sparsenicjade
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WARNINGS: Posted on December 18th, 2012, these warnings are contextual. I wanted to separate these out because I feel that one in particular needs some discussion. There is the remembered death of one teen by another teen in this fic. Given that I have had several surprisingly intense bouts of grief over the past few days for children I never knew in a state half a country away from, and I am neither a teacher nor mother, although the circumstances surrounding the death in this fic are completely different, I felt it important to have a little more than just a quick warning. To be clear, whatever people think of the h/c genre, I have never, nor will I ever, written the death of any character, let alone a child, without the full recognition of what that choice meant. My reasons here aren't prurient, the event is a formative aspect of the narrator's personality. Other warnings include references to sexual abuse of and violence against minors.

AN: As always, always, for my girl egelantier. Used for the "runaways" square on my hc_bingo card.

***


Une ran away from home at eleven. Even then, she'd been pretty sure it was a bad idea, but it was the best of her options. She'd grown up in the wrong part of California, the area nobody ever filmed for anything other than reality cop shows. She knew what happened to kids without a roof over their heads. But the choice had been between running and letting her stepfather into her room again. In the end, she hadn't even really chosen. Her feet had just carried her away.

*


There was always music playing in the Barton-Winner household. Music like nothing Une had ever heard before. Her mother had sometimes listened to country, old standards like Patsy Cline with her sultry longing. Her stepfather hadn't liked music. It made his hangovers worse.

But this wasn't like the dark desperation of Johnny Cash or the sweet steadiness of Tammy Wynette. This music had no words, the lyrics simply a battle between instruments, some Une could name—violins and drums and piano—and some she couldn't, but liked the sound of anyway. There was no cohesive story in the choice of music. Some days it was exotic and spicy, like places she'd never seen and food she'd never eaten, but wanted to. Other days it was wistful or simply quiet in a type of calm Une had known little of in her lifetime. Some days—and she could never say if they were her favorite or the ones she disliked most—it was dark, sad and angry and maybe even a little scared, the way Une felt all the time.

She knew this house, with its breezy, open windows on mild days, worn in furniture, and laughter wasn't somewhere the three of them would be staying for long. Even Duo, who, of all of them, was still best at laughing, wouldn't fit soon enough. They had been trained to be dangerous, and the training had taken. But when she left she was going to find the music again, no matter what. It was something she was going to carry with her, something the world couldn't steal back.

*


According to Duo, he was nine or ten when he ran from the group home, but Une thought those numbers were just a guess. Duo'd been in the group home for as long as he could remember, which meant at least back to three or four. Privately, Une suspected he'd been one of those kids you hear about, the kind dropped at the door of a hospital. The law requires the hospital to take the kids, but they're usually shunted off to a church or some other charity organization. Duo liked to pretend his parents had died, though, and neither Heero nor she was going to say a word to dispel that belief.

*


Barton had seven cats. Two of them Une had never seen, despite the fact that the boys and she had been living with them for almost a month. One was meaner than a rat with rabies. One was blind and another deaf. One was missing a back leg. One was missing an ear and its tail. The seventh had bite scars all over her that had healed into stretched and knotted patches of skin. None of them were precisely attractive cats, but they all adored Barton. According to Winner, this was true even of the ones never seen. He said, "They're skittish. They were both starving and sick and had broken bones when he found them."

Une's favorite was the one missing her back leg. Her name was Sanja, and she liked to persevere until she had scrabbled atop people's shoulders and then cling there for dear life. The one missing its ear and tail, Rumpleteazer, more often called Teaze—the name was evidently from a poem—liked to hide out in drawers and boxes and any small, inconvenient space. Une kind of understood. The blind one, Lady, was a big fan of curling around people's feet and settling. Une spent a lot of time with her hands buried in their fur, indulging in the softness, the comforting rumble of their purrs. She wished Heero and Duo and she had been cats. They probably would have had a better chance of finding somewhere they could stay.

*


Heero ran away from a fucking lab. He had no idea how he'd gotten there, but Une knew he suspected he'd been born there, part of an experiment from the first. She wasn't sure he was wrong. They'd kept him in a room not so completely different than the cell they'd been kept in later, only white and cleaner and with a cot. They'd forced him to do all sorts of physical feats every day, until he was exhausted and dispirited and near broken. They'd kept him on tasteless diets of nutrients and not much else.

He'd made them believe he was completely cowed even as he plotted a way out and finally made it one day. He thought he'd been about eight or nine at the time. The world had been terrifying, too loud and too bright and too noisy. When an adult had offered him a meal, warm and with actual taste to it, he'd taken the offer, only to wake up in a cage of a different sort.

