Part Three, Chapter XXVII
"Hmmmph..." Suri rolled over just as another low moan rustled the silence. "Heero, are you okay?"
There was no reply. She blinked several times in the darkness, then gave up and called on a small burst of fire energy. A dim glow illuminated the thrashing silhouette on the opposite bed. Damnit. Stifling a yawn, the girl sat up and eased the shields off her Empathetic gift. It only took several instants before she gave up on that as well; Heero's shields were somewhat weaker in his sleep, but all she could discern was a jumble of negative emotions and since he was obviously having a nightmare, those were neither surprising nor helpful.
Pulling on a robe, she slid off the bed and padded across the floorboards. "Heero, wake up." When he showed no sign of reacting, she frowned slightly. < Come on, Heero. Wake up. >
This isn't going to work. Suri had two options - she could either wake the Mage physically or give his mind a mental jostling - but neither choice seemed particularly appealing. In fact, if either move was interpreted as an attack, there was a very good chance that they would attract some very unnecessary attention. She paused in thought for some time, biting her lip as Heero's movements grew more distressed, then moved back to her own bed and concentrated. Before long, the room's temperature had grown dramatically.
Come on, Heero. Any hotter and it'll spread to other rooms. To her dismay, the agitation only increased. Suri hesitated for one more instant, then hurried across the room once more and shook Heero's shoulder. < Heero, wake up! >
IThe Mage sprang up, his mind lashing out wildly. She slammed a shield around him but she knew it would not last; his Psychic gift was more powerful than hers. "Heero!"
The youth's eyes flew open and darted around the room frantically before some degree of understanding dawned. There was a brief pause, then the attacks stopped and Suri breathed a sigh of relief. Heero stared at her for several moments. Finally, he closed his eyes and exhaled. "I apologise for waking you."
"Don't worry about it." Glancing at his expression, she asked quietly, "Nightmare?" He gave a curt nod but did not reply. Suri pondered leaving him alone, but his emotional state was unsteady enough to dissuade her. After a hesitation, she sat down beside him. "Does it happen often?"
He shifted slightly. "Somewhat."
I never realised; he normally shares a tent with Duo, and nobody ever speaks about things like this. She rather wished they did, though, because at least she might have a clue about how to handle the situation. As it was, she had nothing to work from, so she studied him out of the corner of her eye while she tried to start a conversation. "I didn't know how to wake you up." There was no answer, so she continued casually, "I thought you would wake if the temperature grew hot enough, but that seemed to make things worse."
Heero shot her a sharp look, then nodded almost invisibly. "It added to the realism."
Huh? ...oh, I get it. She hid her surprise at the fact the he revealed even that much. "I'm sorry."
A small shrug. "Not your fault."
The silence lasted for some time, then Suri ventured, "You sounded like you were in pain."
"...forget about it."
Suri frowned slightly. The evasion confirmed her statement, but she could not think of an occasion when he had been hurt so badly, unless... "You were dreaming about the Master exam, weren't you?"
Heero froze. The cobalt eyes regarded her for a brief instant, then turned away. "Leave it be. It won't happen again."
So I was right. She ignored the last statement, concentrating instead on her own thoughts. As the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place, she found herself staring at the youth in shock. "This was why you changed, wasn't it? Not because your gift was taken away, and not because you wanted revenge." She met his intense gaze. "It was because you were scared."
Heero looked like he had been slapped. Rising in a single, swift motion, he repeated in a dangerously low tone, "Leave it be."
She shook her head resolutely. "When the energy was unleashed, you lost the ability to control it. There was nothing you could do as it went into your channels, and there was nothing you could do when the Masters terminated your gift."
"Shut up!" The words came out as a half snarl, and she could see the nails biting into his palm.
I'm sorry, Heero. Standing so she was level with him, she continued ruthlessly, "You don't want to feel that vulnerability again, do you? That's why you want Anokiv Ronterdo so badly. It's more than revenge - you want to eliminate the possibility of it ever happening again. And that's why you work so hard to perfect your other abilities."
"You don't know a damned thing!"
Shaking her head slowly, she said, "I think I do, Heero. Why else would you be so desperate to stop me talking?"
Heero's gaze met hers in silence, his expression as inscrutable as ever. She stared back. After an eternity, the youth closed his eyes, his voice cracking as he whispered, "Just leave me alone, Suri."
Suri found her heart aching and realised with a start that her Empathy channels were still wide open. Oh Heero... She almost closed them, but decided against it and moved instead to take Heero's arm, pulling him down to a sitting position. With a few deft moves, she 'encouraged' him to give in to the tears lurking beneath the surface and waited quietly as the sobs began. When she felt that he was ready, she reached an arm out, drawing him into an embrace.
After a while, the sobs died and Suri released her companion with a slight smile. "Feeling better?"
He stared at her suspiciously, weighing several factors in his mind. Finally, he decided that lying would achieve nothing and gave a nod. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?"
She tilted her head. "You didn't stop me." In fact, part of you wanted it, whether you realised it or not. You mind wouldn't have let me through Empathetically if that wasn't the case.
A pause. "No, I didn't." In other words, agreeing with her. Looking up, Heero said quietly, "This... remains a secret."
"Of course," Suri answered. She hesitated. "I'm sorry."
He regarded her thoughtfully. "Are you?"
She half-smiled. "For attacking you verbally... no, not really. But for upsetting you, yes."
Heero nodded. "I thought as much."
They sat in silence for some time, then Suri eased his discomfort by changing the topic. "Nightmares are nothing to be ashamed of, you know." He glanced at her questioningly and she sighed. "You can ask Quatre; I've interrupted his sleep many a time."
He blinked once. "What were they about?" A hesitation. "Or should I not ask?"
She glanced at him, her lips quirking slightly. "No, it's only fair, I guess." The girl looked down. "It's the killing. It never occurred to me that I would have to until I did it for the first time."
Heero considered her words, nodding to himself as they clicked in his mind. He had wondered about how a girl who had never been trained to kill could handle it so well, but he had always assumed that she had been exposed to bloodshed from an early age. Apparently, the assumption was unfounded. "I understand."
"I know." I would never have told you, otherwise. "Heero..."
"You'll keep trying not to care until Anokiv is dead, won't you?"
There was no point in denying it, much as he would prefer to avoid the topic. "Yes."
"But when he dies?"
Heero's body grew still. "...I don't know."
Suri met his eyes. "Maybe you can think about it. After all... who are you really trying to protect yourself from?" With that, she rose and touched his shoulder lightly. "Good night, Heero."
The youth did not move for a long time. Only when she withdrew her Elemental gift and let the room return to its darkened state did he slip back under the covers, and even then, he remained awake for long after his companion fell asleep.
The prince studied the assembly of men wordlessly. He normally found Council meetings a rather useless waste of time, but after prolonged periods of absence, he always deemed it necessary to observe for himself the minor, almost invisible shifts in the power balance. For that reason, he always insisted that the Colonel Une be present as his advisor; her sense of judgement was keen, and there had been times when she managed to notice details that he himself missed. Her presence to his right was largely ignored.
To his left, King Khushrenada was pretending to be both aware and interested in the heated discussions, but he was not particularly convincing. In fact, he was even less convincing than he usually was, which only increased Treize's uneasiness about Bocherik. Further to his right, the three other military commanders of Oz were once again involved in a much-repeated argument with the other nobles in the Council.
Field Marshal Noventa, though the Chief Commander of the Oz military, was a pacifist by nature. While he held a position of respect within the military, he was a firm believer in attempting to solve problems by other means, and in utilising force only when necessary. The Commander of Magical Forces - General Ventei - was less immovable in his views, but like Noventa, he disliked unnecessary enmities and believed that the war with Sanq could have been avoided or at least been executed in a more honourable manner.
General Septem, on the other hand, had always deemed Sanq a danger, and while he did not entirely approve of the 'executions', he did not see any point in dwelling on past actions, and was therefore lobbying for the permission to 'follow through' with their campaign. Treize had asked Une to place extra spies on him for this reason; while the Commander of Armed Forces was generally a rational man, his rather aggressive views meant that he could be persuaded to side with Bocherik more easily than the others could.
The Chief Mage of Oz sat on the King's opposite side, and wore a calm smile as he subtly vied for the aggressive solutions. Several of the nobles - especially the younger ones - were firmly on his side, having been convinced through a combination of seemingly logical arguments and by other less honourable means. Many of the other nobles were undecided, either confused by the barrage of different arguments and solutions or unwilling to risk the wrath of other Council members by taking sides.
Outwardly, he too was one of those people, though his seeming undecidedness was caused by neither reason. As the Commander of Special Operations - attacks that required a concentrated mix of arms and Magic - Treize had never been one to voice his opinions on various issues, and was therefore not expected to do so in this case either. None could force his opinions since he was the crowned Prince and the heir to the Oz throne, and in the few cases when Bocherik had attempted to do so, he had simply redirected the question at one of the lesser nobles, who was then obliged to answer in his stead.
