sparsenicjade
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Warnings: graphic violence visited upon a child, branding, medical procedures

AN: Huge thanks to ihearttwojacks, who beta'ed this fic despite a visceral reaction to some of the events in it. All remaining mistakes are mine. Written for chibifukurou for her generous donation to Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Using the "burns" square on my hc_bingo.

***


There were no records of Heero; nothing to indicate he existed before the FBI and about half of the NYPD pulled the kids out of a rundown "storage facility" one frigid day. The doctors decided he was probably between twelve and fourteen, based on physical indicators, but it was a rough estimate. Before leaving the hospital, Heero asked Dr. Po, "Am I a robot?"

She sat on the edge of his hospital bed. Une and Duo were sleeping in beds on either side of him, so it was just the two of them for the moment. "What makes you ask?"

He forced himself to keep eye contact. Anything else was dangerous, left him open to attack. "I don't remember anything before the lab. Thought maybe they made me."

Something flickered in the doctor's expression. Quietly but with complete certainty she told him, "Not unless they were ten to twenty or so years ahead of modern science in the realm of cloning, nope. Because you're definitely 100% boy."

Heero thought about the way he heard sounds from his body that he didn't from others, how some of his limbs did things they shouldn't, his relative strength. "One hundred percent?"

"Well," Dr. Po conceded, "let's say ninety-five."

It was a larger number than Heero would have guessed.

*


Growing up in the labs, sometimes, if the surgery the techs were performing involved a significant area, they would give Heero local anesthetic to ward off shock. The smaller ones, though, where flaps of skin were pulled back or something inserted by large bore needle, were done without, as was the cauterization technique they used to ensure the machinery stayed where it was put. At first, they'd sewn him together, but it became clear the modifications almost always rejected through the stitches.

Cauterization couldn't stop infection—there were mass amounts of IV drugs for that—but it could keep the invader under the skin long enough for the drugs to do their job. As such, Heero's earliest memories involved teaching himself not to vomit at the smell of his own charred skin.

The scientists ran tests on him. Generally, they couldn't be bothered to wait for the burns to heal. Once the antibiotics were doing their job, Heero was available to them. Days when he failed the tests—couldn't run fast enough, jump high enough, swim far enough—usually ended with the deprivation of the protein bars and nutrient shakes that were breakfast, lunch and dinner for him. It slowed down the healing.

It got to the point where feeling torn open and soldered back together was like background noise to Heero. He didn't know there was any other way to feel.

*


He couldn't say for sure, but Heero was fairly certain that whatever kind of experiment he'd been, it had failed. He thought maybe his sale to the fights was to recoup on some of the loss, but that was just guesswork, too. It didn't matter, nobody had asked for his input at any point in his life.

Heero had been taught fighting techniques in order to execute tests on those capabilities. He was used to fighting full-grown men. They put him in the cage with Gale the first time. Gale was almost twice his size. Heero had him down and unconscious within thirty seconds. He'd been trained to efficiency, not show. Nobody had explained what they wanted from him in this new home.

They punished him by way of electrical burns on his palms and the bottoms of his feet, then threw him back in the cage with Nyota the next evening, when the burns had begun to fester. She took him down slowly, the way they were supposed to.

As a reward for his 'cooperation,' they flushed out the burns with rubbing alcohol and injected him with antibiotics to clear up the infection. He hadn't known burns could get worse, hurt more. He was a quick study in all things.

*


For a moment, as the fights were being raided, Heero had considered escape. He decided against it on the grounds that Une couldn't run at the moment, several of her toes having been broken two nights earlier. Even if leaving without Une and Duo was a consideration—which it was not—Heero needed them for practical reasons: he'd never been outside. He knew just enough to know that he knew absolutely nothing about the world.

Of course, that logic was all well and good, but when they brought Heero and the rest of the kids to a lab facility immediately from the fights, he grabbed Une from the nearest adult and yelled to Duo, "Run," as he did so himself. He wasn't going back, or letting them have the others. He'd kill Duo and Une and find some way to starve or suffocate or overdose or something, but he wasn't going back.

Une wasn't heavy, but Heero hadn't been fed since his last fight, probably a day earlier, and he had no idea where he was going. Within a minute, he was surrounded by adults in uniforms, some of them scientists, some of them the people who'd raided the fights, but too many, too many to escape from. Heero tightened his grip on Une, who was now shouting his name. He'd been too busy escaping to notice, but Duo was too.

Duo yelled, "Stay back," and all the adults listened. That was different.

Duo came around to Heero's front and said, "We’re in a hospital. It's not, well, it's not what you're thinking."

Heero couldn't believe that. It smelled of alcohol and metal and the people who worked in it wore long white coats. All that was missing was the burning smell, but maybe it had just been a couple of days since someone had been cauterized. He could even hear the beep of machines that told scientists how a subject was doing on the tests.