Une knew that deep down, he'd never really forgiven himself for being baited so easily.

*


Barton purchased tickets to something called Quidam that, in his own, quiet way, he was clearly very excited about. Winner smiled indulgently and told stories about how, "Trowa was in a cirque, for a while." Winner tilted his head and said, "He kind of really did run away to join the circus, I guess."

Duo perked up at this, always more brash than he should have been, plunging into waters that would only drown them all. Une wanted to fault him for it, but she couldn't, not when she was jealous of the way he still faced down the world with a smile instead of fists. He peered up from over the back of the armchair he'd commandeered and asked, "He ran away?"

"Well," Winner seemed to think about his response. "He didn't really have a home. He'd been moved through a lot of foster families that were nice enough but didn't know what to do with a kid as quiet as T was growing up. One time, though, when he was fifteen, the family he was with took all their kids to see a cirque, and T decided it was magic and he…he wanted to be part of the magic."

Even Heero, perched carefully on the arm of the couch, was drawn in now. "Nothing's magic."

Winner looked sad, but all he did was sit down on the fireplace, where he could give each of the space, and continue his story. "He slipped into one of the cargo compartments on the buses while they were loading baggage and traveled that way for almost three days. He was dehydrated and practically passing out from hunger when he was found by one of the crew, who decided a kid willing to do that was worth keeping around.

"One night, a couple of the acrobats discovered him practicing after all the duties he'd been assigned as a member of the crew, teaching himself to do what they did without guidance or help. They took him under their wing and he stayed with them until he was in his twenties, when that particular group, which had sort of become a slapdash family, disbanded. T decided he'd try something new."

"Teaching high school band and orchestra?" Duo asked incredulously. "After being an acrobat?"

Winner grinned, something personal in his eyes. "I might have been at fault for that."

Une kept her distance, staying in her spot in the corner of the room, Sanja draped over her shoulder. She found that she couldn't help asking, "What'd you do?"

It was the first they'd heard of this, of Barton's history as an orphan, about this adopted family of acrobats, of anything that drove the man to be who he was with his cats and his silence and ability to know just what to say when something needed to be said.

Winner answered, "Met him through a community orchestra and fell in love."

"That's not an answer," Duo pressed.

"The short version," Winner started, walking over and tugging at the locks of Duo's newly re-growing hair, "is that my sister and I had decided to fund a volunteer orchestra that would play for kids in underdeveloped areas who don't really get to hear music live, let alone classical music. Trowa learned flute from one of the other circus players, just another thing he picked up with ease. He's kind of brilliant in a lot of ways.

"He auditioned and I—it really was love at first sight. I asked him to coffee and then just kept making him go out with me until marriage was the only logical solution to get me to stop pestering him."

From behind all of them, where he'd sneaked up unnoticed—no easy feat around the three of them, which told Une something about his skills—Barton said, "Which is Quatre-speak for 'he bought me a cup of coffee and I followed him around like a lovesick kid until he took me home.'"

Une was surprised by the admission. Barton didn't say much and when he did, it wasn't overly sentimental. Winner laughed a bit. "You know what they say about memory. It's a tricky little thing."

Barton rolled his visible eye. Duo said, "That still doesn't explain why you teach."

Winner shrugged. "I grew up with more money than any person could ever reasonably spend and a regular platoon of older sisters who were into being good Samaritans. I loved kids and was good at applied sciences and it just seemed like a good way of giving to the world."

Barton hesitated a beat and then said, "I grew up never having anyone notice me except the occasional observant teacher, here and there. I'd liked helping to train the younger acrobats who came along, and I loved music and when Q suggested applying for a position at the school, it seemed like something I ought to try, at least."

Heero was staring at Barton in that way he did when something didn't make sense. "You like it?"

Barton nodded. He walked over and sat on the actual body of the couch, not close enough to touch, but close enough that it made Heero skittish. Une could see Heero making himself stay where he was. "I kind of thought, next to Q, it was all I wanted."

Duo asked, "But it isn't?"

"No," Barton said, and looked him right in the eye. Une heard the implication, but it hadn't been said aloud, and even if it had, people said all sorts of things they didn't mean. Not that Barton had ever opened his mouth for something less than the plain truth, but he wasn't opening his mouth now, so it didn't count.

Winner, because he was the one who used words like caresses, like hugs and other forms of comfort all of them were too afraid of, said, "We didn't know the three of you were out there. You're ours now."

The last was said in a weirdly fierce way, possessive and intent. Une didn't know how to file that in a mental folder that allowed it to make sense, so she pushed it aside, figuring it was kind of like all the things adults said to get their way. She tried not to be bothered by the fact that neither Barton nor Winner had asked for a single thing from any of them.