"...even if there had been a danger previously, that danger has most definitely been removed by now. Further aggression will achieve nothing."
Bocherik regarded the Field Marshal almost benevolently. "Yet is this not the worst time to show weakness? Our position is established, yes, but it is by no means stable. Besides, it is so soon after the initial attack that we are almost definitely still in danger of rebellions."
"Exactly," Septem addressed the assembly emphatically. "To remove that threat once and for all, we must take advantage of the current situation. We must press our advantage and show the people who is in charge, and if the military is needed, so be it."
Ventei and Noventa exchanged glances, then former spoke up. "Why must this be achieved through aggressive means? We have already made our power clear, and I am certain that there is a great deal of fear and unrest in Sanq at this time. Rather than increasing those, we ought to make it clear to the people that they will be in no danger as long as they cooperate. We should offer at least a semblance of freedom and goodwill, for we would appear to be tyrants otherwise."
"And how do you suggest we keep them from rebelling?" Minister Tyrel interrupted.
Noventa turned to the elderly man. "Demilitarisation, of course. We can all benefit from a prosperous Sanq, as long as its citizens cannot harm us. If we make them understand our intent, they will realise that we are more powerful, but that they need not fear us. A peaceful coexistence can be established, and in the long term, that will be more practical than keeping control through aggression, unless you intend to keep a large part of our forces in Sanq indefinitely."
The Field Marshal had struck the right chord with some of the nobles whose opinions stemmed primarily from a desire for wealth, and also with others who did not see the point in tying up Oz's available forces. Treize hid his relief; this saved him from having to draw attention to himself by speaking out. He would have, had he deemed it necessary, but he preferred to remain inconspicuous or as Une described, mysterious. As long as he appeared an enigma, people tended to either overlook him or stay wary of him, both of which left him more time to consolidate his plans and therefore suited his purposes rather well.
Treize crossed his arms over his chest casually, listening to the remainder of the meeting without participating. When the arguments started to repeat themselves, the prince finally spoke up and called for a vote. As he expected, military action was not yet popular enough to gain the approval of the majority, but the number of supporters had increased and he expected it to rise even more in the near future. < Keep a closer eye on Bocherik if it is at all possible. >
Une did not even blink. < And on his new supporters, I presume? >
< Consider it done. >
"At a Council meeting, lady."
Dorothy dismissed the servant with a wave of her hand. Raising the china cup to her lips, she took a small sip and wrinkled her nose slightly; the tea was more bitter than she liked. For a moment, she toyed with the idea of calling for another cup, but decided against the idea. Bored as she was, there was no point in making life more difficult for servants who were - when all matters were considered - rather capable people who had proven themselves able to keep silent when it was required of them.
Council meetings normally ran for the greater part of a day. If she could be certain that Bocherik had not somehow managed to install spies in the estate, she would engage herself in Magical practice, but as it was, doing so might compromise her image of being heavily injured. The truth was that although she had pretended otherwise in front of Anokiv Ronterdo, most of her wounds had healed days ago. Thinking of the Mage made her smile; it amused her grandfather that Anokiv had Teleported to Oz to check on her, and in truth, it rather amused her as well.
Even though Anokiv thought that the Duke was under his control, Dorothy knew this was not the case and never would be. The same applied to her - she was loyal only to her grandfather. There was, however, one thing that she had kept from Duke Dermail for the past sevenday: her exchange with the youth who named himself '04'. If she mentioned it, the Duke would certainly press her for details, and she did not doubt that he would eventually uncover the doubt that the conversation left in her mind.
She was showing weakness, he would sneer. Only the weak would be moved to doubt by such ideals. Peace was for fools. It was a word people threw into the air without comprehending, a motivation that could not possibly succeed in a world ruled by human beings. Only influence mattered. Influence gained through prestige and power and wealth could guarantee an unchallenged existence, and ultimately, these were the only things that a person would need.
Once upon a time, she had refused to believe him. Once upon a time, she believed in peace, and in the goodness of human beings. Once upon a time... she had been a fool.
*** flash ***
"Grandfather?" The twelve year old stepped hesitatingly into the room. 
"So you're here," came the voice of the Duke. He turned to face her, his arms clasped behind his back. For a long moment, he simply regarded her in silence. Then, he smiled. "Dorothy, your father is dead." Blue eyes stared up at him in alarm. "His funeral is arrange for later today. Go and dress appropriately."
Had she not been raised by a man like Duke Dermail, Dorothy may have reacted like any other girl would have. As it was, her next question contained only the smallest quiver. "H-how did he die?"
To her shock, a slow smile spread across her grandfather's face. "In battle, of course. Fighting for the stupid, meaningless ideal called 'peace'." He shook his head mockingly. "He was a fool, your father."
Dorothy brushed angrily at the moisture that threatened to fall "Don't call my father a fool!"
A raised eyebrow. "Then what was he?"
The girl swallowed, but said defiantly, "He fought for a noble cause!"
"And where exactly did that leave him, my dear?" The Duke's lips curved condescendingly. "Don't be an idealist, Dorothy. Do you really think peace is possible when history has proved again and again that war is a part of everyone? Conflict is part of the human nature. Those who wish to deny that fact seek the entity called 'peace', but where has it gotten them? Onto a battlefield, fighting and dying, of course. Peace is a lie for the weak."
She blinked at him, lured in spite of herself as he continued, "Listen to me, Dorothy. Forget what your father taught you. Humans don't need peace. In this world, the strong - the ones with influence and wealth - have power over those who do not. If you are strong enough, ruthless enough, you can guarantee yourself everything that can possibly matter. People who are strong will rule. People who are weak - who lack power or who believe in and are driven by idealistic notions - are just tools to be used and discarded."
He gazed at her, the challenge written in his eyes. "What are you going to be, Dorothy? The weak... or the strong?"
*** end flash ***
He had, of course, predicted her reply. She realised that soon after the conversation took place, but by then, she had been convinced. How could she not, when all the evidence was there in her face? The world had no place for peace, not when conflict was so deeply enrooted in the human psyche. That was the belief that bonded them both to the Ronterdos, who were driven by the desire for power and revenge.
Dorothy took another sip, a grim smile touching her lips. There was another reason why she remained with her grandfather, though he had yet to realise it. He desired money, power, influence. She wished for those also, but they were only secondary - what she wanted most of all was to show the people what fools they were to believe in peace. Her dream was to wage and be part of a war on such a scale as had never been seen before, to shock the world into believing that unless something drastic changed, war and conflict would always exist.
The smile faded. She had been a fool once, one who believed in idealistic notions, but she would be a fool no longer. She, Dorothy Catalonia, had seen that peace was a futile dream. Soon, she would convince the world of the fact too. And perhaps... perhaps... the world would be shocked enough to change, once and for all.
Sally glanced at her companion. "We're here, Wufei."
The youth gazed around, his eyes taking in and analysing every visible detail of the Clansground. He nodded in approval of the way the area camouflaged into the Atsuari forest, directed polite nods at the curious children playing around and noted the organised rows of huts and the slightly larger one towards the centre of the area. Finally, Wufei Chang of the Dragon Clan turned to face her. "Shall we proceed, then?"
A slight smile crossed her face as she nodded, then knelt to speak with one of the older children. The boy's eyes widened, then he bowed. "Li Ming of the Tiger Clan, at your service." He paused in thought for a moment. "Forgive my delay. Perhaps you would like to follow me to the Elder's tent?"
Wufei half-bowed graciously, hiding his smile. "That will be most appreciated, Li Ming. I am Chang Wufei, of the Clan of Dragons. I am assuming you have met Po Sally?"
Ming nodded, his expression serious. "Yes, I have." He flushed mildly. "I am afraid I had forgotten, though. That was why I delayed in greeting you. My apologies."
Sally smiled. "Don't worry about it. Is Elder Li occupied?"
The boy frowned. "I don't think so. He should still be in the central hut. Please follow me." The trio walked among the hut, slowing as they reached an especially ornate building, one whose doorframe was decorated with ancient symbols and ornaments. "Will you please wait while I inform the Elder of your arrival?" At their nod, the boy disappeared into the building, and moments later, reappeared to usher them in.
Wufei and Sally followed him into the building, pausing once they passed the threshold and offering formal bows. A deep voice spoke up, uttering in the olden tongue, "Huan ying ni men. Please, come closer."
The pair straightened and walked towards the centre of the room where the Elder sat. As they approached, foorsteps sounded from the corridor and Wufei glanced sideways just as a figure entered the room. For a moment, they stared at each other in shock, then Wufei murmured, "Father?"
 - I'm not sure how old Dorothy was when her father (Major Catalonia) died, but twelve corresponds with the times and ages mentioned in Chapter 24.
 - Mandarin for 'welcome'.
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