"Heero," Une said, "put me down before I make you."

Carefully, Heero set her on her feet. She put her hands to his face. Quietly, she told him, "We have to let these people help us. We haven't got a chance in hell if we don't."

Heero had mentioned the lab now and then in the time they'd known each other, but he'd never told them what went on. It had taken him a while to realize the other kids weren't experiments, but once he had, he'd figured it was best to keep that to himself, in case it led to more testing. He said, "They're not going to help."

"Hee," Duo said. "C'mon, look at me."

Heero obeyed. He usually did when it came to Duo.

"Please trust me in this. Please. If I thought, for a second, that they would hurt one of you, we'd already be gone, I promise."

Every molecule of Heero's body was telling him to run. But Duo's eyes were on him, wide and unhappy, and he couldn't make that worse. He didn't have it in him. He nodded. Something moved to his side, and before he could even whip around, there was a needle in his arm and he couldn't stay awake.

*


When he woke up, he was laying on something kind of soft and comfortable, and Duo had snuggled in along his side. There were needles in his arm, but they didn't seem to be hurting him. If anything, he felt better than when he'd been sedated. He glanced over and saw that Une was sleeping in a similar structure. There was an empty one to his right, which was probably Duo's.

Bed, he thought, piecing information together from stuff the other kids talked about. He was in a bed. Weird.

The machines were still there, beeping quietly despite the fact that he wasn't doing anything. Duo's presence was calming, but even so, Heero couldn't feel at ease, not with that familiar combination of smells in his nose. The beeps sped up a little and a moment later, a woman with a white coat and a whole bunch of brown hair pulled back into a messy ponytail said, "Good morning. I'm Dr. Po. You must be Heero."

Heero blinked a couple of times. The scientists had never actually spoken to him. Sometimes they would tell him to do things, but in the same tone they told the computer to do certain tasks.

She smiled. "I bet you're thirsty."

She came to one side of his bed and offered him a cup with a tube sticking out of it. Uncertain of what to do, Heero stared. She said, "It's just water. We've got liquids and nutrients and some pain meds running in the IV, but the cup is just water, I promise."

Duo, who had evidently woken at some point, murmured, "Suck on the straw, Hee."

Heero frowned, but put his mouth around the tube, which could only be the straw, and sucked. Water came through it, clean and not too cold. After a bit, the doctor pulled the cup away. Heero made himself not look at it. No need to give these people weapons against him.

The doctor backed up to stand at the foot of his bed. "The condition you're in is a little different from the others."

Heero chose to stare some more. Duo sighed, sat up, kissed Heero's cheek and said, "Talk with the doctor, you stubborn little shit," before scooting off the end of the bed and going over to climb in with Une.

"You don't have to talk with me," Dr. Po corrected. "But if you can answer some questions, I think I might be able to help you."

Heero debated. She was wearing a white coat, which had only ever meant bad things for him. But she was also speaking to him, and Duo wanted him to talk, and so far nothing bad had happened. Cautiously, he decided, "You can ask."

"You have scar tissues from burns over roughly thirty-four percent of your body. Almost all of the burns are covering foreign objects embedded in muscle and nerve beneath. Am I missing something under the burns on your hands and feet?"

Heero shook his head. She nodded. "All right. The technology that has been implanted, does it still hurt?"

Heero was about to deny it. He stopped to think. He hadn't allowed himself to pay attention to the complaints of his body for so long. Finally he said, "Just the one over my hip. I don't feel the rest."

His hip, though, was constantly in a state of throbbing pain he'd forced himself to ignore. She said, "That’s good. We don't want to mess with anything we don't have to, so long as you're doing well. I do want to go in and look and see if we can fix the hip problem."

"No," Heero said. "No."

Dr. Po held up a hand. "I said something that freaked you out. Wanna tell me what it was?"

Heero growled. "You don't get to cut and burn me."

It was bravado, since she probably could, but it was worth a try. Her features went blank for a moment and then filled with a sadness she seemed to shove away. "Nobody gets to cut and burn you anymore. Got that? If someone does, you tell another adult."

Heero managed not to roll his eyes, but only just. He'd learned that response from Duo, but Jamie was also a master, and Tasha could practically get across whole sentences by way of eye-rolling.

Dr. Po continued, "You'd be asleep while we did everything that might hurt, you'd be weaned off of numbing drugs through pain relievers, and then slowly taken off of those. And burning isn't going to happen, at all, period. Duo and whoever you want can watch through the observation window. All we're gonna do is see what's happening in there, and if there's a way to remove the object without further harm to you. You won't know it's happening and you won't remember, later."

"I'll just wake up better?" Heero asked, being sure to make his skepticism clear. He realized, though, as he said it, that exact thing had kind of just occurred.

The doctor looked straight at him and said, "Yes," and Heero knew she was either the best liar he'd ever met or utterly sincere. Seeing as how he knew Jo, Ezra, Neal, and Une, who were all consummate liars, he suspected it was the latter.