*


Dory hadn't run away. Dory'd been snatched.

For the first six or so months, she'd had the quiet, persistent, ardent belief that her family would find her, that they'd come for her. So far as Une could tell from what Dory would say, both of Dory's parents had problems with drugs but they'd loved her, they'd tried in their own stunted ways to care for her. Dory hadn't asked for more.

When she'd come to the conclusion that they couldn't find her, they wouldn't, something in her sprang free and she was often brutal in the cage, like she filtered all her anger and pain into those matches so it wouldn't come out in other ways. She'd been flame bright in her steadiness of belief and loyalty to the three of them, and she had been precious in that she knew what it was to love, how to give and receive.

When she fought one of the guards trying to rape her, bit him as he forced himself into her, they'd put her in the cage with a rabid pit bull, one of their "special fights." She'd taken two days to die of blood loss and infection.

Une often thought Dory'd taken most of what mattered inside Une with her. There hadn't been a lot to take, but it had been Dory's, always, from the moment they threw her in the cell with Une and the boys, wild-eyed and too much perfect blonde hair and guarded sweetness.

They'd stayed with her, all three of them, until she was gone, until the guards took her from the cell almost twenty hours later. The last thing she'd said, broken and miserable and scared, was, "Sorry. Didn't mean to run away."

*


Une had never been to an actual live performance of anything. She'd gone to movies, sometimes, when she was a kid. But this was different, the large theater with its fancy ceiling and red velvet plush seats was nothing like the dark rooms with large screens she remembered. She tried not to gape at the things around her, not to let anyone know she cared, but it was hard when everything was beautiful and close.

Duo was talking a mile a minute, and Winner was laughing at whatever he was saying. Une loved Duo, but sometimes his chatter was just comforting white noise to her. Heero was silent, like always, but he paced her and eventually slid his hand into hers, holding on just slightly tighter than necessary. She murmured, "Hee?"

"You should smile," he said, but not judgmentally, not like he cared that she didn't. "You never do anymore, even when you like things."

Une challenged, "I'll smile at things I like if you will."

Heero, the dick, looked over at where Duo was running around and gesturing in awe at all the advertising posters, and smiled.

*


There was music with the show. It wasn't quite like the songs Winner and Barton had floating through their house, but it was good, it matched with the elements of the show. Sometimes Barton made a low comment about how something was done or if he found a skill particularly impressive, but mostly he just watched, enraptured. Une knew how he felt. It really was like watching magic, although she'd never say it aloud.

Afterward, Winner and Barton decided the five of them would have dinner at a tiny Italian place they could all walk to from the theater. The two men were holding each other's hand, their strides easy, their attention always focused on Une, Heero and Duo. They weren't even subtle about it, glaring at anyone who dared to so much as look at the three of them.

She blinked. "You're afraid someone's going to take us."

"Terrified," Winner admitted. "This is kind of the first time we've had something in our care other than cats, and you have no idea how many stories there are about people managing to take kids in broad daylight."

"We're teens," Duo pointed out, the full extent of his doubt evident in his response.

"Teens who fight like violent jungle cats," Une pointed out, because she was tired of everyone ignoring it like it might go away if nobody brought it up.

"It might be foolish, and you might very well be able to take care of yourselves better than we can," Winner acknowledged, "but we can't help it. We'd both lose it if one of you was somehow taken."

"We'd be more likely to run away," Une said, and then realized she'd actually made the comment aloud. "I mean—"

"Why?" Barton asked.

Une was still too busy trying to figure out how her mouth had gotten ahead of her brain—something that never happened—when Barton asked, "Does the circus hold more appeal than our home? Because if so, we'll find you a place you want to stay." He smiled strangely, a little curl of his lips, the expression more pained than amused. "I still have friends in the circus world, for that matter."

"You're scared we'll be taken, but you would give us up?" Duo asked, making a face that showed how much of a lie he thought that was.

"You've had more than enough of people keeping you against your will," Winner said, and that funny anger was back in his voice, the kind that was honest but not dangerous, at least not to them. "We want to give you love, not confine you, hold you back."

Duo blinked at that and shut up, something of a momentous occurrence in and of itself. Heero said, softly, in a tone that only barely held back evidence of his complete exhaustion, "I don't want to run anymore."

Barton tugged Heero gently to his side, smiling a bit when Heero didn't resist. This smile was different than the previous one. It reminded Une of how he looked when he was cuddling with one of the cats, only warmer, more invested. Winner took the same action with Duo. The two of them found their way to either side of her, hemming her in. For the first time in her life, she didn't mind the lack of escape options.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile