"Shh! My mother will find you."
He had her by the throat before he realized how incongruous the words were in light of his last memory.
His whole body ached deep through to his bones. He didn't want to open his eyes, remembering harsh white lights gleaming off metal, searing into his brain -- but there was someone choking in his fist and he needed to escape.
The air smelled a little dusty, nothing like chemicals; he risked cracking an eye open. Semi-darkness greeted him, like muted sunlight, the wrong kind of light entirely.
... Not a lab assistant. Lab assistants didn't wear summer dresses. And they didn't kneel to be level with mattresses resting directly on wooden floors.
And she was watching him, eyes a little wide, a little surprised, frail hands closed but not tugging around his wrist. And he was holding her a bit too tight.
He let go, slowly, allowed his hand to fall. She coughed a little, rubbing her throat, and gave him a look that he would have expected if he'd been a cat who peed on her bed, not a man who'd tried to strangle her. Then she smiled. He thought of Relena.
He wanted to be wary, watchful, but his eyes closed on their own, tension refusing to stay in his aching limbs. His head fell back on the pillow. Breathed, in and out. Dust and old wood, dried lavender and rooms too long kept closed. Not a prison cell. Not those labs. Not at all.
After a minute, he opened his eyes again, just a slit. The girl was young, fifteen or maybe a little bit older, but he was the last person in the world to think that meant very much in terms of potential danger.
She smiled, a little softer, and tugged a blanket up his legs. He allowed her to do that; if he happened to be too weak to kick it off, then he was too weak to run away anyway.
"You're in my attic. It's safe."
He made a sound of acknowledgement, nothing articulate. Words seemed a bit too hard right now.
"My boyfriend -- Zack, Zack Fair, he brought you here to hide."
He had never heard the name, and his lack of reaction must have been clear because her expectant smile fell a little.
"He'll come back to talk with you as soon as he can. But we don't know when that could be, I mean, he's a soldier and he can't tell when he'll be sent to this or that place, so you should just concentrate on getting better. Alright?"
He gave a little nod, since she seemed to expect a reaction. She straightened up, filled a glass of water from a heavy-looking pitcher. He lifted his hand to take the glass, testing how fast he could move, in case he had to snatch the pitcher to stop her from knocking him out with it. He was paranoid, he knew that. She and her boyfriend had sprung him out from that death trap and were harboring him; between them and the scientist, there wasn't even a question which one he should trust.
He hadn't known there was anyone out there who would be ready to take the risk. With the man and his staff so unconcerned, he'd thought human experimentation was accepted around here, but visibly there were people who didn't agree, even amongst the military. That was... good.
He couldn't stay here; he had no clue whether they were competent enough not to have left tracks to follow. But he wasn't even sure he could sit up.
"What's your name? Mine is Aeris."
Aeris, he thought. He'd never heard a name like that. 'Zack' had seemed banal enough. Maybe a transliteration of Alice, put through romanji...
Talk about romanji mistranslations. He'd had time to get used to some of the vocabulary drift in the lab, but the accent was still weird. Like Germanized English -- and his name used that weird sound in between R and L that wasn't quite either one. Anyone who'd ever listened to Colonial broadcasts or Japanese movies would have identified it properly, but he knew that sounds you didn't have in your native language were hard to even hear properly. "... My name. Hi-ii-ro."
He grunted. Hard R. Close enough. "Where...?"
"Sector Six -- under the Plate. Shinra rarely comes in this area of town, and no one at all comes to my attic -- the lever is broken and we can't pull down the ladder." Her eyes shone with amusement that was much less innocent than her tone. "But if you make too much noise, my mom might think we have rats, and that wouldn't be a good thing. She'd get someone to climb and put traps, you see."
He nodded, closing his eyes. "I'll be quiet."
"I'm sure you will," she said in a soothing, gentle tone.
Then she placed a hand on his bare arm, and a wave of strange relief seeped through his body, taking away strain and tiredness and replacing it with tingly weightlessness.
He kicked out; caught her in the shoulder, sending her crashing to the floor. He was still weak; his arms shook when he dragged himself up against the wall. He couldn't do any better than sit, legs trembling as they pushed against the mattress.
Aeris rolled to her side, leaned up on an elbow, eyes wide and startled. "Why on earth--"
"No drugs!" he rasped out, panting from the sudden exertion. "No drugs."
The girl winced, rubbing her shoulder. He hadn't dislocated it -- kick too weak, aim off anyway -- but he knew there would be a deep bruise. She looked up at him, and then her eyes softened again, like she was sorry for him -- and it had to be a trap, had to be, he just couldn't see it yet.
"It wasn't a drug, Heero."
"What was it then?" he snapped, forcing his body into a better position -- one knee on the mattress, other foot set firmly on the wooden floor to push away. His flesh was still tingling, a feeling on the edge of pain.
"You're still pumped full of I don't know how many unnatural things, and it's not good for your body. I was trying to help a little."
"By injecting some more?" he retorted harshly, but she looked so surprised that he looked down at his arm, and there were no brand-new needle tracks. A patch maybe? He ran his hand against his upper arm, but found no sticky residue.
The girl huffed and placed her hands on her hips, chin up, frowning at him imperiously. She was still sitting on the floor, skirts spread out around her; he just couldn't take it seriously.
"I understand that some time at the mercy of that man would make just about anyone paranoid, but I promise I did not inject you with anything. It's..." She paused, biting her lip; Heero waited, frowning, wondering why she looked so hesitant suddenly. "It's an... ability of mine."
Heero allowed himself to show some of the confusion he felt. That wasn't what he had expected. "An ability?"
What could she mean by that? An ability to help his body... deal with the drugs still inside him? Fixing people's bodies wasn't like calculating equations and trajectories in your head. Her hands were empty.
Calling down lightning at a word was pretty strange as well, and yet he still remembered the shock, the pain, the stillness in his chest. There had been something after that, as he lost consciousness... A tingle, he thought, perhaps the same kind of feeling. But perhaps he was just reinterpreting half-gone memories, imagining them entirely. He'd been in the process of dying after all.
He hadn't died. He wasn't sure how.
"What kind of ability?"
"... I'll tell you, if you tell me why Hojo wanted you."
Heero clenched his teeth.
Aeris actually grinned. "I don't really want to know. We all have our little secrets, hm? Just -- I have no love lost for that man. You don't have to worry."
"If he could you would be in my place," Heero said, without quite knowing what his intuition had gotten it from.
He was sure he was right, though -- especially when she flinched.
"Is that why your boyfriend saved me?" he asked quietly.
She looked down at her hands, fingers knotted in the light cloth. "Zack doesn't -- I never told him either. I mean, he might have guessed, but we never... talked about it." She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, subdued.
"I just -- he's a good person. Even if he didn't know me, he wouldn't like things like that. What they did to you. There are things, in the military, things he has to do, that he doesn't like much, but..." She took a deep breath and looked up. "I don't know why he rescued you, save that it's the kind of thing I don't think he would abide regardless. I think he had an opportunity to help, and so he helped."
Heero didn't think she was lying. It could have been a ruse, of course, but it just didn't feel like it. It was very unexpected to have been rescued by people who were not known allies... but good people existed everywhere. And now he felt a little guilty. The way she moved that arm, her shoulder still hurt.
"Sorry I kicked you," he muttered.
Aeris smiled at him and it was line the sun coming back out of hiding. "Don't worry about it. I would have kicked you too. Though all things considered I don't think I could have kicked that hard. Are you going to let me help again?"
Heero considered it. Whatever she could do with her empty hands... it couldn't be much worse than what had been done in the labs, with the syringes and the tests and the scans, and that screaming, static-full noise trying to split his skull in two.
He sighed, cautiously let himself slide back against the wall until he was on his back on the mattress once again. "... Go ahead."
Her hands went to his arm again, covering the needle tracks, the perfusions, corner of his elbow and back of his hand. Her touch was warm; his whole body seemed to remember it was too cold. Fever? He was reaching for the blanket when he felt the tingle again, like blood rushing through sleeping flesh.
"There are things inside you..." She seemed serious now, worried. "They don't belong. I'll try to flush them out, but it's likely to hurt."
He snorted. "I'll survive."
And then the tingle went from needle pricks to molten steel, stabbing through his body, and he wasn't so sure he would anymore. His throat locked -- old conditioning more than actively knowing he shouldn't scream. There was something -- a feeling like summer wind, warm and soothing, but it wasn't enough to shield him from the pain. He saw her eyes, her fear, her hesitation, but she couldn't be allowed to stop -- not now, not yet. He curled on his side around her lap, his hand clenched around her wrist.
She breathed out slowly and went on.
At some point he lost consciousness, but even then he could still feel the
burn, still hear the screams. But the farther he fell away into unconsciousness
and the less they mattered.