*


Heero was released five days later with a hip that was strangely void of pain. He moved into the tower, where Une and Duo had already been placed. The three of them strategically mapped out the floors they had access to, conferring with the others as everyone arrived.

Heero found Tony's lab as he was surveying, basically on accident. He sat outside the glass and watched Tony fit things together, playing with fire, but not using it on things that could be hurt. He watched as Tony petted and laughed at a couple of machines that seemed to be trying to help. At one point, Tony caught sight of him and Heero tensed. It was Tony's tower. There was nowhere to run, not that JARVIS wouldn't tell Tony about.

Tony stuck his head out the door and said, "You should come in and play with DUM-E. He gets lonely. It's tragic."

*


One night, when Heero woke feeling panicked and disoriented, he ran the corridors of the tower, only to find himself at the workshop. He didn’t go in, he never went in uninvited. JARVIS must have said something, though, because Tony was at the door shortly. "Hey, you all right?"

Heero hadn't really spoken for most of his growing years, outside of what the scientists required to make sure his language capabilities were online. Silence was habit by the time he'd joined the others, and then Duo had found him, and Duo spoke enough for both of them. For those reasons, it was a surprise to hear himself ask, "You, uh, you care about JARVIS, right? And DUM-E?"

Tony looked at him for a long moment, then stepped out of the workshop. "Right, snacks it is."

Heero followed Tony out to the kitchens. Peeta must have actually gone to bed, but there were fresh-baked pretzel knots cooling on the counter. Tony popped one in his mouth and asked, "Has this got anything to do with the fact that JARVIS detected a bunch of super weird tech anchored inside you?"

"Dr. Po says I'm 95% boy," Heero said.

"Huh, JARVIS calculated it at 93.7%, but that's a pretty good guess."

Heero chewed on a pretzel knot. "I guess it's not really the same. You made JARVIS and DUM-E. They were, um, tinkering with me, or something."

"They," Tony said slowly, and with feeling, "were psychopaths, who probably weren't capable of caring about anything, let alone loving it."

Heero shrugged. Tony sighed. "Look, I'm probably not supposed to be telling you this shit, because raised expectations and a bunch of other stuff Pepp lectured me on, but there's a couple trying to get custody of you, Duo and Une."

Heero ran those words over in his head. "What?"

"Friends of Sally Po's, the doctor? Evidently they were at the hospital, but it might have been one of the times when you were out. In any case, they want you."

"Um. Why?"

It was Tony's turn to shrug. "I dunno, because you guys are the shit? Pepp and I almost fought them for you, but we figured that was selfish. The couple, uh, Quatre and Trowa, they're teachers, so they know a hell of a lot more about kids than we do, and they seem really excited at the prospect of you guys being part of their family."

Heero tried to explain his confusion at anyone wanting to deal with him. "I hadn't seen a tree until two weeks ago."

Tony took another pretzel. "And in your head, that somehow makes you less. Less…human, I guess, or something. I get it, because we take our experiences to be our fault in some way, but Heero, believe me, all that knowing that does is make me want to kill a bunch of people who kept you from the trees, and build you bridges between every single one in Central Park."

Heero tried to imagine such a thing, but his ideas were too stunted, hemmed in by his own knowledge. "If—if they take us, and it turns out that I'm really only good for fighting and experiments, can I come back here? You could do experiments. I'd…that'd be okay."

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. "You're not going to get tossed back, Hee. But if you do, come here, and I'll build you the damn bridges. All one billion and five."

*


Three weeks into living with Trowa and Quatre, Trowa caught Heero contemplating the ancient oak tree in their tiny patch of a backyard. Trowa asked, "You any good at climbing trees?"

Heero stilled for a second, then shook his head. Trowa smiled, half-hidden the way everything was with him, but real. "C'mon, I'll teach you."

It took them forty-five minutes to reach a good, sturdy branch to sit on in the upper reaches of the tree. Heero'd never seen the ground from so far up, except out the tower windows, and that was different. Quietly, he said, "Thanks."

Trowa smiled again, more easily this time. "Thanks for letting me."

Heero looked over at him. Trowa returned the look. "You're a hard kid to know."

"More cyborg than kid," Heero told him, thinking about the article Duo had found online while looking to see if there were other known cases of human-tech hybridization.

"No," Trowa said. "We are all more than the sum of our parts. Trite, but true. Otherwise I would just be a street kid raised by a bunch of crooks and murderers who managed to run away to the right circus."

It was the longest sentence Heero had ever heard from Trowa. It also explained a lot. Heero admitted, "I don't know how to be more."

"Keep climbing trees, and taking apart old phones to see how they worked, and letting Duo read to you."

Heero said, "Seems too easy."

Trowa made a noise in his throat. "About time something was for you."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile