eyebrow by a fraction. "May I ask why you wish to know, Elder?"
A pair of clear eyes met his steadily. "It would appear that you have been thinking about that child rather often, of late."
"Indeed I have." The tone remained polite.
"It is not my place to interfere in your personal life, but expending such a large amount of time on grief seems... impractical."
"Oh?" The person looked at him, calmly. "But I am afraid that I am not grieving. Merely thinking." The older man glanced at him sharply, and he returned a slight smile. "I am afraid that I must have given you an inaccurate impression, Elder. I have not been reflecting on my child's death. Rather, I have been pondering that child's well-being at the present."
"I see," the Elder said, his expression measured. A pause. "Did you not mention when you arrived that you feared for your child's life?"
"Yes, I remember mentioning that," the person said. "I apologise if that played a part in creating the inaccurate impression, but it was the truth, and it is still the truth. There is a chance that my child may be dead by now." He met the Elder's gaze. "I can, however, assure you that any grief or unhappiness over that possibility will not occupy my time as the other possibility does - that my child may still be alive."
Giving a graceful shrug of one shoulder, he continued, "I am afraid that the second prospect is rather intriguing because it leads to so many more possibilities. One of them - the most likely one - being that a retaliation is now occurring somewhere in either Sanq or Oz." Another smile, one containing a clear message. "My child, like all members of my clan, is unlikely to take an insult lying down."
A long, stagnant silence. Finally, the Elder inclined his head. "I apologise for any misunderstanding, Chang Wulong." 
The person's expression remained serene. "Not at all, Elder."
Li Chong, the Elder of the Tiger Clan, regarded him carefully for several moments. "If you do not mind, I will now bid you goodnight."
"And a pleasant night to you too." Chang Wulong stood respectfully as the Elder moved away, then he turned back to the orb in the sky. He wondered whether his son was indeed alive and fighting in retaliation. But more than that, he wondered whether there was a lonely youth somewhere, staring up at the moon and thinking about an elusive entity called 'home'. 
Hilde glanced over at Duo's empty hammock for what seemed like the millionth time. The youth had not yet returned. She hesitated briefly, then slid off her own and gazed around the campsite. The stillness was broken only by the chittering of harried poolit birds or the occasional cackle of the fire as it nuzzled against scattered twigs. Even the flame had dimmed; it would not be allowed to die, as that was considered a bad omen, but any use for a bright flame had disappeared candlemarks ago. Nobody else was awake except the guards - and except Duo.
She paused as one of the guards sent her a silent query. Seeking out the woman, she turned and gave a slight shake of her head. The scout merged back into the shadows, and Hilde moved silently across the campsite into the surrounding trees. There she paused again, trying to get a sense of direction. Finally, she ducked under a low branch and continued moving leftwards.
Some score paces later, she found him perched on the stump of a fallen haliv oak. He looked up as she approached, but said nothing. She faced him directly. "Rather late, is it not?"
Duo stood. "Yes." A pause, and a wry grin. "You should be asleep, Hilde."
The gypsy raised her eyebrows slightly but her lips quirked. "So I should." The smile faded. "What happened to 'let me be there for you', Duo?"
Violet eyes blinked once, then turned away. "I just needed some time to think."
"Two heads are better than one."
Duo gave her a ghost of a smile, but said quietly, "By myself, Hilde." She stared at him. Finally, he sighed. "I do trust you, you know. I would tell you if I could. But... look at what happens to people I trust."
It took her some moments but she finally grasped what he meant and frowned. "No." She took a step closer and pulled him down to the ground, then sat across from him. "You know that what happened at the Cloister wasn't your fault. No more than my father's death was mine. You were the one who told me that." She hesitated. "I'll never stop feeling guilty if you don't, Duo."
He gazed at her silently, then closed his eyes. "I'm... dealing with the guilt. Slowly, but I'm dealing with it." The eyes opened. "It isn't that, Hilde. Look at everyone who has gotten close to me. Solo, my brother. I've told you about him. Heero - he isn't dead, but... he's no longer the same. My parents. Then... the people at the Cloister." He sighed. "No pretty endings for any of them."
"And?" she asked softly.
His smile was bleak. "And so... don't you think I'm cursed? That anybody who I care about is doomed to die?" She opened her mouth but he ignored her. "Don't answer that, Hilde. Look at the evidence. The Goddess has marked me - I'm her personal Shinigami."
Hilde blinked, stifling the urge to shake him in frustration. She took a slow, deep breath. "And what kind of harebrained evidence is that, Duo Maxwell?" It was his turn to blink. "Are you telling me you don't care about your friends? Quatre? Wufei? Have they died yet? Or what about me, since you seem to trust me? Do I look dead?"
He shook his head and stared at her. "Don't you see, Hilde? I don't want you to die."
"I know that." She almost growled in exasperation, but her expression softened slightly. "And the best way to stop me from dying would be to fight with me, not avoid me." A hesitation. "Like you have been doing for the past sevenday."
Duo looked down. "I thought it was... for the best."
"And since when is my well-being up to you?" He glanced up. "I was under the impression that I am the current leader of this camp of gypsies. That my father's death left me in charge. That you are here as a representative of Sanq, not as a personal guard. Would it not be polite, then, to leave my safety and my choice of friends up to me?"
Duo was silent for some time. "It would. But... my choice of friends is up to me." He waited for the message to sink in. "I can't risk it, Hilde."
The gypsy stared at him, then stood abruptly. "If that's the way you feel, fine. I'll talk to you when you stop being too arrogant to concede that the deaths of other people may not necessarily be directly related to you." She began moving away, then paused. "But remember one thing, Duo. I'm your friend. Whether you're cursed or not, whether you admit it or not... I'm still here, when you decide you want me to be."
The man sat in the throne-like chair, his eyes closed but his posture alert. When the knock came, the eyes opened immediately. "Who is it?"
"Your guest has arrived, your Grace."
The man stood. "Invite him in."
Ancient doors slid open and a younger man stepped into the chamber. This man was outfitted in blue and gold, and bore the serpentine emblem of the Ronterdo house. His expression barely concealed his impatience as he approached the chair. "Duke Dermail. How is she?"
The Duke gestured towards a smaller room. "See for yourself."
They walked through the open door, one slightly ahead of the other, and approached the sleeping figure on the bed. Duke Dermail noted the Mage's reactions carefully, then circled around him to stand at the bedside. He reached out and touched the figure's shoulder. "Dorothy."
The girl stirred, then icy eyes opened and focused on the visitor. A part of Dorothy jumped, but outwardly, she gave no indication of her surprise. Instead, the eyes blinked several times as though in bewilderment.
"Dorothy. Can you hear me?" The Duke shook her shoulder slightly.
She blinked several more times, then nodded. Anokiv turned to Duke Dermail, muttering, "You gave an accurate account of her injuries."
"Of course," the older man replied blandly. Then, he turned back to the girl. "Adept Ronterdo is here to ask you some questions."
"Oh... right." Dorothy mumbled. "Questions."
Anokiv glanced at the Duke, but when the man gave no indication that anything was amiss, he faced the bed once more. "You had better tell me exactly what happened, and how you were injured."
Dorothy blinked once more for the effect, then began talking slowly, thickly. Under the covers, her body was in pain, but not so much so that she was unable to think clearly. She had, however, no desire to disclose all the details of what had happened. Partially because there were other plans, and partially because - although she was reluctant to admit it - she herself was uncertain about exactly what to do. The events, or two events, specifically, had confused her: the appearance of one person, and the words of another. She needed time to think, and her injuries would have to buy her that time.
 - The name is made up. If there is a canon name, please inform me. Please note that I would normally spell it Chang Wu Long or at least Chang Wu-Long, but if that's the case, I would be changing another character's canon name, and I don't want to do that.
 - Refer to the poem and the references in Chapter 18 if necessary.